There are a number of factors that separate The String Cheese Incident from other bands. For starters, the band is comprised of five absolutely stellar musicians. Another is their uncanny ability to successfully document their all out intensity and fiery jams on compact disc. Somehow they are able to record without the effectual loss in energy that often compromises studio work and distinguishes it from live performance. The result? To date they have their own label and three independent releases, Born On The Wrong Planet, (1996), A String Cheese Incident, (1997, live) and their latest, Round The Wheel, (1998, Sci Fidelity Records). Amazingly, all three are killer. The first two have already sold over 20,000 copies each. Meanwhile, their live performances can be mesmerizing. Though their instruments may appear to be bluegrass, their style competently covers as many musical dialects as any band on the road, be it jazz, funk, bluegrass, or all out improv jam. Born in the Rocky Mountain town of Crested Butte in 1993, The String Cheese Incident eventually relocated to Boulder as they felt the need to be closer to civilization, or at least major driving routes, to pursue their musical career. Still without a major label, The String Cheese Incident are content to continue to grow and thrive from their roots on up. In summation, The String Cheese Incident is Michael Kang on electric and acoustic mandolin and violin, Bill Nershi on acoustic guitar, Keith Moseley on bass, Kyle Hollingsworth on keyboards, and Michael Travis on percussion.
Bass player Keith Moseley phoned it to talk about The String Cheese Incident, who will be passing through the area in the following weeks.
Vermont Review: The band started in Crested Butte?
Keith Moseley: That is correct. We were a four piece in the very beginning, started in Crested Butte, Colorado where we were all ski bumming it. We were all there for the outdoor recreation of living there, the mountain biking and the skiing and what not, and started playing music on the side a little, and started doing some apres skis and happy hour stuff and eventually decided that "hey we might be able to make a career out of this if we got serious about it". We are certainly not going to be able to make a living skiing, so how about music. That was the humble beginnings. From there we branched out and started playing other resort towns in Colorado and eventually other resort towns in Utah and California as well. Then just over two years ago, we relocated to Boulder and became a full time national touring act at that point and recruited keyboard player Kyle Hollingsworth to join the band and round out the five piece.
VR: What year did you start playing together?
KM: December 93 we played our first gig, so well be five years old this December.
VR: No one had really been in a band before that?
KM: Nothing serious, nothing that had really toured. Wed all done played in a cover band in college I did and Billy played in a couple bluegrass bands. Wed all done little things but never really done a real touring band before.
VR: What is the age of the band members?
KM: Michael Kang is the youngest, hes 28. Kyle is 30. Travis and I are both 33 and Billy is 36.
VR: It seems that String Cheese Incident has gotten a late start but has been moving quickly.
KM: Its moved really quickly. From the beginning stages where it was fun and it enabled us to keep living our mountain lifestyle. Thats how it was in the beginning but somewhere pretty quick after that, after about the first year and a half of the bands existence we decided that we really wanted to try and make a living at it and at that point we moved to Boulder and all were able to quit our other jobs and book enough gigs to just play full time. Its been a real 100 percent commitment from everybody from that time on to make a living at it and give it a real run for the money and see what we could do
VR: So far 3 albums in 3 years. Is there a lot of input with 5 members who all seem to have diverse backgrounds?
KM: Yeah, well thats the key, everyones got diverse backgrounds and everyone contributes writing and arranging. Were stocking up the new material right now, even though we just put out a brand new album, we got plenty of new stuff to come, theres no shortage of that. In fact were scaling back the touring a little bit this year. Were looking at doing only about 170 shows this year, down from 230 last year, to give ourselves a little more time at home for rehearsing working up the new tunes, song writing, that kind of thing. We want to make sure that we can continue to go out on the road with new fresh material and keep it fun and interesting for everybody.
VR: As a band have you felt a strong progression and development with each album?
KM: Yeah, absolutely. We look at the albums as kind of like a snapshot in time. The new one Round the Wheel we did all the recording for that in early February Do you have a copy of that?
VR: Yeah, its excellent.
KM: OK, great Its got Paul McCandless on there for four tracks, hes great to have on there, Tony Furtado for a couple tracks. The band I feel like is progressing so fast. Individually we are all really growing as musicians and song writers, that again I think the albums are really like snapshots. Hey this is where we were first two weeks of February, 1998, when we recorded Round the Wheel. Since then, we continue to play those songs out live and they continue to evolve. Theyre never really the same way twice, they continue to change and to grow, just as we do individually and so we look at the albums as kind of a time capsule. I feel like the playing on the new album is much better than on either of the previous two, like I say, we all continue to grow as musicians and were proud of it think it came out pretty good.
VR: Tony Furtado has that killer banjo jam on Restless Wind.
KM: Hes a good buddy of ours, hes actually roommates with Travis, the percussionist. The Boulder music scene is pretty close knit. We know a lot of the players and we love to play with them when were in town and have them sit it and it was a good treat to get Tony on the record again. He was on the first record as well, Born On The Wrong Planet, on a couple tracks.
VR: What are the strengths that each member brings in to the project?
