Kyle Hollingsworth: SCI Takes it OTR
On October 11, the String Cheese Incident opens its fall tour at the Breedan Fieldhouse in Bozeman, MT. The tour includes a Halloween gig at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, the former home of the Academy Awards show (The band’s “Acadamummy Awards” gig will feature costume contests, a red carpet and more- check out the details on the band’s site). In addition, the group has confirmed its New Year’s Eve run with three shows at the Bill Graham Civic Center in San Francisco on December 28, 29 and 31. Meanwhile, in the days prior to tour, the quintet is in Colorado working on its forthcoming studio release. Of course, fans who are hankering for some Cheese, can sate themselves through the group’s On The Road series, which offers live discs from the entire spring tour.
The following interview with String Cheese Incident keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth touches on these topics (alas, no Hulaween tidbits, he indicated the band was just starting to work out its plans) with a bit on Bonnaroo, guest musicians and Effortless Mastery as well.
DB- I heard recently that when you first saw String Cheese, your reaction was, “Wow, who’s that eighteen guitar player?”
KH- It was actually 16 [Laughs]. This was close to eight years ago and Billy was super young looking with no beard and really short hair. If you see one of our early press shots Billy looks like he’s about 12. I had no idea who the guy was but it really blew me away how well he was able to mic and pre-amp that acoustic guitar. I came from a rock band where the guitar was a jangly thing for rhythm really but here it was clear he had taken the time to get such a good sound out of it.
DB- For me one of the hallmarks of the band is that you guys put so much thought and effort into production. When you were playing in the smaller clubs you’d travel with your own sound.
KH- We’ve been doing that since the first days. We bought a Mayer rig which is one the Grateful Dead used. We used that when we were playing 250 person rooms. We carried that in, set it up ourselves and Kang would run the board from the front where he was playing, then run out and listen. We also had the best PA we could because the clubs we went into sometimes could make you sound really bad. It was scary sometimes, and it was all about making us sound clear.
DB- I think that’s real significant. Listeners can tell the difference even if they can’t always articulate it.
KH- Sure. Jono [Jon o’Leary] of course is fantastic with our front of house sound, so he makes it happen that way too.
DB- Kang first invited you to see String Cheese after you had played a gig with him. What were the circumstances there?
KH- It’s funny, we were just talking about this the other day. Dave Watts and I had played some local gigs and he put together a small band that included Michael Kang, who I didn’t know, on violin. Tye North was on bass. This is when I first came to town about 8 or 9 years ago. We played a gig at a coffeehouse and after that Mike said, “Why don’t you come over and sit in with us?” I didn’t have any time at that moment because I was on the road with my band Durt. But it turned out we opened for them and that’s when I was able to sit in because my gear was already there.
DB- You’re from the east, what led you to Boulder?
KH- I grew up in Baltimore and got a jazz piano degree out there. I moved out here because I had been working on the Colorado trail for a while and I thought it would be fun to move out here for the summer. I did come out for the summer but I never left.
DB- In the “Bon or Oo” section of the Bonnaroo Beacon I had asked you what you might have done if you weren’t a musician and you answered that you’d be a forest ranger. I didn’t realize that was something you had actively considered.
KH- There’s a good graduate jazz studies program at University of Northern Colorado. I was either going to go to school and continue my jazz studies or I was going to be a forest ranger and neither happened.
DB- Since you come from a jazz background, I would imagine that one of the challenges when you first joined the band was the bluegrass tunes.
KH- One of the styles I was not versed in was bluegrass. That was and still is a great challenge for me. It’s moving so quickly, it’s a bit like bop. It’s challenging. I find it entertaining though to be challenged, to sit down and figure out what I can do over this blazing change.
DB- That’s an interesting analogy with bop. I hadn’t heard that before but it makes sense.
KH- The chop to it is very much like a fast swing. That’s how I’ve been approaching it. This piano player from Alison Krauss’s band was just talking about that with me.
DB- Since we’re talking about other keyboardists, can you talk about the experience of playing with Steve Winwood at Bonnaroo?
KH- It was great. The whole Bonnaroo experience was wonderful. The traffic jam getting in was pretty hellish but no one seemed to be out of control. Everyone was really aware of each other and being careful with what they were doing as far as treating people kindly and picking up after themselves. Of course the band line-up was incredible, I couldn’t see enough music. You’d sleep in and wake up and miss like ten bands.
Playing with Steve Winwood was kind of a last minute thing because our management potentially will be working with him, so he invited us to come over to his house outside of Nashville. He brought us over and there was tons of great food, a swimming pool and all the instruments were lined up, the B-3 and piano back-to-back. I met all his kids and hung out, it was a really neat experience. When we were at his house we were playing songs, trying to figure out what song he was going to play on. He really wanted to play on “Latinissmo,” but we also wanted one that he could sing. He started singing all these different tunes but “I’m A Man” is what he went for at the last moment. It was incredible and not just as a keyboard person but the fact that his personality was so wonderful. He and Bill Payne from Little Feat have really great personalities, they’re really nice guys. It’s such a big difference when you finally get to meet them and they’re nice you’re like, “Ahhhgreat.”
