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 Guess”), 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.”
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.”
BAND MEMBERS: Brendan Bayliss (guitar, vocals), Jake Cinninger (guitar, vocals), Joel Cummins (keyboards, vocals), Andy Farag (percussion), Kris Myers (drums, vocals), Ryan Stasik (bass, no vocals)