The Art Of The Sit-In | Jason Hann
Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Jason Crosby, Vince Herman, Scott Metzger , Alan Evans , Stanley Jordan, Stanton Moore and more.
Between the String Cheese Incident, EOTO and plenty of other one-offs and projects, Jason Hann has gardens to tend, and then some: all those discerning, demanding fans and styles of music, each needing his focus and gifts for improvisation.
But that’s the way he likes it.
Live improv. Aggressive dubstep. Lauryn Hill. Kool ‘n’ the Gang. The resurgent Cheese. New songs. Old songs. Fans. Let’s hear from Hann as he takes us through the full panorama.
JAMBASE: So how was Suwannee Hulaween? Personal highlights?
JASON HANN: Let’s see. When we got there it was so crazy: long days, up super early to get to the venue, soundchecking all our stuff, soundchecking the vocals and horn sit-ins we had, and going right into rehearsal mode. We hadn’t connected with the singers yet until we got there, so we pretty much spent all that first day rehearsing and getting the setlist together. But you know, it’s a really big payoff to put that much time into the day and then see it happen at night. It was a big victory –the whole thing was pretty much one big highlight.
Among the others going on, seeing Big Gigantic’s set and Thievery Corporation and Electron and seeing some of The New Deal, there were all kinds of things going on. That was my usual golf cart highlight moments –getting around the area to see what it looked like. It looked incredible by the lake –how it was all lit up –and all the types of Silent Disco stages around the lake area were gorgeous. Even if you weren’t there seeing any music you still had so much to see.
JAMBASE: When does the planning start for something like this?
JH: The seeds of it are planted quite a while back. A lot of the time as a band we’re not practicing together or even together at all, so we’re doing so much of our consensus building via e-mail: what kinds of songs we want to play, what is the theme going to be, and everyone starts feeling the pressure about the same time. Like, guys, we really need to get something together!
It has its own process of winding down, though, and we go over a lot individually so by the time we’re all in the same room together, we’ve got it going. We try to do our thing and get that pressure through early so that the horn players and singers we’re having join us don’t feel that same pressure. Rhonda and Tony and the Antibalas horns were all such a great fit.
The other highlight from this one for me was EOTO on mainstage. We had some of the worst technical problems we’ve ever had, during that set, but we pulled it off very well. We’ve had stuff happen before, but we’re pretty good at getting started and getting into it, and it becomes almost part of the show when these technical things were supposed to be going on and they’re not. Buildings might be collapsing around us but we’re still going!
JAMBASE: So much of what you guys do in EOTO depends on sonics so I’m curious about other times when buildings have been collapsing like that –do you just play on through? Is there any technical glitch that would stop the show?
JH: Well that’s something about being a musician –musicians played through the Titanic sinking, you know? [laughs] We’re pretty hardcore. We’ll make sure it keeps going until we physically can’t play anymore. In EOTO we’ve been through various stages of things not working, but at the end of the day, we still have a live drum set on stage –I can still make noises.
I think once our main firewire got loose and all the sound from our stage just went away. I don’t remember exactly what happened but I just started playing acoustic drums. It was going on too long, so I started doing this singalong and somehow all the sounds came back. It was like whatever. We just keep going.
JAMBASE: So as long as there’s something to bang on…
JH: Ha, yes. There was a tour in our early stage as EOTO where the software in something was different from the software running in our computer. Our computer would predictively crash at least three times a night, and it got to a point where we knew it would take about a minute and a half to get it restarted and going again, so we’d play on a minute and a half of playing through that glitch. People just thought that was part of the show –it was like, OK, maybe this is the part where it sounds like a certain drum filter. Everything kicks in.
JAMBASE: EOTO’s been a thing for the better part of a decade now –it’s graduated from ‘just a side project’ status. Is it still scratching the same creative itch you guys had when it started?
JH: Oh yeah, and just the nature of making things up every night –that’s what we do –hits all those creative points. If you’re making a commitment to improvise every night, your commitment is not to be predictable every night or predictable to the person you’re playing with. I think me and Travis do different things now that maybe we didn’t used to. We used to listen to all the same music and we’d be in sync on doing this kind of groove or coming up with a game plan. Now we’re a little bit more individual but also listening closely, like, ‘Oh wow you just did that. I hadn’t heard you do do that before. Do it again!’
That helps with the sound design and it also helps us tell each other if we’re repeating ourselves. We both feel it right away. It’s like, ‘Oh, well, you did that same Middle Eastern guitar thing you did the last three nights just now, maybe we try something different.’ We can’t help but be in tune to that, the different modalities.
JAMBASE: Most folks point to 2009 as EOTO’s shift toward dubstep, and fans being what they are –opinionated –there have been any number of opinions since. Has the discussion about that move by EOTO been fair? Accurate?
JH: It’s kind of a funny thing. That was a time when we got a really big boost in people coming to see our shows.
