The String Cheese Incident
Jason Hann – Percussion
Kyle Hollingsworth – Keyboards and Vocals
Michael Kang – Mandolin, Guitar and Vocals
Billy Nershi – Acoustic and Electric Guitar and Vocals
Keith Moseley – Bass and Vocals
Michael Travis – Drums
The most fitting way for THE STRING CHEESE INCIDENT to celebrate 20 years as a band is to release their first new studio album in nine years. The Colorado group arrives at a new chapter in their impressively storied history with Song In My Head, an album they recorded with producer Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads. The album, a collection of ten compellingly innovative songs, emerged from an urgency to record tracks they’d been playing live for several years, as well as a desire to document where The String Cheese Incident finds themselves musically 20 years down the road.
The band, formed in the Colorado mountain ski towns of Crested Butte and Telluride in 1993, has built on those 20 years of experience to become the musicians they are today. The band members were initially united only by the fact that they had moved to Crested Butte to become ski bums. Each musician came from a different musical background, with varied influences and ideas, entering into the band with no real rules. The String Cheese Incident started as a democratic hodgepodge, setting the tone for what their albums and live shows would become over the years. The band’s signature has been their distinct stylistic variety--one they’ve never been afraid to evolve and shift.
“We keep modulating and not caring about what the fanbase thinks at the time,” Travis says. “We’ve always continued to expand the variance and the repertoire. It’s constantly been a hallmark to have people naysaying our direction. But it continues to work out. For the most part we embrace all the styles each band member brings in during the songwriting process.”
This idea initiated on the band’s 1996 debut album, Born On The Wrong Planet. The sound continued to transform itself over subsequent releases, becoming more refined on 1998’s ‘Round The Wheel--the first official release on the group’s own label SCI Fidelity Records--and more varied on 2001’s Outside Inside. It was their 2003 release of Untying The Not that marked a significant shift for The String Cheese Incident. Working with producer Martin “Youth” Glover was an intense process, one that allowed the musicians to play in a way they’d never previously considered. The album that followed, One Step Closer, was an equally intense but equally satisfying process with producer Malcolm Burn. That album, released in 2005, represents the last time the band got together in the studio--until now.
The String Cheese Incident played nearly 250 shows in both 1999 and 2000, and around 200 in 2001. In those years, the musicians became tighter and more connected, immersed into each other’s playing. In the years that followed, the band toured slightly less, particularly after the release of One Step Closer when more time was spent on families and other projects. But the onstage collaboration has always been the most important part of the band, one that they have always hoped to translate onto an album. “Being on the road all the time brought about a transcendental experience,” Travis says. “We had all this practice time over the years because we played together every night. We got better and better as we went. We could build on each night and it really taught us the intricacies of playing with each other and finding that shared environment where there’s a unified concept. We learned to free ourselves into that potential creative space together.”
In December of 2012, after some time spent pursuing other endeavors, the musicians went into a rehearsal studio in Boulder, the Colorado city they’ve called home since the early days of the band. Although they initially went in to practice for a series of upcoming tour dates, the band decided to use the time to record a few tracks. Inspiration was immediate and the experience was notably enjoyable—a sensibility they felt has been missing previously in the studio.
“We hadn’t recorded for so long that we had all these songs that we liked,” Nershi says. “We were learning them live and playing them out, but none of them had been recorded. We just decided that we needed to get some of these songs down.”
“Once we started recording rehearsals, we realized, ‘Okay, this is gonna be easy,’” Moseley adds. “We knew we had some good tunes. And we were on to some good arrangements. The project really started picking up momentum once we actually got started.”
Each member brought in his own songs, all under the band’s rule-free policy. The ideas spanned a vast array of influences and styles, and revealed the adult lives the musicians now lead. Nothing was off-limits: “Betray” embraces the African M’balax drumming style, a new influence for the group on this album, and “Rosie” embodies what the musicians call “Afro slam dance party music.” Overall, the songs reflect the lives of those creating them, telling stories of growing older and hopefully wiser, and underneath everything is the love of the outdoors that initially connected the band.
The beat on “Betray” comes from Kang and Hann spending time in Africa back in 2006. “We got to perform at a festival in the desert in Mali,” Kang says. “We hung out in Bamako for a couple of weeks checking out all sorts of mind-blowing Malian music that you simply don't see much of in the U.S. After Mali, I went to Dakar, Senegal and got to help produce a musical segment for a surf film by Thomas Campbell. I came back from that trip a different person.”
“Can’t Wait Another Day” recounts the time Hollingsworth spent waiting for his child to be born, transforming a bass line he’d had in his head for months into a track that harkens back to early String Cheese Incident recordings. “The song was taken from my life at the time,” Hollingsworth says. “My wife was over-due and every day was like a fire drill, getting the car gassed up, the bags packed by the door. I remember wanting to write a chorus that was really hooky but also very simple for people to sing. Something that could be sung by everyone after a first listen.”
