Bill Nershi Works Through The Nots
In speaking with Bill Nershi, you get the impression that he maintains mixed feelings regarding String Cheese Incident’s new album, Untying the Not. With themes of conflict and trauma, the record has a drastically different tone than past projects, reflecting the events in the band members’ personal lives. The disc incorporates elements of trance and electronica as well as the traditional hooks of classic rock. It’s a direction that bodes well for future studio endeavors. While Nershi seems pleased with the path the band is on, he seems torn on certain aspects of the current sound.
For many, the mere mention of String Cheese has traditionally conjured up images of fairy wings and hula-hoops, but the band is no longer all smiles. "In the past we'd go la la la' and turn our heads the other way and choose not to dwell on it," says Nershi. "Now we're just being a little bit more honest about what's going on."
And there's a lot going on, from the band's much-publicized lawsuit with Ticketmaster to the ongoing On The Road series and a string of upcoming "International Incidents."
For additional band members’ perspectives on the new release pick up the latest issue of Relix
JW: Let’s talk about the new String Cheese Incident album. It’s definitely radically different from anything that anyone has heard from the band. Take us back to the initially planning stages and what you were trying to accomplish.
BN: We wanted to have something that had more flow to it than the album before, Outside and Inside, which was a group of songs that were all recorded separately and sounded very separate. We wanted something that had some kind of flow from beginning to end and things that could tie the beginning and the end together and make it feel more like one large piece than a series of separate songs. I think that Mike [Travis] has been into the electronica stuff and wanted to pursue that a little bit and we did to some degree, but stuck with our normal sound on a lot of the other cuts.
JW: How did Youth’s name come up? Were you narrowing down a list of potential producers?
BN: Yeah, we had a big list of producers that we met and talked to about the project and explained what we wanted to do. We talked to a few people and had some ideas of who we wanted to go with and towards the end of the whole process of selecting something, Kevin [Morris] from our record label, told us about this guy Youth who had done the Verve album and worked with a bunch of other big names, you know, Paul McCartney. He played the Verve album for us and it was pretty cool. We liked it and he was also the creator of the trance kind of movement in London. It's like techno, but not quite techno. So that appealed to some of the people that wanted to go a little bit more electronica. And then on the other hand, there were people in the band that said, We don't want to make a techno album.'
JW: Which camp did you fall into?
BN: laughs What do you think?
JW: I would assume you were not dying to make a techno record.
BN: No, I'm the guy that likes bluegrass.
JW: In retrospect, what are your thoughts on the album? Are you happy with the decision?
BN: Um, I like the album. We talked about it a lot and we didn't want to make a techno album. There were some people in the band that just wanted to incorporate some of that into the sound and then there were other people that didn't want it to go too far in that direction. You know, that's the thing with having five of us in the band. There's always kind of checks and balances of what's going on and it tends to keep us narrowed in on a focus that we all feel is gonna be good.
JW: What are the discussions like? It is as simple as taking a vote or is it more of a situation of compromise?
BN: Well we vote on some stuff, although it's kind of an odd thing laughs. It’s really a strange space to be in, being in a band that works in a democratic process. In a lot of ways, there’s one bandleader that’s dictating what the band is gonna do. It’s really helped the band stay on course and helped everybody that’s in the band feel involved all the time, knowing that everybody’s part of all the decision-making processes.
JW: You make your set lists in a pretty democratic way, right?
BN: Yeah. I still dream of the day when we don't have a set list at all.
JW: Haven’t you tried that a few times?
BN: We have done it. Although the shows can get a little sloppy here or there. I think that they're really fun and people have said that they really liked those shows where we did that.
JW: Back to the album. String Cheese Incident has a producing credit on your first few albums and then you had Steve Berlin on Outside Inside. How drastic of a difference is it having an outside producer like Youth or Steve Berlin versus the members of the band?
