Listen to Umphrey's McGee's Safety In Numbers on JamBase Rhapsody!
By Forrest Reda
Umphrey's McGee has been touring heavily for seven years, averaging 150 shows a year and logging thousands of miles around the country. Bands together for that long usually drift apart when they get back from tour, yet the guys in UM all live within 15 minutes of each other in the Windy City, where they moved after college. Jake Cinninger lives in the shadow of Wrigley, and he's watching the Cub's season opener on TV when I phone him to talk about all things Umph.
Umphrey's McGee seems like a perpetually happy band, and Cinninger talks about the other guys like brothers. When he answers questions, he always uses "We" to emphasize the band's plans, dreams, and beliefs in Safety In Numbers. He is soft-spoken but extremely intelligent, especially when it comes to music and life. The band's new album is a mature, big-sounding record and a statement from a band dedicated to making music for the long haul.
The past year has been an introspective and reflective period for the band. Throughout the album, the theme of passing, or death, is present in reaction to the untimely death of one of the band's close friends and fans, Bryan Schultz, who was killed by a drunk driver following the band's 2004 NYE show.
Cinninger notes, "There are a lot of points and references lyrically. We didn't want it to course through the record too heavily, but we had to pay homage to one of our best friends. It's obvious that it's going to come through the studio sessions because it happened right as we were going in. We were very much in the middle of dealing with it all at the time, so the album did come off serious in that sense."
Umphrey's McGee went into making this album by collectively brainstorming, beginning in first draft mode, then second draft mode, then final draft mode. "Then we tore it all down and started over again," Cinninger says. "Everything on the record is very carefully put together. There is no excessiveness to any of the songs; it's all pretty much to the point, not a lot of jamming. I don't think it comes off as a 'jam band record.'"
Originally, the band had about 24 songs and was going to put out a double record. "Then we were like, 'Well, there's no producer in the group,' so we needed to take a producer role, as far as going, 'OK, what are the gems here? And all feelings aside, let's plow through this material and figure out what is the best 45-50 minutes of material.'"
Huey Lewis with Umphrey's McGee by Lisa Sharken
UM added texture to the album by adding strings and employing the help of some friends, recruiting saxophonist Joshua Redman and Huey Lewis, the latter being a more obvious choice then UM fans might realize. The Umph was privileged to share the stage with Lewis after being nominated for a Jammy (and winning Song of the Year for "In The Kitchen") in 2004. "They asked us who we wanted to play with, and his name came up. Doesn't everyone love Huey?" Cinninger asks. "Sports was one of the first albums I bought when I was a kid, and of course there's Back to The Future."
Since the collaboration, the band and Lewis have remained close. "He's so gracious a story teller," Cinninger says. "We ended up getting a great rapport going with him and it's lasted ever since, so we were like, 'Hey, do you want to play on the new record?' and he said he would love to. So we flew out to NYC where he was doing the lead in the Chicago play, and he had the evening off so we recorded his voice for 'Women, Wine and Song.' And it's great, when he comes into town with the News, he's like, 'Come on out guys. You can sit in on the last three numbers.' It's really crazy to rip some Chicago blues with him and his band, and it's great to play for that crowd that we wouldn't normally be exposed to, especially the lovely middle-aged ladies."
Umphrey's McGee by Chris Monson
"Women, Wine and Song" lifts the mood of Safety in Numbers. Cinninger calls the song "the light in the tunnel of dark." "It's kind of the peak of the record, in terms of energy. It's like a record - 'Nemo' is the end of side A, and then you flip over the record and you are still in that same vibe with 'Women, Wine and Song.' Then we go back to the concept of the record."