The Doobie Incident, Lockn’ 2015 photo by Dean Budnick
“I’m kind of running around trying to pick up all the pieces of my life,” Michael Kang laughs, calling from his home in Santa Cruz, CA. After releasing a new album, Believe, and flying all over the country to support it, The String Cheese Incident’s multi-instrumentalist is glad to be in one place, recharging his batteries before the band gets back on the road for a stretch of shows at Red Rocks, as well as appearances at the Element and Lockn’ festivals.
Yet, despite String Cheese Incident’s steady schedule, there’s always something “cooking on the back burner,” from new collaborations with bands like The Floozies and Big Gigantic, to a possible International Incident overseas. In a wide-spanning conversation, Kang spoke about his spiritual roots at Burning Man, his golf buddy Jeff Chimenti and strengthening his 20+ year bond with his bandmates.
You’re playing Element Festival in a few weeks, with 6 sets spanning over 3 nights. This will be the band’s first trip to Canada in at least a couple of years. How does it feel going back to the great white north?
We went to Pemberton not last summer but the summer before [July 17-18 2015]. It’s really cool to get back there. We’re going to be in a different part of B.C. that I haven’t been to in a long time. It’s the eastern side of the Canadian Rockies, and I’m really excited to to go up there and be in that part of the hill so to speak.
At Element, you’re sharing the bill with Steve Kimock, Garaj Mahal, and Dead & Co’s Jeff Chimenti. What’s your relationship with those guys?
Over the years, we’ve had different forms of relationships with all of them. Kimock and I— I first saw him when I was going to college. I saw Zero at this frat party in Berkeley back in the late ‘80s so I remember seeing him and being like, “Holy shit this guy’s really good.” That was before I’d even started playing mandolin. So he is kind of a legend as far as I’m concerned in a lot of ways. We kind of have this friendship, we’ve played in different projects together. We share a guitar builder. And now that he’s back in California I see him a little bit more often. He’s an absolute legend, and all the Garaj Mahal guys too.
And then Chimenti and I go back. I don’t know how we first met. It must have been through all the RatDog crew and the Kimock tour, but he and I are golf buddies so him and I try to get out and play golf together. We usually don’t talk about any kind of music, we just go play golf.
As far as setlists go, how do you tailor setlists to festivals? In other words, how do you approach Element vs. a festival like Lockn’ vs. a headlining show in a major city?
Something like Lockn’ a lot of times we’ll get paired with some other artist and do what we call a special “Incident.” That will obviously get tailored to what we’re gonna do with them: our songs, their songs, or whatnot. And then festivals like Element— I think British Columbia we haven’t been back there in a while and it’s going to be kind of out in the middle of nowhere so it’ll end up being really loose in the terms of we’ll get to play whatever we want.
Sometimes when we play festivals that are not just our fan base, we may play different styles of setlists. It really kind of depends. Like when we play Electric Forest we tend to lean more on our electronic side and stuff like that. It really depends on the crowd, but we’ll change it up as is custom to our scene. There won’t be any repeats and stuff, as usual. We’ll get it together when we’re there.
This summer tour, SCI has been busting out a lot covers; everything from The Doors, to Michael Jackson to Maroon 5. How do you guys come up with such diverse covers? Does inspiration strike randomly or do you come to rehearsal with concrete ideas?
It’s pretty random. Like the Maroon 5 song came through because my kids love Maroon 5. Maroon 5 is one of those bands where it’s so sickeningly sweet it’s like candy crack, you know? You hate the fact that you like it, but you like it anyway [laughs]. So we just did it in a middle of a song. I think our whole theme for a long time is we try to surprise people with the kind of covers that we play. A lot of times we’ll only play them once or twice a year. Some have made it into the repertoire a little more frequently than that, but most of the covers we play are once or twice a year and we’ll just bust them out.
A lot of that also comes from our Halloween shows and the covers we like the most will make it into the regular repertoire. Sometimes somebody will bring something up and most of us being completely pop music illiterate will be like, “What the fuck it that?” But we have a pretty open musical world. We’ll try stuff out. And sometimes we fall flat on our face, but that doesn’t keep us from trying.
