The String Cheese Incident
F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” He obviously never met The String Cheese Incident.
For most bands, a run of five or 10 years is a gift—to have the experience of making music with your friends for any length of time is something to savor. But The String Cheese Incident kept it going for nearly 15, building a massive, devoted fan base eager to follow the band throughout an entire tour and collect recordings of each of the band’s concerts, or “Incidents,” as they called them. Breaking away from the path taken by the vast majority of artists, SCI drew upon their pioneering spirit to construct their own business model, effectively rethinking the manner in which artists interact with their fans and redefining the live music experience by absorbing multiple artistic concepts into their total presentation.
In 2007, after a decade and a half of constant creativity, The String Cheese Incident decided they needed to reassess and refuel: They said their goodbyes, took a couple of years off to recharge their creative batteries, and then picked up where they left off—seamlessly injecting new energy and artistic elements into the mix. Today’s SCI—Bill Nershi, guitars and vocals; Michael Kang, mandolin, violin, guitar and vocals; Keith Moseley, bass; Michael Travis, drums and percussion; Kyle Hollingsworth, keyboards and accordion; and Jason Hann, percussion—fuses together the most durable and inviting aspects of the jam band world with cutting edge electronics and the multi-sourced Americana on which they were founded. “Keeping the circular energy going” is how co-founder Nershi puts it, and as it turns out, that circle is not yet complete.
When they began their hiatus, SCI’s future was uncertain. “We spent 14 years living and breathing and eating and drinking String Cheese,” says Nershi. “I felt like it took over my life.”
Michael Travis agrees: “The length of commitment we had with each other, which was 100 percent full-time, was trying on any level. It was starting to make its way into the creative flow of the band.”
So String Cheese did the noble thing: rather than stick it out halfheartedly and watch it fizzle, they agreed to walk away and let nature take its course. Each of the band members became involved in other ventures and took time to reflect, to grow and to let the future write itself. They left it all behind with their calendars cleared and no plans to meet up again.
For two years they made music apart from SCI and enjoyed their personal space, spending time with family and friends, generally chilling and, in some cases, engaging in non-musical endeavors. The time apart, says Moseley, “gave me a lot of perspective on what we accomplished together as a band musically and as a community. Being in a touring band is such an all-consuming part of your life. There’s that and then there’s the other 10 percent of your life.”
Well rested and creatively re-stoked, the six members decided unanimously in 2009 that it was time to get back together and test the proverbial waters. They committed to playing ROTHBURY, a community-centric, multi discipline festival in Michigan whose stated aim was “for music and cause to join together to stir ideas, to awaken possibilities, and to empower through knowledge.” With an emphasis on environmental sustainability and creating a new social movement, ROTHBURY was a celebration custom-made for The String Cheese Incident. And so they were back. “In my mind,” says Moseley, “there was never any doubt that we would do it again.”
But now that the decision had been made, what would The String Cheese Incident 2.0 be? Where would the music take them? Would they still have the chemistry? Could they enjoy it as much as they had during their lengthy initial run?
Resuming, the musicians found, was—to use a familiar analogy—like riding a bicycle: they just jumped back on and pedaled and off they went. As Hollingsworth says, “It was kind of weird for the first 20 minutes but then it was, ‘OK, let’s work on a song.’ I felt like we jumped right in and got right back to work. We were all very serious about it. We were psyched.”
One thing that they all agreed upon was that the music would need to progress if being The String Cheese Incident again were to be artistically satisfying. They were not going to return as what Nershi calls “a String Cheese cover band that keeps on regurgitating the same songs the same way. That gets really boring. We’re spending a lot of time rearranging songs and writing new songs,” he says, “and every time we write a new song we’re incorporating new ideas.”
Those ideas, which include an electronic music component that has largely been instigated by Travis and Hann—who have a side project called EOTO—and Hollingsworth, have been folded into the group’s music at the gigs they’ve played since reuniting, peaking at last July’s inaugural Electric Forest Festival, an outgrowth of the retired ROTHBURY. While SCI’s ever-eclectic mix—which takes in everything from bluegrass to African rhythms, jazz to classic rock, funk and beyond—is still the basis, expansion and change are vital to their continued existence. Some older tunes have been updated structurally and sonically, and newly penned material is finding its way into SCI’s already humongous repertoire.
