If you’ve been involved in the festival scene over the last decade there’s no doubt you’ve heard of The String Cheese Incident.
Throughout the past 20 years the band has consistently created some of the most eclectic and invigorating music that can never be defined by a single genre.
Each musician brings something unique to the table and their distinct stylistic variety is showcased at each and every show where they catapult the audience through a musical time machine that explores the numerous experiences and influences that have inspired the band.
Their ability to meld rock ‘n’ roll, funk, bluegrass, disco, electronic, afro, folk, latin, jazz, and just about anything else you can imagine is thoroughly astonishing. Seeing the ski bums from Crested Butte (Colorado) collaborate on stage and fearlessly improvise from one song to the other will drop your jaw to the floor and leave you capsized from the creative conundrum that is crafted by the six musical virtuoso’s.
One of the most impressive and captivating aspects of The String Cheese Incident is their ceaseless communication. There is a perpetual, potent dialogue that exists between all of the musicians as they probe and pursue different musical ideas. These moments display a level of cohesion and trust between one another that is deep, unique and entirely breathtaking. You can feel the passion and energy pouring off the stage as the artists lock onto a exciting concept, reacting off one another as they build the tension and create something completely improvised that sounds intentional from the start.
This elevation of musical prowess and power is only attained by a group of musicians who have been dedicated to pushing their art for many years.
At Suwannee Hulaween we were able to sit down with one of the members of The String Cheese Incident. Kyle Hollingsworth is the keyboardist and synthesizer wizard that you hear throughout their albums and live performances. He is widely admired by his peers and fans for his extraordinary ability to perform in a mosaic of styles as he effortlessly jumps between funk, bluegrass, rock, jazz, classical and bebop. His versatility and relentless dedication are part of the secret recipe that make up the music and experience of The String Cheese Incident. He’s also released three solo albums including the most recent, Speed of Life, which further demonstrates Kyle’s stylistic diversity and technical expertise as it ranges from modern electronica to ’60s funk.
Check out the full interview with Kyle below.
thatDROP: We know that you guys are very eclectic in your music and draw from lots of different sounds and inspirations. I was just curious to hear where your influence came from when you first connected with the band and where you were at musically when you met all of the guys and how has that further influenced the music of String Cheese?
Kyle: God when did I join String Cheese? Somebody out there knows. Probably mid-90’s. I was playing with a bunch of local cats of a band called The Motet. They were integral to connecting me with String Cheese. We had this place called Double Day which was this community house and Phish guys would come by and other guys when they were in town would just come to flop on the floor. So when I was in town I asked, “Where do you go to meet musicians?”…”At Dave Watt’s place”.
I have a jazz piano piano degree but I was always into the more funk side of stuff. I would listen to Herbie, Miles and then I got into funk in the 70’s. So I was doing that with Dave and then some guy named Mike Kang showed up to one of the rehearsals and we all started playing together. Then Mike said, “You should join our band.” I thought “I’ll just go for a summer.” That was 19 years ago.
So I think when I first came on I was doing a lot of Latin music like Pirates or stuff and then some funk stuff as well. A lot of piano driven stuff. That’s what was influencing me. So I brought that into String Cheese. Billy was playing Bluegrass and I didn’t really know what bluegrass was. It was more 60 or 70’s folk music. Over the years its been great to see how everybody’s influences have come upon me from electronic to jazz.
Do you know Telefon Tel Aviv? It is a great glitch album that came out about 5-6 years ago. They were playing it, Jason had just joined the band, and I thought it was so interesting. So I think each one of us really brings something unique to the forefront and influences everybody else.
thatDROP: It seems like you don’t settle. You are constantly evolving and taking in the music of other artists. What do you feel were the big ‘shifts’ where you learned something new and incorporated it into your music.
Kyle: It’s actually funny you bring that up because Andy, our old light guy, was very keen on when things would change. We had this element and then people started bringing in different instruments. For example, when I brought my first synthesizer he was like ‘Oh that kind of changes things with the sound of the band.’ Probably 10 years ago. That was an elevation of the band from this purely acoustic to electronic. Then Billy started playing more electric so that we could add double guitar stuff. As people bring in different elements you can see different stages of the band as you look back.
thatDROP: Especially with the earlier Bluegrass albums. They were more rock-centric.
Kyle: Yeah it’s more like Bluegrass to Bollywood.
thatDROP: That’s the whole String Cheese Experience. You really take every listener on a musical journey that goes beyond the music. From Red Rocks to Suwannee to Electric Forest. Beyond the music do you have a hand in the production and the art?
Kyle: To some degree. We have a great management team that helps with all of that. Madison House has been with us since the beginning when they were out of Athens, Georgia. We’ve both kind of grown up together and helped one another grow. We both had the vision of bringing more than just music to the fans, to bring an experience. We had all been to Japan (Fuji Rock Festival) where we walked through the forest and it had a disco ball. We thought ‘That’s awesome! Let’s glean that!’ Then we went to Oregon Country Fair which is this big ‘hippie’ festival outside of Eugene and thought ‘This is what we want to do.’ Let’s take this to the next level and bring it to the masses. Then we went to Horning’s and brought it to Electric Forest. I think it really is kind of a combo of Madison House and us bringing that in.
thatDROP: It seems like you find like minded people that want to create these experiences that truly take your mind and body out of the daily grind.
