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Reel Time: Umphrey’s McGee

Rob Slater | November 26, 2013

Photo by Kevin Browning

Umphrey’s McGee return to the studio for the first time in two years with a batch of new ideas as well as some old standbys.

We started talking about it a year ago—about how it was time to get back on the train,” Umphrey’s McGee singer/guitarist Brendan Bayliss explains as he charts the origins of the follow-up to 2011’s Death By Stereo. Anyone familiar with Umphrey’s McGee’s tour schedule may wonder how the band even managed to carve out studio time between family commitments and more than 100 shows per year. “We had a week off between two travel weeks [in May] and had a five-day period where we went in and did the basic tracking for 16 tracks,” Bayliss says. The resulting sessions have not only allowed Umphrey’s McGee to try out some new ideas, but also to revisit some sounds they started exploring almost a decade ago.

Creating the Foundation

BRENDAN BAYLISS: We wanted to do an album where all the songs were in a similar vein. We had a bunch of songs that were upbeat and dancey but we didn’t feel like putting out a dance record. We wanted to get back to being a rock band. [The new album] is leaning back more toward [2004’s] Anchor Drops. It’s a little more progressive rock—in your face. I think [the fans] are going to see it as more of a return to some of that older stuff. I’m so involved that it’s hard for me to detach from it, but listening back, I think that it’s more like that stuff from 2004-2005.

Building with Legos
BB: We’ll try to do a mix of a couple of concert staples we’ve never released officially, and then, a couple of songs that no one’s heard. You want to give these songs you’ve played for years the studio treatment because, otherwise, you’re just going to do a standard version. What’s the point of that? [“Hajimemashite” from Death By Stereo] was pretty easy because it’s one progression. We’ve been playing it for 15 years, so we wanted to get a different arrangement of it. Kris [Myers], Pony [Ryan Stasik] and Jake [Cinninger] came up with that whole syncopated part in the middle while in the studio just to make it different. That way it wasn’t just, “OK, let’s perform a version of a song we know.” We have a new bit called “Theresa.” It’s a vocal part, and we put that in the middle of another song, so we used that as a Lego to stick it together. We definitely knew that we wanted to use that part because it got a good response, and it felt natural.

Educated Guess
BB: [My favorite song on the new album] is one of the new ones that no one’s heard. The way it’s coming together is all over the place and sounds like
two or three different bands in one. I think it’s going to be called “Educated Guess.” It’s the song I’m most proud of since “Mantis,” and if people liked “Mantis,” they’re going to like [“Educated Guess”]. But it’s not as moody, and it’s shorter. “Mantis” is 12 minutes; this one is probably six. For me, my favorite song is always the newest one.

Open for Interpretation
BB: If I’m thinking of this one image at the beginning of the writing process, by the second or third verse, I’m thinking about something entirely different. It’s funny because the guys think I’m writing about them. I’ll send a song out and Pony will reply, “Is this song about me?” And, honestly, half the time it’s me trying to be introspective and give myself advice. I feel when you’re super direct, and you can’t interpret a song in different ways, it doesn’t have as much openended meaning for people. You can come back to a song again and again when you’re vague. There are some songs I’ve written that I listen to five years later and I take a totally different meaning from them—and that’s from being so vague. So lately, I’ve been more introspective and I’m just trying to give myself advice. For me, talking about lyrics is the hardest thing because it’s very personal but, at the end of the day, I’m just trying to make something that sounds cool. If I can put some deeper meaning behind it, then that’s great.

The State of Umphrey’s
BB: I feel like we’re way more patient now. Onstage, when we’re stretching something out, we’re more likely to keep going if it feels good. In the past, there was always this feeling that we should be moving forward. Most bands have one little thing they do, and they’re great at it. I feel like we have so many directions we can take that it’s hard for us to stay in one spot. Lately, we’ve been doing a much better job of “if it’s good, just ride it out.”