Of beer and bands

Kyle Hollingsworth talks beer, music and String Cheese Incident’s upcoming album

Kyle Hollingsworth
Photo courtesy of Tobin Voggesser

Kyle Hollingsworth, keyboardist extraordinaire, sees a lot of similarities between making music and brewing beer, his two passions of late. Within each combination of hops and grains, each interjection of an off-color chord into a jam, there’s an element of chance inherent in the improvisation. If you don’t take the risk, you’ll never get a result.

“I could make a great brew or a terrible sound,” Hollingsworth says. “At least you’ve gone there, right?”

Juggling the multiple elements that go into home-brewing something tasty is like writing a song, Hollingsworth says.

“Let’s call drums the water, bass the grains, and at some point you want to add some hops in there,” he says. “Hops can really go to 11 if you want them to, so let’s make the guitar player the hops. And then yeast … it can be mellow and tame in a Michael Stipe way, or it can be Axl Rose — let’s call yeast the singer.”

So where does Hollingsworth’s keyboard fit in?

“It doesn’t really work in the beer,” he jokes, laughing. “No, It’s like an adjunct. An adjunct is something you add later to the beer to give it spice or give it uniqueness.”

Though beer is a recent focus of his life, jamming is not. Hollingsworth studied jazz piano in college, and in 1993 he moved to Boulder. His background gave him flexibility that made him a good fit for jam bands, and a few years later his band, Durt, opened for an early version of String Cheese Incident (SCI). The band asked him to tour with them, and in 1997 he joined the group for good.

“What I took to String Cheese was improvisational moments, the ability to stretch for them, and that came from the jazz background,” Hollingsworth says.

In the ensuing 15 years SCI has become a titan of the jam band scene, incorporating the sonic territories of world music, reggae, calypso, funk and more into its bluegrass-jam style. And in the middle of SCI’s musical jambalaya are Hollingsworth’s keys. He relishes the spontaneity of being in the musical moment, the rush that comes from materializing ideas as you go. He sees similarities with beer, too — you never know how certain combinations are going to turn out until you try them. For Hollingsworth it’s not so much the product as the process.

“I think for me, the bigger thing is the approach,” he says, “[willingness] to take the risk in the brewing process. Maybe perhaps I dropped some sassafras in the brew; I’ll kind of take that leap of faith. I’m jumping in the middle of the jam; I’ll dump [fills] into some space. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. You made a great beer; you made a terrible solo. It’s that moment of creativity where I like to live.”

Hollingsworth will be bringing both his passions to the Boulder Theater on Saturday, Nov. 3, for his first Boulder show in several years. On tap will be dub jammers John Brown’s Body as well as a fresh-hopped Belgian pale ale, Hop Bam, that Hollingsworth helped create with Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

“[The beer] is not too over-the-top in the Belgian world and Belgian flavor,” he says. “It’s kind of mellow in the middle; you pick up notes of corn mandarin oranges. And [it uses] fresh hops, which are fresh from the fields; you get a much more cannabis-esque kind of flavor.”

Hollingsworth says he’ll be playing some new material at the show with his band, which consists of Motet cohorts Garrett Sayers, Dave Watts and Dan Schwindt, as well as the horn players from John Brown’s Body. He hasn’t released a solo album since his 2009 offering, Then There’s Now, but he says he’s burning to get into the studio again.

While he has songs to spare that could go on a record, a fairly important obstacle is blocking him.

“The tricky part is that String Cheese is probably going to do some recording soon,” he says. (Note that SCI hasn’t released a studio album since 2005.) “There are plans to release it, but not within this year. So the idea would be to record later this year in Boulder and then have it ready for the summer or later. So what that does for me a little bit is take some ammo from my music away from my personal album, which in the end probably makes this the better call, to keep all the good music within String Cheese. [It] makes it difficult for me to make a solo disc.”

Kyle Hollingsworth Band and John Brown’s Body play the Boulder Theater Saturday, Nov. 3. The Brothers Sayers open. Doors open at 8 p.m. Call 303-786-7030 or visit the Boulder Theater website.

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