(From Boulder Weekly Buzz, Colorado, 4 September 2003.)
Untangling the Maybe
by David Kirby
Back in 1994, four bluegrassers named String Cheese Incident were gathering steam in the ski-bum environs of Crested Butte, pondering a move to the marginally more serious disciplines of Boulder. Across the Atlantic, British bassist Youth was reuniting with Jaz Coleman and Killing Joke, recording in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid of Giza and preparing a second act to the barrier-powdering industrial-political white noise gestalt that blistered London’s underground club scene a decade earlier.
A decade later, destiny or something far stranger entwined their paths in a studio in Sausalito, and produced Untying The Not, SCI’s fifth official release.
"He was a trip," says keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworthof Youth. "He was very, very precise about what he wanted, how he wanted us to sound. Very strict. Our drummer would be playing away, and he’d be, ‘No, no, too many notes. Four on the floor. That’s jazz you’re playing there.’ We’d say, ‘no that’s funk.’ ‘No, that’s jazz, and we want something different.’ That’s kind of the way it went the whole time we were recording."
It’s almost a law, a metaphysical certainty, how instrumentalist bands grow and mature, how they arrange the deck carefully to play to their strengths, then one day in a fit of existentialist daring toss the cards into a stiff breeze to see which ones fall right side up. Injecting the elixir of uncertainty and challenge into a comfortable and prosperous gestalt is what keeps bands alive and growing; and for many of them, it’s as simple as making a studio album. Not a jam-caught-on-tape studio album, but a real studio album.
It sounds like that’s what SCI was after.
"It was, yeah," says Hollingsworth. "I think we started that a little bit on the last record, with Steve Berlin producing. But this time, we just wanted to really change the whole thing. We looked around for someone to produce it–a long list of names, some were people we knew we couldn’t afford, people like Trevor Horn.
"But Youth was cool, he came to one of our gigs and was backstage listening, nodding his head. It seemed like he got it," he continues. "We knew he came from a whole different scene, that kind of Euro-hippy thing, and it took a little while for us to get comfortable in the studio with him, but I think it worked out. It’s a darker record than we’ve made in the past. Kind of a ‘Dark Side of The Cheese’. There are samples and intros and stuff that are really out of house music, sort of tying the thing together. It’s cool–it’s really different for us."
After an opening of three straightforward vocal tunes, the CD descends into a sort menacing mélange of instrumentals, kind of a great karmic disturbance, dressed in gaseous synth washes and sequenced riffs and disembodied spoken voice. It’s a beautiful thing, very studio and very poised. At the center, in the eye, is the sound of Mountain Girl’s delayed and treated voice talking about a bus ride in Mexico–almost Castenada-ish, summoning ghostly images of sun-baked wisdom from a broken Baja highway.
"She’d been coming to our California gigs for a while; she’s sort of been part of the scene," says Hollingsworth. "We wrote out ten questions and recorded a bunch different people’s answers to them–a cook, a taxi driver, and her. And Youth just sort of mixed the whole thing together.
"It’s an album people are either going to love or hate," he continues. "People are going to get 18-20 minutes of instrumental stuff in the middle, and dig it, or wish they had a vocal thing to hang onto."
And as the band has become one of the top live draws in the country, does this vigorously studio-esque album represent the inevitable divergence?
"You know, some of this stuff will be really, really hard to do live," says Hollingsworth. "I don’t know. A couple of the tunes, like maybe ‘Valley of the Jig,’ is something that would work live. Or maybe we’ll get a bunch of samples and tapes and try to do the whole thing as an event sometime. But maybe this will be something that just stands on its own as a studio record. And that’s it."
String Cheese Incident play at 6 p.m., Friday & Saturday, Sept. 5 & 6, at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, 303-640-7300.