After 16 years of performing over 100 concerts annually, releasing seven studio albums and selling more than 3.3 million tracks online, Umphrey's McGee might be forgiven if they chose to rest on their laurels and attend to their lives as husbands and fathers. But you'd be wrong. With their eighth studio album, Similar Skin, and first for their own indie label, Nothing Too Fancy (N2F) Music (distributed by RED), the group - which formed on the Notre Dame campus outside of South Bend, Indiana in 1997 - has something to prove. And that's not just to their ever-loyal fan base, but to those who have never heard a note, or worse - dismiss them as "too sophisticated, too complex" or think they know what Umphrey's McGee is all about.
"We're definitely not associated with a three-minute verse-chorus-verse song structure," admits singer-songwriter-guitarist Brendan Bayliss about the new album's "trim the fat" direction, which saw them aim to strut their rock and progressive roots. This time around, those musical touchstones range from the melodicism of Police, U2, the Beatles and Nirvana, the symphonic prog of Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Yes, and Genesis to the heavy metal thunder of Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Soundgarden, and Pantera. "Every night, we have the opportunity to play whatever and however long we want. Going into the studio, the challenge was to be as concise as possible, to trim all the fat we could."
Produced by Umphrey's McGee in conjunction with Manny Sanchez and Greg Magers and recorded in between tour dates at I.V. Labs in Chicago, Similar Skin was conceived as "a coherent vision," featuring plenty of dynamics and contrast, with many of the songs coming from their live repertoire. Thematically, Bayliss was inspired by his own fatherhood, tackling such issues as living in the moment ("The Linear"), his own mortality ("Cut the Cable," "Hourglass"), having children ("No Diablo"), the things that bring us together ("Similar Skin"), pondering the existence of a higher power, (the Ryan Stasik slap-bass-driven "Puppet String"), sleep-walking ("Educated Guesses"), the art of storytelling and, according to Brendan, adding mysteriously, "some unresolved issues from the past" ("Loose Ends").
"We tried to get the most concise, exact version of each particular song," explains Jake Cinninger, who wrote and sang lead on two new songs for the album, "Little Gift" and "Hindsight," composed at his own Boondock Studio in Michigan, not far from his South Bend home. "I like to look at songs as babies you prepare to go out in the world. And the studio is where you can craft all those little corners and edges, cross the t's and dot the i's. What needs to be there and what doesn't, because every moment on a record counts."
Similar Skin has all the dynamics fans have come to expect from Umphrey's McGee, including their famed improvisations, which can be heard on the closing, nine-minute "Bridgeless," a live staple for nearly a decade finally committed to record. The only things missing, by the nature of audio, are the patented hand signals the group is famed for employing on-stage to communicate with one another. But these 11 songs could only have been performed by a band attuned to one another's every move through 16 years of non-stop touring. Entertainment Weekly called Umphrey's "musical alchemists, deftly reconfiguring sounds from rock's vast panoply of styles," while Time.com praised them for "expanding the notion of what a rock band can offer to their fans."
More than an "improg" group, as some have dubbed them, Umphrey's McGee have devoted their craft to making their devoted followers feel as if they are part of something larger, through fan-curated sets, which include the "Stew Art Series". Named after the Jimmy Stewart Ballroom, where they first recorded some of their improvisations, they offer fans a chance to text them during an exclusive private performance with not only song selections, but spontaneous ideas of how to perform them. The band has also developed the immersive home audio offering, "Headphones & Snowcones," where the pristine sound of the live soundboard mix is piped wirelessly through high-end personal monitor systems and headphones, leading the Chicago Tribute to note: "I heard rock 'n' roll's future, and its name is 'Headphones & Snowcones.'" Umphrey's McGee also makes all their live shows from 2006 available via their live music portal UMLive.net. And, every spring since 2010, the band has performed a special UMBowl show, announced on the day of the Super Bowl, which this year will take place outside Chicago for the first time this May at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY, in May. The idea is to divide the concert into four quarters, stringing together "All-Request," "Stew Art," "Choose Your Own Adventure" and "Raw Sewage" sets in rotating order each year. The UMBowl has a pilgrimage-worthy annual event for fans, and the press has taken notice. Wired said, "[UMBowl] gives Umphrey's McGee a chance to show off its improvisatory skills...it brings the type of large-scale, smartphone powered interactive experience usually deployed in massive stadiums down to the club level."
Similar Skin is the band's latest musical missive to their audience, offering their own brand of "fatherly" advice, from a perspective of maturity and growth, both musically and personally. It is something their fans have come to expect from Umphrey's McGee, who have forged a career on that relationship.
"At the end of the day, we're all the same thing," says Brendan, who admits being influenced by Eckhart Tolle's book The Power of Now, a directive to live in the present, and to make up your own mind, without being influenced by political or spiritual leaders. "We all come from the same place and will end up in the same place."
And it's music that helps guide us through that journey. "We worked a really long time on this album to get everything just right," explains Jake. "I feel it's the best representation of what we do. Now we can give it birth and deliver it to our audience."
Having thrived this long, Umphrey's McGee are now motivated by something else—keeping it going for another few decades at least.
"Every year we're a little more successful than the year before," notes Jake. "Our career is in the form of a nice bell curve, a gradual rise. We're really comfortable at this pace."
In a shrinking music business, Umphrey's McGee have found a way to connect to their fans on a grassroots, one-to-one level that keeps them returning for more, a sentiment that comes off loud and clear on Similar Skin, a paean to the complementary relationship between band and audience that has marked their 16-year career. Now, their DIY ethos is reflected in a new independent label, leaving Umphrey's McGee free to chase their muse wherever it leads them.
"Success for me means sustaining it," concludes Brendan. "If you told me 16 years ago, I'd be sitting here, I would have taken it in a minute. The whole goal is to keep this thing going. We're now completely independent and in control of our own destinies. My motivation is for my children to be old enough to see me do this with their own eyes, and to be proud of me."
"I've got a little more now than I had before/If you take it all back, I'd still have more." - "The Linear"
Similar Skin is not just an album for Umphrey's McGee and their legion of fans, but an effort that deserves the attention of anyone with an interest in forward-thinking musicians who don't fit into an easy-to-categorize box. If you think you know what Umphrey's McGee is all about, guess again.