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Published: 2006/04/16
by Randy Ray

Safety in Numbers and Words: Wrapped Around the World with Umphreys McGee Part II

In what has become a series of collective interviews with Umphrey’s McGee, we revisit the Chicago band upon the release of their new studio album, Safety in Numbers. Last year’s initial feature, “Wrapped Around the World with Umphrey’s McGee,” focused on band history, their first trip to Amsterdam, their Jammy for Best Song of 2004, the BIG Summer Classic, the inaugural Vegoose Festival and their annual Chicago NYE run. Within that rather lengthy article, the first interviews were conducted about their work-in-progress studio sessions which would become the album that was released on April 4. Hints of personal turmoil and dark clouds that appeared in that interview do, indeed, surface on the new album but there is something far more poignant, cleansing and mature about the overall workan album in every sense of the old school term in which each song paints a fresh stroke across a canvas until the scene is complete and self-sufficient. And that’s a fairly accurate description of the band, as well, as they head further down the road in their first decade as one of the best jambands on the planet. This segment of the “Wrapped Around the World” series focuses on that new work and the band’s recent full-length tour of the Old World. We sat down with Brendan Bayliss, guitarist, vocalist and lyricist, Jake Cinninger, guitarist and vocalist, Joel Cummins, keyboards and vocals and Ryan Stasik, bass guitarist and no vocals, for the details as their journey continues.

Part I The Old World

RR: How was the first full-length European Tour?

Jake: This time we got to see most of Western Europe by including a European tour to go with the Jam at the ’Dam. It was really nice to sort of plant the seed in Europe for the first time and see the reaction that we would get from all different corners. We were kind of traveling by the seat of our pants. We would be in England and then the next day in Milan and then the next day in France and then Amsterdam and after that we went to Germany. It was a time to get no sleep and see as many sites as possible. What would a tour in Europe be if you couldn’t run around and check out some of the architecture, artistic sites and pubs that all of these places offer? We forced ourselves to get out of bed early so we could get around, take some pictures and bring the story back home.

Brendan: We all felt like we were starting over. It reminded us of what it was like five years ago when we were doing our first tours. We didn’t know what we were doing; we were just hoping to get there. We felt like freshmen all over again. As a bonding thing, it was great for us. We had around 250 people see us in England and we were so excited about it. There is just something about the feeling of going back to the basics. Right now, we’d freak out if we only had 150 people show up but over there we were ecstatic. It made me feel really young; it was a cool experience in that regard. The crowds were so passionate about it; they were so into iteven with the language barriers and trying to talk with us after the shows. You understood what they were trying to say with their broken English. It was really invigorating.

RR: What was the feedback?

Brendan: There are two different kinds. There was one show in Paris with a lot of Americans. They were chanting for us before the encore. We were sitting back there and thinking, “This is ridiculous. We’re in the middle of Paris and 150 people are chanting “UMPHREY’S!” That was really cool and we kept that chant going through the encore. They were singing with us; we stopped playing and let them keep going so we included that in the encore. In Germany, we had the most people singing the lyrics. There was a bunch of Germans thereHelmut and Dita (laughter) and they knew the words. It was really cool because they couldn’t speak English but they knew the words to “Plunger.”

Jake: We weren’t expecting a large turnout in England and there was a decent crowd. There is a lot of prog heads therea lot of older cats there that you could tell were progressive rock fans. They had heard through the grapevine that we were sort of an American version of prog rock, in a way.

RR: That’s really interesting. I was listening to an old Can album this morning.

Jake: Yeah. That’s my main stuff, right there. Which one were you listening to?

RR: The double album. Tago Mago. That stuff holds up. Mindblowing.

Jake: Yeah, it’s like the first minimalist break beat drum and bass stuff ever really printed before even Eno when Eno went soundscape and sort of minimalist. These guys were doing this stuff in the late 60s and early 70s.

RR: Not a wasted note.

Jake: They know how to milk a very simple drum beat and it is a very mechanical sound. Everyone was thinking, back then, to play freely in a free-form and they were very rigid and mechanical-sounding so it almost sounded computerized. That’s what I like about itlike it’s automatically quantized. It really has a lot to do with the drums. Jaki Liebezeit would play the same beat for around twenty minutes straight without even a crash cymbal. That’s what was cool about it. No drummer was doing that, then.

RR: So, did you have prog heads that came out to all of the shows on the tour?

