Track By Track: The String Cheese Incident’s Believe
by Dean Budnick on April 13, 2017
"We had kind of a ‘coming to Jesus' moment a little while ago,” The String Cheese Incident’s Michael Kang explains. “Now that we’re into version 2.0 of our reality—and everybody lives in different places—we decided that it was important for us to begin a yearly tradition where we would get together and not do any rehearsals for tours or anything, but just work out new ideas—try to get into a band creative process, away from families and stuff like that.
“So, a couple years ago, we did a band retreat where we went to this house in Sedona, Ariz., totally out in the middle of nowhere, and just loaded our stuff into it—it was just the six of us with our road manager, and we set up. There was zero structure to it: We just got up in the morning, cooked breakfast together, then went, ‘Alright let’s play some music.’ We’d play for a couple hours and we’d be like, ‘Oh, it’s nice out! Let’s go for a hike!’ Then there were breakout sessions when people would work on lyrics together. We recorded the whole thing and 10 to 15 potential new tracks came out of that five-day experience together. That proved to be the lightning of the flame for the new material that’s being put out on Believe. We’ve since done that again at our friend’s place outside of Aspen, Colo., and that will probably turn into the next release.”
“To be honest,” Kyle Hollingsworth adds “[Michael] Travis and I were a little hesitant at first because we were like, ‘How’s this going to work? We haven’t really gotten together as a group and lived together.’ I was nervous because some people write differently, and I didn’t know how well I would write in a group, but it turned out to be a fantastic experience. By the time we left, we totally understood what it was about. Writing together, cooking together, hiking together—it was like a band retreat.”
The Material from those Sedona Sessions comprises the bulk of the songs on Believe, the group’s new studio release and the follow-up to their 2014 album, Song in My Head. As on that record, Jerry Harrison Served as producer alongside engineer Eric “ET” Thorngren.
“We had developed this rapport that seemed to work,” Kang explains. “So, for this album, we also really wanted to give Jerry a shot to produce songs that weren’t written because, on the last album, the songs were already pretty much established. He didn’t really have as much producer input per se, besides how it sounded overall. So we just wanted to go further along the process with him.”
MK: The chorus for this song had been going through my head for a while. I don’t know where it came from, but it might have happened after I saw a U2 stadium show a few years ago. I had never seen them before in that kind of setting and it blew me away. Soon after that, I had this lyric and melody going through my head.
I haven’t had a lot of time to be creative at home lately because I have two kids. When I get home, I’m changing diapers and everything’s got to be quiet at my house during that time. But when we did the band retreat, the songs came together really quickly. We started working on lyrical concepts in the studio, but the chorus was always right there. The basic concept is that a lot of us, in whatever walk of life, sit there looking for happiness but, while we’re looking, we can miss the fact that it’s just staring us right in the face.
KH: This was one of the first songs we brought out at the very beginning of our writing sessions in Sedona. It felt like it was to take off right from the first note. It’s a great opening track. It really grabs your attention and all the background vocals definitely add a little bit of a U2-ish vibe.
MK: “Sweet Spot” is another one of the songs that came out of our time in Sedona. Keith [Moseley] had the basic riff and stuff worked out already. He tends to write the hookiest stuff for our band, and he has a really good pop sensibility. It was just fun to work on that song. I remember them sitting around working on lyrics, and he just ran with that one. It was another one of those things that pretty much wrote itself. It’s become a mainstay in our whole live repertoire now.
One of the things that’s been fun in the studio, and a lot of our live shows the last couple years, has been getting to work with great vocalists. We got to bring in this woman, Sheryl Renee, a friend of ours in Boulder who’s a badass soul, gospel singer. I remember being in the studio and having her sing background, and we were sitting there going, “Yeah!” with the hair on our arms standing up. When you get somebody who knows how to use their vocal pipes, it’s a next-level kind of thing. That was a really fun studio moment.
KH: I can often hear in Keith’s lyric writing what he listens to at home. I might come in and say, “I’m listening to Vulfpeck” or something, and he’ll say, “I have the country station on all the time and everything I’m writing comes from country songs.” It’s interesting to me because that’s not at all what I’m listening to. The band is definitely very diverse.
