Pondering the Cosmos with the String Cheese Incident’s Michael Kang (Ten Years On)
With the String Cheese Incident set to perform this weekend at the Hangout, we revisit this interview with Michael Kang from May 2002.
Photo by Tim Huizenga
Greetings Jambands.com readers and welcome to the latest installment in a personal mission to profile the most socially conscious musicians of the 21st century. It is this reporter’s sincere belief that the promise of the socio-cultural musical revolution of the 1960s that music can and will help change the world into a better, more harmonious place is destined to be fulfilled in this lifetime, and that the jamband scene is a vital cog in this process. Music has been shown to possess the power to influence the way people think, and hence the way they act. The long-term repercussions of this ripple effect are incalculable.
Step one on this mission was to interview Spearhead’s Michael Franti, arguably the most socially conscious musician on the planet at this time. I caught up with Franti in October of 2001. After interviewing Franti, it occurred to me that I should continue to seek out and profile those musicians who not only help people get their grooves on, but to raise their consciousness a bit as well. I decided my next target should be Michael Kang, electric mandolin player extrordinaire for the String Cheese Incident.
After being blown away by SCI’s August 6th and 7th, 2001 shows at Mt. Shasta, I listened to the group’s new albumOutside Inside with an attention I hadn’t paid it before and realized that songs like “Black and White” and “Rollover” (both primarily written by Kang and his lyrical partner Dain Pape) fit the profile to a tee groovy jams with something meaningful to say. It was then extremely gratifying to see Michael Franti join SCI for the encore of their December 29th, 2001 show at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Franti came out during “Black and White” and led the band into a medley of Spearhead’s “Stay Human,” into Bob Marley’s seminal protest song “Get Up Stand Up,” into Franti’s new anti-war song, “Bomb the World.” When Franti sang, “You can bomb the world into pieces, but you can’t bomb it into peace,” the sold-out crowd roared in an appreciation that showed that jamband music fans are not only far from apathetic, but actually may be one of mankind’s best hopes for evolving past the myriad of problems that plague the world today.
It was a spine-tingling moment – in a season where the mainstream media had advanced the propagandistic notion that opposition to the Bush administration’s “War on Terrorism” is inherently unpatriotic, here were 10,000 SCI fans expressing solidarity for alternative solutions and learning beyond doubt that they were not alone in this sentiment. It was a perfect example of how music can have a deep impact on the consciousness of society in these modern times, and why SCI is poised to be a major player in the movement.
I caught up with Michael Kang on the eve of the band’s Winter Carnival 2002 shows at the Denver Fillmore. Our conversation touched on a variety of intriguing topics.
GS: Your songs on Outside Inside, the two credited to you have significant lyrics. Tell me about your relationship with your co-writer Dain Pape and how you guys put those together.
MK: Well Dain and I, I guess we’ve known each other for 4 or 5 years, and that tune “Rollover” was actually the first tune we ever wrote together. We were just sitting at his place in Shasta right in the middle of tour. We were just there, and he started singing this melody, and I just picked it up from there and that one actually just came out really quickly, it was one of those tunes that just came about pretty effortlessly.
GS: And the lyrics just flowed also?
MK: Well, he already kind of had the lyrics, he’d had the images of the lyrics, a lot before
GS: It seems like he’s been doing some interesting research into the possible earth changes, which makes that really sort of a unique song. I haven’t heard anyone else sing about that stuff.
MK: Yeah, it’s interesting to look at the world in a larger historical perspective.
GS: Definitely. Ok, how about “Black and White” – I love the way it seems to be openly questioning the modern social paradigm.
MK: Well, it’s another one that we wrote and actually it was a friend of his that I got to meet up there, one of his neighbors who’s a Black historian. I think Dain and I were driving down to High Sierra or something like that, and we started having this idea that it would be cool to put out a song that kind of questions different race issues as well as the way that we’ve been given information. We’ve been kind of blindfolded to believe in things, especially by the media and the people that are in control of the media. So we got this idea to try to get a little known fact about something that’s happened that people don’t know about and this guy Bobby-Joe who lived up in Shasta uncovers facts about Black history, he’s a Ph.D. professor, and he was talking about the Black Irish and how at one point over a million Black Irish were massacred. I don’t know if it was one specific incident or some things that happened, but one specific place where it happened was Douglastown (referenced in the song) and it’s something that people just don’t hear about.
GS: Yeah, it’s very interesting to hear stuff like that. Ok, how long have you known Michael Franti?
MK: Since we got to play together at the Fillmore (in Denver). That was kind of the first time that we all got to hook up. Yeah he’s great, he’s kind of an inspiration in a lot of ways, just the way that he melds his social makeup, the things that he believes in, really, into his art.
GS: Right, I was going to ask you if your association with him had influenced you to become a more socially conscious artist?
MK: Well, it made me think about it more. There was an element of my life that was really involved in environmental issues when I was in college, and I used to work for Greenpeace. Then it kind of fell by the wayside a little bit when we started playing music. But now it seems like the time for not only us, but everybody to just kind of get a perspective on what’s happening on the planet and just be aware of what’s going on, I think.
GS: Totally Ok, and something interesting I noticed in the liner notes of the album, is the publishing credit for “Rollover” is to “Twentytwelve Songs,” is that your personal-
MK: It’s my publishing.
GS: Ok, and so I’ve done a lot of research into it myself but what’s your perspective on 2012?
MK: Well, you know, basically when I got introduced to the whole Mayan thing it kind of blew me away, looking at how certain cultures have looked at the larger historical time perspective of how we sit in a very, very large galaxy. When you start looking at it that way, the Mayans really had it mapped out in a lot of ways, it was the one of the most intensely accurate, astronomical- just all the data they received and how they put it into their entire way of living. You know, if you look at the ruins of Chichen Itza, and how they seemed to kind of integrate this larger belief of how we’re one very small cog in a larger wheel and also how we’re affected by all the different things that happen in our galaxy from a universal perspective
GS: Have you been down there at all?
MK: Yeah, we actually got to play a show in Mexico. About 4 years ago, we played in this little town called Akmal. I never got to go to Chichen Itza, but we got to go to Tulum.
GS: Oh yeah, Tulum is beautiful.
MK: Yeah, it’s really beautiful. So, I started thinking about it when I started doing research. They predicted a lot of things happening within the larger framework of things. This is a very unique time – they always thought of this point on their calendar, which is their zero point to a certain degree, I guess I would call it happening on December 21, the December solstice of 2012, which is the end of their long count calendar and it’s a cycle where our earth, our sun, and the middle of the Milky Way all line up and it only happens once every 256,000 years or something like that.
GS: Isn’t it every 26,000 years?
MK: 26,000, but then there’s a larger cycle.
GS: Right, it’s all quite intriguing.
(Maya scholar John Major Jenkins describes the nature of the Mayan “long count” cycle that concludes on 12/21/2012 right here)
MK: Yeah, and so when you start thinking about it, they looked at this time as being a time where there’s going to be an accelerated amount of information, a changing of the ages and they always seemed to look at these times for opportunities for humans to potentially raise their consciousness to a different level. If you look at how things have changed in the 20th century and all the things that have happened, there’s definitely been this intense logarithmic, exponential growth of knowledge and the amount of information that’s being psychically put out there, and seems like it’s leading to something.