Kyle Hollingsworth: A Brewer Looks at 50

Dean Budnick on March 6, 2018

Doug Fondriest

If you’ve been following along since late 2017, then you are probably aware that Relix has teamed with String Cheese Incident keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth and SweetWater Brewery to create a new signature IPA, Ground Score. On February 7, Hollingsworth, SweetWater and Relix came together to celebrate the beer’s release at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl. This was actually the first of two milestones in relatively short order for Hollingsworth, who turned 50 on March 2. He marked the occasion not only with a special series of shows, but also with a new studio album, titled, fittingly enough, 50.

The new record is a cohesive, owing statement that begins mid-jam with “Onset”—a theme that returns at the album’s conclusion as “Offset.” On 50, Hollingsworth is joined by his steady touring group, which features guitarist Dan Schwindt, drummer Brian McCrae and bass player Paul McDaniel, as well as a variety of guests, including Andy Hall, Jen Hartswick, Kim Dawson, DJ Logic, Tanya Shylock and his SCI bandmate Jason Hann.

“This album sounds like a new band,” the keyboard player observes. “We’re heavier—it has more of a rock feel, which represents what this band is with a little bit of a different lineup. For a while, Dave [Watts] and Garrett [Sayers] were in my band, and they’re awesome musicians, but they were focused on The Motet. They were committed musicians when they were playing with me, but they weren’t committed to a sound. This band is committed to the sound. We approach music differently than my last group. Brian specifically is a little bit more of a rock drummer versus Dave Watts, who’s a little bit more of a funk drummer. I was writing more for a rock band this time around, and I think you can hear that.”

Let’s start out by talking about the connections between brewing and live improvisation, which we spoke a bit about while we were in the process of creating Ground Score.

I first got interested in brewing when I was fresh out of high school. I was already into music—I started my first band when I was 12, or something—but home brewing, to me, was really cool because my brother had done it. So I got into it and did it for a while, but then music took over—which is still my first passion. I’ve come back to brewing in the last 10 years. I like adventure and taking risks and being able to improvise off the basics and expand.

With the brewing process, I like to experiment with different ingredients, taking chances in that environment—not being sure exactly what’s going to happen, in the same way that I can jump into music and explore. For example, until last night, I had never used this synthesizer patch, so I tried it and it worked out great. I was like, “Sweet, this is actually my new favorite. I’m gonna use this all the time.” And that’s the same way with using elderberries in brewing: There’s no way to know whether that’s gonna work out. Although in that case, you can’t find out right away; you have to wait three weeks.

You think about each element as if it were a different part of the band, maybe the drummer is the water, maybe the bass is the malt. The guitar could be the hops because they can go to 11, or maybe the guitar player is the wild card—the yeast strain who doesn’t always show up and that’s what changes the flavor or the whole vibe of the beer, or the band.

I’m curious as to what, if anything, surprised you when you were finally able to sample Ground Score?

What surprised me was that it was coming from a different place than the SweetWater beers I’ve tasted. It had a different body and character, and it was refreshing to my palate in a different way. I really like the hop presence and I thought that the alcohol didn’t feel boozy. I felt like it was well balanced within the beer.

Moving to your new album, what prompted the release of 50? I recall speaking with you early in the process and you were focusing on writing songs, but you weren’t yet sure if you would release an album.

The way the whole process went with this album, I had so many sparks in my brain that I thought were cool ideas. Every day, I have an idea or two that I put on my phone. So I had a lot of little stuff here and there. Then, I’d sneak into the Lab, which is this new String Cheese space. When [Michael] Kang wasn’t looking, I duplicated his key, and I’d sneak in during off hours with my band. We’d go in for a few days, and work on a groove without lyrics. Then, I’d take it home and add organs and synthesizers and write lyrics. It was quick. I’d get in and get out for two days at a time.

For instance, “Finding Our Way” is based on “Elijah,” which is an old String Cheese [instrumental] and I was playing along with it and that inspired me to look at that again. Sometimes when I’m writing a song, when something inspires me, I’ll sit in front of the piano and try to do the best that I can, but I don’t want to question too much because I feel like once you sit down and put a song in one direction it’s hard to pull it back from that. My thought is, “I know this is going to be a good song, but I don’t want to screw it up” by trying to make it something that it isn’t.

The original plan was to start releasing singles, one by one. But after I started doing that, I started getting more songs—it made sense for me to compile them into one album. Then my wife said, “Why don’t you call it 50?” I thought that was cool and I added a little spoken word at the beginning. So it became an album through the year and a half that I was working on it. 

There are some people who think that the Lab is a metaphorical space, not an actual physical space. Can you talk about the process of how it came together?

We found an old music building, which had been used as a musical services place. They had some lessons there and they’d sell cables, etc. So we bought it and converted it. In fact, right now, we’re still working on it. We converted it into a warehouse for our gear—so our semi can come in—and then, we connected it to a 4,000-square-foot place to record. It’s really nice. I’ve gotten to use it probably more than any other String Cheese member, just because I’ve been working on solo stuff. It’s really convenient and you get good tones. 