KM: Strengths Well Kyle for instance has a degree in Jazz piano, he went to college for it. Hes the only one with a formal music education. Thats a huge asset for the band both in terms of his ability to play and just his general understanding, and helping in song writing and arranging and what not. Michael Kang had some classical training early on. Travis, most of his training was in hand drums, Afro-Cuban hand drumming, and thats kind of where he comes from. Billy and I were both playing in bluegrass bands before this band happened. We bring in a lot of the bluegrass and the classic rock element, I kind of bring that in too, thats the sort of thing I did some of college, garage bands and what not. Everyone brings a lot to the table and its just a matter of working it all out and making it happen as a band.
VR: My impression when I first became a fan, was heres a ripping bluegrass band. Do you think that this was the early reputation and now that youve shown that your music is really un-categorizable that youve shaken that label?
KM: There are people definitely that identify the band with the bluegrass label and I think in the beginning the song list was probably more heavily weighted towards just bluegrass kind of stuff, and as we have progressed musically weve branched out a little more into some different areas. But bluegrass is still a big part of what we do and always will be, were big fans of it, and we continue to play places like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival, Strawberry Music Festival, that are all bluegrass based. And thats in line with both our love of bluegrass and our love of playing these big outdoor Western festivals acoustic music festivals basically is what they are. We continue to include the acoustic part in the band where in fact were trying to do even more of that, where well play half a set of the night or a big segment of the night strictly acoustically. That keeps the dynamics changing too. We can go out and do that and then well come out and rock it out maybe the second set or something too. Getting back to your original question there, I guess the bluegrass was probably a little more prominent in the play list in the beginning, but it continues to be a big part of what we do even though now we probably are able to cover a lot more ground musically than we were in the beginning.
VR: You started in the Western mountain region. How has the progress been outside your region where the music styles are different and you dont get to visit as much?
KM: Well, the response has been really good. Lets see, this will be our fifth tour to the East that we are about to embark on here and weve just seen crowds growing exponentially just like they have everywhere else for us. We did some shows earlier in the summer with moe. and Strangefolk. We did some shows in the Northeast with those guys who both do real well in the Northeast. The crossover was great. A lot of fans of moe. and Strangfolk came out and saw us for the first time and it was great exposure for us. The response seems to be great. Its just a matter of getting in front of people and getting the press and what not, and so far were really really pleased with the growth and the way its going.
VR: Do you ever feel like the elder statesmen or mentors on the tour circuit?
KM: You mention the age and thats interesting. We did kind of get a later start on this than a lot of people most of us into our mid 30s by now and really our first national touring act that weve ever been in. I think its to our advantage in some ways in that we look at it real seriously. Weve been self managed for a long time, then we hand picked a management staff that we were comfortable with. We continue to put out our own records instead of signing with anybody, and weve had several major label offers that weve said, "no we dont want to go that way yet, were happy to be in control of things at our own pace, continue to make our own decisions." I think thats kind of the spirit of the band and again that sort of reflects on us being a little older maybe, and taking it seriously and feeling like we can self manage, can make the important decisions on our own. And so far its just gone great for us.
VR: A reason I ask is because the musicianship in the band is truly first rate, at a level beyond most bands.
KM: Well, we take it pretty seriously. I think everybody in the band feels like its a life long commitment at this point and youre either getting better or youre not getting better, so we aim for always getting better. Everyones trying to put in the time personally and put in the practice time as a band. We feel like weve got an obligation as a band to continue to grow musically, continue to improve. Both with the individual musicianship and the level of the show too. We want to keep pushing that up and making it better and better in hopes that the fans that weve made so far are going to continue to be fans for a long time to come Its a maturity thing. If youre still doing it when you are 35 years old as opposed to 25 years old, then you are making some sacrifices and youre going to be serious about it. Its not an easy road out there living on the road and traveling like you do. If youre not taking it seriously and giving it 100% its a lot better to probably to do something else.
VR: You have had record deals offered. So basically the band is not in any rush?
KM: Most bands sign with major labels because thats the only way theyre able to put out a release and get it into stores. Weve secured a distribution deal with ADA for our latest release and are really happy to hang on to all the artistic control and managerial control and make all the important decisions for ourselves. We were able to save enough from touring to pay for this thing. Everythings going great. We dont need tour support. We dont need a lot of the things that bands get from major labels. Consequently were still in the drivers seat. We make a lot more per record that we sell. There is not a lot of incentive for us to do anything any differently. Weve got some goals for this newest album. Were hoping to sell 50,000 of them in a years time. If we can do that, thats a phenomenal success for an independent release. If things stall and we find out we cant get the albums out there like we want to then we might consider trying to get some help from a major label. But thus far going the independent route every goal weve set for ourselves weve achieved and the crowds just seem to be snowballing and the momentum just keeps growing. Dont fix it if its not broken. Its going great A lot of bands just get lost in the shuffle of some big label and by going our own route we know thats not going to happen to us.
The String Cheese Incident are hot and an "Incident" is headed your way. Check them out on their current tour, and while you are there pick up a disc as well. To find out more check out their website at www.stringcheeseincident.com.