The String Cheese Incident: Lucky Number 7
Photo by Erik Kabik Photography/ MediaPunch
The String Cheese Incident close their 25th year with a renewed sense of purpose and brotherhood.
“We talk about the seventh member of the band – the collective String Cheese consciousness,” says guitarist Bill Nershi, relaxing at his Denver home on a fall afternoon. “The seventh member of the band is when you boil down all the ideas all the six members have into one thing. It’s its own entity that needs to be considered at all times.”
A quarter century after they formed, and a decade after they started inching back into active duty after a hiatus, The String Cheese Incident have continued to make their mark on the livemusic circuit. They’ve been fundamental in the growth, and creation, of marquee festivals like Electric Forest and Hulaween; they’ve challenged industry titans with a landmark ticketing case and they’ve jammed through genre after genre, sharing stages with everyone from George Porter Jr. to Skrillex to GZA of Wu-Tang Clan.
“No one person can really take the reins and say, ‘We’re gonna do this and we’re gonna do it my way and play this kind of music’ because that throws the balance off,” Nershi explains. “If the seventh member of the band is happy, then things are going well.”
From the earliest planning stages, The String Cheese Incident wanted their 25th anniversary celebration to be a defining moment in their already lofty career. During the past 12 months, they’ve managed to collaborate with icons like Del McCoury and young guns such as Billy Strings at DelFest, recreate their 1999 Breathe album with Keller Williams at Red Rocks and stretch one of their signature latter-day compositions, “Rosie,” into a mind-bending 75-minute musical saga at Electric Forest.
“We decided that we were gonna really go for it and play a lot of places that we haven’t had a chance to go in years past,” says Nershi’s SCI co-founder, mandolinist/fiddler Michael Kang. “We got to go back to Jazz Fest, and pretty much touched every part of the country this year. We wanted to celebrate as much of the last 25 years as we could.”
It’s the latest in a long line of career-defining milestones for the ensemble—Nershi, Kang, bassist Keith Moseley, keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth, drummer Michael Travis and percussionist Jason Hann—since their earliest days busking on the Colorado ski circuit.
For their 20th anniversary in 2014, SCI played a free outdoor “Incident on the Hill,” right next to the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colo., drawing a crowd of thousands into the streets. “That was a crazy day—there were people on the rooftops of buildings, hanging off of light posts. It was wild,” Nershi recalls. “There were cops around trying to keep people from falling off of the buildings. It felt pretty old-school Colorado; people were just having fun and doing what they felt like doing.”
According to Nershi, one of the running mottoes for SCI’s 25th year and beyond is “Let’s make it fun again.” When the group originally veered off the road in 2007, they had become bogged down by travel, stress and internal disagreements. In 2009, they agreed to reunite for a few sets around the Rothbury Festival—a precursor to Electric Forest run by members of their management and events teams—and primarily focused on short, targeted runs during the period that immediately followed. Gradually, they returned to a more full-time touring schedule—releasing the 2014 LP Song in My Head and the 2017 record Believe, along the way— and, most important, rediscovered the joy of performing together.
“We all realize that our biggest service to our fans is to go out and have as much fun as possible,” Kang explains. “Not only perform the music well, but actually enjoy the vibe of what we created. That’s really vital for us. And, to be honest, sometimes it’s hard to do that because the grind of it can get to you. But, as we’ve gone through it, we’ve been able to assess and reassess.”
“It’s been 25 years and there are times when you get to a point where you feel like you’re just working to take care of your family and pay for your home and things like that,” Nershi adds. “The most important thing is that we’re enjoying getting onstage and playing music together, going to rehearsals and hanging out together. We have our own studio now that we can go to and set up for a week and just jam and work on new material or brush up on some other old stuff.”
The band’s studio, which they’ve dubbed The Sound Lab, is one of the cornerstones of their current era. It opened in 2016 and has been their creative hub ever since. In tandem with their namesake label SCI Fidelity, the Sound Lab has birthed collaborations with Jim Lauderdale, The Infamous Stringdusters’ Andy Hall, The Motet’s Lyle Divinsky and Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads and Modern Lovers, among many others, all from the comfort of their multi-story compound.
