Track By Track: Umphrey’s McGee _Similar Skin_
Umphrey’s McGee have brought things full circle with their new studio album Similar Skin. After recording for ATO and SCI Fidelity, they will release Similar Skin on their own Nothing Too Fancy Records imprint. Back in 1998, they self- released their debut, Greatest Hits Vol. 3, although guitarist/ vocalist Brendan Bayliss recalls that all did not go as planned. “We had 1,000 CDs made and I remember when the box came, we were really stoked—it was like Christmas morning. Then we opened it, and we realized they spelled the name wrong. And it was just elation to deflation very quickly.” [The band has already proofed the cover art for Similar Skin.]
As for the music, Bayliss explains: “In the past, we’ve done the whole melting-pot album, where there’s a rock song, and then there’s a mellow acoustic song, and then there’s a jazz thing, and then there’s a prog thing—just bouncing all over the place. This time, we specifically went in with a song list where, genre-wise, it was all pretty much straight-ahead rock.”
“The Linear” was an older song that Jake [Cinninger] brought to the table, and it was originally an instrumental. We played it for a couple of months and then, one day, I just walked up to Jake and I was like, “Hey, do you mind if I try singing something over it tonight? Just tell me what you think.”
I never thought that we’d record it for an album because it doesn’t really have a beginning and it doesn’t really have an end. So when we sat down to record it, we were like, “OK, we’ve played this for three years now, but how do we start it and how are we gonna end it?” It’s kind of funny that we just assumed we’d walk in and do it in three takes, but when we sat down to actually do it, we had to figure out a new arrangement.
Cut The Cable
I showed this song to the band in 2007 or 2008. I sent a batch of six or seven songs to every- body in an email and nobody really said anything about it, so it just sat on the shelf. Then, about two or three years later, we started an improv, and I started singing the verse over it. Afterward, they were like, “Oh, what was that?” So it kind of resurfaced, and when it came time to do the album, it seemed like we could do an arrange- ment of it that would be pretty straightforward and would fit into the rock vibe. Fans know about it just because I’ve sung it a couple times at shows, but we have a new arrangement that we’ve never really played, so it’s a new song.
“Hourglass” is another old one. The bulk of that song is the [guitar] riff that originally was a piano riff. Joel [Cummins] came over to my apartment, I recorded it, he left, and I never thought about it for about a year. Then, I was going through some old files of stuff, and I found it and wrote the chorus and the section around it. It’s a simple, straight- forward rock song that we don’t play live a lot. We tried to improv in it once and it didn’t really work. It’s one of those that when we were in the studio, I was like, “Why are we recording this?” But I think it came out great.
I wrote the song for Jake’s son when I found out that they were going to have a kid. I just pictured myself as the cool uncle sitting next to him on the stairs letting him play with fireworks when no one’s looking. I didn’t think we were going to do it, but Manny Sanchez, the guy who recorded the album at his studios, I.V. Lab, thought that the song had potential for him to groom. So we recorded it the way we do normally. Then, he sent it to us after he had cut half the verses and half the pre- choruses out and he said, “Now, I need you to write a chorus.” I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, the song’s over. It’s done, it’s a year old.” And he said, “No, it’s not.”
So I ended up writing three new choruses for “No Diablo.” We went into the studio and I did it and sent it out, and the guys didn’t like it, and then I went in and did another one, and the guys didn’t like it. I was getting so frustrated that I was at the point that I was like, “You know what? Let’s just scrap it. This is not worth the headache.” Then, when we had 10 days left, I went into panic mode, and I came up with the new chorus. We barely got it finished.
