Jake Cinninger has been playing with his original band, Ali Baba’s Tahini, since long before he joined jam-scene staples Umphrey’s McGee. “Ali Baba’s Tahini is just a bunch of good buddies that go way back,” said Cinninger, speaking the day of Umphrey’s Hindsight 20/20 tour opener at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. “We happened to take our own paths and courses in life throughout the years, but we always had this music connection.” The band has released five albums over their 20+ year career, beginning with 1999’s Hopi Champa. Their most recent record, Bottom Feeders, marks their first release since 2010.
While Umphrey’s McGee is often lauded for their technical prowess, Cinninger notes that working with Ali Baba’s Tahini allows him to move away from that technicality. “Bottom Feeders…really gets away from the technical aspect of music and gets more inside production and real song writing. Ditching fusion and jazz a little bit and going towards grandiose songwriting.”
Cinninger is currently in the midst of Umphrey’s sprawling (and aforementioned) Hindsight 20/20 tour. “It’s like downhill skiing for three months, that’s what tour feels like,” he says. Below, we talk about Bottom Feeders, how Ali Baba’s Tahini differs from Umphrey’s McGee, the benefits and drawbacks of Pro Tools and balancing a heavy touring schedule with family.
To start, let’s talk a little bit about the new Ali Baba’s Tahini release Bottom Feeders. It’s been ten years since Living Room, and you’ve been working on this one over the course of the last two years. I was wondering how this new record came about and what made you want to return to the project?
Yeah, the first thing is that Ali Baba’s Tahini is just a bunch of good buddies that go way back, and we happened to take our own paths and courses in life throughout the years, but we always had this music connection. Whenever we could get a chance, whenever there would be holes in the schedule, we would look three or four years ahead and say, “It looks like in January 2018 we could all get together and start blueprinting some new songs. We could start to get some demo stuff down.” That was last January and then the guys came up to my studio, the Boondock Studio, in Niles, Michigan. It was during a blizzard, it was super cold and we were locked in my little studio in the middle of nowhere, Michigan. We just started cranking stuff out and everything was really working, so we kept all those demos. We were trying stuff out and that recording session ended up being the bed for Bottom Feeders. We were like, “Man this stuff is really feeling great, I think we’re on to something, let’s try to finish this idea.”
The hardest thing with a side project is actually finishing the project the way you perceive it to be finished. To make a quality recording and say, “Okay this is going to be our next release.” It all just kind of cannonballed after we started the recording sessions in January. It was nice to back away from everything, to see my old buddies back in the homeland and hit the recording studio, and have a good time mainly. It’s basically a collaboration of friends trying to make great music together, really.
And these are the people you were first playing music with before you joined Umphrey’s McGee?
Yeah exactly, Ali Baba’s Tahini was playing the same clubs Umphrey’s was in ‘98, ‘97. We were always on the same bill together and we kind of created our own South Bend musical connection. But yeah, it started with Ali Baba’s Tahini in ‘97.
For some context, Karl Engelmann, who you work with in Ali Baba’s Tahini, also does some songwriting and collaboration with Umphrey’s, correct?
Yeah, definitely. There’s definitely like three old school Ali Baba’s Tahini tunes that are sort of brought over to Umphrey’s. There are probably 35 Ali Baba’s Tahini songs that are now Umphrey’s songs; it was almost a case of how quickly we could build our repertoire. That’s the reason Karl is just such a good buddy and on top of that, he’s just an amazing songwriter. He’s kind of a Syd Barrett of the south in a weird way.
Is the way Bottom Feeders came together similar to the other records, like 2010’s Living Room in 2010 or 2005’s Rock Stars and Lawn Mowers?
Yeah–what’s great about the last three records that we put out is I would get basic tracks in the time that we were all together. For Rockstars, I traveled all the way down to Asheville with a mixing console. We were on the side of a mountain in North Carolina in a little shack and we were there for a week. I got the basic tracks and basically took them back to Boondock Studios in Niles. I spent a year tweaking stuff, adding stuff, pulling stuff away, getting it to where it sounded feasible. And that’s kind of how each of the recordings, each of the three albums was prepared and made. So Living Room was kind of the same way, but the technology was still a pretty bare-boned recording situation. The thing that’s different from Bottom Feeders is that now you have Pro Tools. I’m an old analog kid–I’m always into twisting knobs and doing everything the hard way. So over the last five years, I was kind of getting comfortable in the digital domain and trying to get the same results in the digital world that I was in the analog world. So, Bottom Feeders is like a crash course in new technology but still trying to make a classic rock record in a way.
