Bill Nershi Interview: String Cheese Incident Jams On

The crowd at a String Cheese Incident show almost never stops dancing. There may be more women than men. And the fashion sense runs from dread-locks and ripped up jeans to ‘60s hippie to shiny, sequined tank tops and skin tight yoga pants. It’s a light-hearted, sexy groove-trance not unlike an old Dead show, albeit re-wired this way and that, and updated for the 21st Century.

So is it bluegrass? New-grass? Psychedelia? EMD? Pure Jam Band? Actually It’s a bit of all of that and more.

String Cheese Incident -- who either got their name from a broken string event or a late-night bar food fight -- have been at the forefront of the Jam Band scene going on 20 years now. And though there was an almost decade-long gap between their 2014 studio effort, A Song In My Head, and 2005’s One Step Closer, the legendary live shows -- Incidents, as they’re known -- have rolled groovily on. Editor Adam St. James caught up with guitarist and main songwriter Bill Nershi recently and discussed everything from finicky acoustic guitars to dealing with a backlog of new material and how to get it out to the public in the fickle digital-download, post-album universe we seem to be living in.

Nershi was especially excited talking about his new Gretsch hollow-body electric, sitting in with a famed bluegrass family, his respect for Dickey Betts and the Allman Brothers, and studying the licks of jazz great Django Reinhardt. Let’s roll: So you're up in the Northeast, right?

Nershi: We're in Portland right now. Maine's a beautiful state, isn't it?

Nershi: Yes it is. I'm ready to have some good seafood. And lobster is cheap up there, isn't it.

Nershi: I don't know. We'll see. Michael Travis, our drummer, knows of a good place to go get some. I'm making myself a little cup of tea here, and then I'll be ready to go. Have you played in Maine before?

Nershi: Yeah, we've played in Portland before. So how is the tour going?

Nershi: The tour is going real good. The tour has been good. It's nice to string together two shows. The norm right now is just doing a lot of one-off festivals, and it's a different thing, because you've got to just go out there and blast everybody. But this is different. We can relax and get into some jams. And it's been great. You mean with an extended set time and everything, right?

Nershi: Extended set time, and, when you play night after night and it's a club and not a festival, and you're playing for less people, it's more relaxed. A more intimate scene. So what’s got you excited these days?

Nershi: I got a new guitar! What did you get?

Photo by Brian Spady copyright String Cheese IncidentNershi: I just bought a Gretsch White Falcon. Oh, those are awesome!

Nershi: It's friggin' awesome! It's blowing my mind. It's so fun! So I'm playing that through a Mesa/Boogie Lone Star. Is this a new White Falcon or a vintage White Falcon?

Nershi: It's a new White Falcon. I looked at vintage stuff, but Fender helps me with instruments, so this was a great deal for me. And it's hard to find exactly what you want in an old White Falcon. There's not that many available. So this one is an awesome instrument. It's got TV Jones pickups. It's got the Bigsby tailpiece. It's awesome. Have you already been playing this guitar? I see a picture on your website.

Nershi: I played it at shows starting at Suwanee. I also played it when we did the Halloween set. It's a beautiful guitar. So you're runnin' this through a Mesa?

Nershi: Through a Mesa/Boogie. What else do you have on stage with you?

Nershi: Well, you know I mainly play an acoustic. So with the acoustic -- Santa Cruz guitars made me a guitar, designed after the Martin that I had been playing since I started with the band in '93. And so this is what they call the D-Nershi -- like dreadnought Nershi -- and so they have it in their line now. They're selling this guitar now. And they've been really good to me, taking care of me. And this guitar that they built is the real deal. It sounds great. So I'm pretty spoiled with my instruments right now (laughs). Yeah, I see the Santa Cruz guitar. It's beautiful. What happened to your old Martin?

Nershi: My old Martin was a little finicky. It had intonation issues and was a little bit of a wrestling match. I love the tone of it, so we took a lot of the things, design-wise, that make that guitar work, and applied them to the Santa Cruz. And they built me one that is like that guitar, but with better tonewoods, and also their exacting craftsmanship. So the intonation is perfect, and it's easier to sing with. I still like the Martin.

I hope that they might, at some point, do some work on that Martin to get it so it's a little more playable. But this thing has the warmth, and it's a new guitar, so it's just opening up. It's got the warmth and it's got this nice kind of sizzle on the top end that makes it really fun to play. I've been enjoying it. When you're on stage with this guitar, do you put a feedback damper in the soundhole?

Nershi: No. I've never really liked those things. But what I do is I have two different pickups. I put a Sunrise in the soundhole, and then I have K&K's under the bridge, and I run those in stereo and I can blend them. And those, in turn, they each go through an Avalon pre-amp. And then that's how I can adjust the levels of each of the pickups. And then they go into my tc electronics G-Force effects unit and come out of it in stereo. That's my acoustic rig. I see, on the Santa Cruz website, they offer the guitar, but without pickups.

