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Published: 2007/11/20
by Dean Budnick

Once More With Umph: The Brendan Bayliss Reader Interview

Umphrey’s McGee will soon celebrate their tenth year as a band. To mark this occasion, along with the recent release of the group’s Live at the Murat two CD set, we selected UM guitarist Brendan Bayliss as the subject of our latest reader interview. Here he talks about life on the road, happenings at home, the state of the group’s next studio effort and why he’d like to take a Stanley Jordan mulligan.

We received a number of questions busting your chops on the state of Notre Dame football. Let’s start things off with one of the nicer ones: “Being a Notre Dame graduate, how do you feel about the football team’s performance so far this season?” Phil R

BB- I don’t know if this is a Zen statement or some old Chinese proverb but you can’t know happiness unless you know pain. So what we’re doing is building it up for two years from now. That’s why we’re not scoring any points on offense, we’re saving it for two years from now.

Duly noted. Okay, on to the band“Describe a typical day leading up to a show. Do you have any pre-game rituals,’ favorite meals, eccentric habits, etc.?” Justin M

BB- On a typical day it really depends on what the night before was. If I was a good boy and went to bed I’ll try to get a workout in because I’m getting fat. Then we’ll get together and talk about a setlist, whoever’s on the bus. And there’s a lot of downtime, trying to kill time. We set up a backstage practice rig every day and we’ll do that if we’re motivated. Usually, the first week of a tour we’ll do it and the second week we’ll kind of play video games and walk around and get away from each other.

What about on a day off like today how do you occupy yourself?

BB- This is a half-day because we’re at Higher Ground for two nights, so they’re letting us set up today and do a practice. So today is like a half-day. In New York I had Sunday off, so I woke up at 11AM and got on a boat for four hours, just something totally different to get away from it. But it really depends on what the night before was if the people are motivated or hung over or whatever.

How often does the band practice like that on the road?

BB- This tour we’re going to do it twice. Once in Denver and once in Burlington. You see, we don’t really tour like normal bands. We go out for a week come home for a few days, go out for two weeks and come home. We made a rule that we can’t do more than three weeks because we want to be able to do this for a long time. So we don’t schedule as many off day practices because we try to play five out of six days.

What led to that rule about no more than three weeks at a time?

BB- Well some guys are married, the sound guy’s married, the monitor guy’s married, Jake’s married and that’s a big part of it. We’re not 22 years old and just out of college anymore. So after ten years of doing it, after a few weeks you kind of need a break. You can get tired of playing the same stuff and if you don’t have a break you can’t really work on new stuff.

“Do you do any songwriting on the road or is it too distracting?” Ellen B

BB- Usually not but I’d say we definitely work on stuff. We’ll work on stuff separately at home and then bring it in at sound check and practice it. It’s more of arranging ideas. And then every night we’ll try to listen to some of the improv to see if there’s anything worthwhile we can use, so I guess that’s kind of writing.

“Why there are no Zappa covers in the regular rotation since Frank is such an obvious, major influence on the sound of the band certainly more than Flock of Seagulls or Supertramp (not that either of those cover’s don’t go over quite well)?” Paul U

BB- That’s a good question. We’ve always talked about doing things like “Inca Roads,” some of the stuff that’s really challenging. We’ve worked on some stuff but unless we’re going to absolutely nail it 100%, it’s sacrilegious. Sometimes it’s best to leave that for listening because I don’t think we’d do it justice.

“Is there going to be an Umphfest? Don’t get me wrong, Trancegression was a blast, but are you guys gonna ever have your own?” Jared I

BB- We’ve been debating that for a long time and for the time being, no. It wouldn’t be right to do unless we were big enough to sell enough tickets to really do it right and have it be pimp. If we’re not going to be able pimp it out the right way, it’s just easier to go play other people’s festivals because I don’t want to have to deal with port-a-potties, fences. But eventually if we grow big enough to do it right we would but until then if you can only half-ass it, don’t even bother.

“Over the years you’ve had some memorable guests on stage, I was wondering who was the most exciting guest appearance you’ve had on stage with you? Also, who wouldyou like to jam with if you had the chance?” Matt P

BB- We’d played with a lot of good people Probably the most exciting I would have to say is Victor Wooten just because he’s the baddest ever. And to hear him in my inner ears playing on stage next to me that was really, really, really cool. I mean does it get better than that?

