How To Do Something Cool: SCI's Kyle Hollingsworth On His Solo EP And 'Next Big Show' This Week

Kyle Hollingsworth is a solo artist and also keyboardist for The String Cheese Incident. In both roles, he writes songs, and his latest solo EP, titled 2020, came out earlier in the year, bringing in a wide variety of genres and approaches in the experimental vein that Hollingsworth is known for. 

Throughout the quarantine period, he's been keeping busy in various ways, including holding a "Big Show" variety performance back in June. Now, on November 19th, you can take part in his "Next Big Show" which does promise to be even bigger, with audience involvement in the form of Bingo, skits and more. 

Kyle Hollingsworth joined Tower's PULSE for a chat about his murky roots in Punk Rock, his latest EP, writing songs for solo work and The String Cheese Incident, and why creating his "Next Big Show" is an important creative outlet for him.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Did you ever have any overlap with Tower Records?

Kyle Hollingsworth: There is one in Japan, so one of my first in-stores was in Japan when String Cheese was playing the Fuji Rock Festival. We went to the Tower Records and did a performance in the ginormous one in Tokyo. We pulled up with all-rented gear and set up. The fans there were very excited to come and see us, but a lot of people were like, “What’s happening? Why are these strange hippies coming in with big beards?” Japan was pretty open to hippies for a while there, probably rebelling against their parents.

Of course, a lot of my youth was spent in Tower Records. My first CD was in Tower Records, in 1988. It’s a giant plastic container that would hold a CD, and at the top was the artwork. They came in these weird containers. So I’ve not only been going to Tower Records, but have had my music there for many years.

The first CD was with a band in Baltimore called Black Friday. It was a kind of Punk band, kind of like The Doors meets Joy Division. I was playing the keys. We’d play all the Punk bars in town. I think Black Friday played in that Tower Records in Baltimore.

HMS: That’s beautiful.

KH: The String Cheese Incident haven’t focused as much on physical media, though given the current situation, maybe we should have. Our model has always focused on live events. I started in 1996, but the band started in 1993, so the band has been around for 27 years.

There was a “tape tree”, so if you and your buddy liked the same music, you’d make a cassette tape of your favorite bands, live. Then you’d send it to your buddy on the East Coast and he’d make a clone, and you’d send out 25 more. So by the time we had our first tour on the East Coast, people knew who we were. It was spreading the word and building the fanbase.

HMS: That’s awesome. It reminds me a little of making tapes for Mystery Science Theater 3000. There is a diminution of quality over time, though! [Laughs]

KH: [Laughs] Yes, exactly!

HMS: Let me ask you about your solo EP released earlier this year with the now nefarious title of “2020”. Are you still good with that?

KH: Hindsight being 2020, I shouldn’t have named it “2020”, I guess.

HMS: Why did you name it 2020?

KH: My last album was called 50, when I turned 50, a couple of years ago. I didn’t want to call it “52”. 2020 was coming up and it resonated with a cool vibe. It just sounded interesting to me. There wasn’t a whole lot of thought.

HMS: You seem to like numbers, though.

KH: Yes! And palindromes. My first CD was Never Odder Even. I wanted to do, “Do Geese See God”. That’s one of my favorite ones, but it’s not really a good name for an album.

HMS: Have you realized yet that you’re speaking to a palindrome? My name is “Hannah”, so I like this train of thought.

KH: Nice!

HMS: Did you know that you were going to come up with an EP, or did it just kind of sneak up on you? Are you always writing anyway?

KH: I’m always writing, yes. But I write differently for different projects. With String Cheese, I think, not only, “This would be a good song for the band”, but also, “This would be pleasing for people who come to see String Cheese.” There will be a big jam in the middle. There will be lots of notes being played. I wrote a song with them recently called, “The Big Reveal” and it talked about a Grateful Dead experience. But I come from a very different background, as I mentioned, in Punk, so I’m willing to try many styles, for instance, Motown.