My One and Only
KH: I’d worked with Bonnie [Paine of Elephant Revival] in the past. She played on a couple of tracks on my last solo disc. I love her voice. I think it’s so unique and I wanted to showcase her vocals. When I got together with her, I didn’t really have the lyrics done. So I hit her up and she was like, “Sure I’ll help you write lyrics as well.” So we got together, and she came up with the chorus and I started working on some of the verses. We talked about being on the road a lot and missing our loved ones back home. So we worked out the melodies and went through it together, and she improvised the whole last half of the song. I knew that I wanted her to do a vocal on that track. It could have been just me being lead vocal, but we mixed it in a way where she’s very prominent. She has a unique voice but also requires a unique way to record it because she’s very soft-spoken. You really have to be quiet. No one can be talking in the entire building or non buildings over. [Laughs.] Then, she’ll sing it really quietly and go, “Is that it? Did you get it?” “OK, we got it. OK, good, now people can go to the bathroom or do whatever they want.”
MK: I remember we were watching Mumford & Sons at Bonnaroo, that year  when they really blew up, before they became super mega with that first album. And we’re sitting there going, “My lord, look at what has happened! It took a bunch of English folks playing bluegrass to blow it up to the next level!” So that left a big impression on us, like, “Wow, we have similar acoustic sensibilities.” I think, lyrically, Kyle is in the same boat as me with two young kids. A lot of his songs have been about relationships, his kids and other stuff that’s been going on. But we really also wanted to bring the vibe of that foot-stomping, Mumford-type thing at the end of it.
Down a River
MK: “Down a River” is something that Billy [Nershi] actually had written a long time ago and had already put out. [It appears on his 2001 album with Liza Oxnard, It’s About Time.] He played it for us a long, long time ago and we thought it was a great song but, at the time, Cheese was interested in being more of a dance band. So it’s one of those tracks where we thought, “OK, it’s great, but we’ve opted to work on more up-tempo, dance-style numbers.”
But we’re now at this point where we feel like we’re willing to record anything and let it just be the character of the song. It was really fun to get into this one in the studio. One album that really affected all of us was Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball, and especially Daniel Lanois’ big, lush treatment of these country-based songs. I think that influenced some of these songs, how they were produced and how we wanted them to sound. This one came off really easy. A couple takes in the studio, and we were off and running.
KH: We were all asking for more songs, and Billy was like, “I have this one here.” Right away, Jerry really gravitated toward that. He thought it sounded like The Band, in a very low-key way, like from Big Pink. So we tracked the whole thing with the idea of it being a Band song.
MK: “ Get Tight” was another one of those things that we came up with in Sedona. It was funny: Before it really had lyrics, the vibe of it was heading more in the direction of a G. Love song, with some rap vocals and a mid-tempo funk beat. But then, Keith was like, “No, I really, really want to try it more like a full-on country thing.” Keith wanted to bring in Tyler [ Grant] and have somebody who could really slay it on the Telecaster, as this beautiful country thing.
So, although when we first started recording, I was like, “Oh, we’re gonna do this G. Love thing,” when we decided to go more country with it, it was off to the races in that direction. We’ve always been joking with Keith that he should try to sell a bunch of his songs to these songwriters in Nashville, and this was our ode to that: just full-on, unabridged country guitar. But, at the same time, the underpinnings of the song are completely different.
KH: Keith is my favorite vocalist in the band, and his lyrics always make sense. My lyrics are like, “Oh, I kind of understand that line and that made sense, and then you’ve lost me about halfway through.” Keith has a storyline to his writing, so I really appreciate not only his vocals, but his lyrics.
Stop Drop Roll
KH: This was a silly song that I wrote with Jason [Hann]. It was written as a party song in the summer. One of the interesting parts of it was my collaboration with Jason, but I only envisioned playing it for a few months. We recorded it for the fun of it and then we decided that we needed that vibe on the album.
It started out as a little riff that I had been playing in my solo band, and I got the whole audience to do it. I was like, “That’s kind of hooky.” So I said, “How about this?” And we developed the entire song from that one little intro riff. Jason has been excited to be more involved in the songwriting process and he latched onto it. He put some drum beats to it and he helped write the lyrics.
“Stop Drop Roll” is one of the songs that we’ve been playing live for a little while. People in the band have different ideas about whether to play these songs before the album comes out. It doesn’t matter to me personally what the order is. I just like getting music out. In our case, it came down to figuring out what songs made sense to play live, and songs like “Stop Drop Roll” or “Get Tight” or “Believe” will get played more live because they might fit a setlist better than “My One and Only” or “Down a River.”
