You cant choose what happens, only how you react to it,
says Brendan Bayliss, guitarist and vocalist of the musically muscular and
spontaneous band of merrymen Umphreys McGee. We had kind of
a crazy year and it all came out on this record, elaborates guitarist
and vocalist Jake Cinninger, referring to the bands third studio offering,
Safety In Numbers. Though its not all obviously dark, theres
kind of a theme that runs through it, he says.
Following their New Years Eve 2004 gig, Umphreys
McGee (its name is taken from a relative of Bayliss) lost a
close ally when their friend and fan, Brian Schultz, was
killed by a drunk driver. In addition to the bands collective
loss, Bayliss was living through a personally emotional
period of his own. A few weeks later, they were in the studio
composing new songs.
It wasnt a conscious effort to spill my guts, says Bayliss,
But life and its circumstances are a balancing act, and
its all on the record. The musicians concur that the personal
chaos provided plenty of fuel for an explosion of
collaborative and creative energy.
Some people tend to turn inward when they hit hard
times. But a bunch of us were going through this tough
stuff together, and you can feel that in
the recording, says keyboardist and
vocalist Joel Cummins. Thats where
the title comes from.
Throughout Safety In Numbers, which
was produced by the band and their
long-time sound engineer Kevin
Browning, Umphreys McGee rises to
the challenge of navigating the fine
lines between somber, sincere and high-spirited while
oozing characteristic style and finesse. The group of technical
sharpies is able to lay down the extreme and complex
stuff, but they also know the value in laying back (no
doubt attributable to their heavy road work).
We actually went in with the idea of doing an acoustic
and an electric album, explains Bayliss, though ultimately
the 11 tracks were narrowed down to a mixture of both
and shaped into a loose concept piece celebrating life in
all of its multi-shades of difficulty and dimension and executed
in fully-integrated, collaborative style .
Believe the Lie was one that was done with our Legostyle
of song building, explains Cummins. We put
together three different parts and made them relate to
each other and were able to come up with something as a group. Since we
wrote it, weve been playing it live and
weve gone back and added a lot of different textures
and layers to it. It evolved naturally, he says.
Rocker is a song about the tragic death of their friend
Schultz. Personally its an important song to me, says
Bayliss. And Jakes got this fantastic guitar melody on
top of it. There are strings in the background, and weve
never used strings before! Its just very out-of-left-field,
In addition to the innovative instrumentation, Umphreys
was joined in the studio by saxophone sensation Joshua
Redman and veteran rocker, Huey Lewis.
We had some really good musical moments and it all
happened organically, says Bayliss. Its a big compliment
to have someone who is more accomplished than we
could hope to be join with what were doing, he says of
Redman who contributes his bop-tenor to the syncopated
pop song, Intentions Clear. Its the same with
Bayliss. He says anytime hes in town, hes ready to play.
Lewis adds his bluesy harmonica and vocal stamp to
Women Wine and Song, perhaps the albums one track
that veers from the overall heavy concept
of lifes mysteries.
Women, Wine and Song had a fun,
party atmosphere and we had to be
careful where we placed it on a record
like this, says Cinninger, a professional
player since the age of 12 (he joined UM
in 2000). He also notes the track Liquid
as his personal highpoint. Its one I
wrote a while back about memories, and how you lose fear
as you grow older.
Cummins tribute to his friend Schultz (He was like a brother
to me, he says) is the compelling Words. Jake
got together and worked up different sections, tried to finetune
the transitions to make it work. Jake wrote the entire
final section and Brendan also contributed lyrics and
melodies in the beginning. Its an emotional and serious
piece of music, he says. There are also a couple of dazzling
acousticbased pieces like the instrumental End of
the Road, and the de facto title track, Passing.
The album stays with its conceptual feel, right down to its
cover art for which famed album designer Storm
Thorgerson (aka Hipgnosis, responsible for some of the
70s most memorable album covers) was commissioned.
We felt like this album is its own piece of art and we wanted
to put out something that not only sounds strong but has a cool artistic
vibe to it too, says Cummins.
We wanted an album that made some sort of sense, he says.
It was very important to us, like putting a basketball team on the
court, to find a collection of songs that worked well together,
he explains, in light of the rough year.
The basketball analogy is apt for a group of guys who came together in
a Midwest college town thats far more famous for the University
of Notre Dame and its sports teams than for its musical legacy.
South Bend is a family oriented, middleclass town, explains
Cummins. When we were there, there was no live music club with a
PA. We had to learn how to do our own show; once we did that, we could
take it anywhere.
Just a few months after their first gig in 1998, the band released their
own CD, the cleverly titled live document, Greatest Hits Volume III. Songs
for Older Women and One Fat Sucka followed - as did their first ever DVD,
Live from the Lake Coast. Building a reputation with the studio recording
and critically favored Local Band Does OK (not to be confused with Local
Band Does Oklahoma a live show released soon after), and honing
their groove as a stellar live act, by the time 2004s Anchor Drops
was released to raves, the buzz on Umphreys had gotten loud. Rolling
Stone tipped them in their hot issue and the Washington Post named the
band rocks undisputed lord of sonic shape-shifting.
And if you need further convincing, one look at their second DVD - 2005s
Wrapped Around Chicago: New Years at the Riv says it all: Umphreys
With the final line-up completed (including founding member, bassist
Ryan Stasik, plus drummer Kris Myers and percussionist Andy Farag), these
days the Umphreys operates out of Chicago, where they spend about
half the year while the other half is on the road, in the US, Europe and
Japan. Nightly audiences are knocked out by their easygoing onstage rapport
and the humor with which they juggle everything from gypsy jazz and heavy
prog and metal riffs to the most delicate classical runs.
From top to bottom, in its carefully constructed yet deeply felt notes,
Safety In Numbers is a strong and decisive, yet easy-flowing representation
of Umphreys McGee and a tribute to a friends life in the face
of their lossa sonic companion to lifes balancing act. For
Bayliss and Umphreys McGee, Safety In Numbers is more than just
an album title, its a statement of musical commitment to each other.
I dont speak for the band, he says, But I feel
like this is it. Id like to stay out there, keep playing and be
Uncle Brendan to everyones kids one day.