Up in the stratospheric fishbowl of a swinging lakeside bachelor pad he rents from his parents, Umphrey’s McGee bassist Ryan Stasik is throwing a little cocktail party prior to a Yonder Mountain String Band show at Chicago’s House of Blues that most of his guests plan to attend. His house drink is Budweiser. The entertainment consists of a twisted little device that provides a short, sharp electric shock to anyone foolish enough to clutch it. And the guest list includes a bunch of more or less ordinary Midwestern twentysomethings, members of the band and its crew, some of whose ties extend back to grade school.
Umphrey’s keyboardist Joel Cummins is among the first to arrive. Newly single himself, he will mysteriously disappear en route to the show. Before doing so, though, he reminisces about the ongoing Spinal Tap-ocity of Umphrey’s career to date, beginning with the first show he ever played with Stasik, guitarist Brendan Bayliss, and original Umphrey’s drummer Mike Mirro: The time was January 21, 1998, and the place a dilapidated shack of a hole in South Bend, Indiana, called Bridget McGuire’s Filling Station. Joel laughingly describes the band’s power cutting out five notes into their first song, “Bob.” A male stripper hired for the occasion did his thing in celebration of Stasik’s future ex-girlfriend’s, ahem, nineteenth birthday. And the evening concluded with the bemused band watching a car crash into a telephone pole as they loaded out their equipment. “The guys just got out and ran into a field,” Cummins recalls.
Now, you might think those early days of mockumental tomfoolery would be long gone. After all, esteemed jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman temporarily joined the group, at his request, for several sizzling February shows. In June, the sextet’s late-night Bonnaroo set was a memorably epic four-hour shred fest. Later that month, the band released Anchor Drops (its fourth album but first with national distribution), a tightly composed, organically flowing, yet ass-kickingly immediate example of newfound studio smarts. And in August, Umphrey’s McGee was anointed nothing less than “the leading contenders for Phish’s jam-smeared crown” by no less an authority on all things rockist than Rolling Stone. Umphrey’s now regularly sells out venues in and around its chosen hometown, including the aforementioned House of Blues. And, most important, the band has rebounded solidly from the departure of its original drummer and is now making what all members agree is the most satisfying and promising music of their career with new sticksman Kris Meyer.
You might think so, but no. “Bob” was at least partially to blame as recently as September 2003, when the Niles, Michigan, police department prematurely evacuated the band from the Niles Riverfront Amphitheater stage shortly after the song had been played for the first time in four years. Claiming they were “disturbing the peace,” the police pulled the plug on what was supposed to have been a “Rest in Peace” show for a bunch of Fat Tony songs the band intended to retire from its permanent rotation. And since the show was a freebie sponsored by the city of Niles itself, Cummins cracks up at the absurdity of “the city’s cops shutting down their own show!”
And that’s not all. Earlier this year, the band found itself on the same course as Hurricane Ivan, whose wet wildness led to canceled shows in New Orleans and one muddy festival after another. As the band heads out on a two-week West Coast tour, Cummins wonders if the jaunt he now refers to as the Natural Disaster 2004 Tour will culminate in a volcanic rendezvous with Washington’s Mt. St. Helen, whose lovely lava dome has been growing steadily in recent weeks. And why not? Stranger things have happened over the life of this still relatively young but increasingly fascinating group of musical whirlpool surfers.
Take latecomer guitarist Jake Cinninger. The Michigan native got his musical start as a serious drum student from ages three to 16. Exposure to jazz guitarist Al Di Meola’s Casino at age seven introduced him to hyperspeed rhythmic precision. “I really got into guitar at 14, dissecting Randy Rhoads, Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen guitar solos,” Cinninger says over fish and chips near his Wrigleyville home. “I’d get Hal Leonard tablatures and slow them down to half-speed. I became obsessed with nailing something, and six hours later I could.” Soon Jake was playing in a string of working cover bands, making good money by often playing five sets a night, three nights a week, at American Legion halls. “It was pretty good for a small-town kid in the middle of nowhere.”
