By: Forrest Reda

Umphrey’s McGee
Leave it to Umphrey’s McGee to release The Bottom Half (available April 3 on SCI Fidelity Records), a double-disc album with alternative versions, a cappella recordings and other gems from the band’s 2005 studio sessions that didn’t make it onto the band-imposed 45-50 minute collection of songs that became Safety In Numbers.

The Bottom Half isn’t just for die-hard fans of Umphrey’s McGee though. It showcases a precocious band that’s pushing the stylistic envelope and incorporating new technology and studio techniques in their search for new sounds. Whether naming the band’s first album Greatest Hits Vol. III or “putting out the box-set goodies ten years before the box set happens,” Umphrey’s McGee always seem like they’re just a little bit ahead of the curve.

Guitarist Jake Cinninger tells us how the album got a warning label, why the band is staging a two-day festival with the Disco Biscuits this summer, and what makes the songs on The Bottom Half “the mirror [or] the nemesis of Safety.”

JamBase: So, The Bottom Half, you’ve lived with these songs for awhile, right?

Cinninger: This project has been a labor of love for the past three years now. We’ve been compiling this stuff for a while and it’s really nice to let it go and have it be birthed. It’s a little child now.

JamBase: It’s a toddler.

Cinninger: Yeah, exactly.

JamBase: We talked last year and you said that Safety In Numbers was originally going to be a double-album, but in the end the band picked the best 50-minutes of music. What changed? What made the band decide to release The Bottom Half now?

When we were assembling Safety In Numbers we realized we had a theme going with a particular batch of songs. We didn’t want to get too crazy and too pompous and go, “Let’s put out a big double disc with way too much information on it.” We’d rather have a nice concise record of 50-minutes, consistent music that flows really nicely together instead of trying to cram in too much info. So, that’s kinda the reason for The Bottom Half getting put out because we’ve sat on these files for a while. We went back and remixed and added things – added horn sections, added Bela Fleck to a tune, just kinda went back and spruced things up, get these songs in a fashion that we’d like to release ’em NOW. Every year we take on technology and our ideology changes with the way that we record. We have these old tunes, so it kinda gives us a chance to get them up to snuff.

There’s definitely a different mood to The Bottom Half. Compared to Safety In Numbers, there’s a lot of humor on this album.

Umphrey’s McGee by Dave Vann
Yeah, exactly. Safety even [had a] darker [album] cover and there was a somber mood towards that record. The stuff on The Bottom Half is the mirror, the nemesis of Safety.

Exactly, it’s a party. “Bright Lights, Big City” is the best example of Umphrey’s stepping out of the box.

We really tried to go with a super poppy [sound], something we’ve never tried in the studio. Let’s try and make this pop song really sound like a pop song because it really is a pop song. You could turn it into a funky tune and make it sort of loose and a funky Meters-ey type thing. That’s kind of the way we do it live because we can’t really pull off that huge electronica thing with all the organic instruments, but we can do it in the studio. It’s sort of our playground. We were able to play with a song like that and turn it into a radio-sounding tune, not for radio’s sake but just to see if we could do it.

It’s fun. It even has a little of the Huey Lewis, Back To The Future thing going on.

Umphrey’s McGee
Yeah, totally, like the stereophonic keyboards are swirling around your head when you listen to it, which sets up the whole tune. What’s cool is that the A and the B section are so different and they work together so nicely. You’ve got this really happy verse section that has this spacey keyboard and then it’s sort of like anger management rock in the B section. It’s like a happy Peter Gabriel into a happy Nine Inch Nails.

Has Umphrey’s McGee ever played that song with The Disco Biscuits in a shared or swapped set scenario?

No, but that would be a good one to sort of swap in and out. Or everyone could play that song. It’s an easy number.

It might be DUMB enough to work, right?

Yeah, exactly. Good idea. We might have to use that.

We’re so far into our next studio record now it’s pretty funny… Right now we have 18 songs that no one has heard. We’re trying to revamp our sound a little bit, trying to create what’s going to make us happy to play over the next five years. We’re starting to take that demeanor to our songwriting.

-Jake Cinninger

Photo by Sam Friedman

Speaking of The Disco Biscuits, you’re doing the Transgression Festival with them. That’s a big announcement and exciting news for fans.

Disco Biscuits & Umphrey’s McGee by Vann
I really love working with those guys. Whenever we’re in the same vicinity together we have a great time. And, it’s not always just about the music. It’s about hanging out and catching up and just talking about every day things, you know? We’re stuck on the road just like they are so it’s nice when we come together and tell each other stories about what we do. We all live inside this box on the road so it’s nice to brush up against your buddies in other bands.

How does it feel to have a Parental Warning sticker slapped on the record?

It’s pretty wild. I think there was just one small f-bomb somewhere in the record but I couldn’t even tell you where. It’s funny how that sticker ends up on anything.

Is there a ratings board? Do you have to submit it somewhere?