Throughout a typical Cheese show you bounce back and forth from mandolin to guitar. Tell me a little about your gear. Are you playing anything new these days, adding to the sound?
I’ve been interested personally in different effects and stuff. I think the biggest change for our sound in the last six to eight years has been— having been at the beginning parts of the electronica and jamtronica scene so to speak. We’re friends with a lot of those people. Lorin [Ashton a.k.a. Bassnectar] and I go way back for instance, from our old Burning Man days in the mid-2000s and stuff.
And even though I don’t listen to electronica all the time, even having the influence of Jason and Travis, and EOTO, that’s probably been— we’ve kind of broadened our sonic spectrum. We can do the bluegrass thing and go fully acoustic, which on our last spring tour we did that a lot more, but then it’s also nice to have a completely different thing with the electronica and working with that and everything in between. We try to keep it as open as possible. Individually, people get into different things that work within those genres of music.
I haven’t changed too much, but I’m always interested in trying out new effects and stuff. My clarinet debut on stage won’t be for a while [laughs], but yeah pedals and effects. I’m waiting for this guitar to come from Scott Walker, Kimock’s and my builder, but he’s so backed up these days. I’m excited to get my hands on that.
The biggest thing we’ve gotten into lately is we now have this home studio. We bought this building in Colorado and we call it the Lab and it gives us a lot of sonic flexibility to just be able to do whatever we want. So there’s going to be a lot of collaborations with people in our scene, different guest vocalists and different songwriting things that happen with different people. And that was the intention. I think that’s kind of the next level of where SCI is heading, getting even more diverse and getting into whatever interests us. That’s probably the most exciting thing going on for us.
You and the team at Madison House just wrapped up another successful Electric Forest and Hulaween is on the horizon. Can you talk to me a little about your role in these fests besides music? Back in the Rothbury days you worked art installations, right?
Yeah, so when Rothbury started way back when, Cheese was on break and I started this non-profit with some other friends and my Burning Man camp where we felt it was important to do a lot of environmental— I studied environmental science in college and worked for Greenpeace and a bunch of nonprofits before I even became a musician and it always felt the power of messaging through music could be a really inspirational thing. So when Rothbury came about our nonprofit took some of these artists under our wing, this guy Shrine and this other guy Peter Hudson, who now have installations all over the place, all over the scene and otherwise. And we loaded a semi in this warehouse in Oakland before Burning Man and cruised it around all over. We filled the trucks with biodiesel and pretty much spent the whole summer going to music festivals. I think Electric Forest, or Rothbury at the time, was the first one and we had this huge semi of art with environmental messaging based around the core of it.
That original team of artists is a lot of what comprises Electric Forest’s Forest Crew right now. Back in the day, I wasn’t playing music so we were sitting there building art installations and stuff like that, which is really fun. It’s actually a blast to do something like that, interacting directly with fans, being out in the field. And Electric Forest some ways is the ultimate culmination of all of our common, eye candy vision and messaging. It’s obviously morphed over the years, but that’s something that we’ve always been really, kind of, wanting to incorporate into our shows as well as the idea of the magic that can happen out in the field which is what we did a lot at Horning’s. A lot of those same players are people who are still doing that with us just in the middle of Michigan instead of Oregon. And it’s been quite a ride. It’s something that’s so cool to watch happen and see how the artists keep upping their output and yeah, it’s something we’re really proud to be a part of.
So we’re not out there these days building installations because we have to focus on the music, but Madison House and us have always had the same sensibility. It’s almost like our common intellectual property so to speak. We don’t actually own the festival, we’ve just been kind of grandfathered in as curators I suppose. It’s always going to be part of our lore.
I’ve been to a couple of Electric Forests, and what makes it so unique is that the art aspect so important, and so stressed. It’s not just an afterthought.
It was consciously done. We did it on purpose. A lot of festivals, by the time they pay the big headliners and stuff there isn’t enough money left to really focus on the production. With Electric Forest there was a lot of conversations we had early on, directly with Madison House— and it’s an ethic we had early, playing Horning’s— we would go all out on the production and not make any money. But the experience was so awesome that it didn’t matter. And if we just take that ethic, and put that love into it, and show people something they haven’t seen before they’re really just going to really, really enjoy it and it’s going to stand apart too.
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