The year 2009 was a jamband renaissance. Phish, the Dead and the String Cheese Incident all reunited after parting ways for indefinite periods of time for varying reasons. However, unlike Phish and the Dead, who came back with the pedal to the metal in terms of their workload, SCI made a decidedly more cautious return to grace.
[Photo by Jason Gershuny]
Hoping to appease even the most persnickety of fans, while balancing personal lives and other responsibilities, the band has yet to tour or record an album, instead focusing on sporadic runs of blowout shows at monumental locations. SCI’s venue selections since their comeback have represented a short list of fan favorites including Rothbury, Red Rocks, Oregon’s scenic Horning’s Hideout, and soon, the famed Hampton Coliseum.
The String Cheese Incident seems to have found a common ground business model that works for everybody. Periodic destination getaways afford the members flexibility to entertain the seemingly endless side projects they’ve birthed in recent years while the SCI camp has focused on releasing archival music to fans via various channels. Yet, some wonder if there are elements of a Favre, Shaq and Jordan comeback in that, yes, some greats are playing again, but is their head in the game? Can they still bring it? The answer is seemingly, yes. READ ON for Ryan’s interview with Billy Nershi…
SCI to Travel Through Space and Time
SCI’s Halloween shows - dating all the way back to the late ’90s - have been graced by overarching themes whereby the members dress the part and devise a special musical set comprised largely of musically relevant covers. Given that this year’s “Hulaween” takes place at Hampton Coliseum, the Virginia venue otherwise known as ‘The Mothership’, the band picked the ultimate fitting theme: time travel and outer space.
“We’re gonna be on a spaceship together,” Nershi reveals. “We’ll do the special set which will include mostly covers with maybe a few String Cheese tunes thrown in. We’re working on a whole set of cover tunes for Halloween that will be time, space, future travel tunes.”
In chatting with Billy about the grandeur and relevance of the Hampton Coliseum to bands, given the long history of now famous performances by bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish, an interesting fact arises that points to this being a particularly special weekend for the band.
“I’ve never actually been inside the Hampton Coliseum,” he admits. “I’ve driven by and checked it out, but I’ve never actually been inside. I’m really excited to see it from the inside.”
Reflecting back on past Hulaween’s, the band touched on such themes as the ghosts of rock stars past, a subway ride through New York and the Jungle, but one show sticks out as the all time favorite for Nershi, which shows off the band’s quirky, divisive sense of humor.
Video Link: SCI – Under African Skies (Electric Factory ’99)
“The most memorable was the Philadelphia show (Electric Factory, 1999). I remember being all together on that pirate ship, and playing the Land Down Under by Men at Work. I played the flute solo on a drumstick – not a chicken drumstick, but one of Travis’s drumsticks – while Kyle played the solo on his synthesizer,” he laughs. “At the end of the show, this girl came up to me and complimented me on my flute playing.”
The Future – The Rothbury Incident; Tour & Album Still in Talks
The band’s recent past begs an interesting question: what is future for the String Cheese Incident? Clearly, they have been taking a measured pace in getting back into the swing of things, playing select shows and not rushing back into the studio, but at the same time, nothing is off the table.
“I would say for the time being, that is our model; playing some big festivals and having weekend shows like we did at Red Rocks for three nights. We like to give people a chance to stay and get comfortable with an area,” Nershi explains. “We also like to throw our own festivals like we did at Horning’s Hideout. We love to create an environment for people to come that’s far different from what they used to in their everyday lives.”
“We’re just going to continue with these kind of shows for the time being,” Bill continues. “We did talk about the possibility of doing one here or there, as well as the possibility of getting in the studio. They are both possibilities in the future. The album is in the talking stages right now, but there are no plans. We all write music, so there is definitely new material to be gleaned. There will be something coming.”
Back on the topic of festivals, Nershi reveals a relatively monumental project in the works: the Rothbury Incident. The band is currently in the process of setting up a String Cheese Festival for the coming summer on the site of the Rothbury site in Michigan.
“We’re also planning on doing something next summer at the Rothbury site. That will be a weekend festival with a lot of String Cheese sets. It’ll be different from Rothbury in that it will be more like our thing at Horning’s, where String Cheese plays every night, and it will include bands in our String Cheese family with art installations and that kind of thing.”
The Past – Archival Series to Include All-Time Bests
No strangers to finding new ways to release high quality archival music given the band previously pressed CDs for entire tours under the moniker On the Road via their proprietary SCI Fidelity label, another part of the String Cheese model post-reunion includes the forthcoming release of the Rhythm of the Road archival series, a new live series affords the band’s archivist free reign to remaster the band’s all-time best performances. The initial installment, Rhythm of the Road: Volume 1, Incident in Atlanta – 11.17.00, which highlights the band in their prime with guest banjo whiz Tony Furtado, is considered by many to be the band’s best show ever.
“Our archivist, Larry Fox, picked that show. He and some other folks feel like that’s a really classic String Cheese show, or maybe our best show,” Nershi explains. “Tony went on tour with us back then, and I think it was discussed that he might actually join the band, but it ended up just being a period where he played a lot of music with us.”
The Present – New Bluegrass on the Way, Will Billy Shave his Beard?
While the String Cheese Incident fan base has ballooned consistently over the years, it’s no secret that the evolution that led the band away from bluegrass in favor of the space funk acoustic galaxonian music drove a fair portion of early fans to slow their roll in terms of touring with the band. Hence, it should come as welcome news to the older guard that Nershi and company have been working on new material in the vein of the Americana sound. He makes it clear that the tone of the music tends to be driven by composer, but that the sound of the band in general seems to be moving back towards the roots.
“It depends on who’s writing,” Nershi proclaims. “The last song I wrote was more of a folk rock song, almost Grateful Dead-ish. I didn’t write it that way, it just came out that way when the band played it. It’s called Song in My Head. And I just wrote a new bluegrass tune with my wife Jillian, called Colorado Bluebird Sky. That will probably come out next spring, and we’re also working on a new Kyle song.”
Finally, prior to the interview, we asked a few friends if they had any burning questions for Billy given so many longtime jam fans have seen a lot of String Cheese shows over the years. Oddly enough, virtually everybody responded, “You have to ask him about the beard. Is he ever going to shave again?”
“My beard!” Nershi responds in a state of shock. ‘You mean will I shave my beard at Halloween?”
Actually we just meant ever, but rolling with it, he offers up a challenge.
“Start collecting money!” Bill laughs. “If you get above $1,000 [for charity] and throw that wad of money on the stage, we’ll count it and if it’s over a thousand dollars – and anybody in the crowd can do it – I’ll shave it off on stage. If it’s any less, I can’t do it though, because last time I shaved my beard, I walked out and said to my wife, ‘What do you think?’ She started crying.”
For the String Cheese Incident, the story remains unfinished, but as always, the past informs the future. The rhythm of the road holds the answer to the questions on our minds. I know that we can keep the faith and things will all work out in time.