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Published: 2009/04/26
by Randy Ray

The Mantis Monologues Ryan Stasik & Jake Cinninger

We conclude our four-part series on Umphrey’s McGee as Jambands.com sits down with bassist Ryan Stasik. This feature presents a view from the band’s engine room after discussions with the dual guitarist/vocalists (Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss) and the keyboardist (Joel Cummins). Indeed, Stasik has some interesting comments both from the periphery and the inner workings of the group’s complex machinations, and he’s intensely honest about his role within the overall Umphrey’s framework. We follow Stasik’s dialogue section (again, our title for the series with its vision of singular monologues begs a bit of artistic license here) with a return to a conversation with Cinninger who began the series, and fittingly puts the final touches on its conclusion.

RYAN STASIK

RR: How was the recording of Mantis different from your other studio albums, other than the fact that these tracks weren’t performed live before the release?

RS: That was pretty much the main spark when we got together a couple of years ago at, I believe it was, Kris’s [Myers, drummer] living room that we were using as a studio, and then actually when we went into the I.V. Lab Studios itself [in Chicago], we really just had Legos [musical concepts, riffs, and song building blocks] and some ideas that mainly Jake [Cinninger] had brought to the table, some that Joel and Jake had worked on, some that I had worked on, and some that Brendan had done by himself. We sifted through them to see what really was banging, what was clicking as a group together, and that was the beginning of the evolution of the tunes.

Obviously, we’re playing them live nowmaking up all over the two years when people went in and did overdubs. When they first started, they were really, really scratch. We probably have about six to seven other tunes that were part of that original Mantis group, but they just didn’t seem to meld with the other tunes, or they weren’t stronger, or they were just a completely different genre.

RR: How did it feel to work on material that hadn’t been tested on the road?

RS: Refreshing. It was nice to go in and have the excitement of “O.K.I really don’t know what’s going to happen.” I know, for example, the song “Made to Measure,” which was a single, Jake had worked it out a little bit on piano by himself at home, and then when he came into the studio, we recorded it live with everybody. I know that Brendan didn’t even have a part, and my section was pretty loose, so that was exciting and refreshing to be able to make up what you are going to record. It’s kind of like some bands used to do it, or Miles used to do it when they’d go in the studio and just cut it raw, and still get that effect, but still hope that it’s good.

RR: Let’s talk about your contributions to Mantis.

RS: See, it’s difficult to talk about the stuff that I brought in. A couple of the things that I brought in didn’t make the record, but there were parts wherea bunch of songsthis is how we work sometimes: we’ll sit together with a dry erase board, and talk about which songs would work with another section. There were different sections that were my ideas. Sometimes, as a bass player, it’s easier if you don’t take notes to be forgotten that your part was even a section. A lot of times with vocalists and lead guitarists, it’s easier to remember “Oh, I made this up; I made this up,” so those subjects can get touchy sometimes, and I don’t really even bring them up. I just know where I contributed and make sure it gets put in the credits.

RR: I spoke to some of the band members about their communication with you on stage. You sometimes appear to be a lead instrument, sometimes a rhythm driver, and often, not just a routine bassist holding the beat down in the engine room. How do you feel about your role on stage with Umphrey’s?

RR: Well, that’s something that definitely keeps you on your toes night to night, and that I’m anxious and eager to do each evening. I notice a lot of times in our band, our drummer, instead of the percussionist [Andy Farag], will often follow the lead guitarist, or the lead melody maker, sometimes Joel [Cummins, keyboards], whether its changing up the rhythms, or displacing the rhythm. You have six people, and people are trying to do cross rhythms with each other, I notice the drummer will sometimes do that, and that can be difficult as a bass player“well, is it my role to stay with the back beat, and keep that as a base? Or, do I want to go out there and follow that stuff, too?”

There are a lot of opportunities, a lot of choices you can make. Sometimes, it would be cool, I think, if the percussionist would follow some of those cross rhythms, and the drummer can stay, which we do sometimes on the bass, but there’s other times, too, where I like to take the reins and call the shots: “This is where we’re going. This is what we’re going to do.” We tour so much. (laughs) We play so many shows that each night it’s always different. It’s nice sometimes to sit in the back, and other times, to take the reins and take charge.

