As long as people come up with Top 10 lists, someone will do one on weirdest band names and String Cheese Incident will probably be on it. But, as with their similarly strangely monikered predecessors Grateful Dead and Phish, SCI's fans don't care about the name, they care about the organic, bluegrass rock jams. As SCI is nearing the end of its 14-year run, percussionist Jason Hann (who joined the band about three years ago) and long-time drummer and percussionist Michael Travis and their electronica side project EOTO are going strong and winning over fans of their own.
Boise Weekly: So is String Cheese Incident breaking up?
Jason Hann: Billy [Nershi] made an unofficial announcement last October that he wanted to stop doing String Cheese and in his case, do some other things like have more family time and [work on] other side projects. At least for him, String Cheese is such a big machine and you don't really get a chance to get a break from it. You have to keep in motion. We even took about a five-month break in '05 and even with a five-month break, it just gives you more time to plan what you're going to do. When you get back together, it doesn't feel like a break at all. There are definitely other things, like musical differences. When he made that announcement, it just seemed like a really good time to stop everything for an indefinite period of time at least. At least the whole String Cheese touring. Not keeping it going for the sake of keeping everyone in play instead of keeping it going for the sake of the music.
So you pronounce it ee-YO-doe and not ee-oh-tee-oh?
A Japanese fan came up to us and said the way it's pronounced ee-YO-do means "good sound" in Japanese, which is a pretty good coincidence. Something was working for us there. Sometimes if we do a radio interview, people will come up with all sorts of things for what EOTO stands for, like Each One, Teach One. And, we named our first CD Elephants Only Talk Occasionally. There's a list somewhere. As far as how it relates to String Cheese and side projects, EOTO came about because I fly out to Colorado to practice with String Cheese, and I usually stay at Travis' place. After practices with String Cheese, we'd set up and jam. Travis has always played with guitar and bass, but never live. It was always this thing he did on his own. So we would just set up and play, usually until 4 or 5 in the morning, instruments we didn't normally play. Gadget by gadget, it turned into this thing. We recorded it and thought, "Hey, why don't we try to play this in front of some people." It's been really refreshing, and as a side project of String Cheese, it's been a great outlet and a great way to be indulgent. String Cheese has always been kind of a compromise. After 13 years of being together, people have grown into their own musical tastes and [brought] those influences into the songwriting. One of the coolest things about String Cheese is that there's such a diverse sound range between genres we might play in the course of an evening: bluegrass, rock, African, Latin, electronic. The side project thing has been refreshing, if anything.
So instead of detracting from String Cheese, it's added to it.
It's both added to it and, I would say, part of [Nershi's] decision is he's wanted to make more time for side projects doing exactly what he wants to do. And even though that could be a factor in his ultimate decision, you can see that all helps because everyone's going out and doing what they want to do and bringing that influence in.
Do you and Michael Travis have similar influences?
We listen to quite a bit of the same music—so does Kang (String Cheese's mandolin, guitar, violin player)—and have pretty similar tastes overall. I still listen to a ton of African and Latin music. Kang and I went to Africa together this past January, and we really love this style of music called embala. We've been listening to a lot of electronic music, too.
Is EOTO working on another album now?
We just finished recording an album. We went through about 30 songs, and now we're in the painful process of picking, editing, mixing and mastering them. That's quite the process. We were so happy to get the recorded material. The way we play is we're a 100 percent improvised band. It's a whole other volume of music every night. When we're playing for the purpose of recording something for our CD, it's a lot harder to pick song out of what we play.
If you guys play wholly improvised, is it the relationship between the two of you that allows for that?
Everything comes about in a step-by-step way. When we started off just jamming, we wouldn't even look at each other. We would just close our eyes and go for a long time. But when we started to do it live, we started developing little hand signals that we give each other for like, "Enough of this song. Let's move on to the next one." That's a straight horizontal line in the air with your hand. Then there's a signal that we have for "Make the tempo a little bit faster," and "Create a new song." Then there's one for "Let's break this part of the song down," so a song has reached an apex and we want to drop everything down. Then we have double scissors which means, "We're going to stop the whole thing." When we play in a night, it's basically one big song. We'll keep a thing going for three to four minutes, similar to what a DJ does dropping record after record. We build these things from scratch live. We have all these signals so we don't have to talk to each other on stage. We can just check in. And we're almost always on the same page; we'll use the same signal at the same time. We're really in the same space.
EOTO, July 31, doors at 8 p.m., show starts around 9:30 p.m., $10. Tickets are available at the door or in advance at Terrapin Station, 1519 W. Main St., 208-338-5105.