Bill Nershi’s ‘Big Compromise’
At this point, The String Cheese Incident is an elder statesman in the jam-scene. Over a decade in its career, the Colorado-bred sextet has risen from its humble ski-bum beginnings to become a pillar in the improvisational community. In certain areas of the country, the group is arguably the scene’s largest draw—-while String Cheese Incident’s increasingly diverse management/publicity wing, Madison House, has achieved independent success. By all accounts, String Cheese Incident has lived out the rock-star dream: performing in arenas, jamming with its idols and spearheading its own traveling circus, the BIG Summer Classic. But, recently, the group seemed to lose track of its collective vision, breaking off into a number of side-projects in between full band tours and shifting its sound dramatically between albums. In an effort to return to its roots, String Cheese Incident took a cue from Workingman’s Dead and Music from the Big Pink on its latest studio effort, One Step Closer, offering a stripped down, acoustic collection of well-defined songs. Recruiting producer Malcolm Burn, storyteller Jim Lauderdale and a pair of former Grateful Dead lyricists, Robert Hunter and John Barlow, String Cheese surrounded itself with songwriters associated with the improv-music scene—-finding a balance between songcraft and spontaneity somewhere in between.
Below, String Cheese Incident's Bill Nershi talks with Jambands.com about the making of One Step Closer, the group's month-long BIG Summer Classic and why a comfortable bus is the key to String Cheese Incident's success.
MG- One Step Closer is a rather abrupt stylistic departure from Untying the Not, which seemed to push String Cheese Incident in a more electric direction. Who spearheaded this shift?
BN- Different members of the band have different aspects of String Cheese they like and different directions they'd like to see us lean towards. And, after some time, Keith [Moseley] and I were pushing for this kind of an album —-one which includes acoustic instrumentation. We were all interested in making something that was a little more about the songs and a little less grandiose.
MG- In order to help bring String Cheese back into the acoustic world you also recruited a number of songwriting collaborators. Can you talk a bit about your relationship with Jim Lauderdale?
BN- Yeah, Keith and I have been writing with Jim a bit and, I think, Jim and I have a good partnership. The two songs we've written—-"Big Compromise" and "Farther"—-kind of came together pretty easily. I like working with Jim—-he's got a million ideas—- his brain is flying a mile-a-minute all the time. Even when you stop working on a song and you're walking around talking about different things, he's got his little digital recorder. If you say something that's interesting, he'll stop and he'll get his recorder out. He'll sing the words of something you just said or something like "That's a good idea for a song, we're gonna work on that one next." So it's good working with him, because he's really in the groove songwriting-wise. His brain is just working like that all the time.
MG- How did you and Jim become first acquainted?
BN- Well, I saw him play at a festival and met him afterwards. That was probably four years ago or so. Keith and I met him and talked to him a bit and then a couple of years ago Kevin [Morris], who runs SCi-Fidelity, was kind of pushing us in the co-writing direction and brought up some names. One of the names he brought up was Jim Lauderdale, and I remembered meeting Jim, and I said "yeah, I'll spend a few days writing with him." He ended up coming out to Colorado, staying at my house and that's when we wrote "Big Compromise."
MG- Robert Hunter also contributed lyrics for a few songs on One Step Closer. How involved was he in group’s songwriting process?
BN- Here and there we'd heard rumors that he was interested in working with us and Kyle [Hollingsworth] got in touch with him. Kyle wrote the music and sent it to Robert Hunter. He listened to the music and then wrote words to it.
MG- Since the release of Untying the Not, you’ve personally expanded your arsenal to include a number of new instruments. Is there a specific sound you’ve been searching for?
BN- Well mainly I'm doing it to avoid boredom. It's fun to learn to play new instruments. Electric guitar was a result of Untying the Not. I played electric on that album—-it was really cool to play electric guitar again. I used to play electric in other bands, but not with String Cheese. But I had a really fun experience in the studio in California doing Untying the Not. So I decided to get together a little electric guitar rig and start playing that. Even though it's still a guitar, it's a whole different trip than playing acoustic guitar——getting your sounds and even just the playing of the instrument is different, subtlety, but definitely different. So that's been a challenge and I'm still working on that, trying to get my tone together. You know, it's tough when you start playing electric guitar —- you're not in the same ballpark as Warren Haynes or Garcia. I try not to get too intimated by that. So that's been good, and I've been playing a lot of slide; playing dobro and lap steel. My brother is building me a double-eight-string lap steel which actually is going to be like a table with legs. I'm working my way toward pedal steel.