The acoustic-driven “Struggling Angel” is a central track on the album, one with emotional gravity and eventual hopefulness. “The song was written as a tribute to our friend Sara Gewald,” Moseley says. “Sara unexpectedly took her own life in March 2012 and the song was born out of the grieving process. The melody and lyrics both came very quickly in a fit of inspiration as we struggled to deal with the loss of a good friend. I played an early version of the song at her funeral, and a couple of weeks later Kyle and I recorded a demo of the tune and made it available online. Although the lyrics are a somber reminder of the loss of a friend, the chorus and melodic outro are intentionally uplifting--a celebration of life.”
The album’s title comes from “Song In My Head,” a bluegrass-tinged rock number. “That song represents the band in a lot of ways,” Moseley says. “It’s got the rocking-- not really bluegrass but a little bit of the bluegrass--speed and a rocking sensibility, and some good soloing.” Rollicking opener “Colorado Bluebird Sky,” brought in by Nershi, resonates with a love for the band’s home state and its expansive vistas, which Moseley feels is one of their best new tunes.
In that initial session The String Cheese Incident laid down most of the tracks as demos, producing some of it themselves. The band went back into the studio in February of 2013 with Harrison, a musician they’d previously collaborated with and a producer they felt understood how to effectively shape the diversely-influenced songs the band was creating. The musicians had a history together, which helped draw Harrison into the experience.
“We first met when they were looking for a producer for the album Untying the Not,” Harrison says. “I believe it was 2002. As it worked out our schedules didn’t mesh, but since they made the record in Sausalito, which is where I do most of my production, we hung out a bit. A year later I was on a ski lift at Alpine Valley only to discover that I was riding up with Travis. Two summers ago, I sat in with them at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. It was a fantastic performance and it reconnected us. Performing together also made me know just how much they had grown as musicians and that we would work well together. I particularly loved their ability to play as an ensemble and their exploration of African music.”
In the studio, Harrison helped shape these pieces and demos into a cohesive and compelling whole, always finding the right way to bring a number to its best presentation, often by tracking the songs live. He hoped to capture the band’s live performance and collaborative nature without letting the songs run too long or lose their voice.
“Jerry’s got a great imagination and he just tightened up the songs,” Nershi says. “The coolest part of this album is that, in the end, it really sounds like us—maybe more so than any of the other albums that we’ve done. There is some jamming in there and we felt like he would have an open mind for that. I’m just really happy that it truly sounds like our band. It was easier than past albums. And easier adds up to fun.”
The resulting album is perhaps the band’s tightest and most skillful yet. After years of feeling more like live players than studio musicians, the band members finally tapped into the skill that two decades’ worth of performing brings. There’s also an overarching sense of joy and renewed passion throughout. “Stylistically, the album feels like the most modern expression of our music,” Travis says. “We continue to be the newest version of our expanding stylistic interest. This album feels more genuinely ‘us.’ It’s everything we’ve learned about making an album.”
For The String Cheese Incident, Song In My Head is the opening of a new chapter. Since their inception, the group has been truly independent, building a solid fanbase by touring extensively throughout the past two decades and continuing to release music on SCI Fidelity Records. The musicians have been vocal activists for independent artists, and have set the stage for many contemporary acts by embracing Internet culture early on and retaining control of all aspects of their career. Over the years, the band has performed at nearly every major festival, including Bonnaroo, Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Glastonbury, and have sold out venues like Colorado’s iconic Red Rocks. The band has also joined a massive array of artists onstage, including Bela Fleck, Bob Weir, Zac Brown, Los Lobos, Wayne Coyne, James Brown, Arturo Sandoval and Trey Anastasio. One of the band’s most important live achievements has been their involvement in Electric Forest, an event which is a manifestation of the band’s desire to give fans a respite from their lives and offer transcendental moments to those around them.
“Our improvisational style and how no one knows how we’re going to get from one song to another is very unique,” Travis notes. “As a group, our favorite part is when it locks into something that sounds like it had to have been on purpose but it’s actually improvised. When a six-piece band comes into the same focus and everyone is flying in the same spaceship, it’s very powerful. Those moments feel like a nuclear explosion from the stage that modifies everybody in the room. That’s a big part of the jam band ethos and I think we’ve been able to effectively manifest a very specific and beautiful version of that.”
The String Cheese Incident has also been continually committed to giving back to the community. Their ongoing efforts have aided organizations like Conscious Alliance, Rock the Earth and HeadCount. So 20 years in, The String Cheese Incident has a lot to celebrate.
“When we started playing music we thought it was gonna be something to get through the winter,” Nershi says. “To help us make some money during ski season in Crested Butte. And the more we played, the more we realized that this was something that was unique and we hadn’t ever had that kind of musical experience as individuals before. So we continued to play. We took it year by year and gig by gig, and all of a sudden it’s 20 years later. It makes us feel good.” “This is an incredible milestone,” Moseley adds. “To still have all the original members and to not have lost anyone along the way…It’s just been remarkable to be able to keep the same guys for 20 years. That’s really beating the odds in the music business.”
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