Umphrey’s McGee | Red Rocks Preview

By: Bryan Tobian

Umphrey’s McGee by Brian Spady
Umphrey's McGee is a huge name in today's live music circuit. The band has been together since 1998 and continues to grow every year. On July 3rd, they return for their second headlining show at the stellar Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado for their second Red Rocks and Blue Independence Day celebration. JamBase had the opportunity to catch up with guitarist-lead vocalist Brendan Bayliss beforehand with a teleconference from sweltering hot Des Moines, Iowa, where they are preparing for a show.

What kind of planning does Umphrey's do for a big show such as Red Rocks & Blue, Halloween or New Year’s Eve? How far in advance do you start working on it?

Halloween typically takes the most planning with the mash-ups, going back and forth to see who will do what, that probably takes the most effort. New Year's is the next and Red Rock's we're still kind of having a dialogue; we still have a couple more days to prepare. You basically look at what you did last time and try to repeat as little as possible and try to do some new things, but at the same time you need to make sure to really bring it home. So, we're having a talk about Red Rocks today, and last night I looked at what we've done and made a list of definite things we shouldn't do. The 'yes' pile is kind of tiny. Last year for Red Rocks we didn't really do a whole lot of prep for it. I wrote two or three different setlists the night before on the flight and we kind of picked from that because there were a lot of options that way. It's funny you should ask that because today (July 1) is the day we're kind of sitting down and figuring that out.

My tally says that, including the July 4th show in Boulder, there have been 19 sold out shows out of 53 played so far this year. Congratulations on that.


Ticket sales aside, do you more enjoy playing a 500-person show with a diehard crowd at places like the Belly-Up or Holidaze, or a 10,000-person show such as a festival set or at Red Rocks?

Umphrey’s McGee @ Red Rocks 2010 by Chad Smith
I don't speak for everybody but, for me, it's easier to get into it…I'd rather play a small room packed than a big room half empty. There's just something about the energy of the full room - it's sold out and there's people who wanted to get in who can't and I think it kind of pumps up the people who are there and it just translates to a higher energy. At the same time, when you play a place like Red Rocks…it never feels like…like you've been there before. I don't know how to describe it, but all the times we've been there it's always felt like the first time. I mean Red Rocks is a separate entity. I wouldn't compare it to anything else. There's nothing like it.

Does the band or do you personally have any day-of or pre-game rituals?

Typically, I try to get away and hide, do some vocal warm-ups, run down the setlist, and practice all of the passages I think I will mess up if I don't. I try to do that about an hour before we get together as a group, where we look at the setlist and go through everything on our practice gear about an hour out [before showtime]. Then, we have a half hour to have a drink and try and relax and clear our minds.

Do you still get nervous or is walking onto a stage like walking into the office?

Honestly, I don't really get nervous unless there's a really small room. I played at my friend's bar The Store and there were probably about 150 people there and I was terrified. Then we play Hangout Fest and there were 20,000 people and I don't even think twice about it. It was more like, “Oh this is awesome; we're on a beach.” So, I think, for me, the smallest crowds freak me out and the big ones are kind of too big to think [about]. The adrenaline just kind of takes over.

When did you realize that Umphrey's McGee was going to be a career?

UM drummer Kris Meyers preps for his
1st show on January 23, 2003
I would probably say when our first drummer quit in 2002. We were in Shreveport, Louisiana and we got a hotel and had a little pow wow, and we kind of said, “This is your chance to walk and nobody is going to question your loyalty or anything. If we're going to do this, this is where we regroup and focus.” At that point when nobody wanted to walk away from it and we wanted to keep it going I realized there's something here. Shortly after that we started playing bigger crowds, got out of the van and into a bus. There's no one clear moment. I guess the first time we opened for the Dave Matthews Band and my parents came [was another moment]. They actually kind of got it for the first time and realized that I hadn't borrowed money from them in ten years. That's another time it really hit for me, too.

From your perspective, what's different about Umphrey's McGee of five years ago from today's model?

I'd say the difference from five years ago is that half of us are married now, two of the other guys are engaged, [and] Jake has a kid. The main difference is that we are trying to figure out ways to be home more. For example, this summer we have a couple of Mondays and Tuesdays off and we're going back to Chicago. The focus is becoming more 'big picture' and we don't sweat the small stuff as much. There's less stubborn bullshit. I think we're all kind of realizing how lucky we are going from where we were five years ago to where we are now. There's a lot of bands we were coming up with that didn't stick it out and kind of fell apart. Then the economy hit and I see a lot of my friends from college being unemployed, and we are just all kind of…grateful to be able to make a living doing what we do.

In Jeff Waful's new series, Waful +1, he depicts life on the road as a pretty tumultuous existence with multiple clips of Robbie Robertson of The Band calling life on the road an "impossible way of life." With almost all of the band members starting families, where do you see the Umphrey's McGee in five or ten years?