MG- How has the addition of Jason Hann changed String Cheese Incident’s sound?
BN- About a year ago I was thinking it might be interesting to get a percussion player to free up Travis to really groove and to add those things that we need when we play Latin music or Afro-beat music. There are some styles of music in our repertoire that a hand drummer could really help bring to life. It's been something we thought about here and there over the years. We talked about it about a year ago and everybody seemed pretty into it. Travis said he would want to do that, but that he wanted to pick the percussion player himself. He had remembered Jason Hann from California, from the Zoo People, and got in touch with him. Jason was into it and that's how we started that relationship.
MG- When you began recording One Step Closer was Jason already fully integrated into the band?
BN- He was playing with us regularly at that point. He actually came into the studio and played some stuff in the studio, but our producer was getting a little bit too confused trying to deal with all six of us as at the same time. Jason ended up coming in and playing for a while, but he doesn't play on everything on the album.
MG- On One Step Closer you made a conscious decision to record material which wasn’t already part of your live set. How are these new songs adjusting to the concert setting?
BN- I'm finding that it's a little easier to make the songs on this album work in a live setting than it was on the last album. On Untying the Not, some of the songs, due to the recording process, were trickier to pull off live. This album was made a little bit more bare bones.
MG- Do you have a favorite song on the new album?
BN- I kind of don't look at it like that. I've been looking at the album as a group of songs, not too individually. I had a lot of fun playing "Brand New Start," which is just real laid back. It kind of sounds like Crazy Horse to me and I really enjoyed that. We'll see how much we play it live. I don't know, I don't know how much we will, but I do like that cut.
MG- Switching gears, where did the idea for String Cheese Incident’s BIG Summer Classic spring from?
BN- Well, we wanted to do festival-style shows this summer. Ultimately, I wanted to, and I think other people in the band wanted to do a series of campout shows like Horning's Hideout. It evolved a little bit away from that and into this traveling circus kind of thing. I think we're still managing to avoid the Clear Channel venues and I think that it's really important to do that. I don't think people want to go to the obvious sheds anymore to do that kind of thing. I think people are getting a little burnt out on thatthat atmosphere. The common fan understands that there's this company Clear Channel that's trying to monopolize the music market, and I don't think people want to see that happen.
MG- How involved were you in picking the bands on BIG Summer Classic?
BN- It's kind of an obvious choice of people who've worked with us a lot and are family to us now: Keller, and Michael Franti. It's also people that our management works with like New Monsoon, Umphrey's McGee, and Yonder. It's really kind of a group of bands that are family in a lot of ways—-the kind of shows they're playing, the way they're trying to play music, not big record label bands, but bands that can play a great live show, and I think it's going to be a really great group of bands.
MG- As one of the scene’s elder statement, what advice would you give an up-and-coming jamband?
BN- Well, I guess for me, it would be to make traveling comfortable. Most of what's going on in music right now is the live show and, if you want to make it playing music, you're going to be doing some touring. You need to can make it comfortable to be on the road. And it's really important to put the money you make back into the show. Control your sound and your lights, so that you can play a show in the same place other bands play, and your show sounds better and looks better than the band that was there the night before. We always did that. We always put our money back into sound and lights and our vehicle; we got our bus, and we had friends work on our bus and make it so we could all sleep on there and drive it around. There is always a way to buy a bus where it's not going to cost you an arm and a leg.
MG- At this point each member of String Cheese Incident is involved in at least one side-project. Do you feel these projects changed the band’s collective sound?
