Umphrey's McGee guitarists talk Similar Skin, Frank Zappa, live improvisation

Umphrey's McGee live onstage in London
Umphrey's McGee live onstage in London (Image credit: Geoff Cook)

American jam band Umphrey's McGee are quite the phenomenon: a pop/jazz/rock/prog outfit that play a bewildering array of styles, sometimes dedicate half their set to improvisation and allow their fans to text musical instruction to an onstage screen. On top of all that, they play sold-out shows throughout the year.

There aren't many bands that can lay claim to that kind of uncompromising success but then again, there aren't many bands like Umphrey's McGee. Up until now, this success has been confined to the USA, but the band seem determined to bring their virtuosic and cutting-edge live spectacles to European shores on a more regular basis.

Umphrey's McGee recently released their seventh studio album, Similar Skin - a unusually straight-ahead rock album that, in their words, forgoes some of the 'dense productions of the past' to 'create a work that includes more concise tracks filled with addictive melodies and memorable choruses'. Mission accomplished then, but there still plenty of signature Umphrey's moments throughout the album to keep die-hard fans happy too.

Darran Charles from fellow progressive band Godsticks recently met with Jake Cinninger (guitar/vocals) and Brendan Bayliss (lead vocals/guitar) before they played the first of three shows at the London Brooklyn Bowl to discuss the new album, live innovation and the controversial album title that never was….

You're known for your innovative live work. Recently you've made the most of new technology by giving your audience the ability to text in during shows. How do you prepare for that?

Jake: "It's called UMBowl. So far as the texting thing, there's really no preparation. It's like an oblique strategy - like Brian Eno use to have these card decks called 'oblique strategies'. So we took this idea of when you picked a card it said 'blue whale'; okay you're supposed to emulate or play what that phrase means. So it's basically based on that sort of thing. Anyone in the audience can text something on the screen, and we have to react to it musically, basically."

So it's more often a random phrase rather than a musical instruction?

J: "Anything is possible; we just have to turn it into a musical form of that phrase."

Brendan: "There's not really a way to prepare for it; the best way to prepare for it is to not think about it."

One of the reasons we asked how you prepare for it is because we read somewhere that someone wanted you to perform a death metal version of a particular track?

J: "Totally! That would be a likely thing to pop up on the screen."

Is it something like the Zappa approach in that sense?

J: "Yeah. Really to make something to happen in the moment that no one's expecting and that we're not expecting either as musicians. We sort of just force creativity in the moment."

So it comes with no pressure then, basically?

J: "The only pressure is not falling flat on your face if you just don't have anything."

B: "Yeah: there's no wrong answer - there might be a better answer - but there's no wrong."

J: "You know, like 80 percent of the time I think we knock it out of the park, and then like 20 percent are a little shaky where we just don't know what to do with this phrase. But that's just the human element of it."

Did you come up with this idea because you want to involve the audience or because you like being challenged as musicians? Do you appreciate these challenges?

J: "Oh yeah, I think that's what keeps us together is the constant challenge. If we were playing the same set list every night then I think we wouldn't have been doing this for 15 years. This thing challenges us and opens different parts of our brains and exercises cool parts that normally don't get used in the musical realm. So it's a cool challenge for us and we see what happens afterwards and we always learn from it. The idea is to constantly learn from the pitfalls of a bad show, or a bad jam, or a bad text."

B: "Yeah, we have people coming to multiple shows and I think that when they get to control us for a few minutes, it really kind of includes them in a way that makes them want to come back. Especially if one of theirs gets through and they're like, 'that one was my idea!.' It's funny to talk to them years later and they'll be like, 'Do you remember when I texted Blue Whale?.'"

You introduce a lot of new material into your live set before it's ever been recorded, which would imply that you've got a very loyal fanbase: is that fair to say?

