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Umphrey’s McGee Concert and Band Interview

by Steve DellaSala October 09, 2014
Umphrey’s McGee Concert and Interview

Umphrey’s McGee Concert and Interview

Audioholics had an amazing opportunity to meet up with some of the folks from Umphrey’s McGee during their show in Orlando, Florida on August 30th at the House of Blues.  Umphrey’s McGee is without doubt, my favorite modern day band, even when considering all of the styles of music I follow, including Progressive Rock and Fusion Jazz.  The reason is that Umphrey’s has found a magical combination of some of the best genres of music that they masterfully weave in and out of every single song they do.  Most of their live material consists of improvised jams of more than ten minutes.  These talented musicians can fit nearly any conceivable style into their set, from a Country twang (minus the cheesy lyrics), to a Grateful Dead style jam interwoven with progressions inspired by the likes of King Crimson, Steven Wilson, and Philip Glass.  Umphrey’s can “mash” them all together to form truly inspiring music and then put on a three hour concert that includes the most stellar light show out there today.  But don’t go searching for them on your FM dial.  They are far too advanced for the monopolized Clear-Channel monolithic ad nauseam loops of four chord songs found on nearly every station throughout the United States.  Instead, you have to go a bit underground to find Umphrey’s and to become part of their cult-like following.  They are a staple diet on SiriusXM’s Jam On channel.  Pandora is also chock full of Umphrey’s McGee along with other great Jam Bands like String Cheese Incident, The Disco Biscuits and Galactic, to name a few.  But, if you really want to tap into Umphrey’s eight studio releases along with every live performance since 2006, look no further than one of their two very own websites.  Yes, you read correctly.  Every one of their 100+ per year live performances since 2006 is available for download in various formats, including FLAC HD.  Umphrey’s is also known to do live podcasts during select shows making their music and live performances more readily available than any other band of their magnitude. 

umphrey_mcgee_2Umphrey’s McGee formed in 1997 at Notre Dame Campus in Indiana with friends and fellow classmates, Brendan Bayliss and Joel Cummins.  Aside from the addition of the multi-technique shred-master guitar virtuoso Jake Cinninger in 2000, the band has had a stable lineup.  These six musical geniuses are fully competent enough to take requests from the audience and play songs instantly without previously rehearsing.  Perhaps the best part about Umphrey’s McGee live is their mesmerizing syncopated multi-color lights skillfully crafted by Jefferson Waful.  His workmanship would have made The Fillmore’s Bill Graham proud.  Timing a light show with Umphrey’s performances is no easy task when considering the show is mostly improvised.  As Audioholics learned during our interview, Waful is linked to the band through their talk-back-mics which they use to communicate during performances.  Between the talk-back-mics and specially developed hand-signals, Bayliss and Cinninger have the ability to take the driver’s seat to steer the next tempo, rhythm and/or key change, on the fly.  An enchanted audience not only hears a change to the music, but they also witness a perfectly timed, sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, change to the lights as though it was intentionally planned ahead.  Umphrey’s success has given them the ability to be completely independent and form their own Indie record label called Nothing Too Fancy (N2F).  Cinninger tells Audioholics that having their own record label has allowed the band to “be in charge of our own destiny.”  And what a destiny that is with over 3.3-million tracks sold and downloaded to date.  Their 8th studio album titled Similar Skin is yet another masterpiece from this versatile band with songs that take on a bit of a commercial edge at times, but then quickly move right into their legendary riffs that have mesmerized fans for 17 years. 

