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 Incident’s studio output has been limited and not always successful. Their early efforts were hampered somewhat by the group’s 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 group’s live energy within relatively concise song arrangements. For 2003’s Untying The Not, SCI worked with Youth, who deconstructed the band’s 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 “additional instrumentation and vocals” 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 “design and layout” credit on Song in My Head, explains, “The main thing, for me, was that we hadn’t recorded in a really long time. There was always a reason not to record: CDs aren’t selling, blah, blah, blah. For me, it’s more of a documentation of the music that you’re making and that we had a backlog of original tunes that I thought were pretty strong.”
“We have more unrecorded original tunes than recorded original tunes, which is kind of weird,” Kang observes. “So 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 that’s when the whole thing was born—‘Let’s rehearse and take this stuff and see where it comes out.’ The third movement of that was, ‘OK, now that we have this stuff recorded, how are we going to finish this album?’ That’s when we brought on a producer, someone to push it through.”
Nershi adds: “Some producers—before you sing note one or play note one—are looking at the lyrics and looking at the arrangement of the songs and, before you’ve even started, you’re all plugged up. They might know what they’re talking about but there’s something about what we’re doing that’s 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.”
With all this in mind, they selected Jerry Harrison, who recalls, “Before 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 can’t remember the conflict—I 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 else’s hands and that was not exactly what they had signed up for.”
Harrison reconnected with the group during the summer of 2012, sitting in for a few songs during the group’s show at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley on July 14, 2012 for covers of Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” and Modern Lovers’ “She Cracked,” as well as the SCI original “Rosie,” which appears on Song in My Head. “We had this joyous concert in Berkeley,” he remembers. “Everybody 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.”
“The first thing I noticed he did,” Hollingsworth relates, “was he pushed the vocalists into ranges they weren’t used to— ‘Keith, why don’t you sing that up a minor third,’ or ‘Billy, let’s move the entire song up to a different key.’ He felt like the vocals would pop out more and have good presence. He was right.”
“Given the respectful way they treat each other, I think it helps having an outside producer saying, ‘No, you can do this much better,’ or ‘You’re not the best person to sing that harmony part—your voice is not in that range—there’s someone else in the band who’ll be a lot more natural.’ Making choices for tonality and range and quality of voice rather than maybe [because] they said they wanted to do it,” Harrison laughs. “I 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 that’s sort of Afro-punk to a song that sounds like The Band is something they pull off live, so I’d 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.”
Hollingsworth concurs: “Outside Inside was the most typical String Cheese-sounding record that we’ve made, and I think this one was close.” 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 Nershi’s title track, Hollingsworth’s “Rosie” and another reading of Kang’s “Betray The Dark,” which first appeared in another form on One Step Closer.
(Read: Song in My Head Review)
Song in My Head opens with “Colorado Bluebird Sky,” 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 Lockn’ festival. The group visited Brown’s home/work compound in preparation for the fest and not only came away impressed with ZBB’s musical chops but also Brown’s personal drive and DIY commitment. (Travis praises the bandleader as “the single most activated, realized-potential person I’ve ever met. Keith turned to me one time when we were there and said, ‘I feel like I’ve been sleeping my whole life.’”)
Harrison identifies a personal highlight as the lone Keith Moseley composition, “Struggling Angel,” written for Moseley’s friend and SCI community member Sarah Gewald, who passed away in March 2012. “Keith has a beautiful voice and a voice that is distinctive from the others. We kind of started over with ‘Struggling Angel,’ which was in some ways a sketch of a song and is now one of my favorites on the album. I hope that he’s more prolific and the next time we work together, there are more than one of those songs.”
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 “individual electronica stuff, produced as individual electronica tracks and released that way.”
Meanwhile, Nershi emphasizes the positive impact of Song in My Head on the vitality of the group’s live show. “You get all these original songs backlogged and then, it’s like, ‘Why am I writing these songs?’ So it’s nice to blow out the pipes by getting some of these original songs recorded. Then I feel, ‘OK, now we can move on a little bit and come out with new stuff and continue.’”