Circles, Samples and Stealthiness with Kyle Hollingsworth
It's been almost two decades since Kyle Hollingsworth released his solo debut but he’s finally issued his follow up with Never Odd or Even (well okay, as you'll see, that initial four-track recording had a VERY limited release). Hollingsworth talks a bit about these endeavors in the following interview which took place shortly before he traveled east for the String Cheese Incident's three night New Year's Eve run. From there he's off on Jam Cruise with his own band, which will then perform a few shows in March followed by a full tour in April. Meanwhile he's busy working on that new String Cheese Incident disc and that group also will be on the road in early 2005. Read on, you'll also discover some trespassing tips along with details on the book he really ought to write…
DB- Before we talk about your new disc, many of our readers would flog me if I forget to ask for a brief update on the next String Cheese album.
KH- I'm deep in that world right now. We're working with Malcolm Burn, a producer who has worked with Emmylou Harris and other people. He's a prot of Danny Lanois. We were looking for more of a Workingman’s Dead-style album.
Working with a producer the first couple weeks you're just trying to find out what personality he has compared to your personality and how much of his personality he wants on the album. So the process has been feeling each other out. It's tricky because you have to make sure his ideas are something you can agree with because ultimately our fans will not looking at it as a Malcolm Burn album but as a String Cheese album. There's that question: how much you step in and how much you give in The process is always challenging with every new producer you get. He does a few things I'm not sure if I like yet. He's not really big into stereo. He mic's everything in a real mono sense and then puts things left and right, not one instrument is both so it's going to be a very different album. The last album was very lush with lots of stereo and imaging. This is going to be more mono straight down the center.
DB- How far along are you in the process?
KH- We're hoping to finish the main part of the tracking and then we'll start overdubs at the beginning of the new year.
DB- What material are you drawing on? Songs that you haven’t played out yet? Older tunes?
KH- It's a lot of new stuff that we've been meaning to get together in rehearsals and play out but we never did. Three or four are older tunes that we've been playing a little recently but there's nothing that's old old school.
DB- Fair enough. Okay, on to Never Odd Or Even.
KH- Which is a palindrome.
DB- Indeed. Which actually leads me to ask- were you temped to structure the entire album or even any particular song as a palindrome?
KH- I did start and finish the album with the same song but that's the best I could do (laughs) I wanted that so if you have it in a disc player it will be continuous, so in some sense it's circular.
Bela Fleck did that once with UFO Tufo. I couldn't get around to doing it. There are three songs in the middle of the album that are connected by music and by the theme of electricity: "Gigawatt," "The Arc," and "Ohms." So they're connected that way but I couldn't come up with a palindrome that makes sense for all three of them.
DB- Is there any broader thematic thread that links the disc?
KH- I tried to make the songs flow just by having segues. I wouldn't say there's a thematic thread other than there are similar tones I got from the guitars and the drums.
DB- How long did that process take?
KH- I started in January and I did basics for about three weeks and I spent the rest the year in my basement on Pro Tools cutting and pasting. The whole process took about ten months. After we worked with Youth and Steve Berlin I said, "I want to be a producer, I can do this." And then when it came to my turn I realized there's so much do and it's so much more challenging that I expected it to be.
DB- Did you perform those basic tracks together live or did you bring in the individual musicians and then assemble it?
KH- We all performed live in a studio down in Denver and then I did a lot of arrangements. On "The Preacher" and "The Revolution" I had to decide how long I wanted it to be so it was more of cutting, taking eighteen minutes down to four and half.
DB- How much room did you allow for improvisation in that setting?
KH- I did a few shows prior to recording here in town. We played the album live as much as we could and we improvised on that. Then we brought some of those ideas into the studio. As a producer I was allowing room for that and I was also pulling in the reins. We have a limited amount of time let's do it this way, making those tough decisions.
DB- One thing that surprised me about the disc and I’m not sure why I had this expectation but I had anticipated there would be much more piano on it, maybe even some solo piano?
KH- I'm sure my family was thinking it would be Kyle's jazz album and my neighbors probably thought that too. But I just never envisioned it as a piano album. I never really was on that level because one of my favorite albums of all my time is Brian Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts which kind of inspired "The Preacher" track and some of the instrumentals that have overlapping words. "The Bridge" I wrote in high school and "The Revolution" I wrote in college. I was going through my old four-track player in my basement picking out songs that would work well. There's one or two songs that have piano on it but that's something that'll have to wait for the next album (laughs)
DB- How did you approach those older songs, I would assume your approach has grown a bit more sophisticated since then.
KH- I worked from the four track and revamped them. I had Ross (Martin) help me on a couple of tunes. Ross is a great composer.
DB- "Boo Boos Pik-a-nik" is a variation of one of his songs. How did that come about?
KH- There's a Ross tune "Yogi's Day Out" and it has similar chords. I wrote the song not thinking it sounded like anything I knew and then I did a gig with Ross and realized it was similar. So I thought I would give an homage to him with "Boo Boos Pik-a-nik."
