Midwestern sextet proves that jam bands can have real talent, real ambitions and real success
Music snobs love to hate on jam bands. They abhor their easygoing attitudes, loathe their free-form theatrics and despise their sloppy approach to stardom. But what if a jam band was friendly, spontaneous and grassrootsy, along with being more technically proficient, more experimental and more dedicated to its fans than any cooler-than-thou rock band around? Umphrey’s McGee, started in 1997 by four friends who attended the University of Notre Dame, has pushed itself much further than most Grateful Dead and Phish imitators.
Umphrey’s, or UM as it’s known by diehard fans, has incorporated progressive rock, hip-hop and other far-flung musical genres into its improvisational repertoire, while releasing more than 15 albums and morphing into one of the most in-demand touring outfits in the nation. Folio Weekly spoke with frontman Brendan Bayliss about improvised set lists, mixing the old with the new and engaging with fans as much as possible.
Folio Weekly: Umphrey’s McGee hasn’t released a new album since 2011. How does a tour in between records run?
Brendan Bayliss: It’s nicer to wake up, talk to the guys and say, “What do we want to do today?” We never do a set list in advance, and we don’t really have an agenda, whereas when you’re promoting an album, you don’t have that completely clean slate. You’re not promoting or pushing anything, you can feel out the room and you can do whatever you want.
F.W.: Was that brand of improvisation a hallmark of Umphrey’s McGee when you guys started the band in 1997?
B.B.: We didn’t really talk about it a whole lot — we were just kids in college making it up as we went along. But a lot of people in the crowd were our friends and roommates, so if we did a Thursday show and a Saturday show, the same people were going to come. We had to start mixing it up, and that’s really helped us over the years.
F.W.: Longtime live staple “Hajimemashite” was included on your last full-length, “Death By Stereo.” Why put an old song on a new album?
B.B.: We’d never really talked about recording it, and honestly I was probably the guy who was, like, “It’s so old — let’s not even worry about it.” But everybody else was, like, “We’re here in studio, we know it very well — we could bang it out in couple takes.” And then we got a really good response from the fans. So on the new album, which we’re recording in May and June, we’ll have a couple songs we’ve never played live, a couple of more recent ones written in the last two years and another really old one like that.
F.W.: You've been fully independent since the band’s beginnings. Have you ever regretted not signing with a big record company?
B.B.: Honestly, I’m really happy with where we’re at. Last year was our best year ever, and this year is off to a great start. So, I can’t really complain or look back and say, “We should have done this or that.” We realized that CDs and records were not going to make us money — we make our money selling tickets. So even if we had signed with another label, it wouldn’t have done much more. Right now, we’re all pretty happy and providing for our families by playing music. That’s really hard to do these days.
F.W.: Did the realization that selling tickets was important force the band to embrace fan interaction and online media?
B.B.: We knew everything was headed in that direction and thought, “If we don’t get on this now, we’re going to be chasing behind it for the next 10 years.” I see new faces in the front row five nights a week, and those people are making our world go ’round. So the more we can be engaged with them, the better of an experience we can offer. It’s a reciprocal thing.
F.W.: What's with the open taping policy you've always had for live shows?
B.B.: Our first sound guy, Kevin Browning, was all about taping. And we still give out two free pairs of tickets to every show for fans to come in and tape. The first time we played in Colorado, we sold out a 200-person room because we had sent out all these CDs to friends who were spreading it around, which we realized was the best way to honestly promote.