Words: Ryan Mannix | Photos: Kristine Condon
For a band whose best moments occur in when all of its members are on the same page, contrasting styles provide a critical part of their sound.
Umphrey's McGee's Brendan Bayliss offers a fluid counterpoint to fellow guitarist Jake Cinninger’s jaggedness, more influenced by 70s rock. His solos are characteristically rooted in tension, pulling the reigns while the band climbs its peaks.
More importantly, Brendan’s improvised riffs tend to lead a lot of the jams while Jake maneuvers around them. Brendan also works a lot with soundscapes and effects to add texture to the group's sound. I had this in mind as I spoke to Brendan, who shared how he makes the sounds he does, as well as why.
Could you talk about your Paul Reed Smith?
I started playing PRS in 1997, and long story short... I went through a phase where I was playing 12 hours a day, and I blew out my wrist. PRS, the way the neck feels for me, is the best feel for any guitar out there. And then I got sponsored by them, so they've been taking care of me since like 2000.
A lot of it is based on the feel and it's the least difficult, like if I played a Strat or Les Paul I feel like I'd be in a lot more pain afterwords. What I've been playing the last five or six years is basically their Les Paul rip-off. It's the Marc Tremonti, and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: no offense to Marc Tremonti, but I don’t like Scott Stapp, so I had Paul remove the name plate, so its just a blank space. No offense to Marc Tremonti, I’m sure he's a nice guy, but I don’t want to be associated with Scott Stapp in any way.
Could you talk about your Oldfield amp?
I was first introduced to them by Al from moe.. We were talking gear and he thought we’d be a good fit. Paul came out to a show and let me borrow an amp, and I loved it. So, we talked more specifics and he came to some shows and he put together an amp for me with some different speakers for the PRS since I have a darker tone.
It’s not really a custom; it’s a Marquis 80. I can mic the different speakers if I want it brighter or darker, and I’ve been playing them for a couple years now, and he really knows how to take care of them if something goes wrong. It’s nice to have one less thing to worry about.
You use a chorus pedal a lot in your solos. What do you use?
It’s a generic boss chorus, their basic one. I used an Ibanez for a while but it kept crapping out on me. The boss one you can throw it down a staircase and still play it. I can turn the rate up for a Scofield sound, and I listen to a lot of Frank Zappa -- especially on Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar, all the solo stuff -- so I think that kind of subconsciously crept into my mind as something I need to be doing.
Did you and Jake discuss trying to have different tones?
Yeah, really early on. Jake was going to be the single coil guy, and I was going to be the humbucker guy and that was the extent of it.
How do you guys not step on each others toes since there is no pre-defined lead and rhythm guitarist?
It came from years of playing and listening. There was definitely a time where when he first joined the band, that I was used to filling out a lot of parts, and I just slowly backed off.
Listening together was important. Sitting down the next day after a show and just listening to like 10 minutes and explain whatever you really liked or whatever you were frustrated with, and the music could be the example. Jake’s fantastic, and there really isn't anything that I can say that he cant say better, so I usually give him the opportunity to speak first. But if he’s not feeling it, or if he was going really hard the last ten minutes, then he’ll lay back. We don't really talk about it. I can kind of tell if he's laying back in the pocket and I can play more notes. Eye contact is important too. It was all kind of a slow evolution.
How have the lyrical Jimmy Stewarts developed?
Usually it's never planned out, just in the moment, whatever strikes me. I remember one time we were in St. Louis, and something just kind of hit me as being good for singing over, and i looked over and saw an exit sign and just started singing about that.
Other times I’ll be at home working on a song, getting the lyrics down, and on stage we’ll be in a groove and I hear a melody, and think to try those out. It’s never planned like I’m reading off a piece of paper.
Who would you want to sit in with?
Any band of all-time? That’s a tough question.
My two favorite bands are Led Zeppelin and The Beatles, but I don’t think I’d be able to keep my shit together. Currently, I’m a big fan of Modest Mouse, but I don’t think they do sit in stuff like that with regularity. That’s a good question, I don’t really sit and daydream about getting that phone call.
How did “Believe the Lie” come about?
The first part came from an improv section from DeKalb, Ilinois. I want to say 2004 or 2005. But, basically the chorus was an improv part. I started singing about “leading through lines”, and Jake started singing with me and he thought I was singing about “lies". He started singing “believe the lie”, and listening back he was like, “oh, I thought you said ‘lie’”, and I was like, “let’s just go with that”.
He had this instrumental progression for the verse and B-section and i took it home and wrote the vocal parts for that, and I had another section at the end, which was a riff that I was playing at that time, and I wanted to just stick this in as a connector.
Could you talk about “Phil’s Farm”?
The song started with a Joel Cummins riff. The A and B section were his, and this is early 1998. He didn't have anything else to go with it and I just thought it was kind of funny. A lot of stuff with us starts with funniness. This is very dark, prog, and heavy... let’s just throw a little bluegrass section in there! That’s so long ago, I was trying to make light of it lyrically, so that’s where that came from.
What’s the strangest thing you've ever seen in the audience at an Umphrey’s show?
The strangest thing? There is a fan that has been coming to shows for years and, I don't know her name, and I don't know if I've met her, but everyone in the band refers to her as “The Sexorcist”. She comes up front and center, scantily clad, very revealing, and she kind of is very scary looking, and dances very provocatively. Something about her is really bizarre and I always wondered what's going on there.
I can't really describe what she does. It just kind of looks like she's possessed by a demon. I’ve seen her find other people and make out with them, or find cute girls and make out with them. I dont know how she does it. Probably one of the stranger things. I’ve also seen full nude people trying to climb on stage. That’s really bizarre in the middle of a song, just a naked guy or a girl climbing the barricade. There was this kid who was out of his mind on drugs, and the security was holding him back, and like clawing him, and hes like “You dont understand, I need to get up there!”.
Whats a cover you've wanted to play that either the band cant get behind or you've just never gotten around to?
Theres a lot. I was trying to push “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”, and basically I just started singing it one night. I love anything Isaac Brock does.
What’s next for Umphrey’s Mcgee?
I cant really talk about it. It’ll be coming down in the next year or so, a new kind of show, but it will have to be a smaller thing. We’re gonna do another album, too. We’re never in a holding pattern. We’re compiling songs, and then starting that process.
Are any more solo shows in the works?
If there's something in Chicago I can do that’s light on travel. At this point we’re still doing 100 shows a year, but if we lighten our gig load, I’d look into it.
Any advice for young guitarists/ musicians?
Practice a lot, and take lots of breaks to stretch. If you do 45 minutes to an hour, take 10 minutes to stretch, If you try and play for three hours straight you're just gonna end up hurting yourself.
Another piece of advice is: I made a rule when I was trying to learn, if i was ever watching TV, I would have a guitar in my hand, so when theres a commercial I’ll try and play the melody. It’s a good challenge to train your ear and do something productive while you're sitting on your ass.
Check out our recent interview with Jake Cinninger HERE.