The fans of Umphrey’s McGee expect the band to screw up.
When Beyoncé screws up on stage, footage of the gaffe always goes viral and the accompanying comments are mostly venal.
But Umphrey’s McGee fans know what a mistake means: It means the band is trying something new.
The stage is their laboratory
The band formed at the University of Notre Dame in the late 1990s. This was a time in the nation’s pop cultural history when jam bands (improvisational rock bands in the spirit of the Grateful Dead and Phish) were all the rage.
Even in the jam band milieu, Umphrey’s McGee has always been unusually bold. There is almost no musical genre the band won’t attempt.
Writers have described the stage on which Umphrey’s McGee performs as a “laboratory” and bassist Ryan Stasik said this characterization is accurate.
“We have always rehearsed the tough compositions or parts we felt were a little too loose,” he said in a phone interview with Whatzup. “But we’ve always had the confidence to go out and take chances. There’s no fear in this band. One way we’ve matured in the last 20 years is that we are always cognizant of what’s happening. When something’s not working, we’re able to change course before it completely derails.”
The band has no less than 200 original songs in its repertoire and 300 to 400 cover tunes, Stasik said.
Unique show every time
Given the band’s free-flowing nature in concert, it is natural to wonder how they keep track of all these songs. As it turns out, they are very fastidious about it.
“We have a database that tells what we’ve played and what we haven’t played in every town we’ve been in,” Stasik said.
Given that fans of Umphrey’s McGee’s live performances tend to return again and again, the band wants to give them a unique concert experience every time, Stasik said.
The band’s members put together set lists that make sense to them, he said. But what makes sense to Umphrey’s McGee doesn’t necessarily make sense to anyone else.
“We try to figure out what flows,” Stasik said. “We love to play something that’s at the far end of the spectrum: a metal tune. Then, after that, a country song. So people say, ‘Wow! How crazy different is that?’”
The band’s broad-spectrum nature means they can respond musically to real-world events. Statsik said they’ll be adding a Rush tune to pay tribute to the band’s drummer, Neil Peart, who passed away recently.
“Sometimes we respond to geography,” he said. “When we’re in Seattle, we might bust out an Alice in Chains tune.”
The unpredictable nature of a show is like catnip to the band’s fans, Stasik said.
“I think it’s super fun for the fans to come out, thinking, ‘What do they have in store for us this time?’ There’s the element of surprise and knowing that there’s going to be risk. They’re excited to see what the canvas is going to look like when we’re done.”
Steady for more than two decades
Given how often rock bands break up after a few years of success, it is remarkable that Umphrey’s McGee has remained mostly intact for 22 years.
The band members had to grow comfortable with their egos, Stasik said.
“We were teenagers when we met,” he said. “Now we’re in our 40s with children. We all had to evolve out of having to prove something. When you are young and hungry, you don’t have mature tastes. We each had to arrive at the point where we could think, ‘I don’t need to say this. I can just be.’”
In an improvisational band, one member isn’t always sure where another is trying to lead him. So, calm and cordial conversations about that are essential, Stasik said.
“You have to be able to say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that’s what you were trying to do. I’ll be more open next time,’” he said. “Instead of, ‘OK, I’m going to take my toys and go home.’”
Stasik used to be known as the Cal Ripken of rock because he never missed a show for any reason. He eventually had to miss a show because of the birth of his daughter. He now has two daughters and he said family led to the biggest changes in the band.
The days of doing roughly 200 shows a year are history.
“I think, just in the last four years, we’ve been between 80 and 90,” Stasik said. “People with different sorts of jobs still say to me, ‘Man, you’re gone a lot.’ But if you think about it, I’m home 255 days of the year. And when I’m home, I’m home. I can work from home. I can go to lunch with my daughter. I can do things at school and be really involved.”
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