Jake Cinninger by Chris Monson
I think they might have fine-tooth combed that record to find this because I don’t really know of any f-bombs or anything. I think there was one when I’m talking to Huey Lewis in the studio about his track, “The Heart Of Rock & Roll,” and the fact that he was on Broadway at the time. I go, “You’re going to get back to your band and they’re gonna go, what the fuck happened to you? You’re gonna sound like a Broadway actor.” And he says, “Heart of Rock and Roll, Heart of Rock and Roll, you know?” I think that’s where it might have gotten the sticker.

I’m glad that you left that in for your artistic integrity.

This is 2007, ya know? Kids watch movies. It wasn’t like it was an intentional f-bomb.

Now, is this a fan’s only album? Or is stuff like “Bright Lights” for the whole country?

I think there’s a little bit of everything on there. The second disc is for the people that really know what we’re all about and how we write our music. [They] can sort of dive in to hearing us conceive these things. You can hear the process happen, where things really aren’t finished and there’s sort of like a blueprint there. We wanted to let the fans in on that a little bit. It’s not like I’m going to go into my vault and release everything that I have half done. That’s not the way that we do things. But, it felt like we had enough stuff here – and we even have more, probably [enough for] three discs of the whole thing. I was sort of confused on how to track that second disc but Kevin Browning, our sound engineering sound corrector, took it upon himself to piece it together and make it so you can listen to it straight through. It’s just this different idea of putting out an audio disc. I feel like we’re onto something new here. It’s like putting out the box-set goodies ten years before the box set happens.

You guys are doing stuff early. Didn’t you name your first record Greatest Hits Volume 3?

Jake Cinninger by Trevor Pour
[Laughs]. It’s about not taking yourself too seriously or hoarding the stuff. It’s nice to let the fans hear the infant state of these songs, to let it out in the moment. Not many bands do that. We feel like, “let’s do something a little different.” We’re all about that.

What does your record label think about that kind of attitude?

The beauty is we’re with a record label that allows us to have free rein with our art. I don’t think I’d know how to react if it wasn’t that way. It’s not like record companies are really ruling the world right now in the music field. A lot of independent people are making a living being independent artists. It’s cool that our record label is a bunch of music fans, and they’re also our friends. They’re with us every step of the way with whatever we want to try. I think between all of us, we’re very democratic. If something’s not really working out it just won’t end up on the disc. As far as that goes, we’re really liberal with everyone’s ideas. It’s a very democratic environment.

It’s sort of like anger management rock in the B section. It’s like a happy Peter Gabriel into a happy Nine Inch Nails.

-Cinninger on “Bright Lights, Big City” from The Bottom Half

Photo by Casey Flanigan

What does the name The Bottom Half mean to you?

Brendan Bayliss by Brett Saul
It could be the sediment of the music we were working on. It could be the bottom half because we put it out later.

The bottom of half the inning?

These are the songs we didn’t put out on Safety In Numbers because they were the bottom half of Safety In Numbers.

How about the cover?

If you cut into one of those onions on the front, it will make you cry. Right?


There’s all these visual interpretations going on, the whole, like, you cut into a woman and she’ll make you cry kind of thing. There are all these little connotations.

Was it the same situation with Safety In Numbers? Did you send Storm Thorgerson the music for him to listen to?

Umphrey’s McGee by Brett Saul
Yeah. All the art’s done overseas. He usually gets the lyrics. He broods over them for a while and comes up with ideas and images, sketches them by pencil and then faxes them back to us and we pick which ones represent the music and what we’re feeling at the time. It’s really the best process. It seems the clearest way to make a real strong idea in an image.

What about the future of Umphrey’s? What’s next?

We’re so far into our next studio record now it’s pretty funny. We’re trying to stay a year ahead of ourselves. I feel like it’s really important for a band when they have a nice stride happening – when you’re in the twilight or dawn of whatever you are trying to do – to be a step ahead in the recording department. We do so much touring that we have to really make sure that whatever we’re going to release a year and a half from now we’re totally sure of right now. It’s really important not to be rushed. This next album after The Bottom Half could be a very important record for us. Right now we have 18 songs that no one has heard. We’re trying to revamp our sound a little bit, trying to create what’s going to make us happy to play over the next five years. We’re starting to take that demeanor to our songwriting.

So, you aren’t road testing anything? You’re keeping it under wraps?

We want it to be a surprise. I feel with great albums the release date comes and all this fresh music hits your fan base at once.

And they’re thirsting for it.

Umphrey’s McGee
I’m really trying to press to get a little bit more progressive. Everyone wants you to sound like Anchor Drops right now, and say a year from now they might want another Safety In Numbers, you know what I’m saying? It’s just a natural progression to go back to a more intense, progressive sound, more fun arrangements, get a little more intense and more complicated, maybe, but still retain the songs. I feel that’s the direction of the next record.

If you’re leading your fans on a roller coaster, always hitting them with new musical curves, they’ll enjoy the ride too much to ask for anything different.

Exactly. That’s the idea. They’re kinda stuck on the ride now.

And they’re enjoying every moment.

Definitely. And so are we. It’s a blast.

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