Ten years ago, The String Cheese Incident took a chance on me.
As naive senior at Florida State, the dread and uncertainty of post-graduation was met with one sure thing - my absolute need to be involved in music. Resumes flew out to damn near every record label, booking agency, and publicity firm in the country.
One returned the email.
A day after graduation, I made the trek from Tallahassee, FL to Boulder, CO for an internship at SCI Fidelity Records. I was quickly rocketed into a world gloriously foreign to me, where all are welcome and the most different of people and styles are free to come together. The music of the String Cheese Incident did for me what it has done for people around the world and even the band members themselves. It forged seemingly impossible connections through the simple act of being open to adventure.
Bassist Keith Moseley chats here about the band’s 25 years, the communal spirit behind the band and its fans, and how the city of New Orleans inspires the band in front of this week’s JazzFest after-parties. It’s a conversation that points to the immense ways that music can transcend time and boundaries of all kinds.
Congrats on the 25th anniversary. Do you feel old?
Keith: Every day. It’s a serious milestone to reflect on and live with the fact that we’ve been a band for 25 years. We’re beating the odds and all staying healthy. I feel like we are making the best music ever together, too. It’s a special feeling.
I’ve read a lot of interviews where you speak about staying in the moment. How do you keep focused on that when there is so much nostalgia in the air this year?
Keith: The moment on stage? Part of being present with the band is how much new material we’ve written and recorded in the last few years. It feels like the band is going through a renewed sense of growth. To execute those songs onstage, you really have to be mindful and present. There’s no auto-pilot when you’re playing brand new songs. You have to remain super engaged up there in trying to play them the best you can.
Your music has created life-changing memories for thousands of folks. How does the band avoid the pressure of feeling like they need to replicate past experiences for some of their veteran fans?
Keith: There is definitely some expectation of the band every time we hit the stage. Some of that results in pressure to live up to the past, but we view it more as a responsibility to our fans and our past than pressure. This band, the music we make, and this scene we curate is big and important, more so than any one of us. It’s showing up and playing your role in this bigger thing. It’s all encompassing in that way. Sometimes you get that liftoff where the whole physical experience can take on importance for people.
When you guys were playing ski bars in the beginning, was there ever any thought into how big this could be?
Keith: It was hard to see how big it could go. 25 years and traveling worldwide with this music is a big deal. It’s hard to imagine, although the connection was very real on a smaller scale. We did get to those points of playing music quickly in those small bars. It got magical quickly. Getting that feeling and knowing we’re doing something emotional and powerful is a unique experience. Getting into those moments of absence is a special place I like to get to whenever I can.
I’ve chatted about Cheese with strangers in as faraway lands as Thailand. The community truly is worldwide. What makes your fans so special?
Keith: Our fans in general are an open-minded adventurous spirit as a group. They’re open to our wild palate of music and diverse ideas. That’s the type of people I want to hang out with.
Are there things the guys do, either musically or otherwise, that surprise you even after all this time?
Keith: Musically, we’re so familiar with each other, but surprises do still happen. I feel really fortunate to play with such amazing and spirited fellows. They’re a great group and it’s always an adventure. Personally, it’s fun, too. We’ve all been friends for a long time. Travis starting a family was a big surprise. We didn’t see that coming. But as an example, that’s been an amazing growth experience for him and it’s brought a lot of joy to his playing.
How organic is the current writing process? I’d imagine it helps a ton having your own studio space.
Keith: The Sound Lab has really gotten our focus and writing in place. We can come directly off the road and everything’s already set up to go. It’s been super inspiring. The process of writing is different for everyone. Lots of times we get together and band mates bring in songs that are complete or nearly complete. It’s just a matter of how we are going to put our group touch on it. Other times, it’s a group writing process where we’ve got a jam or a groove we’ve played before and want to revisit to build into an actual song.
