From the Archives:Bill Nershi Works Through The Nots Via His ‘Big Compromise’
Following the news that Bill Nershi will be leaving String Cheese Incident next year, we decided to call up our two most recent feature interviews with Nershi. The first of these was conducted by Jeff Waful in December 2003, followed by Mike Greenhaus’s conversation in July 2005.
Bill Nershi Works Through The Nots
By Jeff Waful
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.
Bill Nershi’s "Big Compromise"
By Mike Greenhaus
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.