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EXCLUSIVE: Michael Kang Talks Element Music Festival, Koch Brothers, Algae, And More

Over the last quarter-century, Colorado’s String Cheese Incident has proved itself as a force to be reckoned within the jam scene. Part of the band’s appeal is the boundless energy and sense of freedom with which they approach all things. Musically, this instinct is evidenced by the vast range of genres they incorporate into their sound and the diversity of their ever-growing list of collaborators. As they’ve has established themselves as a jam staple over the past 24 years, their evolution has been consistent, though the directions they’ve grown have been decidedly less predictable. From their hugely successful Electric Forest Festival, which just wrapped up its seventh year, to this year’s intimate winter tour that revisited the group’s ski-town roots, String Cheese is fearless when it comes to seeking new experiences, both for themselves and for their fans.

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With their 25th anniversary on the horizon next year, the future is looking cheesier than ever. In June, String Cheese Incident released a brand-new album, Believe, marking their tenth studio effort. With the new album under their belt, the group has been tearing through their heavy touring schedule and have no plans of easing up as the summer unfolds, sounding tighter than ever as they set their eyes on their annual three-night run at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Live For Live Music’s Ming Lee Newcomb got a chance to chat with SCI’s own Michael Kang about all manner of things, ranging from the upcoming Element Music Festival, how the group has been approaching studio time, their controversial show for a member of the Koch family, political engagement, algae, and more. You can check out the interview below!


Ming Lee Newcomb: I wanted to start off by talking about your Roots Revival tour this winter and the new album, Believe. Those are two very separate experiences—with the winter tour tapping into the band’s roots and then releasing all this new material—happening right after one another. Can you talk about these two experiences and any insight gleaned from them?

Michael Kang: The Roots tour came out of a desire to re-tap into our acoustic music side. Billy (Nershi) was the biggest proponent of that, because as an acoustic guitar player, he’s always had that love, though we all do in different ways. Really, the tour was kind of a surprise. We actually had a different tour in store that we had to change last minute because (Michael) Travis was having a kid. We were like, “We have to change these plans. What are we going to do?” So, we moved it all up and decided this would be the perfect time to play a ski-town tour and get back to a lot of these places we hadn’t been to in a long time.

We didn’t really know how it was going to go. We were playing a lot of these small rooms, and we didn’t even know if we were going to fit into them. It was actually really fun, partially because we got to ski a ton, which is really awesome, but also because we reconnected with places that we felt this old affinity for. You know, we’re from Crested Butte, so just going back to these places after many years and playing these old haunts brought back a lot of memories. It also was reinvigorating. It gave us a real sense of where we had come from, and it was like a retrospective for us in a lot of ways.

It was cool too because it was so relaxed. There wasn’t a lot of pressure on the shows, so we just went in and played. To be honest, it sometimes brought up a little bit of friction, because we were playing our new material and our old material, and we had to figure out a seamless way to do it, which took a little getting used to. Overall, the experience was pretty awesome. Plus, as an added bonus, we got to ski—like, I skied more in those two weeks than I have in, like, 10 years. So just to be back up in the mountains, on a purely aesthetic level, to get back to the West Elks and some of these places where we got our whole mojo, that felt really good.

To answer the second part of your question, we’re obviously in a very new era of our band. We bought a building, we have a studio, and we’re staying focused on producing new music and different collaborations and staying current to where the band’s at tastewise and musically. We’ve evolved a lot over the past 25 years we’ve been together, and hopefully, we’ll continue to do so to keep it as interesting as possible. So yeah, it’s been a little bit of both, of looking back and looking forward and being grateful for what we’ve had and trying to use that energy to move on in creatively vital ways.

MLN: Unlike your other albums, for Believeyou guys focused on production rather than road-testing songs and went into the recording process without the intention that whatever was recorded would become a part of your live catalog. 

MK: Sometimes you’ll write a song and it comes out because you have access to certain sounds in the studio, but recreating it live isn’t necessarily the easiest thing. We had this habit for many years of learning songs and then bashing them out on the road, even if they weren’t pre-produced properly, and we’d try to make them work for how our instrumentation was live. We realized that’s one way to do things, but not the way that we always have to do things. We’ve given ourselves the leeway to be more true to the studio experience. If it happens live, then great. If it doesn’t, we move on to a song that may work better in that regard. It’s nice to have those options.

MLN: You guys did a band retreat in Aspen last year, and you’ve previously mentioned that you have new material from that. Do you have a status update on that, and with your experience recording Believe and focusing on production first, is that informing how you approach the studio now?

MK: Part of it is giving ourselves enough time to get into the studio and really dive in. Right now, we’re completely in tour mode, and touring just takes it out of you. It’s also partially about managing our calendar so that we give ourselves enough time to rehearse and pre-produce. This summer is out, because we’re playing pretty much every weekend. We’ll probably take a little break to get our wits about us, get our family life back together again. In the fall, we’re hoping to get back into the studio so we can continue to flesh some of these ideas out.

MLN: You’ve mentioned family life a couple times now. As a touring musician but also as a parent, what parenting lessons have you learned from being in the band?

