photo: C Taylor Crothers
“Everyone knows you can jam,” The String Cheese Incident bassist Keith Moseley says. He’s talking about the band’s new album, Lend Me a Hand, and how their producer this time around, Brad Cook, desired a new kind of sound from them. It’s not a completely left-field idea, but it’s not so familiar either.
“Certainly, a lot of the songwriting deals with things like loss,” he adds. “A lot of the themes are personal in nature.”
He admits this in a way that sounds matter-of-fact. But, for a band that’s made their mark on the jamband world with a long, intricate, weaving fusion of rock, funk, jazz, calypso, bluegrass, reggae, blues and electronica, it is still a bit surprising that this detour would come now.
Yet, there seems to be a shift in the jamband world that a band like The String Cheese Incident is ripe for. Artists like Billy Strings and Kitchen Dwellers have brought Americana and bluegrass sounds to a whole new generation over the last several years, while more rock-oriented acts like Goose and Eggy have opened other unexpected doors. These groups ooze a magnetic familiarity, highlighting The String Cheese Incident’s current place in the jamband pedigree—elder statesmen.
It’s hard not to realize the influence they’ve had on the scene over the last three decades. They’ve been pioneers in how to deal with the music industry—in 1998, they launched SCI Fidelity Records for their own releases instead of signing with a traditional label. Back then, this was largely unheard of. If you wanted bigger distribution and to multiply growth, quickly, then you signed with a label. The String Cheese Incident had other plans.
“We probably weren’t going to see the income that we might have seen from another label, but we had the feeling that the most important thing would be to control our own creative destiny,” Moseley says about their decision to stay independent early on. “Too many artists just get caught in this trap of recording an album for a label and then touring to support it. And a lot of bands ended up dying by that—getting bogged down in the record-company process, not being able to put out a second album when and the way they wanted, and finding their touring dictated by the record company. We knew, from the start, that we didn’t want to go that route.”
This DIY mentality has been at the heart of the band since their 1993 inception. Early on, they turned in hundreds of gigs each year. And, despite their unusual menagerie of sounds, they found a national audience pretty quickly, too. For instance, in 1997, there was a jump from the club circuit in the early part of the year to New Year’s Eve at the 4,000- seat Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco. The Grateful Dead’s Vince Welnick sat in on a cover of “Estimated Prophet” and the band shared the bill with Leftover Salmon and The Mother Hips.
Along with foregoing any major— or even minor—record label aspirations, the members of String Cheese quickly recognized a music festival’s uncanny ability to bring like-minded fans together for long stretches of time. One of their first successes in this area was in North Plains, Ore., at Horning’s Hideout. That destination event set the template for bigger festivals—String Cheese helped launch Suwanee Hulaween in Live Oak, Fla., in 2013, and they have continued to headline Electric Forest, which is hosted by their production company Madison House Presents, regularly since its 2011 inception.
As the band has grown, a series of obstacles have recurred. As mandolinist Michael Kang points out, “There’s always been a creative tension in the band and that’s what makes it interesting. Due to the nature of our band, we had a lot of musical influences from the beginning. That mishmash of stuff made it interesting but also kind of creatively challenging.”
The String Cheese Incident didn’t set out to make a record as poignant as Lend Me a Hand came out to be, it just sort of happened. They started working on the LP in Colorado last September, teaming up with producer Brad Cook for the first time. Cook’s experience is vast—he’s worked with a wide range of artists, from indie-centric groups like Bon Iver and Snail Mail to more folk-influenced acts like Kevin Morby and Nathaniel Rateliff. Not only is his résumé stacked, but his approach to recording is also unlike any of the producers they’ve crossed paths with before.
When Cook first met the members of String Cheese in Colorado for a week of pre-production, he says a lot of the songwriting still needed to be done.
“I just went out there to meet those guys last fall,” Cook explains. “And I just fell in love with them. They’re all so awesome and hungry and excited and open and all the things you hope you’re able to maintain in a lifetime of this business.”
Song sketches were there in a lot of the instances, but the only complete track he remembers really existing at the time was “Lend Me a Hand.” “There were some things that had maybe a chorus melody, but I don’t think there were any words,” Cook recalls. “There were just some musical themes, and we powered through 40 ideas when I first went out to meet them.”
Between then and December, when the band reconvened for the actual recording, they worked on fleshing out the songs. Hollingsworth connected with a longtime songwriting hero, Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam. Drummer Michael Travis, Moseley and guitarist Bill Nershi all contributed compositions, and the band, which also includes percussionist Jason Hann, all worked on some musical segments together.
When they convened at the band’s own studio, The Lab, in Boulder, Colo., Cook says work was done on the fly at times—lyrics were tweaked the morning of sessions, for instance.
“We recorded all the basic tracks in four or five days, and I never had them all in the same room together,” the producer says, noting that he doesn’t like to have too many cooks in the kitchen. “People would just come in and work on different parts. There’s so much speculative energy when everyone’s sitting around wondering what a part needs. The guys have been going for so long that I just felt like it’d be a nice space.”
