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Published: 2009/01/14
by Randy Ray

The Mantis Monologues: Jake Cinninger (Part I of III with Umphreys McGee)

Confidence. That’s a tricky word, and it can often lead a band astray if the music doesn’t match the bravado. If confidence was all one needed, Motley Crld rule the planet. Alas, for better or worse, their brand of metal does not. In our corner of the jam world, Umphrey’s McGee continues into their second decade of inspired improvisation with a carefully crafted, passionate mixture of pop, prog rock, and jam gems on their landmark new record, Mantis. Released in a unique manner in which the amount of pre-orders triggered different levels of rare and unreleased material, the Chicago band proves innovative and filled withthat word_confidence_ on a tight ten-song, 54-minute work. The title references the Greek term for prophet and, as it is being released on January 20, on the presidential inauguration of Chicago’s Barack Obama, feels distinctly appropriate. begins its three-part series on the album and the band with a conversation featuring guitarist/vocalist Jake Cinninger. Long considered one of the premier guitarists on the rock scene, he is also a gifted studio craftsman, who meticulously records numerous guitar tracks for future use. For example, one simple riff appearing at the commencement of a Mantis track dates back to 1995. Another passage circles the opening track, metamorphosized into a classic bit of Umphrey’s pop wedded to a strong set of lyrics and vocals from Brendan Bayliss. Cinninger talks about Mantis, the origins of the release of additional content during the pre-order phase, their mid-career box set,’ and his humble musings on all things music, which are laced with an easy confidence.

RR: Mantis is being presented to the public in a unique manner for the band. Let’s begin with the evolution of the album and the way it is being released.

JC: Yeahsort of why we decided to take this route? Dealing with so many artists trying to make some sort of splash just to be heard, we’re kind of wallowing with so many people trying to reach the same goal. A couple of years ago, we started to talking with a guy named Syd Schwartz who worked with EMI, and he was telling us about the state of the record industry and to hold on to basically where we have everything under our name. We don’t really need to sell out to a big label to get our point across. Let’s use some of this guy’s knowledge about the record industry. He came up with some cool new aspects to try to get our fans even more locked in to what we’re doing.

What would you want from a band like say Pink Floyd, or The Beatles, if they were your favorite band? What would you want more of? Questions like thatthe making of some of our favorite music. Them chattering about things like John saying, “We should add a chorus here on “Hey Jude,” or somethingalong the lines of that. We thought: let’s put ourselves in the fan’s perspective, maybe try to forge a path or some sort of new direction on how we could turn people on, especially people who have been fans for the last ten years. What could we do new for people that have spent a lot of their own time and money and whatnot getting to know us over the last ten years? It’s kind of like letting your box set go 20 years before you should do it. It’s almost like looking at it backwards. Why not let it all go? On top of the record, that’s why the box set is a cool idea, and all of this unlocking of different phases as the more people jump onit is an incentive tool.

Like anything, just to keep doing what we do as a business afloat, we have to think of new ways where everyone feels like they are a part of it, and we can still move along and do this thing. It’s economically rough for everyone. We just want to be able to play music for the next 25 years, and that’s what this record represents. We are really now in a more serious realm of our personal musical endeavors. We really feel like “WOW, we can do this as a band,” and this record shows our self-esteem in the studio a little bit more. Because you know, putting out a record like thisthis is all about, really at the end of the day, impressing ourselves. When we pop this thing in, what does it make us feel like? Then, we’ll think about giving it away to the fans. That’s how we sat on it for a long time, made it exactly the way we wanted it, and now we’re finally up to the release date.

RR: Umphrey’s McGee have been improvising in sections of their shows for years in sequences called “Jimmy Stewart.” Some of these improvisational passages have been released on various compilations. You also use these fragments for compositions. Did any of the songs on Mantis come from prior live experimentation?

JC: Yeah. The one thing we’re really good about when we’re trying to log all of these riffs and ideas is that we keep them all together. We make volumes of CDs. Like we’ll have three discs filled with a verse here, a chorus there, maybe a complete song here and there, and we compile and house it all on three CDs so we can walk around with all of our ideas that we are trying to put together for a new record. Some of them might be from a live setting. A lot of the time, we find our best stuff is when we’re sitting at home writing, and we can really dwell on a verse progression, a chorus, or a whole song. If someone can spend three or fours days just tweaking something, that’s generally what ends up as studio material for a new record. It is stuff that we can all sit on for a while, tweak, and say, “You knowwe should speed this up a bit. We should change the key because we want [Brendan] Bayliss to sing a little higher so we can push a little harder.”

