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Published: 2005/12/21
by Dean Budnick

A Conversation with Readers Question The String Cheese Incident Keyboardist

The reader interview is back, just in time to catch Kyle Hollingsworth before he returns to the stage with the String Cheese Incident. The group will close out the year with three shows: a benefit at the Boulder Theater on December 21, followed by its Sea of Dreams event on December 30 and 31 at the Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco. The following conversation touches on the group’s thematic shows, its recent propensity for techno and the health status of the keyboard player’s wrist.

As we began, Hollingsworth was saying goodbye to house guest and fellow band member Jason Hann. Hollingsworth explains that Hann is staying at his house, as the band begins rehearsals, a week prior to its Boulder Theater show.

Since you mentioned that Jason is staying out there, let’s start with a question that a few people asked, “How much does String Cheese typically rehearse prior to a given tour?”

KH- We try to give ourselves at least two weeks. We are so involved in the business that sometimes rehearsal days turn into business days so we try to give ourselves two weeks or more. Then we’ll set aside a few hours at the end to talk about ticketing companies, the record company and all that.

A few people were interested in that topic as well. Can you talk a bit about the challenge in striking a balance between the business and the musical side of String Cheese.

KH- It is a constant challenge to keep that balance. We want to tip it as much as possible towards the music. We try to juggle it but it can be overwhelming because we decided to do so many things independently. As you know, we have a travel company, a ticketing company, a record company. So when we get together we try to rehearse for a significant amount of time and then say, “Okay, we’re going to spend just two hours talking about business and then we’re going to move on.”

“To what extent are you insulated from all the day to day aspects of running those endeavors and to what extent is the band hands on?”(Question submitted by Rob N.)

KH- We’re kind of coming to terms with that right now. After all these years, we’re starting to realize that some of us might be stronger in certain areas. Billy’s really psyched to work with merchandise, so he’s kind of the merchandise guy. I’m going to work in ticketing and each of us is taking little parts in the bigger picture.

“Your New Year’s Eve show this year is called the Sea of Dreams. Typically, how involved are the band members in contributing to the mythic elements of such a night?” (Kim S.)

KH- Every year we try to get involved with what’s going on, whether it’s Horning’s Hideout, Halloween or some other big show. This time around Michael Kang and Travis were more involved with the Burning Man side of this event. I’d say they’re half of what’s going on this year and parts of it also are done with John Dwork who has worked with us on the past ones. So for this particular one, Kang got the ball rolling but any time there’s any major theme issues, we’re all involved.

“What has been your favorite moment from the previous big theme shows?” (_Lisa D._)

KH- Working with John Dwork has a lot of great moments. Horning’s is at the top of my list every year. A summer ago, that was an amazing one to me. But I think my favorite all time John Dwork experience was the Halloween we did in Hollywood, California [2002]. We were a tribute band to dead rock stars. Rod Roddy came out and introduced us and I got to be Kurt Cobain for a song, Travis was Freddie Mercury from Queen, it was great.

“Is there going to be another Horning’s Hideout?” (_Brian G._)

KH- I think it’s too soon to say but we’re crossing all our fingers and toes.

“What was the greatest show-related idea you guys have come up with that for whatever reason just didn’t happen?” (_Stuart R._)

KH- One instance where something great could have happened but didn’t, was we were playing a pool party at High Sierra. This is many, many years ago and at the end someone said, “Hey, why don’t you take off your clothes and jump in the pool?” Keith and I didn’t but the other three did. And I can’t speak for Keith but to this day I’m still regretting that I didn’t go for it. That could have been a full-on naked Incident but it just didn’t happen

Switching it up to a bit more serious topic, a number of people sent in questions regarding your wrist. Is it true that you are suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome?

KH- I do have occasional wrist issues but they haven’t defined it as carpal tunnel. No one can really figure out what it is. I’m just being kind of a wimp (laughs).

I’m a obsessive practicer, I practice all the time and I think many years of that may be catching up to me as I’m getting older. It can be uncomfortable when I practice two or three hours in a day and then do a four hour show. So I can manage it.

This leads into another one, “What is your usual practice routine? (_Grant H._)

KH- I went for school for jazz piano and ever since then I’ve been keeping a small diary of what I practice daily. I generally start with scale work, work my way playing through some songs and then end up playing a piece or two, whether it’s classical or jazz. That’s generally the regimen for two or three hours. Every day I’ll write down what cool piece I worked on or some cool lines I figured out. So I have this book that goes back many, many years.