Who would I like to jam with? Probably Al Di Meola or Stanley Jordan. Those two. I got a chance to meet Stanley Jordan once and I tried to tell him that his playing was of biblical proportions and I said, “Hi, you’re the Bible.” That’s how it came out and he was like, “Ohh, okay.” I’d like to make that one up.

“Do you think the new release is the perfect starting off point for new listeners? Do you have any suggestions gently introduce my new girlfriend to the world of UM?” Joe R

BB- If you want to introduce your girlfriend to the world of Umphrey’s McGee, we have what we call we call chick songs and dude songs. Some of the dude songs are long guitar solo rock songs and some of the chick songs are 3 minutes and a chorus. So I’d say give her a mix of chick songs, that’s my advice.

Can you specify?

BB- No, you guys can figure them out

“What are your favorite moment or moments on the new live release?” Jen F

BB- My favorite moments are the crowd. The “Fuck yeah!” and “This album sucks!” chant. I think it’s just hilarious. And the angular moment thing that Jake ad Kris I think is pretty bad ass.

You went into those shows knowing that this release would come out of them, correct?

BB- Well we went in with the intention of capturing enough to put them out. We weren’t guaranteed that we were going to play well.

Historically, do you find that situation facilitates creativity, puts a damper on it or do you just ignore the fact that you’re recording with that goal in mind?

BB- A lot of the ignoring it. I don’t want to jinx us because the next time if we do something like this and we blow it, I’ll blame it on this but I think every time we’ve ever been really challenged by something like that, we’ve responded. So we’re probably due for some stinkers.

“What stage are you on with the new studio album and when will it be released?” Kevin A

BB- What we’re doing is we’ve recorded everything live with two different rooms. So we have like three different drum sounds for every song. And we’re picking each song drum tracks first and we just finished about three of them. We have eleven, I think, so we’re not close. We’re trying to take our time with it. 90% of it is going to be stuff we’ve never played live before and maybe one or two songs people have heard before. One of the new songs is 14 minutes long and it’s thru-composed and there’s no jams in it or anything, so we need to get it right. The goal is to be done and have it out by next summer. I’m really excited about it. It’s really hard to sit on this stuff because it’s some of the best stuff we’ve ever done.

“Will we recognize any of the material on the next studio album from prior Jimmy Stewarts’?” Brian C

BB- Let me thinkthere may be 2 songs that have a section or two but a lot of it is straight new stuff.

“Have the band’s intentions changed over time regarding the Jimmy Stewart’ segments and what do you get out of those on a given night?” Steve D

BB- Going into it always the idea of composing on the spot and not do a dance party jam or some rock climax, just create something that we could use as a song. So every night we still go into it, some group improv where we’re playing as a team and not backing a soloist. And we’re trying to get one or two moments a night where maybe we’ll produce four chords and a progression that we can actually use as a base for a song. So the goal I guess is that maybe one night you’ll come see us write a song or what will become a song two years later. Every night you might actually see us write something. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Will you go back and listen to all of those or only when something strikes you?

BB- I think we always know when we walk off the stage if something is good.

“Umphrey’s following has grown quite significantly over the past few years, yet most new fans never have had the opportunity to hear the band’s out-of-print early releases. Since these releases reflect an important part of the band’s early years, even though they may not represent the band’s current sound or lineup, have you given thought to making these recordings available in some form?” Brian V

BB- Yeah, some time. We squashed them for a while because they’re so bad. They’re absolutely terrible and we did our best to not circulate them because if somebody came to me and gave me our first CD and said, “Here’s this band, check them out,” I’d be like, “Thanks but no thanks.” So I guess in time when we have more security, we’ll probably just give them away.

You still play a number of those songs, though.

BB- Yeah but for me it’s just more embarrassing than anything (laughs).

“Brendan, how often do you and other band members visit The Bort (UM Message board)?” B Lamlin

BB- About a year ago we realized that it was influencing us. If there were people complaining about a song some of us wouldn’t want to play it. I think that’s pretty lame. If 50 people like it and one person gets on a message board and says he doesn’t like it, that shouldn’t be a reason not to play it. So it’s been a while and we make a point of not allowing ourselves to look at it because it can be a bad place.

When we interviewed Marc Brownstein earlier in the year, he said the Biscuits were doing the same thing.