umphrey_mcgee_3Perhaps one slightly overlooked offering that Umphrey’s McGee has at their live shows is what’s called Head Phones and Snow Cones.  For a nominal fee, audience members can rent a system that includes Audio-Technica headphones and a Sennheisser in-ear monitor wireless pack.  Merchandise guru Louie Meyette hooked up Audioholics with two sets for the show.  Being an audio fanatic, I couldn’t resist the offer and eagerly played with the system for the first few songs.  I kept switching between the headphones and just my plain ole ears to compare the difference.  What I discovered was something spectacular.  The system allows you to perfectly balance the volume of the headset to the sound from the house speakers.  Most of the low bass and deep rumble from the PA was still present, but the headphones did something simply remarkable.  When wearing them, it muffled background noise like the annoying people who love to talk during a show, and it also eliminated the undesirable lack of acoustics from the worst venue in Orlando called The House of Blues.  What made my jaw drop was that it also allowed me to hear every single nuance of the performance, which would normally be lost in the echo.  I could hear when Cinninger was cupping his strings along with every single note being plucked, all perfectly clear.  It added a whole new dimension to the show that I never knew was possible without being home and listening on my high-end audio system.  I still felt the power of the live show, but I also felt like I was right on stage with the band listening to their amplifiers.  Front House Engineer, Chris Mitchell, tells us that they are acquiring more systems and that there will be plenty for rent at future shows.  It is without a doubt, worth the investment.


Our interviews were with master-guitar-guru Jake Cinninger and Front House Engineer, Chris Mitchell.  Mitchell gave Audioholics a unique perspective of how Umphrey’s live shows are coordinated from mixing for the band and house, to talk-back-mics, their incredible Headphones and Snowcones and how the music goes from the board to their website for download.    

Jake Cinninger Interview:

AH:  How has progressive rock influenced you.

JC:  Progressive rock is the reason why I’m here.  Once I got a hold of my parent’s record collection, when I was about three……once I could actually drop the needle on the record player and not get scolded for breaking something…..I ended up literally diving into their record collection.  They were really young when they had me (17 / 18 years old), and I was an only child and they had this awesome record collection from the 70s, late 60s, which scoured anything from Frank Zappa, Johnny Hooker, Stravinsky, to The Grateful Dead, to Utopia….which Utopia was the first concert I’ve ever seen.  My dad took me on his shoulders, put earplugs in, walked up front……

AH:  How old were you?

JC:  Four years old.  That was watermark moment for me.

AH:  Do you remember any of it?

JC:  I do.  I really remember the spaceship drum set, because it was The Adventures in Utopia tour.  I remember Willie Wilcox had the Linn Drum, the first electronic drum, in 1979.  It wasn’t a real drum; it was more like a pad.  He had this spaceship drum kit that rotated around in circles and had smoke bombs and all this other stuff.  That’s what got me into wanting to do this for a living.

AH:  Umphrey’s achieved complete independence from record companies.  How has the bands success grown as a result of this risky move?

JC:  We noticed that the idea of record companies for a band like us was more of a hindrance than a helpful thing.  Especially when we wanted to be in charge of our destiny, as far as owning all of our music and not having to bargain for any of that sort of stuff.  So, we used the internet as a huge tool, just to get our word out, early on.  I think we were one of the first bands to really use all aspects of the internet to get our name out there.  A lot of it is just giving stuff away for free.  To be able to have your whole live catalog easily accessible for someone to get into.  Because, there’s a learning curve with our kind of music I think.  It takes more than one show to sort of get it.  So, the idea is to grab people in by giving them a surplus of options including multiple websites, multiple ways of streaming the audio or video, or anything.  Huge YouTube accounts, this and that…It’s just multitasking to see how many directions you can go within the internet.  And actually having a name like “Umphrey’s McGee” is very google friendly because there’s nothing spelled that way, besides maybe “Umpires.”

AH:  Every concert since 2006 is available for download.  Has that impacted the sales of UM’s studio releases?  Especially when considering the live shows will eventually have the new material recorded.

JC:  Well, I think the studio and the live thing are two different beasts.  We’ve always looked at the studio as the place where we had all our paints and canvas and this is our be all end all version of a song.  It’s a place where we can do all of that cool studio sweeping that you just really can’t do live.  And the idea of the artwork to flow through the vibe of the record…..so I think it’s a different package.  We don’t really look at studio records as bands did back in the 70s and 80s as a, be all end all thing.  It’s just something we kinda have to do and we manage to put out a new record every couple of years.

AH:  It’s interesting the way you stated that.  It seems that live shows are really Umphrey’s thing.

JC:  Ya, it’s definitely our bread and butter because we can play five shows in a row without repeating any songs.  Right there that’s the reason for fans to come see us multiple nights.

AH:  Is it a good business model too, about selling all of your live material?  Because, people want to download and replay their live show.