All of these things come into reasoning. We do take from “Jimmy Stewarts,” but I would say that’s only 10-15% of the time. Like a newer song that we’ve been playing “The Floor”a lot of that is lifted right out of “Jimmy Stewart.” It’s definitely nice to not really have a specific formula. When we’re coming across a great verse, we know we have to find a great chorus, and usually it’s kind of cool that a chorus will be written three months after a verse progression. The idea of logging a ton of little riffs“Legos” as we always used to sayand really finding what works together is the idea that you have to dissolve all your creations to create a better, brighter picture at the end of the day.

RR: Other than the fact that most of these songs have never been played live before [Author’s Note: “Made to Measure” was debuted on 12/30/08], describe the songwriting objectives for the recording of Mantis.

JC: I think it retains our classic Umphrey’s McGee sound, which is nice. It also gets back a little bit to the Anchor Drops formula. There is a little bit more of a progressive edge.

The idea is, if you’re really listening to a lot of the changes that are going on, it is a really simple rock format. It is almost on a Beatles-type chord progression sometimes. There are riffs here and there, but to make these beautiful vocal melodies really happen, the structure, the musical underbelly, has to be simple and wide open and epic sounding. In order for Bayliss to come in and put a sweet, clear vocal line over the top, a lot of the time, the music is created first so he can have time to think of what melody would be good enough to float over this progression.

RR: And the decision was to let the material rest in the studio before playing it live?

JC: Yeah, it leads into the way we’re releasing the record. It felt like the way bands used to do it in the 1970s. They would go hide away for a couple of years. Not necessarily that we’re hiding away because we’re touring like crazy, but as far as our artistic studio realm, we hid away for a couple of years, and played it for a couple of our close friends. We would watch their reactions, and gauge outside of the box a little bit by that, but it’s totally kept inside of the picture.

We wanted to make it feel like going to see a band in the 70s when they would come into your town, and they were from England, per se. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway [1975 Genesis double album] comes to your town, and you might not have heard it yet. I guess we wanted to feel that ourselves, too, along with the fans. Next week, we’re going to be playing most of the material live. [January 19 at the Vic Theatre in Chicago] It is really exciting for us and hopefully, it is for our fans, too.

Also, what’s cool is that revisiting this music tends to break open new jam territories. The idea is that I want to take each one of these songs on Mantis, and we can “Jimmy Stewart” out these sections; find two or three little bits where we can go off into left field. That makes it more special for the fans. They want four sides to every story. They watch every little twist and turn that we make. If we just played the music on Mantis as is, and really didn’t do anything with it as far as in the jam world, we’d be selling ourselves and our fans short.

RR: Last year whenever I saw Umphrey’s, segues were seamless, and improvisation was inspired. Now, you’ve got new material to shake up that perfection for a while.

JC: It’s cool. Not only is Mantis 54 minutes of fresh music, but when you really put it in terms of a live setting, that’s probably over two hours where we can manifest inside all of these songs. It’s like putting new little time capsules of “Stewarts” inside all of these new, little babies. (laughter)

RR: We have spoken quite a bit in the past about our mutual love of prog rock. When I listen to the title track on the new album, which is an 11-minute multi-sectioned song, I think of that classic 70s era plus your comment about the months between the songwriting of a verse progression and a chorus.

JC: Yeah, it definitely has a symphonic feel to it. I really always felt that progressive rock harkens back to the idea of a six- to four-piece band trying to emulate what it would be to be a symphony in a sense. I tend to think of music as a 64-piece score sheet going by. For example, Joel [Cummins, keyboards] will play the bassoon part. You think of all the timbres of an orchestra and all of the timbres that a rock band can produce and it’s about equal with all of the technology. We tend to write, and I tend to think of the music passing by like that. Everyone has a part, and as long as we are in tune, it should probably work. (laughter) If something doesn’t sound good, we’ll stop and fix it.

