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Sunday, March 30, 2003
STRING CHEESE INCIDENT
Setting music free on the open road
Special to The Japan Times
While major record labels battle Internet file-sharing to preserve the sanctity of music delivery media (CDs and whatever the hell will take their place), major artists challenge their contracts and less-than-major artists avoid the "entertainment industry" altogether. The consequence of technological advance? The triumph of cynicism? How about the manifestation of artistic impulses that have been around forever?
Like their ideological forebears, the Grateful Dead and Phish, the String Cheese Incident, a five-piece band from Boulder, Colo., subscribe to the "jam band" aesthetic of musical plurality that, in business terms, translates into a stridently laissez-faire attitude: Music is by nature free, and money is mostly a matter of channeling an audience's appreciation of it.
Music downloads are hardly a concern for a group that allows anyone to tape their concerts. This is a tradition among jam bands, but SCI complicate the tradition. Last April, they began releasing 3-CD sets of all the concerts they play.
"We've done two tours since we began the 'On the Road' series," says Kyle Hollingsworth, the band's keyboard player, in a telephone interview from a recording studio in Sausalito, Calif. "I'm not exactly sure how many there are so far. More than 50, I'd imagine -- which is a lot of CDs [laughs]. It's a new thing, I admit." He doesn't sound entirely sure of himself. "I guess we're breaking new ground by offering it."
Actually, it's not a new thing. Several years ago, Pearl Jam, in a bid to thwart bootleggers, released several dozen live albums from their European tour, a move that reportedly didn't thrill their record company, Sony. SCI doesn't have this problem, since they own their record company, SCI Fidelity, but they also don't have a problem with bootleggers.
As a matter of fact, "the bigger worry for us was offending the tapers, because that's what made us who we are today -- the community of people who send tapes out. At concerts, we offer two of our mikes and a special patch bay for tapers. All they have to do is show up with their tape recorders. That community really helped us grow and we didn't want to frustrate it by releasing all these CDs. So we conducted a poll to see if people would be upset. And I guess they aren't."
The concerts are presented as they are. "We don't post-mix them," says Hollingsworth. "We can't really cover up anything. They come out from the two audience microphones and the board mix. That's it. From there we master. It's out in less than two months."
But there's also the matter of quality, another artistic bugbear that SCI seems to have learned to overlook. "In the beginning, the band was worried about releasing CDs that were not perfect. Sometimes we'd do a great show, sometimes it's an embarrassing show. It took a long time for us to just let all that go. You can't be perfect all the time, but you also can't always tell how people will react."
With all this material available (the "On the Road" series is not just sold through the band's Web site), why bother making a studio album, which is what the band is doing at the moment?
"That's a good point," Hollingsworth says. "Maybe we're just wasting a lot of money. The songs that will be on this album are songs we've never released before, which is unusual for us because we normally just rehash songs we've been playing forever. But most of them are things we won't play until the album is actually released.
"Secondly, we want to get better at working in the studio with a producer. It's often really helpful to receive direction, a corrective vision. So for us it's a different experience. On the record we're making now we're trying to focus our sound more, make it more uniform. When you play live, it's mostly what happens at the moment. Here we want to tailor a sound. The process is different. You get to pick things apart." He pauses and then adds, "But it could be challenging as far as record sales go, since we have so many live albums out there."
The one trait jam bands seem to have in common musically is a willed eclecticism. SCI describe their music as a "sacrilegious blend of bluegrass, calypso, salsa, Afro-pop, funk, rock and jazz," but their main touchstone is bluegrass, an aspect that many people tend to miss, considering the instrumentation. And as the band proved last summer when they played three sets at the Fuji Rock Festival, two of which were three-hour marathons at the Field of Heaven, they rock out in a big way.
"Some people think the bluegrass thing is a joke," says Hollingsworth. "But our first headlining gig was the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which is pretty daunting. Billy [Nershi, the guitarist] was leading the band and he had a lot of bluegrass influences. But he was very open to finding a way for the rest of us to fit in. Like Michael [Travis] -- there aren't too many drummers in bluegrass music. He was psyched on playing Latin and Cuban music, so we eventually incorporated that."
Hollingsworth studied jazz piano, and there aren't many jazz pianists in bluegrass, either. "Exactly. So Michael and I had to reinvent ourselves to fit the genre, and it's always evolving. Still, 40 percent of the music we play on a given night is probably bluegrass-derived."
Though SCI takes themselves seriously as musicians and as a band, they were never particularly ambitious. The members met at a ski resort in Colorado in 1993 and just starting playing for fun, often in exchange for lift tickets. They invented a career as they went along.
For a while, they were playing "between 200 and 250 shows a year. All over the country, but internationally as well. Then we started realizing we were going to burn ourselves out. We're now down to about 110, I think."
Hollingsworth isn't exactly sure how many songs are in the band's repertoire. "I can visualize the list in my mind, but I can't say how many songs are on there . . . 200 maybe?" And most of them are originals, though the spectrum of covers ranges from Talking Heads to John Prine to Herbie Hancock. Moreover, their total lack of musical prejudice has allowed them to share the stage with a wide variety of name-brand artists, including jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, Dobro god Jerry Douglas, and the L.A.-based Latin hip-hop collective Ozomatli.
"King Crimson has played with us," Hollingsworth says. When he's told that the venerable prog-rock band will be in Japan at the same time SCI is here he sounds pleasantly surprised. "That's wild. It would be great if we could get together. It often happens. We'll play with somebody and then run into them further down the road."
Given SCI's love of the road, that isn't difficult to imagine.
April 9, 7 p.m., Big Cat, Osaka (Smash West,  6361-0313); April 10, 7 p.m., Nagoya Club Quattro ( 264-8211); April 12-13, 6 p.m., Shibuya AX, Tokyo (Smash,  3444-6751). Tickets 6,000 yen in advance, 6,500 yen at the door.