Q&A with Kyle Hollingsworth of the String Cheese Incident
Among the most unexpected participants in the New Orleans All-Star Jam-Balaya, staged on August 24 at the Fillmore Auditorium (click here to read a full review) was organist Kyle Hollingsworth, a Colorado boy best known in these parts for his membership in the String Cheese Incident. Then again, playing alongside Allen Toussaint, bassist George Porter Jr. and two other members of the Meters is enough to bring out the Louisiana in anyone. To learn more about Hollingsworth, read a full-length Q&A he conducted with Westword in August 2007, around the time the Incident went on extended hiatus. Check it out by clicking "More."
The August 9 profile of the String Cheese Incident’s Kyle Hollingsworth, timed to mark the band’s final Red Rocks appearances prior to going on a hiatus that may or may not last forever, mines a few nuggets from his interview with Westword. This is the place to find the whole lode.
Subjects? Hollingsworth discusses confusion among fans and the press over whether the Incident is breaking up; a recent, and emotional, show in New York City; new covers that are being unveiled on the current tour; the plusses and minuses of having a wide-open future; the push and pull between business interests and musical creativity; the process of putting together new songs with bandmates, despite the looming deadline; memorable String Cheese moments, complete with a fond salute to an aging vehicle named Bussy; musical heroes that are both well-known and unknown; and Hollingsworth’s new projects, including a band featuring Arrested Development’s Speech and a baby of undetermined gender.
Clearly, plenty of things are still up in the air.
Westword (Michael Roberts): When the news about the band’s change in status first reached the public, there seemed to be a lot of confusion. You guys talked about it being “an end” for the band and its community, as opposed to being “the end.” Was it at all frustrating for you that some people couldn’t quite understand what was happening.
Kyle Hollingsworth: What’s frustrating for me is that we never have ever said we’re breaking up. I think the quote is something like, after August ’07, we have no plans. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be plans later. So what’s frustrating for me is that everyone interpreted it as the band is breaking up. And I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen. We have no plans. But I just want to make it clear from my point of view that the future’s wide open for us.
WW: Is this a sad time, an exciting time, or a combination?
KH: It’s funny. First of all, we started rehearsing a month and a half ago for the summer tour, so we’ve been working really hard bringing out new material, new covers, new special tunes for certain shows. So we’ve been taking it really seriously, just like we’d take any summer tour. But we just finished our first run in New York City, and it’ll probably be our last time for a lot of the people who’ve been watching the shows out there – some of our last East Coast shows. And I’ve got to tell you, I was sad. I didn’t think I was going to get sad, but I got a little teary toward the last tune on the last evening. Right now, I’m psyched to out and do the best we can for the summer. But I’m in a little bit of denial about what’s going to happen after that. I’m sure that when it comes to the last Red Rocks show, it’s going to be hard to keep it together.
WW: You mentioned the future being wide open. When there’s a blank canvas in front of you, that can be exciting creatively, too.
KH: Oh, yeah. I think for each of us, we’re excited about the unknown – where each of our musical muses will take us. I think [Michael] Travis and Billy [Nershi] have a vision already. I’m kind of forming a vision. I’m also becoming a dad very shortly…
KH: …so I think that’s going to become a big part of my life. Not think: That is going to be a big part of my life. A whole new role for me. So I’m working on that journey, and I have some side projects I’m looking at. And I think we’re all looking at getting away. I think that’s the big thing that Billy Nershi brought – the sense of not always thinking, “I can do this, but right around the next mountain will be the next set of String Cheese dates.” It was a lot going along with String Cheese, and sometimes you kind of felt weighed down by that. So for me, and I think for him, it was nice to step away and do things without worrying about where String Cheese is, or worry about all the employees who might be working under us. The big machine that we’ve got to keep running.
WW: You guys deserve a lot of credit have created the whole business apparatus that’s grown up around the band – but that requires a lot of responsibility. It’s not something you can create and expect to run all by itself. It doesn’t function without you guys being involved.
KH: That’s true. That’s very true. I think we’re realizing that now. I still think the vision of it, I think it’s a great vision. We are still struggling to figure out how to make it all work – for all the pieces to come together.
WW: In order for it to be self-sustaining without the band being active?
KH: Exactly. Because we found ourselves spending more time having business meetings about T-shirt designs or where we were going with the record company versus spending that time being creative with each other, writing songs. Being creative outside of String Cheese, in some sense. We were spending a lot of time just focusing on the business of String Cheese.
WW: Was that a factor in you guys taking time off and not making future plans? Did you feel in some way that the business was taking away from the music.
