Michael Kang, The String Cheese Incident: Common Vision

The String Cheese Incident, one of the foremost jam bands on the planet, released its most recent studio album, Believe, in April. Michael Kang, who plays mandolin and guitar with SCI, was kind enough to take some time to chat with us about the new album, being in a band for over two decades, and getting clear about what matters.

RLR: You released Believe in April, and one of the notable things about this album is that unlike your previous work, your fans didn’t hear these songs until the album was released. How did that shift feel to you, and how do you think it impacted the songs?

MK: We made a concerted effort to do it that way, because in years past we had this method as a live band where we’d practice these songs and workshop them live; we’d listen to them and figure out if they’re working. At the time, that’s just what we did. But as we got more used to being in the studio, we kind of realized it was a backwards way of doing it, because we may be ingraining things that aren’t serving the song. We’d go into the studio with these producers, and they’d say, the song’s in the wrong key, or that part doesn’t work, and we’d have struggles with that because we’d been playing it that way for six months.

So it grew out of a desire to do things differently. Also, we found it’s really powerful to work on something and give people a chance to listen to it and digest it. Then when you play it, they like, “Sweet, we’re psyched to hear that.” A lot of times you play a new tune that nobody’s ever heard and they’re all looking at each other like, “What the fuck is this?” Jam band fans are amazingly open, but they’re also kind of biased to the older material, which is also just human nature. But twenty years later, we’re learning new tricks.

RLR: SCI has been together for over twenty years, which feels like such a rarity. What do you think you’ve learned in that time?

MK: It’s a good time to ask that question. Out of attrition alone, it’s amazing we’ve been able to do it, and a lot of times if you can figure out a way to stay together, you reap the benefits of a common vision that can stand the test of time. That in itself, in any kind of group endeavor, is a very difficult thing to pull off.

We all say to each other outwardly that if we didn’t have this common bond, musically, we don’t know we’d even hang out together. And that’s kind of the miracle of the whole Cheese thing; we were almost accidentally or by fate drawn together in this little ski town years ago. We had this common interest of skiing together and living in a ski town, but besides that, we’d had very different lives.

Over the years, the strength of the band is that when we decided to go for it and commit to it, we had to work through our interpersonal differences; to us, we thought if we did the work where we get past our hang-ups with each other, then playing music will be easy, and to different degrees that’s been the case over our almost 25 year career.

We actually just did a session with a coach who was trying to help us figure out our common goals over the next phase of the band, and I think the thing we realized is that we all feel extremely grateful that we’ve had such a long run. At the same time, people change, people’s needs change, and tastes change, and the common member that exists between all of us – you know, the seventh member of the band has got to thrive, in order for it to continue. So we just had this conversation and everyone walked away very grateful and recommitted. Just like anything, you have to recommit yourself every once in awhile to see what you’re doing something for.


RLR: You have said that being in a democratic band can be exhausting, but that it’s also a core value of SCI. Can you talk about what ‘democracy’ means in SCI and how you all go about balancing each other’s viewpoints?

MK: It is one of the things that makes it so difficult. Decision-making can be really arduous. All decisions, from how to play a certain song to whatever business decisions we need to make. It’s probably a kind of a microcosm for what’s going on for us collectively in our country right now [laughs]. It ain’t easy. I think when you get outvoted or when you don’t get your way, you have to do your personal work to get over it, because sometimes you’ll get your way and sometimes you won’t. We have a lot of strong personalities in the band, and everybody has opinions, and it takes a lot of time to work shit out.

That’s why it’s important that we revisit why we’re even doing it together, because you can’t lose sight of that. Democracy for us is about the process of engaging with each other and running the grist through the mill. Even in the early days, we were trying to jam all these musical directions and forces together. For us, it’s actually pretty difficult, because we come from very different musical backgrounds and desires, and yet we find solace in the fact that it’s why people like us and hopefully it makes us interesting as a band.

RLR: One of the things I like about the new album, and the band in general, is that you can’t be reduced it down to a certain genre. It’s just too broad. Did you ever feel pressure in the past to narrow your sound for any reason?

MK: Well, we just did this whole last tour playing acoustic style music, which as the shows have gotten bigger, we’ve sometimes lost sight of those roots and lost touch with those things. And that was really interesting and also challenging at different times. It’s like when you move into a house and you fill it with shit, moving into a smaller house is difficult. So we had to go through some of that shedding, and it was a really good exercise.

We don’t feel that pressure outside of us. We all feel individual pressure about what we need to get better at; sometimes we need to get better at jamming, or writing new songs, or writing better songs. We’re not young anymore, and sometimes playing festivals like Electric Forest, it challenges us to connect with a younger crowd. We are collectively proud of the fact that we make it a multigenerational thing. There are kids who have never listened to live music before because they mostly listen to electronica, and they’re like, “What the fuck are they doing?” At the end of the day, it’s all music.

RLR: Speaking of Electric Forest, that’s coming up in June, which is a festival that SCI curates. What was the germ of that idea for you all, and what experience are you hoping people have there?

MK: It’s kind of the culmination of all of our intellectual and artistic properties – all the artistic elements and performance art, has been a part of our ethic from the beginning. At the same time, it’s moved beyond that. Like a lot of the DJs, like my friend Bassnectar–I introduced him to whole jam band scene, and now he’s bigger than all of us. Even though it might sound different, there is the same genesis behind it. Personally feel a lot of pride in that, in bringing that west coast artistic, non-stage performance artistic element out to a festival and people really receive it well.

RLR: You have young kids; how has being a dad shifted your perspective on music and the work?

MK: It’s totally changed everything, and it refocuses you on the priorities that are important to you. For me, it made me realize, I want to be around my kids growing up. I don’t want to make work the most important thing. At the same time, when you have kid number two, you’re like, “Holy shit, I gotta get my shit together.” Better be able to make the house payments or whatever. But hopefully what I’m getting better at is how to apply myself to a task to hand, because you can’t apply yourself with the same fervor that you did when you were younger, and there’s only so many hours in a day.

Rock n’ Roll is funny because you’re expected to take part in all the hoopla, and maybe people assume that it’s one of the benefits of the job. But it’s work, and there’s a certain amount of pride that we approach in a professional way; at the same time, it is called playing music, so I tell people that they pay me to travel, but I play music for free.

Check out tour dates for The String Cheese Incident here and you can get more information about Electric Forest here. One weekend is sold out already, but they’ve added another this year. Definitely check out Believe–it’s a broad, far-reaching album that will be a damn good companion this summer.