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Published: 2006/06/23
by Randy Ray

Far West to East with Kyle Hollingsworth

“Yet all shared in a common, spiritually infused missionto maintain a peaceful life on land while raising bloody havoc at sea.”In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick

“At times Thompson’s uncompromising perfectionism overwhelmed his editors. But it must be remembered that he was a self-made, rugged individualist living in the wilds of Colorado, thousands of miles from Madison Avenue.”Fear and Loathing in America, Hunter S. Thompson
excerpt from the Editor’s Note by Douglas Brinkley

The long and winding road of Colorado’s favorite sons, String Cheese Incident continues during a summer tour co-headlining venues with Bob Weir and RatDog. After last year’s Jammy Award winning BIG Summer Classic lineup and release of its new studio album, One Step Closer, the band still exhibits the warm welcome attributes of any tie-dyed-in-the-wool live music juggernaut: collaborations, community and a tour date lineup that includes stops ranging from Anchorage, Alaska to Japan’s Fuji Rock Festival. sits down with keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth to find out about U-shaped buildings, John Perry Barlow, big brothers, Railroad Earth and trains, the pros and cons of having all of your band’s live recordings available for public consumption, the unique combo of accordions and melodicas and the Almighty tweener and, inevitably, the esoteric state of the SCI mindset after a five month break from activity.

RR: Last year, Umphrey’s McGee keyboardist Joel Cummins told me that one of his BIG Summer Classic highlights was playing on pianos with you in a hotel.

KH: I think he sprained his ankle during the process. It was somewhere in the Midwest near the Great Lakes. We were biking on a day off or something, somewhere up there. We played two nights there so the first night after the show, there were two pianos completely opposite in one very large U-shaped building [at the hotel where the bands were staying]. We had to move one from one side to the other so we could jam together. The security guy came so we had to push that one back. That was a highlight for me, too.

RR: What did you playanything that you both knew?

KH: He’d pick a song and I’d pick a songsome jazz stuff or some fun rock tunes. My other fun moment with [Cummins] was an impromptu accordion and melodica duet. (laughs) It was at the last gig of the BIG Summer Classic. We were doing a tweener [the transition point at a festival-type gig when one band has ended their set and the next is setting up their gear on stage]. No one cared and we didn’t play very well. We went out in front and I played accordion, Joel played melodica and we did “Watermelon Man.” We did one more song and people kind of looked at us and said, “Who are these guys?” It didn’t sound very good.

RR: So, no plans for a duo tour next year?

KH: (laughs) No plans for a duo tour. That was fun. What I liked about that tour was that fact that there was a lot of communication and cooperation between band members. Getting to hang with everybody was great.

RR: That tour won a well-deserved Jammy Award and in all of my interviews with musicians that were involved, they unanimously saw it as a 2005 highlight. I was curious because SCI is known as a sort of big brother on the scene to younger bandsnot so much Big Brother in the Orwellian sense but a more supportive, experienced group of musiciansand it was an unusual tour even for your band.

KH: What was that movie that came out about the train and the traveling festival with the Grateful Dead?

RR: Festival Express.

KH: Exactly.

RR: Speaking ofSCI begins their tour with Bob Weir and RatDog at the end of June. John Perry Barlow was Weir’s longtime lyricist and has written lyrics for String Cheese. Is he continuing to work with the band?

KH: He does to some degree. We haven’t worked with him, recently. He did help us with one song on our last album One Step Closer. He’s really wrapped up in his world and doing his thing [Barlow is one of the leaders of the Internet revolution and a prolific and provocative blogger] but, we definitely feel like he is part of the family. It is great to have his energy around and, hopefully, we’ll see more of it this summer.

RR: String Cheese has two dates at Red Rocks over the 4th of July weekend.

KH: We’re very excited about that. That is kind of our annual local festival. We do something mid-winter here in Colorado but this is the other time of year we play here. It’s great to be on a beautiful stage, outside in Colorado on a summer evening. Keller [Williams] supports one night as well as RatDog and Taj Mahal the next night.

RR: You’ve played with Taj Mahal a few times before, if I recall

KH: We have. He played with us off-and-on over the last few years. The most recent time was on New Year’s 2005/06 out in San Francisco. Over the years, he sat in and he never had a full band. Maybe, two or three years ago, his full band played with us in San Francisco. He played before us or in the same room with us but, usually, it’s just him. It’ll be great to have his whole band back, again [at the Red Rocks gig].