A song like “Mantis” is a very time-consuming process. We’ll have a version of it, and we’ll be all six playing it down in the studio, through the forms, and we’ll say, “This isn’t feeling right,” and we’ll go back to the drawing board. A month later, it’s reworked. We’ve chopped away measures. We’ve maybe stretched out a section to make it more epic and emotional. There was one point when “Mantis” was probably 16, 17 minutes. There was a point where when is this too much? It missed the point. I think with a song like that, that is as short as that could have been. A song like that is a lot of sacrifice and what’s the best idea here. We could go in a million different directions here. At the end of the day, great songwriting is based on confidence: “This is it.” And it’s all about convincing everyone else. If it’s three against three, (laughs) maybe it will take longer to work out, but generally we are very liberal and democratic with our songwriting process.

Kris [Myers, drums] will say something like “You knowthis isn’t feeling right. We should probably keep it in 4/4 common time, rather than screwing with the time signature.” A lot of that came out of the record. There’s quite a bit of odd meters on the record, but it doesn’t feel like it’s slipping out of time too much. We really triedKris, especiallyto make a conscious effort to keep a lot of this music feeling like it had a forward pulse. That’s the cool thing. I’ll have a little bit of information, I’ll bring it to the band, and everyone gets to put their fingers into the pie and kneed it into what each member wants to play. That’s what makes the process of a song like “Mantis” very time-consuming and really rewardingto have the CD in my hand, and pop it in and say, “O.K. that’s what it is, and three years ago, that’s not what I had in my head.” (laughter) Which is a great evolution.

RR: You mentioned earlier that Umphrey’s had returned to some of the feel of Anchor Drops, and that makes me think of the new track, “Cemetery Walk”: hook, vocal harmonies, great chorus, and a couple of different yet interesting guitar solos. There’s a bit of distortion on the initial solo, and then the slide on the second.

JC: A lot of those ideas really come back to having multiple voices going on in the guitar realm in one song. It’s not so live feeling necessarily, but it is very attentive on each part rearing its ugly head like when the slide part comes in. It’s really specific, and it gets away from the rhythm guitar’s skanky, chunky sound. It’s based on doing completely different guitar sessions for each track.

For the slide part, I used a little tiny Fender amp that was 30 years old, turned it on 10, with a couple of good microphones in front of it, and I used an old guitar which I had never played slide on before. It seemed to work just perfect.

On the other stuff, I used my regular rig. There’s a lot of thought going into which guitar is going to work best on the part. Actually, when the song’s already done, it’s time for me to go in and lay down my guitar parts, just by myself. A lot of these parts manifest in the moment of tracking the guitar. A lot of things change in the moment of tracking the guitar parts. Mind you, there’s already scratch guitar parts down; I’m just filling in my final tweaks, and this is the be all/end all guitar track. I have my homework on paperthe whole song charted outand little notes where I want to put solo leads or guitar flourishes. I can map everything out on a piece of paper, have a go-to if I get bogged down, a chart I can look it, a little bit of direction, where maybe three nights prior, I was sitting in the basement listening to it, ends up on the paper, and that ends up on the recording. There’s definitely a brainstorming rough draft/final draft process to the music.

RR: What about the specific architecture of the first solo on “Cemetery Walk?”

JC: It starts with a solo, a slide thing that reoccurs later in the song. That same tone, obviously, happens at the beginning and the end. In the middle, it’s my regular live rig, and it’s a totally different guitar. It really goes back to Steve Howe [Yes guitarist] and “Yours Is No Disgrace,” when he talked about his guitar containing all of these pictures with of these different songs: one is like a jazz sound, and then he’s got a Chet Atkins sound, and then he’s got an overdriven sound. A song like that really shows off what you can get away with in the studio with multiple guitar sounds37 years ago. (laughs)

RR: Absolutely. I hear some of that on the guitar solo on “Turn & Run”patient, deliberate and measured, before cutting loose at the coda.