Nershi: Right. Well, they, if you talk to them, they will put K&K's in that. As far as, if you go out and play a bluegrass gig, or an acoustic gig of any sort, those K&K's work great. You could also probably put whatever you call that in the soundhole to keep the drums and electric bass [from causing feedback]. But my system is the Sunrise soundhole pickup, with the K&Ks under the bridge. And did you say you run stereo out of the guitar?

Nershi: Stereo out of the guitar. So two output jacks on the guitar?

Nershi: No. One stereo plug, and then it splits on the other end, and each goes into an Avalon. So you can adjust the tone and the gain of each pickup, and run line-level out of the Avalons. And then that goes into the tc electronics, and there they're summed together, so that you don't have one pickup come out one side, and one out the other side. You sum the pickups together, and then the effects go out of the tc electronics in stereo.

It works great, and I even have, on my pedal board, I have a pedal set up as an expression pedal, so I can then bring in the lows and stronger/weaker mix. And I can run a wah-wah pedal that's built into the effects unit. So how many of these guitars do you bring on the road with you?

Nershi: Well, I've been playing a bunch of other guitars. For acoustic guitars I just bring my Martin as backup. But I've only played my Santa Cruz since I got it. And then as far as electric guitars, I just got the White Falcon. Before that I was playing my Collings -- I guess it's an I-35, like a 335 style Collings electric guitar, with a nice carved maple top. That guitar is awesome.

And then my brother made me a Tele that I really like -- my brother Tom Nershi. And I've been playing that. But since I got this White Falcon, I can't put it down. (laughs). Yeah, I bet! A full-bodied sound, huh?

Nershi: Yeah. It's a big guitar. I had another Gretsch, a Reverend Horton Heat model, one of those orange ones. And I played that for awhile. This White Falcon is an even bigger-bodied guitar. It's just got a real unique sound. So what kind of strings do you put on these guitars?

Nershi: D'Addario takes care of the strings. I use medium phosphor bronze on the acoustic. And then I use -- I don't know, maybe the .010s -- on the electric. A .010 to .046 set or something like that?

Nershi: I'm not sure, really. But that's probably what they are. I like those Nickel strings too. Yeah, they have a nice sound.

Nershi: Yeah, they tend to have not as crispy of a sound, and they last longer. Where some strings will be real bright when you first put them on, and then dull out. These will stay more even. Right. So you also play with the Travelin’ McCoury’s sometimes, the bluegrass band. You have a lot of bluegrass in your background. A strong love of bluegrass...

Nershi: Yeah. This is -- the thing with the Travelin’ McCoury's is cool because I don't try to necessarily get them to do the Bill Nershi show. I just come plug into their music, and yeah, I'll sing a bunch of tunes, but it definitely stays in the world of what they're bringing, which is a lot of original and traditional bluegrass stuff, with a lot of great harmony singing, and super, incredible picking.

For me it's mind-blowing being in the band and playing with them because of their history, playing with their dad. And they just know everybody in the scene. For me, growing up a bluegrass fan, and really enjoying that music, it's like the ultimate experience for me to go out with those guys and tear it up with them. How do you keep your bluegrass chops together? Do you play a lot during the day, even on non-show days?



Nershi: I don't play a lot. I have some things I'm doing. Right now I've been getting into this Rosenberg Academy, which is an online series of lessons that you can take, Django-style, Django Reinhardt style of playing. So that's what I've been into. That's a great way to kind of mix the acoustic world with the jazz world. The instructor is Stochelo Rosenberg, and he rips! It's pretty amazing. Have you spent a lot of time digging into Django?

Nershi: I like it. It's a real different style for me. When I work on it I learn stuff, and I tend to incorporate those things into my own style. It's hard for me to sound like Django, but the things that I learn from that style are really helpful to me because the band will play some jazz changes and I need to constantly work on those kind of things, because that's not necessarily what I grew up playing. I grew up playing like, the Marshall Tucker Band, and bluegrass, and things like that. I have a Django Reinhardt songbook here at my desk, I've had it sitting next to me here at my desk for -- I hate to say it -- a couple of decades at least, and I still haven't mastered Django's playing...

Nershi: I know! To master it you have to dedicate yourself to it entirely. But that doesn't mean you can't dabble in it and go, "Oh God, that's interesting!" Even, like, picking patterns, or learning how to go through some diminished runs, and ii-V changes. There's a lot of really great stuff that you can pick up by just dabbling.

