String Theory:
Kyle Hollingsworth

Kyle Hollingsworth is the pianist//vocalist/accordion player for jam band The String Cheese Incident. Formed in 1993, in Boulder, Colorado, the String Cheese Incident has a massive group following and plays over 150 shows a year. They have even started their own travel agency to book trips for their fans. Their latest album is “Untying the Knot,” out now on Sci Fidelity Records. In the following interview, Kyle discusses improvisation, playing on a mountain and leaving their guitarist at a truck stop.

Do you have any questions you’re sick of being asked by the press?
Only ‘Where does the name come from?’

Do you get that a lot?
We get that all the time, you’re not allowed to ask that.

Do you have any good responses to people who ask that?
No, I try not to respond to it at all.

Which do you enjoy playing more: Piano or accordion?
The piano was my first love. I love the B3 as well, the Hammond. Accordion is close to my heart, somewhere at the end of the line; but piano is my favorite.

Do you remember your first performance with the String Cheese Incident?
My band in Boulder was opening for the String Cheese Incident at the Boulder Theater. I had known Michael Kang for awhile, and he asked me to sit in on a few songs. After that, I went on tour with them and I guess my real first gig was at the Telluride Bluegrass festival. That was kind of the big first gig, in front of 10,000 people.

 You used to play for lift tickets at ski resorts. When did you first realize things were starting to change?
The band used to play for lift tickets prior to my existence [in the String Cheese Incident]. When I joined the band, they had expanded themselves a little bit beyond that stage. I knew, personally, when we first started going to the East Coast. The first time we went there, people knew our name enough that we would have eighty people show up. We did gigs in Burlington, Vermont, or somewhere in Massachusetts. People through the taping community helped to spread the word.

Do you feel that there is a big difference between playing live and being in the studio?
Yes, live is where the band plays at it’s best right now. I think we’re trying to get better at playing in the studio. [During] a live performance, it’s easier for the band to connect and in some ways it’s more organic. It’s great to feel the energy of a live crowd that you don’t get from a studio.

Did you find it hard to make the transition from live to studio?
At first, yes. It really depends on the producer as well. The producer can really make you feel more comfortable in a studio setting. Steve Bennett from Los Lobos did our “Outside Inside” album. He tried to make the band play live in the studio. He kind of led the way into a studio experience.

You wrote a few songs on “Untying the Knot,” do you have a favorite piece?
Probably “Who Am I?” My favorite tune off of the album that isn’t mine: “Looking Glass.” It’s one of those songs that you get the feeling that it’s the String Cheese Incident. Some of the songs on the rest of the album, you can’t quite tell that it’s our band. On songs like “Looking Glass” you’re like, ‘That’s the Cheese, good.’

Do you feel that your band has a certain sound?
I think there’s a certain sound and a certain way of songwriting.

For people who haven’t heard your music, how would you describe it?
It is a mix of rock, and Latin, and funk and bluegrass.

Who are some of your influences?
For years, I’ve studied jazz piano; from Steve Jarrett, to Herbie [Hancock] and Chick Corea. I’ve always been a big fan of The Beatles and pop bands of the eighties, I’m afraid to mention.

How long have you been with the String Cheese Incident?
I think around eight years now, and the band’s been together about ten.

Do you have a favorite memory from your eight years with the band?
Probably when we left  Bill Nershi, our guitar player, at a truck stop. Unknowingly, we drove away. We thought he was sleeping in the back of the bus. We pull up to the next truck stop about an hour down the road, and this older, elderly couple comes up and knocks on the door. We thought Billy was in the back and the woman goes, ‘can you please do a headcount?’ And so, we did a headcount. [The woman then says,] ‘this young man, his name is Billy, is stuck about an hour back at the truck stop. Please go get him.’ This was in the day before cell phones, there was no way he could reach us. He was telling everyone at this truck stop to stop to stop any weird buses they see. We drove all the way back to pick him up.

You play over 300 gigs a year, what’s been your craziest gig?
We played on a ski mountain in Telluride. We played, not at the base of the mountain, but on the mountain. We had a huge stage two-quarters up the way of the mountain. The only way you could get there was to ski in. All the snow caps were stacked to build the stage. We skied straight on the stage and played music, and all of the fans had to ski in. It was very energetic.

How many people did you play in front of?
At least five thousand.

What’s the hardest thing about being on the road?
The lifestyle of being on the road, sleeping on the bus, showers, trying to find a bathroom. Just the lifestyle of being on the road is challenging.

What are some of your hobbies?
I’m doing a solo CD. When I’m at home, I’m working in my basement, in my studio. I like to make beer.

Is your solo CD a change from the Incident?
It’s focused more on one aspect of what the Cheese does. It’s something I feel comfortable with, jazz-funk.

Are you planning on putting it out on Sci Fidelity?
Out on Sci Fidelity.

Do you recommend that artists start their own record label?
It’s been great for us. It’s great for creative control, having our own record label.

You’ve even started your own travel agency for fans…
It’s part of the in-house philosophy, trying to keep the fan base connected to us; where they [the fans] can call us, and buy tickets directly from us. {They can] call us and book their travel arrangements directly through the Cheese. Their talking to one of our family members instead of going through a large company for travel. It kind of keeps it all in house.

What do you enjoy most about improvising onstage?
I love the freedom you get, being able to going anywhere musically. [The freedom] to jump off cliffs.

What’s been your longest show?
New Orleans, at Jazz Fest ’98. We played from one A.M. to eight A.M., at a small club, and we saw the sun rise. We went in;  it was dark. We came out; the sun was up.

How did you fill that amount of time?
We have enough material that we can generally fill that amount of time. One song could be three minutes or it could be thirteen minutes. It depends how may cliffs you want to jump off of.

When you are improvising, do you have a certain method?
We’ll generally just put an arrow on the set list and then we’ll just listen to each other. There will be one song and then another, and we’ll put an arrow between the two implying: ‘Should we go on to the next song?’ There’s a lot of listening, a lot of big ears on stage.

Does it take a lot of time to get that connection with each other?
It’s taken awhile, years and years to get it. Just knowing each other’s personalities, musical personalities; that’s what happens after knowing these guys for all of these years.

Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to become involved in a band?
Practice. Get into a group of people where you feel comfortable experimenting. Start jamming with people that are better than you.

What do you feel is the biggest misconception about the jam band scene?
That all the bands sound the same, that all of the bands have similar interests in the jam band scene. There are so many jam bands that are doing cool stuff, from organ trios to sax and drums. It’s too bad that some people need a category to fit people into. Respect them [jam bands] for what they are doing.

What do you want the String Cheese Incident to be remembered for?
Good listeners, good at improvising and truly remembered for making great albums. That would be awesome; I think that’s our next goal.

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