Movin’ on up
Jam band String Cheese Incident brings its new songwriting skills to the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds
In the four years since The String Cheese Incident released its previous studio CD, 1998’s Round the Wheel, the Boulder, Colorado-based group has become arguably the most successful do-it-yourself band on the music scene.
Releasing CDs on its own SCI Fidelity label, the band sold only about 150,000 copies of its four previous albums (including the recent live CD, Carnival ‘99). But those sales don’t reflect the large fan base that has recently mushroomed after seven years of heavy touring.
Where four years ago the group was playing mostly club venues, The String Cheese Incident now routinely fills large theater venues across the country.
During the past two years, The String Cheese Incident drew 8,000 fans for a home state show at Red Rocks Amphitheater near Denver, while the group enjoyed sold-out multiple night runs at such notable venues as the Warfield in San Francisco and the Tabernacle in Atlanta.
The group will appear at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds, in Chico, tonight (Thursday, Oct. 24).
To keep The String Cheese Incident machine running smoothly, the band has built a multi-faceted company that includes management, the SCI Fidelity record label, a gear and merchandise company, and even a ticketing service and travel agency designed to serve the many fans who travel from city to city to see the group. The combined company currently grosses about $3.5 million annually.
Against that backdrop, it’s little wonder that the group’s members felt pressure to meet expectations when they made the most recent String Cheese Incident studio CD, Outside Inside.
“You know, we’re poised in a position of growth with the band to where we can really reach a lot of people with this album,” bassist Keith Moseley said. “This is the first time that we might actually get a little bit of radio airplay, or the first time we might sell perhaps 100,000 copies of this album. That’s a lot of new ears that we’re going to reach. So we did feel, I think, a little bit of pressure to step up with the live performance and to step up with the CD and put on a show and a disc that’s better than anything we’ve done.”
For The String Cheese Incident, which also includes Michael Kang (guitar, mandolin, violin), Bill Nershi (guitar), Kyle Hollingsworth (keyboards) and Michael Travis (drums and percussion), the best way to answer that challenge was to rethink the band’s approach to album making.
Where the group’s first three studio CDs—Born On The Wrong Planet (1996), A String Cheese Incident (1997) and Round The Wheel—had sought mainly to reflect the group’s live sound and its instrumental and improvisational abilities, Moseley said for Outside Inside the group wanted to treat the studio CD as an entirely separate entity. That meant putting a whole new focus on songwriting and song arranging.
“We tried to kind of trim things down to the essence of the song without all the extras,” Moseley said. “That was the idea, to let the songs really shine through on the album and on their own.”
A key step in achieving that goal was the decision to bring in Los Lobos saxophone player and keyboardist Steve Berlin as producer. Berlin, whose production credits include such diverse acts as Los Lobos, the Tragically Hip, Leo Kottke and Faith No More, took an active role in helping shape the songs on Outside Inside.
After receiving a tape of demo versions of the songs, Berlin provided detailed thoughts on how songs could be shortened or rearranged to create the most impact. Some songs, in fact, were completely dissected and reassembled, with Berlin paying special attention to spotlight the hook of the song.
Indeed, Outside Inside does cut back on the kind of instrumental improvisations that have justifiably earned The String Cheese Incident the jam band label. Most of the 11 songs clock in at about four and a half minutes, with concise solos offering only a taste of the extended improvisations that characterize the band’s live shows.
Stylistically, however, Outside Inside still reflects The String Cheese Incident’s diverse reach. The title song, for instance, is a relaxed rocker that evokes comparisons to the Grateful Dead. Some sweet slide guitar lends a bluesy feel to the smooth mid-tempo pop tune “Close Your Eyes.” The largely acoustic instrumental “Drifting” smoothly shifts between delicate folk-pop and jazz textures.
“I think we were due for a little Songwriting 101 seminar," Moseley said. "Steve has a lot of experience, both with Los Lobos and the other bands he has worked with, in really trying to hone songs down to what really makes them happening. I think it was good for us to have a little bit of that. Our songs tend to be kind of long sometimes and run on, and to cut them down a little bit is a good thing for us. I think we walked away from the project with a little better understanding of how to write good songs.