That one came together in our first session when we took two different segments that we’d been playing live, two different jam parts, and we stuck them together. Then, I just wrote a new chorus to put with it. It was a really easy one, and it turned out to sound really big. We wanted one of the new songs to be the title track, so that one seemed like one where we could do a lot with the cover. You should hear what Ryan [Stasik] wanted to call the album. There was a lot of back and forth, and he wanted to call it something pretty aggressive that he knew would get a lot of attention, but I wasn’t so sure we wanted that kind of attention. He wanted to call the album We’d Fuck Us. It got shot down and he’s still kind of bitter about it, but at the end of the day, life goes on, and that’s what being a band is. You make concessions. It was his idea—it was a good one—but we felt that, long-term, we’d probably be happier with Similar Skin.
That one originally came from a bass line. I believe we were in Boston, and Pony [Stasik] started this bass-slap thing, and everybody jumped on it. It was kind of a groove that we locked in on quickly, and I just started singing on top of it about, “Where’s the time go? Woe is me, I’m getting old,” something like that. Everybody liked it, and I went home, recorded the chords and just wrote verses and a chorus over it. The big rock riff in it was a synth line that was supposed to be for a completely different song, but it was the same tempo and it just fit really well. So we stuck them together, and I think it’s one of our stronger ones live.
I like the lyrical content because it’s a conversation between somebody who believes in God and somebody who doesn’t, just a conversation between two different opinions. When we went in, we recorded it, and we didn’t really know if we should do the intro that we do live or if we should do a short radio edit. We basically just did the version that we do live because we can’t make too many concessions. I mean, we are who we are.
“Little Gift” is one of Jake’s new ones that was originally a larger song. I think it had a section before it and a section after it, and when we were listening to everything with Manny, he was like, “You gotta trust me on this.” Then he chopped a little bit of it to make a really close and concise rock song. I think it’s great; I think it’s super catchy. Manny was all about the fist- pumping chorus, which I think that song definitely has.
Jake wrote the music to two different versions of that. There are two completely different songs. I put the words over it around the time we were putting out Mantis [in 2009]. It was just really complicated, and we tried learning it on the road, and after about three rehearsals, we gave up because it was a little too difficult and sometimes, when you’re on the road, you gotta worry about the show you’re playing that night. It’s kind of about Ambien and people sleepwalking and what happens if you take an Ambien and you’re hanging out and you didn’t go to bed.
“Loose Ends” is a song that I originally did in my apartment and it wasn’t that heavy. Manny really liked it and he thought we could make it a really concise pop-rock song. It’s a moody song, so we don’t play it live a lot because when you want to go out to a rock show on a weekend, you want to have a good time. You don’t want to be like: “Whoa, life is difficult.” I think it fits in the album spacing because you can’t have just 100 percent, down-your-throat aggression at all times, so I think it’s the nice little breather.
That is another one of Jake’s new ones. It was interesting because it was one where he had a demo for it and, in the demo, there’s a lot of open spaces and the way he described it when we were recording it was, “OK, there’s gonna be this here, this here—I can’t really explain it.” So when we were recording it, we really didn’t know what it was going to sound like. Then when he and Manny got together to finish it and brought it back, it was like, “Holy shit, it’s heavy—it’s big, like Soundgarden.”
We tried to do “Bridgeless” for a studio session probably five or six years ago because it’s one of our more popular live songs. We tried it for two days and we just couldn’t get it right and it was ruining the session, so we just bagged it. Then, when we got to this idea of a rock album and everything being in the same vein, we wanted to try it one more time.
It was cool because we figured out a different way to do it. We did the song in five sections because we realized that the way we play it live is we kind of ebb and flow with the tempos, so it’s not rigid. We were trying to do it with a fixed tempo and it just wasn’t working. So we had to record the intro five times until we got it, then we did the verse five times until we got it, and then we did the middle part five times until we got it. The ending was pretty difficult because Jake was in an isolation booth across the room and we realized that we completely improvise it every time, and there’s always eye contact. We had never talked about it before, even though we’d been playing it for 10 years.
We felt like it’s a good representation of us live, and we wanted to end the album with it because what do you do after that? You’ve said everything you’re gonna say.