The String Cheese Incident: Back On The Road Again

By: Dennis Cook

SCI by C. Taylor Crothers
To say there’s been a pent-up desire for The String Cheese Incident to return to active duty would be a fairly gross understatement. For the SCI faithful, nothing else fills the hole this singular Colorado institution fits. A great American band in the broad, positive sense, String Cheese throws together elements no other band would put in the same mixing bowl, and then proceeds to make them tasty, sometimes against all expectations.

The sustained appetite for this band is clear based on the swift sell-outs of their special festival appearances since they put SCI on the backburner to focus on individual projects in 2007. Now, the band is ready to enter a new phase, beginning with the Roots Run Deep Tour, which starts Friday, November 25 in Asheville, NC and continues through December 10 in Chicago [find full tour schedule here]. It is the start of SCI 2.0, where the various musical tributaries Michael Kang (acoustic/electric mandolin, electric guitar, violin), Michael Travis (drums, percussion), Bill Nershi (acoustic/electric guitars, lap steel), Kyle Hollingsworth (keyboards), Keith Moseley (bass) and Jason Hann (percussion) have explored in EOTO, Emmitt-Nershi Band, Kyle Hollingsworth Band and elsewhere come together.

It is an exciting time for the band, something we picked up on immediately in this conversation with Billy Nershi conducted on the run as he finished up his current tour with pal Drew Emmitt.

Billy Nershi by Mike Hardaker
JamBase: For a band that started with strong ties to bluegrass, String Cheese has taken that music into some strange places.

Billy Nershi: And it’s only getting weirder! We’ve been practicing and what we’ve been doing with a lot of the songs lately because there are such extremes of style in the band – all the way to full electronica whomp whomp to what EOTO is doing – we’re taking some of that and some of the bluegrass and everything in between and trying to incorporate all these styles into one sound. And some of the songs are really coming out good! It’s really cool.

JamBase: Is it exciting to see the catalog is still evolving in unpredictable ways?

Oh yeah! Everyone has a role in the band, and one of my roles is to bring in original music and fresh melodies, some of which are fiddle tunes from Irish fiddle tunes to Celtic fiddle tunes, all kinds of different melodies to build songs around. I bring in some of the raw materials and the band does a lot of arranging with it, and that’s a lot of fun. Kyle has been writing a lot of great songs lately, too. There’s a lot of new music coming into the band right now.

How do you feel taking a break from String Cheese being a full-time endeavor impacted the band?

SCI @ Red Rocks 2010 by Todd Radunsky
I think we all needed a break. I didn’t know that at the time, where I was thinking, “I have to stop this or I’ll go crazy.” There was a lot of responsibility involved, and it became 20-percent playing music and 80-percent business and meetings and bullshit. Just the fact that we’d been playing music together for 14 years meant we needed a break to get a little perspective, stop the machine, take a look at it, and figure out if it needs to be changed at all. So, the break did us good. I have my musical outlet with [the Emmitt-Nershi Band], so there’s less pressure on the band and I’m not saying, “We’re not playing enough bluegrass!”

The business part of this can become burdensome the longer a band exists. Jerry Garcia once said something to the effect that the Dead were a circus others ran away to for a night but living inside that circus was a very different experience.

It is a traveling circus, and it’s one where everybody wants you to go ballistic and party every night because they’ve saved up for weeks & weeks to see these two shows and they’re going ALL out. Sometimes it’s hard for me to keep up with those expectations.

You guys throw big parties. There’s even perhaps an expectation you’ll bring the giant helium balloons and trapeze artists every single time now.

SCI @ Red Rocks 2010 by Brian Spady
It’s definitely become a thing that’s expected now, and not just at very special shows like New Year’s or Halloween. Every big show people expect hot chicks hula-hooping on platforms with lights on them while lasers shoot all over the room [laughs]. But that’s what people want, a special experience that gets them out of their normal day-to- day routine. So, I feel we provide something that is really valuable to them – and us – by being the circus leaders of this situation that takes them to a new environment that’s a fun and interesting reward for them.

This band provides a space where it’s safe to put on fairy wings and Wookie costumes and tap into the child within.

