Umphrey’s just released “Suxity” a couple of days ago. I think that is a perfect example of what we were just talking about. When I first listened to that, I would have known it was Umphrey’s McGee if I just was hearing it. That being said, I read the piece in American Songwriter where you talked about how this song is something like Sly Stone dating Alice in Chains.
So even though the song sounded like it was definitely an Umphrey’s Mcgee song, there was still the merging of genres, which you guys will often do. It’s also a seperate, funkier thing than you guys have a tendency to play. When you were coming up with that demo, was it intentional? Did you set out with the ideal: “I would like to write a song that’s like Sly Stone dating Alice in Chains”?
No. I go up to my studio every day when I’m off the road pretty much. I drop the kids off at school in the morning, go up to my studio until I have to go pick them up. I have a strategic schedule when I’m at home. So it was just a random day going to the studio, and I’m all about getting chiller drum sounds. I’m just such a freak for plain drums, and I got this killer, simple, Andy Numark style drum track. There weren’t any ghost notes or anything really weird going on, just AC/DC meets funk.
I laid down this simple drum beat and I said, “Let me see how little I can play to make this as big as possible.” So it was kind of a lesson in simplicity and arena rock-funk, in a weird way. And I did that whole demo in like two hours at the studio and my demo sounds pretty close to the backing tracks of the finished product. We took my demo into the studio and all the guys sat around the studio with the speakers and got inside the parts. The bass part is very separate from the guitar part and everything has a spot. And no one is playing over each other. So it’s a lesson in simplicity and creating air inside of a super pocket groove. And then when the chorus comes up, we change radio stations, big-half time Seattle grunge chorus. Then there is air, then it pops right back to the super abbreviated funk.
Yeah, it’s cool. I feel like sometimes when I hear people talk about what influenced a song or what they were going for with a song, not that it should be, but it’s not always that apparent to the listener. But in this song, as soon as you say “Sly Stone dating Alice in Chains”–that really is what it sounds like. That being said, it still sounds so much like Umphrey’s. The funk has a heaviness to it.
Yeah, we’re hitting the strings hard, we’re hitting the drums hard; it’s not light and chippy.
It’s not a low volume funk that it seems to be in vogue these days–like you said it’s an “AC/DC meets funk” hard rocking funk.
What’s great about the “Suxity” recording with Umphrey’s is that we went down to Blackbird Studios in Nashville and we all set up in a circle and that’s us basically playing just straight to tape. There are not a whole lot of overdubs. You do the vocals later obviously but that’s us grinding that track straight through. That’s where you get the Umphrey’s flavor: all of our blood and bones and brains hitting the tape at the same time. It creates a certain pocket, a certain energy, and “Suxity” just sort of has that electricity right when it hits.
I really love the new song. Is there a new album on the horizon?
I think we were just doing a single thing. Cause we’ve been putting out records for so long, and the whole format of a record just started to get a little lost in the last couple years. Everything comes back around; we’ll probably do a record after this single. I think it was just cool to have a song with its artwork attached to it. And those are the two things. With things like Spotify, kids are looking for singles–they’re not listening to albums anymore. We kind of took that route for a year to see what it did.
The last thing I wanted to talk about in terms of Umphrey’s is the hour long “Ringo” from your show in Denver on December 30. I’m curious about the backstory of that. You guys often perform these huge impromptu improvisations, but considering the guests, this one seemed a little more orchestrated. I was just curious how that came about–how much planning occurs before that kind of thing?
Surprisingly the thing with Umphrey’s is that the improvisational part of our brains is like an exercised muscle, right? So we really didn’t go into that with any preconceived ideas, we were like, “If something gets boring I’ll look at you to start a new tempo or something.” We have this deck of cards that if we run into trouble we can pull out a card and change direction. Because the six of us have been doing this thing together for so long, we can kind of read each other’s minds. And if something gets weird, we all go together. Instead of being like, “What are you doing, you’re ditching me,” sort of thing. It’s very democratic and we all flow together toward the next movement.
