Distilling the Essence of Cheese: An Interview with Bill Nershi
With its new release, Outside Inside, the String Cheese Incident, successfully embraces another medium. The band thrives in the live setting, as evidenced by last year’s double-live Carnival 99. However, up until now, the group’s studio records have failed to showcase its animated spirit and ever-strengthening songcraft. The new disc, produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, fares well on both counts.
Although the String Cheese Incident’s vitality lies in its collective musical flair, acoustic guitarist Bill Nershi has long assumed a significant role. Nershi has helped to define the band’s sound with his brisk picking, lively original compositions and good-natured humor. The following interview with Nershi touches on the new disc, the band’s growing popularity as well as his own sources of influence and inspiration. For additional information on the group, visit its web site, at www.stringcheeseincident.com.
Dean Budnick- Before we talk about Outside Inside, I’d like to focus on your own development as a musician. Who were your earliest heroes and influences both in terms of performance and songwriting
Bill Nershi- Earlier on I was more taken with electric guitar players. When I was fifteen and I took the only eight guitar lessons that I ever took I was listening to Dickey Betts a lot and Toy Caldwell [Marshall Tucker Band], Hendrix, Clapton, and a lot of southern rock and blues.
DB- When did you move towards the acoustic?
BN- Actually I grew up strumming acoustic guitars and singing out of songbooks. I have four older brothers and an older sister and they all played a little bit of guitar and my mother played the piano. So I strummed along and worked my way though some old songbooks. When I was 14 or 15 I asked my parents to get me an electric guitar and I started playing it.
During my senior year of high school I moved in with my oldest brother and he listened to a lot of bluegrass and I started listening to that- mainly the 50s and 60s kind of stuff like Stanley Brothers, Reno and Smiley, Bill Monroe but I never played any fiddle tunes. I wasn’t much of a flatpicker I was just strumming and singing with my brother who played the banjo. I guess during this time I still hadn’t written anything. I didn’t start writing anything until I moved to Colorado when I was 19. At that time I was focussing more on the acoustic guitar, writing a few songs here and there. I met a really good friend of mine named Jack Rajca who played guitar and showed me my first flatpicking tune and I started learning a bit more about picking. We’d get a bunch of people together, assemble a bluegrass band and play- maybe get a gig in a bar or something like that. The whole time I was in Telluride between 81 and the 90’s I was playing apres-ski stuff with whatever duo or trio I could together.
DB- At that point you weren’t gigging anywhere else in the state?
BN- No, I was living in Telluride and skiing. I had a season pass every year and I was playing enough music to get by, cooking in a restaurant.
DB- Since you were living in Telluride at the time, were you there when the Dead played their famous stealth shows in Town Park during the summer of 87?
BN- I was not. I was in lovely Phoenix Arizona. I had gone to school for a year doing graphic art and I wasn’t around when the Dead played. Actually I had never seen the Dead play at that point. I saw the Dead play in 92, the only three shows that I have ever seen. My friend Jack, the one who showed me the guitar took me hostage and brought me to the shows.
DB- What were your impressions? [editor’s note: in case you are curious, Nershi was at the Dead’s Oakland Coliseum run that took place February 22-24, 1992]
BN- I was very skeptical of the Grateful Dead when I went and that was why Jack made go. I had listened to tapes and thought they were a bit sloppy at times because a lot of what they were about doesn’t come through on the tapes. I think the first night was okay but the second show was amazing. The community atmosphere and the vibe of the band created a whole environment and I really got what it was all about. Out of the three nights there was only one really good night of music but it was super special and it made me understand what people found in that music that kept them coming back.
DB- In terms of that community aspect I’m sure you heard a lot of people compare your band to the Grateful Dead. How you receive those comparisons?
BN- I can understand it in terms of the way the band developed. We never tried to get a manager who would look for a record deal, get us signed, put us out on a tour to support an album and then try to get a hit on the radio. A lot of bands try to make it that way, at least half the bands out there, that’s how they make it as a band. We were much more grassroots, like the Dead and also Phish where we tried to build up a following of people by playing a lot of shows and trying to have a really interesting positive stage show. We tried to offer a lot of variety in the music so that if we played for three nights people would get a good selection of different tunes. So I think there’s a lot of similarities in terms of how we went about it. As for the music itself I guess there’s stuff there too. There’s some of us in the band who have bluegrass roots and Jerry had bluegrass roots. I think that bluegrass has had a lot of influence on my songwriting and this band has that flavor to it. So I understand the comparisons that people make. I just hope that what we’re doing musically is seen as something unique to us. Obviously there are going to be influences but I hope that people see us as a unique-sounding band.
DB- In terms of your bluegrass roots. What did your hardcore bluegrass friends think when you decided to perform with a percussionist?
BN- Well we’ve never ever thought of ourselves as a bluegrass band. That’s something that other people called us. When Travis started playing on hand-drums it made total sense to have some rhythm happening and give us a little kick in the pants. We never worried that it’s not right to have a percussion player in bluegrass music because we never tried to label our music as anything but going-out-and-having-fun music. Keith and I probably have the biggest bluegrass influences in the band and we both have listened to lots of different music. So while we love the bluegrass thing it was cool to take that flavor and put it into a different context with Travis playing percussion and then later with the drum kit.