It’s all about being able to express yourself without worrying about what ANYBODY else is thinking. As long as it’s all done with good intentions and people are cool to each other – which is the vibe we try to nurture – then it’s great to express your individuality out there. It’s like that [Michael] Franti song [“Stay Human (All The Freaky People)”] says, “All the freaky people make the beauty of the world.”

What’s it like to perform inside an environment like SCI conjures? Awful lot of distractions for guys still responsible for making music.

SCI @ Bonnaroo 2011 by Brad Hodge
It’s wild! You’re playing music outside at a festival and an aerialist will rise up into the air on a helium balloon to do their act a hundred feet in the air right in front of you. You think, “Is this really happening?” It’s fun from stage to watch what’s going on.

It’s good to hear there’s some magic in it for you, too. It’s one thing to plan such events on paper and another to live them out in real time.

That’s what we feed off of. A lot of what gets us off are musical moments where we can feel there’s some energy captured, especially when you hold that [energy] and try to stay in that moment. That’s what we’re all about, and it takes the audience to reach that place where the ship’s getting off the ground.

There’s a strong sense of community around String Cheese, something that goes beyond the usual fan-band dynamic. It definitely feels like a tribe gathers when you come to town.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, and there’s actually a lot of different tribes under one roof.

Coming back to SCI now, what do you find turns you on about making music with these guys?

SCI @ Red Rocks 2007 by Jay Scherer
It’s a very good creative outlet because it can go into so many different styles. Any song can go any number of different directions when you work it out with this band. So, it’s really interesting creatively, and that’s a big necessity in my life. It’s not the kind of band where we meet at the venue and say, “So dudes, what songs do you want to play?” A lot of work goes into arranging and setlist construction. Even though I get to the point sometimes where I wish it was simpler [laughs], part of what’s interesting about this band to me is how it pushes everybody in the band to keep up. Keeping up with Kang and Kyle, instrumentally, keeps me challenged, and the challenge of the material, quantity of songs, and what we’re trying to accomplish onstage remains challenging to this day.

Initially, SCI was seen as a rock-bluegrass hybrid, but you’ve kept on pretty fearlessly exploring almost every style of music there is. How do you think of what you do now? How do you describe it to others?”

It’s very hard to describe it in musical terms because there are so many styles we play on any given night. I guess I think of it as if each night were a three-day music festival rolled into two sets. It goes all over the map, but we try to have the energy one picks up on at a music festival. We try to capture the audience’s attention and take them someplace.

You’re all very good musicians but you don’t slant your music in a way that overly fixates on solos and individual celebrity, which one encounters a lot in jazz and even bluegrass players of your stature. With so many really high-end players it becomes about showy technique. You guys play at that level but you don’t put the spotlight on it.

SCI @ Red Rocks 2010 by Brian Spady
We try to have good arrangements and hooks because the style of music that throws the technical kitchen sink at the audience all the time can be real tiring. After a while it can make people numb to technical virtuosity. However, as a musician, I love seeing great musicians play, but it doesn’t always have to be about that. The focus when we’re writing songs is not solos that blow people away. We’re trying to create songs that have a thread through them that’s more than this person’s solo and that person’s solo.

The title of this new tour is the Roots Run Deep Tour. It’s an evocative name and speaks to maybe a more grounded sense of what String Cheese Incident is today.

We’re excited to get on the bus and play every night, as opposed to working, working, working, then playing two shows over a weekend and we’re done. Here, we can build night to night and hopefully get that cohesiveness you can only get through a series of shows. We’re looking forward to getting in the groove.

Are you going to be playing some of the new material you’ve been working on?

We’ll have a good four songs that haven’t been heard before.

Billy Nershi by Jesse R. Borrell
You guys haven’t made a studio album since 2005. Is that in the works now?

We’re talking about making some recordings from this tour – we’re going to multi-track – and do some sort of hybrid release where we bring these recordings into the studio and polish them up. So much of our sound is what happens live, and we’ve had varying degrees of success in our studio recordings. Trying to capture the energy of what goes down live is what we want to try and do, then utilize some time in the studio to make things sound as good as possible.

One thing I discovered recently is if you do a Google search where you let them suggest what you’re looking for as you type in the words that ‘String Cheese Incident’ comes up automatically before the food string cheese.

[Huge laugh] Well, I think we’ve hit the big time.

The String Cheese Incident Tour Dates :: The String Cheese Incident News

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[Published on: 11/23/11]

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