When the String Cheese Incident returned from their two-year hiatus with an extravagant headlining performance at the 2009 Rothbury Music Festival, it was clear that the Double JJ Ranch would forever hold a place in SCI lore. However, few people suspected that—six years later—the band would be playing its 16th full show at the beautiful Michigan festival grounds.
And yet here we are. While the Rothbury Music Festival never lived up to its extremely high potential in the long run, the masterminds behind the event were able to keep the spirit (re: psychedelic woodland vibe) of the fest alive with Electric Forest. The popular EDM-heavy gathering might not be as jam-centric as the original Rothbury, but then again, it’s been able to outlast its forefather by a solid three years and doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. After all, where else can you see the electronic and jamband worlds collide in such spectacular fashion?
I caught up with SCI fiddler/guitarist/mandolinist extraordinaire Michael Kang at EF to talk about the future of the fest, the non-musical artists that make Electric Forest so special, the band’s fall touring plans and the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary.
Electric Forest is in its fifth year and still going strong. What do you see for the future of the festival? Will String Cheese still be involved?
We’ve been involved since the beginning so unless we decide that we don’t want to do it, we’ll probably continue to do it. It’s the culmination of a lot of the production ideas and stuff that we’ve seen at a lot of festivals. A lot of the art here is made by people that we introduced to the community, a lot of our friends. I feel like we’re definitely part of the festival, and we’ll continue to stay involved even though, obviously, the scene has morphed a lot and there’s a lot more EDM involved. I personally don’t look at it as any different than anything else. Having done this for 22 years, that scene has a lot of the same ethos, in my opinion, as the jam scene in the early ’90s or the Grateful Dead scene in the early ’80s. It’s all kind of the same. Times have changed but the ethics are the same.
Can you talk a little bit about those artists you got involved? Were these guys with you doing stuff with Cheese for years before?
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, we hooked up with a lot of people who were into doing a lot of different performance art. We befriended a lot of the people and worked with a lot of them, setting up stuff at Horning’s Hideout and things like that. It started before Electric Forest, when we first started to do the Rothburys and Cheese wasn’t on tour at the time. So me and a couple of buddies started a nonprofit called Our Future Now and we did environmental education through art. This was kind of hearkening back to a lot of my Burning Man community, because I used to go to Burning Man a lot. We had a lot of amazing visual artists that were really passionate about doing what they do. They built a lot of recycled sculptures and things of that nature.
So that first year that they did Rothbury, we came out and loaded a semi truck with all this art that we commissioned in California—Some of it Burning Man art—and a bunch of our friends. We brought this big recycled Temple. This guy Shrine, who’s an amazing, kind of visionary artist that likes to use a lot of recycled materials to build stuff. So we brought him and my buddy Kerry, who’s an amazing visual artist and our buddy Dolla Bill, who’s built all kinds of stuff. They’ve been involved ever since the very beginning. And our lighting guy at the time, Andy Carroll, was involved in the Electric Forest stuff even back then. There was a core team of people that were involved. Dolla Bill, for instance, was here a month before the festival just building stuff. There’s a crew of people, since the beginning, that have been involved in a lot of the Forest stages and the Forest installations. The nest, whatever they call it.There’s been a lot of people, even the Saloon people. That’s a whole crew of our friends from Salt Lake City who do the same kind of thing. I think this is the furthest east that any of them have really come to do festivals.
Back then in the late 2000s, there was a lot of this stuff going on in California and Oregon and on the West Coast, but not necessarily at a festival in the middle of the country. We had a lot of friends in Chicago that came up and helped. These are people behind the scenes that I think are really responsible for making Electric Forest very unique and special amongst other festivals out there. In my opinion, that’s kind of like the heart and soul of what this place is about. That what’s been there since the beginning. Things have changed and different people have played, but that’s what I think people come here for: the attention to detail and attention to the experience that’s even found in the title of the festival. It’s the Electric Forest. I think that’s something we’ve all worked toward, making that part of the festival super unique.
You recently announced Hulaween. Are there any plans to build a fall tour around that like last year?
Yeah, I think there’s some stuff in the works. We’ll probably do something, but I don’t think we’ve locked it down yet. But yeah I think we’ll add some shows around it.
Last year you guys released Song In My Head. It was a good album, but it was entirely material that you guys had already been playing for some time. Are there any plans to release more, maybe newer, material any time soon?
We’re talking about that right now. We went on this songwriting retreat, where we basically stayed together for a week and just locked ourselves away and came up with a bunch of new stuff that we now want to produce, and have good recorded versions of, before we actually start playing them out on stage. I think part of the thing for us—as a jamband or whatever that means these days, a band that tours a lot—is that since we never really relied on record sales per se to drive the economy of what we do, we’ve always had the road be the proving ground of a song. A lot of times we’ll write a song, try to get an arrangement, and then start playing it out to see how it feels. It’s good in some ways because a lot of the material gets out there and then we get play it more often, but I think we’re going to try to put the songs in the incubator a little bit more and figure out ways to really hone them into what they’re going to be on a produced level before we release them. We’re kind of chomping at the bit, because we have all this new material that we want to play, but we’re also kind of waiting to get in the studio. That’s the plan right now: We’re going to get back in the studio whenever we have holes in the schedule.
These days, releasing records can be a frustrating experience. It was for us the last time in the sense that the record was done for a year before we even had a chance to release it. There’s various reasons for why that happens, but for a band like us that plays a lot of shows, the record was new, but it wasn’t new to us in the sense that it was really well-produced versions of stuff we had done before. It’s great exercise for us, because I think a lot of times when you’re playing live you have to compromise with what you’re capable of doing live versus what the ideal, realized version of a song could be.
So that was, for us, really great because we could actually go into the studio and make it sound as good as it could possibly sound. We were really happy with the results of that. But yeah, what you can do in the studio, you can’t always pull off live. We want to spend more time honing in on the recording of songs and tracks. I don’t know if it’s going to come out in album form, but we want to create some kind of portal for us to be able to get music out more frequently so it doesn’t have to sit and get clogged or buried. That’s what we’re working on right now. We don’t have any announcements as to how we’re doing that but…
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