RR: You appear to have quite a bit of confidence on stage. How do you maintain your composure and focus knowing that the musical changes occur so quickly?

RS: I think you just have to. (laughs) I’ve always thought that many bandsespecially improvisational bandsif the bass player and drummer are not confident and loose, then it’s really hard for everything else to really develop into something that’s solid. I’m not saying I’m the one who is in charge of it being a good or bad show, but I know that when the bass and drums are really moving the room, I think it really gives the ability for the melody makers, or the keyboardist and the guitarists, to really take it outside of the box to where they want to, and it still works.

RR: When you’re keying off Joel, for example, on stage, are you listening for certain things, or something that you can add into his contribution?

RS: I have Joel heavily in my mix in my ears. He’s kind of far away and I can’t see his actual fingers. Sometimes, when you have the in-your-ear monitors, those frequencies can get really lost with loud guitars. I have everything in thereincluding percussion, bass, and drums. I’m paying attention to him a lot of the time. A lot of the time, we double up on things. A lot of the time, we’ll change the chord progressions ourselves while the guitar players will double up in some dueling aspect. We play a lot of playing off of each other’ roles.

We also have a tune where I go up in the higher registers and keep a repetitive chordal groove going, and [Joel] plays the bass on the Moog. We try to stay out of each other’s way sometimes, and we also try to do stuff in unison to make it more powerful, as well.

RR: What’s your response to the 10-song 54-minute Mantis record once Umphrey’s McGee finally got a chance to play the new material on the road?

RS: Absolutely loving the material on the road. I’m always excited to have new stuff to play, but what I’m really excited about is that we haven’t taken the time in the studio, or by ourselves, to really stretch these songs out, to see where they’re going to end up, or where they are going to evolve. We’re doing that with the live audience. I think that’s something that’s great that our fans really appreciate, and that we do, toowhere are these songs going? How are they going to take it out and make it different each night?

I’m really proud of the tunes that are on Mantis. “Mantis,” itself, we’re really, really excited about. When people are always asking, “What’s your genre? What do you guys sound like?” I feel like “unclassifiable” now because I don’t really know what else to say. I don’t really feel like it’s pinpointing what we’re trying to be. Hopefully, “Umphrey’s McGee,” eventually, but I think that Mantis is something that’s totally unique to us, and it’s still powerful in the same way.

RR: Has this maturity developed over the decade plus spanning Umphrey’s career, or do you think the band could have managed these peaks a few years back?

RS: No. I think it’s something that we’ve definitely evolved into over the years, just like anything with growth. I do think we’re a lot more patientwe could still be more patientbut a lot more confident and patient into when things are happening, we don’t always have to feel like “O.K.GO. We’ve got to go here; we’ve got to go here; we’ve got to do this; we’ve got to change this.” It’s nice to just sit around and listen and see what’s going to happen and take our time more, which is most important when you’re playing this many shows a year anyway.

RR: Younger bands head back to the riff quickly so they don’t lose the audience.

RS: Yeah, I don’t feel that we’re really doing that. I feel that the audience has been pretty loyal, and the same people for so long, that they kind of enjoy us toit’s nice to take something from nothing, and really build it up into something. I think the whole growth of a “Jazz Odyssey,” or riff is great.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Frank Zappa where “Let’s go here, and on a dime, let’s take a right turn.” We still do that stuff a lot, too, but it’s nice to have the confidence to know that with six people up there, three people can lay out, and there can still be a solid groove, or a solid riff, or a solid improvisation starting.

RR: What’s your take on the Umphrey’s style of brief multi-night runs on the road? Does it make more sense to tour this way, as opposed to the long outings of the past?

RS: Absolutely. I think the way we tour now is smart according to us. Being out on the road, regardless of the comforts of a tour bus, or a hotel room, or what noteverybody has their loved ones, or their independence, or their own bed, or something that’s important to them. Being out just long enough is good enough for us because we still can be really chummy chummy and like each other. Everybody gets sick of everything, or everybody, somehow. Not me, of course. (laughter)

RR: I remember seeing Umphrey’s at the Fillmore in February 2008, and it cracked me up because I know your reputation. You had a full beard and some fancy outfit on the first night, a Fu Manchu beard and another funky outfit on the second night, and then just a moustache and another Stasik classic outfit on the last night. I just thought, “You knowthis guy is very confident in himself.” You’re just coming out on stage, and saying, “Hey, I’m doing my thing, and I’m cool with what I’m doing.”