J: "Very loyal. I think it's because of our output: we have so much output as far as original material is concerned. I think we've got about 180 original songs, so we can play five or six nights in a row without repeating any. That makes the fanbase turn their head and go, 'wow we could travel five nights, five different towns and not see the same song twice.' So they'd be chasing a certain song out of the repertoire and like, 'I got my song that they never play' - you know that kind of thing: it's cool. That's the sort of meat and potatoes of why I think a fan base can grow, by having that expanded repertoire and just a ton of songs that people are chasing."

From a musician's point of view, what you're doing is interesting because it's always difficult to find ways in which to set yourself apart from other bands…

B: "I was going to say over time I think we just kind of developed an identity: it wasn't like we were trying to 'get to somewhere' - we just evolved into it. Initially, I think we were trying to set ourselves apart because you're young and trying to prove yourself. After a while you stop worrying about what other people are thinking and start to worry again about what your band mates are thinking, and what's going make it work."

Are there things you've tried out (not just necessarily with the texting) that didn't go as expected?

B: "There are songs that we know, like, you put an improv spot and it works, and then there's been songs where we've tried to do that and it just did not work. It's like, 'you know what? We wrote that song as a song, lets keep it as a song - it doesn't need to be a 12 minute version.'"

J: "That could also be tempo-related, like it was just too laid back or something. It's like, there's really nowhere to go with this tempo/and this jam/and this key signature that we might be in. So it's like we just bail, by using what we call baseball cues. We've devised our own system of visual cues so we can change keys etc. So we use the basic sign language alphabet. So we'll throw the key of C - "2, 3, 4, C" - so everyone lands on the C so it sounds very intentional. We have all this different things that we can manoeuvre through during improvisation and sound like it's intentional."

Mike Keneally once mentioned that you have silent mics on stage, which you use to communicate during improvised sections: who came up with that idea?

B: "Well we just have [it set up] where each guy can basically speak into something that's isolated in our ears. So it's like this obviously isn't working lets go onto the next song. Tonight we'll have them, then there's times where we don't have them and we just use the visual cues."

J: "Or we'll 'Smell the change,' that kind of thing."

We'll be watching out for this later….

J: "So you'll see when we obviously stray away from the written part of the song and go into jam territory. You see us looking into each other: that's when you know something is about to happen and we're going manoeuvre in this improvisational sort of thing. The idea is to make it sound written not just to jam, and the reason for the cues is to make it go somewhere/or has somewhere to go. You know, like an egg starts and it has to come full circle around and sort of finish off."

Do you know of any other bands that do this kind of thing?

J: "It's based on the Zappa thing obviously. You know when he would do the curl thing and then go to reggae. So it was like just using those little things but expanding on it, and using it for our particular needs."

So was he an influence?

Both: "Yes, huge!"

Jake: "He's a lot of reasons why some of our sections of music are more complicated and just fury."

Only in certain melodies do we hear the Zappa influence. Would you say his influence comes out more live than on studio recordings?

Both: "Yeah."

J: "Just like the ethos of Zappa's live band. That's kind of one of the best bands in the world live right there."

What's your favourite Zappa band line up?

B: "The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life" [Zappa album featuring the 1988 touring band].

That's one of our favourites. The '88 band, and that album in particular.

J: "'88, and also Roxy."

B: "Steve Vai…"

From the '82 band? They're fantastic.

J: "Any of the Vinnie Colaiuta stuff. He's just a nut you know; great drummer."

'Broadway The Hard Way' is probably our favourite out of those; But we love every one of the '88 recordings…

J: "Yeah, even like Bongo Fury, like some of the Captain Beefheart stuff is really cool. Amnesra Kadabra!! You know that stuff? Love that. You hear it for the first time at like 12/13 years old and that stuff tears your mind and just throws it on the floor. It's like hearing Sgt. Pepper for the first time; it's that impactful. It's crazy. Space music!"

Your new album Similar Skin has been described as a straight up rock album. Is that a fair description and was it a conscious decision to go in this direction?

