By Jeb Wright
The String Cheese Incident is one of the most endearing and enduring jam bands around these days. The band has now celebrated two decades together and has recently released their first album in nine years on the exciting Loud & Proud record label.
Classic Rock Revisited caught up with SCI’s Michael Kang, who plays acoustic and electric mandolin, electric guitar, and violin in this unique band. In the interview that follows, we discuss the past, present and very exciting future of this band lovingly referred to by their fan base as simply SCI.
Jeb: Can you believe it has been TWENTY years you have been together? I am so old I still consider you to be a NEW band! Of course, there has been some on and off periods and side projects…but 20 calendars have come and gone nonetheless…
Michael Kang: It’s hard to believe it’s been twenty years. Time really does fly by. We’ve been reflecting back a lot the last few months, and we’ve been through so much as a band. From the old days in “Bussy” [the band’s tour bus they would tour around in the old days] and going around the country building this thing, to all of the incredible Halloweens, New Year’s Gigs, festivals and albums, we’ve got really dedicated fans that have been with us through thick and thin. It’s a special thing. I think we are in a really good space right now, better than we’ve been in a long time. Everyone is being super creative and excited to keep everything moving forward and alive.
Jeb: Now….to be fair…nearly half of that, nine years, you have not released a studio record. Why?
Michael Kang: We took a break for a few years in that nine year period. When we came back we really wanted to focus on just getting all of the old material back up to speed. It takes some time. We eased our way back into it. We knew that there would be a time for a new album and it felt right with this batch of songs. We didn’t want to just put out an album to put out an album
Jeb: Before getting into the entire album, I am a huge Talking Heads fan, so I want to know what Jerry Harrison is like to work with and if you are a fan of the Heads.
Michael Kang: Jerry’s the best. We’ve known him for several years and always talked about the idea of doing an album together. I think he really gets the band. It’s hard as producers sometimes want to put you in a box. They want to focus on one side of our band. The last two records of ours were great, but they were real different. Our sound was either changed a bit or expanded on. Jerry appreciates all of the sides of String Cheese and actually celebrates it. I think that is why a lot of people are saying this is one of our best albums.
Jeb: Are these songs all songs that have been written over the nine year hiatus? What’s the newest? The oldest?
Michael Kang: These songs definitely have accumulated over several years. “Stay Through” was written a while back with Jim Lauderdale. “Betray the Dark” was actually on our last album but it was a completely different version. I would say the newest is probably Keith’s “Struggling Angel” or Billy’s “So Far From Home”.
Jeb: The opening track “Colorado Bluebird Sky” features Zac Brown and his band. How did you get him to appear, and what are they like to work with?
Michael Kang: Last year, we had the huge privilege of playing with Zac and the guys at Lockn’ Festival (“Zac Brown Incident”). We had a whole lot of fun playing some of our songs, some of Zac’s and some covers. One song we did was Colorado Bluebird Sky. Zac and the guys had some interesting ideas for arrangements of the songs. After the gig, we thought it would be cool to get the guys on the track. There are actually two versions, one with the Zac Brown Band and one with just SCI.
Jeb: All of that live playing has made you one tight band. Did you do this live in the studio or did you do the album part by part?
Michael Kang: Most of the album is live in the studio. Of course, we put a lot of energy into overdubs and vocals, but we aren’t the type of band to really scrutinize various takes and patchwork a song together. We actually started this record in December of 2012 on our own. We were rehearsing for New Year’s and built a few days at the end to record some of these tracks. After we were done with those sessions, we decided to have Jerry and Eric Thorngren (“ET”, engineer) join the team. It’s probably a bit backwards. We did re-cut several of the tracks from the original sessions and really built on the ones we kept.
Jeb: You guys sound like a mix of the Grateful Dead, Little Feat and String Cheese all wrapped into one on this album, in my humble opinion!
Michael Kang: Thanks. That is some really great company to keep.
Jeb: Do you enjoy studio work? Does it feel like work compared to the freedom of the stage?
Michael Kang: Our opinions of the studio have really evolved over the years. We struggled with it for a long time. We spent a lot of time trying to capture the live sound on record. I think “Outside Inside” was probably our best record at capturing that. It helped that Steve Berlin from Los Lobos produce that record. Steve has a real understanding of the recording process and what works and what doesn’t. Then our next two records were much more experimental. We spent a lot of time on Untying the Not. I think it’s an album that got mixed reviews from the fans but one that we really love. It was just real unique and different. I think we feel a lot more comfortable and confident now. We don’t over think the recording process. Some of our older albums were real agonizing to make. This new one was real fun and to the point. It felt real natural.
Jeb: Rumor has it you didn’t go into the studio in Boulder to make an album but rather to rehearse for a tour. At what point did you know it was time to record?
Michael Kang: We actually planned on recording following our New Year’s rehearsal. When we finished those initial sessions we knew it was going to lead to a full record. I guess it was cemented when Jerry came out for the next round of sessions.
Jeb: So, you guys are pretty independent in many ways…not just musically but also the community support, putting on your own festivals, helping others…where does that spirit come and what does it mean to you?
Michael Kang: We just wanted the freedom to make our own decisions and control our own destiny. Initially, we made the decision to do everything independently, from records, to merch to ticketing. Now, it would probably have to be out of necessity. The business has changed a lot in 20 years.
Jeb: Band members have commented that this album ‘sounds’ like you more than any other album. Explain in detail why you say that and why you think you captured the live sound of the band correctly this time.
Michael Kang: I think in comparison to our last two records, Untying the Not and One Step Closer it really does. Those last two records were much more experimental sounding. This one was more of an attempt to go back to our roots and sound like The String Cheese Incident.
Jeb: Are you happy being called a ‘Jam Band’? I mean, that name, to many, just means a stoned band that indulges themselves on stage and meanders on and on. You guys can all jam, but I think you are more of a jazzy band that plays quasi-rock music. Am I making any sense?
Michael Kang: I tend not to focus or care about labels. I think the music business always feels like they have to put people in a box and if they want to call us a jam band that’s fine with me. We love to jam out songs but we also love playing a 4 minute song. Our show is a real blend of both. You can hear “Barstool” followed by “Rivertrance.” Our shows are really all over the place.
Jeb: How much effort is given to lyrics in this band? So often, very musical bands can concentrate on music more than words… that said, songs like “Betray the Dark,” “Struggling Angel” and “Rosie” have cool lyrics.
Michael Kang: Thanks. Every song is different. Some songs you really focus on the lyrics, others you focus on the music and it turns into an instrumental. Sometimes they come real easy, sometimes they take a long time. But, we definitely have been focusing on it more and more over the years.
Jeb: You put a lot of work into your live shows. What can be expected this time out?
Michael Kang: We’ve got a bunch of new songs. We should be playing them this summer, which we are really excited about.
Jeb: How much fun is it thinking up this stuff for the live set? What about the cost? Have you ever had to scale back because it is just too expensive to do everything you would like to do?
Michael Kang: We’ve always made decisions on creating the best possible show. Obviously, finances can come into play, but most of the time we just try to do what we think would be best for the show and the experience.
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