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Published: 2009/02/22
by Randy Ray

The Mantis Monologues: Brendan Bayliss

With some artistic license regarding the use of the word “Monologues,” Jambands.com continues its series with the members of Umphrey’s McGee as they discuss the new Mantis album, its recording process, and life on and off the road during the second decade of the Chicago jamband. Part II features guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss, who has always proved to be not only a perfect foil to his guitarist counterpart, Jake Cinninger, featured in Part I of our series, but an engaging lyricist and musician who helps unite the band and adds a resonating definition to its often exhilarating music. Bayliss is also candid and honest without ever losing the grounded sense of humor that appears to define his character as much as his skills as an expert artistic craftsman.

RR: How did the songwriting process change, if at all, and how much live experimentation ended up in the songs recorded for Mantis?

BB: I know that there are two songs where the vocal verse is based off some improvisational stuff that we’ve done. One of them is from an improv from three years ago, and other one is from two years ago. We just basically kept the same progression and the same melody that I was singing in the improv, and fine-tuned the lyrics.

One thing that we did was to try to be more inclusive, so we sat down and started writing with everybody. We kind of had this process that we would try everybody’s ideas before we said no to them. In the past, I think maybe when you’re crafting something, you feel like you want to hold on to it tightly because it’s your idea, and you’re less willing to bend, and because of that, you say no to suggestions that might be really good. We went into it saying, “Let’s try every suggestion before we say no.” And that was a good way to bring other people into it, if a song was pretty much finished.

For the most part, nine of the ten tracks I assumed the lyric role, and we’d write the forms together, and I would take everything home, and I was able to record everything on ProTools so I could do harmonies and layers and stuff, and show them to the guys later. It evolved to where I was taking on a vocal role, Jake was taking more of the guitar role, and we were playing more with our strengths, I think, this time around, more than we have in the past.

RR: At times while listening to Mantis, I noticed patterns within the lyrical content. There are lines about truth, facts, cause and consequences, and yes, sometimes a serious tone of prophecy. I know it may all be unrelated, but I was wondering if you thought there was a consistent theme throughout the songs.

BB: Well, there are definitely at least three that I can think of that are kind of about the same thing. I’ve learned lately that the more I’ve explained what I think the song is about, the more it kind of ruins it for other people. But there is definitely some cohesiveness to three of them that are kind of about the same thing.

“Mantis” is the centerpiece to the whole album. We called the album Mantis, so that way everyone would have to hear the song at least once. If you get an album, more than likely you listen to the title track, and we figured it being a twelve-minute song, maybe people would listen to it, so we called the album that. That song, in particularI thought the music sounded very grandiose, and I wanted the subject to be as lofty. I was trying to talk about a higher power, and the concept of God, and I realized that there’s a lot of songs out there where people talk about God, or whatever it is, and it comes off as really cheesy, hokey, and preachy. I wanted to see if I could write about the subject without being cheesy, preachy, or hokey.

The major theme, I guess, running through is that it’s coming around to the tenth anniversary of the band, we’ve done all of this stuff together, we believe in what we’re doing, and we’re rallying together to pull each other’s heads out of our asses and make this thing work.

RR: Of course, and each individual looks at lyrical content differently. I see certain elements in various songs about liesthe pursuit of truth and the bullshit factor. It sort of ties in with what you said about the fact that Umphrey’s McGee are into its second decade as a band, and the confidence level is very strong.

BB: I hope so, yeah. We’re trying. Yeah. I didn’t really sit down and say, “I want to write about this.” This is all kind of a reflex.

RR: We’ve spoken in the past about the fact that you don’t want to get a regular job, and in a way, you have a very craftsmanlike, blue-collar attitude about your work in Umphrey’s. In the end, the band is a job for you, and we all reap the benefits from that work. With Mantis, I can see how the band has learned a lot of lessons over time, incorporating these skills into a solid body of work that ties everything together that you’ve done in the past. I suppose the tag that Umphrey’s McGee is a technically proficient proj rock/jamband that doesn’t write solid songs should be permanently out the window by now, right?

BB: Yeah, for this one, honestly, I don’t think any one of us was thinking about what other people thought. I think, after all these years, you put out an album, and you’ve got expectations, and blah blah blah, people tell you this, so you think this is happening, and at the end of the day, it’s another day. Shit doesn’t change; it’s just the same thing, so we went into this saying, “Let’s make this for ourselves.” We want to sit down and enjoy it. We’ve been trying to be more song-oriented on this one. I know “Mantis” is twelve minutes, but I still think it’s a cohesive and concise song. I don’t know if that has anything to do with the question.

