Madison House Inc.
As 2018 rolls along, The String Cheese Incident will launch a multi-faceted celebration of their amazing 25 years together. Right now though, the band’s Kyle Hollingsworth is doing some celebrating of his own: 50, his fourth solo album (SCI Fidelity, March 2, 2018), commemorates the acclaimed keyboardist and composer’s 50th birthday and spotlights his continual evolution as an artist.
“It’s a mark of where I am right now, where I am in my life,” says Hollingsworth. “And it’s a nice round number.”
All 11 tracks on 50 were composed by Kyle, with help from his band, and recorded over a period of roughly a year and a half at The Lab, The String Cheese Incident’s new recording facility in Boulder, Colorado. Many special guests contribute horns, vocals and other enhancements, including Jennifer Hartswick, Jason Hann, Andy Hall, DJ Logic, Kim Dawson, the Motet Horns and others.
The music on 50 reflects the various aspects of Kyle’s life as he approaches the milestone number. “There are some love themes in there,” he says, “and family themes. ‘Finding Our Way’ is definitely a family song.” Not all are based on his own experiences though. One song, “Prime,” Hollingsworth says, “was written about the mathematician named [Bernhard] Riemann, who created a theorem, a hypothesis that a lot of mathematicians have been trying to prove over the years. I’d never before written a story song that had nothing to do with me.”
For 50, Hollingsworth cast a wide net sonically as well. The album represents the breadth of his musical reach, incorporating elements of several genres, including funk, classic rock and prog, jazz and more, yet it holds together as a unified piece. The brief opening and closing tracks, “Onset” and “Offset,” tie it all together, giving the album what Hollingsworth calls “a circular cohesion.” Kyle also worked with his co-producer and engineer Andrew “Dros” Liposack on injecting experimental ideas and unique tones into the mix.
“It’s a different band than my last three CDs,” Hollingsworth says, “so going into the studio with these guys was a different experience. We were able to explore and work together as a unit versus the other albums, where I would just bring them the songs and they would perform them as I told them to. I was able to be a lot more creative in the studio with my current lineup of musicians. I would show up with a smattering of ideas and say, ‘I think this is what’s gonna happen,’ and we’d sit down and knock out three or four songs.”
Hollingsworth wrote the music for 50 with specific guest musicians and vocalists in mind as well. “I’d say, ‘On this song, I really hear a trumpet,’ or, ‘I hear Jen Hartswick on “Come On”’ and, ‘I hear horns on the Motown-type song, “All Falls Apart.”’ I let the songs speak to me and I found the right sound. The Dobro on ‘Finding Our Way’ was something I heard early on so I called up my friend Andy Hall from The Infamous Stringdusters and he played on that.”
The songs on the new release, Hollingsworth’s first solo set since 2014’s Speed of Life, were specifically earmarked for this project. “Most of these are songs that would only work with my group,” he says. “The songs were pushed in a direction that String Cheese would not be able to replicate.”
Of course, he is quick to note, The String Cheese Incident remains his “number one” outlet as a creative musician. “We’re feeling excited about moving forward,” he says. “We feel rejuvenated because we’ve recommitted to each other emotionally and musically. We’re feeling very strong.”
Kyle, who contributes all manner of keyboards to SCI, has been a core component of the band’s sound since he joined the founders of the nascent Colorado outfit— guitarist Bill Nershi, bassist Keith Moseley, Michael Kang on mandolin and violin, and drummer Michael Travis—in time to record the band’s self-titled second album. (Percussionist Jason Hann came in during the early 2000s.)
“I feel like the band has grown so much since then,” says Hollingsworth of those early days. “We sounded different right off the bat.” After several years of slogging it out in clubs, they started to perceive that their following had begun to expand significantly. “We’d go to a random club that we’d never been to and there was a buzz,” Kyle says. “People at the East Coast venues were showing up having heard the tapes that their friends from Colorado or California had sent them.”
String Cheese’s reputation as a sensational live band spread rapidly, and they released several well-received albums up through 2005 before taking a long break from making studio albums. When they returned with 2014’s A Song in My Head and last year’s Believe, the band sounded recharged, bursting with new ideas.
Throughout that hiatus, SCI was anything but dormant, of course. They became one of the most consistently rewarding live bands on the jam band scene and, beginning in 2002, they started to release CDs of nearly every live gig they played. Says Hollingsworth, “We didn’t really feel making studio albums was something we needed to do. Then all of a sudden we had this backlog of material, and I think that A Song in My Head was one of the stronger albums because it had been brewing for so long.”
Speaking of brew, as many String Cheese fans know, Hollingsworth spends a great deal of his offstage time creating world-class beer, a one-time hobby that has blossomed into a large-scale enterprise. He traces his history as a brewer to his teens, when he got into beer-making after his older brother showed him the ropes. “I tried brewing and thought, this is kind of fun,” Kyle says. “You can see the process occur and put all these elements together and something comes out at the other end.” While he confesses that his early efforts “were not very good,” today Hollingsworth’s brews are prized by connoisseurs.
“I’ve probably made around 30 collaborations over the last nine years and probably five of them have been national beers,” he says. “I’m releasing a nationally distributed beer in Spring 2018, a collaboration with SweetWater Brewing Company and Relix Magazine. We went out to the hops farm, where we smelled the hops, looked at the malts and we chose the malt we wanted. It was more immersive than I’ve done before with my national beers; it was very hands-on. I’ve done a lot of local collaborations too. And every time we go on tour with KHB I’ll make something with the local brewery and have it on tap at every club I go to.”
Brewing, says Kyle, has more in common with playing keyboards with an improvisational rock band than one might imagine—at least for him. “I take chances in my music creation,” he says, “and I started seeing the parallels to how I brew beer. Once you get the basics under your fingers, you can start improvising. In a live setting I try to push myself to do something unique every time I’m on the stage, and in the same way, when I’m brewing I’ll try to use some blueberries or elderberries or some odd grain choice. You have to live in the space with that chance. Either it’ll fall flat and be the best solo you ever took or the worst beer you ever drank.”
As Kyle Hollingsworth gets ready to hit the road with The String Cheese Incident once again and with his own band, he intends to keep that improvisational spirit at the forefront of his work. “I want to continue to be creative and explore and try to push myself in many directions,” he says. “I’m trying to keep my mind and music active. As I turn 50, I feel that I can still grow and continue to feel young.”
We look forward to the followups: 60, 70, 80 and 90…