Musicians do call it playing, and when Umphrey’s McGee sets to work on new material, it’s with a “Lego type mentality” according to guitarist Jake Cinninger.
“It’s very much like a give-andtake and liberal sort of progression,” explains Cinninger, 33, who hails from Niles, and joined the Chicago-based sextet three years after it formed in 1997 at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.
“It’s all about how pliable and flexible can you be with moving something you’ve created around in order to fit and interlock with someone else’s part. And then you’ve got to make sure it’s seamless and emotional and intentional at the same time.
“It’s not easy, but it’s a lot of fun.”
The process has served Umphrey’s McGee well over the past 12 years, helping it vault toward the top of the jam band with 11 studio and official live albums of expansive, ambitious performances, a reputation for stellar and unpredictable live shows and three Jammy Awards, including Tour of the Year in 2007.
The group also has sold more than 750,000 concert tracks from its UMLive.net download store since 2004 and has 20,000 subscribers tuning into its monthly UM Podcasts of live material.
“We have a fan base that is really into what we put out, and that’s awesome,” notes keyboardist Joel Cummins, who’s also 33. “To be able to go out on the stage every night and have people who are that into it is an amazing experience. I don’t think every band gets that, so we’re lucky.”
Cinninger and Cummins acknowledge that level of devotion puts a certain pressure on the band to deliver for those fans, and it only heightened Umphrey’s ambitions for its new studio album, “Mantis,” which came out in early February and debuted at No. 62 on the Billboard 200 chart and in the Top 10s of the magazine’s Indie release chart and the ITunes Rock chart. It’s first-week release sales were also more than double that of its predecessor, 2005’s “The Bottom Half.”
Umphrey’s started work on “Mantis” in 2007, recording with its live sound engineer Kevin Browning in Chicago and, for the first time, not road-testing the new ideas in its shows. Cinninger calls the project “a labor of love,” with an emphasis on the labor.
“Some of these songs went through nine different drafts before we had the finished version,” he reports. “A lot of the riffs and verses and choruses were written as far back as three years ago. We would work on stuff and then go on tour, come back and revisit the material, move some stuff around, change parts, then go back out on tour and come back and revisit the stuff and make some more changes.
“It was all this songwriting alchemy over three years until we got these final drafts of the songs that we felt were the true, intended versions.”
Cummins adds that, “This is probably the four or fifth time in the studio with everybody in the band, and it’s definitely gotten easier every time. We feel like the creativity really happens well now.”
No song on the album was labored over more than “Mantis’’’ title track, a nearly 12-minute piece — “Our attempt at writing an opus,” according to Cummins — that stands out from the mostly tighter, more melodic and compact tone of the rest of the album. The keyboardist says he and Cinninger began writing it during the summer of 2006, from a guitar riff that Cinninger says “reminded me of the way a mantis walks” and building from there.
“I would have a riff, Joel would have a riff ... it started to take on a life of its own,” Cinninger recalls. “As we kept creating we got more and more confident with it. At one point we thought, ‘Should we make this thing the whole record, just one long song?’ We could possibly do that, but we’d lose everyone...
“So ‘Mantis’ was something we wanted to prove to ourselves, that we could pull off this real emotional, technical piece of music and sort of nail it in the studio. I think it came through.”
Umphrey’s came through with much more than just the 10 tracks on the album, too. Drawing on the wealth of ideas and unused material for the album, the group created an online bonus area which so far has nine levels that house studio outtakes — including an 18-minute “Mantis Roundtable” and alternate solos from “Turn & Run”— live tracks from 2004-2007 and bits of a 2008 sound check.
“It seems crazy,” Cinninger notes, “because the amount of (online) stuff dwarfs what’s on the album, y’know? But in the sea of new releases and new bands that are coming out these days, you have to have a red flag going, ‘Hey, w ve got something here you guys need to listen to’ and then literally give away just hours of material that have culminated over the past few years that exampled the whole ‘Mantis’ movement for us.
“It’s better to do that than just have it sit on the shelf somewhere.”
After the long studio gestation, Umphrey’s is enjoying playing the “Mantis” songs live — “Some of it is really hard to do, actually,” Cummins says — and has, in fact, pulled out every song from it on stage. The group expects to maintain its traditionally heavy touring schedule to support the album, including some summer festival dates.
“The best thing is that we’ve really evolved,” Cummins says. “Our sound has definitely ... gone in a little bit of an edgier direction, but we’ve preserved a lot of melody at the same time. We feel pretty lucky and pretty happy to be where we’re at, honestly.”
Umphrey’s McGee performs at 9 p.m. Thursday (March 12) at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, 318 W. Fourth St. Tickets are $22. Call (249) 399-2980 or visit www.royaloak musictheatre.com.
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