Under The Skin

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"We've been doing this for 16 years now. I graduated from college and went straight into the band, so I haven’t had a real job,” says Umphrey’s McGee singer and guitarist Brendan Bayliss. “I’m not qualified to do anything else, so if anything, we need to make it work out of necessity. I wouldn’t know what else to do with my life – which is a good thing.

“We are based across the US now,” he continues, “but we don’t go long without seeing each other. Some bands take longer breaks and their lives can be more separate, but we’re constantly in communication. We don’t have the chance to grow apart, so whatever vision we have stays concrete.”

Speaking to the droll Bayliss, what comes over strongly is the group’s collective energy. Not only do they put in the hours, but they are also constantly challenging themselves and thinking of new ways of working. Their more voluble keyboard player Joel Cummins is equally enthusiastic.

“We have about 175 original pieces of music,” he says. “We’ll go out for five nights in a row and not repeat a song. That keeps it fresh for everybody, the fans included. I can’t imagine being in a band and playing 100 concerts a year and playing the same concert every night. It just seems crazy.”

Originally from Indiana, Umphrey’s McGee are a sextet with a wide range of influences – we talk about Led Zeppelin, Queen, Gentle Giant, Miles Davis, King Crimson, The Beatles, Debussy and 16th-century choral polyphony – but their penchant for free-flowing improvisation has helped spawn the rather clunky neologism ‘improg’ – as if prog didn’t incorporate improvisation anyway – and they are regarded as one of America’s premier jam bands.

To this writer, that appellation also has negative connotations – of witnessing interminable pub blues jam nights with musicians who don’t know when to stop. This is the sort of pitfall Umphrey’s McGee are keen to avoid. The group are adept improvisers who are used to each other’s styles – which you’d expect as they’ve played around 2,000 shows together. They have also found ways out of potential music dead ends.

“We realised for us that one connotation [of being a jam band] is that we are going to noodle around for 20 minutes and try to get somewhere – and that’s not interesting to us,” he says. “If we got into a spot, next day someone would say, ‘Remember last night when we got stuck in A Minor for 10 minutes? That sucked – how do we avoid it in the future?’”

As Frank Zappa fans, the band had noticed how he would conduct the musicians with a series of hand signals, and they decided to do something similar. “One of our cues is leaning back, which means ‘go back to the previous idea’,” says Bayliss, who reveals that there are other signals to indicate a change of key or speed, or to maintain their tack.

“It’s all about forward momentum. If we hit a peak, we’ll give a signal called ‘Milking the Cow’,” Cummins laughs. “Once we get the crowd going, we will try and keep on that for a few minutes. We also have talkback microphones that only go to the musicians’ in-ear monitors, so if it’s something more specific, we can say, ‘OK, next time on the downbeat, just guitars.’ This feed goes to our lighting guy Jefferson Waful, so he’ll hit it with the lights as well. It messes with the audience’s minds. They’re thinking, ‘If they improvised that, how did the lights know when to change?’”

Umphrey’s McGee have just released their new album, Similar Skin, on their own Nothing Too Fancy label. The idea is that each song is mutable material that can be extended onstage, but on record, they present it in its distilled form. “These days, with iPods and shuffling, people don’t have the attention span that they used to,” Bayliss explains. “So you don’t have as much time to make that statement – you have to make it count, and make it count quickly.”

Cummins mentions that although the album is more rock-based than before, he singles out Educated Guess as an example of how the group’s questing nature can lead them towards more outré ideas. It’s a restless, shifting song with sweet vocal melodies and luminous keyboards set against dark guitar lines, sometimes in staccato sections in unison with the bass guitar.

“It’s probably the most complicated song in terms of what’s happening with melody and harmony,” Cummins explains. “With that one we wanted to do something that pushed the boundaries of what sounds good together. There are some chords there with a lot of tension that doesn’t necessarily get released. It’s pushing you towards being uncomfortable, but asking if you can accept this as something that works.”

Bayliss has said that they wanted to “trim the fat” with Similar Skin. But as there are some real earworms of pop melodies on there – oddly redolent of The Police or occasionally The Beatles via Jeff Lynne and Kurt Cobain, or even early Steely Dan – what if they pared the music back still further and made it more stadium friendly?

“That would be a step too far as, after all, we are a rock band,” he counters. “The last song on the album, Bridgeless, is nearly 10 minutes long. It’s progressive and it’s definitely not a Britney Spears pop song. We were trying a make some concise statements and once we have [the listener’s attention] we can play that track and ‘Ha! Gotcha!’”

Bayliss explains that for Bridgeless, the group listened back to live improvisations, which yielded the material for six of its 10 sections. It’s been a work in progress for years, but finally recorded, it’s a tour de force, with a couple of verses, sinuous unison passages, more relaxed keyboard-led sections and some angular, Zeppelin-like riffing, all played with a dazzling panache.

Putting across subtle messages in a rock lyric has never been easy to accomplish. But in keeping with the group’s restless energy, Bayliss’ lyrics seem to carry a strong awareness of mortality, the interconnectedness of things and a sense of urgency.

“You got it,” he concurs. “I’m not interested in empty messages. I like something that will stay with me and make me think, even after the song is over. I don’t want to be singing about unicorns and rainbows. I think it’s important to talk about these things, to be thought provoking, because when you look at television and pop culture, it’s just so shallow.

“But,” he adds, “I don’t want to get too serious as people want to go out and see a rock show and have fun. I’m not getting any younger and I don’t know how many more opportunities I will have to make something that people will listen to, so I want to make it count. So, you’re right, there is a sense of urgency.”

While there’s no point getting complacent, of course, Umphrey’s McGee have forged a unique relationship with their fanbase, which is currently thriving. In Umphrey’s McGee’s annual UMBowl shows, they play a particularly challenging interactive set, inviting fans to pick songs to play. And with access to a streaming archive of around 1,100 of their live shows, fans can also pick out improvisations that they would like recreated.

There’s a section – “like Eno’s Oblique Strategies”, says Cummins – where fans text in ideas, which are sorted by a front-of-house team and presented to the group. In the final section, there are a number of voting points in the set to determine what happens next, and even in what style the band should play – for example, funk or industrial.

Through their Headphones & Snowcones initiative, fans can even hire a wireless headset to listen to the soundboard mix, as well as the onstage sound. “Some people think of it as isolating, but you can focus more on what’s going on,” Bayliss says. “It’s kind of cool for me, because I will be looking at the crowd and see somebody with it and I’ll watch them sharing it with the guy or girl next to them, and when they put it on, their eyes light up.”

Crucially, Umphrey’s McGee’s strategy of relentless touring, building up a fanbase and yet keeping their independence has meant they have avoided the pitfalls of signing with a major label in a contracting record industry, where groups can end up owing a fortune if they don’t sell millions.

“If we are not going to make a load of money from albums, we can at least do it for ourselves and not ask for permission,” Bayliss says. “At this point we are 100 per cent independent, completely debt free and in control of our careers. We aren’t doing anything because we owe anyone anything – we do it because we want to.”

“We feel that we are masters of our own destiny in that sense,” adds Cummins. “We’ve done what we felt we’ve needed to do creatively and asked the fans once in a while. That’s all the guidance we’ve needed.”

Similar Skin is out now on Nothing Too Fancy Music. See www.umphreys.com for information.