String Cheese Incident: Untying The Knots
Meanwhile, the String Cheese Incident musical landscape began to morph as well. One person is with an interesting handle on this development is percussionist Jason Hann, who initially encountered the group at the High Sierra Music Festival in 1996 when he was gigging with his band Zoo People. Hann entered into a friendship with Travis and later saw SCI intermittently over the ensuing years before he began touring with String Cheese in 2004 (balancing this out with L.A. studio work as well as gigs with Isaac Hayes and Loreena McKennitt).“When I first saw them I remember they did quite a bit of the world music thing which especially in the mid-90’s really impressed me. But by the time of the Wiltern show [7/23/04, the onset of Hann’s current era with the group] they had started branching out into electronic music. It was refreshing to hear that a band is constantly evolving its sound and wiling to take chances and grow because that’s not always the case. A lot of bands really do stay in the same zone and one way to stay inspired and keep things fresh is to shake things up and take some chances.” By 2003, Travis and Kang had sought to push SCI’s music in this new direction (“Burning man has a tendency to change your influences that way,” Travis laughs). In certain respects the former hand drummer’s gravitation towards electronica realms was surprising, considering that in terms of cultural orientation, “my whole disposition is Santa Cruz, West Coast, Grateful Dead, hippie everything.” However, as Travis explains it, the two realms are complementary. “The main beacon in hippiedom musically for a long time was the Grateful Dead, and Jerry, every note he played was the selfless expression of the flow. That’s why it’s so addictive because he was not playing any notes for himself and everything be played took you to that ethereal place, right to the brink because there was no filter of one person’s weird energy to get through. You could feel the source. And I think electronica is the new egoless front .”
String Cheese was interested in exploring this direction, to add yet another wrinkle to its sound. Moseley observes, “Diversity has always been a strong asset of the band and something that’s been real important to the band’s success. We have no singular focus, so thereby we are a bit conflicted internally but the result is we have six guys who get to run with their musical vision.”
While this certainly rings true, there is also an element of having another’s musical vision crammed down one’s gullet by dint of a majority vote. Such a scenario seems to be at the heart of Nershi’s composition “Big Compromise” which also served as the title of the documentary that accompanied One Step Closer. That film relates the pure democratic process (with its attendant speechifying) by which the band members now reach most any decision, a process that Travis describes as “100% draining and infuriating and 100% essential to String Cheese being String Cheese.”
“In our band you have four, five different alpha personalities,” Kang explains, “and in that there’s a lot of tension and sometimes people have to step back and sometimes people just don’t like to step back. That’s not to say it’s good or bad, that just what it is. I think compromise is part of the engine of creativity.”
Still, as Travis affirms, “Our music tastes have moved further and further apart over the years. When we started String Cheese, I listened to Grisman Quartet and I loved Strength In Numbers and I would check out Telluride bluegrass and Billy was the core of that whole thing. And now I listen to nothing but electronic music and that’s all I want to play and all I want to hear and Billy’s got more into hardcore bluegrass and everyone’s kind of drifting part musically and it’s been harder to hold together a middle point..”
There is certainly a danger of stretching it all too thin with each band member occupying a discrete musical cosmos. However, most fans would agree that the integration and overlay of seemingly disparate musical ideas has made for an exhilarating musical experience (and one embraced by increasing numbers of listeners as the band has carried its sound into amphitheatres over the past few summers).
In this spirit Nershi made his own “big compromise” by supplementing his acoustic guitar, which had long been one of the band’s defining elements, with an electric guitar on stage in 2003.
“On [2003’s] Untying the Not I did a series of overdubs that were slide guitar on a Les Paul through a cranking vintage Fender amp and it was really fun. It was exciting doing that, so I brought that into String Cheese world and I think for some of the members of the band it was, ‘Oh cool, now we can really take off with Billy on the electric guitar.’ The acoustic guitar has become more and more swallowed up by the sound of the String Cheese Incident over the last several years and it has been frustrating. So I brought in the electric guitar because I know I could get that over the top. Unfortunately I’m not as good of an electric guitar player as I am an acoustic guitar player because I put in years and years on the acoustic guitar more than the electric.”
Meanwhile, as the band continued to survey new sonic realms, Nershi found himself increasingly flustered and frustrated in the role that he took most to heart, that of the songwriter.
“It got to the point where the sound of the band had changed so much over the last couple of years, I felt like a lot of things I was writing weren’t fitting in anymore and the band was more reluctant to play some of the material. I found myself getting kind of jammed up creatively. When I saw the stuff that I was writing was not quite making it out there to the performance, I didn’t write as much. From a musical standpoint that’s the main reason I started thinking about doing other things.”
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