J: "We totally we wanted to go there. I think we're kind of known to play all styles, so it's hard to put a bunch of styles on a record and for it to really make sense, nowadays. For it to be viable and for people to want to listen to it, and to have sort a vibe coursing through the whole record, then it had to have that. So we went with the more simpler big rock sound and just never turned back. We noticed that we had a batch of songs that fit that category and we had a couple that didn't you know, so we made sure of that."

You mention the variety of musical styles you use. Do they accidentally find a way into compositions or are you intentionally introducing them?

B: "I think that when we first started we were more concerned with covering everything. Being able to like, 'oh you want this we got it, you want this we got it.' And now we're just slowly coming back to the rock 'n' roll roots that we all came from."

Is Ryan still seething that you didn't unanimously agree to call the album 'We'd Fuck Us'?

B: "Oh, I think he's okay with it. Word got out that that's what he wanted to call it so some fans are making t-shirts."

J: "Yeah, so there's like theset-shirts where the real name of Similar Skin is 'We'd Fuck Us'. I think that in his [Ryan's] mind, it is 'We'd Fuck Us'. No matter what it says on the record, in his head it's that!"

Is there any particular reason - apart from the obvious - that you didn't go with that?

J: "You know… grandparents, kids…!"

B: "I tried to explain to him like this - he's got a daughter at home: what are you going to tell your daughter's friend's parents when she says she can't go over your house because his album is called 'We'd Fuck Us'!"

J: "Yeah, that's the greatest!"

And what was his answer?

B: "He changed the subject."

Do you share lead duties, or is it just Jake?

J: "No, no! Brendan is a nasty, nasty guitar player! I think his role is definitely more on the vocals, especially in the studio realm. He's such a great vocalist,and as a tenor he's got the higher voice that's needed for this sort of thing. I've been playing guitar since I was nine and he was a later bloomer but picks up everything very quickly. He's always making me a better player 'cos I'm scared to see what he's about to solo, so I'm like, 'I've got to make sure I've got my shit together!'"

Were you responsible for any of the solos on the new album? The solos on the first two tracks are fantastic.

J: "Those are me."

What about on Similar Skin (the song)?

B: "That's Jake. We tried from the beginning to go down right down the middle. I would say now it's like 60/40 - it's still pretty good. Like when we're in the studio, I know he's going to put a better solo on everything. So if we're making a statement, he's going to do that."

So there are no ego clashes at all?

J: "No."

Because guitarists by their very nature are egotistical…!

J: "For sure, it's just known! Let it be known that's just the way it is! I think we've seen all the VH1 Behind The Musics and all the normal probability that bands usually demise. Is either that they are not artistically on the same page any more, or it's the drugs or it's the alcohol. We just realised that if we stay away from these things that are the obvious demise for bands, then I think we can last 30 years."

Is there anybody in control? Is anyone in charge?

B: "No. I think we are as democratic as any band I've ever met."

It must be difficult as a six piece to run it any other way…

J: "I think we look at each other's strengths. Like certain people are a little bit more in the numbers game, some people just have more of a gut instinct and like, 'we should not be doing this.' Like Andy Farag [percussionist] and I might be sort of the quiet ones sometimes but when its time to speak up, people listen. It's like, 'there must be a reason why they feel strongly about this.'"

You usually find some way to agree then?

B: "Yeah. Everyday it could be any guy really. Everybody knows that if somebody is not feeling it, they're just going to be quiet; and if that guy is feeling it and speaking up, then you listen. We do so many shows, you have to let it bounce around."

J: "You get used to that touring bus mentality, where you've got 12 guys cramped onto a bus and your doing four or five shows a week in different cities. So constant travelling and peoples attitudes get a little weary, so its basically when your on a bus situation you don't want to be that guy who everyone is going, 'What the hell is wrong with him today?'."

So it's very much a family?

J: "It's like a team. Like sportsmen-like mentality. Good sportsmen-like conduct with your band mates. We definitely had our years of violent times and luckily we got through those!"

How did you get through that?

