Brendan Bayliss- guitar
Jake Cinninger- guitar
Joel Cummins- keyboards
Ryan “Pony” Stasik- bass
Andy Farag- percussion
Michael Mirro- drums
On cold windy night in December of 1998 a little-known band from South Bend, Indiana was performing their second show in the city of Chicago. The band had just made the decision to head north from their beginnings in Indiana to the city in hopes of spreading their musical wings beyond the confines of the Notre Dame music scene. On that quiet weeknight on the north side at Martyr’s, at the time home to the budding Grateful Dead cover band Dark Star Orchestra, a small handful of friends and curiosity seekers (including yours truly) got their first taste of Umphrey’s McGee. And after spending the last two and a half years blanketing the Midwest they were the soon the talk of the Windy City jam scene. Umphrey’s McGee has quietly come from their humble South Bend abode, spreading their unique blend of sound waves across the country, from the Wetlands in New York, House of Blues and Park West in Chicago, to the Fox Theater in Boulder, and earning spots in some notable left coast summer festivals such as Dexter Lake and High Sierra. Beginning in September the band will embark on another east coast tour (for details visit the band’s web site-www.umphreys.com). Umphrey’s McGee has found themselves taking their musical message further than they ever have before. During their stop in Portland I got the chance to catch up with them to talk about the changes in their sound over the last several years, the life on the road and the good fortune that has come their way since that quiet weeknight at Martyr’s nearly three years ago.
John Sadowski: So tell me about the tour.
Brendan Bayliss: So far we couldn’t ask for a whole lot more. It’s been a lot of fun and we’ve had a lot of down time to make fun of each other and actually get out to see some stuff. We camped in Victoria BC on the beach.
Andy Farag: We’ve gotten to get out and play golf, once in BC and the other day around here [Portland].
JS: I think you guys are the first band I’ve met that brings their golf clubs on tour.
Ryan “Pony” Stasik: Always bring the sticks. I think the Big Wu does too
JS: Did you get to play with them earlier this summer at the Family Reunion?
Pony: Oh yeahoh you mean play golf? No, no. We tried to get some basketball tournaments going but it never happened.
BB: All the turnouts at the shows this tour have been a lot better than we’d expect, a couple of pleasant surprises. Seattle on a Sunday was great with over 200 people, in Oregon we were at capacity. Often its like we’re “Umphrey’s McWho?” so the great turnouts have really been cool.
JS: Last summer you guys got out and toured the east coast for the first time, playing festivals and getting out more beyond the Midwest. Now you’re out here on the west coast for the first time. What do you see as being the biggest difference between your tours of the east coast and this current west coast tour?
BB: Its seems like the first time we toured the east it planted a little seed by word of mouth. The first tour out east there were a lot of rooms where it was like a bartender, waitress, and the band, you know? [laugh] And that hasn’t happened out here. I think that’s because we’ve played some really good places and gotten our name out there. Right now it’s more about sticking your name out there so many times until people recognize it and want to listen. And there are actually a lot of people who live out here from the east coast and Midwest, so that’s helped a lot on this tour too.
Joel Cummins: I think people, at least from what I’ve seen, most of these people it’s the first time they’ve heard us. And most of them seem very into listening to the music. Probably a little less chatty than the east coast or the Midwest.I feel like I’ve noticed that but it’s hard to say.
JS: Since I’ve last seen you you’ve come a long way. What’s changed?
JC: I would say just having gotten to know everybody in the band so much better. You get to know people musically and there are a lot of things you can infer once you get to know what you’re trying to do and how you’re trying to do it. You understand how everybody expresses themselves a little better.
JS: Since I’ve seen you last you guys have added a second guitar player [Jake Cinninger]. How has that changed you as players and also the band? How has that affected your sound?
Pony: I think its made it whole, its filled in all the gaps.
BB: Well I was proud of it [the band’s sound] before he joined, and now listening back to the old tapes I’m not very proud of it. It’s just so much better and much more fresh now. It was kind of getting stale for us and he brought in a whole new perspective, it’s a lot more evil.
