An interview with Umphrey's McGee's Jake Cinninger 

Live albums recorded at Red Rocks or the Fillmore far outnumber those taken from the Murat soundboard, but the once-South Bend based jam band Umphrey's McGee still have a little pride (and a devoted fan base) in their home state; they released the two-disc Live at the Murat in 2007 from concerts recorded over Easter weekend that year. Now based in Chicago, they're back for another two-day stint at the Egyptian Room, touring behind a studio album released in January, Mantis, which was released with nine "tiers" of bonus digital (audio and video) content, each tier becoming available to fans only when pre-sales had reached a certain quota.

NUVO: Mantis seems to be doing quite well.

Cinninger: Well for our fan base it was kept under lock-and-key for a good three years so there was quite a bit of steam generated before we actually released the record. We really didn't play any of this stuff out live, which is basically part of a band's repertoire is to get their studio stuff up to snuff and then they can go into the studio and record it... and then put it out. So we kept it a secret and made it more of a surprise on the release date.

NUVO: What was it like recording it?

Cinninger: Well basically we think of songwriting in forms of a lot of drafting, and one song would have six or seven different drafts. But we start with small ideas... maybe a verse, maybe a chorus, maybe a little melody here or there. And then its kind of an idea of assembling all these ideas and figuring out what works really well next to each other... you know? the sense of the way that the song flows. So one song could take two and half years to manifest into its final creation. Mantis as a record is a good example of how the chemistry and the outcome of a song can take place. And we can revisit the form and destroy ideas to create better ones.

NUVO: What would you say are your band's primary influences?

Cinninger: As far as cracking the code on what we're influenced by is really based on a lot of the classics. The Beatles were sort of the blueprint of rock 'n roll and pop/rock. What's great about it is that that stuff is so simple but then it's sometimes so complex to play because it is so simple. There's a lot of flourishing moments on Mantis, but really a lot of the chord progressions get back to a big, epic sort of vibe that we're going for. Which is a little bit more like Abbey Road-esque but with more of a dark, heavy brooding thing. The Beatles are the bible for us. As far as where we get our chops, we're all very influenced by stuff like John Coltrane, you know... some of the classical movement. So the idea is to really take all styles in and be influenced by all of them, and see how they can seep into your own style.

NUVO: Did you intend for Umphrey's McGee to be a "jam band" from the beginning or do you think that you fell into that category over time?

Cinninger: I think with our scheme and the festival circuit that we play, and the type of fan base that we have, tends to lend itself to us being very different every night. So I think that stamps the idea of "jam band" on any group when there's always forward motion and improvisation every night. You're taking a rock format and doing it with a jazz element, which jazz would be the improv element. So if that's what a "jam band" is... . I guess that's what it is, a jazz/rock blend of the two ideas. I don't think we went starting off, going "We wanted to be a 'jam band'" I think all in all, it just really comes down to good old rock 'n roll.

NUVO: Who would you say has been your biggest influence as a guitarist?

Cinninger: Well growing up, I was first a drummer by trade. That started at 3. I was really inspired by drummers for years until I picked up the guitar at 13. So I was kinda in that drummer mentality but really what made it all flip over was Randy Rhoades. I thought he was a melodic, beautiful know?...such a loss. Definitely like...the Robert Johnson's... I'm always into the origins of all the styles... kinda figuring out who was the curator and the creator of each style. I tend to go towards those individuals of each style.

NUVO: Back to Mantis, how does one go about writing an 11 minute song, such as the title track on the album?

Cinninger: Yeah that song was definitely the precursor to the way the album ended up, which is kinda cool. Everything was based around 'Mantis' the song. Whatever ended up on the record had to feel like that big sound that we were looking for. Really when we started writing that song, it generally was a couple little bits. And then over a period of time, you start to revisit the song and start to add a few more things. Take it back to the band, try it out, see what's not working, and see what we gotta change. So this really comes into that whole idea of drafting out a song; going out on tour, coming back to the studio, revisiting it, reworking it, getting rid of sections that aren't working, go back out on tour, come back to the studio, do the same process. So it's actually nice to move away from the music, to really get yourself pulled outside of the bubble. Cuz when you leave something on a shelf for a while and then go back and revisit it, you can really see what was wrong and then make the change. So 'Mantis' was a nice example of letting time run its course on a song, and then after a couple years, we've got our little masterpiece.

NUVO: The structure of your live shows is always changing...

Cinninger: We definitely take into consideration making the set list different every night, and we put a lot of time in that, constructing it throughout the day. Sometimes we'll write things backstage. We'll write it on a piece of paper and we'll make copies of it, and then have it on the floor sort of as a chart. Then we'll try something completely new just by playing over changes on the floor. That's one example. Another example is by using a bunch of baseball cues and sign language. When we're in an improvisation, I can throw a cue and everybody's watching, and then, in the next measure, we fall on that cue. So it sounds very intentional, rather then improvisation. And then when we walk into each one the songs in our repertoire, it's up to each individual to play it a little differently, put a little spin on it, because we can. It's like that's the choice we've made, instead of playing everything so rigid and exactly the same way every time. It makes our job a little more fun when we've got 140 shows a year... you know? (laughs)

NUVO: How do you practice then?

Cinninger: I think cues are sorta manifested live sometimes. We pretty much practice live. I mean, we don't really do a lot of practicing off the road I'd say. Actually, when we're on the road, we're playing so much that the practicing does its duty... you know?... cuz we're already out there. Sometimes when we come home, that's time to write for the next record and get lost in that sorta thing. It's almost not as much about practicing anymore then it is about spending that time trying to create new songs and new riffs.

NUVO: In looking at your tour dates, I noticed that you guys often stop in a city and play shows on back-to-back nights? Do you just have favorite cities?

Cinninger: Yeah... That's kinda a good example of looking at the fan situation and the idea of traveling costs and gas money, and all the economic down-sliding. It seems to make most sense to put our eggs in one basket and play multiple nights in one town. Then our fans don't have to travel around so much. It's kinda like a special event when we're at one venue. We can call a venue our home for three days, and really a fan in one region of the nation can see almost our whole repertoire. If they've missed a bunch of songs, then they can catch them. Really, the fans get the most out of us because we're really in our most comfortable vortex playing in one place over a series of nights.

NUVO: So do you guys have input into specifically into what cities you do that in or do you just sort of go by where you're biggest fan base is?

Cinninger: We definitely talk through the scheduling before we actually pen stuff in, as far as dates. And we all get a feel for what our booking agent, what our management and what we think is probably the best idea as far as doing multiple night runs in particular towns.

NUVO: What are your plans for the summer and for after the summer as well? I noticed you're playing some festivals...

Cinninger: I think right now we're starting to fill up some of the dates for the back end of summer. It looks like we've got some great festivals coming up, and for a band like us, we really like that festival atmosphere because it gets us out of a smoky club and gets us outside... you know? front of some fans that haven't seen us before. Which is really the name of the game nowadays, getting yourself in front of people and convincing people that have never even heard you before. Festivals are a great place for that. So that's really what we're looking forward to this summer.

NUVO: Are there any specific festivals that you are looking forward to?

Cinninger: Summer Camp in Chillicothe, Ill., which is just over a state for you guys. It's quite the three day event, and I think Willie Nelson is showing up down there so that should be cool.

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