Umphrey’s McGee: Power to the People

By: Court Scott

Umphrey’s McGee by Kevin Browning
The current state of the music industry is leaving many artists seeking new ways to get their music into your hands. TV show and commercial licensing or signing 360-degree deals, wherein artists exchange part of their touring revenue and merchandise sales for exclusive deals with the world’s biggest concert promoters, is becoming commonplace. At the same time iTunes has stopped selling music with digital rights protection and the RIAA has virtually given up prosecuting music fans and P2P sites. Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead have experimented with giving downloading fans the upper hand in transactions, which has proven successful for consumers and purveyors alike. Looking to harness fan-power, many artists post their MP3s for free hoping that word-of-mouth and file trading will ultimately result in greater sales and more people at live shows. Umphrey’s McGee, too, is trying something creative with their new disc, Mantis (released January 20 on SCI Fidelity), to engage and reward their fans.

For their eighth album, the Chicago six are using an original, innovative pre-order campaign where the more individual people that order the album in advance, the more unreleased bonus content is “unlocked” for everyone. Conceived of for the benefit of Umphrey’s fans by the band’s manager Vincent Iwinski, their ‘consigliere’ Syd Schwartz, and UM soundman Kevin Browning, those who purchase Mantis will be granted access to an exclusive micro-site, where users will be able to download content throughout 2009. Using PUSH™ technology by Digital Insert, the Mantis disc will act as a key for unreleased live jams, video, rehearsal material and other previously unreleased content, allowing fans a fly-on-the-wall experience that unfolds as content becomes available over the next 12 months. Browning has recorded a staggering amount of behind the scenes material over the past decade and guitarist/lyricist Brendan Bayliss reveals, “Nothing is sacred.” Already six of the nine content tiers have been unlocked, indicating strong pre-order numbers, but guitarist Jake Cinninger points out, “The more people jump on, the more we’re willing to let go.”

Umphrey’s McGee by Chad Smith
In an even less traditional strategy for a touring band, all the music on Mantis is unreleased and has never been played live – all fresh stuff for eager fan ears. “We wanted to create something that was a statement before anyone – our fans or our friends – could give us input,” says Cinninger. Adds Bayliss, “For the first time we didn’t owe anyone money, had no contract and no time schedule.” Tracks were free to marinate and develop at a slower pace, and they were also aware that they wanted to try to recreate something like “a ’70s release from your favorite band” notes Cinninger, Mantis is like when you went to the record store wild with anticipation for something you hadn’t yet heard. It’s a foreign experience in this day of closing brick ‘n’ mortar stores and leaked Internet tracks, but Bayliss confirms it was important to “sit on stuff” to make Mantis‘ release that much more special and effective.

In January 2006, UM’s members brought their individual song ideas to Chicago’s I.V. Lab Studios only as riffs, musical ideas or choruses. In all, they had three discs (four hours) worth of ideas and the trick was to let them fall into place, to “let them manifest themselves,” like putting a puzzle together when you don’t know the final image. Given the near-constant touring and demands of life, according to Bayliss, it wasn’t until a year later that they knew what material would be on the album, and then it took another year of fine-tuning. Cinninger explains that time was the “architecture” needed to create something from almost nothing, and that they really strived to use the studio as a tool to create something wholly pleasing to the band’s “ears and hearts.” The result is an album with depth and balance that demands and holds the listener’s interest.

Mantis was originally a working title, but it grew on the band. They wanted a name that was unique and “Google-able,” yet not an overused word, explains Cinninger. Additionally, they wanted to create an album that reflected where they are as individuals and a band. They strived to find their studio voice, a nuanced version of their onstage improvisational fortitude, something upon which they “can hang their hat[s] on at the end of the day,” as Cinninger puts it.

With a greater attention to songcraft and space, I think they did it. Mantis feels more cohesive than past efforts, like their vision has been achieved. Opening track “Made to Measure” is a poppy, lofty cut prominently featuring Bayliss’ vocals and consonant string arrangement. It’s followed by “Preamble,” a short, sweet music box melody; the sound of metal combs plinking across pins arranged on a rotating cylinder. But it isn’t until the third and title track that Mantis really hits its stride. From there on, the album is clearly Umphrey’s McGee – the chunky, riff driven guitars, shored up by a killer rhythm section. Seven of the ten tracks on Mantis have lyrics, and as Bayliss tells it, there was a greater effort to deliver a song-oriented album. “More lyrics make [a piece] easier to hold onto,” he says.

