Jake Cinninger discusses the new album, the capturing of that live sound and how the band improvise so cleanly live on stage
Experimentation isn’t as easy as it sometimes looks. Umphrey’s McGee have spent more than twenty years working hard to become known as one of the strongest live acts in the world. The band hits the stage with the kind of cocksure rock ‘n’ roll bravado that is all-too-rarely witnessed these days, and it is that infectious energy that the six-piece band have harnessed in the studio on their forthcoming 11th studio album, it’s not us.
In order to help bring their live show feeling into the studio, the band recently headed to Chicago to live and work together for a very intense, very productive week, ultimately spending more than 13 hours each day jamming and recording. The result is their most diverse and all-encompassing studio album yet.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with guitarist Jake Cinninger to discuss the new album, go inside the capturing of that live sound and find out how Umphrey’s McGee improvise so quickly and so cleanly live on stage.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking today because you are about to release a new album, it’s not us, and then, once again, head out on tour. Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Jake Cinninger: To date, this record seems to represent what the band really is about, just complete diversity and doing everything kind of on our own terms and our own pace. We worked on the record for about two years and just had so much material, and all of it was really great.
This particular batch of songs really represents the diversity of what’s going on inside the band – that we can… pull off quite a few different styles and characters and make it work and make it still sound like us. It’s probably one of the hardest things to do because it’s hard to put out a release that kinda goes everywhere and for it to have continuity, but we’ve been putting out records for 15 years, so it’s like we’ve got this studio thing down.
When we walk into the studio there is a certain confidence now, where maybe 10 years ago we’d be a little taken back or scared of that situation, of being in the studio. But now, it’s like we completely own it. We do everything on our own terms. I do a lot of my parts at my studio and am just really involved with all the mixing and the mastering and the final results. So we are very gassed. It was nice to put away the record for a couple weeks, and then pull it back out and then really hear it again for the first time.
CF: This year marks 20 years of the band. How are things different for you today, putting out your 11th studio album versus when Greatest Hits Vol. III was released back in 1998?
JC: Back in then it was all about gaining repertoire, expanding our song list. And now we are up to about 180 original songs. The process of writing has kind of become like shooting free throws, it’s like we’re in a cycle of writing – when I sit down at my guitar with a piece of paper, we just ask the powers that be and the magic starts to happen and then all of a sudden the guitar is playing the next new riff. So it’s kind of a quantum physics sort of process to writing songs, like wish, hope, want equates into what will become.
CF: I understand that almost everyone also stayed in a Chicago condo together while recording this album…
JC: We were at a high-rise on Lakeshore Dr. and then we would just go to the studio for about 14 hours a day, and then go back to sleep, and then go back to the studio for 13 hours a day, so it was like one of those processes, just trying to get as many songs in the basket as possible, so then we could see what we had and what was going to work well together.
I mean we’re all there for a reason, for quite a few days, so it’s kind of like we’re already use to being together on the road in a tight situation, either backstage or in a bus, so this is almost really refreshing for the band, to just really focus on the recording aspect and get away from touring and it opens up kind of a can of worms to nail your best guitar solo with the live drum take because that was one of my favorite things to do.
Instead of redoing a lot of the guitar parts, I would really try to force perfection while we were getting these rhythm takes, so a lot of the guitar leads and rhythm parts that I was playing I ended up keeping the first session.
There is a certain live element to the recording. With Pro Tools and all the technology to do everything so perfect, it’s nice to have that human sort of little imperfections with the perfections, a very human quality to it.
CF: Umphrey’s is so well known for your live performances: How do you harness that kind of energy and bring it into the studio?
JC: Yeah there is a lot of that, just going for your best take possible. We’ll know right away when we finish a take and be like, “That was the one right there.” So when we are buckling down on just one particular song, I mean we’re really going for that golden take.
A lot of situations it happens right before your eyes, and there’s no time to replay things or git it a little tighter or tweak this little part of the song or change the arrangement of the chords, or lets displace a kick drum right here in this measure. So that’s what’s nice about the studio, you can really go in, tear the song apart, and rebuild it, and play all the intended parts, rather than playing through the changes.