DB- The night before, you backed Keller during his late night set. Obviously he’s sat in with you over the years and you’ve recorded together but that was a long night of music, did you guys rehearse with him prior to the gig?
KH- We practiced in Boulder before we left. We did a couple days with him, worked up the tunes and recorded it so we all could hear and remember how it went. We did fifteen songs we already knew and eight songs we didn’t know. So we didn’t have to learn too many new tunes but it’s always fun playing with him. He’s good at directing us. Sometimes we’ll go off on a tangent and jam too much and he’s like, “Alright boys, reel it in.” He’ll direct us and make it more of a Keller show, which is great.
DB- In terms of inviting guests on stage with String Cheese, does that tend to happen spontaneously or do you typically set it up in advance?
KH- Both but a lot of times it’s done in advance. For instance Bruce Horsnby and Steve Winwood are done in advance.
DB- In other instances when you bring on guests for a song or two, will you work that out at soundcheck?
KH- No, usually because they’re doing their soundcheck. It usually happens when we’re doing a mid-winter festival which we do every year. They’ll do their opening set first and then they’ll meet us backstage and we have a whole separate rig set up so we take some time to make sure it’s going to sound okay. It’s a different vibe with people like Keller or Karl Denson, they can just jump up. But the people we’re less familiar with we want to take a little time to make it sound good.
DB- Aside from the musicians you’ve mentioned, what are some of your personal highlights in terms of guests?
KH- Del McCoury, it was great to really see how it’s done. Not only his set because his set was amazing but him sitting in us was really neat and he can direct the band really well too. Warren Haynes sat in with us a couple years ago and I also played with Warren on the Phil thing too. He’s a great vocalist and guitar player. We played with Bob Weir and that was a lot of fun. John Popper is someone who’s a great person to sit in and he played harmonica on a bluegrass tune which I was so psyched to hear. It kind of took him out of his element and put us in a new space. It was cool to play with Angelique Kidjo, someone we don’t normally play with and the audience doesn’t really know. It was also fun to play with Michelle Shocked. Whenever we can bring in a new element to what we do, that’s exciting to me.
DB- How did the Michelle Shocked appearance come about? If I recall correctly, she didn’t open for you that night.
KH- It was 4th of July. She was in town playing in Boulder and drove up to see us. She was a fan of the band and I was really honored. She came backstage between sets and we played a song backstage and she came and sang with us just out of the blue [Editor’s note: Shocked added vocals to “Blackberry Blossom”].
DB- What about Tenacious D? Had you worked out in advance that Jack Black would sing on “Tom Sawyer”?
KH- What happened was we were backstage and Jack Black said he didn’t know any of our songs. So we told him, “We do this Rush tune,” and he said, “I know that one.” So he started singing with us backstage and didn’t know any of the lyrics [Laughs]. So we went out, did our set, came back and said, “Are you ready, do you have the lyrics?” And he said, “I can pull it off,” and it was an adventure but it was a lot of fun. We were like. “Oh my God, hold on, hopefully he’ll follow us.” When he sang the line, “Catch the spirit, the catch the spit,” he spit into the air and caught it with his hand. He was like, “Did you guys see that, that was so cool.” But he pulled it off really well. Just meeting him was a trip too.
DB- Jumping back to your Winter Carnival tour, you ended it with a performance outside at the Telluride Ski Resort. Was that a big physical challenge? What was the weather like that day?
KH- Colorado is known for having wonderfully sunny days so it was in the 50’s or low 60’s. It wasn’t that bad. Also, we had just skied into the gig. We started up top because Warren Miller was shooting a film on us. I’m not a huge skier and the rest of the band members are great skiers so I’m in it somewhat but they only shoot my skiing scenes from the waist up. Of course they have Billy jumping off giant cliffs. So we skied down because Warren Miller wanted to catch us skiing into the gig. We skied to the stage, took off our boots and went on.
DB- Let’s talk about the band’s, On The Road series. Was the decision to go ahead with that a long and protracted one or was it a no brainer for you guys?
KH- It was certainly not a no-brainer. It was more of a management idea at first and then the band slowly came around. To me, it’s such a personal thing. When you put out an album you want to put out your best work but there’s some okay stuff and even some mediocre stuff on there. Eventually we said “A lot of it is already out there, the tapers have it in circulation.” But then we said, “Wait, but now we’re actually selling it.” It took a while, We did eventually come to the conclusion that we’d give it a shot for the spring tour and the response was really good.
DB- And it’s going to continue?