Jake: Oh, yeah, of course. Germany’s another huge progressive rock capital in Europe. Most of the crowd was, again, 30, 40, 50 year old prog heads and they were very receptive. They very much come off like a jazz crowd. They stand and watch the whole song and then applaud after the solos. It is very formal and completely different from American crowds. They sort of take the music in; they are very attentivewatching every little move and taking it all in and then they react at the end. It’s really cool.

Ryan: In Italy, they had a little area that had bleachers up on the side. Most of Italian people listened and clapped after solos much like it was a jazz show. All of the places that we played, the European fans stayed all the way until to the end. The Germany crowd was very energetic and we played more of our prog rock stuff there. They were the most excited to have us over there. There was definitely more guys in the guys to girls ratio. In London, we played our first show in Europe and we were just excited to be over there and drinking pints with the lads; plus, we had just come off of three shows in 24 hours. Overall, it was a very good reception.

RR: Being Germany and the home of Tangerine Dream, were they expecting Joel Cummins to play a 25-minute keyboard solo? You’ve sat on a few notes in the past.

Jake: Yeah. If it sounds good, we’ll milk it.

RR: What was it like to hang out with the Disco Biscuits in Amsterdam? I spoke with Jon Gutwillig recently and he was very complimentary about the band.

Brendan: I love the Disco Biscuits. It’s great where we’re at right now because we have an honestly true and mutual respect for each other. I don’t feel any competition with them and it’s really nice and healthy so we can just get along and do shows together. It’s not like 90210 drama or anything like that. Plus, they are fun as hell to hang out with. I finally got to know Jon over the Europe trip. I’m curious as to what musical collaborations we will have with them, now. We’re doing several shows with them coming up and I’m really curious to see what kind of music comes out of that.

Jake: I’ve gotten together with [Marc, Bisco bassist] Brownstein and [Aron, Bisco keyboardist] Magner to do Conspirator a while back so that spawned a lot of things. Basically, whenever we get together, we let the guards down and have a great time. In the past, a lot of bands sort of steered clear of each other for various reasons. We’ve been that kind of band that sort of knocks down the walls of other bands and just get inside the friendship wall so everyone can trust each other off the record, you know? With the Disco Biscuits, we’ve got that friendship and we always seem to be at the same place, at the same time at festivals or whatever it may be.

RR: Speaking oflast night, I got a phone call from Charlie Hitchcock. We have been discussing his recent projects and chatting back-and-forth on e-mail. I actually caught his first guest spot after his departure from Particle when he sat in with Umphrey’s in Arizona last September. He’s always a real kick to watch. There are many different theories about guest musicians sitting in with bands. Umphrey’s McGee seems to have a very refreshing and open relationship with other musicians that help produce strong jam music in unique settings. How does collaboration with, say, Hitchcock come about and what are you trying to do with the experience?

Jake: That was a lot of fun. We’ve done a lot of collaboration with those guys so when Charlie was in town we said, “Yeah, man. Come out.” It was looking like he wanted to play a bit and get some demons out so that was a good time for all of us. When someone is sitting in, there is a lot of mutual respect. We sort of give them the freeness to cut loose or if they want to do some interplay to make it happen. It’s basically an open white canvas and we don’t know what to expect and neither do they. If anything, we will compensate the situation by making it very comfortable for anyone that’s coming up on stage. We’ll take into consideration that is about to step up to the plate and we’ll kind of play around that vibe. We definitely cater to sit-ins as far as a relaxed atmosphere. Whatever happens happens and I’ll be right on your tail if you want me to follow.

Part II Safety in Numbers

RR: The record is transitional, fresh and stylistically like Led Zeppelin _III_light and shade motifs. How did you determine the sequence for such a diverse album?

Jake: The main reason why it is so diverse is that we started with so many songs that we were recording in the first place. The album was supposed to be a double record. We wanted to have a sort of producer mentality and someone had to say, “Sure, all of this is great but what’s the best out of what we have here? We should just make one great statement.” The idea was to make an acoustic record and a rock record. That’s where you get some of the acoustic flavors in with the album. A handful of them seemed to work just right with these other rocking tunes. We went into the rehearsal room and worked out these 24 songs, got them up to snuff so we could walk right into the studio and lay them down to two-inch tape. We decided to only finish the eleven because those seemed the most important. We have all of these other songs that are recorded in the studio but they’re on the back burnerB-side material that might re-surface in six months or we’ll go back and check them out and re-work them. It was really important for us to make one really big statement rather than having a bunch of material to release or having too much information.

