FROM THE ARCHIVES: String Cheese Incident

Below is a feature that I published in The Marquee Magazine last summer. With SCI’s Winter Carnival kicking off tomorrow night, I figured I would post this here for anyone who wants to get pumped up for the Carnival or just learn a little more about the amazing community that surrounds the band.  A current feature that I wrote on SCI is running over at Hidden Track right now.  So go check that one out as well!

For anyone that has truly experienced a String Cheese Incident, it’s immediately crystal clear that the band built a loyal, if not rabid, fanbase during their 15 year run. Theirs were fans that would drive for days for a chance to catch an ‘Incident’ deep in the woods of Oregon, in a park in Texas, or in the heart of Manhattan. It was about so much more than the music, it was the connection between the band and the world around them that made The String Cheese Incident so special.

While it’s true that the band did break their hiatus for two shows last summer, including a much lauded headlining appearance at The Rothbury Festival, the announcement that most fans have been waiting for came earlier this year when the band revealed that they would be returning to Red Rocks this summer for a mighty three-night run.  In honor of their triumphant return to The Rocks, we caught up with keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth and several members of the extended family that the band has helped to nurture over the years, to talk about what the band has meant to their companies, their lives, and all of the Colorado music scene.

The first thing that came to the mind of many was the immediate and lasting connection that the band has a reputation for making with people.  “The emotional connection I made with their sound, the rhythms, the gentle vibe, the upbeat vocals, the comforting jams, was immediate and overwhelming,” said Annabel Lukins, director of artist relations for Jam Cruise, as she described the first time she saw the band in Aspen back in 1996. “The String Cheese Incident introduced me to a spiritual intoxication that manipulated my soul in an inexplicable way. The past 14 years as a fan and friend has helped introduce me to a community of truth and love that continues to move me.”

That community of truth and love that Lukins describes are at the heart of what the world of String Cheese is all about. From all of the Madison House Companies that they helped to foster to The Mountain Sun Pub and their dank beer and outrageous free nights of music, The String Cheese Incident has been an integral part of so much of the fabric of life on the Front Range and beyond. Through programs like the Conscious Alliance food Drives, they have even touched people that may not even know they exist.

“The band and their management gave Justin Baker [founder of Conscious Alliance] full support of his efforts from the get-go and the first food drive took place at SCI Winter Carnival in 2002,” said Justin Levy, the administrative director of the organization. “SCI’s unique relationship with their fans, and the overwhelming generosity of their community, helped make even this first food drive a huge success. We collected 4,000 pounds of food for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.”

“We jumped on board because it was totally in line with our belief system and we decided to support this new foundation. It’s been a really good relationship ever since,” said Hollingsworth. He went on to mention that his wife has served on the organization’s board of directors for the last several years with other members of the community like Don Strasburg, who helped to found the Fox Theatre in Boulder. Strasburg was one of the first people to promote a String Cheese Incident at Red Rocks, and is currently the Vice President and senior talent buyer of AEG Live-Rocky Mountains.

“I am grateful The Cheese decided to work with me and had faith in me. Major learning experiences and incredible opportunities arrived in my life because The Cheese organization believed in me. The first Red Rocks show I promoted was The Cheese and that was a huge moment in my career,” Strasburg said.

It was surely a huge moment in the career of the band as well, and the relationship has continued to this day. “Don was one of the people who ‘got us,’” Hollingsworth said. “He understood what we were about and had the same vision. It wasn’t all about making the big hit records, it was about developing a community that respects and enjoys live improvisational music. When Don first heard of us things started rolling and he’s actually promoting the Red Rocks shows this summer.”

While the band is indeed headlining three sold-out shows at Red Rocks this summer, their beginnings on the Front Range were much more humble. “The Mountain Sun was one of the first places that let String Cheese play in Boulder. I wasn’t in the band yet, but pretty regularly they were playing those Sunday night gigs where you get paid a couple hundred bucks and slowly they built a following,” Hollingsworth recalled.

But Mountain Sun owner Kevin Daly remembers things a little bit differently. “After the first couple of times they played at the pub, it was pretty much mayhem due to word of mouth from previous shows. People started hula hooping on the sidewalk and we had to hire doormen to hold back the crowds. It was fun, stressful, overwhelming, and exciting,” said Daly.

It was that kind of enthusiasm and energy that attracted the attention of the then Athens, Georgia-based Madison House Inc. “We 100% moved from Athens to Boulder to be closer to the band,” said Mike Luba, Madison House co-founder and a member of the SCI Management team. “I still consider both Madison House and The String Cheese Incident as my family. I am very proud of the way our relationship has evolved over a long period of time. There are lots of big personalities, personal agendas, and ambitions that have somehow managed to find a way to stay together as a team.”

“I’m not sure why we reached out to somebody in Georgia, but it turned out to be a great relationship,” said Hollingsworth. “They were starting their company and were looking for a growing band and they had a similar vision. So we went with them and we all ended up growing up together.” Over the years, the relationship was the catalyst for some groundbreaking ideas that have influenced the way the music industry works today. Several companies sprouted up under the Madison House umbrella, and new bands joined the roster, but the two never lost sight of the vision that they shared. As a result, the relationship is still strong.

This summer The String Cheese Incident is launching a new phase of their career and is on the verge of defining yet another new paradigm in the music industry. They may never jump back on a tour bus for 75 dates a year, but you can be sure that the band is back and ready to throw the legendary parties they are known for. “SCI was and continues to be a great incubator for ideas that are on the front edge of creativity,” said Jeremy Stein, a current partner in Madison House. “It is an open space that is exciting for everyone involved. The freedom to create big energy at meaningful gatherings teaches us all something new every time.”

By Tim Dwenger

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Who Is Timothy Dwenger

Music has always been a part of my life. It probably all started listening to old Grateful Dead, Peter Paul & Mary, and Simon & Garfunkel records that my parents had, but it wasn't long before they were taking me to concerts like Starship, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Huey Lewis & The News. I got the bug to write about music after reviewing an Eric Clapton concert for a creative writing project in high school but didn't really take it up seriously until 2002. Since then I have published countless articles in The Marquee Magazine and done some work for Jambase.com, SPIN Magazine, and various other outlets. I started Listen Up Denver! as a way to share the music information that is constantly spilling out of my head with people who care. Please enjoy!