“If you listen to us from 2007 and you listen to us now,” Nershi says, “you’ll see that it’s different, and hopefully better, because we’ve put a lot of time into working up the new material and preparing for the shows, so that when we walk out onstage we’re feeling good about it. A lot of it is continuing with the old idea that this is a community experience—people come out to be part of the community that surrounds the band and that keeps us going. For us it’s still about feeling like we’re connecting with the audience and they’re connecting with us.” That connection was there from the start, among the players and the audience. The band that would become The String Cheese Incident had its roots in the tiny town of Crested Butte, in Colorado ski country. “I was living in Crested Butte and Telluride during that time and skiing a lot, working restaurant and construction jobs,” says Moseley. “There was a lot of music there, bands touring the ski town circuit. Just about every weekend there’d be some kind of fun show in town.”
Nershi picks up the chronology: “I had just bought a school bus and fixed it up and I was living in the school bus. I had met Keith at bluegrass festivals and I had played some music with him. After being a ski bum in Telluride for about 12 years, I decided to have one last year of ski bumming in Crested Butte and I drove the school bus there and parked it where Keith was, which happened to be Travis’ house.”
One thing led to another: Travis and Kang soon came aboard, music was made and people started paying attention. “Our first gigs were in the winter of 1992-93,” says Kang. “Every month a bunch of people would get together and book a theater and everybody did something. Billy and I worked it out so that we could get ski passes for playing bluegrass music. The next summer, Billy was still living in Telluride and we ended up having a gig opening the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. For us that was the holy grail of festivals. At the time we didn’t have any intention of continuing or making it a full-time thing; the biggest priority for us was skiing. Then we decided we were really going to be a band, and we got a booking agent and did our first tour. That’s when it got serious; we decided we should probably move away from Crested Butte to Boulder.”
The origin of the name The String Cheese Incident is shrouded in mystery. There are some in the band who swear to this day that no one really recalls how it came about. Others have more definitive recollections. Either way, it was unique and, for better or worse, it stuck.
As SCI began to develop its signature sound and word of their exceptional live shows spread, the audience expanded exponentially. From the start, The String Cheese Incident was a truly independent band, taking their business affairs into their own hands so that they would have to answer to no one. Perhaps sensing that big changes were coming in the music industry, they never even attempted to sign with a major label, forming their own SCI Fidelity imprint instead. “In some ways we were lucky because we were so not a commercially driven band,” says Kang. “People were saying, ‘What the hell are these guys? They’re unsignable.’ We pretty much had to do it ourselves.”
Their first studio recording, the self-produced Born On the Wrong Planet, released in 1997, was a strong introduction to the band and served as something of a template. Consisting largely of band-penned material, the songs fused several styles into a signature sound and most of the tracks, clocking over four minutes each, incorporated jams that gave listeners a good idea of what the band was all about in a live setting. Several of the songs, particularly the Nershi-authored opening track, “Black Clouds,” were and would remain staples of the band’s live gigs.
Those gigs would always be the crux of The String Cheese experience, but the band would strive over the years to create studio releases that fleshed out the definition of who they were. Some of the band, not accustomed to the restrictions of the recording studio, struggled the first few times.
“It was really tricky and difficult at first,” says Kang about adapting the band’s particular energy to the recording medium. “We thought we could go into the studio and put all of our ideas in there and it’ll turn out great. So we had these disjointed, not really fun studio experiences.”
Born On the Wrong Planet would be the first and last String Cheese album recorded as a quartet. By the time they released their next album the following year, A String Cheese Incident, the band had welcomed keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth into the lineup—this quintet configuration would remain intact for nearly a decade and would come to be regarded as one of the must-see American bands of its time. A String Cheese Incident was the first of several live albums SCI would release officially during their initial run—there would also be dozens of self-released concert CDs marketed directly to the fans. The group’s third album, 1998’s ’Round the Wheel, returned SCI to the studio and consisted entirely of original material. For this one they brought in a few guests to augment the sound, including the banjoist Tony Furtado and Paul McCandless, the highly renowned saxophonist best known as a founding member of the jazz group Oregon.
By this time, however, it was clear that The String Cheese Incident was not going to build their reputation upon their albums—this was a band to experience at an Incident, and there were literally hundreds now, as SCI criss crossed the country playing night after night, constantly evolving and gaining a reputation as one of the top so-called jam bands in the country.
So-called because that term became a mixed blessing for String Cheese. On one hand, it put them in good company with a group of young bands, many of them following in SCI’s footsteps, that stressed musicianship, musicality and community over pop gloss and overt commerciality. On the other, it kept certain segments of the larger audience at a distance.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” adds Nershi. “There are a lot of bands out there that we came up with and everybody has gone in different directions. Still,” he says, “it’s a family of bands and I’m happy to be part of that family.”