When it was first going, first a side project, it was dependent on people understanding it was String Cheese Incident guys doing different things. A lot of String Cheese fans hated it: I’m playing drums, Travis is playing bass and guitar, there’s a computer on stage and what is this? It just didn’t work for them.
We got a little chip on our shoulder at some point and we were like, we like what we’re doing and we’re just going to go out and do it. So at that time it was mostly house music, acid jazz, drum-and-bass. Then we went to Shambhala in 2008 and saw DJ Skream and that was really the first time we had experience aggressive dubstep. Dubstep used to be the mellow, go-to-a-rave-but-lie-on-the-floor thing –even mellower than dub reggae. But this was the first time we’d heard someone do something with aggressive tones in it. The impact on the crowd really was like, oh my god.
So we got into it and had no idea not many people were –there wasn’t any aggressive dubstep at all in the U.S. at the time, but people caught onto it, and we saw a big increase in our fanbase. There are people who come up and say ‘I loved that stuff you guys were doing in ‘08 –that old school sound’ when what we were doing was playing house music. And I’m always saying, ‘We’ve only been a band for a few years. We don’t have an old school sound.’ [laughs] And I know dubstep has become this pop, ADD thing, but I feel like we give it enough of a twist where it’s different than that but it’s also bass-oriented enough that people can sync themselves into it without it sounding dated or difficult.JAMBASE: I know it’s not really in the nature of what you guys do, but do you plan to record any more with EOTO?
JH: We did our three albums and we’re proud of those. When we play live, we record all of our shows but they’re now recorded down to two tracks, including a stereo file. We wanted to make sure the computer could capture every little individual part. So, when Travis records himself doing a bass line or a synth line, that gets recorded as a separate part and we can create stems from it.
What we’re open to is having other DJs remix what we already did live. We have so many friends, from Glitch Mob to Big Gigantic to Freddy Todd, and all these guys have peripherally said to us at one point or another, give me some stems. So when you ask about recording, that’s what feels like the next thing: a boost to what we’ve already done. We like the studio recording experience, but it’s so hard to capture our experience doing that.
JAMBASE: Do you anticipate a lot of EOTO dates in 2015?
JH: Yes. I have to do that thing in my head where I think about String Cheese dates first, because EOTO dates get weaved into that. I would expect the summer to be busy.
JAMBASE: Awesome. Let’s shift to The String Cheese Incident. Bands stay together a long time, you go through ups and downs, sometimes you bounce back, sometimes you spin wheels, it’s all part of the cycle. But it seems –at least from the outside –that The String Cheese Incident is once again in a good place.
JH: Yeah, I would say that’s right on. Lately we’ve done a lot of special sets, from the Kool ‘n’ the Gang collaboration at Lockn’ and then a moon set (at Phases Of The Moon) and then these Halloween sets. It was a lot of work to learn all these new songs. I wouldn’t say it’s been too much but at the beginning of the year, we had this amazing band practice where we only worked on originals. That hadn’t happened for us since 2006. It was all stuff we worked on as a band and that whole week went by so quick –it was so many moments of yeah, let’s do your song, and yeah, let’s do your song. It had such a spark of freshness.
This year we got pretty caught up in this specialty sets, so having that, too, was really a refreshing, creative jolt. Now that we’re on the road, and we finally get to breathe and open up a bit I think we’re going to dive in.
JAMBASE: And you’re working in the new songs? Is that a challenge?
JH: For the number of shows we typically play a year, I mean, it was a bigger deal than we thought to not play together for over a year in 2007. Up until that point, the songs just kept going –it was almost all muscle memory. New songs come in, you rehearse at sound check and play them live a few days later, you’re playing other songs from memory –your muscle memory takes over.
After we got back together after time apart, we spent an entire practice trying to remember specific parts to older songs: the voicing here, the way the guitars go together, ‘hey, what did you usually sing there?’ It’s only been in the last two and a half years I would say that we have most of the repertoire under us again, and that we’re feeling good enough to bring on some new songs and get ready to record. Song In My Head we recorded almost a year and a half ago now, and that was the first spark of ‘wow.’ It felt great to be back in the studio, and with Jerry Harrison, recording again.
I think after that, people were excited to jump on that spark and then come to band practices with new songs. It was ‘high five, let’s not spend all this time working on Valley of the Jig again’ or one of the songs everyone has played 100,000 times. That takes a lot out of you. People ask all the time why we don’t play some of the really old parts of the catalog, and it’s not that we don’t like that stuff, it’s just that everyone’s played those songs so much, going back a long way.
JAMBASE: Are you gearing up to record again?
JH: Well since the beginning of the year we’ve brought I think four new originals into the mix. Maybe next time we’re able to take some time off it will be, we’ll all go somewhere that’s a little bit more isolated and only work on new material, and record it live. We’ll see how that game plan comes together. But we’re in a creative mode. And the other thing we’re super psyched about is that the new songs in rotation have been received really well. We’re working to get them into the setlists.