BN: When you have a producer, you're asked to do things differently than you usually do them. It can be irritating sometimes, but I think it's been a great learning process over the last couple of albums. We now understand there're different ways to approach music than the ones that we are entrenched in. You learn new tricks. You learn new things about your songs and the way you play them that could be improved, you know? One of the big things we learned was that we can play our songs much more simply, as far as less complicated parts and that can be a big help in the strength of the song.
JW: So is that something that has translated to the songwriting as well as the band’s improvisation in the live setting?
BN: Definitely. There are times when we're jamming where I realize I don't have to change my part every eight measures. I can just stick with something that is simple and let other people change and let that be the way the song evolves instead of all of us feeling like we need to change every eight measures or something. There's no cohesion to it that way. I think we've learned some great new tricks in the last couple of albums that are helping us on stage, for sure.
JW: That seems to be a trend across the board. A lot of musicians tend to simplify as they get older. When they’re young, they want to move their fingers as fast as they can and show off their chops, but then as the band matures collectively, the sound simplifies and the groove becomes the focus.
BN: Right and nothing really works if you don't have the groove going.
JW: String Cheese Incident has this reputation of being so happy and friendly, but with this album there was some conflict within the band, not only in your personal lives, but in working with Youth in the studio. Instead of keeping those issues private you explained them in the press materials that accompanied the CD. Why? Was it part of a new image you were going for?
BN: Well some of it is just honesty. We're not unlike other bands. There's conflict within the band. I think in the past we'd go la la la' and turn our heads the other way and choose not to dwell on it. Now we're just being a little bit more honest about what's going on. The project with Youth was probably the most tumultuous thing the band has ever done. There were some all-out screaming matches between Youth and band members.
JW: Did it make the band stronger in the long run?
BN: [long silence] Um, I think it pulled us together for sure. Not everybody in the band had trouble with Youth. It was kind of focused on a couple of the band members. I think we all feel good about the album and it did pull us together musically and emotionally.
JW: As far as the conflicts in the band members’ personal lives, was making the album therapeutic?
BN: Yeah definitely, but it doesn't change the fact that the five of us have very different lives now that we're not on the road all the time. We're developing those lives and going in our own directions more. When we were on the bus all the time as a band, that was our only life. Some of us have families. Some of us travel a lot. Lives are evolving within the band and it takes a lot more focus to get back together and play and write, then it used to.
JW: But do you also find that there’s some more inspiration? Some of the best art is drawn from tragedy. It’s unfortunate, but it seems that heartbreak makes for great music.
BN: Oh yeah, definitely. There's a lot going on now that we can draw from, as far as writing music. I'm gonna be getting together with Keith [Moseley] here in the next few days and we're gonna start writing some material. I've got a little recording program here that I've been doing some work with. I've been coming up with some chord progressions and writing down some lyrical ideas.
JW: How does that process work specifically – both with you and Keith as well as the software you’re using?
BN: I don't know. I'm just getting into it right now. I've been using Pro Tools and just getting some chord progressions down. Generally, we've always written songs on our own and brought them into the band and then arranged the music with the whole band. Sometimes we'll change some lyrical ideas if somebody comes up with a really good idea when we're learning the song. But there hasn't been a lot of co-writing in the band ever, in the initial step. That's what I think would be a great next step for our band. I think we can come up with some really great songs if we're actually writing them together from the beginning of the tune as opposed to bringing in a fully hatched song to the band.
JW: String Cheese has always been a band that seems to be very in touch with its fan base. In your experience, what has the reaction been to the new album?
BN: People generally only come up to you and say positive things about what's going on. I rarely have somebody come up and say, Hey, you're playing the electric guitar now and it really sucks,' [laughs] ya know? People don’t do that. But, I guess I’ve heard that some people are not too happy about the sound of the new album because it’s very different for us. It might not necessarily be the direction that they want us to go in, but my comment to that is, it’s not like we’re going in a certain direction and this album is the first step in that direction. We’re gonna do a lot of albums and they’re probably all gonna sound really different from each other. Every album you do, there’s a chance to learn new things and then incorporate those in to the way you feel and get some new ideas out there in your music and hopefully make it more interesting.
JW: Is it too early or have there already been seeds planted for a new album down the road?