JC: Ya, there’s nothing like instant gratification.  You just finished a live show and you can instantly hear it in your car or get it the next day from our website.

AH:  How much of your studio music is played live vs. separate tracks.  In other words, when you are in the studio, are you all playing live to capture the song or do you do a lot of over tracks? 

JC:  We definitely get the drums down and then we’ll go back to get the right tones. So, it’s sort of a round up…..we get the best drum take and that’s our template for the song.  We’ll start going back and get the bass tone to sound ridiculous and get the whole bass track.  Then we’ll start messing around with the guitars and amp configuration and lay down the guitar tracks.  Isolate the percussion, do all the vocals, so it’s very much a studio process to make sure we get all the notes in the right place.

AH:  Has SiriusXM JamOn attribute to some of UM’s success?

JC:  For sure.  Those guys have been really, really helpful in getting our name out to people who might not know us.  I think that’s the easiest way, good ole’ fashion radio type of syndicated thing.  Where you just pop up.  It’s not your choice as a listener.  You’re kinda force fed it just like classic radio.  That’s how bands made their fame back in the day.  Radio made them either a success or a fumble.  I also think it’s great when a cover of ours shows up on Sirius Radio.  Like a Pink Floyd cover like, Shine On You Crazy Diamond.  That’s a song we really knock out of the park and we play close to the original.  And then maybe a listener who never heard us before would go, “wow, who is this?”  And then, right there, starts the relationship.

AH:  UM’s music is downloadable in FLAC HD audio.  About what percentage of UM’s music is downloaded in this high definition format?

JC:  I would say like 25% to 30%.  A lot of our fans are hippy audiophiles.  A lot of our fans say, “Oh, I really don’t listen to CDs at home, I listen to records.”   That’s where my heart is.  I don’t touch a CD when I go home.  I’ve got 4,000 vinyls with a huge room with a great hi-fi system with old Klipsh speakers and Morantz everything, you know all vintage stuff.  It sounds unbelievable.  So, I think our fans have the same type of mantra with listening.

AH:  How did the idea of doing stellar light shows come about?

JC:  I think a good example of why lights are so key to our performance is when we do some sort of radical change in the music.  Some sort of shifting, or tempo change, or just a hairpin turn with the music, and the lights can accentuate that right at that moment.  A song like “Plunger” that has quite a few little sections; or a song like “Mantis” that has fifteen sections in sort of a Progressive Rock style.  The lights are tuned into every section of the song and the changes.  So the visual entices the audio and vice versa.  It’s all kind of connected.

AH:  How does the light operator even know when the changes are forthcoming when considering the amount of improvisation you do live?

JC:  We use talk-back-mics and hand signals, so he can tell when we’re about to go into something.  Usually, there’s one shepherd and one sheep on stage as far as who’s directing.  Any one of us can be a shepherd or a sheep.  Last night (August 29th, in Athens, GA) I was shepherd heavy for example, and when we would be in A-minor, and all of a sudden I’m throwing out hand signals to change the key to E or C or D or any other key, like E-flat (saying while showing me the different hand gestures for each).  So, we have all these different baseball queues that we maneuver through.  So, the lighting guy can actually watch for when I’m about to throw out one of these queues and he’ll count “one-two-three-four” and boom.  So, it’s usually set up on a rotating key and then a measure to sort of anticipate the change.  I’ll throw the key, count to four and then the change happens.  And then some time goes by and “ok, let’s do E” and then I’ll count “one-two-three-four” we all shift so, we go from blue to green and all of a sudden there might be a sweep of lights or something.  So, it’s all very subtle, and it’s nice to be in an improve setting where it sounds and appears to all be very intentional.

AH:  Ocean Billy has similarities to Steven Wilson crossed with 2001 Space Odyssey theme song.  Was he an inspiration to this and/or any other UM song?

JC:  There’s definitely a “King Crimson-y” sort of simplicity (as he plays the lick on guitar, then ending on a note).  What’s cool is the tension note to the resolution and then the suspense note which creates the tension.  So, just based on that one note it creates this really eerie vibe.

AH:  That’s why I associate that also with Steven Wilson.  Like his song, “No Twilight Within the Courts of the Sun.”