DB- As regards your approach to songwriting on this disc, and in particular the jazz//funk songs, what was the balance you sought to strike between working within a tradition and striving to create something new?
KH- That's the thing, what do you do? Do you strive for something new or be yourself. Obviously when I write a song called "The Crusade" it's an homage to the Crusaders. The fact that I have more of a trip-hop beat or DJ beat at the beginning had some amount of interest to me but more the fact that I'm writing what makes sense and I'm not necessarily trying to bring something new to the genre.
DB- Another sweeping one: is the album that you think you would have made if you never had joined String cheese Incident?
KH- That was the interesting thing. Some people said they could see Youth's influences but I had always wanted to do an album combined with musical bits and kind of Floydian in the way they connect. That's something I've always wanted to do and that harkens back to my listening to Mike Oldfield and some other things where there's a lot of segues. I had a first little tape I made when I was 18 and there are definitely some similarities to it..
DB- Does that circulate?
KH- No, there's one in circulation.
DB- Some of the songs on Never Odd Or Even you’ve been playing out with String Cheese Incident. What led you to record those?
KH- I wanted to put more Kyle into it. More of what I envisioned like with "Don't Say," and with "Bam!" I wanted to do more of a DJ trip hop version of it. "Seventh Step" is pretty much the way we play it. I think I just wanted to bring more of myself into the compositions.
DB- When you bring a songs to the band how fully-formed are they?
KH- For the most part they are the way I want to do them. We all bring in compositions in different ways. I tend to bring them more closely done than others and I think there are some faults in that as well. Sometimes you're missing out on the creative energy of everybody else. In many respects "Don't Say" has been crafted by String Cheese.
DB- Speaking of "Don’t Say," it’s your one vocal track on the disc. Did you have any reservations about that relative to the flow of the disc?
KH- Yes, we recorded it not knowing if it would work or not. It came down to sequencing. The first reason we recorded it was because we never recorded it the way I wanted to in the String Cheese world. We did a live recording of it and String Cheese does it really well but I always envisioned more of Ben Harper-style groove with the djembe to start it out and then kind of that funk thing. Then I thought, "This, is the only vocal tune, is it going to work?" But I went for it and I put it in this location where you went on his journey from "Gigawatt" the electronic thing to this section where these kids are talking and then I figured it might work there.
The kids, by the way, were recorded at a museum in Scotland. They were looking at giant dinosaurs and I followed them around with my mini-disc player. If you listen closely you can hear them with their really thick accents talking about the dinosaurs- "Look at the giant teeth." Now that I think about it, the first Seal album that was another inspiration. At the end of the last track there's this guy talking over the background and there's this really cool vibe.
DB- "The Bridge" has another bit of audio archeology on it. How did that one come about?
KH- I was watching television, just saying to myself, "This is really great." It was a couple days before we went into the studio, so I grabbed my mini-disc player. Then I brought it in and had everyone play along to the preacher in their heads. I kind of directed them a bit in terms of this is where we need to get big and then down and then big…That was another song that was eighteen minutes long and I cut it down to the most important things.
There's a killer sample of this children's show from Japan that I also wanted to use the middle of "Bam!" or something. What I do live is this John Cage thing where I've been looping live radio instead of getting a perfectly clean sample weeks in advance and playing right when I want it. I have a radio on stage and I sample at that moment in time. So whatever's happening is also on stage with us as we're improvising. I do that with String Cheese sometimes and I do it with my band. On the album, I do it on "Bam!" That was happening when we were cutting the track. "Hold you breath until you turn purple," is what she said (Laughs) It's totally random I didn't plan it.DB- You mentioned My Life in the Bush of Ghosts a few minutes ago as being an important album. You also list that Oscar Peterson as one of your influences…
KH- I have jazz piano degree from Towson State back in Baltimore and I was turned onto him there. Someone in the dorm room had a live disc where he was playing all the left hand bass lines. The bass player had dropped out and I was like, "Man, that's a kicking bass line, I have to figure out who this bass player is." Of course there was no bass player. I was studying stride piano at the time and I've been checking out ever since. He's one of the influences Keith Jarrett and Herbie's in there too.
DB- What do you think is the nexus between the two of them, if there is one? To what extent do you think they’re complementary?
KH- I would say they were bopth making music that was existing in the moment. It wasn't so formulated.
DB- Final question. I remember reading that on String Cheese tour you used to borrow practice rooms at local universities. Can you talk a bit about that?
KH- (Laughs) Yes I'm a little obsessive about practicing. Before we had backstage pianos I would sneak off to universities and a lot of times the practice rooms are locked so I would figure out the combination by watching people in the bushes. Or I'd stand by the door and say, "Hold on, I'm coming in." I'd get my college gear, my baseball cap and I'd put on my backpack. It became a fun thing, ever university I had a different way of sneaking in. I feel I should write a book about it. "How to Sneak into the Ten Best Universities and Use Their Pianos."