JC: Really when it was time to go in and track a lot of these solos, I was really trying to muster up the vibe of nailing these solos live, and not really having to punch in a bunch of times. I really forced the creative element on all of the solos on the record just because I wanted it to feel like a live take. It’s got to feel like hopefully, the way that Miles Davis would walk into a solo, not even comparing, but with a looseness and a rawness and a confidence and definitely like a guided path where you don’t know what dips and turns, and what stones and sticks you’ll step on. I will do 20 passes of guitar solos, and we’ll painstakingly go through each one of them, and “you know what? That number 17’s the one,” and we’ll go with it. Luckily, we’re able to log x-amount of long solos like that (laughs) so it’s really hard to just decide on one.

RR: I also always love when a guitarist inserts parts in the background mix of a song where one really needs to listen closely on the headphones to hear it. I noticed this on the use of the wah wah pedal underneath the vocal harmonies on “Spires.”

JC: Oh, yeah. I think so. I should almost go and pop it in real quick. Oh, yeah! It’s actually a phaser and a wah, and I’m pumping the wah through it: wah wah wah, wah wah. Yeah. Yeah. And that ending? Bayliss had a nice, simple chord progression and it sparked something: “man, you know what would really be cool? Pay a little Pet Sounds homage with the vocals,” and I came up with a small, little vocal arrangement with the oohs on the very end there. It really hit home. There was no solo happening. We didn’t want to solo, but we wanted something else that didn’t sound so Umphrey’s, maybe, and that’s where that little Brian Wilson tribute happened at the end. (laughs)

RR: “Spires” is a long track, but the basic construction of the song is rather simple.

JC: Yeah, it is. The intro riff, the big heavy riff, was from a 4-track recording that I think I did in 1995. It was something that I had years ago, and almost sounds like an old grunge riff off an old grunge record. It really, probably, (laughs) was manifested out of that tone.

RR: Mantis has a lot of qualities like that where the elements are coming from different places, but the band appears to work as a collective unit, focused as one entity in collaboration throughout the songs.

JC: Yeah, exactly. It’s definitely an arrangement thing. Bayliss will have a song, or I’ll have something almost completely done, but the idea is that we go in, and anything can be changed for any particular reasonjust try to keep those floodgates wide open. It also makes everyone feel very involved and a part of it because you know what? These six guys are going to be slaving out these songs for the next 20 years. Everyone wants to be playing what they feel good about.

RR: “Made to Measure” comes from something you previously wrote, right?

JC: It was a song that I had called “Doghead Blues,” and I wrote it in my old studio in Michigan. I had it on 4-track, and there’s a dog barking in the background from outside, and I wrote these funny lyrics about a dog being penned up in a cage. That reflected the music completely. It was written on piano. Actually, in the studio, I’m not even playing guitar on the song. I’m playing grand piano. Joel’s playing the tack piano, which have the fast arpeggios. Bayliss is playing a small Fender amp. We cut that one live in the room because we wanted that sort of bleedy, Beatley vibe, like when the microphones are bleeding into everything else. That’s one of the only tracks where we’re actually sitting in the same room, and laying the music take in one shot.

[“Made to Measure”] is one of the most unlikely songs to end up as the first song to open up Mantis, I thought. (laughs) It just seemed to work. It was very much like a radio cut. It was like 2 minutes and 50 seconds, and the formula was there for it. It was such a simple song. It’s very simple and harkens back to the old 60s pop rock that was coming out_Revolver_, the Rubber Soul kind of sound.

I guess it was just like fulfilling that fantasy of having a track that sounded very Revolverish, you know? (laughs) It comes back to this album: we really had to please ourselves first before we could even let this stuff go. A good record is based on pleasing yourself, and fulfilling cool little fantasies like that in the sonic realm.

RR: And Brendan still writes most of the lyrics?

JC: Yeah. Like that song, I give him the music, and he already has something he can listen to, where he can sort of think up the melodies and what can go along with it, and we bring it back into a rehearsal mode, and then try to rework it a bit. There’s definitely all of those different drafts before it’s a finished product.

- Stay tuned for more with Cinninger regarding the 2008 New Year’s Eve run, new songs for their next record, the release of a new album in 2009 from his side project, Ali Baba’s Tahini, and our conversation about Mantis and Umphrey’s McGee with Brendan Bayliss in an expanded Part II coming to the site in February. In March, Part III features conversations with other Umphrey’s McGee band members, as well as some final comments from the guitarists about how the band has managed to survive and thrive on the road as they continue into their second decade of creating inspired improvisation.

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