RR: Right. I saw the Taj Mahal Band a couple of months ago and boy are they tight. They had to follow Mavis Staples and her banda tough spot on the bill!

KH: That is so odd because I found Mavis in a backwards sort of way. She was playing with an organ player at the Great American Music Hall [in San Francisco] when we first played there many, many years ago. It was just she and an organ player and she was doing gospel tunes. It was so great; I loved it. I got the CD and then, I started checking out the Staple Singers unrelatedI didn’t have any idea. I assume she was in it; I didn’t know. I heard it and I said, “That sounds a lot like that gospel singer.” I started going backwards from there and, ohmygosh, this is amazing. I love her work. I did a couple of solo shows here [Colorado] and I did a couple of Staple Singers songs“I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.”

RR: Like a lot of people, I first got into the Staple Singers through The Last Waltz.

KH: She was in The Last Waltz; that’s right! I need to see that, again.

RR: Their film appearance with The Band on “The Weight” is classic. Any guest collaborations at Red Rocks we can look forward to seeing?

KH: We are getting some friends of ours, the Panjea horns, to do some songs with us on the second night.

RR: That’ll be cool. Chris Berry’s band?

KH: Yes. Chris Berry and Panjea did five dates with us on our last tour. They know some of our music so we’re getting the horns to come out and do a couple of special songs with uscovers and originals.

RR: It may be obvious but why is Red Rocks such a special place for SCI?

KH: I think all of us saw that U2 video many years ago The Passion of the Bono aka Under A Blood Red Sky. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and he’s out there with the giant flag. (laughter) “One dayI’ll play on that stage!” (laughter) NoummmRed Rocks is so close to home. It represents what Colorado is about in my mind. The large structures of red granite are amazing. We love being outside and this is like the ultimate place where the stage, in some way, seems like it has been carved out of the stone.

RR: It’s also very similar to the Colorado experience in that there’s a bit of mountain climbing as one makes the trek into the venue. I practically needed my own Sherpa last time I went.

KH: Yes, that’s right. I just love it. It’s wonderful. When you live in Colorado, it’s the place to go see good live music.

RR: Any other dates that you are looking forward to on this summer tour?

KH: I’m more excited about the tour and, hopefully, getting to do some collaboration with Bob Weir and his band. He has a great band. We want to get a similar vibe going to what we did last year where we can do, maybe, a tweener with an accordion and a(laughter)

RR: And a melodica?

KH: (laughs) And a melodica. Something that will make it a little bit differentnot just one band following the other; somehow making some connection. As far as venues go, Alaska is going to be amazing. We’re going into Anchorage. Then we hit Japanthe Fuji Rock Festival. That should be great.

RR: String Cheese has played Japan before, right?

KH: One other time, yes. This time we have a better spot on the main stage.

RR: What was the reaction the first time you were over in the Far East?

KH: We had no idea what to expect when we got there. A lot of people got IT. There’s a whole underground culture, I’m sure as you know from speaking with other bands. They seemed to love it and were very appreciative.

RR: Getting back to interesting summer tour collaborations, I see that String Cheese is playing two dates with Railroad Earth on August 4 and 5.

KH: We have collaborated with them, before. The first time might have been somewhere in the Midwest but of course, last summer they were at Horning’s Hideout with us. We’ve been kind of honored by their presence over the last year or so, here and there. Sometimes, they just come and play a song or two like on the last tour. They have great musicians and great songwriters. I’m psyched to get to play with them, again.

RR: Railroad Earth is from New Jersey and, on face value, that state isn’t known for its rich folk and bluegrass tradition but when you dig deeper, it is.

KH: Exactly.

RR: I say that because all of the members of String Cheese emigrated from other states and made Colorado their home. How has that influenced your music?

KH: We were all drawn here. None of us are natives. (laughs) I think we are all drawn here for similar reasonsthe love of the outdoors, being active, skiing, biking and hiking in the woods. I think there is a magic to this place. I can’t answer for them but I know I was drawn to it because it had a huge sky and it felt like it was healthier out here, a little less stress than the East Coast vibe that I grew up on. How did this affect my music? How do I answer this? (long pause) I think the obvious answer is the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Colorado has a lot of impact on that and the Denver/Boulder scene as far as people driving down to go there. That actually affects the southern part of Colorado, too.

