The secret prog-rock band’s guitar duo doubles down on their radical sounds and makes a fearless, recombinant new album, it’s not us.
Fortunately for Umphrey’s McGee fans, Brendan Bayliss is not easily deterred.
When the guitarist, singer, and founding member of the band tried to get into the University of Notre Dame’s music program, the program’s director was less than enthusiastic. As Bayliss recalls, these were the director’s words: “You can’t read music. You have no formal training. What you’re trying to do is like me trying out for the Cincinnati Reds. You’ll never have a career in music. Go somewhere else.”
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Umphrey’s McGee—one of the top-drawing acts on the thriving jam-band circuit, with 11 studio albums and more than 2,200 shows under their belt—and it’s apparent Bayliss was wise to take those words with a grain of salt. Along his self-styled path to musical enlightenment, Bayliss sought out lessons from one of the top guitarists in the South Bend, Indiana, area: Jake Cinninger. Little did he know that Cinninger would join Umphrey’s ranks two-and-a-half years later.
Bayliss and Cinninger have coalesced into an impressive dual-guitar team, and—with the help of bassist Ryan Stasik, drummer Kris Myers, percussionist Andy Farag, and keyboardist Joel Cummins—they interweave myriad sonic ingredients into a genre-defying stew that’s still evolving. In fact, though the term “jam band” might be accurate to describe their milieu, audience, and penchant for improvisation, it doesn’t fully capture the band’s essence. Elements of prog, blues, jazz, funk and math rock—even heavy metal—inform Umphrey’s McGee’s sound. And though they’re willing to let things get pretty chaotic as they explore the outer edges of improvisatory mayhem, for the most part, there’s a lot more precision involved in their music than the term “jam band” typically connotes.
The band’s voracious appetite for a wide variety of styles is evident on their latest album, it’s not us. “It represents the band, because it basically runs the gamut from prog-rock to dance,” Bayliss says in the press release. “We’ve mastered our ADD here. The record really shows that.”
Lead track “The Silent Type” is a catchy, concise, radio-friendly rocker, with Bayliss delivering a cautionary tale about poor decision-making. “Looks,” a Cinninger tune, starts out with a heavy funk-rock groove, but ventures into proggier territory courtesy of Cummins’ vintage-sounding synth interlude and Cinninger’s dissonant, angular solo. “Whistle Kids” is Bayliss’ ode to the joys of negotiating fatherhood with a hangover, and it features a delightful laid-back groove and some of Cinninger’s tastiest guitar work on the album. (Cinninger handles most of the lead guitar work in the band, though Bayliss is a fine instrumentalist himself.)
Things start to venture into the prog/math-rock world on the odd-meter “Maybe Someday,” with Cinninger channeling his inner Eddie Van Halen near the song’s end. The band’s tendency to indulge a hodgepodge of influences is most evident on “Remind Me,” which starts off as a funky roots-rocker before taking a series of left turns: first to a frenzy of feedback and noise, then to a metal-style freak-out featuring double-bass-drum-pedal propulsion and searing guitarmonies.
Other highlights include the sweet acoustic ballad “You & You Alone,” a love song Bayliss wrote for his wife; the jazz-funk workout “Speak Up,” featuring legendary jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, who frequently sits in with the band; and “Dark Brush,” in which Cinninger gets to fully indulge his metal tendencies.
TIDBIT: Bayliss says that Umphrey’s McGee’s new album, the group’s 11th studio recording, “Represents the band, because it basically runs the gamut from prog-rock to dance. We’ve mastered our ADD here.”
Premier Guitar recently spoke with Bayliss and Cinninger, who discussed the new album, their unique approach to improvisation, and their cutting-edge methods for enriching the audience experience.
The lead track of the new album, “The Silent Type,” is a solid, concise radio-rock tune. It’s three-and-a-half minutes, no jam—not necessarily what people expect from Umphrey’s McGee.
Brendan Bayliss: It’s kind of an introduction. If you haven’t heard us, this is right down the middle.
There’ a cool octave part on that song.
Bayliss: I’m doing a clean octave with a delay. I’m doing one on the left side. And then the one on the right is behind it by one or two beats. So it sounds kind of like a delay effect, but it’s really just two separate parts, split.
Jake, on the solo toward the end of “Looks,” it almost reminds me of Mahavishnu Orchestra-era John McLaughlin. Lots of dissonance and chromaticism.
Jake Cinninger: Yep. There was a lot of angular triad stuff. Sort of that Adrian Belew atonal quality. I just love Adrian’s playing. He’s a good buddy of ours and has toured with us quite a few times, and he’s done quite a few sit-ins with us.
I really like your playing on “Whistle Kids,” too. That’s some of my favorite guitar on the album, because I love that laid-back behind-the-beat feel.
Cinninger: It’s the New Orleans swamp guitar kind of vibe. What I’m doing is plucking almost behind the bridge pickup really hard, to get all that tension on the note, which is almost a Dick Dale thing. And then playing really behind the beat, so the notes are dripping behind the drums.