Continue reading for more on Umphrey’s McGee…

For the first time we didn’t owe anyone money, had no contract and no time schedule.

Brendan Bayliss on the making of Mantis

Photo by: Mark Blanchette

Many of the tracks are shorter than Umphrey’s fans may be used to, and Mantis doesn’t feature any “Jimmy Stewart” extended jams. The title track is the longest, clocking in at just under 12 minutes with soaring, layered choruses. Cinninger’s wicked solo is perfectly nestled among the strings, keys and percussive elements. “I wanted [solos] to have a special feel, like making a statement,” he says of the limited jamming throughout. Not that there aren’t some serious jams; the next track, “Cemetery Walk,” flows seamlessly out of “Mantis” with a keyboard intro that slides into a funk driven, backbeat and Beatles harmonies during the chorus.

Umphrey’s McGee by Brett Saul
From that section flows the short, livetronica “Cemetery Walk II.” Cinninger says, “We wanted simple song construction with great melodies with rippin’ guitar solos.” Mark my words, “Cemetery Walk” unleashed in a live setting will become a serious sensory force, a monster jam. With increased attention to production quality, both the new album and their live shows are a complete package, with lights and backdrops adding further dimensions in concert. Talking about the album and the live experience, Cinninger sums up the band’s modus operandi: “Big. Simple. Epic.”

Overall, Mantis‘ sound is warmer with rounder edges than previous efforts. With its huge solo and unmistakable phrasing, “Turn & Run” is unmistakably Umphrey’s. With the following “Spires,” all nitrousy keys and riff-drum lock, tracks six and seven are a one-two punch. Rounding out the disc is the technical yet soulful “Red Tape” and “1348.” Stylistically diverse and balancing sweetness with the requisite proggyness, the closer feels like it is a teaser for more to come, but at 54 minutes the disc is done. With this “less is more” approach, it’s easier to digest the sounds and lyrics, and this less dense, less hurried approach works well. As the band has matured so has their sound, delivery and overriding sensibilities.

Lyrically, two themes loom large on Mantis, with some tracks featuring a religious or spiritual bent and others working political overtones. Though Cinninger insists somber names like “Cemetery Walk” were simply working titles, a tongue-in-cheek nod to Norwegian black metal, when looked at in the context of others Mantis tracks like “Spires” or the tonally angular “Prophecy Now,” one concludes the album is more than a little introspective. Though he’s hesitant to conduct a lyrical play-by-play or come off as “preachy,” when asked about the spiritual imagery, Bayliss confirms the subject matter is partially a reflection of his personal growth. “I wanted to dip my feet in, not dive in,” Bayliss offers. Similarly, when asked about the subject matter Cinninger stops short, but agrees that the power of myths, the nature of the unknown and not necessarily intended, are lures that can be harnessed and become something greater and more meaningful than an idea’s original intent.

Umphrey’s McGee by Kevin Browning
With the second thematic angle being political, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something to this pairing of concepts. On the promotional one-sheet for Mantis, the second line informs us that “mantis” is the Greek word for “prophet.” The band hails from Chicago, and Mantis‘ release date is Inauguration Day. But, when I ask lyricist Bayliss about this he denies any significance and won’t take my bait. After two evolutionary years in the making, most likely it is coincidence, but is it even a stretch to read the collective nature of the pre-order, individual investment for the greater good, as not at all dissimilar to the Obama campaign’s spirit of community and “Yes We Can” attitude? Collective consciousness movements are born from ideas and dialogue, whether musical, spiritual or political, and as Cinninger suggested, are open to interpretation by all. And anyone’s interpretation is just as valid as the next person’s take.

The immediate future sees Umphrey’s McGee appearing on the PBS series Soundstage on February 5, 2009. Following that, the band embarks on nearly four solid months of touring though the Midwest, South, and East Coast, which will then find them in the middle of summer festival season. Longtime Umph plans are to continue working on their songwriting and thinking of new ways to engage their fans. Rest assured, though, with a copy of Mantis in your disc drive, you are set with new material for at least another year.

Umphrey’s McGee is on tour now; dates available here.

JamBase | America
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