Soundfuse Exclusive Interview: Jake Cinninger of Umphrey's McGee

Interview: Jake Cinninger of Umphrey’s McGee

11.25.11 Umphrey's McGee and Beats Antique at Aragon Ballroom-47

Frazier: Where do you find inspiration outside of music?

Cinninger: It’s definitely family; I’m a big family guy. I always wanted to move back home once I moved to Chicago to join the band. I joined the band and had to move to Chicago to get it going, you know? I stayed here for about six years but I was always looking for a place back home. That’s where my studio is, and my parents are there, and I’ve got a lot of family in the small town of Niles, Michigan. So I just wanted to get back there because I find that a lot of inspiration’s in the things that you’re most used to, the things that make you most comfortable. I’m really drawn to the backwoods of Michigan and I like to walk out in the forest and just sort of hear nothing, and that’s when the inspiration comes. It’s almost like you gotta let the madness of the world shut off and try to find those places to be artistic. So that’s where it comes full circle, the songs start nucleizing, then I can go to my studio in the backwoods and get holed up for a few days and just hang out and try to create something. I work on like five things at once…

Soundfuse Exclusive Interview: Jake Cinninger of Umphrey's McGee

UM Bowl II

Frazier: So the songwriting process begins organically for you? You don’t try to just sit down and crank things out?

Cinninger: No, I usually always go up to my studio and whenever I make a track there the gates are wide open. I’m always up there working on something. I’ve got probably six or seven tunes right now that are slowly tracking, adding all the parts basically. Then I end up with a finished idea or demo that I can present to the guys. But if it doesn’t really sound like an Umphrey’s tune it just goes in my huge catalogue of back logged material. We’ll go back and find stuff that’s really useable as time goes on. Like “Conduit” was a riff that I had four-tracked from 1997, you know it was just the (Cinninger sounds out the main riff), that whole thing was just an old riff that Bayliss heard and was like, “I can totally put something to that.” So that’s how the fusing sort of begins.

Soundfuse Exclusive Interview: Jake Cinninger of Umphrey's McGee

Summer Camp Music Festival 2011 performing with Ali Baba’s Tahini

Frazier: So why do you think you and Bayliss work so well together?

Cinninger: Back when we were in different bands, I was in Ali Baba’s Tahini and he was in Umphrey’s McGee, in South Bend, Indiana when we were just bar bands, but we’d see each other at different parties. We were always talking and rapping about, “Man, wouldn’t it be cool to do this dual guitar thing?” That’s kinda where the idea started, or why I was even asked to join the band, was so that we could complete this idea of a dual guitar attack. Which a lot of great bands have that seminal two guitar attack, like Thin Lizzy, Wishbone Ash, or Iron Maiden… a lot of the old predecessors. You can get that classical lead sort of thing, but with harmonies and melodies happening. And then with his songwriting ideology and mine, sort of fusing those together… two brains are better than one. A lot of our best songs are collaborations. We write a lot of stuff individually but I think our best, most intricate Umphrey’s material is when were both working together on each section. “Plunger” is a good example. Him and I were in a hotel room and just bashed that one out for a couple days… it was in Nashville in 2001, I think. We had a day off in Nashville and we sat with the acoustic guitars, and there’s actually a recording of us in that hotel room and it’s gonna be available sometime soon I think. And that’s how a nucleus forms…

Frazier: That’s really interesting because I’ve always felt like “Plunger” is such an aptly-named song. Like it has this sinking feeling to the riff, was that something that helped name the song?

Cinninger: Right, right. It’s actually a lot more of a funny story than that. It’s an effective title, that’s for sure. And it goes with the whole Anchor Drops sort of thing—the plunging of an anchor. So that tied in with being the opening track of the Anchor Drops record. So that had some sort of subliminal tie in, but I think that the joke was that our old drummer (Mike) Mirro… we used to, in the corner of every bathroom, we’d write Mirro’s Plunger with a Sharpie, in every backstage bathroom where the plunger would be. So in every bathroom the plunger was Mirro’s Plunger. That’s kind of where it comes from, a bathroom joke (laughs). Rock n roll humor is usually toilet humor.

Soundfuse Exclusive Interview: Jake Cinninger of Umphrey's McGee
New Year’s Eve 2011

Frazier: What does it feel like when you’re on stage and a jam just isn’t quite working?