On 2020, I put out a song called “Tufnel’s Retreat”, which is in homage to 70s Hammond organ Prog Rock, like Yes. With different projects, I can approach music differently, and with my solo band, I like experimenting and doing different things. On 2020, I even did a cover by Vampire Weekend, and I’ve been a fan of theirs forever. I thought, “Let’s not do a Grateful Dead cover. Let’s do something outside of what people would expect.” I do try to push the boundaries.

HMS: It’s like when Johnny Cash did Nine Inch Nails.

KH: Exactly! Not quite as cool as that, but that was awesome.

HMS: The best. When you’re writing a song, and you’re in the zone, is the sound what gives you an idea of which band it’ll be for, or do you wait until much later in the process to decide who it’s going to be for?

KH: That’s a good question. I think I know pretty early on what direction it could go. For instance, on 2020, “Live Forever” is a little white boy Reggae song, and that could also be a String Cheese song, but we were taking some time off.

HMS: You and your solo band also play some of your String Cheese songs occasionally, too, right?

KH: We do. Maybe one or two per night. So far, we’ve always played them the way that String Cheese does them, but I’m starting to think that maybe I should make them different.

HMS: Practically speaking, do the songs have to be played differently because the set-up is different?

KH: Yes, good point, we do have to play them a little differently because it’s a four piece versus a six piece.

HMS: I’m always impressed by people who can play in large groups in longform concerts and keep it together, especially with improvising.

KH: Personality-wise and in notes on stage, it can become a lot.

HMS: With “Live Forever”, I can see why you say it could be a String Cheese song, but it has this lightness to it. It made me wonder to what degree you intended to be upbeat.

KH: That’s funny because I tend to write darker song. I like to have an edge. A lot of songs can be almost too light for me or without as much thought about how life has different edges of light and dark. When I came to String Cheese, I thought, “I’ll play keys for you, but I’ll play them in a dark way! And I’m going to write songs about changing the world!” So, “Live Forever” was a little bit of a turn for me. It is lighter, but it is about an ex-girlfriend. Musically, I just wanted to write something in that style.

When I’m writing, I’m often thinking, “Without ripping someone off directly, is there any way I can do something cool, like Joy Division did?” or “Can we make it sound like Radiohead?” I’m often looking at cool sounds and wondering how to make it my own.

HMS: It’s all in the edit. “Live Forever” could have had a really tragic ending, and you just left it out, though.

KH: Exactly. I wanted it to be an 80s song, and there is an 80s reference in there. “Ducky to her Andie” is from Pretty in Pink, where Molly Ringwald was Andie and Ducky was the geeky guy. My girlfriend at the time had red hair.

HMS: Do you try to write about memories like that from your current standpoint or viewpoint in life, or do you try to just present it in a more neutral way?

KH: I was listening to Paul Simon and Vampire Weekend referencing older times and making material out of it. For me, it felt cool to have a reference point in time that wasn’t me trying to be preachy or trying to change the world.

HMS: That’s great. I can see what you were talking about, with being sharper or more direct, in “Got It Figured Out”. Because even though the sound is not heavy, you are very direct in your lyrics in that song. It’s about trying to find your voice or place, right?

KH: Yes, I’m making fun of myself, basically. “You think you’re trying to be so funky.”, is one of the lines. Lyle [Divinsky] from the Motet sang on it, and I wrote it with the idea that he’d sing lead on it and I wouldn’t have to make fun of myself, but then he said he thought I should sing it, and then he’d do the soulful backgrounds. He did a great job on that. He made the song shine for sure.

HMS: I think the song is cool because it raises questions and doesn’t answer them.

KH: Yes, it’s okay to call yourself, “not that funky” in my book.

HMS: How did the recording process work for this EP? Do you have a studio in Boulder, or do you work at home?

KH: String Cheese recently purchased a building outside of Boulder and we record there. We set it up for recording. My joke is that when no one is around, I sneak under Michael Kang’s pillow and get the key. Then I got in and record. We all have access to it for any project that we’d like. I create snippets for my solo band and say, “Let’s create something for this.” Then, the musicians are so great that we basically create solo songs on the spot. The whole thing was done in a day and a half, probably. Other projects with longer songs might take about four days.

