Three Faces of String Cheese
Photo by Brian Hockensmith
At first glance, Electric Forest doesn’t really seem like the kind of festival that would play host to a three-night run by The String Cheese Incident. Fans of the jam titans might find themselves a bit bewildered by a lineup filled with the names of DJs and producers like Knife Party, Benny Benassi, Above & Beyond and A-Trak. Yet despite the electro-heavy bill, the event also brings in acts like Jeff Austin & Friends, Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, Dispatch and Lotus to balance things out for those who are partial to performers with instruments. In many ways, the festival’s eclectic lineup is a reflection of the band’s eclectic sound, with the music of the past, present and future all meshing together in one place.
In the four years since The String Cheese Incident returned from their hiatus in spectacular fashion at the second (and final) Rothbury Music Festival, the band has moved more toward that music of the future. Newer, dancier tunes like “Rosie,” “BollyMunster,” “Colliding” and a seriously dubbed out reworking of their classic “Desert Dawn” have become staples of the group’s rotation. Nevertheless, the band can still play roots music with the best of them, and they can also find some humor in their strange surroundings. At one point during their acoustic set at Electric Forest, as wobbles and womps could be heard blaring from a nearby stage, Michael Kang remarked, “that was an old traditional called ‘Gold Rush’,” before Bill Nershi responded with, “They’re playing it over on that stage too. You hear that?” Needless to say, they weren’t.
The band’s penchant for humor was evident when we sat down with guitarist Bill Nershi, keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth and percussionist Jason Hann at this year’s Electric Forest. We managed to meet up with them a few hours before their first performance of the festival to talk about the many faces of String Cheese, their forthcoming album, what’s in store for the fall and more.
Let’s talk about Electric Forest for a second. For the first two years you guys followed the same format of one day set and one night set on both Friday and Saturday. But this year you’re going with the full two sets at night on Friday. What inspired this change?
Hann: (laughing) I think our manager inspired it by scheduling it that way.
Hollingsworth: I do believe it probably came from management, but they probably came to us at one point and said: ‘you have a choice’. And we decided at that point that we could probably get a little more of a groove going on late night, especially the first night, and be able to do two sets that are in the dark. Tomorrow, for example, we are in the light. Having a new light show and having all that helps bring all the energy out.
Hann: Definitely something to be said about—well it’s almost like there’s three characterizations of the band. We can do the late night thing and be as trippy and out of our minds as we can and then we can do that headline slot where it’s just us doing our thing with as much variety as you expect in a String Cheese show. And then Sunday is geared a little bit towards the afternoon, more on the acoustic side. So I think it really gets a chance to show off a lot of the variety of what we can do.
Hollingsworth: Yeah the three faces of String Cheese.
Bill Nershi enters.
So the three faces of String Cheese. Can you talk a little about that?
Hollingsworth: We just invented something called The Three Faces of String Cheese
Hann: Yeah tell them all about it Bill (laughs)
Nershi: I just happen to have some right here. Some people at the taco stand just gave me this package of string cheese. (Removes string cheese from his pocket).
Hollingsworth: I think String Cheese has a lot of faces. I think String Cheese, well—you could almost say it has five or six faces. I think there’s a lot of different influences in String Cheese that come from all the different members of the band.
Hann: You know, I would almost say there’s six faces.
Hollingsworth: Yes! It’s true though. We’ve got organic homegrown stuff, maybe from Keith (Moseley), and bluegrass from Billy. Electronic, world, we all bring our own influences.
Nershi: It’s a melting pot of many influences, everybody in the band has different influences and listens to music. We’re not that like-minded, not a band that just came out of high school or are high school buddies. We’re grown up people with a lot of different tastes and the challenge and the strength of the band is trying to put all those flavors together and make it work and it’s very challenging and it makes us sound…different, I think, than a lot of bands.
You guys just worked on an album with Jerry Harrison. What made you want to bring him in and what do you think he brought to the record?
Hollingsworth: We’ve been a fan of Jerry’s work for a while. We started this album in kind of a backwards way. We started basically producing, or tracking, all the songs without any producer. So we kind of produced it ourselves. Then we brought it back and as Billy said earlier, it was nice to have someone come in and help us tie it all together, who worked a lot with us with vocals. Jerry helped with the arrangements and possibly even key changes for certain songs. We needed someone, we needed a seventh member. How many members are in String Cheese?
Hann: I think six normally.
Hollingsworth: We needed a seventh head in there. A talking head.
Hann: A seventh face (laughs)
Hollingsworth: We needed a seventh face to help us compile the CD and make it cohesive.
Nershi: What’s the question?
Nershi: Well, as Kyle said we’re fans of the Talking Heads and Modern Lovers, and we have respect for what he’s done as a musician in the business too. I that think helps us work with him as a producer. There’s a lot of times as a musician—dealing with a producer that hasn’t done big things with his actual musical abilities—it’s hard to sit there and listen to him tell you how to play things, how to sing things and how to arrange things, etc. I think we have enough respect for Jerry that we really listen to all his ideas and he did some great things. And it’s not easy to produce us as a band, as we said. There’s a lot of different musicians. There’s six musicians with six different ideas on the way things can sound and the way things can be played and it’s a big job for a producer to come in and try to get that all into something that is gonna be smooth and go from song to song with good flow. And he really did that. The album, even though it has diverse material on it, he really helped to give a nice flow to the music.
In a recent interview with Jambands.com Keith said there might be a second, more electronic oriented release, in the works. Can we get a little bit of information about that? What we can expect?
Hann: Billy mentioned this earlier, you know, there’s a point where we’re still kind of figuring out what to do with all of our music and so many things have changed with the marketing and the industry. Do you release a whole record of songs recorded in one place? Or do you release them as small EPs? Or one song at a time? And I think with all our electronic music, which might include things like “BollyMunster” and some of those types of tracks, there’s a chance that we could bring in another producer—somebody like Tipper—to produce those particular tracks. Maybe take them in a different zone and see about releasing them individually and seeing how they do on their own. One of the cool things about this record that we’re doing is that you could release Keith’s “Struggling Angel” song on its own and market it towards the country sort of market or something. Same with Kyle’s “Colliding,” all these songs, and Billy’s songs too. They can almost can be sent towards a particular place in addition to the jam band fans who know String Cheese as a band that plays a variety of genres. So those electronic songs could be treated that way, where they’re just kind of marketed on their own as opposed to just among the String Cheese and jam band fans.
You guys recently announced your Hulaween Festival at Spirit of Suwannee with STS9 and Big Gigantic. It’s been some time since Cheese collaborated with the Sector 9 guys and I know you’ve collaborated with Dom (Lalli) a little bit recently, like at the last Electric Forest, I believe. Can we expect any collaborations at that festival?
Hollingsworth: Man! I’m looking forward to the festival. Nothing can be written in stone yet, but I’m sure there will be a lot of cross-pollination. Is that the word?
Nershi: (Laughs) The thing about collaborations is, first of all, it’s nice to be familiar with the people that are playing music with us. That’s the first step to collaboration. So there’s nothing that’s been talked about yet, but the possibilities are all there.