When it comes to playing guitar for a living, Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger are having so much fun it almost should be illegal. Don’t these two pickers from South Bend, Indiana, know what year it is? That EDM, not guitar music, is king in 2015? That you can’t pack large venues from coast to coast if you play ambitious odd-meter licks, endless solos, and even entire songs improvised on the fly? That you can’t recoup on a guitar record in the Spotify era? That successful bands don’t change their set lists every night? That chicks just plain hate prog rock?
Apparently not. Nor do the rabid legions of fans who are obsessed with their band, Umphrey’s McGee. At each Umphrey’s show, these insatiable “Umphreaks,” as they’re known, enjoy the best of two worlds: They get an old-school, in-your-face, twin-guitar attack (think King Crimson-meets- Thin Lizzy, but more playful and kaleidoscopic) coupled with a new-school level of fan connectivity that only the smartphone age could deliver.
“This is the 15th year Jake and I have been playing together,” says Bayliss, who founded Umphrey’s McGee in 1997. “We first met in the small music scene of South Bend, where there were only like three or four bars to play. I started on guitar later than Jake did, and he was a big influence on me, because he was so versatile. I even went up to his house two or three times for lessons.”
Cinninger was instantly impressed by his student. “I noticed that whatever I threw at Brendan, he could spit it back within seconds,” says Cinninger. “He had an amazing ability to absorb the subtlest details and remember the most complicated things. It was like he had a photographic memory.”
Spread thin doing double duty as guitarist and lead vocalist, Bayliss realized Cinninger would be a great asset to his band and invited him to join in 2000. Countless tours and seven albums later, Umphrey’s McGee is on the road promoting their most successful release yet—Similar Skin, the first album on their own label, Nothing Too Fancy. And with each as the other’s 6-string muse, Bayliss and Cinninger have achieved what many guitarists would deem the ultimate trifecta: unbridled creative freedom, a huge fan base, and boundless fun-factor. In fact, a strong case could be made that Umphrey’s McGee is the greatest guitar gig in the history of prog rock.
Brendan, what was it about Jake’s playing that made you want to take that first lesson with him all those years ago?
Bayliss: Well, back then in South Bend, there would be a blues band with a straight-up blues guy on guitar, or a pop band that only played pop, but Jake would do bluegrass, fusion, Miles Davis stuff, and more. It was attractive to me because it was just all over the place. I thought, “I want to do all that stuff, too. I don’t want to be stuck in a corner.”
Cinninger: Soon after we began playing together, we started thinking, “Man, let’s just solo together in the same mode and see where we end up—kind of like two fish chasing each other’s tails.” It’s a finish-each-other’s-sentences, cross-each-other’s-T’s, dot-each-other’s-I’s sort of guitar philosophy.
Did you guys find you had any influences in common?
Cinninger: Al Di Meola was definitely one guy we both always looked up to. We thought, “This guy’s got something no one else has—a percussive sensibility with the pick that allows you to really hear the air between the notes.” So we took that to the jam band realm, applied it, and sort of got our own results out of it.
Umphrey’s McGee is known for spontaneous onstage improvisations. When you’re launching into one of these improv sections, how do you keep six musicians on the same page?
Bayliss: One thing we do is use a bunch of hand signals for switching keys, which comes from the Zappa school. That way, we don’t have to be stuck in A minor pentatonic for 20 minutes. We also have foot signals—one step forward means modulate up a half-step, while two steps means go up a whole-step. Rather than thinking of it as improvising in the moment, though, we approach it as composing in the moment, because we try to come up with A and B sections we can bounce back and forth between.
Cinninger: One tool we use are these special talkback microphones by each of our stations that can only be heard in our in-ear monitors. You just step on a pedal to open up your mic, and it goes into everyone’s ears. Then, you can create some forward motion mid-song by talking through a new chord progression and counting it off.
Bayliss: We also do this special show every year called UMBowl where fans can text us crazy musical ideas while we’re playing, thanks to a huge screen set up in the middle of the room. For instance, someone might text, “Brian Eno-meets-Metallica,” and we’ll try to emulate what that would sound like.
You guys also have a penchant for live mash-ups. What’s your approach to those?
Cinninger: First, you find songs that are similar in tempo and key. For instance, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio” are both in E and have almost the same chord progression. Find a way to put those songs together, and you’re in business. It’s great when you can find three stylistically different songs that somehow go together. The fun part is the end of the mash-up, where we’ll button things up by playing the three different chorus sections on top of each other.
