Umphrey’s McGee | Local Band Does Really Well

mantis.jpgWe went into this one just wanting to do it for ourselves and we’re pretty proud of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photo: Kevin Browning

 

Chicago-based improvisational rock/jam band Umphrey’s McGee has come a long way since the release of their first album, Local Band Does O.K., rising to the top of the jam scene and summer music festival circuit and developing a devoted fan base across the U.S. Their latest release, Mantis is the band’s crowning achievement – their most ambitious work to date, and the songs are being freshly tested on live audiences on their current tour. I caught up with the band’s founder, lead vocalist and guitarist, Brendan Bayliss, by phone a few weeks before their stop in St. Louis at The Pageant on Friday night.

Tell me about making Mantis. Are you pleased with how the album turned out?

To a certain extent there is always going to be some level of "we could have done more," but this is as close as we’ve gotten to saying "we’ve done everything." We took our time; we didn’t have a deadline; it was over a two-year process and there was a lot of taking it home, listening to it and redoing stuff. It’s the most ambitious thing we’ve ever tried to do. None of these songs had ever been played live before so we didn’t even really know how to play them, we didn’t know how they’d come across, if people would like them. People have high expectations, but we went into this one just wanting to do it for ourselves and we’re pretty proud of it.

Everything but one song we just started playing live in January. The first few shows were nerve-wracking because it’s like you have no muscle memory. But the past couple weeks, when we start songs off the album, there’s a roar in the crowd, and people are starting to sing the words so we know that they’ve been listening to it.

You and Jake [Cinninger] have such amazing chemistry onstage, and play off of each other so well. How do you know where the other is going? Is it intuitive?

A lot of it is eye contact. If I look over and he’s got his head down, then I know he’s buried in an idea, so I’m just going to listen and go with it. If I look over and he’s looking at me, then I know we’re totally in an open space and it can go in any direction. It’s a lot of that eye contact, and nodding. We don’t really ever talk about it.

What is your songwriting process? Do you write the song first then the lyrics or other way around?

For me, I always write lyrics second. The form of the song is there, then I have to search for a melody to sing over the form, and then I’ll put words to fit the melody. I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem then tried to put that to music later. For me it’s always been music, then melody, then lyrics.

How old were you when you started playing guitar and writing songs?

I didn’t start playing guitar until Christmas of 1990. I was a freshman in high school and my older brother came back from his first year of college with a guitar, and it just became really cool instantly. I thought that was the key to getting a girl or whatever. So I started practicing. I tried to write maybe 10 or 15 songs in high school, but I didn’t get into writing frequently until I was in college, after I’d been playing for five or six years.

When you started out, did you ever think music would become your career or was it just "I go to college and I have a band?"

Oh absolutely the latter. At first I thought I sucked so there was no way I could have a career doing it. The whole band thing happened as something to do – a way to hang out. Notre Dame is kind of isolated and there’s not a big music scene. You kind of gravitate to people you like and we just started it for fun. I got kicked out of the first band I was in because I didn’t show up to a gig they had booked like that day. I wasn’t very serious.

When did you know this was going to be your life?

I graduated from college in 1998 and Umphrey’s had been together for about a year at that point. So I enrolled in music school because we were waiting for the drummer to graduate. At that point, I knew I wanted to do something in music, but I didn’t know if it was going to be the band, or if I was going to get a degree in classical guitar. It was the first time I had some sense of direction. I believed in the band, but I wasn’t banking on it being my career.

Are you ever surprised by how popular you have become?

Certainly. There are times when I’ll go take a walk to start the day and then I’ll come back to the venue and go, "Holy shit, this is a tour bus and a 44-foot truck. This is ridiculous." It still gets me. I’ve been doing this now for 11 years so you get used to certain aspects of it, but you know that it could just all stop at any minute. I am fully aware of that.

Who were your biggest musical influences growing up?

My first real guitar hero was Jimmy Page. The thing is about learning to play the guitar is, if you learn how to play Zeppelin, you learn the fundamentals of blues but also acoustic guitar, finger picking, open strings. And you’re not just playing in the first position – you’re all over the place. That was really big for me. Then my brother got me into Stanley Jordan when I was in high school and that just showed me the unlimited possibility of the guitar.

Umphrey’s McGee has had the chance to share the stage with some amazing musicians doing the festival circuit and other shows. Who were some of your favorites to play with?

Stanley Jordan was the biggest for me because he was my favorite guitar player for the last 15 years. Also Huey Lewis. We’ve become friends. We got to play with Sinead O’Connor once, that was cool. And Victor Wooten, the best bass player in the world.

Tell me about the charity you started in Chicago, USTORM (United So Together Our Reach Multiplies).

It donates money to kids throughout the Chicago area for music and art education. We’ve done some neat things like we bought a drum line for a high school, and we found a talented kid that couldn’t afford lessons so we paid for violin lessons for a year; we brought a bunch of used instruments to a children’s hospital at Christmas, things like that. The government is cutting funding for music and art education, so we felt you never know if you’re going to snuff out some great talent before they even have chance.

Pick up or download Mantis, in stores now and catch Umprhey’s McGee at The Pageant Friday, March 27. If you can’t make it to the show, follow the band on Twitter @umphreysmcgee for tour updates and choice live cuts. | Amy Burger

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