Cinninger: That happens… As long as we’re trying, we can usually get out of something uncomfortable if we’re all on the same page. Say something malfunctions on stage, like Kris will put the kick beater through the kick drum head and all of a sudden because the ‘Act of God’ clause steps in, now we’re fumbling through what we were playing. That’s the beauty of the talk back microphones, because we can communicate with each other. We’re on in-ear monitoring, so we just step on this little gadget that opens up the microphones. So, for instance, if we’re in a situation like that, I’d be like, “Just Joel on piano, A minor.” So we will shift gears and focus the attention on the other side of the stage, maybe get a spotlight on Joel. And then he can start something anew, but it’s on a lower dynamic so we have somewhere to go again while we’re fixing the bass drum head. So that would be a scenario.

Frazier: Awesome. Yeah, I really like watching you guys communicate on the microphones. It gives me a cue—now that I’ve seen you guys so many times—to look out for what’s coming next, and how the sound evolves from that point.

Cinninger: Exactly. And anything you think of that you can direct works, because it’s all about what you can direct on the go. I can say, “Drums drop out.” Or, “Bayliss, take a solo here.” Or a certain chord progression, I’ll shout out, “F sharp minor, A major, B major, C major. There’s the chord structure, now everyone stop,” two, three, four… now I’ll start the riff. Then everyone can jump in on the riff, once I’ve played it through one time. So if I have an idea, usually I break the band down, and I’m basically showing the band the riff and they pick up on it, hopefully in the next four bars. So that’s how it works, it’s like an intellectual game of Simon Says.

Soundfuse Exclusive Interview: Jake Cinninger of Umphrey's McGee
Lincoln Hall on 10.19.11

Frazier: From the crowd sometimes it can easily seem like you play flawlessly, like you just hit every note you’re going for, how often does that really, actually happen?

Cinninger: Oh, we’re playing by the seat of our pants every night. The errors, if you wanna get really technical for a live standard, are very high if you ask me, and if you were to break everyone’s part down… There’s a lot of careful playing if, say, we’ve had a lot of time off and we’re just getting on the road. There’s a whole repertoire we have to remember… 120 songs. So there’s all that muscle memory that has to kick in after you’ve been on vacation for three weeks. Sometimes those first gigs are a little unbalanced. So yeah, there’s definitely a ratio of where we’re more of a well-oiled machine after we’ve been on tour for a few weeks, and we’ve been grinding through the repertoire so much. That’s when we take on new forms of songs and start playing them differently, that’s when we get really comfortable. I don’t play each song the same each time, they get played differently every night usually. The solos are usually off the cuff, all improv… And there’s a point where we’re usually really good at covering up our mistakes too. Victor Wooten had a great saying, “You never really make a mistake as long as you can use the mistake as if it was intentional.” So I’m messing up all over the place, to my ears. But I’m using the mistakes… There’s no real wrong notes necessarily. So that’s kinda my ideology on it.

11.25.11 Umphrey's McGee and Beats Antique at Aragon Ballroom-35

Aragon Ballroom on 11.25.11

Frazier: People on the internet like to talk, and a lot of the complaints I see about Umphrey’s are that some people say you were better in ’04, or ’06… How does that make you feel as a musician and what would you tell those people?

Cinninger: I think that a lot of people get a little too wrapped up in a certain year, like if it was their particular best year as a fan and had the most fun. So maybe they’re grown up and they have a real job and life’s not as much fun when they can’t go to shows as much anymore, so when they come out to see us once or twice in 2011, it doesn’t feel like 2004, you know? And they might be looking for that nostalgia. I think Phish gets that too from fans. A lot of the old school Phish fans are looking for that feeling of being a kid again. But if you’ve been working all week and you come out with that expectation of going crazy like you were in 2004, it might not meet the expectations. So I think it’s all per individual. I’m such an unbiased critic when it comes to music because I think everything’s good or has a purpose. Everything from GG Allin to the worst surf rock… I’m really into bad music, or what’s considered to be bad music because I find that it has character. So it’s kind of like apples to oranges.

Frazier: What Umphrey’s songs are your favorite or mean the most to you compositionally?

Cinninger: Let me think, what really feels good to play… I’m trying to think of the seminal moments… I really like to play “Mantis” live, it’s a challenge. It has a lot of real emotional guitar parts, very poignant melodies throughout. I really like the way that song is sculpted and it works well live. I also like “Wizard Burial Ground,” I love playing some metal…

Frazier: I love to hear you say that, that’s one of my favorite songs.