KH: I think that’s what I was trying to get at a moment ago with Billy. I think he was ready to step outside and there was always another business meeting happening. He wanted to step away from that. So I think that did play a role.
WW: You mentioned new material. How would you describe what you guys have been coming up with?
KH: Good question. I guess it’s the same old String Cheese thing. Everybody has completely different ideas about how they’re hearing music right now. I’m in a Beck phase right now. I’m in a Beck phase, so I’ve been bringing this Beck-type music. And [Michael] Kang has been bringing in more Afro, more African high-life music. But with String Cheese, we somehow make it all work together.
WW: Is it as exciting to create the music you’re making now as it was in the beginning? Or is it a different kind of feeling, knowing that you’re not continuing together, at least immediately?
KH: It hasn’t really changed for the past five years. This summer, when we were rehearsing, none of us felt like we were playing these songs for the last time. And so we went into the rehearsals like that. I think it has changed over the years overall. Like, Kyle brings in a song he put on a four-track and says, “Let’s play it this way,” and somebody else comes in and says, “This is how I envision it going.” Versus the early days, the first couple of years, it was much more of a group writing dynamic. That happened again this summer, but that’s been happening for the past five or six years. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just a different way of writing.
WW: Kind of The White Album approach.
KH: [Laughs] Exactly.
WW: How about the covers you talked about. Are those surprises?
KH: Pretty much surprises. We played a couple of them in New York, so we’re warming up, trying to get them ready. By the time we get to Red Rocks, we’ll be comfortable with them.
WW: You can mention the ones you played in New York, right?
KH: What did we do in New York? We did Pink Floyd, “Comfortably Numb.” We did “What a Day That Was,” which is a Talking Heads cover off Stop Making Sense. And there were a couple of others we haven’t had a chance to pull out yet.
WW: What kind of feedback did you receive from the fans there – and what kind of feedback have you been getting in general since the news broke.
KH: The fan response in New York was great. I thought they were more energetic than I’ve seen them in years. I think they’re kind of getting it – that this configuration and the way String Cheese is now may not be around again. So I think the fans were very excited. Since we said it, we’ve done multiple tours again. I think they’ve just been ready to get out the Hula Hoops and dance to String Cheese all night.
WW: So reveling in it rather than focusing on “It all might be over.”
WW: Have you had fans actually try to talk you out of it?
KH: More disbelief. Like, “I can’t believe it’s true. Is it really true? What does it mean?” A little bit of disbelief, probably.
WW: I’m sure you’re in a reflective mood these days. Looking back, what are some of your favorite memories of the band to date?
KH: Probably the first time we played Red Rocks. It might have been part of a KBCO Studio C Red Rocks show. That was with Bela Fleck, I think, and it was our first time on the big stage. Every Horning’s Hideout, which is our festival in the Northwest. Every one of those have been amazing in my opinion – just the location. And luckily, we’ve been able to acquire the site again this year, so we’re making it happen again. Probably driving across the United States in Bussy, which was our first tour bus – an old ski bus from Crested Butte. I have fond memories of being in there, and trying to fix it, and being a band that was on a mission. We were out there to play the best music we could and just to conquer the world. There were five of us, and we’d load in all of our gear. Those are some of my favorite moments.
WW: Where is Bussy today?
KH: She is being used partially by Travis’ band, Zilla. But I think she’s getting older to the point where she’s becoming dangerous to drive. So I don’t know what’s going to happen to her. She’s probably going to end up in someone’s field – probably a bandmember’s field somewhere.
WW: So she’ll become a kind of monument?
KH: Yes. [Laughs.] For the field mice.
WW: The all-for-one, one-for-all mentality you were talking about: Is that something evident the first time all of you played together? Or did it have to develop?
KH: For me, especially since I started the band late – I was two years in – I was still kind of feeling out the band. They were in the mode of checking out what this could become. And once we actually got Bussy, those first few months of driving across the United States, we got into that mentality. I’m a Quaker, so I’m not at all military based. But I felt very much like, if I was ever going to be in the military, these are the five guys I’d like to be with. Five guys hanging out together, very team oriented, with a goal in mind.
WW: How about the opportunity to meet with or play with musical heroes of yours?
KH: That’s continuing every day. Musical heroes are people as far up as Bela Fleck and all the incredible bluegrass musicians. But then there are musical heroes we play with all the time. I didn’t realize this guy was my hero until last weekend: Trombone Shorty, who’s a New York trombone player. As far as heroes, we’ve been blessed to play with a lot of people I’ve admired over the years. But on a daily basis, there are incredible musicians who sit in, and we really try to foster that kind of environment.