RR: (laughs) That’s all right. I should stay out of the way, and just let you riff. How did you wipe away expectations, and go into the studio to satisfy your own needs? In Part I, Jake had mentioned a return to the Anchor Drops prog rock, as well.

BB: Well, honestly, we did talk about wanting to be more progressive, and be more rock, and come back to that. We had that going with Anchor Drops. Outside circumstances and influences and everything, I think with Safety in Numbers, there was just a lot of “woe is me, my life is miserable, acoustic set.” O.K.we beat that thing to death. That horse is completely beaten, so let’s get back to the path that we were on. We were consciously trying to craft something more progressive, something that we would enjoy listening to, and would be fun to play, too.

RR: I enjoyed Safety in Numbers because it captured a specific moment in time in the band’s history. Would you say that Mantis captures another distinct moment in time from 2007, 2008, and hopefully, 2009?

BB: Yeah. Hopefully, 2009. (laughter) To be honest, I’m ready to start the next thing, now, even though this just came out. The last two years, it has been all we’ve been working on, and we haven’t had a whole lot of time to do anything but that and tour. We’d get a week off, go in for a couple of days and try to finish the songs in the studio.

I think it’s a good idea of where we’re at, but I also think it’s a good indicator of where we’re goingmore of the direction we wanted to years ago, but we got veered off course by life, in general. I think we’re back towards the direction we wanted. We don’t talk too much about it; it kind of just happens, you know?

RR: Which is how people like me come in and mess everything up by getting you to acknowledge things. (laughter) What elements of that “moving forward back to the direction we wanted” idea are you seeking in new material that you are writing?

BB: You’re not messing anything up. We’ve already talked about the next session we want to do, and we’re talking about going in a completely different direction, going to the Dominican Republic for two weeks, and doing a really stripped-down recording. Our sound guy’s [Kevin Browning] dad has a place down there, and it’s very open. There are a couple rooms that don’t have walls on either side, and you can hear the waves crashing in. We’ve talked about going down there for two weeks with basically nothing as far as songs, and trying to write and record there, and we can actually hear the wind, and hear the outside elements. Hopefully, we’re going to do it because that would be a very stress-free way of going into the studio. We’ve talked about, hopefully, next January because I think we’re going to push this record for a year, and tour rigorously behind it. The next one we’re trying to do something totally different.

RR: Getting back to 2009, how exciting is it to have so much new material to integrate into your setlists, and what is the process of that rehearsal integration?

BB: At our first practice, it was just the four guys who are going to sing. I have a small studio in my apartment, and we met in there, sat around, divvied up vocal parts, worked
on harmonies, started playing, and there was a genuine sense of excitement that we haven’t had in a while. It’s really, really very fun. We have been sitting on this for two years, and when we started playing, everyone had this little kid kind of glow about them. It was likethis is a bad analogy, butwe just got a gift card to Toys R Us. Everyone was really excited about it. We haven’t had anything like this where we could technically walk out and play a set of new stuff. It is like breathing new life into everything. Right now, we’re giddy like little school kids. It’s just finally fucking here. (laughter)

RR: Jake mentioned that now Umphrey’s has material where he’s looking forward to inserting “Jimmy Stewart”s into these little tiny babies that you made. (laughter) So you’ve got this whole infant thing going on.

BB: Uh huh. Yeah, I haven’t even thoughtthere’s a few times when I was listening to them, where I thought, “This will be great live. We can stretch it out.” There’s a lot of room, I think, in most of the songs to insert an improv and see what happens. It’s funny because maybe these babies will give birth to little babies, you know? We’ll be cloning.

RR: When Umphrey’s McGee began touring in 2008, the band was playing a new cover song almost at every show. I remember the three-night Fillmore run in San Francisco that I saw, and each cover seemed to symbolize that night’s show. Were those covers chosen as a way to inject excitement into the band at that time in 2008?

