The Story Behind the Surprise Umphrey’s McGee Album Drop
Umphrey’s McGee has a special message for fans:
it’s not us, it’s you.
However this riff on George Constazna’s break-up routine from Seinfield does not portend closure but rather signifies a new beginning.
In the first few moments of Friday morning, May 18, the group released a previously unannounced new studio record, titled it’s you (available here), which serves as a companion piece to the group’s January album, it’s not us. The new record presents 10 original songs, 7 of which have yet to surface in the live setting (“Attachments” and “Upward” are currently in rotation while “In The Black” has been briefly tabled due to a new arrangement).
While Umphrey’s recorded the material on it’s you at IV Lab Studios in Chicago, IL back in November 2016 during the same sessions that yielded the tracks on it’s not us, the group decided to play it all close to the vest in an effort to offer fans a sweet surprise. Indeed, it wasn’t until this past weekend that guitarist/vocalist Brenadan Bayliss shared the news of the album with his mom.
“We’d all sworn ourselves to secrecy,” he explains. “I finally told my parents on Mother’s Day. I felt that I had to tell my mother because Ryan Stasik wrote a song that has some foul language in it [“Hanging Chads”] and I had to give her the fair warning. So that was the first time I told them but I didn’t tell everyone in my family because I wanted to keep it a shock to everybody and be able to say, ‘Oh, guess what? Here’s a whole new album’ and the only way that happens is if nobody knows. I have a couple of close friends that I definitely did not say anything to. There were a couple people in the organization that we didn’t even tell.”
Beyond the pure glory and glee of dropping an unexpected new record, keyboard player Joel Cummins suggests that there’s something else at play as well: “This is 20 years into Umphrey’s McGee, and not only do we have one new album of music, we have two albums of music. We’re more fired up than we ever have been about the stuff that we’re putting out. I think that these two albums really do complement each other, but at the same time they’re two completely separate pieces of art that stand on their own. I think you can kind of tell they’re from the same era, but at the same time they’re very much their own pieces of creativity. They’re time capsules of where we are at this time, and that we’re having a lot of fun being creative together, getting out there and doing it.”
As for the decision to release two discreet records, Cummins notes, “When we completed the session we had 25 different pieces of music that we could choose from. And as we gradually listened back, we felt it was going to be impossible for us to choose songs that would appear on a single album. I’ll admit that I felt a little bit bewildered about it.”
Bayliss adds, “During the process of recording, we weren’t thinking about a double album at all. We were just trying to get as much stuff done that we could. At one point, we toyed with the idea of doing four different EPs representing four different kind of genres but this didn’t pop up during. We also thought about releasing a song a month but all of this came up after the recording process. We considered a double album but while we grew up loving Physical Graffiti and The White Album I was worried that some of the songs would lose attention. Besides, I argued that if my favorite band did something like this—put out an album and then five months later put out a surprise one—it would make me love them even more.”
After the group finally committed to release two records, they made an effort to shape each of the offerings. it’s you is not an Odds and Sods collection of studio cast-offs but rather a creative expression in its own right.
“Basically, once we decided to do two, then the challenge was how do we split them up because we didn’t want one to be stronger than the other,” Bayliss discloses. “So that’s where it kind of got kind of hairy, because everyone was kind of trying to make their own setlist. There was a lot of back and forth—do we keep the acoustic stuff together, do we separate it? That’s when it got to be more difficult, because the goal was to have two solid albums and not make it ‘Here’s one good one and here’s a follow-up.’ So that’s where there was a lot of debate. A lot of that falls into the track order and what flows well. It was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be, to get everyone to sign off on two separate track lists.”
Cummins speaks to this undertaking as he observes, “It was almost like we had two of everything. I feel like “You & You Alone” [from it’s not us] and “Push & Pull” [from it’s you] are these kind of nice, more pastoral, acoustic-based songs. We have “Dark Brush” [it’s not us] and “Nether” [it’s you] these sort of heavier, more aggressive pieces of music. Once we got to the point where we decided we were gonna do two, we felt like we wanted to break these up so that there was a balance between the two albums. “Speak Up” [it’s not us] is something that’s a little bit funkier and dancier. I don’t know if we really have something that goes along with that on the new one but with “Hanging Chads” you can tell that we’re having a good time being ridiculous in the studio. It’s just nice that there’s an element of levity there.
“Still, while these albums are definitely their own things, I also think that it’s not us and it’s you are an amalgamation of everything that we’ve been trying to do. We’ve tried to mature as songwriters and tried to continue to create pieces of music that aren’t referencing things that we’ve created before. I think that these both stand on their own and I think the biggest thing is that 20 years in, we want to show people, ‘Look, we’re still as creative as we’ve ever been and this thing is only continuing to gain steam.’”
Our March cover story on the group hailed it’s not us as “the ideal album for the 20-year mark, serving both as a summation of all that’s come and an opening statement for what’s to follow.”
At that time Bayliss observed, “I think this one really does encapsulate our variety because that’s one thing we’ve always been able to do. We can do the acoustic-ballad thing, we can do the heavy-metal thing, we can do the funk thing. This album really captures that from track to track. If you don’t like metal and you like folk, it’s got that. If you don’t like folk and you like funk, it’s got that. And if you like prog, it’s got that and it’s all in 52 minutes. After all this time, I think we finally got it right.”
Second verse, same as the first.
Listen to it’s you below.