RR: The album isn’t so much about the usual party; it’s about other issues especially as you grow older.

Jake: Yeah, that’s very true. We’re growing older as songwriters. I’ve been definitely stressing the fact that it’s cool to be a little bit mysterious and mystical and not always be that funny bar band that you get on stage that makes fun of everything. As we move along and progress, there’s a point where we’re always going to have that flavor of humor but, there has to be a point that the music is way more important than the party. That is us getting away from our college heritage and high school mentality and sort of drifting into being adults and adult situations and reacting to them through songs. It’s kind of like a studio album for studio’s sake and a separation from church and state. Live is the church and state is the studio.

Brendan: It would be immature for me to say I’m maturing, right? This is just a timepiece that captures us in a moment and I think we’re constantly going to try to make something different next time. I don’t know yet what it is. We, as a band, never want to stay in the same place because we just get bored. I imagine that the next one would be different but, I don’t know, I’m really happy with how this one turned out.

RR: Anchor Drops has aged very well but I can see how you needed to move away from that direction or else Umphrey’s would have been boxed into a corner: fun party band but comes across as too complex and cold.

Jake: Exactly. That seems to be the whole reason why the album came off in that sense. We could have easily thrown a “Bridgeless” on theresomething that is ridiculously weighty with parts and sections and heaviness. But it was like, you know, we’ve got a vibe going here with the record, let’s stick with it. We wanted to have a flow to the album because people don’t make albums, anymore, in that sense as far as it is just one piece instead of “Look for tracks 3 and 8those are the two good songs.” We spent months over the way it was going to be put together.

RR: Is that you on double-tracked acoustic on “End of the Road”?

Jake: Yes, I double-tracked the main part and we just split them stereo. I had written that tune probably about three years ago. It was just a part of my four-track collection; I have over 600, 700 songs. When it’s time to come up with new material for a record, I go inside of this vault that I have, pick out whatever I think at the time might be feeling right to me and give it to the band. I actually have a couple of four track versions of that song that is almost identical. I just kind of unearthed this stuff and lay it on the guys. That would normally be back burner material but it was perfect right in the middle of the record, right where we needed it.

Joel: That was one of those where we messed around with the form a little bit. Jake brought that to the table almost completely done and we said, “Oh, man. Can we do something with this, please?” (laughs) We laid it down and it came out pretty well.

RR: Right. It reminded me of Side 3 of Physical Graffiti.

Jake: Yeah, like “Bron-Y-Aur.”

RR: I like “Intentions Clear” quite a bit, too. It’s sort of Steely Dan on a whole other level. How did you get Joshua Redman to play saxophone on the track?

Jake: Joel and I had played with him at Martyr’s here in Chicago when we opened up for him and his Elastic Band. It was just Joel and I doing this duo thing. I was playing drums against his keyboards and, then, guitar against his keyboards. Josh came out and really liked it and we said, “Hey, if you ever want to play with us, give us a call.”

Brendan: I don’t know how that will do on stage. Obviously, we need a sax player but it wouldn’t be right without Redman so I don’t know howI’m just kind of torn. It’s a good problem to have.

RR: Jake just said that a band needed to be able to segregate their studio and live work like the separation between church and state. Having said that, how long will it be until the new songs are assimilated into the set lists?

Brendan: We’re not in any rush. I would expect by the end of the next month or two that we will have probably played everythingat least tried everything. There’s no harm in trying; worst case, we don’t try it again. If people don’t like the album, finedon’t like it. It is not at all what we do live. I agree with Jakechurch and state. They are totally separate things. If you like us live and you don’t like the album, fine because if you see us live it isn’t going to be the album, you know? So, I’m not worried about that. “Believe the Lie” has already opened up on stage towards the end. Like everything that we’ve done, after a while we kind of get bored with our songs and start tweaking them. I imagine that anything that we play will get twisted in some way.