BN: Yeah, we are talking about a new album. I think everybody really enjoyed the creative process of making the album. We've played so many live shows that going into the studio is something that is still new to us. It's fresh to us. I think it's the area that we really wanna spend a lot of time in. We've tossed around some different ideas about the next album.
JW: Will it be as radically different?
BN: More radically different [laughs]. One of the ideas – and this is certainly not the only idea – is to do an acoustic album. We’ve tossed around the idea of making an album on a river trip at the Grand Canyon.
JW: Actually recording the music on the river trip?
BN: Yeah, there're some great natural amphitheaters and canyons that would be amazing places to record. That's just one idea though. We're not sure what we're gonna do.
JW: So you compromised on the techno stuff and now you’ll get your acoustic album. It all works out.
BN: That's the theory [laughs]. We’ll see if it flies.
JW: When was the first time you heard about the Ticketmaster lawsuit and what were the initial discussions like within the band?
BN: Well that's [manager Mike] Luba and Jason Mastrine and the rest of our management and ticketing company being squeezed by Ticketmaster and getting really tired of it. They're running a ticketing company and with our businesses, these days [the band members] keep a pulse on them, but we try not to be too involved. The goal was to get people that could run the business so that we could focus on music and other things. So Ticketmaster was eventually saying that we can't get any tickets at some shows unless we jump through some hoops they had created and then at that point, we could only get eight percent. We were saying, We've got a fully functional ticketing company and we're not being allowed to run it.' We're basically being shut out by Ticketmaster's monopoly on the ticketing business and that's not the way businesses are supposed to be run in America, although that is becoming the norm: monopolies and corporations. The big Wal-Marts are squeezing out every other company. It affects everybody, all the way down to the bands like us.
JW: Ticketmaster is owned by Clear Channel, which has recently launched its Instant Live program. It’s a similar concept to your own On The Road series.
BN: Oh really? I'm not familiar with [Instant Live]. Tell me about it.
JW: It’s the same as the On The Road series or what Pearl Jam began doing, except fans can purchase a recording of a given show and then walk out of the venue that night with the CDs in hand.
BN: Well [On The Road] has pros and cons for sure. The one thing about it is, if a record store buys a whole tour from us, there are gonna be shows that the fans want more than the other shows. So you end up having twenty different CDs and you have to put them somewhere in the store. It's not like you have one CD that you have five different copies of and people just buy the one CD. You have to have it so people have access to all these different CDs and I think it can clog up the record stores. So I think that we're gonna work on zeroing in on a few select shows that we feel are the best highlights of the tour.
JW: Now that the band is playing fewer tour dates, what’s the psychological difference having a few weeks off and then hitting the stage with your batteries recharged? Is it a refreshing feeling to have that time apart from the band?
BN: Yeah, definitely. I don't mind touring a lot although I have my family, you know? Within reason, I like touring and I like when we play more because I feel like we get in a certain zone and we can get a series of shows in a row where we really start tuning in with each other. I find that when we don't play a lot, it takes us a couple of gigs to get into it. On the other hand, we're still playing a lot and we're gonna be playing a lot of shows out of the country this year. We're gonna be playing in Japan and in Europe. That's one of the reasons we toured in December because in the spring we're going to be traveling abroad.
JW: As the band continues to evolve in the live setting, how do you view the current state of your improvisation?
BN: Well, let me think about that for a second…[long silence]. I think we’re incorporating some new ideas in our jams. I feel that we’re going through a phase where there’s this kind of techno thing going on [laughs]. I think that it’s just because it’s a new trick that we’re trying, so it’s getting used a lot right now. We’ll use it for a while and take the best ideas from it and keep them. I think that we’re also trying to really focus on making the jams compositional like a piece of music, not just a chord progression played over and over again.
JW: Like spontaneous composition.
BN: Right. That's the goal. I don't know how we're doing. That's for listeners to decide. I know what our goals are and what we think about. My goal is to keep melodies in the jams so that it's not just an idea played over and over and over again, but something that sounds like a written piece of music.