The eclectic Colorado band known as the String Cheese Incident hasbeen one of the more popular attractions on the jam-band circuit for 10years now. With influences that include roots rock, bluegrass, reggae,Latin, Afro-pop, R&B, Grateful Dead-style jamming and space music— really just about any style you'd care to mention — thegroup covers a lot of ground during their marathon shows. Along theway, they've amassed a great number of fervent fans, who often travelgreat distances to see the band and collect and trade CDs of theirperformances. In the past year, the group has even taken to pressingand selling CDs of all their performances. (For more about SCI'sconcert recording techniques, see “Recording the Band” inthe July 2003 issue of Mix, or visit www.mixonline.com.)
It's not fair to say that String Cheese's studio albums have been“after-thoughts,” exactly, but this is a group that hasmade its reputation and its living almost exclusively as a liveattraction, so their few studio discs have tended toward a documentaryapproach: capturing the live feeling of the band in the controlledenvironment of a studio. On their last album, Outside Inside,producer Steve Berlin succeeded fairly well with this approach, thoughhe may have reined in the band's exploratory tendencies a little toomuch, and the polyglot of styles — one of their great strengthslive — lacked cohesion on that particular disc.
Well, SCI fans…prepare to be shocked! The group'sjust-released album, Untying the Not (on their own Sci Fidelitylabel), is as different from that album as can be; in fact, it soundsnothing at all like the group does live. This is a studio albumthrough and through; indeed, it may well be the most thematicallyambitious and sonically adventurous album to come out of the jam-bandscene to date. It will no doubt have many an SCI fan scratching his orher dreadlocks, but those who invest the time and attention it takes totruly absorb the many layers of sound and music that make up thisremarkable collage of songs and effects will be richly rewarded. Thistime around, the happy jam band wants you to think about some BigIssues: the wonder of life and death, impermanence, love, waking andexpanded consciousness, memory, heredity; it's a lot to chew on overthe course of about an hour of your life (preferably spent onheadphones). This is an album that self-consciously aspires to be epicand — miracle of miracles! — succeeds more often thannot.
“We weren't really sure going into this album what we werelooking for on the other end,” says SCI bassist Keith Moseley, aswe sit in a lounge at The Plant in Sausalito, Calif., on a sunny daylast spring. “But one thing we decided was we wanted to hire aproducer who would have a bigger hand in things, to maybe shape thesongs a bit more, and help us deconstruct and reconstruct some of thematerial. We didn't want to just come in and record a bunch of songs.We've done that. So our record company — actually Kevin Morris[manager/president of Sci Fidelity] — came up with a list of sixor eight different people, and we looked at resumes and interviewedsome people, and certainly everyone was well-qualified.”
To the surprise of many in the SCI camp, the person they eventuallychose to produce the album was a British man who goes by the name ofYouth, the one-time bassist of the group Killing Joke; he's been a topproducer and mixer for the past decade, helming discs for the likes ofCrowded House (many projects), Art of Noise, Alien Sex Fiend, James,The Orb, System 7 and The Verve — not a hippie band in thebunch.
“We met Youth after he came out to one of our shows,”Moseley says. “We just really liked his vibe. Frankly, I was kindof scared by his resume. I looked at it and I didn't recognizeanything. And the things I did recognize I thought, ‘What doesthis have to do with String Cheese?’ But he had a great attitude,and we were into making a departure from the way we'd worked before. Wewanted to shake things up. And we did, that's for sure. We wanted tomake something you could sit down and listen to start to finish. We hadthe grand idea of ‘Let's make a classic album, not just acollection of songs!’ So, we tried to narrow the focus of what wedo, instead of trying to do everything we can do onstage on one record:‘Hey, we can play bluegrass! Hey, we're a jazz band!’ Thistime around, we went in more of our rock direction.
“Basically, we came to the collective decision that we werewilling to give up some of the ideas we have about ourselves and whatthe band should sound like, and trust in Youth's vision a little bit.It's been a struggle at times, but it's working out.”
With the arrival at the studio of Moseley's band mate, Michael Kang(who plays an assortment of electric mandolins that sound exactly likeguitars), the interview moves down the hall into the control room ofStudio B, where the group is doing some vocal work using the Neve 8068console recording directly to Logic Audio, through Pro Tools hardware.Most of the preceding five weeks of recording have been in the largerStudio A, which has an SSL 4064 G+ in the control room and a famouslygood-sounding, 1,200-square-foot live room; and in the beautiful Gardencontrol room, primarily a mixing space (equipped with an SSL 8096 G+),but with ample room for musicians. There's already quite a crowd in Bwhen we show up: Youth and his engineer on the project — anotherBrit, named Clive Goddard — and the rest of SCI: guitarist/singerBill Nershi, drummer Michael Travis and keyboardist KyleHollingsworth.
