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Track By Track: Umphrey’s McGee’s ‘Zonkey’

Dean Budnick | December 29, 2016
On Oct. 31, 2008, at The Warfield in San Francisco, Umphrey’s McGee debuted a series of mash-ups that have come to define the group’s Halloween performances. As guitarist Brendan Bayliss recalls, “There was a DJ [Zebra] who did ‘Come Together’ by The Beatles with ‘Come Closer’ by Nine Inch Nails. We were on the bus and I think it was [bassist Ryan] Stasik who said: ‘Why don’t we learn this and play it tonight?’ We did it [on 2/13/08 at Crash Mansion in Los Angeles] and later, when we needed something for Halloween, we said, ‘Why don’t we just do our own mash-ups and we’ll have a costume theme tied into it?’ So we did ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ with ‘Thriller’ and that started the whole thing from there.” 

Umphrey’s has now collected a dozen of their favorite mash-ups on their new album, Zonkey. The band recorded new versions of these songs in the studio, using their live performances as reference points. “We started with a live version and Kris [Myers] went into the studio and played a real drum take to that version. Then, once we got the drum take, we went in and layered everything else,” Bayliss explains.

As for how long it originally took the band to learn the material on Zonkey, he says, “It depends. It’s hard when you get six cooks in a kitchen. There’s a lot of opinions—‘Let’s try this, let’s not try this,’ and we tend to have a ‘Let’s try something before we say no’ policy, so it takes a long time. For the ones that I would come up with, I’d make a chart on my own and I would show up to rehearsal and say, ‘Let’s try it like this,’ to eliminate a lot of the political correctness of saying yes to every idea. Sometimes, if we just have some song ideas with no form or structure to start with, we sit in a room and then it takes a while to just come up with a chart for an idea that we can then take to soundcheck to see if it’ll feel good.”

When it comes to naming the results, Bayliss discloses, “That’s when I step out of the process because I don’t really care that much what the song is called; I care how it sounds. Joel [Cummins] really gets into that. He has come up with the names for most of them. Sometimes Joel will make a master list and he’ll send an email out so that if anyone feels strongly about something, they’ll respond. But Joel spearheads naming them, unless they’re so obvious that they name themselves, like, ‘Come as Your Kids.’”
The release of Zonkey finds the band in a legal gray area where it comes to clearing the publishing rights for the music. “There’s no precedent for something like this,” Bayliss acknowledges. “Technically, we’re performing the songs ourselves and we’re doing different lyrics, so [manager] Kevin Browning did a lot of research. He said he talked to six or seven different lawyers and got six or seven different answers. We had a meeting and we said there’s a chance we could get sued for this, so we thought about calling the album Let’s Get Sued.

“We sent a letter to every publishing company—it’s weird because Michael Jackson’s royalty rate is different than Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s. The royalty rate, say, for a song with Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd, is going to cost more than one with Rob Zombie. So, we contacted every publisher for every song and wrote them a letter, telling them what we were planning on doing. Then, we wrote everybody the initial check for, like, 41 cents a track. We’d actually lose money on some of these songs, if we sold them on iTunes, because of what we’re paying in royalties. So, basically, we’re assuming that we’re showing enough good faith by contacting the publishers and writing the initial check. If anyone has a real problem with it they can write a C&D [cease and desist] letter, and we haven’t received anything. We’re hoping that, by going through the normal process of paying royalty rates, we’ve covered our asses. But we don’t know, so I guess we’re going to find out.

“I remember, at one point, right when we were almost done with it, I brought up, ‘You know, guys, we have a really good thing going—we’re all happy, is this worth the risk? What if this is a huge mistake?’ Everybody kind of weighed the pros and cons. What’s scary is my mother-in-law is a judge and she asked me a couple questions I did not have answers for. So she basically said if someone wants to take us to court, then it all depends on the judge, on their interpretation of the law. I worry about the Zappa estate and maybe Pink Floyd and Bob Marley. I would think that James Hetfield would think it’s kind of funny and Kris did a good job emulating him.”

Whatever ensues—and one has to hail the band’s willingness to move forward, given the slightly fuzzy legal landscape, with such a commitment to the creative side, after pursuing due diligence and committing to fair royalties—Zonkey will commemorate the end of an era for the group. After the band’s Halloween run in St. Louis this year, they plan on retiring the mash-up tradition, or at least put it in mothballs. Bayliss affirms, “We’re going to do the record release, do the last Halloween mash-up, then put it to bed for a while and try to come up with something new.”

“NATIONAL LOSER ANTHEM” “National Anthem” (Radiohead) + “Loser” (Beck) + “In the Air Tonight” (Phil Collins)

I came up with the idea of “National Anthem” with “Loser.” A lot of it is trying to find songs that are similar in key and tempo, and both “Loser” and “National Anthem” are basically [in] D the whole time. There’s no key change. So when you put them on top of each other, it’s really easy to sing one over the other. I didn’t realize, but the basslines are very similar, too. Then, once we got into a room and started playing one and singing the other, Kris Myers just did the most famous drum solo of all time, and once he did that, we said, “Yeah, we should probably put that song in, too.” So that really just kind of happened, the third addition, which put it over the top.

“LIFE DURING EXODUS” “Life During Wartime” (Talking Heads) + “Exodus” (Bob Marley) + “City of Tiny Lites” (Frank Zappa) + “25 or 6 to 4” (Chicago)

Joel brought the idea to table and I didn’t hear it— I thought it was a stretch. I also thought it was weird to have a bunch of white guys from the Midwest sing “Exodus.” That was probably where my initial hesitation came in.

He said, “Trust me on this,” and he started playing the “Life During Wartime” verse and asked me to start singing Bob Marley over it. Once I did, it was pretty obvious that it was awesome. I very rarely will admit when I’m wrong, and that’s a time where I had to admit I was wrong. It turned into one of our better ones.

The initial idea was just those two and then, when we were charting it out, Jake [Cinninger] or Kris suggested “City of Tiny Lites” just because it’s the same key, same tempo, and it fit. And then I think the Chicago “25 or 6 to 4”—we didn’t talk about that. We played it live and we decided to open that part up. Jake started teasing the Chicago riff. So the version we picked had the Chicago tease in it.