Cinninger: It’s like the kid in me, you know, it’s like all of a sudden we’re a metal band for a second. It’s fun to put on different hats, that’s what I enjoy most about playing in Umphrey’s. We’re just chameleons, rock n roll chameleons. So even stuff like “Mullet (Over),” which is more of a bluegrass, like Nashville-picking thing– I love playing the chicken pickin’ stuff. That’s really fun to show off those tricks, then next song we got “Wizard Burial Ground,” and the next song we’ll do a reggae number. So it’s fun, we got rock ADD.

jake cinninger 2
North Coast Music Fest 2010

Frazier: How much does setting influence setlist writing?

Cinninger: Not too much. What we generally try to do is look at setlists of what we played in that particular town before and try to stay away from those songs. Say if we’re in New Hampshire, chances are that the people who saw us last time we were there, don’t wanna see the same songs that they saw last time. So we’ll go back and make sure we don’t repeat stuff. It’s for the fans’ sake that we change it up. If we played “N2F” last time, we’ll play “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” the next time to keep something fast in its place. So we definitely try to construct setlists that will appeal to the traveling fan who sees every show, as well as for the people who only see us once a year in their city.

Frazier: Cool. Well, with that question I was thinking about last year at North Coast, and people were saying that you guys were just gonna play “Triple Wide” and “Cemetery Walk II” and get all untzy. But you did “Wappy” and “Tinkle’s” and “Mulche’s,” you just really came with a more metal set.

Cinninger: Yeah, that was more of a rock set. I think we will sometimes look at a certain festival, a bluegrass festival for instance, and we will really try to do our thing. We won’t pull a ‘stick it down their throats’ kind of thing, but we wanna show people what we do and not just play it safe because we’re at a certain festival. We’ll always play a regular show in that case.

Frazier: I don’t know if it’s just very recently or not, but it seems like you guys are busting out songs like “Catshot” and “Nipple Trix” more often, which are these energy-building, instrumental ballad type of intro songs. Do you set out to write those or do they just come about?

Cinninger: It kinda goes back to all the stuff I come up with at the studio. I had all these intros, or ambient pieces that were just one written section. It started with me wanting to do an intro in each key, so the 12 tones: do one in C, C sharp, D, D sharp, E, F… and so on. So that’s kind of the idea, to do one in each key. I think we’ve got five or six of them done now and pretty soon we’ll have them all done.

Frazier: So the A minor intro from last night is eventually going to get a name like the others have recently?

Cinninger: Yeah, we do have a new name for it (“Tango Mike”), but I forget it right now. Someone was throwing something around. But yeah, it’s slowly being devised and who knows, we might put out a recording with all 12 tones and the track listing would be just that. That would be kind of cool.

Frazier: That would be really cool. What’s the better impression, your Bob Seger voice or Bayliss’ Michael Jackson voice?

Cinninger: (laughs) I don’t know, that’s a good one. I think I gotta give it to Bayliss, that’s really hard to do. It’s quality. I remember him doing that shit back at Mickey’s Pub in ’97 when they’d do “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5. Maybe we should break that one out again…

11.25.11 Umphrey's McGee and Beats Antique at Aragon Ballroom-37
Aragon Ballroom on 11.25.11

Frazier: It seems like you guys can segue anything into anything else, but I know that’s not true. Do you have an example of two songs that you would just never segue together?

Cinninger: I would have to say that anything is actually segueable. Because we can shift tempos on a dime, and even if it’s two different keys or two different tempos, anything can be motioned into, per se. Any piece of music. Now, whether or not it sounds good, is the other question. There are definitely songs that wouldn’t sound good segued, but anything is segueable.

Frazier: Awesome answer. Are you ever surprised at where you are right now? Has the road to musical recognition been easier or harder than you thought it was going to be?

Cinninger: I think as time goes on it becomes a little harder to be gone and be on the road. Having a family now and a kid at home definitely changes the vibe a little bit. It’s not about me as much anymore, it’s very much about the family. I don’t have as much time to be creative, but as far as my obligation to the band, it’s 100%. But it makes it harder, getting older, and keeping the consistency there. Just like anything, there are dips in the energy levels. Sometimes we have good tours, sometimes it’s a little more difficult.

Summer Camp Music Festival 2010

Frazier: Lately in interviews Bayliss has been saying that Umphrey’s McGee wasn’t the most forward thinking decision for a band name. Did you guys ever seriously consider changing it? And what ideas did you have?

