Major-label horror stories led the String Cheese Incident to go indie



By Steve Newton

In the early 1990s, String Cheese Incident guitarist Bill Nershi, an avowed ski bum in Telluride, Colorado, decided he wanted to tackle a new mountain. He bought an old school bus, fixed it up, and moved to the ski town of Crested Butte, Colorado, where he parked the vehicle in front of drummer Michael Travis’s house—where bassist Keith Mosely also lived. Shortly thereafter Nershi started performing on the slopes there, swapping lift tickets for gigs he’d play with fellow powder freak Mike Kang, a mandolin and violin specialist. Eventually the four players formed an acoustic bluegrass band, which integrated elements of improvisational jazz and funk-laden rock once keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth joined in ’96.

The quintet has been touring almost nonstop since then, garnering a devoted fan base across North America and selling more than 150,000 copies of its five CDs—all without the benefit of a major label. As Nershi explains from his home in the mountains west of Boulder, the decision to go the indie route followed much research, in the form of hanging out with musician buddies.

“The official decision came after talking to a lot of our peers,” relates the 40-year-old picker, “a lot of bands that had gone through the process of being signed and recording for a label. We were getting to that point where we needed to make some kind of a move, so we talked to as many bands as we could about it, and I would say 85, 90 percent of what we heard was all horror stories. There were a lot of control issues, where labels told them they couldn’t tour or recordings didn’t go the way they wanted. And being in a band, a lot of it is about momentum, you know. If you get a label that hinders your momentum, it can really hurt you for the rest of your career.”

Intent on going it alone, the band launched its own label, SCI Fidelity Records, and set up, through which it peddles its discs at the rate of roughly 1,000 copies a week. And the group’s unrestricted approach to music helps it continue to win loyal fans. From the get-go the String Cheese Incident has strongly encouraged the open recording of its concerts and free distribution of its music among any folks who care to listen.

“As soon as people were interested enough to want to tape, we were flattered,” explains Nershi. “Our soundman, Jon O’Leary, has always been willing to help out fans that want to tape, because I think he was a taper himself for a long time. In the early years, ’96/’97, when we were touring so much and playing so many shows, the tapers and the tape-trading—that whole network—really got our name out there. It was our best promotion for a real long time.”

The tapers should be out in full force when the Incident visits town for two shows at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts, on Wednesday and next Thursday (October 16 and 17). And even if you don’t own a portable tape machine, you can still score a sweet-sounding document of those gigs, as the band records every concert it plays and sells them on its site in three-disc sets. (In the latest issue of Guitar Player magazine, the SCI’s On the Road series was included with the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72, Phish’s A Live One, and the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East in its list of 10 essential jam-band albums.) Nershi doesn’t feel that by allowing fans to make their own tapes, he’s sabotaging the band’s ability to make a buck itself. “There’s people that are really involved in that tape-trading kind of a world,” he says, “with the tape trees on the Internet all the time, but there’s probably a lot more who aren’t involved in that, and for them it’s easier to buy our On the Road CDs.”

In concert, it’s not unusual for the jam-happy SCI to perform songs that go on for 17 minutes or more. For the recording of the band’s latest CD, Outside Inside, the group had to seriously curb its penchant for improvisation. “When we went into the studio I kinda spearheaded the idea of putting out a CD that would emphasize our songwriting ability,” relates Nershi, “and not rely so much on the long jams to make it work.”

Although the String Cheese Incident had never worked with an outside producer before, its members figured it was time, with Outside Inside, to hand the reins over to someone else. And Steve Berlin, noted for his work with Los Lobos and the Tragically Hip, was the right man for the job.

“It was kind of a relief,” offers Nershi, “because our band operates as a real democratic force, and sometimes in the studio it can be trying, you know, talking things through and voting and retalking. It’s nice to have a producer like Steve who can listen to everybody’s ideas and figure out which course of action sounds the best. People don’t get as attached to their own idea; you just put it out there and let the producer run with it.”

Bill Nershi sounds off on the things enquiring minds want to know.

On the band’s marathon concerts, which have been known to run to four hours: “We have played that long. We like to do two sets, and we like to do a fairly substantial encore. It might be four hours with a set break in there.”

On whether he gets tired of people lumping his group in with the other “jam bands” of recent memory: “I’m against any kind of labelling, ’cause I feel like it’s limiting. But it doesn’t bother me to be grouped with bands like Widespread Panic, you know—or even Phish or the Grateful Dead sometimes, even though they’re not touring.”

On whether the band’s willingness to have fans tape their shows evolved from Nershi having to sneak a tape deck into concerts himself: “No, it’s not my deal. I’m not that fanatic of a music fan. I’m a fanatic music player.”

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