Fans who have followed Umphrey's McGee for any period of time know that there are only two guarantees: you never know what you’re going to get, and Umphrey's always delivers.
How else can a band be relentlessly innovative in both music and fan relations for 13-plus years? The latest expected twist arrives in the form of their newest studio album (and first with ATO Records) Death By Stereo (9/13), the follow up to 2009's Mantis. Mantis surprised fans with a collection of music never before played, and surprised the music industry with an innovative marketing campaign that catapulted the album past the Heatseekers chart, debuting at #62 on Billboard's "Top 200" chart without any radio play or television appearances.
Death By Stereo's concise melodic approach and accessible songwriting is everything fans had hoped for, but not what anyone expected. Death By Stereo is disarmingly straightforward. Sure, you can dance to it, but the clever arrangements, meticulously crafted chordal interplay, and virtuoso instrumentation put Umphrey's McGee in a category all their own.
"Our live show is malleable and every night is its own thing, where you never know where things are going to go," keyboardist Joel Cummins explains. "People aren't used to us playing three-and-a-half to four-minute songs back to back, so this album is a completely different experience than our live show, which is certainly something we were trying to do."
Whereas this band's stellar reputation is based on marathon concerts that mix original, technically demanding tunes with complex epics and, playful covers (ranging from Toto to Metallica), it has chosen the same kind of attention to melody, songcraft, and musicianship that make those artists stand apart. Umphrey's chemistry, however, is something all its own, built upon a relentless live schedule of 100-plus shows a year, a solid base of musical training, and friendships that go back to when they walked in the shadows of the Golden Dome at the University of Notre Dame.
"The thing we realized pretty quickly is that music is secondary to our relationships," guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss points out. "If our relationships aren't strong, it heavily affects the music. Some bands don't speak to one another, they aren't friends, and I just don't know how that works."
While competition was admittedly slim when they formed at Notre Dame in 1997, the band immediately became a campus favorite. When Umphrey's moved to Chicago, it brought its Fighting Irish bonafides with it, so its initial hometown Windy City shows were packed to the gills with South Bend alumni and friends. The underground network of tapers helped spread the word about the band, and the ND connection also served the guys on the road.
"The first time we went out west it was crazy," Bayliss recalls. "It didn't matter what town it was -- we knew somebody. I didn't realize the reach of Notre Dame until after I graduated. I didn't appreciate Notre Dame when I was there. Back then, I wouldn't be caught dead in Notre Dame gear, but now I'm swimming in it and I wear it with pride."
These days, the band plays for crowds from all over the US and beyond, and incorporates a sophisticated mix of cutting-edge technology, including a stellar light show. Its Stew Art concerts redefine live music as we know it, with fans texting to choose the direction of the band's set, while the four-quarter UMBowls (each quarter has a different interactive theme) have quickly become landmark events not to be missed.
Umphrey's tight-knit relationship with its rabid fanbase includes the band making recordings available of every live show since 2006, monthly podcasts, an extremely active presence on Facebook and Twitter, and digital “Easter Egg” hunts. This has led to a strong following throughout the U.S. and to successful international tours of Europe, Australia and Japan, where fans screamed out song titles even though they couldn’t speak a lick of English.
To date, the band has sold more than nearly 2 million tracks online and Death By Stereo will only increase their reach. The album is produced by sonic wizards Manny Sanchez (Smashing Pumpkins, Fall Out Boy) and Kevin Browning, whose deep knowledge of analog and digital gear has helped the band craft its sound for years. With the band members also assisting with production, DBS was recorded at Sanchez’s The IV Lab Studios in Chicago, with the exception of the raw Rolling Stones-y "Wellwishers," which was done at Cinninger's home-studio in Michigan.
The band now makes it a habit to keep at least some material fresh for the album, and the powerful one-two punch of multi-layered "Miami Virtue" and hard-charging “Domino Theory” do so on DBS. Umphrey's also offers a muscular studio version of "The Floor," which was an indisputable hit of 2009s Rothbury Festival where the band had 40,000 fans captivated. Moving from the Zeppelin-like groove of "Conduit" to the soulful "Booth Love" and the panoramic "Deeper," DBS reveals an incredibly broad range to the band's songwriting.
Bringing it all back home for both fans and the band, the album closes with "Hajimemashite," a song that's title translates from Japanese as "nice to meet you" and whose origins can be traced all the way back to the band's earliest days.
"'Hajimemashite' is one that we've been playing since our first show," Cummins says. "It's morphed and we've given it a unique studio treatment that captures its essence, but isn't how we play it live. I think that will have some resonance with our fans. I like the idea of getting our fans excited with a mix of new and older material."
One of the perks of Umphrey's McGee is that it allows the band members to be fans themselves, having shared the stage with heroes like Huey Lewis, guitarist Stanley Jordan, John Oates, and jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, to name a few. Umphrey's has even backed Lewis, gospel legend Mavis Staples and Sinead O'Connor for a classic version of "I'll Take You There," and they are regularly joined onstage by their peers.
"I can't believe that we are 13 and half years in," Bayliss points out with a mix of wonder and pride. "If someone told me that I would have been thinking: 'No way! But sign me up. I'll take it.'"