String Cheese Incident
Oct 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson
The eclectic Colorado band known as the String Cheese Incident has been one of the more popular attractions on the jam-band circuit for 10 years now. With influences that include roots rock, bluegrass, reggae, Latin, Afro-pop, R&B, Grateful Dead-style jamming and space music — really just about any style you'd care to mention — the group covers a lot of ground during their marathon shows. Along the way, they've amassed a great number of fervent fans, who often travel great distances to see the band and collect and trade CDs of their performances. In the past year, the group has even taken to pressing and selling CDs of all their performances. (For more about SCI's concert recording techniques, see “Recording the Band” in the July 2003 issue of Mix, or visit www.mixonline.com.)
It's not fair to say that String Cheese's studio albums have been “after-thoughts,” exactly, but this is a group that has made its reputation and its living almost exclusively as a live attraction, so their few studio discs have tended toward a documentary approach: capturing the live feeling of the band in the controlled environment of a studio. On their last album, Outside Inside, producer Steve Berlin succeeded fairly well with this approach, though he may have reined in the band's exploratory tendencies a little too much, and the polyglot of styles — one of their great strengths live — lacked cohesion on that particular disc.
Well, SCI fans…prepare to be shocked! The group's just-released album, Untying the Not (on their own Sci Fidelity label), is as different from that album as can be; in fact, it sounds nothing at all like the group does live. This is a studio album through and through; indeed, it may well be the most thematically ambitious and sonically adventurous album to come out of the jam-band scene to date. It will no doubt have many an SCI fan scratching his or her dreadlocks, but those who invest the time and attention it takes to truly absorb the many layers of sound and music that make up this remarkable collage of songs and effects will be richly rewarded. This time around, the happy jam band wants you to think about some Big Issues: the wonder of life and death, impermanence, love, waking and expanded consciousness, memory, heredity; it's a lot to chew on over the course of about an hour of your life (preferably spent on headphones). This is an album that self-consciously aspires to be epic and — miracle of miracles! — succeeds more often than not.
“We weren't really sure going into this album what we were looking for on the other end,” says SCI bassist Keith Moseley, as we sit in a lounge at The Plant in Sausalito, Calif., on a sunny day last spring. “But one thing we decided was we wanted to hire a producer who would have a bigger hand in things, to maybe shape the songs a bit more, and help us deconstruct and reconstruct some of the material. We didn't want to just come in and record a bunch of songs. We've done that. So our record company — actually Kevin Morris [manager/president of Sci Fidelity] — came up with a list of six or eight different people, and we looked at resumes and interviewed some people, and certainly everyone was well-qualified.”
To the surprise of many in the SCI camp, the person they eventually chose to produce the album was a British man who goes by the name of Youth, the one-time bassist of the group Killing Joke; he's been a top producer and mixer for the past decade, helming discs for the likes of Crowded House (many projects), Art of Noise, Alien Sex Fiend, James, The Orb, System 7 and The Verve — not a hippie band in the bunch.
“We met Youth after he came out to one of our shows,” Moseley says. “We just really liked his vibe. Frankly, I was kind of scared by his resume. I looked at it and I didn't recognize anything. And the things I did recognize I thought, ‘What does this have to do with String Cheese?’ But he had a great attitude, and we were into making a departure from the way we'd worked before. We wanted to shake things up. And we did, that's for sure. We wanted to make something you could sit down and listen to start to finish. We had the grand idea of ‘Let's make a classic album, not just a collection of songs!’ So, we tried to narrow the focus of what we do, instead of trying to do everything we can do onstage on one record: ‘Hey, we can play bluegrass! Hey, we're a jazz band!’ This time around, we went in more of our rock direction.
“Basically, we came to the collective decision that we were willing to give up some of the ideas we have about ourselves and what the band should sound like, and trust in Youth's vision a little bit. It's been a struggle at times, but it's working out.”
With the arrival at the studio of Moseley's band mate, Michael Kang (who plays an assortment of electric mandolins that sound exactly like guitars), the interview moves down the hall into the control room of Studio B, where the group is doing some vocal work using the Neve 8068 console recording directly to Logic Audio, through Pro Tools hardware. Most of the preceding five weeks of recording have been in the larger Studio A, which has an SSL 4064 G+ in the control room and a famously good-sounding, 1,200-square-foot live room; and in the beautiful Garden control room, primarily a mixing space (equipped with an SSL 8096 G+), but with ample room for musicians. There's already quite a crowd in B when we show up: Youth and his engineer on the project — another Brit, named Clive Goddard — and the rest of SCI: guitarist/singer Bill Nershi, drummer Michael Travis and keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth.
