The fans get it.
590 thousand albums sold. Performances in front of half a million fans worldwide in 2004 alone. 150,000+ unique web visitors each month. Prestigious festival gigs, like New Orleans Jazz & Heritage, Telluride Bluegrass, Newport Folk. Sold–out headlining shows at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, New York’s Radio City Music Hall and San Francisco’s Warfield Theater. A New Year’s run that annually sells upwards of 20,000 tickets. A thriving, innovative family of businesses including a record label, in-house ticketing, merchandise and travel agency.
What attracts hundreds of thousands of fans to The String Cheese Incident? Mainstream critics have been slow to embrace them. But the fans know that the five guys who make up the group play their asses off. They know that String Cheese has spent more than a decade making innovative, genre-defying music, and that each member has brought their own unique approach to the band’s now five studio albums and countless live performances.
Bill Nershi, who works out his passion for bluegrass on acoustic guitar, often follows lyric paths that reveal a fascination with psychological themes. Bassist Keith Moseley brings a love of hooks and concise songwriting evident in the way his playing serves the song. Violinist/mandolinist Michael Kang possesses an uncanny ability to quickly master instruments that befits his interest in intricate rock compositions. Drummer/percussionist Michael Travis balances innate spirituality with a keen ear for all sorts of rhythms, from ancient to electronic. Keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth, the most intensely trained musician of the group, embraces the heavy bottom of funk and jazz.
Five distinctly different voices, all of them with equal say. In most bands, there’s a leader, sometimes two, but democracy rules in The String Cheese Incident, both in their music and their business. It’s not some happy, hippy collective, either. A band is like a marriage, and it takes enormous compromises to make it work.
“How many years has it been to this day / We’ve known each other in so many ways / Sometimes it seems so hard to agree / I don’t even know if you’re listening to me / It’s time for the Big Compromise…Maybe too many heads are better than one,” Bill Nershi sings on “Big Compromise,” a song from One Step Closer, the band’s fifth studio album, that seems to embody the conflicts and resolutions of this five-way partnership.
“Everyone has a stake in the music and the organization. It can be difficult. We often struggle to make fast and easy decisions,” Nershi says.
The ‘Big Compromise’ that Nershi sings about is an inherent part of the ever-changing sound of The String Cheese Incident, reinventing what they do at every show and on every record. “With every album we realign ourselves, not because we didn’t like what we did before, but because there are so many faces of the band and we want to show them all,” Nershi says.
Because of their egalitarian nature, bringing in outside producers for their studio albums has become critical for SCI. On One Step Closer, they co-opted Malcolm Burn (Bob Dylan, Chris Whitley, Emmylou Harris, Daniel Lanois), a wiry, energetic Mephistopheles who became the unofficial sixth String Cheese member during the recording of the album and coaxed the group into a catharsis. Burn co-wrote, arranged and played on some of the tunes; he also uprooted the band’s artistic conflicts and used them to uncover The String Cheese Incident’s genuine songwriting voice – all five of them.
Percussionist Jason Hann, who started touring with the band in the fall of 2004, was also recruited to join the band in the studio and add his dynamics to some of the songs. “We invited Jason on the road with us to help keep the live dynamics fresh,” Moseley explains. “It was great having him in the studio for a few songs, too.”
For the first time on a String Cheese studio album, each SCI member sang and contributed at least two songs, and each sought out co-conspirators to help them develop their voice: such as Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead lyricist who collaborated with Kyle Hollingsworth on “45th of November,” and renowned Nashville songwriter Jim Lauderdale, who co-wrote “Big Compromise” and “Farther” with Nershi and with whom Keith Moseley penned “Brand New Start.” “Our roles in the band are evolving,” Moseley says. “This time we all got off on the experience of crafting songs, and Malcolm was good at helping us develop our individual voices and still find a forum for them within the band unit. Lyrically, the songs reflect what’s happening with each of us personally.”
“Things have changed a lot in the last few years, both with the music and with our personal lives,” Nershi adds. “Some of us have families, babies and houses now. We’re right in the middle of re-assessment, re-evaluation, coming up with a new game plan, imagining where we want to be in five years. It’s an interesting time.”
The bonus DVD that accompanies One Step Closer offers an inside peek into the recording sessions, and into the heart of The String Cheese Incident itself. Caught up in the recording process and urged by Burn to confront anything holding them back from the best possible performance, the members of the group dish out rare candid insights into their music and into one another. The video footage also features a track that didn’t make the final cut, a Michael Kang song that the string player was having a hard time committing to tape. Burn tells Kang to forget what his bandmates think and do it the way he wants. “Opinions are like assholes - everybody’s got one,” Burn says.