Hollingsworth is quick to point out that the group’s original rehearsal/storage space wasn’t nearly as welcoming. Located in a row of garages—and next door to a motorcycle repair shop—the space was run-down and even included a few unwanted roommates.
“We were selling out Red Rocks for three nights in a row, but rats were falling from the ceiling of this place we were renting,” the keyboardist cringes. “We were like, ‘What are we doing? Why are we in a place like this?’”
“I think Kyle is probably engaging in a little hyperbole,” Kang counters with a laugh. “There weren’t rats falling from the ceiling, but it was definitely not that nice—basically a piece-of-shit garage.”
Nershi also recalls how their original space, which they rented for over a decade, had a “gnarly” layer of dust that would cover everything. “It would get in all our gear and, of course, in our lungs,” he says.
When they found out that a friend of theirs was selling an old music warehouse/retail space nearby, it seemed like a good opportunity to escape the garage. And while some band members were initially nervous to invest, they soon realized the value of having a creative hub for themselves.
In 2015, they started building their new, two-story Sound Lab, which sits about a mile away from their former dingy space, outside of Boulder. Now, all they need is a burst of inspiration and they’re ready to hit record. And rather than being bound to an EP or an album’s cohesive theme, band members can fire off singles that wade in and out of their countless sonic hues.
“We get this really nice mix,” Hollingsworth says. “I heard a quote recently: ‘If you don’t like what Cheese is playing, just wait five minutes.’”
“There are so many influences in the band,” Nershi adds. “Jason and Travis have these electronic influences, but they can also drop into some crazy Latin or African rhythms. Kyle and Mike can play jazz or funk. Keith and I can bring in bluegrass and Americana, or just down-home rock. It’s a product of us saying, ‘Yes’ to people’s ideas and running with them, whatever the stylistic choice may be.”
Those influences are never more apparent than at the band’s annual Hulaween celebration at Florida’s scenic Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park.
Since 2013, Hulaween has brought together an eclectic mix of acts for a multi-day celebration of music, art and, as expected, Halloween madness, all anchored by multiple String Cheese Incident sets. The sextet’s twangy daytime offerings lead to improv-heavy late-night explorations and cover-heavy costume theatrics. This year, the band challenged themselves with a ‘90s theme, performing a wide range of covers, as exemplified by the mid-set about-face from Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow” to TLC’s “Waterfalls.” (For Nershi, the highlight was SCI’s opening take on Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away,” which allowed him a rare chance to show off his rapping skills.)
During their off hours at this year’s Hulaween, band members were spotted gambling at the festival’s late-night Frick Frack casino, which allows fans to bet and win non-cash prizes. Located in the festival’s famed Spirit Lake art installation, the casino gave The String Cheese Incident the chance to rub elbows with fans and blow off some steam. Percussionist Hann even took on a few shifts as a dealer.
Nershi sees himself as one of the big winners of the weekend, taking home a baby doll head, one of its arms and—the pièce de résistance—an autographed photograph of Hulk Hogan, which now holds a place of honor at the base of his amplifier onstage.
From the start, The String Cheese Incident have ensured that their performances stay fun and fresh by switching up their setlists and keeping the lines of communication wide open. And while a six-month break through the new year will give them a chance to catch their breath, they see themselves back on the road sooner rather than later.
“Sometimes it’s harder than others, but that’s why we’re still together,” Nershi says of SCI’s dedication to interpersonal harmony on the road. “You don’t get up and leave in a huff and hold a grudge against somebody else in the band. We definitely understand each other pretty well at this point; we know each other’s personalities. It would be very easy for anybody in the band to push somebody else’s buttons and really piss them off. But when we do have differences of opinion, we really try to work it out.”
Between tour dates, the band has participated in multi-day retreats to work out their issues through group therapy and team-building exercises. They also use those getaways as an opportunity to plan for the future, asking themselves: What does the next year look like? How about the next five? The next 10?
