Umphrey’s McGee’s Brendan Bayliss: ‘The Lego Thing’
Umphrey’s McGee is the quintessential jam band, in the traditional sense of the term. The sextet has been steadily building a loyal fan base through grassroots tape trading and heavy touring…yada yada. Mixing elements of rock, funk, metal and…blah blah blah. It’s a bio you’ve read a million times. However, what sets these young lads apart is the fact that they’ve stayed true to their original vision. While many of today’s most popular touring bands reside in the various sub-genres of the jam world (trance-fusion, DJ collaborations, jam grass…etc), Umphrey’s McGee remains firmly rooted in progressive improvisational rock.
The group’s most recent album, Local Band Does O.K., showcases its droll sense of humor along with its eclectic music tastes and technical ability. After original drummer Mike Mirro decided to leave the band for a career in medicine, the future of Umphrey’s was briefly in doubt. Newcomer Kris Myers has since come on board and the group continues to tour regularly as if it never missed a beat (so to speak).
Jambands.com recently caught up with guitarist Brendan Bayliss to discuss a little history, the current state of the band and his intense passion for Creed.
JW: Let’s start with your personal background as a musician, in the days before Umphrey’s McGee.
BB: I wasn’t really a musician until my freshman year in high school, when I first started playing guitar over Christmas break. My brother came home from college and had a guitar. That was the first time I ever got into playing. I was in bands all throughout high school; you know the battle of the bands, here and there. I played little clubs and stuff. Then when I got in college I played in a few bands and then met the bass player [Ryan Stasik] and we formed a band. That was in 95 or 96. Then in ’98 we split up our band and broke up another college band that had two of the other guys. We formed the Umphrey’s thing in ’98.
JW: Umphrey’s McGee draws from so many different styles and influences. When you first started playing music, who was your guitar God? Are we talking Metallica, Zappa or Jerry?
BB: It was Jimmy Page, hands down. My freshman year in high school I had just gotten into Zeppelin and that was just like the bible.
JW: With such a varied repertoire, I assume some of the other guys in Umphrey’s bring other styles to the table?
BB: Yeah definitely. Everybody in the band has exposed me to music that I never would have heard of and vice versa. Everyone has their own CD collection and we’ll just kind of swap out. Our drummers, for example, are really into the Afro-Cuban thing and I had no idea what a clave was before I met them. Everybody comes from a completely different background, which is really cool actually.
JW: When Jake [Cinninger] first joined the band, how did having a second guitarist change things for you, both from a compositional standpoint as well as improvisationally?
BB: Well, it was really a breath of fresh air. We weren’t getting stale or stagnant, but we were playing a lot. Adding a new member meant we had to configure just how we played on stage. It was a different set-up and then it was a different interaction because I had another guitar player to kind of feed off of, which was a total change. Mainly I was paying attention to the keyboards and then when Jake came into the picture it was like starting over almost. Obviously we kept the songs and he had to write his own parts. Compositionally, he brought a lot to the table. We used to play with his band a lot so we were very familiar with him. Actually a few times, his band had played a song of ours and we had played a song of his, kind of joking back and forth. So it was kind of cool to be able to bring his material in. As far as songwriting, there was just so much more potential with two guitar parts, for me at least.
JW: And do you still write most of the material for the band?
BB: It’s kind of hard to say. Beforehand it was Joel [Cummins] and I who wrote most of the stuff and now it’s Jake and I.
JW: What’s that process like? Is it mostly you guys writing on your own and then bringing a finished product to the rest of the band or is there a lot of improvisation that translates to new material?
BB: The clichnswer is that each song’s different, but it’s true. For the most part, Jake and I kind of call it the Lego thing. I’ll have 50 different parts and he’ll have 50 different parts and we’ll just show each other. Then we’ll pick five that we like that kind of fit and just stick them together. I mean we get critiqued a lot for being a band that has a lot of changes, but that’s kind of how it comes apart because we have so many different sections. We just glue them together for a song. But there have been a few that have kind of just come out of improvisation, where we listened back to the tape and realized it was a section. So some of them have written themselves, but most of them are just put together piece by piece when we get together.
JW: That’s one criticism of the jam band world, that there’s too much emphasis on the technical side of things and some of the emotion is lost. How would you compare your method to that of a blues artist or a folk singer who writes a three chord song about love and loss?
BB: For me, obviously I like it or I wouldn’t be playing it all the time. We’ve talked about it in the band and it’s like we have this A.D.D. thing. We can’t focus in on a groove for too long because I guess we’ve always taken the approach that it’s better to leave someone wanting more than to overkill an idea. You can always go back and do it again, but if you take something and drive it into the ground, it really becomes stale. I mean, people say we do changes for changes sake and…whatever; we change because we get bored in the same place. I can see that with a lot of the jam band scene. I wouldn’t say it as losing emotion. It’s just a different style. It’s a different approach. I would get bored playing in a blues band that played 1-4-5 all night. After the second night I’d have to do something else. But, that’s just me. Some people love that shit and that’s great.
JW: For some of your more complex progressive rock material, do you chart it out on sheet music for the band?
