Pondering the Cosmos with the String Cheese Incidents Michael Kang
Greetings Jambands.com readers and welcome to the latest installment in a personal mission to profile the most socially conscious musicians of the 21st century. It is this reporter’s sincere belief that the promise of the socio-cultural musical revolution of the 1960s that music can and will help change the world into a better, more harmonious place is destined to be fulfilled in this lifetime, and that the jamband scene is a vital cog in this process. Music has been shown to possess the power to influence the way people think, and hence the way they act. The long-term repercussions of this ripple effect are incalculable.
Step one on this mission was to interview Spearhead’s Michael Franti, arguably the most socially conscious musician on the planet at this time. I caught up with Franti in October of 2001. After interviewing Franti, it occurred to me that I should continue to seek out and profile those musicians who not only help people get their grooves on, but to raise their consciousness a bit as well. I decided my next target should be Michael Kang, electric mandolin player extrordinaire for the String Cheese Incident.
After being blown away by SCI’s August 6th and 7th, 2001 shows at Mt. Shasta, I listened to the group’s new albumOutside Inside with an attention I hadn’t paid it before and realized that songs like “Black and White” and “Rollover” (both primarily written by Kang and his lyrical partner Dain Pape) fit the profile to a tee groovy jams with something meaningful to say. It was then extremely gratifying to see Michael Franti join SCI for the encore of their December 29th, 2001 show at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Franti came out during “Black and White” and led the band into a medley of Spearhead’s “Stay Human,” into Bob Marley’s seminal protest song “Get Up Stand Up,” into Franti’s new anti-war song, “Bomb the World.” When Franti sang, “You can bomb the world into pieces, but you can’t bomb it into peace,” the sold-out crowd roared in an appreciation that showed that jamband music fans are not only far from apathetic, but actually may be one of mankind’s best hopes for evolving past the myriad of problems that plague the world today.
It was a spine-tingling moment – in a season where the mainstream media had advanced the propagandistic notion that opposition to the Bush administration’s “War on Terrorism” is inherently unpatriotic, here were 10,000 SCI fans expressing solidarity for alternative solutions and learning beyond doubt that they were not alone in this sentiment. It was a perfect example of how music can have a deep impact on the consciousness of society in these modern times, and why SCI is poised to be a major player in the movement.
I caught up with Michael Kang on the eve of the band’s Winter Carnival 2002 shows at the Denver Fillmore. Our conversation touched on a variety of intriguing topics.
GS: Your songs on Outside Inside, the two credited to you have significant lyrics. Tell me about your relationship with your co-writer Dain Pape and how you guys put those together.
MK: Well Dain and I, I guess we’ve known each other for 4 or 5 years, and that tune “Rollover” was actually the first tune we ever wrote together. We were just sitting at his place in Shasta right in the middle of tour. We were just there, and he started singing this melody, and I just picked it up from there and that one actually just came out really quickly, it was one of those tunes that just came about pretty effortlessly.
GS: And the lyrics just flowed also?
MK: Well, he already kind of had the lyrics, he’d had the images of the lyrics, a lot before
GS: It seems like he’s been doing some interesting research into the possible earth changes, which makes that really sort of a unique song. I haven’t heard anyone else sing about that stuff.
MK: Yeah, it’s interesting to look at the world in a larger historical perspective.
GS: Definitely. Ok, how about “Black and White” – I love the way it seems to be openly questioning the modern social paradigm.
MK: Well, it’s another one that we wrote and actually it was a friend of his that I got to meet up there, one of his neighbors who’s a Black historian. I think Dain and I were driving down to High Sierra or something like that, and we started having this idea that it would be cool to put out a song that kind of questions different race issues as well as the way that we’ve been given information. We’ve been kind of blindfolded to believe in things, especially by the media and the people that are in control of the media. So we got this idea to try to get a little known fact about something that’s happened that people don’t know about and this guy Bobby-Joe who lived up in Shasta uncovers facts about Black history, he’s a Ph.D. professor, and he was talking about the Black Irish and how at one point over a million Black Irish were massacred. I don’t know if it was one specific incident or some things that happened, but one specific place where it happened was Douglastown (referenced in the song) and it’s something that people just don’t hear about.
GS: Yeah, it’s very interesting to hear stuff like that. Ok, how long have you known Michael Franti?
MK: Since we got to play together at the Fillmore (in Denver). That was kind of the first time that we all got to hook up. Yeah he’s great, he’s kind of an inspiration in a lot of ways, just the way that he melds his social makeup, the things that he believes in, really, into his art.
GS: Right, I was going to ask you if your association with him had influenced you to become a more socially conscious artist?
MK: Well, it made me think about it more. There was an element of my life that was really involved in environmental issues when I was in college, and I used to work for Greenpeace. Then it kind of fell by the wayside a little bit when we started playing music. But now it seems like the time for not only us, but everybody to just kind of get a perspective on what’s happening on the planet and just be aware of what’s going on, I think.
