Back to the Future with Jake Cinninger
Umphrey’s McGee returns with their fifth studio album in their storied decade-plus career. Death by Stereo, which was released on September 13, is a varied collection of tunes spanning multiple genres from garage punk to metal to progressive rock to country to funk to 70s R&B and 80s synth pop. Of course, along the way, the band also manages to imprint the album with its own unique UM blend, but what stands out on the record most of all is the disc’s ability to showcase a unified and singular point of view. This is a band still very much in its prime and, whereas they have been a live improvisational juggernaut for years, the sextet has also matured into a solid outfit willing to express themselves in the studio in a very clear, defined and patient way.
Jambands.com sat down with guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Jake Cinninger during a rather busy week which saw the band play a multiple night run at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl, including another in their ambitious improvised Stew Art Series. The band is touring to support the new album during a year in which they continue to scale back their live gigs, while making sure to create new and memorable experiences for themselves and the fans when they do manage to hit the boards for a few weeks at a time. Cinninger is as focused and on point as his music, while displaying an astute sense of humor. He is also quite aware of the band’s legacy, and appears to have a fairly sound reading of the future while always keeping an eye on the history of sonic textures which has been recorded before.
RR: Compare the UM Bowls to the Stew Art Series/S2 events.
JC: [They are both] such a fan-interaction beast. It is trying to do something on the cutting edge as far as for an improv rock band. We came up with these little ideas, grouped up into four sections or four quarters [for the UM Bowls], and a lot of it is improv, off the cuff, and some of the stuff we work out ahead of time, depending on the quarter—second quarter can be mash ups of original tunes, or something like that, and that can be the focus of a whole quarter. It’s really up to the audience and us. It is very much in the moment. I’d say 30% worked out and 70% improv.
The Stew Art shows are very much improv and it is all about the audience and we just react. It is like we would normally do, but it is heavy on the improv as we are directed, where normally we would be the directors. This is where everyone gets their hands dirty.
RR: What was the genesis, or pre-production, of the work on Death by Stereo?
JC: Like a lot of Umphrey’s records, they come from drafts. Basically, like a great book has multiple drafts, or a good report or anything, the idea for how these songs blossom over time is that we can keep revisiting them and doing small little tweaks to the painting. A song like “Search 4,” for instance, was actually a Neil Young acoustic guitar-strummin’ really laid back version of a tune. Then I realized I wanted to do something a little different with the song and changed it into a progressive rock song. Because I didn’t settle on that first version, I was able to go back and look at the song from a different
perspective and completely change it. The original version of “Search 4” is on the demo cassette, and you can hear it on there to hear how different it actually is.
RR: “Search 4” definitely goes through a progression on the album track from art rock to a metal vibe with a strong guitar riff and a great guitar solo, so the demo would be fascinating to hear. With a bundle order, a fan can get a vinyl version of Death by Stereo, as well as Demos, which is on cassette [featuring 9 unreleased demos spanning 15 years of material]. What drove the idea to go so retro with not only an album, but a cassette release of all of this other work? Are you trying to tap into every idea to release your product so fans have all options?
JC: Yeah. It’s very much kind of a novelty thing. It is like we would look at ourselves in the fan perspective in that sense. Say my favorite band is Pink Floyd, or something like that, I would love to see them do something like this. It is what we wished our favorite bands did we’re trying to sort of evolve and look into the future and have a little bit more of a connection with our fan base. It’s more based on fun and collecting because we’re all collectors of music. It gets people back into the way music was listened to in the 70s and 80s—it was more personal.
RR: Interesting choice of words. Let’s talk about that. On the new album, you do seem to look into the future with your music by looking back into the past. There is tightness on the songs and there is a lot of variety in the music. Death by Stereo is, arguably, your most accessible record, but at the same time, it is a very complex work with a lot of exploration of different styles. Would you agree that the band is looking to the past while moving forward?
JC: Yeah. In the past, we definitely wanted to simplify things a little bit on the record, but still make it audibly rich and deep. A lot of the songs are a little bit simpler in form, but it kind of blows open the landscape a little bit more on dynamics. The record is a little bit more dynamic in that sense. Whereas Mantis is a little bit more of a dark piece, this is a light piece, a little more of a party vibe, a little more internationally accessible.
RR: Depth with lightness. I like that. And it is funny and ironic because the very first track, “Miami Virtue,” has a line that Brendan sings, “can’t take back this wasted time,” and there is no wasted time on this album at all.
JC: Right. (laughs) That’s true because it’s only like 41 minutes. It’s like Van Halen’s Diver Down —one side of the cassette says 12 minutes, and you flip it over and it says 10 minutes. (laughter) Like all of our records, the studio is a sacred place, a very special spot for us to basically get every song into the most finished version as possible. That’s where the studio is sort of a laboratory to really finish these songs that we have and get them the way that we perceive them, and which is a little bit harder to do live. In the studio, you can really put the bells and whistles inside a song and go, “Oh, that’s the way that we perceive the song.”