Bayliss: We just brought back an old mash-up that I think is hilarious and kickass—“Relax,” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood; “Thunder Kiss ’65,” by White Zombie; and “Have a Cigar,” by Pink Floyd. They’re all in the same key and have the same tempo.
You two must be quite comfortable with each other on stage after all these years. What kind of antics do you engage in up there?
Cinninger: Well, we recently got some wireless packs from Lectrosonics that sound really good—you know, they don’t have the sort of compressed-data sound that some transmitters have—so we’ve finally been able to cut the cable, so to speak, and get out of our comfort zones on stage. That means we can now walk around and go up to the lip of the stage and rock out with the crowd like Iron Maiden.
Bayliss: Sometimes, when Jake’s up front, I’ll walk up to his rig and start stepping on his wah while he’s soloing. He’ll kind of look over like, “What the hell?” [Laughs.] Then, he’ll jump on my pedalboard, and suddenly we’re working each other’s gear at the same time, which gets kind of weird.
Speaking of gear, what are your rigs like these days?
Cinninger: Guitar-wise, I kind of rotate between three G&L S-500s and a custom Becker guitar. Next comes my ridiculous pedalboard, which is just crammed full of stuff. My go-to drive pedals are a Tone Bone Classic and this rare HME fuzz pedal, and I run them into a Fuchs ODS-100 set clean. That fuzz sounds like David Gilmour in a box! Some of my other favorite pedals include a Moogerfooger delay and a Morley Bad Horsie Wah. I love that wah, because it goes on the instant your foot hits it. Went I want a high-gain, Metallica sort of sound, I step on a Morley A/B box and switch over to my custom Oldfield JC-100. That thing’s great. It sounds like a brontosaurus.
Bayliss: I’ve been playing Paul Reed Smiths since 2005, and my main one is called Felicia. All my guitars have female names. Felicia is actually a Mark Tremonti Singlecut model, but I had PRS leave the headstock blank—not out of disrespect to Tremonti, but because I don’t want to be linked to Scott Stapp in any way. My pedals include this Stigtronics compressor I’ve had for like ten years—ever since Michael Stiglitz came to a soundcheck and gave us a couple of his pedals to try. I’m using one of his distortions, too. Speaking of handmade gems, I also like Cusack pedals, including the Screamer overdrive and the Tap-a-Whirl tremolo. My amps are an Oldfield Club 80 and a Mesa Electra Dyne.
What about strings and other accessories?
Cinninger: We both play D’Addario strings gauged .010-.046.
Bayliss: And Telefunken 2mm graphite picks. They are really thick, with a beveled edge, and kind of do the heavy lifting for you. They give you the tortoiseshell sound, but you don’t have to hurt a turtle. Also, the first thing we both plug into is the Steel Guitar Black Box, from Sarno Music Solutions out of St. Louis.
Cinninger: Yes! I would describe the Black Box as a signal buffer that rids your tone of shrilly highs and woofy lows. It’s like a mini mastering lab for your guitar. A lot of Nashville cats swear by this thing.
Obviously, even with a great record like Similar Skin, and with great fans, it’s tough to sell a ton of albums in 2015.
Bayliss: Yes, but with Similar Skin, we surprised ourselves. We started our own label, put the record out on it, and within three-and-a-half months we were turning a profit, which was never the case when we were on someone else’s label.
What other revenue streams have you guys found?
Bayliss: We do a lot of different stuff. For instance, we record each show and make it available for download the next morning. We even sell a subscription service you can access on umlive.net, or via our UMLive smartphone app, that gives you unlimited access to anything we’ve done from 2004 onward.
Cinninger: We also do a nine-camera shoot at every show, streaming the videos live on tourgigs.com.
What about merchandise? Any interesting merch items you sell?
Bayliss: Sometimes, with merch, it’s about considering your environment. For instance, last summer, we played the Ravinia amphitheater, which has a lawn up top that can hold like 10,000 people. Our merch team came up with the idea of selling these large Umphrey’s McGee blankets, and we actually sold out of them at $80 each.
Cinninger: Yeah. And also, the resurgence of vinyl has really spiked. I’m noticing fans becoming born-again audiophiles through this medium. It’s great.
Bayliss: Last summer, this kid bought one of our albums on vinyl. He had us sign it and said, “Cool! Now I gotta go buy a record player.”