WW: It’s interesting that you mention performers who may not immediately leap to mind for most people. The big stars are nice, but for you, it sounds like, it’s not about celebrity. It’s about a musical connection.
KH: Very much so.
WW: Let’s talk a little bit more about the business that’s grown up around the band. How did that start? And did you have any role models that you used to start it up?
KH: Contemporaries at the time… well, Phish had been around longer. But Phish was doing a similar thing, the Grateful Dead had done their own ticketing company and then kept a lot of their business in-house. And so that was the sort of thing we had looked to, for sure. It was something we were looking at, but at the same time, it made so much sense. I think we would have come to the same conclusion, just the way we were. We were growing for the grassroots following, we weren’t looking for the big record label to push the big single. So we thought, “Why not have our own record label? And if we can get Keller Williams or other friends of ours on the label, then that’d be great, too.” But the focus was to keep it close to home, so we’d have creative rights to everything that was going on with the record company. And the next step from there was thinking, “If we’re trying to get fans involved in shows, we could sell tickets directly through us, as opposed to spending all sorts of money with Ticketmaster.” A lot of decisions were made for the fans, for the community that we were trying to create.
WW: Did you find that those two ideas fed on each other? That the community grew because there was a place they could go to connect with you guys?
KH: Yeah, I think to some degree, it did. I think once the word started going around, it sort of had its own life.
WW: And the independence – not having to chase the major label – how important has that been in the band’s development? And would you recommend that other bands go that direction, rather than waiting for the big record company to swoop in and make them rich?
KH: Record companies are changing. I don’t know if I can recommend anything, but I think if you can keep things small and personalized and look at the exposure you want, then that’s the route you should go. We’ve been lucky enough to get distribution through a major record company, so it’s really about the distribution, ultimately. Getting your product in stores.
WW: And yet, you guys get to make all your decisions without having to ask permission from some bureaucrat…
KH: Exactly. And again, some people were doing it, starting their own record labels. But it was fairly new to the scene to just jump in. It was fifteen years ago, twelve years ago? And, of course, Madison House, which is our booking agency, and they’re good friends of ours, they all kind of grew up with us, and they’re a part of the brainchild to make all of this happen.
WW: With you guys going on hiatus, will the business operation slim down? Will some positions be eliminated?
KH: We’re still talking about that. We’re not sure. We’ll figure that out later.
WW: And you said you’re looking at future projects. Are there specific things that you’re looking at doing musically? Or are you going to take some time and be a dad and see what develops?
KH: I do have a project, Soleside, with Speech from Arrested Development. So Speech, myself and a DJ called DJ Logic. And the three of us put together a band with some members of the Motet, and we’ve been playing around locally, and we’re going to take that to the East Coast and the West Coast and start seeing how that goes. It’s a really vibrant combination of people, so I’m really excited about it. It has a lot of possibilities.
WW: How did you first connect with Speech?
KH: I met Speech in Boulder. I met him outside a show. Arrested Development was playing, and I thought, “Oh my God, I love them, I’ve got to see them.” I’m a huge fan. So I biked down there and did the whole fan thing: “You guys are so great! Oh my God!” And he’s like, “Whatever.” [Laughs.] And then I’m like, “I play in this band, String Cheese Incident.” And he said, “Oh, I’ve heard of String Cheese.” And I’ve been communicating with him over the last year, and I hope we’ll do an album.
WW: Will that come through SCI-Fidelity?
KH: That’s a really good question. I don’t really know right now. I think we’re going to make it, and then most likely it’ll go through Sci-Fidelity.
WW: When is the baby due?
WW: And do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?
KH: We’re waiting for that. That’s one of the biggest surprises you could ever have – the last big surprise. We’re not going to find out. I was going to tell the doctor, or ask the doctor, to tell us what it isn’t. So officially, he wouldn’t be telling us what it is. But then I asked him not to do that, either. [Laughs.] We’ll just have to wait to find out.
WW: So one exciting project coming to “an end,” as you put it, but another exciting project in the works.
WW: Does that make what’s happening with String Cheese a little easier to deal with?
KH: It does. I think everybody’s realizing what the thirteen, fourteen years we put into String Cheese means. It was like 300 days, 325 days on the road a year for the first three years. So that kind of work led us to where we are now. And starting new projects is going to take an equal amount of work. It’s exciting to think about that, but it’s also daunting. I’m like, “Oh my God, am I ready to go into Bussy again, and travel the country?” I’m not quite sure. I might approach it differently this time.
WW: With a “Baby on Board” sticker…
KH: Exactly! [Laughs.]