If there was ever a band that had a serious case of multiple personality disorder, it’s Umphrey’s McGee. On any given night, you can hear the Chicago-based sextet churn out a well-rehearsed, epic prog-rock tune or a “Jimmy Stewart,” a completely improvised piece of music that will never be repeated. Their taste in covers also runs the gamut, from the deep reggae of Bob Marley to the hip-hop of Cee Lo, as well as classic-rock radio staples like Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” and Toto’s “Africa.”
This open-ended attitude translates to their studio albums as well. Each album showcases a combination of incredible chops, clever lyrics, and the fact that these guys have fun
. Their more progressive influences came to a head with 2009’s Mantis
, a sprawling, note-heavy experiment that, for the first time, contained material that hadn’t been fully road tested. The album was their most successful release to date and gave fans a side of Umphrey’s that hadn’t fully been explored. When it came time to record their follow-up album, not surprisingly, they took a different approach and dug out some tunes that came from the earliest days of the band.
With Death By Stereo
, the band focused on the groove and took a more accessible approach to their sound. The opening track, “Miami Virtue,” is full of energy and hints at all the good parts of a dance tune from the ’80s. The band didn’t completely forget their hard-rocking roots evidenced by “Search 4,” a Jake Cinninger-penned tune that combines a drop-tuned riff with some ferocious playing by drummer Kris Meyers. We caught up with guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss during their album release party to discuss how the Talking Heads influenced them, their live mashups, and why their latest album is all for the ladies.
What makes Death By Stereo different from your previous studio album, Mantis?
This one was less focused than the last album, Mantis
, where we were going for more of a storybook vibe. For this album, we just wanted to go through some of our songs and pick the ones that would sound great together. I think we worked on this record for about two years.
I would say Mantis
was a lot more involved. The title track alone was twelve minutes long. It was a lot more progressive and—after that album—we talked about doing something that was more of a dance party to get some chicks moving. When we looked at the songs after the fact, we realized everything was shorter and much more accessible. That wasn't intentional—it just turned out that way.
On this album, you mixed both brand-new songs along with some you have been playing for a long time.
It was nice to have a few, classic Umphrey's tunes that we could polish off and turn into a studio statement. When we would walk into the studio, the idea was to flesh out the songs to see how good a particular track could be and then work that idea out in the studio. I think we had about 12 or 13 tunes, but trimmed it back a little because now it isn't about putting out an 80-minute CD and trying to fit so much information in there. We wanted to make it short and sweet. Something you could just put on repeat.
Did your creative approach differ for this album?
The first track, “Miami Virtue,” came out of an improv. We were talking about how the Talking Heads would just jam for 20 minutes on some of their albums and then find a form or structure out of that. We were at Jake’s studio in Niles about a year ago and that track just came out of a jam.
A lot of times we put so much thought and composition into the arrangement of our songs. On this record, we pulled that back and let the music breathe a little bit more. We didn't fill up all the measures with a million, black notes. We stepped back and shed the progressive-rock skin just a little bit.
What was it about those old Talking Heads albums that influenced you?
Getting back to the simple structure of a song. When you go back to those old records, they are just so simple and they rock so hard. Removing the complications out of the equation really allows the song to take a nice left turn. Because we have so much going on with so many tunes in our repertoire, this particular record really felt nice to keep it sweet, simple, and fun.
A lot of the Talking Heads stuff is based on a groove. After Mantis
, we wanted to make something that was more danceable. Some of that had to do by just talking about simplifying and not being so orchestral. Mantis
was all over the place with a lot of left turns. It was probably harder for a hot chick to dance to that stuff, so we were thinking about simplifying it more for them.
It’s great that you are keeping them in consideration.
Well, we have to play 100 shows a year so it would be nice if it weren’t 100 percent dudes in the crowd.