To become a better band, the String Cheese Incident quit playing so much. That may seem like a contradiction, but this is a band that thrives on pulling beguiling music from odd juxtaposition, so finding success in unlikely fashion is sort of typical for these guys.
As it blossomed through the late ’90s and into the middle ’00s, String Cheese Incident mashed up bluegrass and electronic music, rock and jazz, global rhythms and back-porch charm. The whole thing was a hippie-hillbilly hybrid that found a healthy audience within the jam band scene and drew invites from hosts as diverse as the Newport Folk Festival (class of 2000) and Lollapalooza (sadly in 2004, when the alt-rock road show was canceled before liftoff).
Then the hard-touring troupe pulled off of the road in 2007, with members delving into other projects and performing sporadic “Incidents’’ from time to time.
Seemingly reenergized, the String Cheese Incident announced a fall tour including a stop Sunday into the Orpheum Theatre. The Colorado band’s first foray East in close to five years triggered rapid and rabid response, with most shows quickly selling out, including the one in Boston.
“I think that’s a testament to the songwriting,’’ says drummer Michael Travis of the demand for tickets, again upending the belief that jam fans pay more attention to the playing than to the writing.
Guitarist Bill Nershi was the band’s principal songwriter when SCI got going in 1993. Eventually the rest of the band – bassist Keith Moseley, mandolin and fiddle player Michael Kang, keyboard player Kyle Hollingsworth, Travis, and percussionist Jason Hann (now a full-fledged member) – jumped into the writing process. This combined writing power is behind five studio albums with tunes spanning Nershi’s honky-tonk leanings heard on early gems like “Texas’’ to Hollingsworth’s textured, melancholy pop on “Who Am I?’’ to the confident stride of Moseley’s “Sometimes a River.’’
“With all of the different styles we play as a band, it’s fun to write. In this band, you can say, ‘Maybe I’ll try and write a jazz tune.’ With me, I write the way I write, and the other guys suggest changes,’’ Nershi says. “ ‘Texas’ started out one way then got a Latin transformation. At first I was thinking, ‘What are you doing to my baby?’ But you learn to let go of control.’’
As freewheeling as SCI was, frictions built up. After a handful of concerts in 2007, SCI members went off in separate directions, reuniting every now and then for festival appearances in 2009 and ’10.
Outside of SCI, Nershi teamed with Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon for a bluegrass-oriented project. Travis and Hann focused on the dance ’n’ trance EOTO. Kang jumped into world-beat and acoustic projects. Hollingsworth fronted his own band, and Moseley joined forces with various jam and Americana vets in a couple of rock acts.
“In EOTO, I was using a click track and playing all of the other instruments. It helped perfect my timing,’’ Travis says of how he became a better drummer by not playing drums. “I play more skeletal now. I used to think I was the lead guitar.’’
Nershi says being able to play so much bluegrass in the side project makes him less antsy about pressuring SCI to tap its bluegrass roots.
“Playing guitar in a bluegrass band is my comfort zone,’’ Nershi says. “String Cheese presents this whole different thing. I enjoy it, and it’s a challenge. And it’s music we arrived at organically.’’
The band is playing new songs along the so-called “Roots Run Deep’’ tour, which Nershi says is being preserved on multitrack recordings each night for some sort of follow-up release.
Besides new material, SCI is reinvigorated with new perspective, Travis says.
“If you look at the tattered remains of the jam scene, you see that a lot of bands got stuck in modalities and were unwilling to change,’’ Travis says. “I’m proud that String Cheese absorbed electronic music and programming, and will cover a song by MGMT.’’
If SCI learned anything from its progressive bluegrass forbears such as New Grass Revival, it’s that a band can rethink each instrument’s role and come up with new dynamic possibilities.
“New Grass taught us to bend the rules,’’ Travis says.
SCI has tour dates through Dec. 10, and Nershi says everyone wants to ease back into the process. At its height, SCI was staging its own carnivals and festivals in addition to aggressive year-round touring (that did not conflict with members’ ski habits). The band also spawned a ticketing agency and record imprint. Nershi and Travis both say the band was burnt out when it powered down in 2007.
“We want to get into it again, but gradually,’’ Nershi says. “Every year we play a little more. Touring is exciting, especially seeing the fan response. But I don’t know about spending five or six years going around on a bus.’’