DB- Since you perform on an acoustic, as you move into larger venues, do you find it’s a challenge to keep your sound clear in the mix?
BN- I did a lot of investigation into equipment that I could use to get a good sound going. I upgraded some of my rack and got a couple of really high-end DIs and a really pro EQ and a nice power amp. Right now I don’t have any feedback problem. My sound is stronger than it has ever been and at the same time it sounds more like my Martin, my guitar, than it ever has before. Jon [O’Leary] our soundman probably has the easiest time getting my sound dialed up of anyone in the band. I’m ready to bring that acoustic guitar sound into the big amphitheaters and I think it will come across real strong and clear.
DB- Are you ever tempted to pick up an electric, the way you did last summer at the Newport Folk Festival [in celebration of the thirty-fifth anniversary of “Dylan Goes Electric”]?
BN- I don’t know, that was kind of a wild hair. I’m not sure if I’ll do it again. I just recorded a record with a friend of mine from Telluride Liza Oxnard and my wife Jill where I play half acoustic and half electric. The thing with String Cheese is I’m leery of playing electric guitar because I think the acoustic guitar is one of the few grounding influences left in the band. If I go electric and Mike’s playing electric and we have Kyle on the keyboard then I think we enter a different realm more like other bands, less unique. I like the fact that we have a lead electric mandolin and me on acoustic guitar. That’s part of what makes us unique and for me that’s what it’s about, trying to do something different. I enjoy playing my acoustic guitar and I have no problem keeping it loud enough to keep up with the band so I think electric guitar might be something that I do with side projects but probably not with String Cheese.
DB- The studio obviously allows room for experimentation. Did you pick up any other instruments while recording Outside Inside?
BN- No, although on one song though we did run my acoustic guitar through a 50s Gibson amplifier, cranked it way up and got some super driving distortion out of it. That was pretty cool, it’s on a tune called “Sing a New Song.”
DB- Let’s talk more about the new disc. What was the band’s motivation for bringing in an outside producer?
BN- To expedite things. We’re a very democratic band and when we’re in the studio we’re making a lot of decisions on songs- when to do what, what sounds good. If every decision were made by five people voting on it then it would take a couple of years to get a record done. We brought in a producer to facilitate the record and minimize our squabbling about details.
DB- Outside Inside certainly has a richer sound than your earlier studio discs. Did you come in with that intent or was that Steve Berlin?
BN- I think a lot of that was created by Steve Berlin. The way he recorded was all analog, two inch tape, and he made us keep a lot of early takes. He also discouraged us from redoing a lot of stuff we were tempted to redo. I think it has a lot more punch and a lot livelier sound than our previous recordings. It sounds to me more like us than a lot of the earlier records.
DB- So In terms of the recording did you guys work with analog tapes or did you record analog and then move to digital editing with Pro Tools?
BN- There was some tape cutting here and there. Most of the stuff we didn’t mess with. We had a great engineer Dave McNair, though, and when he would go with a razor to the two inch tape and cut it and splice it, he called it Bro Tools. So we used Bro Tools.
DB- How difficult was it to rearrange songs that had already evolved in the live setting
BN- It was a little bit tricky and that was another reason why it was good to have Steve. He took the live versions of our songs, did a lot of listening and came up with ideas. He say, ”Let’s put this chorus up a little further in the song” or “Does this part really make the song better?” He came up with some good ideas- some of which we used and some of which we didn’t. Ultimately, I think we came up with arrangements that everyone was happy with. We focussed more on trying to get to the essence of the songs- the melodies and the vocals were the key things for this record. We thought that since we had just done a double live album they we would focus on the songwriting more than the jamming which was something new for us. It was interesting to do it that way. We wanted to prove to people that we could sing and that we have good songwriting sensibility.
DB- When you returned to the road did you keep any of the new arrangements that you worked on for the album?
BN- Some of them we’ve kept and on some of the songs we revert because the live thing is a very different element. It’s nice to have a bit more room to jam in the live setting. For example, on “Close Your Eyes” Steve wanted to hear the chorus more and now we play the song with one more chorus then we used to do. With “Search” we took out a couple of the earlier parts that went between the verses to make the verses flow together in a smoother way. It’s more of those arrangement ideas we kept rather than cutting out sections that are free- form. All the free-form jamming we’ve put back in the live process.
DB- The whole band seems to be more equally represented on this album than the prior studio releases. What was the process there?
BN- We took 16 of the songs we thought were the strongest and tried them in the studio to see which would fly and which wouldn’t. Of course we talked to Steve and as well as our friends and management. We like everybody to be represented on the record in terms of having their original songs appear. Travis hasn’t done any writing but he’s big into helping arrange songs and part of deal both live and in the studio is we’d like everybody to have an opportunity to express themselves. Everybody’s songwriting is pretty strong right now, so we’re in a good position. We didn’t say everybody has to have a song on there even if sucked (laughs). We have a lot of good material so it was easy for everyone to be represented on the record.
DB- How has your songwriting evolved?
BN- I need to do it. If I don’t do it for a while I don’t feel right. I have things in my head and things in me that I need to express and if I don’t express them then I feel stagnant. So I’m not sure how it’s progressed but I continue to do it. I do it more for the experience of writing and because I like to throw my stuff out in front of a bunch of people and see what kind of reaction I get.