This is shaping up to be a hot summer for the The String Cheese Incident. Riding the wave of a memorable Winter Carnival tour and their latest studio release, Believe, the Barefoot Boys have put together an ad-hoc summer tour consisting of a few multi-night runs and some very exciting festivals. Two festival debuts for SCI that we are particularly interested in are Summer Meltdown Festival in Darrington, Washington, because of a connection we hope to find with the storied Horning’s Hideout events of year’s past, and Element Music Festival, which features six sets of Cheese, as well as the return of Garaj Mahal, all at the stunning Snug Lake Amphitheatre in Princeton, British Columbia. We recently got the chance to catch up with the mandolin master himself, Michael Kang, to discuss all of the above, and plenty more.
You all obviously put in a lot of work for Winter Carnival and dusted off some cherished older material, songs that many younger SCI fans may not have ever expected to be brought back into rotation, were there songs that any of you were particularly dying to play live again, and if so, why?
There are a couple that we haven’t played that we’ve been meaning to but just never got around to, like “Pirates,” for instance. Then there’s some old nostalgic material that we used to play more because the instrumental make up of the band 20 years ago. We were playing completely differently. I was playing a lot more acoustic mandolin, and I hadn’t really gotten into the electric thing yet. So a lot of that stuff it made sense to play and it was more fun to just dive back into it, and it brings back a lot of memories. There was nothing in particular where I was like “oh man we gotta do it,” but it was a good experience overall.
I’ve noticed some of those have made their way into the Spring Tour so far. How does that revival of older material coincide with the release of a new album and the experimentation with those songs in a live setting?
Overall, I think with the new album coming out, as a group we’re pretty resolute on trying to release as much new music as possible. It keeps everything fresh for us, and it speaks to what we’re doing as a band, and what is most exciting for the people. So we have launched the SCI Sound Lab as well, so now that we have our own studio. We can really focus on trying to put out as much new music and collaborative music as possible, and just be really creative in that regard, which is something we never really had. We’re really excited about that but we also recognize that the fans who’ve seen us for a long time are stoked on hearing a lot of the old stuff, so we just gotta balance it out. I think overall that the band is really most excited about trying to play new stuff and get good and make that new stuff become the new classics, or sometimes we don’t, and we’ll write a song and it doesn’t hit the mark of what we want it to be live so that’s just part of what it is.
Speaking of the new album, Believe, the sound is undeniably diverse, with songs lending to each of your different writing, singing and playing styles. Can you speak to the difference of having your own recording studio for this one, and the creative freedom that gave you as a group to explore that diversity?
We just recently decided that even though we put all these songs together in an album, it wasn’t our intention to necessarily put together an album that stylistically matches. That’s one of the challenges when you have a band like us that loves to be all over the map, sometimes somebody will write a song and it doesn’t feel like it has any stylistic reference to any other song, so we just kind of decided to say ‘well, fuck it, it doesn’t really matter, let’s just release songs and keep on releasing them and not feel like we have to make a statement about how a certain album goes.’ Now, I feel like this one worked out that the sounds are similar enough to make it onto a recording together and make sense. But I think in the future we’re open to just continue to release more stuff, even if it’s singles or EP’s or collaborations, just keep stuff going out. But yeah, that has been a challenge of ours in the past, trying to represent all the different styles of music that we like, to incorporate everyone’s interests into the show, but I think that we’ve worked it out and hopefully we can continue to put songs out and make it interesting for us, too.
Moving forward to the summer, but keeping in the same spirit of revival, you have a week-long span where you are playing both Element Music Festival in British Columbia, and Summer Meltdown in Washington. Being that they are both in the Pacific Northwest, and relatively smaller, Cheese-centric festivals, these are shaping up to feel a lot like your famed Horning’s Hideout events of the past. What did Horning’s mean to you guys personally and to the Cheese community as a whole? In a way, are these festivals an evolution of that magic?
Same kind of vibe. I think that the early Horning’s Hideout shows were our first proving ground of what we felt like was the ultimate expression of our community-based music festival vibe, a true incident so to speak, and that’s kind of still fit into all the things we do whether it be Electric Forest, Hulaween, or these festivals. We’ve learned how to create an immersive spectacle that can be a really great experience for people, and I think that’s one of our goals as a band is to continue to do that wherever we go. So the [Element Music Festival team] up in British Columbia are our old buddies and they understand that experience. Whatever event we play, a lot of people work to create that same energy whether or not the event is smaller or bigger. The people of Symbiosis [Symbiotic Experiences, Inc.] are also friends of ours that create these amazing experiences, and that’s the kind of event that we tend to gravitate towards, and if we feel like we can help create that, then we’re all about it.
