Brendan Bayliss: Inside the “US” of Umphrey’s McGee

A 20 year journey — from Notre Dame to ‘it’s not us’ with frontman, Brendan Bayliss

Photo by: Shervin Lainez
“This is really not about us. It’s about the music and the people that enjoy it.”

An attitude Brendan Bayliss and all of Chicago’s Umphrey’s McGee has subscribed to since their early years in the South Bend dorm rooms. This unifying concept makes you envision the band being placed in at the center of a giant circle as opposed to being elevated on stage. Their fans are right around them, some even facing the same direction, as everyone sings, dances and, sometimes plugs in (literally) together.

On Friday, Umphrey’s McGee start to ease into what plans to be perhaps the most exciting 12 months in the band’s dynamic history. They embark on their Dominican Holidaze through December 5th, then Bayliss, keyboardist, Joel Cummins and guitarist, Jake Cinninger have their respective holiday commitments, before closing out their 19th year with a bang — rocking three shows in a row at Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium.

To kick off their 20th anniversary year, a three-month North American Tour begins on January 11th, which is the day before their 11th studio album, it’s not us is set to be released.

The secret to the success of Umphrey’s McGee has been to simply follow what has driven them to this point — the adage, if you want to go far, go together. Embracing their fanbase and making them part of the journey has always been a trademark to the UM movement. Whether it’s what song to play, where to play, or what unique elements to add to their epic live experiences, the community that Umphrey’s McGee has created is one of much mutual appreciation. Enter — it’s not us a nod to just that.

I recently had the chance to speak with Bayliss. From his home in Chicago, the Umphrey’s frontman took me inside the journey — from Notre Dame to the influence of the windy city to the emotion of 20 years as a band.

It’s an exciting time in Umphrey’s McGee world — with a few shows coming up, the new record, and your 20-year anniversary coming up, how do you feel?

Cautiously optimistic. 20 years of anything is an accomplishment. Putting a band together, keeping it together, and having it grow as long as we have, I think is something very significant. I feel really good about where we are, what we’ve done, and what we are about to do. I never thought we would stay together this long. I certainly have these “wow” moments.

Your journey as a band began at a very unique place with Notre Dame. You don’t necessary think of that school being a heavy influence on a band. How did you hold on to that time and how does it come out still today?

You are totally right. Notre Dame is not the place for a music scene. At the time, there weren’t many music venues or likeminded people. That’s why we found each other. We gravitated towards each other there because there just weren’t many people like us. If you were into live music or playing, you went to certain places only and there were always the same people there. When we all graduated, we just got into a van, started traveling the country and playing shows. In a weird way, we never had to get real jobs or grow up. There are still times where we act like 18-year-old kids. Our whole day is all about trying to make the other guy laugh. We clown around all the time. Traveling is tough. Being away from our kids, wives and friends is tough, so laughter is the best remedy for that. I still feel like we are in that van coming out of Notre Dame. I tell people all the time, I graduated in 1998 and never got a job. I just started playing music. I feel like we extended youth — like Spinaltap, we are still at Notre Dame. I have nightmares to this day that I am in school buying textbooks and I’m about to fail my final exam and not graduate.

The next phase brings you to Chicago — a city that I find to be one of the more unifying and inspiring places in the country. How did settling in Chicago change the course of Umphrey’s McGee? And how does it continue to inspire you?

When we graduated, we all moved here because it was 90 miles from Notre Dame. It was the biggest city close to us. It was a no-brainer, if we were going to make it, we had to get out of Indiana and go to a major city where we could establish ourselves. I too, feel that Chicago is one of the greatest places in the world. From May to October, I think it’s the best city in the country. There is world class music every single night. Whether its LCD Soundsystem who just came through, Lollapalooza, or just popping into a small blues club open-mic, it’s hard not to see live music. It’s a music town. During certain street festivals, neighborhoods are closed down in order for the music to take center stage. There is no band that avoids Chicago. There is a constant influx of ideas, art, and music. We have a place like Wrigley Field, which is as good as it gets, but then there’s a small club like Schubas and everything in between. To me, Chicago is ideal. A place like New York would have been a different beast for us. The same goes for Los Angeles. Here, people still hold the door for you. There’s a Midwest courtesy. People give you a chance. They don’t walk into a show with their arms folded, judging you first. That helped us significantly. It’s constantly vibrant, and that still inspires us tremendously.