On the way to becoming Umphrey’s primary writer and master of a guitar style somewhere between dazzling and terrifying, Cinninger played double-bass drums with “advanced metal band” Visions, decided music school wasn’t his thing, and spent three years as the salaried guitaristarranger for a country trio called Avalanche that never got off the ground. “The lead singer got hurt in a car crash and they dropped us like a hot rock,” he says. Cinninger decided to put together everything he’d learned about jazz, bluegrass, heavy metal, death metal, satanic metal, and metal metal into the trio Ali Baba’s Tahini, with whom he composed a solid body of material that continues to make its way into Umphrey’s repertoire. The two bands created their own little scene in South Bend until 1998, when the Umphrey’s quintet moved to Chicago. Jake followed shortly after, eventually taking up lead singer and guitarist Brendan Bayliss on his offer to join the group should he ever want to.
The other band members’ musical educations were somewhat more orthodox. Cummins, Bayliss, Stasik and Mirro all studied at Notre Dame, and percussionist Andy Farag at Indiana University South Bend, all coming together after stints in Stomper Bob, Tashi Station, Reverend Funk, Driftwood and other less notable precursors. Kris Myers, who joined the group on New Year’s Eve 2002 after Mirro decided to pursue medical school, earned a master’s degree in jazz from Berklee College of Music. And it’s safe to say that the band’s defining event of the past two years has been Mirro’s departure and Myers’ arrival.
“We never saw it coming,” says Stasik, “and Mirro was probably my best friend going back to Notre Dame. Mike dropped the news on everybody very nonchalantly during a Steelers-Colts game. At first I didn’t take it seriously. Then I was hurt because he hadn’t even mentioned the possibility to me. We were in the middle of Louisiana and still had an entire tour to get through, so we had time to panic. But I respect his decision now, and we were blessed to find Kris’ portfolio at our door two weeks later.”
Myers’ package was the very first application opened by designated drum screener Farag, who happened to live just down the street from him. “We knew we could find someone who could play our stuff,” recalls Bayliss. “And we knew we could find someone we liked and could get along with. But we didn’t know if they would be the same person.” Kris first played Jake: "I tried him out in my little basement studio. He came in and said, ‘I’ve listened to “Hurt Bird Bath” but I’ve never played it. So let’s just try it.’ And he blows the whole thing perfectly. I still have it on tape. It’ll be a nugget for the box set." The band quickly went into recovery mode, teaching Myers 80 originals and handing him a list of 200 potential covers. They soon spent a terrible winter week on the East Coast, and Myers “got to pay some dues right away,” according to Bayliss. Cummins admits the band had a hard time changing gears: “It was like learning to drive an old stick-shift bus.”
Today, though, everyone agrees that Myers’ arrival is the best thing to happen to the band since Cinninger signed on. After his rocky start – “He was getting burnt,” says Cummins, “putting too much into it, trying too hard” – and lots of hard-earned advice about “road Zen” (e.g., the more you pack, the more you stand to lose), Myers has now become something of a musical mentor. Having never listened to the Grateful Dead or Phish, unlike the others, he holds little truck with directionless noodling, while boasting a wealth of technical drumming know-how and chops a-go-go.
Umphrey’s McGee was one of the first bands to hit the stage at the first Bonnaroo festival in 2002, and the qualitative leap between that afternoon show for some 12,000 fans and its more recent late-night extravaganza in front of an audience twice that size is remarkable. Even moe., who took over Umphrey’s instruments for a midshow mini-set in lieu of a set break, was just the glaze on the band’s all-night musical donut.
“We knew we had to make an impression at the first Bonnaroo,” Jake recalls. “We knew we had to play the best show we’ve played in our lives. That’s how we looked at the last Bonnaroo show, too, and it’s the secret to our success. We went into it like a football team, seriously strategizing but not enough to psych ourselves out.”
moe. guitarist Al Schnier observed a few years ago that “the band with the funny name from Indiana” was appearing at a lot of the same places moe. was. “You could see they were doing a good job,” he said recently, “and doing their homework, too, in terms of handbills and promotion. They obviously had their heads in the game.” Umphrey’s had even been covering moe.‘s tricky “Rebubula” prior to Jake’s arrival, the first instance Schnier knew of another band doing their material. “They reminded us of us at that age,” he says. “But when we saw them live, I thought, ‘Oh no, they’re actually a lot better than we were at their age. They actually stayed sober and played a lot better than we did – and their skill exceeds ours even now.”