I ask Youth about the appeal of working with a band so far outsideof his realm of experience. “Well, I listened to the tapes andthe demos and I was intrigued because I thought it was veryunlike any project I've ever been asked to do. And I was very surpriseda band like String Cheese would be interested in working with aproducer like me. And I wasn't wrong!” He explodes with laughter,and the room follows. Then Kang cracks, “We were confidentYouth's pagan-druid side would come out, and we'd make a good albumtogether.”
When laughter subsides, Youth adds seriously, “There are anumber of things I liked about String Cheese Incident. They're veryAmerican; their cultural influences are very American and I wanted towork with that. Two, they're very highly accomplished musicians;they're all really good. And I liked where they were coming fromboth musically and as people. I thought, ‘Now, how can I makethis work?’ Because I'm not going to record jams and endlesssolos, and they have this huge repertoire. Live, it works verywell. They have a great vibe onstage, and the relationship between themand their fans is fantastic. They're part of a great tradition that Iadmire: I think what happened starting with Chet Helms at the FamilyDog in the '60s, through Grateful Dead and all that, saved the planetand still will save the planet in a deep way. So tapping intothat energy — I love that! As soon as I heard the demos, Ithought, ‘This could be a fantastic opportunity to make the lastgreat American album, an American swansong, an American Dark Side ofthe Moon.’ The songs are melancholy and deep enough for thatto be possible.”
So the songs fit into that vision? “They do now!” Youthshouts with a laugh, and again, the band collapses in gales oflaughter. “He took a chainsaw to them!” Kang says.
“We did some work on the songs,” Youth says. “Butthe story is revealing itself through the songs in a very clear anddirect way. They might not have been linked coming in, but they do makesense together as we're constructing it.”
The comparison to Dark Side of the Moon is no idle boast. Thealbum is redolent with Floydisms: the blend of crisp acoustic guitar,drone keyboards and Kang's bluesy, but melodic, echo-laden leads; thesnippets of spoken-word dialog drifting in and out as in a dream; andthe booming drums propelling the songs through sometimes densesoundscapes of effects and ambient fields. At the same time, though,it's still very much String Cheese: the optimism that creeps through inmost songs, the countrified harmonies, the fiddle breakdown (thoughthis time, it's set against what sounds like a rave beat).
“Youth has a background in electronic, psych-trance, ambientthings,” Moseley says, “and that's something we've beeninterested in, but we've never had anyone who could show us how to doit before.”
“I think the band was expecting us to do a more electronica,Afro-Celt Sound System-type project,” the producer says.“We did some of that, but most of it's actually quitetraditional, just recording the band playing. There was a lot of timespent working on arrangements and getting the songs to where theyneeded to be. To bring me in and let me have that role was anincredible challenge. Most bands in their situation wouldn't allowit.”
“We're used to having songs and then each of us adding partsuntil they're done,” Kang says, “whether good or bad, justto fill out the sound. But Youth had us really working on the songstogether, figuring out choruses and parts in a very deliberate way.Like on Keith's song ‘Sirens,’ he originally had that assort of a reggae song, but Youth heard something in the bass line thatmade him want it to go in this whole other direction, and it worked outgreat. He'd say [imitating Youth's British accent], ‘Give it abit more Zeppelin!’ ‘What does that mean? Likethis?’ [he mimes a power chord] ‘Yes!’ So thenthe melody changes and everything changes to fit that, and then youhave a totally different song.”
“Youth had so many great ideas,” Moseley adds.“He's a bass player, and he had a lot of good suggestions for me:‘Try going up an octave here. End on a high sustain here. Doublethe guitar part here.’ More often than not, his ideas improvedthe songs.”
Though basics were cut live for the most part in Studio A, there arelayers and layers of overdubs and effects, some of which were addedduring the group's six-week residency at The Plant and others duringthe mix at Olympic Studios in London on an SSL 9k.
When we talked in Sausalito, engineer Clive Goddard noted that“at the mix, we'll probably bump some things back from LogicAudio to tape to warm them up. I do like the sound of analogtape.” Goddard also favored such traditional warm-sounding gearas 1176s on vocals and ribbon mics for room sounds. And Youth suggestedtouches such as a Mellotron part for Hollingsworth on a song and havingKang play through Marshall amps here and there.
“Still, no matter how hard we try to make it British,”Youth says with a chuckle, “we can't because they'rehopelessly American!”
He turns serious again: “Everyone's had such an emotionalcommitment to this album. I think it's one of the best albums I've everworked on. Personally, I can always gauge a session by how much I feellike I'm learning from the band. And I've learned an incredible amountfrom them. They're really quite an amazing bunch.”
“And for us, it was something totally different,” Kangsays. “Youth could see the end of the road from the beginning ofthe road, which I don't think the rest of us could. So we had to trusthim. We're a band that's basically done everything our own way sinceday one, and as a result, we've become this kind of isolated bubble ina large sea of musical possibilities. I think this project is going tobe one avenue for us in; hopefully, a long string of collaborationsthat push us to do things that we would never think about doing.Because that's where you're going to learn the most in life.”