JAMBASE: Will it be a busy year for String Cheese on the road?
JH: Probably not at first. We have some special weekend things going on and there are things I can’t quite reveal yet (SCI announced Winter Carnival dates yesterday). And then, when summer comes around, we’ll hit it pretty hard. There are enough rumors out there and I think people are starting to kind of know what we’ll be up to.
JAMBASE: I have to ask you for a sit-in story: you with some other band or someone with one of your bands.
JH: I definitely have some cool ones. But what comes to mind first, if only because I was just talking about it because my Dad was at Hulaween and I got to hang with him, was the time he sat in with EOTO at this show in Key Largo. He lives in Orlando and he’s a guitarist and singer, and he came to this show and we were like, you’ve got your guitar here, maybe you should sit in. He set up, he played, and me and Travis would both say, it was probably our favorite EOTO sit-in. He came up playing R&B and being a rhythm player and when you do that, you’re always coming up with little hooks and parts and he was just hooking all day long, just doing these funky kinds of things that ended up coming out of us all that day.
Another one I’ll never forget was right around my very first weekend in The String Cheese Incident. We played Sunshine Daydream in West Virginia, I think, and that weekend, we had Victor Wooten, Bela Fleck, Derek Trucks, Eric Krasno might have jumped in there…just all these incredible musicians every night. I was like, this is amazing! Is this going to happen at every festival we play? It’s not always the case, but that weekend, playing with String Cheese for the first time, and all the people from the scene who are just these incredibly gifted musicians, hanging out with us.
JAMBASE: I did want to ask about one sit-in collaboration in particular: String Cheese’s set with Lauryn Hill at Electric Forest. I don’t have to tell you that a lot of folks were skeptical it would even happen, you know?
JH: Oh yeah. That whole thing was really great. It was a bit of an eye opener to the band because it was like, we’re going to be collaborating with someone who has no idea who we are, ‘I guess they could be my backup band, sure.’ I wish that some more of that had been relayed ahead of time, so we could play each other’s songs and actually collaborate — that was kind of a bummer.
But yeah, there were all these things about her reputation, people kept bringing stuff up, and then, you know, when musicians get together, so much of that stuff goes by the wayside. We were scheduled to rehearse with her for three hours the day of the show, and she was super legit and pro the whole way.
Her bandleader came in first and we went through songs for about 40 minutes, and then she arrived and we just hit the accelerator. She knows her music so thoroughly, inside and out. She’s into the hip hop world but also the melodic soul world, so she’s really tight on rhythm and the little things. There was one passage where all of us were playing as her back up band, and she was like, hold on, hold on, let me hear that again. Something wasn’t right and she narrowed it down to some one laying a minor note where a major note might have worked better. None of us had really heard it, but when she fixed it, it was like this little section of the song fully came together. Her ears are so big.
And I’ll say, too, that she was singing full-on at rehearsal, it wasn’t like, let’s just go through the motions. She loves the strong male-dominated beat on the one, but she’s also got to have a lot of the feminine –the upbeats have to be strong too. She had a backstage ritual where her keyboard player pulled out his iPhone and brought up a virtual keyboard so they could all find the key. And as we get going, me and her drummers are banging away on water bottles and they’re going through their warmup, and no one is holding back, and we were all like, this is going to happen.
JAMBASE: It sounds like there was even a little bit of a hang.
JH: Maybe a little. One point in the show she was side stage, she didn’t just take off. We did our big she-bang, everything exploding on stage, dancers everywhere — you know, our big production. She was watching us go through our thing, and she goes to our tour manager and she was like, ‘They do this every night?’ And he’s like, ‘Yup. Cue the Brazilian dancers!’
Here are five recent standout Jason Hann performances well worth your listening hours.
It’s tough and kind of pointless to select EOTO recorded performances when so much of the band’s appeal is in what happens live, in the moment. But a good place to start is EOTO’s 2014 Summer Camp performance: short and sweet, but with enough adventure to get you moving.
Remember that exciting Lotus Talking Heads set from this year’s Vibes? Jason Hann does too –he had a front row seat, adding that extra oomph to “Crosseyed and Painless” and “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody).”
Hann had the drum chair in this installment of Matt Butler’s ever-elastic jam collective: a gnarly summit of funk, groove, jam and plenty of other flavors that also featured John Kadlecik, David Murphy, Steve Molitz, Eddie Roberts, Bridget Law, Jennifer Hartswick, Natalie Cressman, Jans Ingber, and, for a stretch, Ivan Neville, Alvin Ford and Jeremy Salken.
Kool ‘n’ the Gang was fun, but the money String Cheese Incident set at Lockn, to our ears, was this one, including a kind “Colorado Bluebird Sky” featuring Sam Bush.
As the current SCI tour has picked up steam, the band has gotten fat and adventurous with its setlists, working in favored covers with a panoramic mix of tunes from throughout its history. Ithaca this week is an excellent example.