RS: Yeah, I’ve always been like that as far as being an individual since I wasI blame my mother for most of that stuff. I’m doing that right now. There are things that we do on the side. A couple of guys do a lot of side projects. Me and Brendan have a side project, but I’m also starting a clothing line with one of my college buddies. There’s other stuff that’s going in there, too, even from the look on stage to the playing.

RR: A consistent theme throughout these interviews is how each band member pushes the envelope, and continues to help find new areas of collective growth.

RS: Always. Always. Even after Mantis just came out, and the build up of the two and a half years that we’ve been working on it in the studio before it came out, we’ve already got a plethora of new material that we’re ready to start working on, and evolving, and building up, even though we just started playing ten songs of new material [on the road].

I don’t know if that’s just the way all of us are, or driven, or the way we like to challenge each other, or we’re just that ADD, and we get bored with everything, so it looks like we have to keep it fresh and new. It could be a little mix of both. We are definitely passionate about keeping it as good and challenging as possible for everybody.

RR: What do you see as the highlights when you look back at the band’s career, or do you stay away from those thoughts, and just move forward? If so, how has the band managed to stay fresh over the years?

RS: I think in the beginning, there was a lot more drinking involved. That was keeping it fresh, but I don’t know how fresh it was keeping the music. As it evolved, we can always hearI definitely can; I don’t know if the fans can as muchwhat people [in Umphrey’s] are listening to, what they are spinning at home, and what sort of music is influencing them to write, or to jam. It’s funny because, sometimes, some people in the band will be into hip-hop or electronica, and other people will be into Wilco and Broken Social Scene, and other people will be into death metal for a while. It’s interesting to get all those genres mixed by the six of us into some sort of stew, and then respect each other and what other people are listening to, and listen to that too, and keep the sound fresh.

RR: From my own vantage point, these completely different personalities in Umphrey’s have managed to find a unique way to express a particular vision.

RS: A lot of that is also respecting the other person on stage when they want to take the reins or the control, or the soundscape of what the next song is going to be, and going along with it, and not just going along with it for the ride, but passionately riding along with it, and trying to make it good.

RR: What about economic challenges? How has this impacted the band?

RS: Basically, things haven’t changed too much for us. Maybe, that’s just because I’m one of those bass players that doesn’t really worry about those kinds of things as much. Like Bon Jovi said, “See a million faces, we’re gonna rock them all.” We just want to do the best possible concert and best possible production we can do every time we go to a venue, whether it’s 500 people, or 3,000 people, or whether it’s an outdoor festival during the day where there are 10,000 people. I think that music is the core thing behind us that drives us. I know that other people think differently, but I’m not really thinking fiscally at the end of the nightwhat were the numbers? What were the tickets? Did we make any money? Did we lose any money? That’s just somethingto me, personallythat has never been a priority of the thinking. Obviously, we’re not hurting too badly. I think we did pretty well in these bad economic times as far as a touring band goes with our numbers, even though they were down just like everybody else from last year. We just do what we dolet’s go out and rock. You just adapt in the best possible way.

JAKE CINNINGER

And so our four-part feature runs its natural course and rejoins the river from whence it came in the beginning of our Jambands.com series with a return to some thoughts from guitarist/vocalist Jake Cinninger about various Umphrey’s McGee temporal highlights, and a look towards their future as they continue on the road towards two decades of groundbreaking improvisation and progressive rock.

RR: “Prophecy Now” from Mantis. I always like how a song near the end of an album will pop up, and then disappear as if it is almost of an alien nature.

JC: Yeah. That’s another really old melody that I had written maybe around 10, 11 years ago. I wrote it on a marimba, so it’s like jazz form. There isn’t a chorus; there’s an A section that keeps repeating. It’s based on the style that Miles Davis used when he wrote “Nefertiti” where there’s a long head that might encompass about 16 bars, and it comes back around. That song was written based solely on that melody that happens that is a unison melody, and it’s almost like a Frank Zappa melody, too, if you think about it, but it’s based more on modern Radiohead, Peter Gabriel, and a dreamy state, I guess, is what we were going for. It’s the meditative piece in the Mantis record. It’s a calming of the jets, and then we finish off the record with a big bang.