I really hadn’t experienced bluegrass before coming to Coloradothat brought a whole new world to me and the whole idea of the festival and being outside and enjoying music. I think that’s where we started going with our writing in some wayskind of being in this type of festival-style atmosphere as long as you’re danceable and you can hula hoop and see your favorite band in a smoke-free environment with the mountains all around you. I think that definitely affected all of our music. I have to say honestly that some of the grit comes from the fact that we grew up in different areas. It’s kind of neat to bring that into this open festival vibe and get the mixture of the two coasts into the Midwest.

RR: Let’s extrapolate from that Colorado base camp. From Far West to Easthow has the different regions you’ve traveled influenced your sound?

KH: New Orleans, for exampleI would have never gone there, as much if I had not been in String Cheese or a touring band. We go to all of these different places and we kind of take what we like from the sound and try to internalize it. I do, especially, when I go to a place. I’ll be effected by it and, before you know it, six months later, you’ve written a song and you say, “Oh, ?that’s where that came fromthat was probably that New York club that I went to or that Seattle club I went to and I saw that great band.”

RR: String Cheese Incident has a very tight and long-term bond with its fan base. Did you ever anticipate having this army of people following you around?

KH: (laughter) We knew that we were building a community many, many years ago where we would be very involved in helping our fans. When I first joined the band, I thought, “WOW, the band is really fostering this community.” I think it was definitely a mindful decision; there was definitely a thought process of String Cheese trying to build that community. We all came from the Grateful Dead and Phish fan base so we kind of knew how strong it could be.

RR: String Cheese was one of the first bands that were releasing every show via their On the Road series. How artistically successful has that venture been for the band?

KH: (laughs) The endless series of live recordings. We definitely let it all hang out. We listened to an OTR the other day because we’re in the middle of rehearsals, right now. Some of the stuff that we are putting out there is definitely not our best stuff. We made the decision that we know if we do this, we’ll have to release everything. It was very difficult for some of us to know that we weren’t going to be able to pick out the best vocals or get the best version of a tune so you kind of take it for what it issome are winners and some are not. Hopefully, fans can make their decisions about what are their favorite shows and they can burn the other ones. (laughs)

RR: Do you think the live recordings have increased SCI’s fan base or has it been the years of touring which has produced more fans?

KH: I think it’s from the touring and the reputation. I think the special OTRs can really turn people on. I don’t want to downplay the OTR series but I just want to be honest and say that they are not all the best shows.

RR: Are you just being too critical because it’s your music?

KH: That’s a good point. It could very well be what we think. Our standards are pretty high for what we want to put out there.

RR: Meanwhile you certainly maintain that same level of commitment and focus in the studio. It appears that String Cheese pays quite a bit of attention to their constant evolution.

KH: We do, yes, even more sothat’s the time when you get in there and really tweak and make things sound the way you want them to sound. But then (laughs), if you put a producer in the mix then he’s able to weed through all of this advice and suggestions and really kind of figure what is best for the whole CD. For example, my first String Cheese album, _Round the Wheel_when you listen to it now, you can tell that there were five producers, the five of us. Outside Inside through where we are now, it is definitely more laid backthere are mistakes. That’s what is wonderful about that because you’d never be able to do that. I think it’s really important to get a producer when we do our CDs.

RR: How do you keep relationships fresh in the band while warding off tension?

KH: I don’t know. When you figure that out, definitely let me know. (laughter) It’s constantly evolving; we compromise all the time. This past rehearsal was amazing because we had been off for five months or four and a halfsomething like thatand we came fresh with new ideas and fresh from not seeing each other. I think it is important for us to go hiking and try to do things non-musical together, sometimesto try to just bond as friendship as well as the working relationship. It’s a process like a marriage.

RR: How important is it to a band to spend time completely away from each other?

KH: I really missed the band during the last time off. I felt bad that they were gone. I missed the fan base, too, in some ways. I felt disconnected a little bit during those five months. I don’t know what the secret isthat seemed to work pretty good, what we just did. I think it’s important to discuss that between all of the members and find what works best for all of you.

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