You’re playing alongside Garaj Mahal for their big reunion at Element Music Festival, which looks to be a stunning festival site. There is a bit of history between the two bands, can you talk about that relationship and how you both may have influenced each other?
Well I think it was more of those guys individually, like Kai [Eckhardt], and not as much Alan [Hertz], though he became an obvious influence just because he’s such a badass, and Fareed [Haque] way before we were even a band as SCI. Fareed played on some of most badass Latin jazz albums that were ever recorded, Kai just being as much of a monster on the bass as he was has always been an influence. Some of our guys were really into Latin fusion and fusion jazz, and so when Garaj Mahal first came together and we played some shows together it was always kind of like ‘Oh my God, this is going to be like going to school,’ and Fareed is actually a professor. So for anybody that plays any instrument, their world class musicianship makes it so it’s always a treat to check them out. Now I’d say there are some crossover influences. We haven’t seen them that much though, I see Fareed like once every five years, but whenever it is, it’s always a pleasure to be around him, so we’re looking forward to this, it will be really cool.
This will be the third country I’ve seen SCI play in this year, making for my first two trips outside of the United States as an adult. I understand that you have spent a good portion of your life traveling and living around the world; what does it mean to you to be able to hold these “international incidents,” and do you have more destinations in the works for the future?
I love to travel. I’ve always enjoyed immersing myself in different cultures and languages and all that, and I think it’s a really cool experience to be able to do that as a band, because you just learn so much collectively, as well as individually. So yeah, I mean any opportunity we can make it happen, we’re going to try to go for it, but they are a lot of work to make happen on the management and the band, so we kind of have to be picky and choosy, especially because a lot of us have kids and we can’t just be gone forever (laughs). We have some stuff up our sleeves, I’m sure it’ll come out, but at the very least we’re trying to make it so that we do it once a year, and get ourselves out of the country somehow, whether it be Canada or Mexico, or anywhere else for that matter.
After that, you head back to Washington for Summer Meltdown. The Infamous Stringdusters are on that lineup, and I can’t help but notice that the two bands are set to collaborate a few times this summer. Considering this along with the Winter Carnival acoustic sets, Is it fair to say that you all have had a re-emerging interest in the “New Grass” realm, at least in the live setting?
Well yeah, I think that’s something that doing the acoustic sets allowed us, to get back into that vibe, and certainly we want to be able to feel like we can tap into that at any time, and certain places are better for that than others. I think it’s always been part of our repertoire, and that’s part of why we did the tour. Probably the biggest reason that we did the tour was so that we could get back into that and really feel like we reintroduced that whole vibe to our fans, but also to ourselves. It’s really fun to play that New Grass style. I hope we never lose that and I’m sure it will be a part of the band’s legacy.
I was recently watching your documentary “Waiting for the Snow to Fall,” about the band’s early days and original ski tours. What have these last couple of tours felt like in comparison to the younger years?
Well, you know it’s not even just about the music, it’s really more the whole lifestyle. Some of the guys had kids when we were touring a lot, playing 120-200 shows a year, and it meant they didn’t get to go see their families, which was hard on them for sure. So we just collectively decided [to cut back], possibly because we don’t have to, nor do we really have the desire [to tour at that level]. Back in the day we had to do that to survive, because we were playing a lot of gigs that didn’t pay a lot and to support our families we needed to do that, but times change, and I think if a band has to do that for 30-40 years it would be pretty rough on everyone’s bodies (laughs). Touring on that level is not what people think. Even now, we’re getting back on the road and it’s different, and it’s harder on your body. I always say we get paid to travel, not to play.
So far in 2017, the consensus feeling among fans seems to be that y’all are playing some of the best live shows of your careers. Do you feel like you’ve hit a special stride together, and are taking things to another level?
There are a lot more, better things to come from the band. We’re always working towards that. So I’m glad that people are enjoying it. I personally don’t get as much feedback as I used to. I know some people are more tuned into social media and fan pages, but as soon as I get home I’m chasing after a 2 ½-year-old girl (laughs), so I don’t get a whole lot of time to look on there. I have been feeling like the shows have all been really fun. We’ve had a blast, so that for me is the true gauge of where things are at. If we’re really enjoying ourselves on stage, then I know that translates to the music and the fans because that’s how it’s always been. So I try to take it a little bit more day-to-day, but I’m glad that the shows have been on that level for you guys too, that’s for sure.
Article by Richard Oakley
Photograph #1 by Doug Fondriest
Photograph #2 by Matt McDonals