RR: And you’ve already worked on new material beyond Mantis?

JC: Yes, there is a bunch of new material. Finally, we can start working on a new one. It’s funny because that was all I had been doing. I have a studio at my housea full-fledged studio with a mixing console, drums, and everythingand I’ve always dreamed of that so I moved back to South Bend [Indiana]. I was so deep in 8 new songs, that it was like, “oh yeah_Mantis_ tour. Oh shit! I’ve got to go practice the CD.”

I’m constantly writing, and I never ever say that I’m writing a song for Umphrey’s McGee. I write a ton, and I have a huge backlog of stuff for the band to check out, and out of 10 songs, we’ll pick 3 that everyone feels really good about, and we’ll go for those.

When the artistic well runs dry, I’ve got 25 hours worth of stuff on a shelf. (laughter)

RR: What is the status of your other band, Ali Baba’s Tahini?

JC: We’ve been working on a record for the last two years in sporadic spots. The last session was, I believe, in August of last year. We’ve been finishing up stuff. I’m a big guy about having a surplus of songs before we decide on cutting it down to 10 tunes. We have 20 new songs that we’ve been whittling away at in the studio, so I say, next year, maybe springtime, they’ll be a record coming out. We’ve got some killer new Karl [Engelmann] songs. It has a Leonard Cohen meets Pink Floyd kind of vibereal simple, big, brooding, quirky, funny, car commercial kind of funny stuff. It kind of goes everywhere. It’s like a combination of the last three years of stuff.

RR: How else did you prepare for the initial Mantis tours?

JC: We set up shop at the Vic for three days, basically renting out the theatre, and we worked on the lighting production, and our live production of all the music for Mantis. We played it on stage so all of the lights will react to each little change of the music, and sort of putting our time in before we hit tour.

RR: You also have one of our original writers and editors from the site working with you now as your new lighting designer.

JC: Yes, Jeff [Waful]. He’s a great artist. He’s definitely got the eye.

RR: And the band’s ability to take on new challenges continues to change, too.

JC: Actually, we’ve been working pretty good at the pressure thing lately. We used to stress out so much over New Year’s shows. Now? “Let’s just have fun, man. Let’s go out there and have fun.” We keep on telling each other that. Even though this is the biggest thing ever to us, we really try to keep that sort of mentality going. “Let’s go out there and have fun, man. Let’s not take it too seriously.” (laughs)

RR: Does that also become easier because the relationships within the band have evolved where you’ve been able to work through the differences in the past?

JC: Yeah. I love those guys more now than I ever used to just because that’s like what brotherly love is all about. (laughs) I don’t have any brothers or sisters, but I really do with these guys. We have that attitude with each othervery harsh and loving at the same time. No one wants to be that asshole. No one wants to be that guy, the bad guy. We all really try to keep that even emotional stabilityweird psychological terms about keeping a band together. Someone should write a book about How to Keep a Band Together for 25 Years. With Mantis, we really feel like we’re confident with our studio ideas, and we know how to get them down now. This record is setting the benchmark for how we can play around in the studio to get our ideas down. That’s really where a band constructs its finest moments, and then they bring them to a live atmosphere. That’s the stuff that a band feels best about, too. The bands might not like it as much in areas, but really at the end of the day, we said, “wow, we really needed to get this off our chest.”

RR: Yes, but Umphrey’s has created three durable studio albums in a row.

JC: It’s a confidence builder. It’s cool that we said, “Wow, we are so sick of this record, and no one’s ever heard of it yet.” (laughter) It makes us move on to the next one that much quicker. The idea behind the next record is going to be completely opposite from Mantis. We’ve already talked about it, and the next record is going to be really weird.

- As the reader may imagine, it is always a pleasure for this writer to work on a projectbrief, or extended like the Mantis Monologueswith Umphrey’s McGee. This series would not have been possible without the full cooperation and sharp insight of my longtime editor, Dean Budnick, Madison House publicists Carrie Lombardi and Claire Tonelson, and, of course, the members of Chicago’s finest band in their second decade.

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