Cinninger: Well, once you’ve got a solid fanbase, you can’t really change the name; it’s kind of a shot in the foot. I don’t know why we kept it… I guess because we were thinking about names like Poop Factory and like Juice Pot. We thought about it when Google was first becoming a big thing and we realized our name was highly Googleable, you know what I mean? (laughs). It really works in a weird way because it’s an unusual name. So I think that it’s a name that once you say it, you’ll always remember it. It’s one of those things. Kinda like Jamiroquai. Like I don’t know what that means necessarily, but I always remembered the name after I could pronounce it. And it was unusual enough that it stuck in the brain. New vocabulary. So I think Umphrey’s McGee qualifies as…

Frazier: Novel vernacular?

Cinninger: Right. Random novel vernacular.

Frazier: So at what age did you know you wanted to be a rockstar?

Cinninger: Pretty young. My parents had a great record collection growing up. So by four years old I was tossing quarters in the university park fountain wishing things like, “I wanna play like Randy Rhodes.” My parents used to take me to shows when I was really young. You know, I saw Kiss before they took their makeup off. I saw Todd Rundgren’s Utopia in like ’79, I was like four years old. I saw Randy Rhodes before he died in ’82, when I was about six. My dad would take me, put me on his shoulders, and put ear plugs in my ears. Right then I was like, “This is what I wanna do!” I come from a blue-collar background and I saw how hard my family had to work to make ends meet. I was like man, if I could do something other than that that’d be cool. (laughs) God love ‘em, but… (laughs)

Frazier: (laughs) Yeah, that must have been pretty inspirational being four years old and going to shows like that…

Cinninger: Yeah, totally.

11.25.11 Umphrey's McGee and Beats Antique at Aragon Ballroom-28
Waful’d at Aragon Ballroom on 11.25.11

Frazier: One of my favorite parts of Umphrey’s–obviously I love the music–but I think Waful is by far the most engaging and innovative LD in live music.

Cinninger: Definitely.

Frazier: So I was wondering what you think Waful adds to the band and if you can tell from the stage how much of an effect Waful’s lights have on an audience.

Cinninger: Yeah, there’s a point once or twice every night where we’ll be randomly in a jam and we’ll make a little shift, but Waful will make a change and I’ll hear the audience go “WOOOO.” I’ll hear them just light up. And it’s actually something Waful just did. It’s not something we did because we were just grooving. When Waful makes a change sometimes the crowd really reacts. So that goes to show you the power of the visual. What I do is nothing but audio… you know, it’s 2011, kids’ attention spans are kind of short, you gotta hone them in. So to have this huge tapestry of light along with the sound, just really ties things up for the future. This ain’t 1971 with two cans and two par can lights and a disco ball. It’s way more complex, the technology kicks ass nowadays.

Frazier: Yeah, but on the other hand, one of the things I really like about Waful is that he doesn’t use many bells and whistles, he just uses lights and smoke.

Cinninger: Yeah! Very slow moving lights too. Very dramatic, to crate a sense of suspense with the lights. The real slow drag of the light… You’re using up time too, so it’s not all this crazy flashing the whole show, which really gets to be too much over two hours.

Frazier: I was gonna ask you that… does it get distracting when the lights go crazy?

Cinninger: Sometimes, sure. But I mean it’s just something… I’m in a rock band with a kickass light show… you just gotta deal with it. (laughs)

Soundfuse Exclusive Interview: Jake Cinninger of Umphrey's McGee
UM Bowl II

Frazier: So one of my favorite improv pieces was this year at UM Bowl, during the S2 part, the “Soaring Uplifting Jam.” And I was wondering if you remembered that at all, because I was standing right at the stage and as soon as it hit the screen I looked at you, and you just closed your eyes and had this look on your face like inspiration lightning just hit you. Then all of a sudden the song took off and it’s still one of my favorite pieces ever, I listen to it regularly and it’s totally improvisation.

Cinninger: I do actually remember that, it was a really fun experiment. And I think when I’m challenged, which is what that whole thing is about, seeing what’s thrown on the board and reacting to it and trying to translate exactly what it says into music. So yeah, it’s definitely a challenge, like, “See what you can do with that!” So we gotta run home with it and that’s all I think about really. And that’s the competitive side of music too, it’s very much sport-like, the mental side of it. Walking out there and being accurate is everything, while still being artistic. It’s artistic accuracy. It’s not just throwing paint on the canvas, you know. All those great painters had that certain thing in their wrist that just made that certain brushstroke. Like when they do one brushstroke and make a person’s cheek and face. Some of those painters can do it with just a flick of the wrist. It’s just amazing.

Frazier: Alright, that’s all of our time. Thank you very much!

Cinninger: You know it.

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Jeremy Frazier is the editor-in-chief of Soundfuse.