BB: In the past, I’ve tried that, but then I realized that everyone’s so quick that it’s just so much easier to play it. I’ll memorize it and then bring it to the table and then everybody is so quick and they all have such great ears that it’s a lot quicker to play it three times and then let it digest. I went to music school for a semester and a half and I learned how to write music and all that shit. It takes me five times as long to notate it than to just play it for everybody. I guess because we’ve been playing together for so long and we improvise so much, we just listen really well to each other. Plus, with two guitar players, I can just show Jake a shape or a form or vice versa and we can just look at each other’s hands and quickly learn it within a few minutes. It’s just a more efficient process for us.
JW: Aside from improvisation, how much do the composed sections vary from night to night? Even if you play a song correctly each time, do you notice a difference in feel as the band evolves? I mean, if you listen to a tape of the band from a year ago playing the same song you played last night, do you notice a different emotion within the notes?
BB: Well first off, I wouldn’t listen to anything from a year ago laughs, but night to night, definitely. There are little things that people will do in a structured section. Say a song we play every third show, we’ve done it 100 times. Obviously you stay in the same chord structure and you play the same pitches, but there are many times that I’ll look over at Jake or Joel because they’ve tried something different. It’s still true to the form and it sounds the exact same to the listener, but for us it’s something that breathes a little fresh life into a section, other than just regurgitating it. So yeah, definitely, the structured will stay the same as far as a root note, but we’ll mix it up as much as we can.
JW: Do you listen to every show when you’re touring?
BB: When we’re touring, if there’s a long drive to the next show, we’ll get the CD from the night before and just kind of listen to the improv. parts; anything that was open-ended. We’ll just kind of fast-forward through the songs. Everybody knows what their part is. Whether or not you nailed it is not important because you’re going to have to play it again. But yeah, we’ll listen to the improv. from every show usually the next day because it stays fresh in your memory and you can work on an idea at the next soundcheck.
JW: So does everyone sit around and critique the show and take notes? What’s the interaction like between the band members?
BB: It really depends on what it is. If it was something that we all walked off the stage and thought was great, the next day we’ll usually just pop it in the van and everyone just shuts up and really listens to it. Every once in a while we’ll rewind it if it was really cool. Other times, if it was something that was shit, I guess it’s the same process. Sometimes I’ll get out a notebook and write down a progression from an improv. section just to keep it, so we’ll do it again or to make it into a structure for a new song. But overall, it’s more of a relaxed type listening sort of thing. It’s still work, but it’s not a stressful situation. We just listen to what we hope was good and if it’s crap, we try to figure out what about it was crap.
JW: Improvisation is sort of the magical element in all of this. Have you been able to determine the best way to approach it? What causes an amazing night versus a train wreck night?
BB: You know what? There’s no two ways around it. It’s a coin toss. We do notice that if we play five shows in a row, usually the first night and the fifth night are really good because we’ve had some time off or even just a day off so it’s good to get back to playing again. The last night’s good because we know we’re not gonna play for a few days again so we play better. Usually for the middle shows everyone’s really tired and sometimes there’s like a six or seven hour drive and that really affects you. When you have six people that are rested, it’s so much easier to get from point A to point B. Even if one person’s tired it affects the band because you’re listening to everybody on stage. When one person isn’t listening or throwing out ideas, it’s contagious.
So, what we try to do [to prevent this] is play this thing called "Jimmy Stewart." This one time we played a wedding and it was in the Jimmy Stewart Recital Hall. We showed back up at 3:30 in the morning and did a 45-minute improv. thing. So what we try to do is write into each set list "Jimmy Stewart;" first set and second set. It’s a ten-minute allotment for whatever happens. If it’s really good, it can be longer. If it’s really bad, it will be cut short. Usually one of them is kind of structured where we’ll write out chords or an idea, like say A section is jungle drumbeats and then the B section will go into piano and bass/drums breakdown. Then guitar will come up with a head and the C section would be whatever, some kind of metal thing. So each night is different and we don’t really rehearse it. It’s just sort of a chord chart that you read as you’re going along with it. So we do one of those each night and then we do one that’s just completely wide open.
JW: Humor plays a big role in what you do, from your album titles to your choice of covers. How important is that for the band to have that lightheartedness? A lot of bands take things pretty seriously and obviously you take your music seriously, but talk about the comedy element in Umphrey’s.
BB: Well the comedy element is huge. The idea behind this working is that it’s gotta not be work. As soon as it turns into like the job thing, it’ll become really stale. So we try to have as much fun as possible. We’re just constantly cracking jokes at each other. I personally feel, well, everyone in the band feels this way. Someone like Scott Stapp from Creed, I mean, where do these people come from? Too many people take themselves too seriously and then it really takes away from the music. The less importance you put on yourself and your playing, then the only thing that really matters is the music. When you’re Scott Stapp, it doesn’t matter if the music sucks because people still want to talk to you because of you’re a self-made important person. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s a real turn off to us. I mean, we meet musicians that are really uptight and talk about themselves like an NBA player talks about himself in the third person. I don’t know where these people come from because life’s too short to be uptight. We’re just trying to have fun with it.