BB- I thing we were all talking about how it’s great to have a community but ultimately the musicians need to be making their own decisions. It was just too personal. People would take it personally and it put people in bad moods so we decided to blacklist it.

“What is the worst thing a fan can do during a live show?” Salem K

BB- Throw something at somebody in the band. Because you’re up there vulnerable as it is and then have shit thrown at you

So I assume that applies to light sticks?

BB- I see so many people in the very front row get hit the back of the head and then they turn around and get hit in the face. I’ve seen a kid have to leave once because he got hit in the eye. I guess it’s cool if you’re on drugs and it might look awesome for like two minutes but it can break gear. Jeff Austin has a really nice mandolin and if someone throws a glow stick and cracks some wood who’s going to buy him a new mandolin?

“It has been said that the band is its own biggest critic. To you, what are the characteristics of a bad’ set of music from Umphrey’s McGee?” David O

BB- A bad set is usually characterized by lack of enthusiasm, we’re tired or not paying attention, no one’s making eye contact. Sometimes it can be hard to get pumped up after you’ve played seven nights in a row and sometimes you’ve got to get going and be professional about it and then eventually a good musical idea will come and you can grab it and that will re-energize everything. I guess that’s a natural thing that happens to a lot of bands. I think that’s where a bad set comes from, it’s not what the songs are, it’s just how they’re played.

“Brendan you always somewhat jokingly said you want to be successful enough playing music to have health insurance, I have also heard it said you want to just get better and better gear. The for mentioned things have and are happening I am sure. So, what do you have your sights set on now, in terms of UM musical milestones, personal musical aspirations, or more specifically, venues, collaborations, etc.?” Kate M

BB- Wow. I guess the first goal with success would be to sustain this and not to have to get a real job and have this to be our job for a long as we want it to be. That’s our main goal and then secondary to that would be still creating and writing good music. I don’t know if we have yet, we’re getting around to it.

Have you noticed a gradual progression? Does it come in waves?

BB- No, we’ve been on a slow 2% incline from the beginning. It’ll be ten years in two months and when I look back on it, there may have been a few jumps but if there was a jump, there were two steps back the next day. So it’s been slow and steady.

You mentioned day jobs, “At what point did you know this was your career?” Ryan S

BB- I don’t know, that’s a good question. When we moved to Chicago and we were doing it full time. Right when Mike Mirro graduated from Notre Dame, we all said, “Screw it, let’s try it.” And we might have gone a year at that point where none of us were doing other jobs. I didn’t know if I could call it a career but it was what I was doing. So I’d say about 2001, right when we made the move.

Do you get a thrill when filling a forms that ask for your job and you write musician?

BB- You know just recently I was trying to get an apartment and two places turned me down because I was a musician. I have a self-conscious thing about it, I guess I don’t have it as much anymore. A few years ago someone would ask, “What do you do?” It’s like, “Oh I play in a band but it’s the stupidest band name ever.” So you try to explain and people are like, “What the hell is that?” And then, “Oh you’re a jambandokay, come on.”

But I guess just recently I’ve come to realize we have 15 employees and everybody’s on health insurance and everything.

Does having 15 employees carry added pressure and should it?

BB- Well it’s a necessary evil. If you want to keep growing you’re going to have to keep bringing people on. The advice that I’ve been given is try to keep it as small as possible. But for us, our manager went to college with us, our sound guy went to college with us, our light guy went to grade school with me. We’re all good friends, so it’s not like we’re hiring a bunch of random people. So I think the pressure is felt by everybody. Vince, our manager, feels it just as much as Joel on keyboards. People have the same at stake.

“When was the last time you were nervous on-stage or before a show?” Kevin M

BB- Soundstage, the Soundstage taping but that was for PBS.

How about before then?

BB- I only get nervous if there’s nobody there. If it’s like super crowded, I’m really excited. So I did an open mike night with a friend of mine Michelle on a Monday night in Chicago and there were like 15 people in the room and I was terrified. But 1500 people, I wouldn’t have a problem. I don’t know why that is.

“What was your first concert?” Ryan S

BB- Paul Simon, Graceland tour. And it was bad ass.

“What was it like opening for Dave Matthews Band? Was there any banter between bands backstage?”

BB- I didn’t know what to expect and I have nothing but really good things to say. They treated us better than we deserved.