BN- Yeah, I think they do. I think they're helping in a variety of ways. They're definitely songs from Honkytonk Homeslice that I've brought in and that String Cheese will be playing this summer. Like "Heart of Saturday Night," which is a Tom Waits song that I made into double-time because it's a real slow song. But I double-timed it and made it into a bluegrass song. Then I played it for String Cheese and they said "oh, oh, wait a minute, if you do a Paul Simon beat to this thing it's a really good afro-beat song." So we do it that style with String Cheese. Then I wrote the Honkytonk Homeslice theme song, "I Fell in Love at the Honkytonk," and, just a couple days ago, we played that together and it sounded pretty good. I think we'll be playing that this summer. You know, that's one thing about the side projects—-you have to come with a bunch of new material and some of that spills back over into the band. The other thing is to be able to play. One of the reasons I started the side project was because there are songs that I don't get to play in String Cheese. I need to play that kind of music, because I have a good time playing it. So I have this side outlet where I can play like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris kind of stuff——bluegrass and things like that. Then when I go to the band, I feel like I'm OK with what has become "String Cheese" as an entity—-playing the kind of music that everybody in the band wants to play. Of course, I still have my input, which is part of the reason String Cheese sounds the way it does. But I don't feel like I have to go in there and push a certain kind of music, because I have that outlet somewhere else.
MG- Do you think these side projects have re-energized String Cheese Incident as a unit?
BN- Yeah, definitely. I think that they do energize us and we've also been getting together and talking—-talking turkey, talking about things, talking about earth, relationships, people, where our band has gone, where it is now, what we want from it and what we want to accomplish. All of these things we've been talking about a lot lately. Really being able to speak our minds to each other has been energizing more than anything else, because the last tour we went on, I had that old feeling like "oh yeah, things are firing on all cylinders again."
MG- What were some of the common themes running through your discussions?
BN- Well, one of the things that we talked about were these psychic walls that we build up here. Like, for instance, we know each other pretty well now, and I think that one of the things that we've learned to do is put limitations on each other and ourselves: I know what Mike [Kang] likes me to do and what he doesn't like me to do and vice versa. He knows that if he solos too long, I might get upset—-things like that. There's 100 of these things: "I don't want to do that because this person is going to get upset about that. This is what they want me to do, I'm going to just do my little role here, he wants to play rhythm right here like this." Little things, but what it ends up doing is it limits the band from potential of where the sound can go or where the music can go or where a jam could go. And it doesn't have that open-ended, anything-can-happen feeling that we used to have. So, what we talked about a lot was removing all the psychic walls and boundaries and letting people express themselves more the way they want to without giving them guilt-trips about this. That was one of the things that we talked about a lot, and I think that, that was really helpful. I felt a real difference in the music on the last tour, like "man this was the way we were playing in '97 or '98." We're trying to self-help ourselves so that we don't get to the point where we're like "to hell with it, we don't want to do this anymore." We want to be able to continue this and the only way to continue is to keep airing out all these interpersonal things and figure out where we want the band to go. Really, really think about all this stuff.
MG- In light of the cancellation of both Lollapalooza and Zooma, were you apprehensive about undertaking a multi-band tour?
BN- No. I don't know what makes it work or not, but we felt pretty confident that we were going to have a good summer—-I wasn't worried. Of course you can't worry cause if you worry about it from the time you do it, you shouldn't be doing it at all. You have to have confidence in it, and we did, and it looks like it's going to work out well.
MG- Are you planning on releasing portions of BIG Summer Classic in a similar fashion to the On the Road series?
BN- I don't know. I don't know about that, I'm not sure. It would be pretty cool to make a CD that's like the highlights of the tour and that could be very good, but I haven't talked to anyone about it. I'm not sure what's going on.
MG- Looking back, how successful was the One the Road series?
BN- I don't know, sometimes I think that the On the Road thing is keeping us from selling our other records. So, it’s hard to say whether we sold more records because we’ve done that. And sometimes there’s stuff on those _On the Roads_I mean we can’t play a perfect show every nightthat’s recorded for posterity that maybe shouldn’t be. I definitely have mixed feelings about the On the Road thing. It’s good to offer music up to people, but the jury is still out on, On the Road, whether it was a brilliant idea or a waste of time.