Umphrey’s McGee becomes the new darlings of the jam scene
By Karen Schneider
Umphrey’s McGee may claim that they’re not a jam band, but they should be holding their heads high as they take on the role of the Darlings of the 21st Century jam scene — a role which, to a large extent, has little to do with their sound.
“There’s a connotation of what a jam band sounds like,” Brendan Bayliss, guitarist and vocalist for Umphrey’s McGee, told The Marquee in a recent interview.
“I think, to a certain degree, we don’t fall into that. I just don’t like someone to have a preconceived notion of what we sound like,” Bayliss said.
The Chicago-based sextet (Brendan Bayliss – guitar and vocals, Jake Cinninger – guitar and vocals, Joel Cummins – keyboard and vocals, Andy Farag – percussion and groove box, Kris Myers – drums and vocals, and Ryan Stasik – bass) is definitely far from your ordinary ‘jam’ band. In fact, the band is not entirely satisfied with that label. With influences ranging from Miles Davis to Frank Zappa, there is not really any category the band comfortably falls into. A typical show can incorporate songs such as Motley Crue’s “Dr. Feelgood”, Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and the theme song to “Family Feud.” This band is here to have a good time and play music. With songs ranging from death metal to circus tunes, Umphrey’s McGee refuses to be categorized.
“The music is so much more abstract, and you can’t really know what it sounds like until you hear it.” Bayliss said.
Formed at Notre Dame University in November of 1997, the band started as just a group of friends hanging out and playing music together. Keyboardist Joel Cummins recruited Brendan Bayliss, bassist Ryan Stasik and drummer Mike Mirro to play a college recital. From there, the band started to play regularly and their first gig was in January, 1998. The name, Umphrey’s McGee, is taken directly from Bayliss’ second cousin, a lawyer in Southern Mississippi.
“One thing we’ve done, from the beginning, was make friendship a priority and having fun a priority. If it becomes a job, it’s just not going to be the same and it’s just not going to go as far as it could, or be as good as it possibly could,” Bayliss said.
The band soon recorded their first album, Greatest Hits Volume III with fake Billboard music chart positions for all the songs. Within a year, the band invited percussionist Andy Farag to join in on the fun, and recorded “Songs For Older Women.”
Through the budding music scene in South Bend, Ind., Umphrey’s quickly became friends with the only other local jam-type band, Ali Baba’s Tahini. The two bands frequently played together and carved a niche that would develop into the prog/jam music scene for the town. In 2000, guitarist from Ali Baba’s Tahini, Jake Cinninger joined forces with Umphrey’s McGee and they recorded “One Fat Sucka” and Umphrey’s first studio album Local Band Does OK.
In 2002, the band was in for some changes. Drummer Mike Mirro decided that he was leaving the music to pursue a career in medicine. A hard blow to everyone, Umphrey’s McGee had no other choice but to look for a new drummer. The first package the band opened was from drummer Kris Myers, who had a masters degree in jazz drumming and was playing with hard jazz fusion band Kick the Kat. For his part, Kris had no idea who the band was and had little awareness of the jam scene, but a friend recommended he audition. The band had almost effortlessly found their newest member, and Myers debuted with Umphrey’s on New Years Eve, 2002.
The band released their first DVD in 2003, Live from the Lake Coast, filmed July 26th and 27th, 2002, from the Skyline Stage in Chicago. This was the band’s last collaboration with original drummer Mike Mirro.
“In retrospect, there are some things that could have killed us, and I don’t think that we would be where we are without them.” Bayliss said.
The newly restructured band went back into the studio and teamed up with SCI Fidelity Records to begin work on the vastly successful 2004 album, Anchor Drops. Released in June of 2004, Anchor Drops was critically acclaimed and earned Umphrey’s McGee recognition from both the jam community as well as the mainstream media. Rolling Stone slated Umphrey’s as a band to watch in their “hot issue” and the Chicago Music Awards bestowed the coveted Best Entertainer of the Year to the band. The Jammy’s presented the band with three nominations in 2005 (the most nominations for any band) and they walked away with the accolade Song of the Year for “In the Kitchen.”
The past 18 months have seen a huge rise for Umphrey’s McGee. First up was the recording of the band’s sold out New Year’s Eve shows at the Riviera Theater in Chicago, for their second DVD. Wrapped Around Chicago; New Years at the Riv is a two disc set, released October 18, 2005.
Umphrey’s then teamed up with Phil Lesh and Friends to play the Mardi Gras Spectacular in San Francisco. Subsequently, the band headed to Amsterdam to play the debut Jam in the Dam. From there, a late-night set at Tippitina’s during Jazz Fest and then on to the annual Bonnaroo music festival. They also were part of the 14-date Big Summer Classic, and they just played the inaugural Vegoose Festival this Halloween.
Maybe a portion of that recent success can be attributed to the fact that the members of the band take a team-like approach to their music. With six different writers, and everyone’s ideas, the songwriting is a very ego-less and democratic process. “Everybody writes, someone will bring something to the table, and you’re allowed to kind of figure out what you think you could play best, instead of being told what to play,” Bayliss said. “The bulk of it is someone comes to the table with a skeleton or a whole song. We kind of come up with sections and try to figure out good ways to piece them together. It’s collaborative in that regard.”
Umphrey’s McGee has never forgotten how they got to where they are today. The band is very grateful for their many fans, the people who made the band a success. “Having come from being fans on the other side of it, and now being on this side of it, you have to remember where you came from. We are just really appreciative and lucky to be able to do this for a living, and it’s because of the fans,” Bayliss said.
The band is also very active in the community. They frequently raise money for various non-profit organizations such as the Mimi Fishman Foundation and Conscious Alliance. They have recently teamed up with Ropeadope’s RENEW ORLEANS effort to benefit the New Orleans musicians hurricane relief fund. The band has also held clothing drives for hurricane victims and donated thousands of dollars to hurricane relief.
“Basically, anything we can do to do something positive. Either a specific show was a specific cause or an entire tour with a specific cause, we just add a little to the ticket price.” Bayliss said. “That way, at the end of every show you can say ‘thanks everybody, we raised this much money,’ and everyone knows that they contributed too.”
Currently, Umphrey’s McGee is working on a new album due out in early 2006. “We initially recorded an electric album and an acoustic album,” Bayliss said. “We were going to put out the two, then we decided that there was enough stuff that was thematically linked that we could just put one album together.”
Umphrey’s McGee plans to keep on touring and will be playing Jam Cruise early next year. The band also plans on returning to Europe for the second Jam in the Dam and also for their own European tour. Umphrey’s McGee is a relentless touring machine … even if they are kind of a jam band.
Umphrey’s McGee :: Fillmore Auditorium :: November 12
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