I think the reason why we did that was that we had so many shows in Denver. So just to make each show a little more special than the next, we thought we’d do something a little out of the ordinary. It’s one of those tricks up our sleeve that we do well. We can pull it off and feel comfortable about it, it doesn’t feel like pressure. That’s when the art will flow; an hour will feel like a half an hour, it’s like, “Yes we should do this.” It’s so easy to, at the same time, fall flat on your face if you’re thinking about it too much. We really went out there with horse blinders onto the audience and we just focused on us. Like, “Can we get through this hour?” It was almost like a challenge for ourselves, as much for ourselves as for the listener.
I think that is one of the great things about the music listeners in the general Umphrey’s scene, and beyond. On that very same night, there were many jam bands performing long jams and people were all on the edge of their seats. As a fan myself, seeing the fact that you could fall on your face and ultimately don’t–or even if you do fall on your face–that’s like the best part of it. To me, it’s like a high wire act, musically.
It really comes down to just total confidence up there. If you go up on the stage with any doubts, your song is not going to be open to turning that energy into physical form and muscular form and it comes out in the instrument. You have to be an open current for that to seem like it’s all written in the moment and it feels like it’s supposed to happen. There are all these excellent analogies that carry it through.
One more question going back to Ali Baba’s stuff. You guys don’t really play live, other than I think one charity concert in 2017 that I came across. You talked about how you find a spot in the calendar, like, “Oh we can do something then.” Is there ever a thought of, “Oh maybe we’ll play some live shows”?
Yeah, I mean that’s always coming up. It’s really hard to fit in family, Umphrey’s and then another tour. That’s why I don’t do too many things outside of Umphrey’s, our tour schedule and everything is pretty heavy duty. We are probably one of the heavier touring bands in the last ten years. I could see doing a one off at Summer Camp, which I think we did five years ago. We did a Tahini show at Summer Camp, we were just like, “Summer Camp’s the perfect place, let’s get together for an afternoon set or something like that.” That’s more of a feasible thing. Or do a Southbend, Chicago, Milwaukee–just three shows something like that. We’ve talked about that. It’s sort of penciled in in areas like, “Oh here’s a hole here in August.” It’s definitely on our minds. We’d love to get out and play for our fans, let these songs breathe a little bit live.
Back to Umphrey’s–are there any particular things on this tour, like shows or new things you are going to try, that you are excited about? Or do you not know before you start?
I don’t like to think about time. Usually I don’t think about what month I am in, a lot of the time I don’t even like looking at clocks. I just lock into each day as if it were yesterday or the next day coming so I really don’t think about time too much. I just focus on the task at hand.
Last week was the first time I looked at my tour schedule because I didn’t want to think about it until I had to, because I wanted to think about family. Over the years of touring, I’ve learned how to put up barriers to what I need to think about compared to what I should think about in the future. So I can kind of put things on the back burners. Then it’s like, “Whoa, let me look at the Umphrey’s tour schedule and get in that mode.” Then I don’t burn out on Umphrey’s because I’m not constantly in that world every day. I get a break from it, then when I come back, I miss it. And I want to play the songs again. I want to see my buddies and just go out there and play some good music. That’s part of my ethos to our crazy maddening schedule.
Well I’m sure that also helps in terms of the improvisations. If you don’t have things on your mind, you can let the music come through instead of trying to play the music.
It’s like the old jazz mentality. As soon as you start thinking about it too much, your listener knows you’re thinking and it sounds garbled and disjointed and not fluid. So there is a fluidity to not thinking. When you go out for a jog, you don’t even have to think about jogging. It just happens automatically in your body. When you start to harness an instrument, it’s like Tai chi, like Karate. You gotta use some of these other sides of the coin–it’s not just playing notes. There is so much more than that. All the best players have that spiritual side along with the technical side. And then it’s the Yin and the Yang for that great artist. That is sort of the destiny or the final achievement of every great artist, to find that balance between the spirit and the complexity. I think about that all the time and that is what keeps that river open, that current open.