JC:  I love Steven Wilson.  He’s one of the most brilliant “cats” putting anything out right now.  He’s really focused, has a direction and his ears are really amazing, he knows what to do with studio gear and he’s putting out some of my favorite records.

AH:  He’s going to be releasing an HD Multi-Channel version of Yes’ “Relayer” next.

JC:  That’s a big challenge because of how much stuff goes on in that album.

AH:  We’re going to be interviewing him in the near future.

JC:  Tell him the guy from Umphrey’s says hello.

AH:  What would you consider UM’s most “King Crimson” like song?

JC:  A song called, “Eat.”  It’s on a live recording.  Because it’s really heavy and rigid and tuff.  (He plays it on the guitar).

AH:  Much of your live jams incorporate guitar progressions of repeating patterns that slowly evolve and morph into something completely different.  This style is reminiscent of Philip Glass and Robert Fripp (solo and King Crimson).  Do they influence UM’s music? 

JC:  Yes, very much so.  I think the minimalism that those guys do, on top of being technically brilliant…..they’ve learned how to use like five notes and just bury them into the ground, which is very cool.  They use repetition and it becomes very hypnotic.  I think that goes in with a lot of the newer dance-y and trance-y kind of vibe.  (He then goes on to play examples on the guitar).  I like to play stuff that is very robotic.  Instead of using a delay machine or something to just sort of fake it, you learn how to do like a Jaco Pastorius kind of thing and you keep on playing it until you just can’t play it anymore.

AH:  What inspires UMs lyrics and song themes?

JC:  Well, usually the music is created sometimes months, or even years before the lyrics are finished.  The lyrics are probably the pain staking part of finishing a song.  I’ll have a musical thing completely done and give it to (Brendan) Bayliss and he’ll have it on the shelf for like, six months before we have something actually finished.  He may rewrite it three or four times before he thinks it’s even cool to show to us.  I like the way Bayliss writes, it’s very cryptic and sort of vague.  You can get triple meanings out of things.  You can think about yourself or you think about other people when you hear the lyrics.  It’s not very obvious what the lyrics mean, which is nice.  It’s almost like, trying to be a good little person inside of the music too.  There’s always some sort of message about maybe becoming a better person, inside of a lot of what we write about.  And then there’s stuff like “40’s Theme” and some of my stuff which has some is a little more goofy based sort of like Frank Zappa; having a little bit of humor inside of the lyrics I write.

AH:  Does everyone have a hand in the lyric writing?

JC:  No, it’s usually just Bayliss and I.  Bayliss is the main vocalist and I’d say that I play a little bit more lead guitar than he does.  My role is more like 30% vocals, 70% guitar and he’s like 70% vocals and 30% guitars.  Which is a nice comfortable balance that we’ve created.  I’m a baritone so I don’t have that really strong high voice, and he has a tenor.  So, it just makes sense that his voice is up front in that upper register.  I’ll fall back and shred a little on guitar.

AH:  How do you guys come up with the mash up songs?

JC:  We started listening to how DJs were mashing some of our favorite old songs.  So, we started to understand what the chemistry behind it is was.  So, if songs have the same key signature, like A-minor, and it’s the same tempo, there’s probably a good chance that you can play one or the other over each other and sing vice-versa the lyrics.  It’s just like doing a little chemistry problem while your switching things up.  (Starting to play examples on the guitar) I think a good example would be Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhianna” and Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”  They are both in the same key, A-minor (he starts plays the Rhianna intro and then blends it into Don’t Fear the Reaper riff while singing the lyrics to Rhianna).  And stuff like Led Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times” (he plays the main riff and then blends it into Pink Floyd’s “Money”).  We just try to find things with the exact same tempo and they pretty much work out.  We take the ideas to the drawing board and play them during a rehearsal setting.

AH:  You take requests at live shows.  Sometimes, you even take on the challenge of someone requesting a specific way to play the song.  How do you guys keep all of your music active enough to play upon request, and more importantly, how do you improvise a new way of playing it during a show?