Carnival ’99, the next live album, followed in October of that year, a two-CD set that cherry-picked from various shows recorded earlier in 1999 during the Winter Carnival and Spring Cheese tours. Outside Inside (2001) came next, the first album for which the band decided to bring in an outside producer. Steve Berlin was a member of Los Lobos but also a seasoned producer who had already worked with an array of diverse artists. Recorded in Austin, Outside Inside was nearly entirely composed by the band, and it marked a defined shift away from SCI’s traditional bluegrass into a more rock-based sound. Using Berlin as producer was an acknowledgment that an impartial voice could exert a positive effect on the outcome in the studio.
“We have so many different ideas and styles within the band that we like to change from record to record to be able to show different things off,” says Nershi. “When you’re putting a producer in you’re agreeing you are going to let them steer you in a direction.”
Still, no one, certainly not the band’s fans, could have predicted their next studio move. Having now worked with a producer not associated with the band, The String Cheese Incident decided to truly reach outside of the box. Untying the Not (2003), the band’s fourth studio release, was unlike any music they had made before, and that was deliberate. A true studio creation, it was produced by Youth, a daring studio technician who coaxed sounds out of SCI that were virtually alien to them previously, including copious use of electronics, looping and other state-of the-art embellishments. Untying the Not, with its darker lyrics and ominous sounds, had more in common with the psychedelic trance music of dance clubs than the bluegrass festivals and rock palaces String Cheese had come from. It was undeniably their most ambitious recording to date and, depending on one’s taste, either one of their most successful or one best dismissed as an aberration.
“It changed the band in an amazingly good way,” says Kang about the album, recorded in Sausalito, California. “I still think that it’s our best to date. It’s our most creative, where we weren’t trying to maintain our live sound. It put us in a creative mindset and we’ve been forever altered by that.” Reviewing the album, Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Producer Youth has updated their sound via electronic tweaks without burying the Americana touches that appeal to the band’s fans. The psychedelic dance jams, stomping bluegrass riffs and spiraling guitars never bully the earnest choruses. These hooks will stick with you longer than a contact high.”
Just prior to recording Untying the Not, the prolific String Cheese released their first DVD, Waiting for the Snow to Fall. The documentary followed the band around as they prepared for their winter tour and revisited old hangouts.
They also launched a series of live CDs they dubbed the On the Road series. Answering the call of super-dedicated fans who clamored to collect every note the band emitted onstage, SCI began releasing dozens of shows from their 2002-2004 tours in their entirety. In addition to delving into the plethora of original SCI songs, it’s always been a favorite pleasure of audiences to hear how the band treats songs penned by others.
The String Cheese Incident’s repertoire of cover versions is quite possibly the largest and most diverse of any touring band in recent memory—and one of the defining characteristics of their shows. Just a small sampling: songs originally written and/or performed by Herbie Hancock, the Stanley Brothers, the Clash, KC and the Sunshine Band, Black Sabbath, Bill Monroe, the Doors, Django Reinhardt, Cat Stevens, Talking Heads, Peter Rowan, Country Joe and the Fish, Townes Van Zandt, Nirvana, Bob Marley, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon, Rush, the Beatles and that old standby, Traditional.
“That comes just being fans of different stuff,” says Moseley about the breadth of covers. “Therein is the heart of the band, the diversity of the guys in the band. It’s fun to be part of something like that.”
As the new century kicked into gear, String Cheese was still going strong, playing a full schedule of gigs and releasing both live and studio music. They recorded their most recent studio album, 2005’s One Step Closer, in Boulder, this time produced by Canadian Malcolm Burn, whose résumé included albums by Iggy Pop, John Mellencamp, Emmylou Harris and others. In its review, Jambase.com said, “It becomes clear that SCI is utilizing the studio as a canvas separate and unique from the stage.”
By this time String Cheese had indeed become a phenomenon, every show a sellout, a caravan of diehards in pursuit. The Incidents were quite unlike the average rock concert—the band went to great lengths to design atmospheres that incorporated diverse elements of art, music and theater into the total experience. Holiday Incidents on New Year’s Eve and Halloween (christened “Hulaween” in a nod to the fans who habitually brought hula hoops to the shows) in particular were anxiously anticipated, as were fan-favorite festivals like Horning’s Hideout in Oregon, Rothbury/Electric Forest and the annual Winter Carnival shows. In 2009 the band released both a nine-CD and pared-down two-CD release called Trick or Treat, culled from the late-October shows.