No twin-guitar attack quite compares to Umphrey’s. Jake, as formidable a shredder as has ever come down the pike, has inspired Brendan to rev up his own formidable Jimmy Page and Trey Anastasio-inspired chops. Moreover, the band has gradually acquired a vocabulary of some 30 visual cues that make their signature “Jazz Odyssey” and “Jimmy Stewart” improvs sound less like hippie-band jams than worked-out compositions.
“Jake will create a line and I’ll look at his hands and create a harmony right away,” says Bayliss, slouching on a sofa in the comfortable Lakeview condo he shares with his wife and cat. “Then we’ll change it.” A happy face signifies a major key, for example, while sad means minor. A step forward takes everybody up a half step, two steps forward a whole step, and vice versa. Holding up four fingers means drums alone, three fingers means drums and bass. A raised thumb tells one musician to stop and giving the raspberries tells everyone to stop. “We’ve gotten good at making our jams sound contrived,” Bayliss says dryly.
With songs stitched together like patchwork quilts from countless Cinninger and Bayliss fragments, or from spontaneously concocted “Jimmy Stewart” and “Jazz Odyssey” creations, the Umphrey oeuvre presents listeners with a steep learning curve the band sweetens with Beatles, Zeppelin, Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, and, uh, Stormtroopers of Death covers. Complexity is their musical signature, so while some groups would ask, “Why insert a rhythmically challenging measure of 10/8 into an otherwise perfectly normal 4/4 passage?,” Umphrey’s asks, “Why not?” The band’s current challenge, however, is to instill more “space,” “breath,” and “patience” into their sound.
Umphrey’s McGee are musical maximalists in a scene that pays much lip service to the ideals of eclecticism and experimentation while usually delivering little of either. So how eagerly does Umphrey’s McGee welcome the “jamband” tag they somewhat reluctantly sport. “We want to be welcomed by the loveydovey scene,” Cinninger admits. “But I’d also like Genesis and Yes fans to listen to our album.” Cummins considers the post-Phish-jamband-kings thing a “double-edged sword,” and explains why: “I embrace the cool part about going out and improvising as a group. But the negative side are bands who just get wasted and riff on E-minor.” Any Phish comparisons you’d care to lob he deflects by observing, “It’s probably more we rip off the same guys they did: Zappa, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Miles, and so forth.”
The group looks forward to playing fewer gigs in bigger venues in upcoming months. Strategically located a day’s drive from a healthy slew of East Coast and Midwestern markets, they’d like to drop from 130-140 shows per year to less than 100. A week or two of private life each month has become a priority as the band prepares to reenter the studio early next year for its next album. It’s all about maintaining a healthy balance because a tightly meshed machine like Umphrey’s McGee can’t afford to come unhinged. “The whole rock thing was about excess,” says Bayliss. “But now we have VH1’s Behind the Music to teach us what that did to musicians. We can’t live the same lifestyle they did. It was obviously so stupid. Behind the Music has been a blessing to us all.”
Blisteringly precise and gloriously soaring avatars of a new virtuosity, Umphrey’s McGee offsets Zappa-esque low humor like Cinninger’s “40s Theme,” a greasy ode to malt liquor and “hot as balls” home cookin’, with Bayliss’ koanic ruminations on the vagaries of relationships, with occasional highbrow allusions to the likes of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. But in the end they’re just a rock and roll band, albeit one that can extend a collective pod in whatever other direction they desire. As far as being slightly absurd sons of the Tap, that will always be there Stasik promises over beer and deep-dish pizza. " ‘Cause we’re just Midwestern, Budweiser-drinking jackasses."