Capital-R rock is in the midst of a Great Recession. It sits idly by as cowboys, rappers, banjo-sporting hair farmers, and glow-stick waving tweakers pass it by. Umphrey's McGee wants to change that. The proggy, improvisationalists in the band cut their teeth in the jam scene during the early 2000s, but all of that's about to change. With Umphrey's forthcoming eighth album, Similar Skin, the band caters to its chunkier instincts.
"We have to face the fact that this generation now loves the EDM movement. There's a lot of electronics and computers, but nothing is cooler to me than the electric guitar and I'm saying that as a bass player," offers Ryan Stasik. "I don't want to live in a time where the electric guitar is forgotten. It's an awesome instrument and guitar solos are super-rad."
The change should not come as a surprise to the band's fans. On 2011's Death By Stereo, the tracks "Domino Theory" and "Go to Hell" stake out harder-hewn, metal-inflected territory reminiscent of Queens of the Stone Age or Russian Circles.
"It was interesting when the six of us got together; everybody's headspace and mindset was very much back to our rock 'n' roll roots. Whether it's progressive rock, hard rock, alternative rock, it's still rock 'n' roll," Stasik says.
Around half of Similar Skin's tunes have never been heard live, while the others were culled from an extensive back catalog of unrecorded songs Umphrey's had been kicking around. Stasik and the gang also wrote dancier, more electronic tunes concurrently, but those are shelved for now. They felt the last album was too scattershot stylistically and wanted to create a more tightly focused album.
Of course, such discipline runs somewhat counter to the Umphrey's anything-goes, live aesthetic. That's epitomized by the band's mash-ups, which have seen them crash Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" into Michael Jackson's "Thriller," Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" into the Beatles "Let It Be," and Nirvana's "Come As You Are" into MGMT's "Kids" to name just a few.
"That's what we kind of got off on — let's just go and see what happens," he says. "We like to create challenges and take chances and see how the crowd responds. That's kind of our drug and that is something we can't quit."
And for Umphrey's it's been that way from the beginning. Though each of the founding quartet got expensive degrees from Notre Dame that had nothing to do with music, the guys were determined to take the plunge. Sixteen years later, their faith's been vindicated.
Stasik and his bandmates self-released their first two studio discs, and by 2006's fourth album, Safety in Numbers, they broke into the lower reaches of the Billboard Album charts. During the last eight years, they've built upon that foundation, continuing to stretch their craft and attempt new things, such as backing King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew on tour. With Similar Skin they take another step, self-releasing for the first time in a dozen years after Dave Matthews' label ATO handled the last one.
"They could've picked us up for two, but they decided not to, and we were like 'good,'" says Stasik. "We have always been kind of gearing towards being able to do it ourselves anyway, and this was a big opportunity to do that. It was going to happen sooner or later. We're happy with everything that ATO did. I just think it's finally time now to bottle our own wine."
The new album's release will have a pall over it, though, because original drummer Mike Mirro passed suddenly on January 30. The 35-year-old Mirro's departure to attend med school a dozen years ago was a turning point for the band, coming shortly after the release of its second album, Local Band Does OK. Umphrey's almost called it quits right there, but ultimately the group forged ahead with new drummer Kris Myers. The following album and subsequent tour would help the outfit land its first label deal.
"We found out the terrible news the first day of tour. Chattanooga had been cancelled. It was weird, our first show in 16 years that has ever been cancelled because of weather or we couldn't be there," Stasik recalls. "That tour was really emotionally charged for his memory. We did four or five days in a row, and then we flew back for the funeral. It's a tough loss, and I miss him dearly every day."
For Stasik, the loss is leavened by the baby girl that made him a father for the first time. Feeling the need to raise children without the fear of them getting their tongues stuck on a stop sign pole, Stasik and his family recently left behind Chicago's brutal winters for Charleston.
"I didn't want to breed the baby in the freezing cold and buy her snowsuits," he jokes. "My wife's family lives down here. We had been down here on vacations too many times. It just made sense and it actually feels like home."
The band's manager, as well as percussionist Andy Farag, have since moved to the Holy City. "It's a little exodus," he says. "I send out the emails once a month to friends and send some pics. 'It's -12 degrees in Chicago. It's 60 degrees here.' We're loving it."