GS: Totally Ok, and something interesting I noticed in the liner notes of the album, is the publishing credit for “Rollover” is to “Twentytwelve Songs,” is that your personal-
MK: It’s my publishing.
GS: Ok, and so I’ve done a lot of research into it myself but what’s your perspective on 2012?
MK: Well, you know, basically when I got introduced to the whole Mayan thing it kind of blew me away, looking at how certain cultures have looked at the larger historical time perspective of how we sit in a very, very large galaxy. When you start looking at it that way, the Mayans really had it mapped out in a lot of ways, it was the one of the most intensely accurate, astronomical- just all the data they received and how they put it into their entire way of living. You know, if you look at the ruins of Chichen Itza, and how they seemed to kind of integrate this larger belief of how we’re one very small cog in a larger wheel and also how we’re affected by all the different things that happen in our galaxy from a universal perspective
GS: Have you been down there at all?
MK: Yeah, we actually got to play a show in Mexico. About 4 years ago, we played in this little town called Akmal. I never got to go to Chichen Itza, but we got to go to Tulum.
GS: Oh yeah, Tulum is beautiful.
MK: Yeah, it’s really beautiful. So, I started thinking about it when I started doing research. They predicted a lot of things happening within the larger framework of things. This is a very unique time – they always thought of this point on their calendar, which is their zero point to a certain degree, I guess I would call it happening on December 21, the December solstice of 2012, which is the end of their long count calendar and it’s a cycle where our earth, our sun, and the middle of the Milky Way all line up and it only happens once every 256,000 years or something like that.
GS: Isn’t it every 26,000 years?
MK: 26,000, but then there’s a larger cycle.
GS: Right, it’s all quite intriguing.
(Maya scholar John Major Jenkins describes the nature of the Mayan “long count” cycle that concludes on 12/21/2012 right here)
MK: Yeah, and so when you start thinking about it, they looked at this time as being a time where there’s going to be an accelerated amount of information, a changing of the ages and they always seemed to look at these times for opportunities for humans to potentially raise their consciousness to a different level. If you look at how things have changed in the 20th century and all the things that have happened, there’s definitely been this intense logarithmic, exponential growth of knowledge and the amount of information that’s being psychically put out there, and seems like it’s leading to something.
GS: Right, like Terence McKenna’s idea.
(Ethonobotanist McKenna theorized that the exponential growth of information throughout the 20th century is leading up to something big. He devised an equation which measures “novelty” throughout human history and reaches what McKenna dubbed “Timewave Zero” on December 21st, 2012. McKenna was unaware of the Mayan calendar, making this a compelling synchronicity. For a fascinating article by McKenna detailing this theory, click here)
MK: Yeah, exactly. And so, when I started thinking about it, it just seemed to make a lot of sense because one thing I learned in college or what I kind of decided for myself with all the information that was given to me was that we just wouldn’t be able to continue our exploitation of the planet in this way. And if you look at it in a larger perspective, and just look at what’s going on in the world and how many people are living in poverty, and how many people are starving. It just seems pretty obvious that we just can’t go on like this forever. And so I think we’re all headed toward a big, kind of psychic jump. It’s really time to start thinking in a larger perspective, looking at it like the 100th monkey thing. I think things travel amongst cognitive beings in different ways that we’re not able to understand right now because we only use like a quarter of our brain mass. Look at how other creatures on the planet communicate, I think that we could definitely start to learn how to really, empathically, kind of develop more of our higher skills so to speak.
GS: Yeah, I agree totally and it’s great to see bands starting to raise some awareness about those ideas. Another thing about you guys is that you play special places that no one else seems to play, like Sedona and Mt. Shasta.
MK: Well, what happens in these areas is they’re energy vortexes, sacred to native peoples. Shasta is one of the seven sacred sites on the planet and I’m on a mission to try and visit all of them at some point. I think that there are places that energistically affect you. You go to a place and things get brought out in you.
GS: Yeah, those Shasta shows affected me, those were just amazing. Do you guys do anything special when you’re up there at places like that?
MK: Well, my buddy Dain lives up there so I got to hang out with him. I’ve hiked up the mountain before but not in a long time, not since I was a teenager, and Travis (Michael Travis, SCI’s drummer) has gone up there a bunch. It’s definitely just a place that you go to and if you kind of just let down your guard and relax and just take it all in, it’s a place that can really kind of help with facilitating growth in your life, I think.
GS: Yeah, it’s great that you play there and give your fans a chance to visit those places and have those experiences Ok, lets see, in the band’s Evolution DVD, it mentions how one of your favorite films is Men In Black.What stands out to you in that movie?
