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At Home with Umphrey’s McGee’s Jake Cinninger

by Michael D. Welter on May 30, 2014

During some rare down time, I caught up with Umphrey's McGee guitarist Jake Cinninger in his natural habitat, his childhood home in Southwest Michigan.“This is where I come to create. It’s my laboratory." The small studio is cozy, at one time used as a stable and now houses an impressive soundboard and a variety of instruments including a 1955 Gibson acoustic and an 1870’s Schomacker piano.When I arrived he was putting some finishing touches on a new album by Brothers Rage, a band of friends from Chicago with a solid progressive sound.“I’ve been working on this for about six months, if I get four hours in at a time I’m lucky.”

“This is where I first played music with someone, Tommy Shaw [Styx]. My parents were good friends with him and I set up my drums out in the yard. That was 1979… we played Beatles songs by the campfire," he says with a smile. "That really triggered something in me. After that I was heavily influenced by progressive rock and I became obsessed with who produced and played on which albums. What seven year old do you know who loved Genesis? By the time I was thirteen I was playing in several bands just to earn money to buy my own gear.”

How did he land in UM? “I had gotten to know the guys from playing at parties and trading guitar licks. I was hanging drywall and just caught up in the blue collar world of working my ass off. In 2001, they said they were moving to Chicago to try and make this thing fly.It was the right chemistry, the right people, right time you know, the right chess game. It really saved me.”

Cinninger recalls a milestone moment that took place a couple years later. “In 2003 or so, Phil Lesh joined us onstage in San Francisco. We said to each other, ‘Wow, people are paying attention to what we are doing’. I just started writing as much material as possible to build our repertoire.That’s when we dared to think we just may be able to hang our hats on a musical career.”

Times have changed a bit for the once Chicago-based sextet, with the band now scattered across the country and many of them with growing families, I inquire as to the effects of separation on the group as a whole. “We are at that point, as a band, where we need time apart. Touring so much, it’s not like when we all lived together. Everyone changes, chemically and spiritually, all those things that are natural to the human body. We need our space and time away so when we come back, we get excited. I feel like I want to play those old songs again, like I can play "40’s Theme" and not fake it. Our fans would see right through us if we were faking it. I can’t phone it in, I am too much of an artist, I love the art.”

One thing that seems will never change, is Jake’s desire to create. “I am the guy who won’t grow up. I still live in the 70’s. The other guys want to move more into EDM, but I pull on the reigns, to keep it from becoming robotic. It’s a nice balance and everyone has some input, but then I get to put in a stiff guitar groove, that’s where the Umphrey’s sound happens. You can see our different personalities come through in our songwriting. It is healthy for us as musicians to constantly want to paint a new picture within the same frame. I always play the written part to start, like 'Bridgeless,' but to keep the ears happy over so many hours the idea is to come up with little bits of information that trail off from the norm. We play a guessing game of musical chairs, where we can pull out whatever we are feeling at the time. It is important, as artists, to keep our brains one step ahead of our hands, to trick the ears in a way that you believe it was supposed to happen. We communicate in the moment of creation, with Frank Zappa style gestures, using characters to influence new sounds. We exercise that little part of our brains more than some other musicians so we can fire real improvisation, like the old jazz guys. It’s just a different way of coming up with instant shifts.”

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