I ask Youth about the appeal of working with a band so far outside of his realm of experience. “Well, I listened to the tapes and the demos and I was intrigued because I thought it was very unlike any project I've ever been asked to do. And I was very surprised a band like String Cheese would be interested in working with a producer like me. And I wasn't wrong!” He explodes with laughter, and the room follows. Then Kang cracks, “We were confident Youth's pagan-druid side would come out, and we'd make a good album together.”
When laughter subsides, Youth adds seriously, “There are a number of things I liked about String Cheese Incident. They're very American; their cultural influences are very American and I wanted to work with that. Two, they're very highly accomplished musicians; they're all really good. And I liked where they were coming from both musically and as people. I thought, ‘Now, how can I make this work?’ Because I'm not going to record jams and endless solos, and they have this huge repertoire. Live, it works very well. They have a great vibe onstage, and the relationship between them and their fans is fantastic. They're part of a great tradition that I admire: I think what happened starting with Chet Helms at the Family Dog in the '60s, through Grateful Dead and all that, saved the planet and still will save the planet in a deep way. So tapping into that energy — I love that! As soon as I heard the demos, I thought, ‘This could be a fantastic opportunity to make the last great American album, an American swansong, an American Dark Side of the Moon.’ The songs are melancholy and deep enough for that to be possible.”
So the songs fit into that vision? “They do now!” Youth shouts with a laugh, and again, the band collapses in gales of laughter. “He took a chainsaw to them!” Kang says.
“We did some work on the songs,” Youth says. “But the story is revealing itself through the songs in a very clear and direct way. They might not have been linked coming in, but they do make sense together as we're constructing it.”
The comparison to Dark Side of the Moon is no idle boast. The album is redolent with Floydisms: the blend of crisp acoustic guitar, drone keyboards and Kang's bluesy, but melodic, echo-laden leads; the snippets of spoken-word dialog drifting in and out as in a dream; and the booming drums propelling the songs through sometimes dense soundscapes of effects and ambient fields. At the same time, though, it's still very much String Cheese: the optimism that creeps through in most songs, the countrified harmonies, the fiddle breakdown (though this time, it's set against what sounds like a rave beat).
“Youth has a background in electronic, psych-trance, ambient things,” Moseley says, “and that's something we've been interested in, but we've never had anyone who could show us how to do it before.”
“I think the band was expecting us to do a more electronica, Afro-Celt Sound System-type project,” the producer says. “We did some of that, but most of it's actually quite traditional, just recording the band playing. There was a lot of time spent working on arrangements and getting the songs to where they needed to be. To bring me in and let me have that role was an incredible challenge. Most bands in their situation wouldn't allow it.”
“We're used to having songs and then each of us adding parts until they're done,” Kang says, “whether good or bad, just to fill out the sound. But Youth had us really working on the songs together, figuring out choruses and parts in a very deliberate way. Like on Keith's song ‘Sirens,’ he originally had that as sort of a reggae song, but Youth heard something in the bass line that made him want it to go in this whole other direction, and it worked out great. He'd say [imitating Youth's British accent], ‘Give it a bit more Zeppelin!’ ‘What does that mean? Like this?’ [he mimes a power chord] ‘Yes!’ So then the melody changes and everything changes to fit that, and then you have a totally different song.”
“Youth had so many great ideas,” Moseley adds. “He's a bass player, and he had a lot of good suggestions for me: ‘Try going up an octave here. End on a high sustain here. Double the guitar part here.’ More often than not, his ideas improved the songs.”
Though basics were cut live for the most part in Studio A, there are layers and layers of overdubs and effects, some of which were added during the group's six-week residency at The Plant and others during the mix at Olympic Studios in London on an SSL 9k.
When we talked in Sausalito, engineer Clive Goddard noted that “at the mix, we'll probably bump some things back from Logic Audio to tape to warm them up. I do like the sound of analog tape.” Goddard also favored such traditional warm-sounding gear as 1176s on vocals and ribbon mics for room sounds. And Youth suggested touches such as a Mellotron part for Hollingsworth on a song and having Kang play through Marshall amps here and there.
“Still, no matter how hard we try to make it British,” Youth says with a chuckle, “we can't because they're hopelessly American!”
He turns serious again: “Everyone's had such an emotional commitment to this album. I think it's one of the best albums I've ever worked on. Personally, I can always gauge a session by how much I feel like I'm learning from the band. And I've learned an incredible amount from them. They're really quite an amazing bunch.”
“And for us, it was something totally different,” Kang says. “Youth could see the end of the road from the beginning of the road, which I don't think the rest of us could. So we had to trust him. We're a band that's basically done everything our own way since day one, and as a result, we've become this kind of isolated bubble in a large sea of musical possibilities. I think this project is going to be one avenue for us in; hopefully, a long string of collaborations that push us to do things that we would never think about doing. Because that's where you're going to learn the most in life.”
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