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Published: 1999/04/15
by Dean Budnick

Stringing Together Some Thoughts: Michael Kang on the Incidence of Incidents

Michael Kang is making new friends and fans each day. Increasing numbers of listeners who performed the violin in their youth are coming out to see String Cheese Incident, and coming away with a newfound respect and admiration for an instrument they had abandoned years ago. Of course Kang doesn’t only play the violin, he also wields the electric mandolin to satisfying effect. At present, String Cheese Incident is touring in the east, as part of the band’s seemingly perpetual run of shows. This is an exciting time for the group which recently started its own record label, and released a new album. For more info on the group, the album, tour dates and the band’s own fan-friendly ticket ordering system visit www.stringcheeseincident.com.

DB- So your first instrument was the violin?

MK- I started playing classical violin when I was seven. I was taught in that world and I played a lot through high school. In high school I also picked up the guitar. The mandolin came a few years later.

DB- What led you to the mandolin?

MK- I was living up in Alaska and they had a couple of bluegrass festivals up there. So I started playing with a couple people and getting interested in doing the bluegrass thing. All through college I hadn’t really played the violin. Then when I picked up the mandolin it was strung the same way, so it was easy to pick up and play. So that was kind of the impetus- I could pick it up and play without worrying about intonation.

DB- You didn’t play music in college?

MK- Not really. I went to shows but I didn’t play that much. I was in a different zone at that point in my life.

DB- In terms of the mandolin how and when did you decide to move from an acoustic to an electric instrument?

MK- I had a friend of mine make it for me. It wasn’t premeditated. I wanted an instrument that had five strings, I just wanted to check it out. So I had it made up and I just started playing it. I decided one day it would would be a cool thing to try. I’m not much of a guitar player but I enjoy electric guitar players. The acoustic mandolin is kind of limited to one tone. Since then I’ve had a couple of different luthiers make a couple of different instruments. I also have a few effects. They are pretty standard but it’s fun to run the instrument through a guitar amp and get guitar-like tones.

DB- At present are you more influenced by guitar players or mandolin players?

MK- I have a lot of different influences, like the band in general. I listen to all sorts of different kinds of music. I don’t just listen to bluegrass or to mandolin players.

DB- It certainly comes thorough in your songwriting which is often more jazz-flavored. You don’t seem to write a lot of traditional bluegrass songs.

MK- No, bluegrass is still pretty new to me., I’m still trying to learn. Music is a big, big ocean. It’s vast. There’s a lot to explore.

DB- So you lived in Alaska in 91, when did you move to Colorado?

MK- Winter of 92. I moved there to ski and then I just kind of started playing music. Keith and I were in a bluegrass band together, the Whiskey Crate Warriors. The next winter we started String Cheese Incident. Crested Butte was the starting point of our musical careers.

DB- Do you think that Colorado influences musicians in a particular manner?

MK- Definitely. Living in Crested Butte and Telluride, there is a bluegrass enclave. One of the things that influenced us most was Telluride Bluegrass. You go there and you see Bela and Grisman and Sam Bush. All sorts of legends and you can’t help but be influenced. It’s an amazing experience to step into that arena. The festival has a bit of impact on the music culture around Colorado.

Of course Colorado also influenced our lifestyles. we’re all ski bums. Travis and I used to ski a hundred days a year together. That was an influence in its own way. Music for us is just another outlet for having an enjoyable time doing whatever it is that we are doing.

DB- As you have said the band has many influences. That can be seen by the cover songs you play. How do those come about? Who selects them?

MK- It’s very democratic. People just bring stuff to the table which gets tossed around. Everybody is pretty accepting of what other people want to play. Keith and Billy bring more of the bluegrass element into the band because they are more versed in it. Travis, Kyle and myself bring more of the jazzier influences. It all switches around and everybody has a part in it.

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