So like the album title thing, say Al DiMeola for example. He’s an awesome guitar player, but he’s got album titles like Passion, Grace and Fire. It’s like c’mon, just play the guitar. So for us, it defeats the purpose if you’re too serious about it. When you have a funny album title, I think it’s just hilarious. The idea of being funny is funny. It’s fun and it kind of translates to the music. It keeps smiles on your faces. I really hope we never release an album title like Fire and Wind or something. Let me know that I’m being a hypocrite when that album comes out.
JW: What are some of your rejected album titles? Do you remember any that you can share?/
BB: Oh yeah. Oh God laughs. Poop Is Funny…Light A Match and Bigger Than A Baby’s Arm, that was a good one.
JW: You mentioned that you’re a big Creed fan.
BB: Big time
JW: That’s a nice segued into the business side of things. Creed may be self-absorbed, but they’re multi-millionaires playing those three-chord songs. How frustrating is that? As magical as improvisational music may be, chances are it’s not going to make you rich any time soon.
BB: Yeah, that’s the truth isn’t it? I don’t know. Bands like Creed don’t frustrate me. It’s more like motivating I think, because every time I see someone like Creed I’m like, well shit, if they can do it, I can do it.’ I just get a laugh out of it. Every once in a while it becomes frustrating when you’ve gone out for two weeks and played like 12 nights and you’re really struggling and you don’t feel like you’re making progress. That’s when it becomes frustrating, but then as soon as you get a few days off and you get perspective, you’re just really glad you have the job you have.
JW: So what is the goal? At the current rate you’re not going to be on MTV or on mainstream radio. What is the business plan for the band to be able to do this long term, as a career?
BB: The goal, I guess, is just to get to the financial point where we can all have dental insurance because we eat a lot of candy at gas stations. The goal is to be financially comfortable enough to where we could have a family and make enough money where we don’t have to play 170 shows a year and we can scale it down to say, 100 shows a year. I’d like to be able to support a family and have a wife that wouldn’t have to work. We never set out to be on the radio or MTV, obviously, because there’s not enough room with Creed. They take up so much space. The goal is just to stay afloat and hopefully make enough money that we could just make a modest living and not get a real job.
JW: Have you ever thought about covering a Creed song? Have you already?
BB: We tried it once. We did this a capella version of "Higher" and there were a lot of deer-in-headlights looks from the crowd. So we kind of let that idea burn.
JW: I think if you took one of their tunes and did your own progressive rock version, you could really rip it. It’s something to think about.
BB: laughs Yeah, it’s something to think about, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. I’ll bring it to the guys and see what they think.
JW: I’ve heard you’re not interested in working with a label at this point, but are you still pursuing a distribution deal?
BB: Yeah, the album’s about to be two years old. We need to get it out, so that’s our main priority right now. A lot of people have maybe heard of the band, but never heard the band. The first two albums we released were recorded within the first eight months that we were a band, just because we needed to get gigs with CDs rather than cassettes. So they weren’t really albums or anything. Local Band Does O.K. is what I think is the first real representation of what we were at the time. It’s closer to what we are now than anything else. So yeah, we need to get a distribution deal and we have a couple things in the works. That’s our main project right now.
JW: Talk about when you first learned that drummer Mike Mirro was leaving the band. Did he just sit everyone down and break the news to you? What was that like?
BB: I don’t know how to describe it. It was kind of like have the rug pulled out from under your feet. When he told us it was a real shock and it was kind of a reality check. Our bubble was burst and we realized that this might not happen. Up until that point I was convinced that I was on the right path and everything was fine. It was really like a wakeup call that we live in a real world. No one expected it and we kind of just went to a hotel afterwards and huddled up and were just like, alright, if you’re in your in. If you’re out, you’re out.’ So, in a way it was really good because it made us appreciate what we have because we almost lost it. So now, in retrospect I’m glad it happened. At the time, it was the worst thing that could have possibly happened to me.
JW: Was there ever a moment where you thought that was the end of the band?
BB: Yeah, for sure. When he first said it, my jaw dropped and I walked out of the restaurant and took a walk. I was immediately thinking that I could teach guitar lessons or I could go back to school. The first 15 minutes was just a shock. I didn’t even imagine that we’d be able to find anybody.
JW: When you did finally find Kris, did he immediately start rehearsing with the band?
BB: When we found him, we still had a couple shows with Mike left, so we gave Kris about 40 CDs of the last month of shows. We just told him to do his homework and that we’d start rehearsals the second week of January and we had shows booked two weeks after that. We told him we’d just play whatever he had ready. He actually sat in for a song on New Year’s and then we had another week to digest and then on January 8th, we started rehearsals. Since then it’s just been crazy, you know? I can’t believe it’s working.
JW: Was there a moment of epiphany the first time it really clicked with him?
BB: Yeah, it was just like, holy shit, we pulled it off.’ I didn’t know what it was gonna feel like or sound like and then the second set of the second show we did with him was almost as good as anything we did with Mike in the last six months. It was more of a feeling of relief.
JW: Did you haze him?
BB: laughs Well, he's been getting lots of threats and we're just waiting for the right moment.