Kyle: Right? How lucky are we?! When I was a kid I would see The (Grateful) Dead in a parking lot on the airport runway or standing on concrete. You would put your tents on a cement lot. Dogs are peeing everywhere and it’s a nightmare. Now Electric Forest is what it is. Hopefully people realize what it has evolved from and can continue to take it to the next level.
thatDROP: Speaking of The (Grateful) Dead, when you started playing music and pursuing your passion did you ever think that what you were doing would be compared to The Grateful Dead?
Kyle: I know. Isn’t that weird? I wrote a tune with Robert Hunter (one of the GD writers) and, no, that’s so weird. I remember I was driving down the road having just graduated with my jazz piano degree with a bunch of friends and a Bela track came on and I was like this is cool how Levy was playing keys. I thought ‘I want to play in a band like that.’ Then two years later an angel or something was looking after me and put me in that position where you have to make the decision. Do I move to Colorado? Yes, I’m going to do that. Within a year I was hanging out with Bela and it was great. I never expected it.
thatDROP: Your songwriting often has a deeper meaning where it’s not just a track that you’ve created to please the masses. Songs like “Indian Creek”, “Betray” and “Colorado Bluebird Sky” were inspired from your experiences together, where they left a mark and a resounding impact that you then translated into music. Have there been any other places or experiences from which you have directly drawn inspiration?
Kyle: Yeah I mean there are tons. I have a new solo disc that just came out and I have been doing a lot of writing by myself and have been bringing a bunch of music to the band. So a lot of experiences have been personal. Like “Can’t Wait Another Day” was written about my daughter and waiting for her to be born. Literally, the lyrics are exactly what I was doing. Waiting by the door. All the bags packed by the door. With String Cheese, “Way Back Home” was written while we were all on the bus playing shows 340 days of the year. I wanted to write something kind of like Peter Gabriel. Instead of lyrics I wanted words that were not rapid fire but drawn out that went with the flow of the music. I think there are definitely tons of experiences that draw music out of me.
thatDROP: With the song “Rosie,” the lyrics are ‘Rosie, I know who you are.’ We don’t know who Rosie is so I was hoping you could provide some insight to that.
Kyle: (Laughs) It’s a little bit of a known thing but I can definitely share. There’s actually an outtake of “Rosie” on my album on iTunes. If you buy that, you get the out-take which has extra lyrics. It’s still String Cheese playing but the producer had me write more lyrics.
“Rosie” was written as I played in my basement. I wanted to do an afro-funk thing more like The Motet so I wrote a riff and wrote some melodies and had a little drill machine going. My daughter walks in and goes “That kind of sounds like Rosie.” The spider from the Butterfly Pavilion. It’s a place where kids can go and they have a bunch of butterflies and insects along with this spider that you can hold named Rosie. She said “That sounds like Rosie,” so I thought “Great!” and brought it into the band. They were like “Now we have to find words.”
thatDROP: Your new album Speed Of Life is incredible. Is that something that has been brewing over the years where you had these ideas that weren’t quite right for String Cheese?
Kyle: Yeah the new String Cheese disc I’m so proud of. That was one of the better String Cheese albums for me. It sounded less produced. A lot of producers try to make us sound more ‘glossed over.’ This last album was really consistent and when were doing it I just got the bug. I had all these songs and had written a bunch and had more. I thought ‘Who Knows when the next String Cheese album could come out. It could be years.’ I just had to do it. I got in the studio and felt the fire. Once you get in the studio it’s just fun, like being a kid in the candy shop. So jumping into the recording world I got the bug. I wrote a bunch. I probably had 7 tunes already written, so I kept going. Some of the stuff I did at home but, yeah, a lot of the songs had been sitting there gurgling and I got them out there.
thatDROP: You incorporated The Motet as well?
Kyle: Yep. The Motet guys. I’ve actually been referring to it as a celebration of collaboration. In a lot of ways I feel like it’s been hard to get back to where we have started. The old Motet days, the horns, the singers. Dominic from Big Gigantic was actually in my band – The KHB (Kyle Hollingsworth Band) – for a while. Bonnie from Elephant Revival who is a washboard player/singer. I just kind of grabbed everyone in the Boulder (Colorado) community and said ‘Hey! Let’s make an album.’
thatDROP: When you do solo gigs is improvisation as big of a part of those shows as it is with String Cheese?
Kyle: Absolutely. I think with my band I wear a lot of hats so its challenging for me to absolutely have to dictate where things go. Maybe I’m a little more lyrical. But between each song I try to open space up as much as I can. In some ways I think its a little more focused, powerful and to the point with my solo project. String Cheese can be a little bit more meandering, which is really fun and beautiful, and that’s why I love String Cheese. But my band comes more out of the gates, ready to go. It’s all so much fun but my project is a little more planned up.
thatDROP: Alright we’ve got time for one more question. This one is for our buddy Jake. Can you tell us about the cat shirts that we’ve seen you wearing? Is there a story behind those or do you just love cats?
Kyle: (Laughs) Well it’s actually kind of a joke. A while back I posted on my facebook saying that I didn’t like cats very much and it wasn’t received well at all. A bunch of people unfollowed my page and I got some messages from fans who couldn’t believe that I didn’t like cats. So I started wearing different cat shirts as a sarcastic joke. And now people must think I really do love cats since I keep getting various cat-themed shirts and memorabilia in the mail.