This will be an interesting next few months for the String Cheese Incident. The group is about to embark on a twenty-six show east show tour which will carry the quintet into larger theaters and halls. On New Year’s Eve the band will return to the Portland Convention Center for a multimedia extravaganza billed as “2001: A String Cheese Odyssey.” Soon afterwards the band will issue its third studio release, for which it has collaborated for the first time with an outside producer, Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin. In addition, many individuals are curious to see what will happen in terms of the touring retinue following the announcement of Phish’s hiatus (the New York Times recently reported that the band will “benefit” from Phish’s time off). All of these topics are addressed in the following interview with the quintet’s bass player, Keith Moseley, as well as the nature of the group’s improvisation and its elevated production values. For additional information about the band, visit the group’s official web site.
DB: Lets’ start off by discussing your own musical development. When did you start playing the bass?
KM: I started playing when this band started, actually. I had never touched a bass before this band started. I was a guitar player before that, and played for quite a while. But when the band first formed, I was playing guitar in a bluegrass band. I met Bill Nershi and he was a much better guitar player than me but there was no bass player so I said, “I guess I can either play bass or I’m out of the band.” As a result I learned to play bass. I really enjoy it now and it has opened up a whole new world of musical expression for me.
DB: You mention that you were in a bluegrass band. Did you have a heavy background in bluegrass?
KM: I still listen to quite a bit of bluegrass as I did in the beginning but my real musical roots were growing up with classic rock. My musical influence and background are both in classic rock and bluegrass. Since the band has gotten going, I’ve also put more time and energy into getting up to speed on the jazz stuff and world beat stuff. That’s a lot of fun and challenging as well.
DB: In terms of bluegrass, is it true that there was a time in the beginning of the band’s career when you performed as a trio with Bill Nershi and Michael Kang in the classic bluegrass configuration minus the banjo?
KM: In the very beginning we played a few happy hour gigs in Crested Butte with Billy, Michael and myself but that was really just the seeds of the band. I think the first gig we ever had that you could call a gig with the real band included [current drummer Michael] Travis and that was a locals night talent show in Crested Butte, Co. That would have been December of 93. It went over really well and we had so much fun we said we should make a go of it.
So in terms of bluegrass, we’ve always had those influences and played some bluegrass music because we enjoy it but the instrumentation has always included Travis on drums. Actually at the very beginning he was playing hand drums- just congas. He’d never played a drum kit before the band started. He started out playing the congas and after doing that for maybe six months we said we really want to make people dance so we have to get you on a drum kit. So yes the instrumentation has never been that of a bluegrass band even from the beginning. We’ve been a rock band that plays bluegrass music.
DB: Returning to your initial experience on bass- how did you approach it and who were your influences?
KM: From the very beginning I was in way over my head. We were playing bluegrass and rock tunes, some jazz, some world-beat stuff, and I was playing catch-up, trying to get up to speed on all that. One of my biggest early influences as a bass player was Tye North [formerly of Leftover Salmon]. He was a good friend I met early on when the band was starting out and I talked with him quite a bit. I really tried to learn from Tye and he continues to be a great player and a great influence.
DB: Let’s jump to the present for a moment. I’m not sure if you’ve heard this but a few days ago the New York Times heralded the String Cheese Incident as the band most likely to “benefit” from Phish’s hiatus. What do you think about that designation and are you concerned at all about the potential influx of people coming out on tour with the band?
KM: I think the band most likely to benefit from Phish taking a hiatus is Phish, really. They deserved to take a break and after we’ve been together for however long, fifteen years, I hope by God we get to take a year or two off as well. There certainly has been a lot of talk that there’s going to be Phish fans out there who might come check out the Sting Cheese Incident. We welcome them to check out the band. Obviously there are some concerns with our fans and with us- we don’t want to see the scene just explode in numbers and grow uncontrollably. We really would like to welcome newcomers but if they do decide to come and see our band and even tour with the band we want them to be String Cheese fans and become part of our scene and start to understand what our scene is like, and be incorporated into out family. That could be a challenging thing to do with a large influx of people. We’ll have to see how it goes. No one really knows who’s going to show up or if they’re going to show up. It’s all conjecture up to this point.
DB: Speaking of the String Cheese scene- the band performed two big events with John Dwork that incorporated string elements of ritual ands spectacle. I’d like to hear your perspective on the relationship and significance of ritual to music.
KM: John Dwork is a unique and spirited individual and it’s been lot of fun working with him at New Years last year and the Horning’s Hideout show this year. John and Peak Experience are going to be involved again with the New Year’s show coming up and we’re going to do more with them next summer. As far as the ritual idea goes I think that was probably one of John’s ideas and something he ran with rather than something the band came up with, or any individuals in the band. I think that our main focus is the music. We’ve enjoyed being part of it but I really wouldn’t say that was something the band created. It was something we enjoyed and had fun with and I’m sure we’ll continue to do some special events like that with John but it’s not something we’re trying to promote as a band.
DB: In terms of the band’s philosophy, one thing that has always impressed me about the String Cheese Incident is the commitment the group has made to production in the live setting. Right now I know you’re touring with a rather massive sound system that you’re loading into venues. What was the impetus for this and what has the impact been on the band and its music?
KM: I think from the very beginning part of our philosophy was to try to create the ultimate concert experience, even when we were playing clubs. We try to put ourselves in the fans shoes a lot and say, “If I were going to a concert what would be important to me and what would I like to experience?” Obviously a fantastic sound system is at the top of list. I’m glad that people are noticing and I think it’s something that people expect when they see the String Cheese Incident and it’s something that we’re going to keep as a priority. We thought, “How can we do this, what needs to happen?” Well we borrowed a bunch of money, bought a real nice sound system and started hauling it around really early on. We would load it into clubs that had p.a.‘s and we would sound better than other band sounded. Now we’re driving a semi- we’re up to two tour busses and a semi- we have a fantastic sound system and a great lighting rig as well. It’s just been part of our philosophy to give the fans the most we can possibly give them in terms of a fantastic show- lights, sound and the band really putting it out there. I think it has helped a lot. I think people come out to see us they know it’s going to sound good, it’s going to be a high quality show and that’s something we continue to reinvest in as we grow as a band. It’s especially challenging to make acoustic instruments sound good in a big rock setting. That’s something we have focused on from the very beginning, and we continue spend more money to sound better all the time but we think it’s money well spent. We appreciate the good sound and I know the fans do too.
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