You’ve spoken about how a simple trip to Wrigley Field lit a fire for you in terms of pursuing this next record, it’s not us. Do you find a parallel in sport and your band at all?

Sports have always been part of our background — coming from Notre Dame and the football scene there. With traveling and being on the road, you often find yourself in hotel bars watching whatever game is on. From the beginning, we’ve looked at the band as a team sport and a unit. If one guy is having a bad day we still must play the show, and we know it will be fine. There’s definitely been points where I’ve been sick, and we’ll have to change the setlist because I couldn’t sing certain songs. It turns out, the other guys just step up. Everyone in the group has had their turn in that role. We’re all in it together. We lean on each other and we rely on each other. There’s never been a time where this group has been a thing of individuals. It’s always been a democracy as opposed to a dictator putting his foot down saying, “This is what we’re going to do, this is what we will sound like, this is who we are.” We pass each idea around like a ball. That’s how most of the improv works for us — tossing the ball around, playing catch. Each person has their moment where they step up and call the play. The analogy is spot on.

With Wrigley and the Cubs — when we first moved to Chicago, we had a band house on Southport and Henderson, which is a ten-minute walk from Wrigley. So, starting out, we were in Wrigleyville. Half the band were Cubs fans and the other half are White Sox fans. We’ve had plenty of bets where the guy that loses has to wear the opposing jersey. The first time we did the national anthem and the Sox game I wore a Cubs shirt under my jacket. They gave everybody a Sox jersey and I gave mine back. I ended up asking for it the next time we were there, and I gave it to my dad.

Regarding the new record; we had just played a festival, we flew home Friday morning — my kids were already at daycare and my wife was busy. I decided to buy a standing room ticket to the Cubs game. I was reflecting on how good I had it and how lucky I felt. As a band, we had just started talking about our 20-year anniversary. I was thinking about it inside Wrigley, and figured, it’s May, if we could get the ball rolling soon, we can start our 20-year anniversary with a new album. I thought that would be a powerful statement as opposed to looking back at what we had done and re-recording old songs. I thought it was cooler to say, “We’re not done yet, here’s new stuff.”

It’s a very diverse collection of songs and I absolutely loved “Half Delayed”, the melodies are amazing.

Thank you. It’s funny because that was supposed to be just a working title. We threw it in there as a placeholder until we found a better song title, but could not come up with anything.

On the new record, your focus was to capture the live spirt. Can you take me inside the methodology to your overall approach there?

I feel like each song is different. I’ve never looked at us as a genre or something specific. It’s funny because when we are in the studio, it’s all about the drummer getting the take. We’ll make sure we capture the moment with Kris (Myers). There have been songs where we’ve done 25 takes because Kris didn’t like a specific cymbal. When he says, “I got it,” it’s like a giant celebration. Those takes always end up being the ones that are most similar to a live show, where Kris is totally in his zone, feeding off an environment. Many of Jake Cinninger’s solos on this record were done in one take, where he had his eyes closed, pouring his heart and soul into every note.

With a show, that’s it. There’s no chance to fix anything. Even if something is great, you can’t dwell on it. You have to move forward to the next song, so it was more of us trying to bring that attitude to this new record.

I would usually get anxious in the studio because I feel I can always do it better. That is the exact opposite attitude of playing live in front of a crowd. If you get hung up on something then for the next three minutes, you will not be focused on what you should be doing.