Absolutely, I definitely hear the classic rock influences.
Yeah, just trying to make more of a timeless sound rather than being in the present.
Would you ever go back to using analog stuff or is Pro Tools too powerful?
Well, I’m starting to see limitations in the digital world–I mean there’s nothing like the sound of real hardwired preamps and actual electricity running through steel wire and gold cables. Only about three percent of the population can actually tell the difference. But in the long run, like 25 years from now, people might actually be able to hear these differences. Our ears are getting more refined with time. Spending time in the Pro Tools world is really amazing because you can do so much bad to something that’s good, you can overdo everything inside the box. So the idea is to start off really sweet, then treat it like it were a hard-wired unit even though you’re pressing a button.
For the new record, what was the songwriting process like for each song? Would you bring in a musical idea and Karl [Engelmann] would bring in something else? Or did you each individually craft songs?
Yeah, well for a lot of this Karl would come in with a simple folk version of a song, just like an acoustic guitar and vocals. It was kind of my idea to be like, “Well what direction can we take this and how can we make it a little more interesting?” That’s why Bottom Feeders has kind of a diverse, Ween-esque quality to it, where you can’t really put your finger on, “where are these guys going, they seem to be kind of going everywhere.” That’s intentional in the long run. In a production setting, it’s almost like each song is its own separate production. A lot of it is experimenting, just throwing paint on the wall and seeing what sticks. And really having a good crap filter, knowing what’s going to work, what’s not going to work. And if it’s not going to work, get rid of it.
Having just listened to the album a couple of times now, one thing that jumped out to me was the variety. The first song “Ksenya” reminded me a little bit of something Umphrey’s might play. Then you have a song like “Last Night in America,” with the strings and the orchestral aspect. I wanted to talk particularly about the title track, “Bottom Feeders,” which is obviously the longest song. I personally hear some Pink Floyd influence in terms of the grandness of that song.
Yeah, really broad, deep, and wide, and subtle, you know? It tells a story; you can really put yourself inside of the words. What’s really cool about that particular song is that it was the last thing we did in the session. It was really late at night and I had this simple chord progression. Nothing was preconceived at the time, we just started writing the song and it just wrote itself. Karl goes, “Wait keep on playing it.” The next day he came in with like three sheets of lyrics. That song was literally written in 48 hours and recorded. And obviously we went back over after a period of time and added all the cool David Gilmore slide guitars, then the piano parts. But yeah, “Bottom Feeders”just came out of thin air, literally–it was like two in the morning and we were getting tired and this tempo was super slow and syrupy. I remember picking up the twelve string electric and it really sounded nice on the twelve string, kind of chimy.
Yeah, that’s a great sound.
And another cool thing about Bottom Feeders is that it really gets away from the technical aspect of music and gets more inside production and real song writing. Ditching fusion and jazz a little bit and going towards grandiose songwriting.
That’s where I wanted to go next. In Umphrey’s McGee, you guys are known for fusion and progressive music, sometimes, and of course your improvisation. But in terms of songwriting, you set aside time for Ali Baba’s Tahini. When you are writing songs for these respective projects, how do you think about them differently?
Yeah, I think it’s kind of that midwest rock syndrome. It’s kind of in the middle of America and it’s like all the styles come to the center. In the midwest there’s just this confusion on where to go, East or West, South or North. It’s like, “Why don’t we take all the directions and color in all of them and try to make sense.” Some sort of cohesion to something that could be so wonky and far apart from each other. Each song is so different from the next. I love that about a certain band that can change the character, like how the muppets could change a character. Each song is like a muppet, and it represents a different character. Just taking those simple analogies and placing them inside an actual full LP release. It’s challenging and fun at the same time.
And would you say for Umphrey’s, the band is more like one character that has a lot of different aspects? Obviously you guys have a defined sound in Umphrey’s McGee, but there is still a ton of variety there.
Right, it’s kind of like an octopus with tentacles.
A Rocktopus, if you will.
[Laughs] Yeah, like a Rocktopus, totally. With [Ali Baba’s] Tahini, each song is its own entity and its own production style. Then on an Umphrey’s record there’s got to be this Umphrey’s sound that kind of runs through the whole record. In Umphrey’s, I play a certain role too, so each one of us in Umphrey’s has a certain thing that we do best and that’s what we do. And on something like Tahini, I can play piano, play percussion, play most of the bass parts, you know do all the guitars. There’s a myriad of different amps and guitars whereas with Umphrey’s, I want a particular guitar sound that runs throughout the record and that’s my fingerprint for Umphrey’s. So I can classify the two sounds in their own world.