It was really great. That was something where I could finally tell my parents and they got it, “Oh, I’ve heard of the Dave Matthews Band, you must be doing something right.” They were really cool to us, giving us a lot of compliments and hanging out in catering talking to us. They were very normal and Carter Beauford said some really nice things. I asked Carter if we could be the full time opening band because the catering was like the best food I’d ever had I my life.

Dave said some really nice things too, which kind of gives you a little confidence booster when you’re going to go out and play to an empty shed. He’d come out and talk to us right before the shows, give us a little pep talk and the last few days he was making fun of me because I was wearing my glasses. He said I looked liked David Cross, the guy from Mr. Show.

Since you mentioned your glasses, here’s one. “My question: umph fans know that when you wear your glasses it’s always going to be the “heat.” Is this intentional, a hint you drop to the superfans to hang onto our butts? Or simply coincidence?” Jon A

BB- I’ve never once thought about, so why don’t we do ne experiment. The next time we do two nights I’ll wear glasses one night and we’ll see which show sucks.

Is there a reason why you wear glasses on a given night?

BB- Sometimes it’s just easier not to worry about it and sometimes when it’s a real smoky room wearing contact lenses get irritating.

Ideally, would you only perform in non-smoking rooms?

BB- Yeah, for our health in the long term. Joel has really bad allergies and it really fucks with them. From the concertgoer experience I’d like the option to smoke but I’m not going to the concert. I have to be there every night, so sorry if you smoke, I guess. I’m trying to quit myself so it’s good for me.

“Who comes up with your set lists? Do you guys rotate every night or does one band member usually pick them?” William L

BB- Usually what happens is we’ll get a list printed up of the last two times we were in a town and that will kind of be laying around and between Jake, Joel, me and Ryan the four of us will rotate it. So we’ll leave a list out and people can chime in but usually one of the four of us will spearhead it and if someone’s done it three or four times a row, then they won’t feel like doing it and they’ll pass it along to somebody else. It’s never just one person.

If you were to look at a set list would have a good sense as to which band member wrote it?

BB- Yes, definitely.

How would you characterize your various approaches?

BB- It’s hard to verbalize but I can just tell. Joel has a tendency to try and really go out of left field and kind of force a sandwich of some kind with things that we’ve never normally put together. I guess I’d be more conservative in terms of what would be a good opener, what would be a good closer, would be a good encore and the middle stuff will flesh itself out.

What about Jake?

BB- He’s more into the written “Stewarts,” the written chord progression chart things. So if there’s one that was heavy with that it would be on that.

“I own the New year’s DVD that UM did in 2004. I was wondering if they have any plans to do a full show concert DVD?” Michael D

BB- Yes we plan on doing it. Right now we wanted to get the live album out and now we’re working on getting a new studio album out and once that happens I’m sure we’ll talk about another concert video but right now the priority is on the studio album.

“This may be self evident but how come Ryan does not sing?” Salem K

BB- He has this weird sense of vocal pitch. For the last ten years he’s claimed he can’t sing but I know he can sing a unison, he just can’t sing a harmony. He can sing along with somebody note for note but if you ask him to do a harmony, he’s gone. He’s embarrassed and doesn’t want to do it but I think it’s great whenever he does.

“I often see you in shirts with The Store’ on it. Is there an office there, or is it just a store?” Eric M

BB- It’s a bar. One of my friend Kevin Kostelecky owns the bar and without his help I’d be shirtless. But he’s one of the guys I started the charity with (USTORM) and there is an office at the store, that’s the charity’s office.

“How does it feel to play Verizon Wireless Music Center (Formally Deer Creek) in Indianapolis, when years ago, the band would play for free at a campground before the Phish Shows. Did you honestly envision this would ever happen?” Kelly B

BB- No. Not to get all corny on you but I remember at one point thinking how really blessed we felt. From having to play for free because no one would listen to us otherwise, to then getting paid and fed well and getting to play in there. When I was I high school and college, I’d seen there so many concerts there that it was really special, that and Red Rocks.

“When all is said and done and you guys are old men reflecting back on your musical career, what do you want your legacy to be?” Chris L

BB- I don’t care about the legacy. Ten years from now the main goal for us is still be a band, still doing this, still writing, still playing live. We even talked about this a couple weeks ago. Hopefully we can still be doing this when we’re all 40 years old. As for legacy, I don’t really care what people think, I just don’t want to get a real job.

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