Umphrey’s McGee @ Mayan Holidaze 2011 by Dave Vann
Five years ago we were still young and we had to get - I don't want to say irresponsibility - but we just had to get all that out of our system. I feel like the next five or ten years the focus is more about…well, everyone is trying to drink less and eat better and exercise. There's more of a focus on health and what we need to do to sustain this. In a lot of ways we're trying to figure out how to play less because we just can't keep the pace we're going. I see in the next five or ten years we're still writing music, still putting out albums, and we're probably doing more tours. In the past, being centrally located in the Midwest, we were able to just go out for weekends. I think it makes more sense for us to do a more concentrated couple weeks out and then be home for a couple weeks. We're kind of on a path right now that I kind of see us headed for the foreseeable future.

I've heard you say before that the songwriting is more important than the improv. Nobody goes home humming the jam, they remember the songs. What does songwriting look like for Umphrey's McGee in 2011?

It's good. We got together at Jake's house in the beginning of May and we had a writing session. We came out with, I think, seven new songs. We're playing four of them right now and we've got a couple more we're working on. We've got a new album coming out with a couple new songs. That's the most productive session we've had in a long time. Everyone was there in the same room facing each other. Someone kind of brings a skeleton to the table and then everyone flushes it out and gives it that Umphrey's sound.

When can we expect the next studio material be released? Will it be one cohesive LP or is the idea for a series of EP's still on the table?

Brendan Bayliss by Chad Smith
We kind of scrapped that [EP] idea and we're going to put out an album. I believe it's going to be the second week of September. We're under a couple of deadlines to make that happen, so that could change, but we are shooting for the fall and won't be too far from that date.

How much effort goes into songwriting on the road?

Honestly, not as much when we're on the road because it just takes a lot to get through the day and put together the show. For me, it's hard to get in that headspace when I have to worry about what we're playing tonight and review that stuff. When you're on the road everyday you're looking backwards not thinking forwardly. It's easier to be creative at home when you're not thinking, “I have a two set show in two hours and there are 2000 people here who paid money to see it.”

Does fan feedback affect song creation or do you just create whatever comes to mind, tweak it and hope each new song will be welcomed?

I really can't think about whether anyone is going to like it. You find that out after the fact. If you're thinking about that in the process then it’s kind of choking the song before it had a chance to breathe. Our stuff is so all-over-the-board and a wide variety, so I think it's more about the quantity. Once we get a pile of songs we just start to realize which ones aren't working and take them out.

Umphrey’s McGee @ UMBowl II by Brian Spady
Where has Umphrey's McGee not yet gone, musically, on tour, on stage, as a brand or otherwise, that you hope to go?

Well, like I said, musically I think we are really covering a lot of bases. So, for us, we are what we are, obviously trying to tighten it [the sound] up every day. As far as a brand, I think we have the worst name in the music business. It's kind of hard to even think about branding and all of that. I think what we need to do, and what we are doing, is focus on our personal relationships, songwriting, keeping it fresh for us, and being healthy - not really following any musical model and trend in the business. The business is all over the place and we've just carved a little corner of it and we're pretty happy where we are. And, like I said, we're happy just to have jobs right now. I don't think we're going to start doing dance choreography or wearing velvet jumpsuits or anything.

Halfway through 2011, what has been the highlight of this year?

Umphrey’s McGee w/ Huey Lewis
At Summer Camp 2011 by Brian Spady
Summer Camp was excellent for us, [including] getting to play with Huey Lewis and be his backup band. The year started in Mexico and that was fantastic, but I don't want to say that was the highlight of the year since it was the first show of the year. I think when we started the East Coast run and we sold out I don't know how many shows and there were several nights in a row where finally for the first time it felt like, “Oh, all of this hard work is finally paying off. After all these times that we've played these towns and ate shit and nobody came, it was all finally coming together.” Summer Camp was also excellent because we were able to debut a bunch of new material, so it kind of lit a creative spark under all of our asses to keep the bar we've set pretty high. I don't know, maybe Red Rocks will be the highlight.

After 13 years, what has been a personal highlight of your career?

For me, personally, not for the band but for me, personally, I would say when Stanley Jordan played with us in Chicago [New Year’s '08 Run]. He was my favorite guitar player; my older brother got me into him when I was in high school. I had been listening to Standards Vol. 1 for 15 years. There was even one point where I listened to that album every night before I went to bed for, I don't know, 18 months. So, to have him play with us and not only play with us but enjoy it and afterwards say, “That was fun. I want to do it again,” that was probably, so far, my personal highlight just because I could not believe it was happening, that his world and my world had collided.

Stay tuned for pictures by Chad Smith with a review of the Umphrey's McGee’s 2011 Red Rocks and Blue II celebration next week on JamBase!

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[Published on: 7/1/11]

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