MK: Well, you know, I think it’s just fucking hilariousBut I also think the thing that really stood out is if you look at the last scene, how they kind of drop on this image of this human in Manhattan, and they pull away and first you see the city and then, kind of get sucked through the atmosphere, and then go flying through the solar system and take a look at the galaxy I don’t think people really look at our place in the larger, universal perspective of the powers that be or the forces that kind of play on these larger fields so to speak. It always interested me to think about the perspective of not only potentially what different beings are doing. It also poked fun at a couple different things. I just actually recently saw this video called “Disclosure” where this guy Steven Greer —
GS: I saw his presentation.
(Kang is referring to The Disclosure Project, headed by Dr. Steven Greer. The videotape features a slew of retired military personnel testifying about the reality of the UFO cover up and conspiracy to suppress free energy technology. The project website is at disclosureproject.org.)
MK: Yeah, it seems like there’s a couple interesting things going on, a huge government cover up of the fact that we’ve actually been contacted by extraterrestrial beings and the forces at large just basically don’t want us to know about. So that’s an interesting phenomenon, and then the fact that, when you start thinking about it, our place, humans are so egocentric. Everything in our society is based around looking at how we are the godly ones, so to speak, that we are basically autonomous in this flying sphere. It’s just interesting to think about, because that last scene (in Men in Black), makes you think about the idea that there’s places and forces that aren’t necessarily playing us but that the perspective that we have of ourselves in this solar system, and this galaxy is so far removed from what I think is the truth, and that we are actually connected to a very, very much larger scale of events.
GS: Did you see Artificial Intelligence?
MK: Yeah, actually I just saw that.
GS: What I thought was really interesting about that was the way the cities were underwater, just like you talk about in “Rollover.”
MK: Yeah, we definitely are kind of like the camel that wants to stick our heads in the sand to a certain degree because things are changing. If you look at the historical perspective of the planet, things can change really quickly and you know, if you have to look at the planet as an organism, we are definitely a part of it, and it’s also a larger organism. I believe that everything happens for a reason and it’s definitely an interesting time to be alive, that’s for sure!
GS: Certainly. And it looks like the jamband scene is really starting to come together. Ever since Phil Lesh came back in ’99, he’s been playing with a bunch of different bands, including you guys, and now there’s been a lot of collaboration going on. I see you guys are already going to do the Sasquatch Festival with Galactic up at The Gorge, and then Bonnaroo. How does your involvement in projects like that come about?
MK: Well, we’ve always been really interested in playing with other bands, just because we grew up out of the festival circuit, really. One of our first gigs ever was the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. We’ve also had some amazing experiences at High Sierra just getting to hang out with people, getting to share music and just party with people (laughs). I think one of the amazing things about this scene, so to speak, is it really is an alternative to a lot of the things that are going on, and it seems like a lot of young people and older people alike are getting a chance to gather, and just share space with one another in a very loving manner. Sometimes you wonder if the innocence of that is gonna die, when things get larger. There’s definitely elements it attracts which at some point get potentially negative, but amazingly enough it’s been super positive up to this point and I think it’s a testament, a testimony to people feeling like they really need a place they can call their own, where they can express their alternative views to a certain degree. I think one of those things we hope to do is provide a space where people can freak freely.
GS: Hah! Okay, so what’s the future looking like for String Cheese for this year and beyond?
MK: Well we’re just about to get back together to play these shows for Winter Carnival, and we’re actually working on a Warren Miller movie right now, which is going to combine our love of skiing and kind of the scene that grew up around Colorado, and get a chance to ski with all of our old friends. We’re going to put that out onto a DVD and a movie and potentially take it to film festivals and things like that. Then a summer tour and then we’re probably going to record another album in the fall, and take a different approach in recording
GS: A different approach how?
MK: Just looking at an album in a different way, potentially doing a lot more jamming on it, and also potentially trying to write specifically for the album and things like that. So we’re tossing around a lot of stuff right now and just looking forward to getting out there as well. It’s an interesting time for us because things are growing at a pretty rapid pace. So, we’ll see what happens
GS: And how about your partnership with John Perry Barlow, are you still working with him?
MK: Yeah, we’ve gotten to collaborate on a couple of songs. I moved to New York recently, so I’ve been staying out there, and especially right after September 11th we started collaborating a lot. It seemed to be an effortless combination of things that we believed in. So yeah, we’ve developed a good friendship since then, and he’s been kind of showing his face around our scene a little bit more. It’s been fun, he’s really a master wordsmith, he has a way with words that most just people don’t have.
Given the way the band’s scene has exponentially grown over the past few years, there should be little doubt that 2002 will be another big year for SCI. And with the jamband scene starting to gel with further and “furthur” collaboration between the major players, the vibration of musical revolution against the faltering, modern paradigm does indeed seem to be coalescing. With their combination of transcendent jamming and socially conscious vibe, the String Cheese Incident has clearly thrown their hat in the ring as a band to watch in this regard.