By Bill Harriman
Umphrey’s McGee is a young, hot, and exciting Chicago based jam band whose influences include Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, and the improvisation of progressive jazz more so than the usual suspects such as the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, or Phish. They first came together in the late nineties in the South Bend, Indiana area and in just the past year or so they’ve moved out of the clubs and into the theaters and their popularity continued to grow.
They’re a five piece band whose members include Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger on guitar, Joel Cummins on keyboards, Kris Myers on drums, and Ryan Stasik on bass. Everyone except Ryan contributes with the vocals. Last year saw the release of two very successful and very different recordings. “The Bottom Half” is the band’s latest studio recording and it includes a unique and interesting additional disc of assorted outtakes. “Live at the Murat” is Umphrey’s first official live release and arguably their best work to date. “Official” is the key word here as most Umphrey fans have downloaded scores of shows through the years. Umphrey’s McGee is without question a very taper friendly band!
Umphrey’s McGee is in the middle of a long tour that will bring them to our area on April 11th when they play the Calvin Theater in Northampton, on April 12th when they’re at Brown University’s Campus Green in Providence, and on April 13th when they play the legendary Toad’s Place in New Haven. The tour was just getting started when I spoke by phone on March 4th with their extraordinary lead guitarist Jake Cinninger.
BH I know that the band is ready to embark on a new tour. Do you still get excited about hitting the road?
JC - "Yeah, we just did three nights in Minneapolis at the First Avenue. And after a little day off we travelled twelve hours to Chicago and then jumped back on the bus and now we're in Bloomington, Indiana to do a show at the old infamous Bluebird where we played like thirty shows back in the day. Now we're doing like a fan appreciation show at this little hole in the wall spot that we used to raise a lot of hell basically."
BH OK let me get this question out of the way. How did the band get its name?
JC - “The origins are of an actual person. Brendan Bayliss, our other lead singer and guitar player has a cousin that lives down south who’s a lawyer and his name is actually Humphrey Magee but it’s not possessive with the apostrophe s. So the only thing that we made different was take his name and make it possessive. So I guess the band was either going to be called G-Spot or something stupid like Poop Factory and they opted for that. I think if you said it enough times it could possibly stick. I guess if you could read it and say it you might be able to remember it again. It’s kind of a trick. It’s like Jethro Tull. There’s no one necessarily named Jethro Tull in there but for some reason they thought that was a good idea.”
BH Didn’t Lynyrd Skynyd name their band after a gym teacher or something like that?
JC - “Yeah he was just a mean old guy and I think that to get even with the guy who used to torture them, this is what I heard, they figured they name a rock band after him. He’ll love that one!”
BH So tell me Jake, how does a young guy like you go from being a metal drummer to a country musician to a member of Ali Baba’s Tahini to a killer lead guitarist for a jam band like Umphrey’s McGee?
JC - “My musical endeavor started pretty young about four or five. I wanted to be that drummer and I would play to my parent’s great record collection and work on my timing. And then from there I slowly moved to the piano and classical guitar. So there was a lot of formal training in the early years before I even hit my teens to sort of get the knack to really play with all the fundamentals. And so that just led me into playing with as many groups as possible to sort of get the vocabulary. It’s something that a classroom couldn’t teach you, it’s more about duking it out in small clubs in your early teens and learning a ton of songs you don’t want to learn and having to represent them in a good light. So it’s all about almost just going through the boot camp of music to become a live player and to play with a group of people. An ensemble like Umphrey’s takes a lot of that liberal communication and I helps having a lot of experience in other forms. Then you can bring it to the table when everyone has that same idea of shifting from a bluegrass idea to jazz to metal to standard rock to a Rolling Stones to a Frank Zappa kind of thing at the drop of a hat. That’s kind of what we’ve all dug and that’s where the previous experience plays in.”
BH “What kind of music did your parents listen to?
JC - “Well I come from a small little blue collar town in southern Michigan and my parents were really young when they had me. So there wasn’t a whole lot of culture around but there was culture in their record collection. And it was everything from John Lee Hooker to Bach to Frank Zappa’s ‘Joe’s Garage’ and the Grateful Dead and any jazz that would come up. I was a huge Emerson, Lake, and Palmer fan as a kid. I thought it was some of the weirdest stuff I’d ever heard. I was drifting towards a lot more of the progressive rock stuff because I thought it sounded different than like straight ahead blues or something like that. I knew early on that I kind of drifted more towards the classically interpreted rock at the time and that might have to do with some of our more progressive tendencies and the way we write music. It all comes from that era.”
BH Who were some of your early influences when it came to playing the lead guitar?
JC - “I would have to say Al Di Meola was like my first guitar god where I really realized he had something rhythmically special to say as a guitar player and obviously melodically as well. My uncle Robert Poole gave me a cassette of Al Di Meola’s ‘Casino’ I think when I was like eight or nine and I knew this was special music and it was really complex and extremely tight. I really wanted to someday play like that. So that really set up like the quality control almost, right out of the gate with what my expectations or what I would love to get to. So I discovered Al and in my teens obviously and with metal Randy Rhoads was a huge mover for me because he was really melodic. He was classically trained and I was really steeped in the classical guitar. So I would say those two were probably the core movers and shakers for me when I was a kid.”
BH I remember first getting into you guys when the ‘Anchor Drop’ CD was released. There’s a tune on there called ‘Miss Tinkle’s Overture’ that I like to play when I feel like bothering the neighbors.