CF: Was there a moment in the studio where everything came together, and you knew exactly where the album was heading and how it would turn out?
JC: It kind of felt like that on all of the songs because there was a sense of relief after we got a particular song done and it’s kind of a celebration time, like, “Yes, that’s gonna be the one right there.” I think I remember doing the track called “Looks”, and it has this just killer Miami Vice drum beat thing, kind of like a marching percussion, and I was getting so into the take, and the end guitar solo is this really whacked out King Crimson-like all the wrong notes ended up being the right notes, it was super artsy and just weird, and I was going for it, and then that ended up being the take that we kept for the final production of that song.
It’s cool to listen back to it, like I can almost remember the smell of the energy in the room during that take. There was just a lot of stink going on [laughs], metaphorically!
CF: Going into your live performances, how do you guys communicate to each other in the middle of shows in terms of how you may improv based on how the crowd is reacting?
JC: We have various ways of manipulating an improv and making it feel like it’s written or it’s intentional, so that’s kind of the overall thing we’re looking for, that when we’re in an improv it doesn’t sound like we’re jamming in A minor for 30 minutes. There’s motion, it’s full of motion, and it sounds like a piece of work. That’s kind of the objective that we’re going for.
Let’s say we are in A minor, and we are grooving for a while, we have various hand signals that we can throw that would mean a key or tempo, something like that, so I can shift the key around by just throwing like a sign language E, or F, or G, or A, so right there we can just hop around the root of the key, orr do temp shifts. So that’s just a visual cue.
And then we’re all in-ear monitoring, so we can hear every little detail through our in ears, so we have microphones placed where I can step on this peddle and it opens it up, and I can talk to the boys in a jam and be like, “Okay guys, let’s sound like robots. One, two, three, four boom.”
So the idea is that I count it off and then we all shift at the same time, so no one knows what they’re about to play. The objective is the word robot, and then everyone sort of plays what they have in their head at that particular time, so that’s another way of shifting around. It’s usually verbal things through a microphone during a jam.
CF: You guys have to be so in tune with each other – if what comes out is relatively coherent it is because all of you have a similar idea of how a robot sounds…
JC: … Yeah, it really also goes back to a strategy that Brian Eno developed a long time ago when he would have session musicians in the studio, and he developed these cards called, “Oblique Strategies”…
CF: I have a set…
JC: Yeah, so a lot of that is just using a word and, “OK, emulate that word through your instrument,” and it opens up a whole other side of the brain for possibilities, sound possibilities for the moment. It’s really cool, and that’s one of the nucleus ideas that we got after doing this whole thing is that ‘Eno meets Frank Zappa’ ideology of improvisation.
CF: You guys have built such a strong relationship with your audience. How have you worked to keep a good connection with you fans, and are you continuously trying to bring them further into the fold?
JC: Some of the band members, and obviously management, really stay on the social networking. I’m a little scared of it… I stay away from it. So it’s nice that there are people in the organization that really keep track of what the fans are feeling, what they like, what they dislike, and just try and create a perfect beast for the fans. Like, we’re loveable because we care about the fans and that’s what they love about us and just for the fact of them even being interested in us, we will give them the love right back, so it’s a very reciprocal relationship.
That’s why we try to make each show completely different from the next, and constantly just try to one-up ourselves every time, every year. It seems like we’re getting a little bit better every year too. It’s crazy. It hasn’t really slowed down as far as progress or just being very natural. Before, it would be a lot of nervous energy, now it’s a lot of natural energy.
CF: Throughout your career, we can imagine that you’ve had a fair share of interesting experiences. But is there one moment that stands out, a grounding experience or moment of perspective that reminds you why you do all of this?
JC: Obviously, the reason why I do this has shifted since I had three kids, so having children are the new reinforcements for working so hard out here. Where before it was all for me – it was this selfish endeavor. And now, they’re the most important things in my life, so it’s like I work even harder at my job and am more serious about it than I probably was seven years ago…