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Published: 2016/08/12
by Mike Greenhaus

The String Cheese Incident’s Lab Work

Photo by Dean Budnick

On November 3 2006, singer/guitarist Bill Nershi announced that he planned to leave The String Cheese Incident, a band he formed in 1993 with mandolin player Michael Kang, after a few final months on the road. The group—which had gradually expanded over time to include drummer Michael Travis, bassist Keith Moseley, keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth and percussionist Jason Hann—had splintered over the preceding years due to personality and stylistic differences, and the group went on hiatus during the summer of 2007.

Almost a decade later, the members of The String Cheese Incident have not only reunited, but are also pumping out more collaborative music than ever, thanks to a series of songwriting trips and a new studio that allows them to record and release fresh tacks whenever the inspiration hits. After reuniting for a few shows in 2009, The String Cheese Incident truly returned in 2010 and have ramped up their road during the past six years. They also released a new studio album in 2014, the Jerry Harrison-produced Song in My Head, and have seemingly figured out how to showcase their divergent interests in bluegrass, country, electronica, rock and jazz within a full-band context through their new Sound Lab project.

Shortly before The String Cheese Incident head to the East Coast for performances at Scranton, PA’s The Peach Music Festival (8/12) and Brooklyn, NY’s Kings Theatre (8/13,8/14), Nershi discussed the band’s recent summer run, their latest batch of songs and how String Cheese ramped things back up a decade after their “big compromise.”

Earlier this year, String Cheese started releasing free material online through a section of its website called The Sound Lab. The initial announcement described it as a place not only to showcase new songs outside a proper album format, but also as an opportunity to present demos, remixes, alternative cuts and other recordings. Can you talk about the band’s initial decision to start releasing material in such a different way?

We finally got our own place—a place where we can rehearse and record. We’ve been talking about it for a little while, but it’s hard to get the whole band together to go in on buying a building. We finally dove in and did that and got a place in Louisville, CO, and that has everything we need. It has warehouse space, it has rehearsal space and it even has space for the guys who live out of town to crash when they come to town to rehearse and get ready for tours. We’re excited about that, and we had Jerry Harrison come out to do some recording with us.

We’ve also had a few of these writing trips. We went out to Sedona, AZ, and just wrote some tunes together. As you notice, we’ve been posting songs as free downloads on our website all summer long—we had another new song come out before our shows [this weekend] in New York at The Kings Theatre. It’s called “My One and Only” and it’s a song that Kyle wrote with our friend Bonnie Paine, who also plays in Elephant Revival, and we have more tunes coming out after that, too.

We have more recording times scheduled, so we’re hoping the Sound Lab is going to give us a better platform to get songs recorded in a timely manner, mixed and mastered and out to the public. We don’t want to wait till we do a whole big album project, which always takes a really long time between when the songs are finished and the album is available to the public. It can be a year between when you play the first note on a recording and when we finally release that recording. It seemed like a good time to try something different. On any given day, we can record something, start the process of overdubbing and, boom, put it on the website.

I’ve heard that String Cheese is also working toward a proper full-length album with Jerry Harrison behind the boards. How do these new songs fit in with that project?

Well, the way that we’re working it is—since we have a lot of material now that we have recorded and released, one tune at a time—once we get this particular group of recordings all released, then we will also put that into album form and make it available. That’s the plan as of now, anyway.

Since the time we made our trip to Sedona and wrote a lot of this material that’s coming out right now, we’ve also made another trip to Carbondale, CO, went into the studio and wrote more songs. So we have another group of tunes that we’re gonna start finishing up and start recording. We have tons of new original material that we’re working on even beyond the stuff that is coming out right now. It’s exciting to write a lot of music and have this platform that allows us to record and release it so quickly.

Given this new model, do you plan to hold back from playing your new material live before releasing those songs in The Lab or on a studio album?

Well, at this point with the Sound Lab material, we’ve waited until the songs have been released to play them live. It’s a bit different. In the past, we’ve played some songs for a couple of years before recording them. With this, we’re letting people check them out and listen before we take them into the live settings. We’re just trying something new and seeing how it goes.

String Cheese have written in a variety of ways during the years. You’ve each brought in individual ideas and fleshed them out as a group, reworked solo material for the band setting, worked with outside writers and collaborated as a unit. How did these songwriting sessions compare with the way you wrote for previous albums?

In the past, most of the tunes were written by individual members of the band then brought in, and we would arrange and maybe add to them through the group process. But when we go out to these different places for a week or so and get into these writing sessions, there’s more group collaboration. We might come up with an idea for a type of a song and come up with a progression and just starting playing it. Different people will come out with ideas for melodies and, later in the day, people will break off and go write some lyrics. Sometimes different configurations of the band might have different ideas and work on them—it doesn’t have to be all six people at a time. Maybe Mike and Kyle will sit down and work on an instrumental hook for a tune, or Jason and Trav will work on a drum part or a percussion part. So there’s a lot of different ways that it can go. An amazing amount of material has surfaced during these sessions.

The first time we did one of these retreats was two years ago, and last year we did another, and then we decided to make it an every-year thing. We’ll block out some time on the schedule so we can go take a trip and get away from everything—the normal day to day things that happen at home—and go to some place where we can totally submerge into the music.

I want to say these are musical retreats, but that sounds a little like going to bible camp. [Laughs.] We’ve been very productive with these trips, but we may also pick a day where we just say, “Fuck it. We’re gonna go for a hike today,” and find some place up on a mountain or out in the desert and then come back and have a little dinner, play some more music. It’s good creative atmosphere, and we like it a lot.

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