Michael Kangs ROTHBURY Residency
It has been almost a year since String Cheese Incident took an extended break. While several members of the group, particularly Bill Nershi and percussionists Jason Hann and Michael Travis, remain active on the road, mandolin-wiz Michael Kang has focused his creative energies elsewhere. In fact, with the exception of some work with the world-music group Panjea and a few shows with the SCI spin-off EOTO, Kang’s primary efforts have been in the visual art and environmental activism realms. So it makes sense that when String Cheese Incident’s longtime management company Madison House began work on their own large-scale festival, ROTHBURY, Kang offered his services in several different areas. Here he discusses his current environmental efforts, his road to ROTHBURY and the current status of String Cheese.
You wore a number of different hats at ROTHBURY, including musician, artist and environmental activist. Can you talk for a minute about all your various roles at the festival?
Well, a couple of years ago, a few of us started a non-profit called Our Future Now. The basic intension of it was to try and figure out different ways to attract attention to the environmental movement. When we were touring we had a bunch of people who wanted to table, but people didn’t always go there in droves. We’d have 10,000 people at a String Cheese concert, but only a couple hundred would go to the tables. So what we wanted to do is draw more attention to that. My personal passion is to get the art involvedif you make something beautiful, people will gravitate towards it and, hopefully, get more involved. So this year at ROTHBURY we featured a bunch of artists who are friends of mine from California and had them bring installations that would draw a lot of attention. Usually, they were made out of recycled materials and stuff that would make people think twice. We made giant tea house, some stage designs and this big monkey installation.
For those readers who were not at ROTHBURY, can you describe the monkey installation. It was definitely one of the coolest pieces of art I have ever seen at a festival.
It is super, super cool. It is a three-dimensional drom that is about 30-feet tall and 25-feet wide. So, basically, for those of you who were at ROTHBURY and saw it, it spins a very fast RPM and them the strobe lights hit it makes a strobe effect that is pretty freaky. So that was part of what the non-profit did, in terms of the production and art. But, what we were really working on is introducing ROTHBURY to a lot of non-profit things, so we introduced them to Black Rock Solar, who did the carbon offset program by bringing solar panels, and then did a lot of networking before the festival even started. We talked to Dr. Steven Schneider, who is the curator of ROTHBURY’s think tank, and just talked to him about interesting ways to get people to reach out. So it has just been a great learning experience for everyone involved, including me, since I have been running a round a lot [laughter]. It has actually been pretty crazy and, oh yeah, I’ve been trying to play music too [laughter]. [Visit www.relix.com/radio to hear Kang play exclusively for Relix’s Cold Turkey.
In certain ways, ROTHBURY seemed to blend elements of large-scale rock festivals like Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza with some more boutique Burning Man-style gatherings. Did you draw inspiration from any festivals in particular?
There are a lot of festivals all over the world and, a couple of years ago, I got to go to a bunch of different festivals like the Solar Eclipse Festival they have in Turkey, Festival in the Desert in Mali and the big festivals in Europe like Glastonbury and Glade. In the States the primary festival focus is musicin fact there is only one big festival that is not only about music and that is Burning Man. The cool thing about that is you get all these amazing ways for people to express their creativity. So their artistry comes out in all these different ways. The installations and the art that come out of Burning Man have influenced a lot of different people and you also have the space there to do a lot of different stuff. So that has influenced me to want to kind of share that setup with other people. So we definitely looked at a bunch of these different models. But the cool thing for me is that there are a lot of different ways to express your creativity that don’t involve going onstage and singinglike art.
When String Cheese started, your primary influence seemed to be bluegrass. But, since then, your music has gravitated more towards electronica. In fact, the group’s increasingly varied influences seemed to be one of the primary reasons for String Cheese Incident’s hiatus. Where do your musical interests seem to lie these days?
I still listen to a lot of electronica these days and, at the same time, I kind of run across the board. I’ve been to Africa a few times over the past few years and listen to a lot of African and world music. I guess I have kind of run the gamut since becoming a musician. But I think electronica is the best dance music out there. My favorite these days is hands down Tipper. He is pretty much the shit. He is developing something completely new where is he taking sounds that don’t emulate any instrument. But, there is a lot of stuff going on out there so, I hope my tastes continue to change.
Moving back to ROTHBURY, can you walk us through your own timeline at the festival? How long have you been onsite working?
I did a walkthrough of the site in November of last year then we have been working pretty much for six months straight getting everything ready. We loaded up the truck two and half weeks before the festival and I was onsite for about nine days. So I am ready to go home [laughter].
Since most of your festival experiences have been as a musician, it must be nice to be involved in all elements of the festival’s creative process.
Yeah, I am super stoked and it is fun to be so involved. I look at all the people who come in and just play and they don’t get involved in the full breadth of a festival. Normally, as a musician, I just walk in, play my set and leave. There is something different when you are part of a festival and build itwhen your hands get dirty and your knuckles get scraped. It is a different kind of experience. When you look at the stage you are proud of it because you have a crew of 20 different friends who built it. So that is an incredible bonding experience. Like the Star Gates we built. It is one thing to see them on paper, but it is another thing to see then built. Two months ago the Star Gates we built were just rendered drawings, so to just go through that process…when we got those things up, we were stoked. It was a lot of work, we busted our ass.
Finally, do you see String Cheese Incident playing ROTHBURY at some point?
Ever since we took a break last fall we all just got really into doing our own thing. There is totally a possibility of us all playing together, though we aren’t really talking about it because everyone is doing their own thing. I have been doing a lot of this non-profit stuff and trying to stay home a lot. It is nice to not have to deal with the road. At this point, I’m homesick after ten days [laughter]. So I am definitely in a different headspace then when we were touring a lot and it is nice to be around the house. I think after 14 years it is nice to just take a break.
_Mike Greenhaus stores his own festival memories at www.greenhauseffect.com