How often do you practice?

KH- With my wrist I’ve been trying to ease up a bit. Probably five times a week.

Again on a related topic, “I am a musician myself and I wonder if you could share your thoughts on your music school education. Did you find it stifling? Much of your music relies on improvisation which seems to run contrary to formal education” (_James G._)

KH- Well I studied jazz so improvisation is a big part of that. I think I understand what that person is getting at, though. Sometimes there is a lot of competition in school music programs. My program was smaller so it was able to focus more on creativity and less on competition, so I was able to go that route. In fact, they just brought me back.

I was going to ask about that. You performed a solo set on piano?

KH- It was crazy, it was fun. They had a grand piano and took me back to where I did my piano recital when I was twenty-one. They put me back in the room with David Dye [Host of World Cafand it went pretty well. It was very nice. I was very nervous.

And then at night you performed with your old band Black Friday?

KH- I’ve been in about twenty-five bands in my life and that was one of the bigger of the twenty-five. When I was starting out in Baltimore, people had big wedding bands you could join and a lot of music students did that. But I never went the route of what I would call selling out. I always followed my heart and stayed with original music. At that time all the music guys would say, “Why are you in this band Black Friday? It’s a rock band.” And I said, “No, this feels right and it’s what I want to be doing.”

How did the Black Friday reunion come about?

I contacted them when I was about to fly back there. They still play occasionally. When I called them up, they hadn’t played in six months but I relearned all the songs, charted them out and went on stage with them. The main thing was it was fun because I hadn’t seen my friends in a long time

Many people wanted to hear about String Cheese Incident’s tour plans for 2006. How are they shaping up?

KH- We’re going to take one set of shows off. We usually do something that we call the Mid-winter Carnival and we decided this year not to do that. Normally we’d be doing that and then start a late spring/summer tour. So we’re skipping that run and starting in the summer, probably June. We’ll have January to June off and then probably be pretty aggressive through the year. It will probably end up being only about eight less shows than last year.

What will you be up to during the first half of the year?

KH- I will be doing multiple projects. I’m trying to do something with my solo band. I also hope to do something with Anders Osborne, maybe do some writing with him.

Here’s a question that people expressed in different ways: “When did you start playing the notes on the piano with your mouth. Is that something you have always done? (_Nick_)

KH- It’s a bad habit. I’ve been told by my piano teachers that what comes out of my mouth doesn’t even necessarily match what I’m playing on the piano. [Laughs]

Actually, yesterday I was getting ready for Jam Cruise with my band. While I was playing, I started singing into the microphone and I realized, “You’re right, it doesn’t really match.” (Laughs) It kind of does. I think it’s more the Keith Jarrett thing where the emotion of what you’re playing comes out versus the actual notes.

“Are there any plans to involve a grand piano in your arsenal in the coming years?” (_Ryan V._)

KH- Not as of yet although it’s a good idea. Other people seem to do it and it is definitely possible to do but it’s a challenge to carry such a huge acoustic instrument on the road. I’ve been talking to Joel from Umphrey’s and I think he’s looking into doing it. I find that sometimes in a rock and roll setting, getting the tone is difficult. There’s feedback and when you bang on it, it gets this odd quality because the drums are bleeding through. So it seems easier just to have an electric piano. Plus, I would never want to put Mom through that [Laughs]. Mom is my keyboard tech, I wouldn’t want to make Mom carry the piano.

“Who was responsible for String Cheese Incident’s morph into a jam/techno band?” (_Erich S._)

KH-I think Kang and Travis more so. We’ve all been enjoying moments of it.

A related one, “Do you expect that the band will continue with the trance and techno jams or more back towards bluegrass?” (_Kim J._)

KH- It’s an ebb and flow of different styles of music. I’m sure we will morph between many different styles, including styles yet to be brought out in the upcoming years

“What is one thing or the next thing that you wish the band would do collectively?” (_Warren R._)

WH- I think listening more to each other is always a goal. That’s what I’m striving for.

What has Jason Hann brought to the group (Question submitted by many)

KH- He’s filled out the sound. We’re able to do more World Beat now. Not that we didn’t do World Beat prior but now it sounds more legitimate to me. He’s also added a great energy on stage, great energy for the audience. He just has a great personality.