Says Kang: “We bring together a lot of different art communities and performing communities that are just as important in this cultural renaissance as the community-driven music experience that has been part of our ethic since day one. We wanted the Incidents to be something that people can really feel like they are involved in, and feel like they have a say in how it all went.”
Accordingly, where other bands of their stature might be content to leave the business aspects to others, SCI has remained fiercely independent, doing everything in their power to assure that their fans always got a satisfying experience. With that in mind, the band and their own homegrown concert ticket arm, SCI Ticketing, filed a much-publicized lawsuit against the giant Ticketmaster corporation in 2003. The band charged that Ticketmaster was monopolizing the industry and preventing String Cheese from offering direct ticket sales to fans. The case was ultimately settled out of court, with SCI Ticketing gaining the right to sell as much as 50 percent of its concert tickets directly to fans. String Cheese has, since the inception of the band, been deeply involved in other important non-musical issues, from taking part in food drives to promoting green alternatives.
As if they weren’t busy enough as a band, the individual members had become increasingly active with side projects, in both the live music and studio arenas as well as in other media. Nershi, for example, teamed up with multi-instrumentalist Drew Emmitt of the band Leftover Salmon as the Emmitt-Nershi Band. Moseley toured with singer-songwriter Keller Williams, a cohort signed to SCI Fidelity. Kang played music with an African influenced band, Pangaea, and worked with a nonprofit environmental group that he created. Hollingsworth played and recorded under his own name and in several other aggregations. Travis, meanwhile, began collaborating with percussionist Jason Hann—who became an official String Cheese member in 2006—as EOTO, an electronic music band with heavy emphasis on looping.
By 2007, the band had been together nearly a decade and a half, creating nearly nonstop. They’d taken it further than they’d ever dreamed they could but now it was time to give it a rest. For two years the six members of String Cheese rarely saw one another as they pursued their own paths.
But then, in 2009, they gravitated back toward the mothership, primed and ready to give it a new go. A few gigs to test the water, and not only were they feeling it again, they were delighted by the freshness of it. All of that time apart had allowed them to reimagine The String Cheese Incident not only as a well established entity with a history but as something that could still be built upon. Taking it at a slower pace, String Cheese was back, and by late 2011 they were ready for the road again, hitting a number of East Coast venues for the first time since they’d said their farewells four years earlier.
“I’m really excited,” says Moseley. “A big part of what we used to be was a touring band and getting out there and trying to get our mojo working night after night. I’m really looking forward to the consistency of playing a bunch of shows in a row and hanging out together and just being completely focused on being a great working band.”
SCI has been working on new material since regrouping, and has launched a new series of archival recordings, the Rhythm of the Road series: The first entry, the three-disc Vol. 1: Incident in Atlanta, 11.17.00, was released in 2010. There are also tentative plans to return to the studio, although no one is quite sure yet what form it will take or how it will find its way to fans. “We’ve been a live band,” says Moseley, “but that’s not to say that it wouldn’t be a fun experience to be in the studio again. To me that appeal is getting greater and greater, the idea of crafting a well-scripted, beautiful piece of work as an album.”
In some ways, even while they head into the uncharted waters of the future, the musicians of The String Cheese Incident take comfort in the familiarity. Says Moseley, “We’re bringing to it now experience, knowledge and the swagger of how to go out there and fuckin’ rock. I know we can raise the energy and the vibe with the music to a level that still hits people in the gut and makes them want to move. We’re opening the book to the next chapter. I’m excited by the renewed interest and commitment to the band by everybody and making some music together and stringing some shows together. I think it’s gonna be really good for us and really powerful.”
“We feel like we want to go out and play and get into a nightly flow and be creative again and re-immerse ourselves,” says Kang. “It feels like we’ve got our creative juices lit again, and part of it is because everybody’s had a chance to go in their own creative direction and do whatever they wanted to do. So coming back together and having this kind of group-melded, not single-minded, mentality is actually doable. We’re still playing true to the kind of music that excites us.”
Adds Nershi, “When we started as a band we were all avid skiers and mountain bikers and looking for adrenaline rushes is what we got off on back then. Now it’s different but it’s still all about getting that adrenaline rush. Now when we walk out on stage and it’s a packed house and everybody’s screaming, it’s the same result, that adrenaline rush. That’s what gets us off. We want to just continue with that.”