JC:  As far as the keeping of the data stored…..I mean, we’ve been a band for about 16-years now, so, I just look at it like, that part of our brain is a little bit more used than the normal human, I think.  There’s a part where I’ve compartmentalized all of this data, and it’s almost like what you might call muscle memory.  I’m really not thinking about the songs necessarily.  I can just look at the song on the paper and instantly my brain can tell what song it is and then turn it instantly into muscle memory.  So, the songs are just etched into my head basically.  If I play a song more than sixteen times, it is probably like engraved in there.  So I can kind of wake up from a dead sleep, walk across the room, pick up the guitar and play almost any song off of our catalog.  And sometimes, we obviously rehearse a little bit just to make sure we’ve got something complicated down.  But any of the riffs, I just look at on a piece of paper and say, ya this is that song (starts playing).  It just sort of comes naturally.  We all do that.

When it comes down to trying to come up with something new, from an old song, we might take the jazz aspect of it and say, “what would a jazz guy apply to some of the licks?” (starts to play) in order to try to change it up completely.

AH:  What are your go to pedals and amps?

JC:  Well, the Moogerfooger Delay by Moog.  I think I was one of the first guys to get one probably, about 15-years ago when it first came out.  I have serial number 30, like one of the first ones.  And then it recently got water damaged, a couple of weeks ago, so I got a new one with tap delay.  Then I was like, “oh ya, I didn’t have a tap delay before, this makes it a whole lot easier.” 

I love my Fuchs Audio head, I have the ODS 100 watt head custom built by Andy Fuchs.  Because it sort of screams like an old Dumble and you don’t have to spend $40,000 on the head.  It’s got the sweetest clean sound very bell like, Mark Knopfler-ish.  And then my second stage amp is an Old Field custom built JC-100, made for me with my initials in it.  It’s pretty much like a Marshall Plexi with a lot more balls.  It does my heavy crunch.

AH:  So your distortion is amp driven, not pedal driven?

JC:  Ya, exactly.  I do have a slew of pedals for different gain variables.  I have my gain all over the place for certain songs.  But generally, when I’m doing something real heavy, I switch the amp (Old Field), and my Fuchs is always set clean and I have some various pedals that run into that.  Ya, Fuchs, the Old Field, my G&L Guitars.  They (G&L) are just boat anchors, they’re really good on the road, they stay in tune because I play pretty hard.

AH:  What is that you are using for the wammy bar?

JC:  This is what they call a Jake Blade.  It’s something I came up with (plays guitar using “Jake Blade”).  It reacts differently than a bar, because bars are a little bit inconsistent with tension.  So, with the less amount of tension (compared to a bar), I can get a sweeter bend.  And I can use the butt of the guitar too.  It’s almost like a Jeff Beck type sound (more playing).  It sounds almost like a slider….a longer wave form I can play slower…..It’s a different technique.  It’s so simple how that little change (from bar to Jake Blade) can drastically change the tone and the sound.   

Chris Mitchell Interview:

umphrey_mcgee_5AH:  Tells us about your role as a Front House. 

CM:  Front House is the Engineering position that mixes the different inputs coming from the stage into usually a stereo pair to be presented to the audience through speakers.  The other engineering position will be on stage mixing what the band hears so that they can successfully get through the performance.

AH:  Give us an idea on what life is like on the road with Umphrey’s?

CM:  It’s about three different things going on simultaneously.  Because you’re at your job, you’re on the road with a band, which is really cool because there’s all the music, and then, you’re doing shows with people that are at a party.  So, all three things are happening at once.  And you have to be able to juggle the three and make it successfully through it.  And, these guys as far as the band thing goes, they’re one of the best at their work.  They know their shi$$, they’re phenomenal, they play their parts, they’re creative, they’re flexible, and they get together as a cohesive unit.  A lot of bands don’t do that.  So that makes being with the band part really easy.  The party part is not too bad.  The fans are rarely out of order, and very respectful.  Every once in a while, we’ll get the drunk at the front of the house who wants to shake hands, or borrow my set list.  And then there’s traveling around the world.  They’ve taken us to some phenomenal places.  It’s great when you’re job is on the beach in Jamaica, before Christmas.

AH:  Are the live concert downloads taken straight off the board?