Some guys dedicate their lives to playing like Django, kind of like some bluegrass people who dedicate their lives to playing like Tony Rice. But ultimately what you want to do is learn the things about it that work for you, and incorporate them in your own style.

Check that website out, because even if you just get a month's subscription, and listen to some of the exercises he does, and different stuff like that, and even just watching him play these exercises -- the speed and the coordination between left and right hand -- it's pretty mind-blowing. Cool. I will look into that more, the Rosenberg Academy. Very cool. So when did you live in Telluride, Colorado?

Nershi: I moved to Telluride in '81, and lived there pretty much through '95, although I spent the winter of '93 in Crested Butte, and that's where I met the guys in the band. So Telluride had the bluegrass fest all those years, right?

Nershi: Yep. Something you were a big part of?

Nershi: Mainly as an observer until maybe the '90s. I went to all the bluegrass festivals. That was a big reason why I stayed in Telluride. That and other festivals that were going on. So with String Cheese, there's bluegrass elements, and then there's all kinds of other genres that you guys do, and it's a pretty wild mix. How did that all come together?

Nershi: Well, there's a lot of varied tastes in the band. We try to stay open, rather than say, "Oh we don't want to play that kind of style." We'll say, "Well, OK, let's listen to some of this kind of music and see what makes it work." And whoever is unfamiliar with that style of music has homework to do. So you learn a lot about playing a lot of different styles of music. Do you guys spend a lot of time just jamming over some new style or new progression that somebody brings in? Is SCI likely to just jam for hours on something new like that?

Nershi: Yeah, jam, listen. We've done it pretty much like that since we started playing, so we're used to playing a lot of different styles, and now we have ways of approaching -- I've learned ways of approaching Afro- or Latin or funk or... Bluegrass of course is easy for me, but maybe Kyle's got to figure out how to do it. And you know, a funk tune with jazz changes that Kyle writes, then I've got some homework to do, and I've got to work some stuff out so that I can sound right on that stuff.

There's electronic style with beats and things like that, and that's really unfamiliar territory for me, but the funny thing is that you can blend some of these styles. Like I might bring in a tune, a fiddle tune, like "Star of Munster." That's an old Irish fiddle tune that my friend taught me, and I brought it into the band. And then the band, [percussionist] Jason Hann says "Hey that would be cool in this Bollywood, Indian style, with beats and things like that." So all of the sudden this fiddle tune becomes an electronic dance tune with this head from "Star of Munster."



Things like that happen, and that's kind of the cool thing, when we can blend styles from different people in the band, then everybody has something about that song that makes it work for them, and is familiar, and they're happy to play. Right. With your shows, some of these shows -- especially like your New Year's Eve shows -- like the three nights you played up in Boulder, right?

Nershi: Uh yeah, three nights in Boulder for New Year's Eve at the 1stBank Events Center. It's just south of Boulder, isn't it?

Nershi: It's east of Boulder. So when you guys put on a show like that, you've got a lot of stuff going on onstage...

Nershi: As far as like dancers... Yeah.

Nershi: Eye candy... Yeah, there's a lot going on. (laughs) How did all that come about?

Nershi: I don't know, you know? It's just something where we try to bring the festival to the show. If it's an indoor show, we try to make one night feel like you've been at a three-day festival somewhere. We've borrowed some stuff from festivals that we've been too. We've borrowed stuff from Burning Man, from Cirque du Soleil, from the Fuji Rock festival in Japan. We're just trying to entertain people. I haven't seen a show like that. I look forward to it. Yeah. I try to keep in mind that a lot of our site visitors are working musicians or are trying to become better at being a working musician, as in, maybe make a living at it. And I know that you sort of engineered this band from the beginning, and you went with your own label right from the beginning, right?

Nershi: Well, I wouldn't say that I engineered the band. I was there at the beginning when the band came together. Yeah, we tried to do a lot of stuff in house. Some of it succeeded, some of it was difficult. But I guess we wanted control -- I hate to use the phrase "control freaks" (laughs) -- but we wanted to make sure that, if it's a record company, if it's a ticket company, whatever it is, that we aren't at the mercy of other people and what they think is right for us and our fans. We want to make our fans happy and try to be able to have these things under one roof, so things are done the way you want them done. Right. And as the years have gone by, with the way the music business has gone, a lot more bands have followed that model. To be able to control your own destiny... Would you advise young musicians to be following that business model?

Nershi: I certainly wouldn't tell anybody how to do it, because it works out different for every band and every group of people and every solo artist who ever lived. It's possible to do it that way. It's a lot of work. It can be a headache, but you ultimately have control of what's going on, which is a good thing, if that's what's in your personality. If all you want to do is play music and you don't want to worry about that stuff, then you just have to do the best you can to hire people that you trust to run things for you. Right. So you put out a new album in 2014, the first one in quite awhile. Why the long wait?