“It’s a work in progress,” Kang explains with a laugh. “I think that’s one of the strengths of the band, but also one of the hardest parts of the band, too. I always say, being in this band is like being married to four or five other guys.”
Improvisational games are another method of SCI’s self-improvement, keeping their senses sharp and reminding themselves of their equality. “We take a simple melody idea and play it, and then the other band members have to learn that. After one member plays it, it goes to the next person,” Nershi says. “By the time everybody learns that one little melodic idea, somebody will change it and we’ll go around in a circle again.”
And that sense of gratitude has defined their recent sessions. “We have to be really thankful for our success,” explains Nershi. “We’re not U2, but there are thousands of bands that don’t get to the level we’re at. We’ve had to put a lot of work into it. We’re just a bunch of ski bums from Colorado.”
Despite being one of the longest running third-generation jambands and existing at the center of a mini-empire that has, over the years, included management, label, travel, event and merchandise arms, the members of The String Cheese Incident didn’t get into the music industry for the fame or the money. In fact, it mostly had to do with their love of the great outdoors.
“Our common bond, for at least the four of us—Keith, Billy, Travis, and I—when we started in Crested Butte, Colo., was like, ‘Woah, we all enjoy living in the mountains!’” Kang recalls fondly. “We were all into skiing and had the same kind of reasons for being there.”
Kang recalls how in the early days of SCI, when they weren’t performing for annual ski passes, they would go on “crazy adventures” around the U.S. He hiked up and down the northern rim of the Grand Canyon with Travis, did environmental advocacy work for Greenpeace with Moseley and spent a good deal of time in Telluride with a number of his newfound bandmates.
Nershi originally rolled into Crusted Butte on a lark—driving his second-hand school bus—and SCI’s early years were a gradual, natural progression. After playing casual Après-Ski duo gigs, Kang and Nershi recruited Moseley and, soon after, Travis, who originally played hand drums. The String Cheese Incident toured and recorded as a quartet for a period of time, often working with early collaborator Bruce Hayes. Hollingsworth started sitting in for a few gigs and “against his better judgement” officially joined the band in 1996. Hann, the final piece of the puzzle, permanently joined the group in late-2004 during a rough period when the quintet were struggling to communicate and wanted to broaden their musical direction.
“The six piece is real different—it’s a bigger machine with more parts, but it’s pretty fun,” Nershi says. As evidenced by their “seventh member” theory, it seems that finding balance is the key for the members of SCI, even outside of the band itself. All of them pursue passions on the side, whether it’s projects of the musical variety—Travis and Hann have long performed as the psych-impov duo EOTO—or other mediums.
In addition to his solo material, Hollingsworth has moonlighted as a brewer, creating several SCI-themed beers, hosting tasting events at festivals and even collaborating on the Ground Score IPA with Relix and the Atlanta-based SweetWater Brewing Company. Meanwhile, Kang has spent the last decade developing his expansive property and working on a dream home for his family in Santa Cruz, Calif.
All of these outside pursuits help inform the band’s own ability to channel six distinct personalities into one creative vision. In turn, they attract an assorted crowd, highlighted by EDM kids, bluegrass twangers, jamband aficionados and everything in between.
“It feels good to be involved in something that is as musically diverse as we are,” Kang says. “We’ve been pretty open-minded with a lot of the shifts in the scene. It always feels good to look out there and see younger people, older people—just a really mixed crowd.”
After a landmark year, a memorable tour and quarter century of shows in the rearview, the future of the sextet’s own legacy is bound to come up. Years from now, how would The String Cheese Incident like to be remembered?
“As a group of people that has put so much energy into something, I think you want to feel like you’ve had a positive impact on the people you’ve interacted with,” Kang responds. “So, that would probably be the best legacy we could leave: we actually provided something positive for people to hang onto and touched a lot of people. Besides that, it’ll be for historians to judge. [Laughs.]”
“Society right now, is very intense and very stressful,” concludes Nershi. “It’s a stressful world for a lot of people. If we could be remembered as a band that can take them out of that stressful world and transport them into another dimension for a night or for three nights, then I think that we will have succeeded.”
This article originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.