JS: Evil? A darker tone to the music?
BB: Yeah, which is what we were going for and weren’t quite getting there. He’s a very well-rounded musician and brought a lot of songs with him. He was an old friend. Pony and I were in a band a before UM and we opened for Jake’s band. So we’ve known him for a long time and pretty much always wanted him in the band, you know? But he was in a band before we even got together and we were always like oh it’d be nice to have Jake’ and then we got the call. He’s like what are we gonna do?’ and we’re like come on up to Chicago.’ He’s accelerated the process and totally fired us up. Being around somebody that good you can’t be complacent and you’ve got to practice, which is very good.
JS: Do you find yourself challenged?
BB: Oh hell yeah. I mean there are some times when he’ll do something and look at me like its my turn to reply and I’ll just have to give him the finger you know? I can’t say much more.
JS: So this is your longest tour to date and you’re not quite half way through it. How has your sound changed over the course of this tour? What’s new?
JC: Again, Its hard to say. Night to night I hear a lot of different things. Watching someone else grow up.it’s a lot easier to watch someone else grow than to see yourself grow.
BB: Actually we’ve been trying to keep everything in a rotation and kind of take our time more because we know that we’re going to be playing so much that we’re not going to have a whole lot of time to try and come up with new stuff. So we’re trying to milk what we do have. It’s different from back in the Midwest when we’d have a gig on a Friday and a Saturday and take all week to practice. Out here its like we’ve got to enjoy what we’re doing cause we’re going be doing it for so long. I think we’re just playing a lot more patiently. If something goes off the set list and we leave the set list we’ve really been embracing that, cause we can always go back to the set list.
JS: So you guys do write out a set list?
BB: Nine times out of ten we usually have at least an idea. And the times that we don’t it’s either really, really good, or a lot of confusion, arguing over what to play, which sucks.
JS: I want to talk about the present. You guys have really exploded recently, touring nationally a lot more and getting into the festival scene. You have Dexter Lake coming up and High Sierra with all these other bigger name bands. How do you feel about the scene and your role in it? Where do you see yourselves in that big picture?
BB: First off, I think we’re really lucky right now the way things are just falling in place. I’m waiting for the momentum to stop. Thing just keep lining up, good news every three days, something cool happens. I mean I’ve never even played in Portland up until two nights ago, so it’s just a lot of fun. As far as our place, well I don’t know about exploding, but we’re in a position where we can get out there you know? We’ve gotten to the point where we’ve played a few reputable places that people are giving us opportunities. Like Dexter Lake, or what ever because they heard that we played at House of Blues in Chicago. So right now it’s just like we’re having a blast. We can’t really complain.. “it’s hard to be better” is our motto.
JS: Well when I say exploded I mean the word of mouth. I was talking to a taper earlier tonight from Portland who has never seen you guys before. He trades through phishhook.com and said that on that site you guys are being traded like mad, and its all the word of mouth.
BB: Yeah, that’s the best advertising because it’s not false. Its like if someone really believes in something they’re gonna tell you I think you should listen to this, which really speaks for itself. It’s not like radio or MTV where its like this is what you’re gonna listen to and this is what you’re gonna watch.
JS: A lot of people ask me, what does Umphrey’s McGee sound like? Who do you guys sound like?
BB: You tell me. At some point everything has been done before. You’ve to try and put your own twist on it and try and at least make it sound refreshing so it’s not the same exact predictable thing.
JS: What vein would you say you’re from?
BB: What vein? We’ll we’re a live band for sure. So we’re definitely in that jamband category, and you know where that came from. But I think at the same time we really like the Beatles and we’re trying to get to song writing. It’s just as important as jamming. It’s cool to be able to play for 45 minutes in funk, I mean it’s great. But when you have songs and structures that kind of sets things apart from just regular jams. So I think that we’re in the same vein of the live bands but with a little stress on composition. I wouldn’t say we’re groundbreaking, I just think we’re good live music.