2018 is a big year for the String Cheese Incident. With a slew of 25th anniversary dates on the calendar, another Electric Forest festival in the works and plenty of original music emerging from their Colorado-based Sound Lab, the jamgrass fusion sextet is primed for some memorable performances. Percussionist Michael Travis, meanwhile, is particularly busy, balancing SCI and EOTO with an ongoing desire to put his stamp on both projects.
“The fact that we’re improvising and we’re going for it hour after hour, it’s unique,” Travis says of EOTO. “We spent all this time getting this signature sound and the concept, we’ve made it through the gauntlet of an extremely challenging, emotional landscape and now we’re in the position to rev it up again.”
Calling from his home, Travis gives us the skinny on String Cheese, EOTO and his dream collaborators.
Are you excited about getting out on the road with such a big anniversary?
Yeah, it’s pretty wild, all this time has passed and we still like each other [Laughs].
It’s definitely been a long, strange trip. Can you briefly track the evolution of the band and how far you guys have come?
Billy Nershi moved to town and moved into my house while I was away for the summer. I came back and he was already jamming with Michael Kang and then they added Keith Moseley. Then I, the percussionist, came back, so we could do a band and do some gigs. At first it would just pay for our skiing habits, just get some free lift tickets wherever we’d go and play during the night. Then people really liked it, probably more than they should. Considering little time we’d been around and how little reputation we had, people were really, really loving it so we were kind of like, “Well, maybe we should do more of this.” That’s when we added Kyle, the keyboard player. We really wanted to step it up and be more of a rock band opposed to the acoustic projects so about a year before we added Kyle I started playing drum kits, which I didn’t do when the band first started. And then, Kang started playing electric for the first time as well, so we were obviously intent on becoming a bigger rock outlet.
We toured Kyle around for a while. He played shows with us and every night we’d say, “This is Kyle on keyboard, don’t you think he should join our band?” to try and guilt him into it and eventually it worked – that was ’97 or ’98.
We started big time touring until 2002, 2003. Then it got a little of weird because we were in these small arenas. Everyone kind of lost their aim and direction and then in 2005 we added Jason to try and fix things, but it didn’t really do much. Billy quit in 2006 for two years because it was too crazy and got in the way of what he wanted. Then he realized how great it was, we all did. and we came back together after a two-year break and there was a continuous, different angle on everything. Right now, especially, we’re spending a ton of time in the studio, trying to work out how to be a good band [Laughs].
Being in a band is a lot like being in a family. It’s a lot of diplomacy and figuring things out together. A quarter of a century later, do you feel like you guys have a handle on those types of things?
Uh, not really [Laughs]. It’s so interesting. I have this theory with people’s personal angles on life. They become whatever the color of their issue is within the group. It doesn’t go away, it just becomes a lighter shade. Hopefully it becomes a pastel version of itself eventually.
We’re still all dealing with each other’s initial imprints, but hopefully we’re just getting better at not responding to them, not getting triggered by them, and not having them be as heavy-duty versions of previous incarnations. But we are learning a lot. We’re doing well.
From a fan’s perspective, it seems like the Sound Lab is helping you guys do that: giving you all a place to explore your own ideas and release music without any pressure.
The only restriction is the lack of time because everyone has their own lives and families and we all live in different places. But it’s way better than any other time, like, getting under the hood and looking at the real, intense stuff.
Can you give us a hint as to what the 25th anniversary shows might entail?
I’m not really at liberty to talk about some of the stuff, but we are trying to show up with more commitment than previous times.
We have like 15 new songs now, and we’ve only played about two thirds of them. We’re just trying to enter the 25th year with a new, revived, explosive version of ourselves.
Would you say the 25th anniversary shows are going to be looking ahead as opposed to being retrospective?
We’re going to do some retrospective stuff as well for sure.
One of the shows falls during the second week of Jazz Fest. Are you excited to play New Orleans during such a vivacious time?
Oh, it’s always so amazing to be there during Jazz Fest. To be in a city that’s built on music be at its musical peak is incredible to be a part of.
You’ll have Pigeons Playing Ping Pong opening. Do you think you’ll collaborate with those guys?
I bet we will.
Let’s talk about Hulaween. SCI’s costume set this year was the divine feminine. What motivated you guys to bring in all of these amazing female performers and explore that theme?
Well, it seemed like a good theme. I don’t know, it’s in the air. Considering the root of sexism, it’s latent. It’s all around us. We still function in this very hardcore patriarchy – to celebrate womanhood and all its glory, especially in our format of rock and roll… There were a lot of pieces that came together. All these opportunities to feature people like Ann Wilson and Jen Hartswick kind of appeared, so we said “Let’s do it.”
I don’t think a lot of men realize how deep sexism lies and is in built in the fabric of society. You have to actively rail against it to get anywhere near an appropriate look at it.