The intent to make each show special and unique is not something to take for granted in my opinion because there are so many bands that play the same set every single night. It can still be a great show, but regardless of the city you are in, it’s the same show. Little things like changing the setlist or being able to plug into the audio board like you guys do, though not the easiest road to take, it makes a significant difference.

We subscribed to that approach right from the beginning. Our college roommates would come to our shows, sometimes there would only be 10 people there, and we realized if we wanted even just our friends to keep coming, there would have to be new songs. When we started to see our crowds grow, and there were people in the audience that we didn’t know, we figured out that they were coming back because we were not doing the same thing each time we played. For us to grow a fanbase, we needed to mix it up. Once we started doing 150 shows a year, we needed to mix it up for our own sanity. We wear our heart on our sleeves and it would not have been inspiring if we had not changed the sets up and challenged ourselves. Playing the same songs never would have translated to something people would want to watch. These two approaches intermingled to the point where it’s become just the way we operate.

We are fortunate now that our catalog has gotten so big, if we don’t play a particular song for a while then go back to it, it’s like visiting an old friend you haven’t seen or talked to in a while. It’s healthy to keep rotating. If a band is doing the same thing each night, why would you see them in New York City and then go travel to Boston to see the same show all over again?

Making a living on the road as opposed to selling albums, has always been how we survived. It’s second nature to us. We know that if we are about to go play four shows, we are not going to repeat any songs over those four nights. It’s a given, we don’t even talk about it.

You describe it’s not us as — simply continuing the conversation. What do you mean by that?

We always listen. When we were young and playing small clubs, we’d be packing up our gear and the stage was only two feet away from the people. At the end of each night, we’d just start talking with them and picking their brains. I would ask the people I would see come to 10 nights in a row, “What brings you here? What are you getting out of this? What else can we do to keep you coming?” It was a serious inquiry — I wanted to take care of those people because they were taking care of us. Without them, we didn’t have gas in the car. We didn’t set out to make it that way, it was just a natural evolution. There’s a guy named Matt Small, he’s from South Bend, any time I see him at a show, I will make sure I go to talk to him. He’s been seeing us since 1998. I’ve gotten to know him because of this band. There are a lot of people out there like that.

That’s a perfect example of the intent behind, it’s not us. With that in mind, what would be your message to the fans as you head into year 20?

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Keep believing in us because we are not done yet. We have a song from 1999 called “Slacker” and one of the lyrics is “In the end here I must confess, you’ve yet to ever witness our best. In the end here I must confess, we’ve yet to ever give you our best.” Every time I say it, I believe it. We were just talking about fan reciprocation. Without our fan-base, we are nothing. I have no interest in what type of life that would be. This is really not about us. It’s about the music and the people that enjoy it. The minute we start to think we are awesome and it is about us, we’ll lose sight of what’s important. Nothing good comes from the ego getting in the way and people thinking they are better than they really are. Some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met, like Victor Wooten, carry an honest and sincerity with them at all times. Victor is one of the most humble and talented guys in the world. That was always attractive to me as opposed to those who are narcissists. We are all from the Midwest, it’s simple. For us to reach our 20th anniversary and talk about how great we are would be a massive turnoff. After 20 years, its common sense for us to think about how we got here and realize it’s about everything but us.

All things considered, what does 20 years of Umphrey’s McGee mean to you?

It means everything. I’ve kept journals so that someday when I’m older I can sit back and reflect on what I hope is a beaming smile full of pride. Emotionally, there is a lot. I think about Mike (Mirro) our first drummer and when he passed away. There’s also pride in all that we’ve accomplished. I feel very blessed and very lucky. I have kids and if one of them said they wanted to start a band and travel the country, I would tell them they are crazy. The chances of making it are so low. For us as a group, it feels really good. We are happy. There’s been a lot of hard work and sacrifice. It feels gratifying to look at 20 years and what we accomplished. I believe if I’m asked that questions again in 20 years, I’ll have the same answer.

Check out Umphrey’s McGee new video for “The Silent Type”:

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