BB: Yeah, it totally is. That was weird because I remember it was the first tour of last year that we did that and we had been in the studio doing this Mantis stuff. We had just come off two weeks of working on new songs, but we weren’t able to use any of it. It was really frustrating. “Ah, _fuck_we’re starting the year out, we have all of this new stuff, we can’t use it, and we’re kind of going right back in where we left off with no new material for the people who come to see us all the time.” It’s kind of a cop out. It’s a cheap, lazy way to do it like “Let’s have something new every night for this tour.” It got us pumped up. You know, when you play something for the first time, you don’t know it. You get nervous excitement like “Oh, I hope I get it; or, I hope the guy to the left of me gets it; or, I hope I don’t fuck it up for everyone.” It’s nervous energy that gives you a little jolt of life to spice it up.

RR: Speaking of spicing things up, Umphrey’s is known for their New Year’s Eve run of shows, and I recently saw the rehearsal video of you and Jake working with Stanley Jordan who was a guest during the 2008 run.

BB: Yeah, Stanley Jordan. My older brother got me Standards, Volume 1 when I was a sophomore in high school. He said, “This guy. Listen to this guy.” I couldn’t believe it. I remember the sense of wonderment the first time that I got it. I thought, “Wowthis is one person? And he’s doing all of this?” He was absolutely limitless. I just remember being floored by it. He’s been my favorite guitar player since then, in high school. I can’t get over it.

When we were throwing out ideas, I didn’t think it would stick, you know? For me, selfishly, I just wanted to meet the guy and play with him. When he wanted to do itthat whole day, I couldn’t sleep the night before. I woke up and I was giddy. It was unreal. I remember at one point when he was playing on stage, I started to well up in my eyes, and I thought, “O.K.don’t start crying when you’re on stage. Be a man. Pretend like you don’t care.” It was really powerful, and I just felt really, really, really blessed. “I cannot believe I’m standing on stage with my favorite guitar player of all time.” It was unreal.

RR: Any other special memories of guests and performances from that NYE run?

BB: Well, the gospel choirI remember we were nervous, and I’m sure they were, too. We met fifteen minutes before we went on stage, and ran through everything once. To be honest, I thought: “It’s a gospel choir so we can leave this in the hands of God.” (laughter) I would like to think that He is not going to let them blow this because He is being represented very well. I just remember feeling like the presence of God in the room. Once they started singing, there was a wave that hit, and I remember the crowd threw it right back, and it exploded, and the gospel choir immediately lit up with smiles.

It was a really pure moment where I think I pulled a muscle on my face. I think everyone in the room got IT for a few minutes. We were all on the same page on the same team. It was really powerful.

RR: You have a different collaborative project going on this year, as well. Can you describe your relationship with Jeff Austin, and your upcoming work together?

BB: Yeah, he and I met just through touring. We had been on the same bills, and the same catering rooms at festivals and everything, and we had made acquaintances. The long and short of it is that he got a divorce within a month of me. He and I, basically, were going through the same thing at the exact same time. It was really weird because he would call me from the road, and I would call him, and we just had questions about what was going on, and we couldn’t really talk to other people about it in the same way. No one else can really understand something like that unless you’re going through it. He and I just started talking about it, and became close friends through that. We said, “We should write some songs about thisat least get something good out of it.”

I flew out there [Colorado] the first time to see if we’d get along and work. The first night, I got really drunk and threw up in his bathroom. We didn’t get anything done, but we figured out that we could hang out. We just started writing, and over the last few years, we’ve written 15 songs between the two of us. We finally said, “Let’s just record this thing, and get it done because we’re just going to sit around and talk about it forever until we actually book time and do it.”

I, initially, wanted it to be just Jeff and I. I already have a band thing going on. He really wanted to have drums and bass. He wanted to have a band behind it. I said, “As long as it’s going to get it done, whatever makes you happy to get it done.” He was totally right. Once we got into the setting and hearing the songs with drums and everything behind it, it made it really real for the first time.

I think we’re pretty much done. In January, I went out there, and we went into the studio to make sure there’s nothing glaring that is totally standing out that needs to be fixed. It’s Cody Dickinson [North Mississippi Allstars] on drums, Eric Thorin on bass, and Nick Forester is on auxiliary, everything else. We have 15 songs, and I think we’re going to try to put it out at the end of the summer.

RR: Did you collaborate, or did you each come together with your own set of songs?

BB: It’s interesting. There are three or four that I wrote, there are three or four that he wrote, and the rest we wrote together. He came out to Chicago twice. I went out to Colorado twice. He would have a chord progression, and we would start up. I had never really written for anything other than Umphrey’s before this. It was refreshing. We sat down, and I said, “O.K.we’re going to do this together. We need to have a gaydar on. If I wrote a lyric that you think is gay, you’ve got to tell me because I don’t want you to be polite because you don’t want to hurt my feelings, and you just use it.”

