Brendan Bayliss of Umphrey's McGee

by Laura Antonelli

The improvisational progressive rock band, Umphrey's McGee, made perfect use of their time while in London in June 2014. Not only did they play three nights at The Brooklyn Bowl, but they also miraculously booked the world-famous Abbey Road Studios for 12 hours. Despite the time constraint, they created The London Session, which accurately portrays the past two decades of their career by including songs from previously released albums and unrecorded material. It also showcases the vast array of genres that Umphrey's McGee play - funk, jazz, folk - ensuring that there is something for everyone to enjoy.

In this email interview, Umphrey's McGee guitarist and singer, Brendan Bayliss, reveals the stories behind numerous tunes, the songwriting dynamic within the group, and what it was like working under such a strict deadline.
Laura Antonelli (Songfacts): Umphrey's McGee is a band that's well-known for improvising. When it comes to the songwriting process, how does that work?

Brendan Bayliss: Each song is a different kid. Some show up finished, some are half naked, and some show up as just an idea. A few of our tunes have been pieced together from old improv sections that we liked and remembered to put into the "new song idea pile." Some of us will work on things at home and bring in ideas or completely finished songs.

Songfacts: Umphrey's McGee's latest album, The London Session, was recorded in one day at the renowned Abbey Road Studios. Can you explain how that happened?

Brendan: We were playing three nights in London at the Brooklyn Bowl and the timing happened to work out. The powers that be made the phone calls and we were lucky enough to get 12 hours to go to work.

Songfacts: What were some of the challenges the band faced with recording in such a limited amount of time?

Brendan: We had to acknowledge the time constraints so we went in initially hoping to get five songs done. We knew we had to work with songs we already knew and couldn't really try to write or arrange much in the moment. We all had to accept that we couldn't do 10 takes of each song.

Songfacts: The London Session is a mixture of previously recorded songs, unrecorded new songs, and one cover. How did you decide which songs to record?

Brendan: We emailed a list back and forth and then really didn't talk much about it until the night before, and even the day of, things changed. The session happened during a busy few weeks, and I think we benefited from not overthinking.

Songfacts: The album depicts well the evolution of the band over the last two decades and gives a good glimpse into the numerous genres Umphrey's McGee play such as progressive rock, funk, jazz, metal, and folk. Was this intentional?

Brendan: From the beginning, we always tried to touch on as many genres as possible. It seemed like eventually we'd hit on something for everyone in the crowd. And we all listen to different music and have different influences. We wanted to put a little something for everyone on this record.

Songfacts: The album begins with the funky dance track, "Bad Friday." How did that song come to be and what inspired it?

Brendan: That song was written pretty quickly on Good Friday two years ago. My son was sitting at the keyboard with me hitting buttons as I played. We stumbled across a cool sound that the opening riff was based on. I put a simple bass line under it and took the melody/lyrics from an older song we never used and that was it.

Songfacts: You've said that you wrote the song "No Diablo" from the album Similar Skin when you found out that Jake Cinninger was going to have a son. You said that you pictured yourself as the cool uncle letting him play with fireworks when no one was looking. Can you explain the writing process for that one?

Brendan: I was sitting at the piano thinking about Jake and his son, and pictured me giving his kid advice when his parents weren't around.

It's a pretty simple tune, and I'm not a great piano player so it came together pretty quickly. It's in E-flat because that's an easy piano key.

Songfacts: "Cut the Cable" has the lyrics, "I'm closer to my coffin now," which seems to refer to one's own mortality. How did you come up with the idea for that song?

Brendan: We are all getting older, and sometimes we lose friends along the way. This song deals with that and your own limitations. As you age, you can't do things and go out and party like you would if you were a 22-year-old.

Songfacts: The band's first drummer, Mike Mirro, inspired the title for the song, "Plunger." So what's the story behind it and what was the writing process for it?

Brendan: To be brief, he clogged a backstage toilet and as it leaked into the room we were all sitting in, he walked in with the plunger inside out and said "the plunger is broken."

Songfacts: "Comma Later" has a funk/disco sound with somewhat dark lyrics. What inspired that one?

Brendan: That's one Jake came up with at his home studio, so you'd have to ask him.

Songfacts: The album ends with The Beatles song, "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." Why did the band decide to cover that particular Beatles tune?

Brendan: We figured it was one of the last ones they did together and we covered the tune for years because it's so... heavy.

Songfacts: Out of all of your songs, which one is the most personal to you and why?

Brendan: Can't tell you, it's personal.

Songfacts: What song in Umphrey's McGee's entire catalog do you think best represents the band and why?

Brendan: "Plunger" is a good one, but I honestly don't think you can pick one song and have it explain us that well.

May 29, 2015.
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