Joel: We have around eight or nine songs on the backburner because we don’t want to rush into playing them live. Sometimes, this stuff will take a while and sometimes forms and how things are going to work out are a little more obvious. We look at the situation and we know what is going to work. We definitely can put new material into our shows with a lot of regularity each night but as far as actual songs we’re taking a little more time to develop those and get them into rotation. We have a few now that we started working on the beginning of this yearI think five tunes and we’ve got two left over from the summer [2005] that we’re still not done with and, of course, right now we’re busy trying to learn (laughs), re-learn the album material to play live. We’ve played “Rocker,” “End of the Road,” “Liquid,” “Believe the Lie,” “Nemo,” “Women, Wine and Song,” “Ocean Billy,” “Passing,”for the rest, we’ll probably play them at some point this tour“Intentions Clear” and “Words.”

Ryan: As a group, we tend to get bored pretty quickly. We try to get together when we have time off or before shows at soundchecks to re-introduce new songs. We had to sit on around half of this album because we didn’t want to introduce them until the record was released. We’ve been getting together in the weeks before the tour and learning the new songs and as soon as they’re together, we kind of play them a little quicker than we should but that’s just the eagerness to get the new material out there.

RR: Ryan, how do you focus your listening on stage with old or new material? You seem like you are both the mover and shaker and the eye of the storm.

Ryan: That’s a really good question. I’m glad you asked that. I got in an argument with my monitor engineer last night about that. I really am listening to each different thing and I’m always asking him to change different things. I definitely have to listen to the rhythm section and, at times, I’ll be listening to what he [Kris Myers] is accenting so I can go more with the groove. We’ve got four or five keyboards and Brendan and Jake so there is a lot of stuff going in my ears. I’m always telling the monitor engineer that I
need Brendan’s guitar up now because he’s doing a new idea and I really want to be able to hear it. In my mind, I’m constantly listening to everything. It depends on what the point isif it’s improv, what is taking the lead? What is my role? Do I need to connect more with the rhythm section because it’s a groove thing? Is it a melodic piece so I have figure out exactly what they are doing and change the chords and the roots?

RR: It took me a while to grasp the arc of the album but once I got into the flow, I had a different favorite song every couple of days. Initially, I did have to work at hearing the complete portrait. If I had to pick one song that stands out for me, it has to be “Words”the longest song on the album and, overall, it had the most personal meaning to me. I just knew in ten years I’d still be listening to “Words” if I was in a certain lyrical moodlike Zeppelin’s “Rain Song.” You sing, “Speechless and at a loss for words. They wouldn’t be heard anyway, would they?” How is a complex song like that constructed in the studio?

Brendan: I didn’t write any of the music for “Words.” I just wrote the parts that I’m singing. Basically, it was like the way we normally do thingsdifferent musical ideas written in different parts and trying to glue them together like the Lego thing that we do. It’s an example of it working. (laughs) I wrote the lyrics to that last. Jake had written his part first and Joel had written his part second. Both of their lyrics were talking about words so I just linked the ideas to keep it connected, I guess. I thinkif my memory is correct and, usually, it is but it could be off. “Words” should open up on stage; we haven’t really played that one, yet. Who knows what is going to happen?

Joel: Jake and I wrote “Words” over the course of a month and a half. Jake already had the last section a couple of years ago and I, honestly, played a piano thing on that for something else that we thought we might do. I had already worked out the middle section and we worked on the first section together. Brendan did a really nice job with the lyrics on the front part. I wrote the lyrics for the middle part and Jake wrote the ones for the end. There was a really cool three-way collaboration on “Words.”

RR: The last song on the album, “The Weight Around,” is obviously very heavy. Problems don’t go away when you go on the road; instead, you carry these issues with you wherever you go. It seemed very bittersweet at the end. Would you say that a lot of the themes on the album were in that final number?

Brendan: That kind of song sums up everything I was going through. I’m sure you and I went over it to some degree, personally, and that song’s kind ofthe whole thing, in a nutshell for me, is kind of like a conversation. Someone is speaking the first half and I’m speaking the second half. Yeah, it kind of is a good bookend for the album because it sums up a lot of bullshit.

RR: There are several new directions on the album but I think “The Weight Around” signals a real Neil Young-type honestytimeless, direct and brief. You knew when to stop.

Brendan: Cool. That was a gamble. We really debated whether or not that should go on the album. Other than “Rocker,” which is about a friend of ours, every other lyric is about that subject [relationship issues]. For them to include it, I was just very happy. It’s me playing all of the instruments and singing and I was doing it because I thought it was going to be on the acoustic album. It thematically linked up [with the rest of the album] and resonated with all of the guys because they can all relate. I’ve always wanted to write a short, concise song like that and sometimes it takes turmoil to pull something out.

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