J: "It's passion. It's like: this is what you do. This is the fun part of your life; it's the music - everything else can sit on a shelf. We all want to feel really good about what we do. So if someone is not feeling good about it, let's talk about it and get to some sort of resolve that all of us feel good about. So real simple it goes back to just the basics of communication. If you can really lay your problem out on the line and come out the other end unscathed and with nothing held back - that's kind of what we hope for."

B: "If you can't talk about it, then like time passes and you don't even remember why there was an issue - you're just pissed. So we made the 'Beers and Tears' rule - six-pack; sit down; let's talk about it."

You don't let resentment build then?

J: "It makes tour hell: you're pissed off day-in and day-out because of some situation of someone on the bus. It makes just the funnest part of your life miserable, and it should be fun."

Gear-wise we know that you are a PRS user and endorsee [Brendan], and you're with G&L [Jake]. On this album in particular, because it's a straight rock album, did that influence a number of guitars and type of guitars used?

J: "I probably played about seven different guitars, mainly strats. I've got a nice Custom Shop Fender; a ton of G&L S-500s. That's kind of my main guitar. I've got a Moog guitar with the pickups that ring out forever - it's like a super sustained guitar. I used that on the beginning of 'The Linear' where there's like [makes humming noise] sort of thinner-than-life thing going on. That's like 10 Moog guitar tracks spread out. So yeah tons of different guitars, and tons of different amp settings and amp configurations."

Well that was the next question: is it same for amplification?

B: "No, I used a Bad Cat but I also have an Oldfield that I used. I let him [Jake] do most of the guitar statements when we're putting albums together, and I just come in later. I'm more worried about my parts. We were saying earlier I think my strengths lately have been more in the singing department, and lyrics."

Are you usually in control of the lyrics?

B: "Whoever is singing it usually writes it."

We read that Educated Guess [from the new album] is about insomnia. Do any of you suffer from insomnia?

B: "Yeah, a little bit. A couple of us have Ambien prescriptions [prescribed medication for insomnia]. That song is about one guy one night taking it, drinking, and then kind of hanging out with us. But he was like, not with us, but he was with us…"

And he relayed his experiences to you?

B: "No, we could just tell."

J: "We were just watching him."

So it's written from your perspective?

Both: "Yeah"

It sounds like a singlecoil-esque solo on Similar Skin. It's a great guitar tone. What did you use on that?

J: "Yeah, you know what that was? That was my G&L ASAT Tele."

Did you double-track it?

J: [Mimes solo] "Yeah, that was double tracked."

It's a beautiful sound…

J: "Yeah it's a great guitar. It's got huge G&L singlecoil pickups that just like soak the tone up, real spanky kind of sound."

Would you consider, or have you used any of the digital modellers like the Axe-Fx or the Kemper in the studio?

J: "Well, I know it's convenient…"

Have you used them?

J: "I have used it, but I don't use it for the studio or anything. Everything is organic. I choose rather just to go straight into the amp sometimes, a little bit of reverb and turn that shit all the way up. Like the old tones."

Who are your current influences and who were your influences growing up as a guitarist?

B: "My first one was Jimmy Page. He taught me open tuning, acoustic fingerpicking, blues riffs."

Was that from a songwriting perspective more than the guitar playing?

B: "Yeah I guess actually more from a songwriting perspective, I never think about it because I wasn't learning his hot licks."

J: "For me like you know, Michael Schenker, UFO, Randy Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen. Some of the Tele masters like Danny Gatton, Roy Buchanan. Rory Gallagher."

We heard some Nuno Bettencourt?

J: "Nuno Bettencourt!"

B: "He can play!"

J: "His left hand, man… [makes machine-gun sound]"

He was a drummer; you're a drummer too aren't you Jake?

J: That's where I started. The pick is just a micro movement of the stick. Like to do jazz ride [does jazz ride impression] take that same movement and just apply it to the pick its kind of the same thing. You know just a macro, or a micro movement of the macro."

For more on Umphrey's McGee, visit the official Umphrey's McGee website.