The String Cheese Incident: Gravity Games (Relix Revisited)
While standing in the wings a few moments prior to taking the stage, Nershi is joined by SCI co-manager Mike Luba and Guster manager Dalton Sims who apprise him of the day’s events at Fenway. The trio is soon laughing in bewilderment at a confrontation in the fourth inning when 72 year old Yankees bench coach (and former Red Sox manager) Don Zimmer charged across the field at Sox starter Pedro Martinez during a melee in which Martinez pushed the AARP paragon to the ground. And while this tussle does not provide an altogether apt metaphor to describe the String Cheese Incident studio experience, it is worth noting that Nershi laughs, “That’s great,” when presented with moe. bassist Rob Derhak’s definition of a producer as “someone who takes your art and tries to make it his own.” Nonetheless, the guitarist also acknowledges, “right now the thing that gives me the most excitement and the same kind of rush that I had at my first gig in front of a lot of people is getting in the hot seat in the studio.”
It was Youth who lit that fire. The former Killing Joke bassist, who has gone on to produce, among others, The Orb, The Verve, Crowded House and James, first saw the band perform at the Berkeley Community Theater in October 2002 and came away ebullient: “I liked the vibe. I liked the idea of where they came from, where they were at and the potential for where they could go.” Far more importantly for the direction that the project would take, he viewed the String Cheese Incident through a perspective framed by European clubland. “They really are a dance band. They came on with a slow song and the crowd went freaking straight away. All their fans were dancing all they time. There’s not a lot of difference between what they were doing and the electronic rave thing in terms of the functional part of what actually occurs.”
So with the band’s sanction Youth set about bridging these parallel realms (String Cheese was not entirely unfamiliar with his aims as Kang and Travis have an affinity for electronica, although Moseley admits with a laugh, “to be honest I was a little scared when I read his discography and I didn’t really recognize most of the bands.”). One song that manifests a near-perfect melding of approaches is the instrumental “Valley of the Jig,” which vests a bluegrass melody with house music beats. The transformation is all the more artful when one recognizes that some of “Jig” builds on ‘Red Haired Boy,” a traditional Irish song long since transplanted to Appalachia where it has become a fiddle staple. Fitted with a new rudder it now crosses back over the Atlantic to its origination point butlanding in the dance club rather than the dance hall.
A second dramatic transformation came with “Just Passin’ Through” a collaboration between Bill Nershi and John Barlow that began as a crackling country-inflected composition laced with an ironic, dark humor. While the band was quite content with the song, Youth was not so easily appeased. “To me sometimes humor doesn’t go deep enough, it wears off pretty quick. They used to go into this instrumental jam in the end that had these different chords. It was a bit more melancholy and reminded me of Derek & the Dominos at the end of “Layla” where it goes into that piano section. I suggested that he sing the song over the chords and slow it down to give it new perspective on the lyrics and a different intention and atmosphere. It became a bit more moving emotionally. I think as a producer it is my role to bring out the emotional heart of a song.”
Aside from countering Derhak’s Theorem, Youth’s comments hint at some of the backdrop to these sessions. On its previous album, 2001’s Outside Inside the band had asked producer Steve Berlin to capture animated live readings of its songs. This time the group granted Youth the freedom to push it further and he fully availed himself of this prerogative. While he acknowledges that “some kind of turbulence is always good creatively as long as it’s channeled constructively,” beyond any drama for drama’s sake the producer also counseled the band to reassess and simplify in service of the songs.
“They have a justly formidable live reputation, however making a great album is a different gig entirely. Even live sometimes I felt as if I was watching five solo artists. When it was their song they’d have the spotlight and then the rest of the band would be their backing band. So I said, ‘Let’s play a bit more as team,’ because using the studio as an instrument is a different art, the focus has to be more on the songs than the musicianship.’”
Travis in particular acquired a new reference point. “My general instinct on the drum kit is to put all the groovy little sixteenth notes in and make everything a little bit funky but he wanted the drum kit to be this very clean anchor. I saw the wisdom in it after he had me intersperse a tambourine part to give it a sixteenth note shimmer. It was a huge rock and roll education for me and now I think everybody has more gravity to their playing. ”
Nershi agrees. “Trav and I were the brunt of what I thought were attacks on our entire musical worth and I still had the most satisfying creative experience I’ve ever had in the studio. One of the great lessons from this recording process was it’s okay to focus more on timing, execution and emotion. We’re realizing the spaces are just as important as the notes and I think that’s something that we’re going to keep learning.”
“After grinding it out for five months” Kang explains, “there is a deeper level of satisfaction than I’ve ever had with any of our albums.” Untying the Not may not carry the resonance of Dark Side of the Moon, the album most commonly held in comparison during the recording process. However, of all the band’s discs it leaps the closest to exhibiting the fundamental characteristic that Kang ascribes to the 1973 Floyd release: “an intention to make a deep emotional impact with the audience. If you listen to Dark Side now, its message still holds true. It’s timeless.”
“Although,” Travis amends, “there is that one song ‘Time’ so it’s not quite ‘Time’-less.”
“But aside from that song…” A deadpan Nershi trails off.
Indeed, the band has emerged from these turbulent sessions with its humor intact, enlivened by an album that is surprisingly String Cheese and rather Youthful. This exhilaration reverberates in the concert setting as characterized by Carolyn “Mountain Girl” Garcia in the band’s DVD Waiting For the Snow To Fall, when she proclaims, “Listening to the music developing on stage in the instant, to me, that’s better than baseball.” Following a 4-3 Red Sox loss to the Yankees, the Orpheum sways in accord.
Beth Hart shares the opening track from her latest album, Bang Bang Boom Boom, live at Relix.
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Here’s another song from Crystal Bowersox’s new record All That For This, live at Relix.
WYATT share a song in the famed Relix boiler room.
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Australia’s Alpine recently made their NYC debut at the Relix office with this song from their new album A is for Alpine.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
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