It’s nice to have a studio space where we can come together and not be on the clock. It sure beats paying tons of money to be put on deadlines and have songs put together in x-amount of time. It helps us to be able to spread out the process between the writing and then shift into rehearsal head space.
How has family life and time passing in general affected the band’s songwriting?
Keith: Where you’re coming from in life is always going to have a big effect on your output when you’re writing. A lot of us are feeling mature in a lot of ways these days, with kids leaving home and moving on. Some of the guys have younger kids. Different chapters in your life affect songwriting in different ways. When there is a deeper well to draw from, it’s bound to yield positive results. That well gives you time to reflect and comment based on things you’ve seen. I’m excited about the material the band’s putting out. We’re still getting better and that alone is super exciting.
Are there any surprising lessons you’ve learned from music that you take into your everyday life?
Keith: Not many surprising, but lessons continue to reveal themselves, the most basic being that what you get out of it is a reflection of what you put into it. That remains true on so many levels.
What goes into preparations for shows these days with the weekend runs?
Keith: We’ll usually try to come up with a setlist before the run and pass that along via email to give everyone a chance to throw their input in. We’ll have a little time to prep on it and then we’ll rehearse and try to go over some of the stuff we haven’t hit in a long time or rehash the newer tunes. We have been rehearsing a lot though, which has been fun. There’s a lot of pre-planning, but there is always the chance we might ditch the setlist or call an audible here and there.
Does the time in between shows make it more difficult to build more momentum into the improve spaces?
Keith: That’s a continuing discussion with the band. Was it better when we were on the road playing five, six nights a week? The band certainly gets into a unique space when you’re doing intensive touring. Just by the virtue of all that time together, you get to a different space in the playing.
The flipside is that it can be a burnout being out for long stretches. Attacking things like we are right now gives us time to come in refreshed and looking forward to the gig, plus giving us rehearsal time at home. There are pros and cons of every way of doing these things.
The crowd comes in fresh and excited, as well.
Keith: Yeah, people are pumped to come to New Orleans. We had a big weekend in St. Louis after not being there in forever. It’s been a great run of shows this Spring, and I think we’re on a great trajectory.
I’ll be shooting over for those New Orleans shows. How will the shows with guests be structured? Full shows? Full sets? Just a few songs?
Keith: Just a few songs most likely.
What’s the communication like with these guests beforehand?
Keith: We’ll have a point person in the band assigned to each guest. They’ll reach out and get an idea of the tunes they can do, and then we’ll have some rehearsal with them day of show.
You guys have a pretty cool history with New Orleans all the way back to the early days. What makes New Orleans so special for the band?
Keith: We’ve all just been attracted to the vibe of the city and the musical richness of the city for a really long time. Before I had ever been to New Orleans, I was fan of its music. The Meters, the Neville Brothers, Dr. John.
We did some early gigs at the Maple Leaf mid to late 90s. It’s such a small room, but it was awesome soaking up the vibe. We’d see as many shows as we could see as well. I have great memories of seeing a late night Gatemouth Brown show. CJ Chenier and Buckwheat Zydeco come to mind as well. So we get pumped just coming to New Orleans.
One last question and it might be the big unanswerable, but what’s next for the band after this anniversary run?
Keith: More of the same in a way. We’re going to hit it hard this year. There’s still some unannounced shows on the horizon for the remainder of the calendar year we’ll bust out soon. We look forward to getting out some unreleased music we’ve been working on in the Lab and a few more tracks that are going to trickle out and perhaps package that as an album. We’re on a great path as far as recording and creating music, and playing some great destination venues. We’ll look forward to more of that.
Great. I appreciate the time, Keith. It’s impossible to overstate how important the band’s music has been for me. It truly changed the trajectory of my life.
Keith: Thanks so much. It’s happened that way for a lot of people. It’s been a huge influence on all of us, too. We’ve all met our best friends, wives, and all kinds of people through this community. Thanks for being a part of it. We appreciate you.
Photo: OnTheDL Photography