MK: “Stop Drop Roll” was one of the songs that actually made it into our live repertoire. We wanted to include a couple songs that were part of the already established String Cheese playbook. I think this song came about right after “Uptown Funk” came out, and we were just sitting there in a different rehearsal space one time just going, “What if we wrote a super funny, cheesy kind of dance tune?” And Kyle and Jason just ran with it. We were in the middle of rehearsal and they we just sitting there coming up with these parts, so it might have been loosely inspired from that. It was this fun, playful thing that developed into a real song over a rehearsal, and we just kept working with it. But it was fun to just be able to go into the studio and produce it, and get it into a form that was more produced and sonically wide. That was another one that came off pretty easy because we had, more or less, done all the legwork.
MK: One of the things we wanted to do on the album was produce big, lush, ballads in the Pink Floyd vein. This one, we started working on during the sessions in Sedona. I remember we had this workshopping session with the lyrics and it was our ode to our favorite big Pink Floyd-style tracks. We used a lot of tremolo guitars and big, spacious reverb.
We were working on that one live the other day, just trying to get it ready to play live. We haven’t really done it that much live. But the idea of being able to do a lot of vocal layering and make stuff sound really big without having to play the parts was something we wanted to establish with this song.
It’s fun in the studio to be able to come up with vocal parts. Sometimes, live, we’re limited by how many people are there singing and able to sing while they’re playing. So this was one of those songs where we were like, “We can do whatever we want vocally, just record it and learn how to figure out how to do it live.” We’re in that process right now. We’re hoping to be able to get to that point where we can make it sound just as good live.
At this point, we’re OK with the idea of putting out stuff that sounds great on the record and, if we can’t reproduce it live, then we’ll keep working on it. We don’t feel like we’re restricted by needing to have everything that we do be available to our live repertoire. So we’ll see how it goes.
So Much Fun
KH: “So Much Fun” was written for another project [Kyle Hollingsworth Band]. But I played it for String Cheese and they were like, “Oh that’s cool! Let’s do it!” I was like, “We don’t have to. It’s not very ‘String Cheese.’” But they were like, “No, let’s definitely do it!”
I had been listening to Ben Folds Five a lot. Theres a live album that came out two or three years ago and this was written like a Ben Folds Five tune, with sort of a heavy, punk piano. One night, my daughter walked out of the car, looked up at the moon and she saw the clouds were covering it. She was like, “They’re playing hide and seek with the moon!” And I was like, “Hide and seek with the moon? That’s a great lyric line!” So I grabbed it. From there, I was thinking, “Let’s go super psychedelic. Let’s go Beatles.” I was thinking the lyrics could be about riding clouds through the afternoon or chasing planets around the room. The whole thing turned into this playful, psychedelic chorus.
Then Jerry put his head deep in this one. He wanted the whole song to be a conversation between a daughter and a father. The pre-chorus is “Every time I fall into your gaze of blue”—because she has really beautiful blue eyes—“reminds me how much fun I can have with you. So much fun riding clouds through the afternoon.” And then the next verse comes and the same thing—I say, “It’s getting late, time to go to bed.” She says, “I don’t want to go to bed. I want to stay up all night and wait for the sun.” So it’s an interesting concept. I’ve never written a song in a conversational form before.
MK: “Beautiful” is a track that Chris Berry and I worked on a long time ago. I did a bunch of traveling around Africa with him in 2006 or 2007. Right after that, we came back to the States—he was living in New York—[and] he had this project that he called CB3 that I helped him with. It was just him and the bassist and drummer from Brazilian Girls—two good friend of mine—Jesse Murphy and Aaron Johnston. We co-wrote this track together. Chris and I came up with the original concepts—the baseline and melodies—while [Murphy and Johnston] came up with a lot of the other stuff. It was the mainstay of our short-lived band’s career. For like a year, that band just ran around and we played a bunch of shows. It was always one of the funniest songs to play, and I wanted to extend the life of that song because it was too good to not be performed and have it go to the song graveyard.
So we reworked it. I did a whole lyrical rewrite that kind of expanded it from what it was. When Chris wrote it, it was definitely more of a booty-call song, talking to one girl, and I wanted to expand the lyrical scope of it. So I rewrote the lyrics, and it’s become a mainstay of the Cheese setlist over the last year and a half.
It was really fun to go to the studio, get it sounding as perfect as we could get it and have it be really big. That’s one of the things we brought in that didn’t require that much production help—although Jerry did change the baseline in the middle a little bit, which made it sound a little bit more urgent. But, overall, it was fun to just go in and whip it into shape.