The String Cheese Incident’s New Head Rush
Photo: Tobin Voggesser and Jesse R. Borrell, NOCOAST
The following is an excerpt from editor-in-chief Dean Budnick's cover story in the April/May issue of Relix in honor of the release of SCI's Song in My Head, out today. To read the entire story including others on Broken Bells, The War on Drugs and more, become a subscriber or purchase the issue.
Over the course of a 20-year career, The String Cheese Incidentâs studio output has been limited and not always successful. Their early efforts were hampered somewhat by the groupâs egalitarian ethos, which made it challenging to critique the players and, at times, even to reach a consensus on when the process was complete. In 2001, the band teamed with Steve Berlin for Outside Inside, the record that most effectively captures the groupâs live energy within relatively concise song arrangements. For 2003âs Untying The Not, SCI worked with Youth, who deconstructed the bandâs material from the lyrics on through the music, fashioning an album with his own stamp that is a unique sonic experience but lacks much of the joy that sparks the group. Malcolm Burn asserted himself in another manner on One Step Closer (2005), as co-songwriter of three compositions while lending âadditional instrumentation and vocalsâ to a solid if somewhat stilted album, impaired, in part, by creative discord within the group.
So by early 2013, with the band in a positive mindset, they decided to make another go of the studio experience. Nershi, who revisits his old profession and shares a âdesign and layoutâ credit on Song in My Head, explains, âThe main thing, for me, was that we hadnât recorded in a really long time. There was always a reason not to record: CDs arenât selling, blah, blah, blah. For me, itâs more of a documentation of the music that youâre making and that we had a backlog of original tunes that I thought were pretty strong.â
âWe have more unrecorded original tunes than recorded original tunes, which is kind of weird,â Kang observes. âSo we started with the intention that since we were multi-tracking all these shows, it would be silly not to do something with them and, at first, thought maybe we could do a hybrid album where we take tracks and do some overdubs to make it sound good. Then, we got together and were rehearsing in studio, and we decided it would be silly to rehearse in the studio and not record, and thatâs when the whole thing was bornââLetâs rehearse and take this stuff and see where it comes out.â The third movement of that was, âOK, now that we have this stuff recorded, how are we going to finish this album?â Thatâs when we brought on a producer, someone to push it through.â
Nershi adds: âSome producersâbefore you sing note one or play note oneâare looking at the lyrics and looking at the arrangement of the songs and, before youâve even started, youâre all plugged up. They might know what theyâre talking about but thereâs something about what weâre doing thatâs working for people, and the best chance we have of making something sound good is playing something how we play it rather than picking it apart and putting it back together.â
With all this in mind, they selected Jerry Harrison, who recalls, âBefore they made the record with Youth, we had a discussion about working together. We share a good friend in [Grateful Dead lyricist] John Perry Barlow, and he had introduced us to each other. I canât remember the conflictâI think I had agreed to do another record. I remember running into them because they made the record at The Plant in Sausalito, [Calif.], which was up the road from where I was working, and once Travis and I got on a ski lift together, by sheer coincidence, and I could tell they felt that they had given up so much to become clay in someone elseâs hands and that was not exactly what they had signed up for.â
Harrison reconnected with the group during the summer of 2012, sitting in for a few songs during the groupâs show at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley on July 14, 2012 for covers of Talking Headsâ âLife During Wartimeâ and Modern Loversâ âShe Cracked,â as well as the SCI original âRosie,â which appears on Song in My Head. âWe had this joyous concert in Berkeley,â he remembers. âEverybody had fun playing together so we figured it would be fun working together. I thought there was a great possibility to make a great record because they had such energy and such connection to their audience, but I had never heard that on record. No one had quite captured what happens live. Not that I think that a record replicates the experience, but I think it can come closer and I think we achieved that on this record.â
âThe first thing I noticed he did,â Hollingsworth relates, âwas he pushed the vocalists into ranges they werenât used toâ âKeith, why donât you sing that up a minor third,â or âBilly, letâs move the entire song up to a different key.â He felt like the vocals would pop out more and have good presence. He was right.â
âGiven the respectful way they treat each other, I think it helps having an outside producer saying, âNo, you can do this much better,â or âYouâre not the best person to sing that harmony partâyour voice is not in that rangeâthereâs someone else in the band whoâll be a lot more natural.â Making choices for tonality and range and quality of voice rather than maybe [because] they said they wanted to do it,â Harrison laughs. âI think one of the challenges in making a coherent record is they each write in totally different genres. Going from a bluegrass song to a song thatâs sort of Afro-punk to a song that sounds like The Band is something they pull off live, so Iâd count on the fact that the consistency with which they play their instruments would provide the glue to hold these things together. It worked out.â
Hollingsworth concurs: âOutside Inside was the most typical String Cheese-sounding record that weâve made, and I think this one was close.â Outside Inside features a number of songs that remain concert staples and one imagines that Song in My Head will offer more of the same, as it delivers vibrant performances of fan-favorites such as Nershiâs title track, Hollingsworthâs âRosieâ and another reading of Kangâs âBetray The Dark,â which first appeared in another form on One Step Closer.
(Read: Song in My Head Review)
Song in My Head opens with âColorado Bluebird Sky,â which includes a guest appearance by the Infamous Stringdusters' Chris Pandolfi. Although they do not appear on the album, members of the Zac Brown Band also contributed to an earlier version of the track, the product of a collaboration with String Cheese at the 2013 Locknâ festival. The group visited Brownâs home/work compound in preparation for the fest and not only came away impressed with ZBBâs musical chops but also Brownâs personal drive and DIY commitment. (Travis praises the bandleader as âthe single most activated, realized-potential person Iâve ever met. Keith turned to me one time when we were there and said, âI feel like Iâve been sleeping my whole life.ââ)
Harrison identifies a personal highlight as the lone Keith Moseley composition, âStruggling Angel,â written for Moseleyâs friend and SCI community member Sarah Gewald, who passed away in March 2012. âKeith has a beautiful voice and a voice that is distinctive from the others. We kind of started over with âStruggling Angel,â which was in some ways a sketch of a song and is now one of my favorites on the album. I hope that heâs more prolific and the next time we work together, there are more than one of those songs.â
The band remains flushed with enthusiasm, so one can imagine that a second pairing is in the offing at some point. Next up in the studio realm, however, Kang explains, will likely be some âindividual electronica stuff, produced as individual electronica tracks and released that way.â
Meanwhile, Nershi emphasizes the positive impact of Song in My Head on the vitality of the groupâs live show. âYou get all these original songs backlogged and then, itâs like, âWhy am I writing these songs?â So itâs nice to blow out the pipes by getting some of these original songs recorded. Then I feel, âOK, now we can move on a little bit and come out with new stuff and continue.ââ