MK: Being in a band is very much like being in a functional and dysfunctional family. [laughs] It’s different than being a solo artist or doing your own thing whenever you want to. Personally, I didn’t have kids until I was in my late 30’s and I wasn’t married in my 20’s or 30’s, so I’ve been a solo personality and able to do whatever I wanted. Being in the band trained me to learn how to deal with other people’s needs. That is probably the biggest lesson you learn with having a family, because all of a sudden, your needs are not the only ones being represented.

Once you have kids, they require constant supervision and direction. [laughs] You have to provide that if you want to instill them with the positive intention and direction they need in their lives. My life is easy when I’m on the road. I just get to play music and hang out. It’s when I come home that I need to pull my shit together. [laughs]

MLN: I want to shift to your upcoming appearance at Element Music Festival in British Columbia at the end of the month. Do you find that shows up there differ from ones that are stateside?

MK: It can be because not all pop culture, or even jam culture, makes it up to Canada in the same way. The times we’ve toured through there, we’d more often go to Vancouver and Whistler. We developed a crew of people that were really into us, but there’s certainly not as ardent a fanbase up there as there is down here. The electronic scene there is way more developed, and even the jamtronica scene was more so developed there before it was down here. We went to Shambhala Music Festival a while ago, and that was before Lightning in a Bottle and some of these West Coast electronic festivals had even started and taken off.

For us, it’s definitely like charting new territory. It’s going to be interesting going back. There are definitely a lot of new fans, people who have never heard of us. That’s still kinda the case here too, because we’re in a generational shift. The people who come to Electric Forest, you know, they’re kids. Like, I could literally be their parent. [laughs] But I think that’s really cool, to be able to bridge the generational gap.

MLN: You guys have six sets across three nights at Element. However, it’s not one of your own festivals that you’ve really groomed like Electric Forest or Hulaween.

MK: We hope that it turns into that. We put a lot of energy into wanting to have these experiences that people can come to and be like, “All right! I get it!” This is what SCI wants to do as a concert-type experience. So exactly like what you were talking about with Electric Forest or Hulaween or Horning’s—those were very intentionally curated in the way we wanted them to be done. Element is run by our hardest core BC fans, so they have the same intentions that we do. It’s going to be a work in progress, because we don’t play up there that often and they have to pull together their fanbase to make it all happen. It’s gonna be something that we can hopefully put into our repertoire and continue to do with our family up there.

MLN: In June, there was a rumor circulating that String Cheese played a private party for the Koch Brothers up in the mountains. There was a lot of buzz around that, so would you like to address that at all?

MK: Yeah, so it wasn’t for the Koch Brothers. It was a gig for the 40th birthday of one of their sons, who has been a longtime String Cheese fan for almost 20 years now. Leading up to that, there was a big debate within the band, because we knew that word would get out and how we would be perceived. We felt like the opportunity to bridge a gap and actually have a meaningful conversation with these people was a really powerful opportunity, so we decided to do it. I’m actually super excited about that, because that conversation has actually been happening. Some of us have been invited out to go meet Charles, the dad, and talk about things that are important to us.

But yes, it did happen. We are not ashamed at all, and I’ve been telling my friends that it was actually one of the more interesting gigs we’ve ever played. The vibe was really good, and neither the dad nor uncle were there, so it was pretty much all people our age who were Cheese fans of a different walk of life. In a nutshell, we decided to do it because in this day and age of political, economic, social, and racial divides, if we’re not talking to each other, then we’re all fucked. My belief has always been that if we reach across the aisle and try to find things that we agree upon and really work on those things, then that’s how society is going to tackle and solve some of these issues.

MLN: That kind of piggybacks off my next question. During your hiatus, you started a nonprofit that was geared toward environmental advocacy and education. Do you still do anything with that? 

MK: Not on the non-profit side. I helped my friends Matt Atwood and John Perry Barlow, and we all worked together on this algae company called Algae Systems. We got 15 million dollars from a Japanese engineering conglomerate and created a new process by which you could take municipal sewage, grow algae offshore, and pump it back on shore. We created a machine that—through this process called hydrothermal liquefaction—takes that biocrude and makes it into fresh water and oil. I worked on that for about three years in the early 2010s. I’m still staying involved with that in some capacity. There’s carbon mitigation stuff that we’re trying to prop up. Not publically, but it’s stuff that I work on in my own time.

MLN: If you could get one message out there for your fans and advocate for them to do one thing that would be impactful, whether it’s environmental, political, or social, what would that be?

MK: Participate. [laughs] I think in this day and age, with social media and everything, we all fall victim to being armchair quarterbacks. One thing I’ve learned is that you gotta put your feet on the ground, work at stuff, and get your hands dirty. That’s what it’s going to take for any tech start-up, any kind of ideological thing, anything that requires energy. The laws of the universe state that if you put energy into it, you get energy out. So, that’s what I would say to anybody. If you want something to happen, make it happen. It requires a lot of time and dedication. From the bands to any nonprofit or technology stuff I’ve ever worked in, it’s always been the same thing. You just gotta put in the hours.

MLN: One last thing that I wanted to squeeze in before you go. With Red Rocks coming up and the run being your last Colorado shows of the year, can you give us a clue as to where New Years might be? 

MK: We’re not announcing anything yet, but you’ll find out soon enough. [laughs]


[Photo: Jake Cudek]