KH- I would assume it’s going to continue. I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t but it’s still on a trial basis. I’m not sure management would agree with that or not (Laughs)
DB- To what extent do you guys go back and listen to older shows?
KH- We try to get one or two full shows to listen to as a band a tour to criticize and say, “This is working, this isn’t quite working.” It’s more of a learning tool for us.
DB- When you came on our radio show the other week you mentioned that the Ryman Auditorium show [4/18/02] was probably your favorite from the spring OTR series.
KH- I like the Ryman, it was a great room. It also had one of my favorite moments. There was a really good “BAM!” that day because we got the audience involved. I felt the band was really hitting the groove from that show through the next three shows.
DB- How do you define a great show?
KH- First of all if the band is grooving in a way that’s danceable- if the rhythm section, the bass and drums are connected and all the parts are locked really well. Then once you get to that level which is more often than not, there’s that’s second level where you start thinking of what the other person will play before he starts playing it. You’ll move to a groove right when someone else is thinking it, a kind of ESP thing. Above that if we’re all being really musical and have really good melodic ideas. When they all come together, for me that’s a great show.
DB- To your mind how often do you guys hit it like that?
KH- I’d say we hit it 47 percent of the time. That’s when we absolutely hit in and all three factors are coming in. But other nights there can be pieces of any one of those three. There can be really melodic nights without much groove or really groovy nights without much melodic stuff going on. So when all three come together that is more rare.
DB- Do you find that the percentage continues to get higher?
KH- Yes, I think the band’s gotten better and I think my perspective of what is good has changed. My bar has gotten higher as well for sure.
DB- On the radio show [Jam Nation] you also mentioned that recently you have been writing on guitar. How long have you been doing that and what has the impact been?
KH- About eight months. It allows for different chord structures, different rhythms I wouldn’t normally play, different progressions. When you’ve played the piano for so long you kind of sit down and automatically play something your brain knows how to play. With the guitar I have to force myself to think of things differently. I actually wrote a tune recently that I sent to Michelle Shocked. I don’t know if she’ll have a chance to look at it but I wrote it on guitar and sent her the music.
DB- Have any of those songs come out with String Cheese yet?
KH- Nothing’s come out, it’s been home studio stuff.
DB- What about at the show you just played with Dave Watts and Ross Martin as Remarkable Elba Kramer? Did you play any of the new stuff that night?
KH- Yeah we did one of my new tunes “Public Crusade.”
DB- Do you think we’ll see some of the others on the SCI fall tour?
KH- We’re definitely going to have some new tunes for this tour, we’re super excited. I’ve been writing some other tunes on piano, and organ and clav so we’ll bring out some of those. But everybody’s been writing. And Travis’s first song is coming to the forefront, so we’re getting psyched.
DB- In terms of your own songs, do you have a favorite that you play with String Cheese? Or one that you’re most proud of?
KH- I would have to say “BAM!” I was going on this Mike Clark tour with members of the Headhunters and I wrote it for that funkier Herbie, Headhunters kind of vibe. I wrote it for that Mike Clark tour but I never got to play it and I brought it into the Cheese. I did so much rehearsing for that gig that it was fun to apply it and put it into the song. It’s fun to play and it opens my ears to play outside of traditional chord changes.
DB- You’ve told me that you’ve been listening to the OTR shows because you’re closing in on pre-production for the next String Cheese album. What sort of approach or philosophy do you guys have going in?
KH- The philosophy is being created day by day. One of things I think is important is to bring a live feel to the album. I want it to be connected, to feel like a live show would. So it’s still up in the air because we could get into the studio and realize we’ve bit off too much. But some of the thoughts are to connect songs with snippets of melodies or maybe live show jams or with spoken word, different things to make it a full piece. That’s what we have going into it but we’re going to come out with something different I’m sure.
DB- And you’ll work with an outside producer once again?
KH- Yes, we’re getting closer but we don’t know exactly who.
DB- What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of your last studio album?
KH- One of the strengths I hope to bring into the new project is to make a warm-sounding record. Steve Berlin did a great job of capturing the sound of the instruments. Around the Wheel was way too digital. But on Outside Inside Steve was into making everything super analog and catching us live. The first song on the album is the first take, first day. In my opinion there’s tons of mess-ups all over it but he went with the one with the best feel and that’s what I want to apply to our new album. It’s also very segmented though and I want this one to be more connected
DB- In terms of that dichotomy between say feel and precision, I heard you were reading Effortless Mastery a book that certainly comes down on the feel side. Have you taken much of that to heart?
KH- Yes, very much so. It’s a very Zen approach to playing music. There’s an exercise where you sit at the piano and just relax and play one note for twenty minutes. The person who recommended that to me was Bela Fleck. I think he’s a great melodic master so I asked him to recommend some books and that’s one. I spent some time with it and its definitely had some impact