“What have you been listening to lately and what do you hope to bring to the band in 2006?” (_Steven G._)

KH- I’ve been listening to a lot of stuff. I’ve been discovering some older music from Mike Oldfield to the Beatles. I have a Beatles songbook.

I think what I would like to bring is better songwriting, better song crafting. We all have new material and I think we’re all getting better as songwriters. That’s not to say we don’t have well-crafted songs now but that’s something we all can get better at. Also, better vocals. I’ve been taking vocal lessons so hopefully we’ll get better doing some harmonies.

Will any of those new songs appear during these upcoming shows?

KH- We may pull off some from our new CD that we haven’t performed yet. I bet there will be some new live songs from One Step Closer. I’m not sure if anything brand new will come out, though.

“Why have you moved around the stage set up? How is stage left different from stage right?” (_Chris S._)

KH- I think we are enjoying different views of the stage. I think we’re feeding off different members of String Cheese. It’s more of a personal energy thing. I like being near Jason. Plus, I feel that my rig is so big and Kang’s rig is kind of big and when we’re both on the same side of the stage, it feel heavy. I think the current way evens it out.

“What are your favorite SCI and non-SCI songs to play?” (_Brian G._)

KH- I’m having a lot of fun with Kang’s new song, “Give Me The Love.” It kind of reminds me of a Peter Gabriel-type song. For non-originals, I had fun playing “The Chicken.” We broke it out like once or twice on tour and we hadn’t played it in years. That was so much fun.

“When the band writes a setlist, how conscious are you of which songs you haven’t played recently?” (_Devon H._)

KH- We’re very conscious of playing all the odd songs that don’t make it on the big setlists but are still really well-written songs. Our summer tour was challenging because we only had an hour and a half each night so we had to limit ourselves. The fall tour was great because we were able to let loose with some songs that we didn’t seem right for a big festival set but are great for an intimate setting.

You have a database that you draw on, right?

KH- Exactly, we’ll look at it and say, “We haven’t played Windy Mountain’ in a long while and it’s a great song, so let’s do that.” We also want to make sure everyone gets a chance to sing in the set. And we think about who gets a chance to have solo time, like an “MLT” for me, something for Kang, something for Billy. There are a lot of factors, an amazing amount of factors that go into a setlist. It’s definitely spontaneous once we get up there and anything can happen but we can be sticklers to get all those pieces together.

Speaking of this past summer, what were your personal highlights from the Big Summer Classic Tour?

KH- The beginning and the end. The end was when we did “Big Bottom” with most every band. Brendan from Umphreys was in a big sumo wrestler suit and jumped into the water, there was a moat around the stage [7/24/05- Ives Concert Park – Danbury, CT]. And the beginning of the tour when Kang jumped on Jason our percussion player and dislocated his shoulder. This was two gigs into the tour, so he was in a sling for the rest of the summer.

“Do you prefer to perform (as a member of SCI) in bars, theaters, or arenas?” (_Jeff T._)

KH- I’ll take B please. Bars are way too smoky, arenas seem a little too open and the sonic quality’s not very good. The theaters are very intimate yet they still feel like you’re playing a big show.

That’s definitely one of things we speak about when we should be rehearsing. Do you guys want to play one big night at say the UIC in Chicago or do you want to do two smaller nights somewhere else? And it seems like we always choose the smaller theater if we have a choice.

“After epic shows at the MSG theatre and Radio City, why have they abandoned Manhattan as a place for shows?” (_Erich S._)

KH- We were in New York City this summer with the Big Summer Classic and we came pretty close in the fall tour. Where we’re feeling the heat is from San Francisco. We haven’t been out there in months and months, like a year, probably. So that’s why we picked it as our destination for New Year’s. We love San Fran plus we hadn’t been out there in so long. So we have to get to them first and then we’ll be back to the East Coast.

Last one, what plans do you have for solo touring in 2006?

KH- Our drummer Travis is a little crazy. He loves touring constantly. He just came home yesterday and from June to now he’s been home like four days. I’m not even joking, he toured like a madman.

That is not my style as much. I plan on doing some touring in the East Coast in the late spring. It will either be with my band or maybe some other combination of good players.

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