You mentioned that you started your first band at age 12. Were you writing songs back then, and to what extent did your upbringing influence them?

I can still remember some of the early songs I wrote when I was 12. It was me on Moog synthesizer and Wurlitzer—I was playing the bass parts—with a saxophone player and a drummer. In fact, I just transferred those songs this month, from a little four-track player. We would play on a front porch for the passing cars. We were all 12, 13. We couldn’t get an audience; we would force an audience that drove by in their cars. 

I was influenced by the music I heard in the house, and what was modern music back then. My mom was a big-time peace activist in Baltimore, and we’d listen to Pete Seeger, The Beatles and these peace songs in the house. So my early songs were activist songs about changing public opinion and working toward peace. My mom was part of that.

K-tel also put out these [compilation] records that always had hit after hit. I also really liked The Cars and then whatever my mom was listening to—rock, pop and blues.

In terms of the name 50, or the age 50, what led you to decide, “OK, that feels right to me.”

First of all, my wife said it, so it has to be correct. [Laughs.] The way I’m looking at it is that I’m turning 25 again. It felt like the right time and it’s a big, bold statement. Most people kind of try to hide that they’re turning 50, and I decided to fully embrace it. So I feel like the album is me embracing turning 50 and taking it on, versus being shy about it.

Were there any common lyrical themes throughout these songs?

There’s a little bit of a thematic aspect of relationships through this particular album. “Tumbling” and “All Falls Apart” have love themes going on. “Finding Our Way” is a story about myself and how I came to Colorado and became a totally different person after joining String Cheese.

Lyrics are always difficult for me, so I grab them when they come to my mind and I’ll just write them down, like the notes I do on my phone. Another thing I’ve been trying to do recently is write songs that are not necessarily about my wife or my children, something from a different perspective. That’s one thing I like about “Prime,” which is about a mathematician named [Bernhard] Riemann who was trying to basically prove the theory of everything and prove God through mathematics. He had this theorem, and people who tried to figure it out actually ended up going insane. I thought it was a really cool concept, that God is like, “OK, you’re getting a little too close.” There’s a bunch of other people who’ve tried to figure out his Riemann theorem and, every time they get too close, they go insane.

Lou Reed once said that you should be able to enjoy a rock song without understanding the words. I’m curious what your take on that is?

For the longest time, I agreed with that. I always thought the music was first and the lyrics were second. And now I’m realizing that it’s all the vocals; it’s all about the vocalist. David Byrne, he’s good a vocalist and he’s kind of quirky, versus John Mayer who has an incredible voice. To me, the voice brings the passion to the music and makes it unique. Every chord’s been played; every solo’s been played. And I’m just now, in the last year or two, realizing, “Wow, that’s what makes music for me.” At first, it didn’t really matter, I was like, “Oh, I’m a jazz guy.” I found a really good solo and I wanted to rage or have really intellectual notes or chords put into there. Now it’s really about a vocalist who can bring it. So I’m working on that personally, too.

Kyle at SweetWater with head brewer Nick Nock

There’s a book, The Power of Place, that explores how everything emanates from one’s geographic location. You mentioned that, at a very significant moment in your life, you moved from Maryland to Colorado, where you’re now based. Do you think there’s anything about Colorado specifically that manifests itself in your songs or in your brewing?

Place is a big deal for me. I stay outside all the time. It’s really important for me to be outside. So I’ll be biking or hiking, and I bring my phone with me; I very often get inspired just being outside. I can work through

a problem, work through a transition musically or come up with bigger thoughts.

I grew up in Baltimore and I’m sure that would have worked as well, but it’s just easier to get out to prettier places here in Colorado so that does come into my work. “Finding My Way,” which is a personal song, speaks to the whole arc of my life. It talks about joining String Cheese, finding my partner and becoming a father with two daughters, holding new life in his hands. There is a sense of where I am right now in the album, for sure.

And also, geographically, it’s part of where I live. This album for me, signature-wise, is a little bit more epic. There are some big songs. The last few albums have been kind of small but, this time, I feel like we have these big songs that represent the band, how we’re playing and they also feel like a style we’re in right now. I made a choice to go into the world of the jam scene a little bit.

And for the beer thing, for me, this area has always been an area where people drink lots of great beer. The explosion really took off here in Boulder and I think it does reflect people being adventurous, with a lot of the weird sours lately. I just get the vibe of people climbing a mountain, coming back down and being adventurous with what their palate could be and taking chances in that way.

I think that’s the way I live my life. I try to live in the moment—to live on the edge as much as I can. Without jumping in, you won’t see great rewards. By taking chances, you definitely get the possibility of great failure, but you’ll learn from that failure and then possibly get rewards from it. 

This article appears in the March 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here