Nershi: The long wait was because it's hard to talk people into going into the studio for a number of reasons. I like going into the studio. I like making recordings. I have my own studio, and I record my projects and my own incarnations and other bands. I like the recording process. But not everybody in the band does.

And a lot depends on your producer, how it's going to come out. And I think the main thing was, at the time I tried to talk people into going into the studio and recording, they would say, "Well, OK, we're gonna spend a lot of money, and we're gonna have a CD that nobody will buy, because people don't buy CDs anymore."

So a lot of the reason was the shifting sand of how recordings are put out there, and the uncertainty of being able to get the money back that was spent on the recording. That's a big concern.

Nershi: Right. And in the end what happened was, well -- for me -- I felt like "Man, we have all these songs that we've written that are never gonna get recorded in the studio the way we can control how the end product is, and the way it sounds." And it's keeping me from writing new stuff. You know, if I'm not gettin' the old stuff out there... For me it was a matter of priming the pumps, like when you've got to syphon some gas out of somebody's gas tank -- I know that's old school (laughs) -- once you get it going, then it's opened up for new stuff to come out too.

So we finally went in the studio and we were rehearsing in the studio. And the last three days we said, "Set up microphones, and these last three days we're gonna record." And without a producer, we recorded for three straight days, and then we looked at what came out of that, and that's when we hired Jerry Harrison and ET, his buddy ET, who was also really great -- Eric Thorngren.

And then we took the best sounding songs from that three day period, and then we went in the studio and maybe re-sung if we wanted to re-sing, maybe re-did solos -- things like that. And Jerry and ET were really good at strengthening the songs without changing the character of the songs. Coming up with ideas, like "Maybe this song actually would sound better three steps up, where the voice is gonna sound better." Ideas like that which strengthened the material in the way it came out, without changing the character of the sound of the band, which is nice, because a lot of producers will try to get you to sound the way they think you should sound.

It was a good match, and I love the way the album came out. It sounds really good, but it also sounds like us. We didn't lose the character. Well, it's very cool material. And it's good to have SCI back and putting out music again. So what's coming next from you? You have a home studio, you write a lot of songs, you record with your wife Jillian too, right?

Nershi: Yeah. I still play some music with my wife, who is a great singer. We have fun. We do vocal stuff. It gives us a chance to sing at home and work stuff out. We have fun with that. And next, I don't know...

I'm really focused on this String Cheese thing, and we're talking about how we're gonna continue to record songs. And we might not feel like we have to put out an album every time we go into the studio. Maybe we'll pick three tunes, say, "Let's get these down, let's go for a week and record this stuff and put it out as an EP, or put it out as singles."

Maybe the style of recording is going to be one song at a time, a couple songs, maybe three songs. But not feeling like it has to be a massive project, because making an album, it's pretty time-consuming, to put that many songs together, from beginning to finish. I hear ya. You are also a Dickey Betts fan, right?

Nershi: Oh yeah, Dickey Betts and Doc Watson are probably my two favorite guitar players. I love the Allman Brothers, they're one of my favorite bands. It rocked, but it was real melodic too. They were the best players, Duane, and Dickey Betts. All the solos that you listen to, especially on the recordings, it's not just about licks. Not that they can't play licks, but it doesn't sound like that. It sounds like -- you know, like on the "Blue Sky" solo, that's just like such a beautiful melody all the way through. I'm definitely into that, that was a great band, especially when Duane was in the band. Just beautiful, incredible. Any thoughts on their retirement?

Nershi: Are they gonna really retire? That's the big question, right?

Nershi: Well, you know, the band is different now. The fact that they're keeping that material alive, and there's still family in the band, that's a big part of musical history right there. But ultimately to them if it does begin to become a burden, they've got to do what they need to do. But that is a big part of musical history. So Gregg went out and started playing a bunch of solo shows right away. So we'll see where it goes, right?

Nershi: Yeah. OK, well Bill, thank you so much for your time, have a great show tonight.

Nershi: All right, thanks a lot Adam.

Related Links:

String Cheese Incident Website 
String Cheese Incident on Facebook 
String Cheese Incident on Twitter 
String Cheese Incident on Youtube 
Bill Nershi on Facebook 
The Travelin’ McCoury’s Website 
Travelin’ McCoury’s on Facebook Archive Interview with Bill Nershi on Facebook on Twitter on Youtube

Mesa/Boogie Lone Star Amps 

TV Jones Pickups 
Sunrise Pickups 
K&K Pickups 
Avalon Pre-amps 
tc electronic 
Santa Cruz Guitars 
Collings Guitars 
Rosenberg Academy 
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