One thing that the entire band agreed upon was to take a stripped-down, rootsy approach to making One Step Closer, a 180-degree turn from 2003’s dense, proggy Untying the Not. With bright, catchy melodies and 3-to-5-minute songs that revolve around hooks instead of solos, One Step Closer feels like a deep breath on a splendid sunny morning. “Ain’t it good to be alive” the group proclaims on the song “Drive.”
“When it came time to record, we had just come off another long year on the road and we wanted to spend some time closer to home,” Moseley says. “Making Untying the Not was such an intense experience. We were in a studio in California and the clock was ticking. We were under enormous pressure to work quickly and efficiently. That’s a difficult environment to stretch out and be creative. For this album, our momentum took us back to a more bare bones approach.”
For One Step Closer, String Cheese sought inspiration from Music from Big Pink, The Band’s landmark 1968 album recorded at an upstate New York house. So the group abandoned the idea of a traditional recording studio in favor of a friend’s sprawling abode in the hills of Boulder, surrounded by inspiring mountain views. Burn moved into the house, and the band members went home at night after recording. “It was a very homey set up,” Moseley says. “We could hang out as long or as late as was necessary. Malcolm’s girlfriend would cook dinner for everyone, and we got to sleep in our own beds.”
GETTING ONE STEP CLOSER
One Step Closer brings The String Cheese Incident back to the magnificent Colorado region not far from where they initially bonded while skiing off breathtaking peaks and embarking on insanely long mountain bike rides. Only these days the band is in a more reflective mood. Just listen to “Farther,” in which Nershi stands at the edge of a cliff and ponders rather than jumps. “It’s so much easier to let a situation take you with it, even if it’s spiraling out of control, than it is to really try to make something work, and risk failure. Sure, there’s always a long list of excuses why something didn’t work…but what about just being willing to say you gave it your very best, and it still didn’t work,” the guitarist explains. “You have to make a leap of faith.”
It takes a leap of faith to start any band, to choose a winding artistic path over a more certain, and tested one. But for The String Cheese Incident, the leap is elemental. When they quit their day jobs more than a decade ago, they set out not to get signed but to forge their own way in music. In an industry desperate to slap labels on artists for marketing purposes, this band has built a thriving business while making art that defies branding.
It takes a leap of faith for a band to reinvent itself, too. The short, laidback songs on One Step Closer may mystify longtime fans looking for lengthy solos and extended jams. “I’m not sure that the fans who come to our live shows will immediately embrace this record; we’re hitting the opposite end of the spectrum on this album,” Moseley says. “But that’s the way we see the studio process – it’s a different side of the art of making music. And starting this summer, when we play the new songs live, a 3-minute song may turn into a 6-minute song or longer. On stage is great place for the improvisational vibe and the hook to co-exist,” he adds.
So whether you’re a fan or a critic or both, shed your preconceptions of what The String Cheese Incident can do and listen to the melodic triumphs of One Step Closer. The way the dobro cries beneath glistening organ on “Big Compromise.” The percussive mystery of “Betray the Dark.” The gentle balladry of “Silence in your Head.” The good-time, highway-bound groove of “Drive.” Tune in to the sound of five accomplished players whose diverse musical inclinations turn into remarkable songs, and breathe in the Colorado mountain vibe.
Ain’t it good to be alive.
Live On Stage:
I'm sure as most people know String Cheese will be calling it quits after this summer, so Bonnaroo most likely will be most people's last chance to see them. I'll spare you my whole dissertation about them and their place in jamband history, because who really needs that. I will say that I've always enjoyed their music, though their forays into jam-tronica and more Phish-y sounding stuff kind of turned a lot of people off. It's the bluegrass and roots stuff that really did it for me. Anyways that's gone on long enough, here they are with "Black And White" from Austin City Limits.....
Here's a hodgepodge of shows from their career....
String Cheese Incident - 1997-10-28 - The Bayou - Washington, DC
String Cheese Incident - 2001-04-20 - Fox Theater - St. Louis, MO
String Cheese Incident - 2003-03-22 - The Fillmore - Denver, CO
String Cheese Incident - 2006-10-07 - Thomas Wolfe Auditorium - Asheville, NC
String Cheese Incident - 2007-03-24 - Fillmore Auditorium - Denver, CO
And let's kick it old school with a "Land's End" from way back in '98 in Austin....
I have a feeling they'll be bringing the goods with their late night set this year. For more on SCI head over to their official website.
Set Time: 6/15, Which Stage, 12 AM - 3:30 AM
Saturday, June 2, 2007