Back to the Future with Jake Cinninger
RR: Did you have stretches of time to work on this record, or did you carve out time in between short tour runs to get back into the studio?
JC: Yeah, it was an on and off process. We would go in for three days or one day. Over two years, we would do tracking, so we could always look back at the prior month and say whether we liked it or not, change it, redo it, or whatever. A lot of the demo stuff was done in my home studio, and at Bayliss’s house where he has a little studio there, too. We do most of our finished recording at IV Labs in Chicago—Manny Sanchez’s spot. He’s just got the most incredible gear, great ears, and he’s a beast on the Pro Tools. We record to tape, and then we throw it back into the digital domain. He’s just really got that whole process down and he’s really easy to work with.
RR: And he captures the many various nuances, as well. For example, on Death by Stereo, “Miami Virtue” is followed by the garage rock of “Domino Theory.”
JC: Bayliss had that track a while back, just an A and a B section. I remember we needed a few extra parts to kind of flesh it out because it was kind of in a simple form. You can hear that on the demos—Bayliss’s original version. I remember putting that [Cinninger hums the main riff from the tune] down—the bridge between the verse and the chorus. It needed that to push the chorus so hard, and that would be the final draft of the song.
RR: You’ve got the wah wah geared up on that song.
JC: Yeah, I was using this wicked Morley Pedal at IV Labs. It was a weird phase-y, old, nasty pedal and I plugged it through a Sears Silvertone head like Jack White plays. It was the trashiest sound and perfect for this one.
RR: “Booth Love” features another different side of the band with some R&B and soul and a really cool vocal performance with horns on the track, as well.
JC: Yeah, we wanted to Steely Dan the song out a bit. Again, that’s the way we look at a studio version as compared with a live version—that sort of be all, end all version of a song that we are really happy with, and now it is time to release it. In our heads, that is how we hear the song with all that little ear candy in there. [Michael] Mad Dog [Mavridoglou] and Dirty Little Secrets are our horn section on that song, who also always plays New Years with us. It’s all friends that we’ve known for years. [Mad Dog] came up with a great arrangement for it and just kicked ass.
RR: They play on “Wellwishers,” too. That’s another good combination where you’ve got a nice pop melody and a smart rock riff running through the song.
JC: Exactly. That song almost had a Beatles-y kind of vibe with its Ringo Starr-ed out drums, and, again, a very simple song and all really based around the melody and the push of the chorus when the chorus comes in. I remember, particularly, we did an old
magic trick that mastering guys do on their choruses. They make the choruses two decibels louder. It’s a cool “get your attention” tactic, and a lot of mastering engineers do that—when it comes up to the chorus, you get this little two-decibel bump in the master tape, and it really pushes the song halfway through.
RR: And another surprising, but really nice segue on the record from “Wellwishers” to the “Dim Sun” instrumental. I love that title.
JC: Yeah. Yeah. We were tossing around names. It came off really Floydish. I remember we recorded that one at my studio, actually, because we moved these great Telefunken microphones outside and you can hear the birds in the background. That’s basically me sitting outside with a Sears Silvertone acoustic student guitar from the 50s with these old rusty strings. I just did one take of it with a couple of really good microphones outside. It was still morning, so there weren’t a lot of weird overtones in the background. You could hear the birds on the feeder nearby. It was really peaceful.
RR: “Dim Sun” leads into “Deeper,” which I know is near and dear to your heart. Do you want to talk about the demo, which also appears on the cassette, and how it became what it did on the album?
JC: I remember coming up with this ideology for the next record, while talking with the guys, about trying to be more linear in our songwriting—just that word ‘linear’ by itself. It says a lot about the way music can be played or written, so, in a sense, Death by Stereo has a lot of that ideology where we are streamlining a riff a little bit longer, and letting something last a little bit longer on a stretch of road like something that is linear.
“Deeper” is a good example of that where there aren’t a lot of shifts going on in the song. It sticks pretty much to that groove until the very end of the song. It was about simplifying again, and looking at a long stretch of road, and imagining that being music, rather than, say, a bunch of jagged rocks. It’s kind of an analogy, and we used that idea a little bit more on this record. There is a little bit more of a maturity coming out with simplifying it; I think it is always harder to simplify after years of complexity. (laughs)
RR: When I was trying to define the whole album, I hit upon the word ‘mature’—“a mature sobriety about these proceedings; could be mistaking simplicity with a new found depth of clarity; Umphrey’s McGee, finding a way to explore new sonic and lyrical terrain, creates another winner.” I know you come from the same listening-experience background as I do, Jake. When you sit down with a record, you want the whole album experience, and not have to cherry pick songs. When you sit with the band to discuss a theme for an album, how do you describe that process?
JC: We definitely go through a lot of e-mails just getting the album to feel right and what songs are even going to be on there because we usually always have leftovers. It’s a constant process of tweaking, very small tweaks to the record, before it is finally a
finished product. It’s weird how long it takes that last little bit. You know we’re involved all the way down with the artwork, the photo shoot concepts, and things like that, so everyone has their brains wide open for change. No one is really settled on anything until we all go, “O.K., it’s finished.” Because once it’s finished, you can’t look back. That’s the weird thing about a record: “I wish I would have done the vocal part different,” or something like that. You just go in and do it the way you perceived.