CM:  Yes.  It’s the board mix with a pair of audience mics.  We keep a pair of downstage pointing out at the audience.  Those only come in when the band stops playing, to get the depth of field.  And the combination of those two are run through a limiter and that’s it.

AH:  So how do you go from that to uncompressed FLAC HD? 

CM:  At the end of the evening. I will take a copy of the recording out of the recorder.  We use a Tascam Compact Flash Recorder.  It comes off at 24/48.  I drop it in WaveLab.  I break up the set into songs, track it out with proper labels, render it to wave files, and I use dBpoweramp FLAC convert to convert the files.  And then 35 about minutes after I get started, I start uploading.  Depending on the internet in the house, sometimes I can get it up that night, sometimes it takes until morning.

AH:  Really, that quick?  So, tonight’s show will be up by tonight or tomorrow?

CM:  We have a slight delay because of error checking.  I have guys come behind me make sure I didn’t misspell anything, miss a track.  These guys do pretty much do improve and it’s a different set list.  The set list I start with at the end of the night is not the set list I end with at the end of the night.  Ever!

AH:  What is the biggest challenge with being the front man for UM?

CM:  The improve.  The fact that, ya, they give me a list of songs that they’re more than likely going to play.  But even if they play the thing that’s on the list 50% of what that song could be is improved, that they’ve never done before, and they have no idea where it’s going.  So I kinda have to read that on the fly to make the mix out of whatever I think they’re thinking they want to do.

AH:  Are you part of their onstage hand singles?

CM:  No.  Since I’m out front and I have lights between me and them, and sometimes I’m a 150 feet away.

AH:  So, how does the light guy do it then?

CM:  He’s usually a little bit higher up and I give him a special mix from my console that has the talk-back from the stage.  The guys have a set of talk back mics so they could talk to each other without getting in the PA, for planning things.  Since he hears that he’s a little bit ahead.

AH:  How does Jefferson Waful come up with such stellar light shows?

CM:  I have no f’n idea.  He basically has a set of scenes, images, lights pointing in different directions, and different colors.  He’ll build those to match the stage before the show.  That’s what he’s doing right now.  And then during the show, in the same way that the band is playing from sets of chords and rhythm patterns, he paints a beautiful image from scenes that he constructed during the day to match what’s being played.  So it’s kind of improved with lights.

AH:  Reading your bio, it states that you enjoy recording up-and-coming / local bands.  Who do you believe UM fans should be on the look-out for?

CM:  There’s a band out of New York called Tauk.  I really like what they’re doing right now.  Dopapod.  They’re more of a dance electronica but they bring a taste of prog into it, and they seem to have the same musical root structure that Umphrey’s has.  So, our fans usually find their music kinda fun.

AH:  How is tonight’s performance at this less than desirable (Orlando House of Blues), small enclosed venue with mostly obstruction viewing and an upstairs balcony with almost not viewing areas to the stage going to influence the way you present the show?

CM:  Not at all.  Tonight’s mix will be the same if I were mixing in an arena or if I were mixing in a 300-seater in Chicago.  I try to make the mix both fit the room, yet it has to translate into the UM Live.  So if I change the mix to fit the room, then I’m going to take away something from the UM Live.  And a lot of people listen to that (UM Live).  So, I try to change the room to fit the mix that I’m making.  I’ll change the PA so that its response is more linear.  I will address the band’s noise level so that if they’re too loud, they come down or if they’re not loud enough, they come up.  We have shields around the drum kit to keep the loud cymbals and snares from overwhelming the room and it gives me some headroom in the mix.  So, we try to tame things down so that the show they put on can result in a great recording and a good show.  If I make one and not the other, somebody is going to be disappointed.  But if I know I’m making a good recording and then I make the room fit my needs for the show, both are going to be great.

Swing by our Merch table and see Louie Meyette so you can check out our Headphone and Snowcones tonight.  It includes a really nice receiver and headphones.  Or, you can bring your own headphones.  It’s going to be really great to hear that tonight because the obstructed sight line, because less than 30% of the room has access to the stereo image.  So, if you’re over here (where we were sitting) it’s going to sound like you’re over here.  But when you put the headphones on, you’re standing in front of house; you’re dead on with stereo image.