RR: Not that there’s anything wrong with gay lyrics.

BB: No. No. No. No. It was just funny to be like “Let’s totally be honest, and if you don’t like something, let’s not use it.” We actually sat around and started bouncing stuff together and we’ve written a couple songs together that I think are really solid. I don’t know if people are going to like it, but I do.

RR: I would imagine you have the same sort of gaydar approachperhaps, too much sowith the member of Umphrey’s when you share that material?

BB: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I sent the lyrics sheet for Mantis to the whole band and said, “All right, everybody, turn on your gaydar. You won’t hurt my feelings. I just want to know what you guys think?” It’s just kind of weird because lyrics are different from chord progressions because chord progressions are not as self-exposing. It can be, I suppose, but there’s something about once you commit it to the English language. It’s very personal with lyrics. I get nervous. I say, “O.K, here they are. I’m going to leave the room, you look at it, be nice and tell me what you think, but soften the blow, please.” I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s just harder to part with lyrics.

*RR: And you’ve learned to let people have their own opinions about your lyrics? For example, earlier I referenced how I noticed consistent themes, textures, and
patterns in numerous Mantis songs, and I wondered what you thought.*

BB: How many times have you read an interview, and someone has said this song is about that? And you thought, “Oh, really? That sucks,” because you thought it was about something totally different, and when you’ve heard the song the next time, it’s tainted. It kind of closes the door for it to live in the now. Some songs can be timeless, like a Cat Stevens song. It means something to you in different points in your life. It can come back and still be important ten years later, but once the song’s explained, it kills it, it stops, and it stays at that point forever. It doesn’t evolve with youat least for me, that’s how my experiences have been if I ever read something with Axl Rose, or somebody like that who explained a song, and I think, “Ohhhthat just ruined it for me.”

RR: I completely understand that point of view. I have also had the opposite happen in interviews where I’ve recorded a musician’s specific narrative about what a song was abouttwice in person, and once over the phone until we nailed it perfectlybecause there had been so much misinterpretation about the song, and those discussions had tampered its mystique, to a degree.

BB: If something was being totally misread to a point where it was annoying me so that I would have to say something, then I guess that would totally make sense. I would then say, “O.K., look, this is really what this is about. Don’t let it get too far from the tree.”

RR: I wanted to end with a few comments about an organization that you work with that has helped numerous people. You and Jake played another Acoustic Christmas benefit gig for USTORM over the 2008 holidays, with some guests, including Jen Hartswick, who now resides in Chicago.

BB: This was the sixth time we had done it, and it was good for Jake and I to sit down and get back to basics. It’s an excuse for him to come over to my house. We’ll practice, hang out, and drink some beerjust kind of get away from everything and start over. That’s where it started, and then USTORM, this charity, started up, and it became a good thing to do right around Christmas time to raise money for kids. Two years ago, we went to a hospital, and we gave a bunch of kids a bunch of music stuff five days before Christmas, and the hospital was just elated. It’s amazing what kind of difference you can make with not that much effort. “O.K., I’m going to take this night off from Umphrey’s,” and I think we raised seven grand this year, and you know, it goes a long way. I feel very blessed, and I’m very fortunate to live in this fantasy world that I live in, and I think, at some point, you’ve got to give back if you wantyou have toit’s just common sense. If I’m this lucky to have this, the least I can do is to do this one night a year.

RR: Well, you’ve always been very self-effacing, but I have to say that we’re all pretty blessed to have you around, too.

BB: (laughs) Thanks.

RR: Your comment about “get away from everything and start over” also rings true in our current year. Is 2009 a year that has some of those attributes about starting over as a band, and as an individual musician taking everything fresh, whether it’s playing with Umphrey’s McGee, or your time spent with Jeff Austin?

BB: Yes. Definitely. I feel cautiously optimistic right now. We have Barack Obama in. The last eight years have been terrible. Last year sucked for a lot of people. I felt like everyone was thinking, “Let’s just get this year over with.” And maybe it’s something about it’s a new year and all that, but I feel really good about where the band is, where I’m at, and I haven’t been this optimistic in a long time, and I think a lot of people share that sentiment right now.

_- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com

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