Moseley recalls the mood being very deliberate, too, but in a different, more relaxed way.
“We did relinquish the creative control and let Brad have final say on everything and direct the process,” he says. “As a result, the recording process was easy. It went quickly. There weren’t a lot of long discussions over how we were going to arrange things or how we wanted the songs to be recorded or perceived. We’d show up in the morning, and he’d say, ‘Today we’re going to do these two songs.’ He would go out the night before and come back with some different lighting for the studio—he’d set up some funny little moving lights or a whole bunch of lamps and burn incense.”
That vibe helped inspire The String Cheese Incident’s most personal album to date—and perhaps their most rusticsounding, too. The ensemble’s folk and country influences are ever-present, and the songs are never too flashy, nor busy sounding. Instead, the musicians rely on their acoustic instruments throughout, allowing for the lyrics and vocals to really shine. The tune “One More Time,” a co-write with Beam, finds Hollingsworth singing about the band’s friend and late manager Jesse Aratow, who died suddenly in 2021 from a heart attack. The upbeat, driving “I Will Follow You,” another Hollingsworth number, addresses the process of growing older with someone you love and all the anxieties that can come flooding in. On “Love and Friends,” Nershi sings about a couple going down a dark path together, at times utilizing an unexpected spoken-word approach.
“With the writing process, it was nice to have a full book with lots of chapters in it, versus a bunch of individual chapters being released that are slightly related to each other,” Hollingsworth says. “My favorite part is the ability to have way less notes. There might be one solo on the whole album.”
“We just started out of the blue—there wasn’t any real big intention and there was a lot of fun surrounding the whole thing,” Kang says of the early days. “There wasn’t much tragedy, nobody had any big personal issues or drug addictions or anything like that. We lived free of the normal band drama that a lot of people— after 20 years together—deal with. With this one, the pandemic was tough for a lot of people, and I feel like this album was a testament to that—not that we sang about all those issues, but it was one of the things that we needed to go through to kind of dig ourselves out of it.”
As the members of String Cheese prepare to celebrate their 30th anniversary this winter, their touring has ramped back up, albeit not like the old days by any means. They played several dates on Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Tour recently, alongside Nelson, Bob Weir & Wolf Bros. and Los Lobos. And this fall’s Hulaween will boast Trey Anastasio Band, Goose, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Pretty Lights, Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade and numerous others.
Yearly summer stands at Red Rocks in Colorado have also become the norm—this year, they booked a gig with Creedence Clearwater Revival luminary John Fogerty called the John Fogerty Incident. The band played an entire set with the rock-and-roll legend, featuring classics such as “Fortunate Son,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Green River,” “Proud Mary” and “Bad Moon Rising.”
“The biggest joy is when he just opens his mouth up and starts singing,” Hollingsworth recalls of the Fogerty gig. “All the songs were in the original key, and he’s 78! I already have to lower some of my songs.”
It was one of several more location-specific stops on the sextet’s more recent runs. Moseley believes this type of touring suits them well these days.
“We go our separate ways when we’re on break, and we come back and everybody’s got something new they’re excited about,” he says. “And we do have such wide-ranging influences that it keeps the mix fresh for us. It’s always a little bit of a new perspective every time. Over the last 10 years, we’ve all been in various stages of raising families and just trying to hit a pace that is sustainable and works for everyone. Everyone was walloped by COVID and the shutdowns for a bit there. So coming out of that, we’ve tried to pick up the pace a little bit. This year, we’re playing more shows than we have in several years. We’ve kind of settled into playing somewhere between about 40 and 60 shows a year, and that seems to be the pace that’s sustainable for us right now.”
“Planning has to happen pretty far in advance,” Kang says. “2023 became a heavier year than most and, as a result, we’ve been able to play more shows, which means that we don’t have to be working as hard to stay up on the material. We can go 5-7 nights in a row without repeating any songs. And getting back on the bus and getting back into the flow, even though we’re older—I’m not necessarily super stoked on traveling in the same way that we used to when we’re in our 20s—definitely lends to the fluidity that the band achieves. Normally though, when we take a little bit of a break, we’ll get together to rehearse because there’s always back-burner songs that we’ve got to touch up on or whatnot. Even with this album, there’s a couple of songs that didn’t make it on the record that we still want to get up on live.”
The band is officially set to mark their 30th anniversary during a three-night run at the Fox Theater in Oakland, Calif., from Dec. 29-31. It’s a welcome return to the Bay Area, which has been so good to them over the years, and a nod to the early days when they were initially branching out of Colorado.
“We’re older, wiser and probably a little grizzled,” Kang says with a chuckle. “It’s about getting back to the basic purpose of what we’re trying to do, which is to have fun playing music and, at the end of the day, enjoying what we do and being able to connect with fans. I would say we’re still in that process.”