JC - “Yeah you’re not supposed to sleep through that one!”
BH My 6 year old son Kyle will insist that I play that one every time we’re in the car together!
JC - “It is sort of like theme music in a sense, for whatever you want it to be the music is written in that intention. It almost sounds a little cliché if you think about the way the tune comes off so triumphant and grandiose. There’s a little humor too and it almost harkens back to the way Zappa would make this really extravagant melody over like a rock band slamming through like a classical line you see. So I was just trying to reflect what Zappa would do to a rock format using classical melody”
BH If I remember correctly didn’t the tune ‘In the Kitchen’ win song of the year at the Jammy Awards a few years back?
JC - “Yes it did. We were pretty much blown away by it. Phil Lesh (host) announced ‘oh my god it’s Umphrey’s Magee.’ And we got to know Phil pretty well over the last couple of years when it was really important for us to know Phil. We were just this little band from Chicago that no one really knew and those kinds of experiences really blew the doors wide open for us.”
BH Last year’s ‘Live at the Murat’ disc opens with that track. I love the way the song goes from acoustic to electric with an extended jam in between. I think it encapsulates the Umphrey’s sound perfectly.
JC - “That’s a good point. When we were putting together the record we obviously had two nights of material so about six and a half hours worth of stuff we could possibly use. And we thought why not be kind of risky and put a 32 minute bit right at the top of the record. And where everything was kind of tracked out but it’s exactly the whole segue idea of being an improvisational rock band we kind of put right at the top of the disc rather than putting something safe and like three minutes right there. We wanted to really out of the gate let people know our ideology if you will with sort of the way we like to see live musical progression. It’s kind of summed up in a nutshell in that song.”
BH Your website has a handful of podcasts that are available for our listening pleasure and all of your live shows are easily available to download. So with that said how can a band like Umphrey’s McGee expect to sell a live disc?
JC - “That’s a good question and I can definitely answer this. I’m a huge technical geek when it comes to studios and getting the most out of your music sonically. And this applies to that record because this is where we’ll bring in just a truckload of preamps and just making everything twice as consistent as it normally would be compared to a live matrix mix which a lot of our live Umphrey stuff is. It’s just a soundboard and a matrix of two microphones in the room. So that’s what separates the two, that it’s a multi-track session and we can go back and really tweak each tone and really comb over the whole audio spectrum with a fine tooth comb basically. It’s just more of a professional product.”
BH Also last year you released a studio album called ‘The Bottom Half.’ I loved the fact that you included a second disc of nothing but outtakes. I considered it a gift to your hardcore fans.
JC - “Yeah and that was really the idea behind it to just sort of almost crack the code on how songs might be developed in our camp, and how things are just a small little blip on the screen of information and they end up turning into an elaborate song by the time we’re done with it. If you can hear those steps and that process unfold and you hear the four track machine with hiss and you hear all the imperfections with it all and I think that’s what people want is literally to hear that fingerprint of what makes a finished product.”
BH It seems like you guys have really embraced the jam band scene and the cross pollination that goes on within that community. Why don’t you talk about that a bit?
JC - “It’s all about letting your artistic wall down a bit, especially with your peers. Because really it feels good and it looks good when you got everyone under the sun that’s great sitting in with you and you make this revolving door happen and it’s kind of known that if you’re a good musician and you want to come and sit in with us it will probably happen. It’s like good politics and its fun because there’s amazing things that come out of those little brushes we all these people that we’ve played with. It’s all a big learning experience at the end of the day.”
BH That’s how it was when I saw you guys with the String Cheese Incident and New Monsoon and Spearhead at the Big Summer Classic. You were at Western Connecticut State College. Remember that one?
JC - “Right that was a fun one. There was a little moat in front of the stage and I think that was the last show of the tour. I remember we were all trying to fit our equipment on that stage too. Imagine four or five bands worth of gear on this little stage just trying to make it work with everyone’s crew and all the logistics behind it. But it all seemed to work.”
BH Do you enjoy going to Bonnaroo?
JC - “Yeah, it’s just quite the event. It’s kind of like a band’s Super Bowl. It means so much. That one show is like fifty shows in one in terms of how much information you get across to a big body of people. And then it’s talked about, it’s sort of like a Super Bowl.”
BH I understand that you’re all big Notre Dame football fans?
JC - “Yeah, actually I moved back to South Bend so I’m close to home.
BH I hope things improve a little for you this year because last year really sucked.
JC - “There’s got to be some kind of return to a glorious state obviously. But all we can do is hope because everyone’s got the wind knocked out of them from last year so it’s time to reassess the damage and there’s quite a bit of damage! We need more damage control right now. But it’s all hopeful. In a small town like South Bend everyone lives it and breathes it there. So it’s really felt in the community there and it’s nice to be a part of it. My family works there and it’s always been a part of life in general.”
On Wednesday May 7th the 7th annual Jammy Awards will take place at the Madison Square Garden Theater in New York City. This is an outstanding event where the jam band community comes together in a celebratory way. This year’s event will be hosted by Warren Haynes and Grace Potter and Phish will receive a lifetime achievement award. Umphrey McGee’s tour ends on May 4th and although they haven’t been confirmed yet, it is more than likely that they will be there and that the “Live at the Murat” CD will be nominated for record of the year. For more information on Umphrey’s McGee as well as hours of live music for your listening pleasure, please check out their website at www.umphreys.com.