Then I take the recordings home and cut and paste. It takes about a year to finish it all.

HMS: So this is very much music-first, created in the studio?

KH: Yes, pretty much. I have these cool cards, Oblique Strategies from Brian Eno.

HMS: Yes, I’ve heard of that.

KH: I’ve just drawn one randomly in the studio that says, “Breathe more deeply.” Then, this one says, “Add more distortion”. If you’re stuck in the studio, you open these up, and most of the time, you say, “I’m not doing that!”

HMS: Those are both pretty good ones though.

Let me circle back to “Tufnel’s Retreat”. Now that I know how the EP was recorded, was that song something that was created on the spot in the studio?

KH: I wanted to write something that I had a specific vision for. There’s a song called “Hoedown” by Emerson Lake Palmer. There was an Aaron Copeland Classical piece that they used to make this Prog Rock thing. So I wanted to do that but make it my own. I wanted to write a melody with a similar vibe. I brought it to String Cheese, and Billy [Nershi] got it. [Michael] Travis said he didn’t know, and Keith [Moseley] said there were too many notes. So we were about to take some time off, so I recorded it with my solo band. The solo band totally got it and said, “Let’s rock this!” String Cheese came up with some parts and the solo band added things in, so it was definitely collaborative.

HMS: It’s very cool. I noticed that you’ve played it live a few times, too.

KH: It’s getting better. It takes a lot of guts to play. It’s my “Space Oddity” moment, and I don’t want to lose the audience, but the more you play it, the more it translates.

HMS: Based on that answer, I’m guessing you wouldn’t create a whole album in that vein?

KH: I don’t think it’s in my capability, but it would be cool, wouldn’t it? Maybe it’s a good time for a challenge, I don’t know.

HMS: Tell me about your "Next Big Show" coming up. I know you did one in June also.

KH: It’s bigger than the last one in that, like when making an album, there are pieces of art I’m trying to put into the show to make it more exciting for fans. There’s going to be Bingo with fans. There’s going to be a piano moment at the beginning and there’s an organ duo with Jason in the middle, and at the end, there’s a dance party. It has an ebb and flow like a real concert would. In between, I have little bits cued up. I made a couple of fake commercials this time.

Last time, I had a “Kyle on Hold” commercial. I wondered what else was annoying, so I thought, “Being a keyboard player in a jam band is kind of annoying.” So I made a commercial about that, wanting to “learn how to shred”. There’s spandex from the 80s.

This time, I decided to have my family involved, like the audience in the Muppets. My wife and I dress up as different people to comment.

HMS: You’re critiquing yourself?

KH: Yes! It’s basically a variety show, like Saturday Night Live.

HMS: I was going to say that these skits are as elaborate as what the cast of Saturday Night Live had to do when they were at home making videos. They were playing multiple characters, too.

KH: Yes, exactly. For me, this is a creative outlet. Let’s make it even weirder! Being goofy and funny is what the show’s about. It’s nonsense, but I think nonsense is important.

HMS: We definitely need humor right now. It’s not that much of a far cry from making quirky music videos.

KH: Yes. That’s what my job is now. To dress up like an 80s Rock god.

HMS: I was going to ask how you could possibly top the gold lame jacket from the first show, but now I know: it’s spandex and hair.

I have to ask you our Tower Records question. The motto for the company is “No Music, No Life”, also written, “Know Music, Know Life”. How do those apply in your life?

KH: I think it’s “Know Music, Know Life” for me, but I don’t mean “know” in the sense of education. You don’t need to know music to experience music or play music. “Know” for me means the experience of music, being part of it. “No Music, No Life” sounds a little darker than I want to be. For instance, I also have a beautiful family, and I look outside at the beautiful countryside. Did I answer that correctly?

HMS: You have failed!

KH: Game over!

HMS: That’s a great answer.

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