by Pietro Truba
For our second installment in our exploration in The New Psychedelic we had a chance to talk with Umphrey's McGee guitarist Jake Cinninger, who talked about late nights spent at Tiger Stadium, some Detroit rock and metal, and how Pink Floyd influences Umphrey's McGee. Cinninger who was born on the left side of Michigan in Niles joined Umphrey's McGee in 2001 and the six-piece kept rolling with innovative crowd interaction at shows and uniquely marketed albums ever since. Read the full interview with Jake and check back for pictures and a review from their show in Kalamazoo.
MT: What are some of your initial thoughts or memories of coming to Detroit through the years?
Jake Cinninger: My great uncle actually used to announce for the Tigers, George Kell. He was a Hall of Famer, him and Al Kaline used to announce for the Tigers all throughout the 80s. So when I was a kid, I’d always take trips in with the family and see Tigers’ games during like the 84 season when they were the champs and whatnot. Those were the most memorable Detroit memories all the time at the old stadium. (Mlive talked with Ernie Harwell after Kell's passing read it here.)
MT: Small world, how about any Detroit musical memories?
Cinninger: Ohh yea, of course, actually to cap it off, I saw the last show at Tiger Stadium, the KISS comeback show with makeup. It was Alice and Chains’ second to last show and (along with Sponge) opened up for KISS. It was a phenomenal show. That entire side of town was just blowing up because everyone was like “KISS is coming back with makeup, it’s all the original members!” It was a frenzy, it was crazy.
MT: You guys have played a slew of venues across Detroit, what are some of your favorites to play?
Cinninger: St. Andrew's Hall is always a memorable spot just because of the history of that place. Every legendary band has graced those halls. The MC5, Iggy & The Stooges. I love the Michigan/Detroit garage rock, which was like the first proto-metal of all time. I love the history of that place and all my favorites have played there.
MT: What were some of your favorite albums growing up?
Cinninger: I was, and still am, a huge Iggy and The Stooges Raw Power fan. That’s a seminal record for me of just brutal angst and anger. It’s cool to hear that coming out of the middle of nowhere Michigan. It’s great. It really foreshadowed what New York, LA and England were trying to do after the fact. Detroit’s definitely a seminal rock and roll territory.
MT: Any current Detroit acts that you’ve been digging as of late?
Cinninger: I’m a big fan of Black Dahlia Murder, they are more into the black metal/ progressive black metal. I really think those guys are some of the most banging musicians to come out of the metal scene in a while.
MT: Let’s talk about Umphrey’s live show. You guys take a different approach to improvisation called “Jimmy Stewart.” How would you describe what you do for someone that’s never seen Umphrey’s before?
Cinninger: Well generally we have a lot of stuff that’s pre-written, very thoroughly composed kind of like classical music but played in a rock and roll format. So when it comes time to do a full improvisation we rely on a set of hand signals, almost baseball cues where we can throw a cue and the whole band can react in the moment where it sounds like we’re actually doing a musical change instead of just hoping for the best or using ESP. We’re trying to make a logical change in the improvisation. That’s where we set apart from a lot of other improvisational bands.
MT: Kind of building off that you guys have these “Stew Art” or “S2” events, (recently profiled in Time Magazine) one of which you’re doing in Kalamazoo, can you tell us about that?
Cinninger: It’s based on the way that we improv, where everything is kind of thrown at us. We have people text in, so in that moment they appear on a screen just adjacent to the stage. So when they pop up on the screen we have to react to it. Say for instance someone texts “Bob Marley meets James Hetfield” we’ll try to react as the six of us to that statement and make up some sort of equation. It’s putting us in a cage and seeing if we can get out with each phrase.
MT: So with your last album Mantis (2009) you garnered some praise for the innovation of the record. (Hand packaged special editions and 12 months of bonus online content were both extra incentives aimed to encourage fans to buy physical copies.) Can we talk about Mantis and what’s in store for the next album?
Cinninger: With Mantis we wanted to make sort of like a conceptual big idea, rather than just have a bunch of random songs on a record. We wanted the whole project to sound a certain way just like the old records back in the 70s that we all love and cherish. We wanted to harken back to the old progressive 70s vibe of a record. What we’re doing next is sort of getting away from that and possibly doing stylistically different EP’s rather than doing just a bunch of songs on a disc, we’d want each piece sort of have a story or a style. Like one would be a party record. One might be a heavier metal record. One might be sort of a funky thing, something might be sort of a jazzy oriented thing. It’d be kind of cool to touch on the different styles
MT: So would they come all packaged together or staggered?
Cinninger: We’re not really sure quite yet. We might release them one at a time, and then at the end of it have some sort of big bonus material package deal.
MT: Any other producers or engineers that you guys are thinking of working with?
Cinninger: For the next record I would love to get someone in the producer’s seat. We’re at a point where it might be cool to have someone else’s ear involved. Maybe a guy like Joe Berassi (Tool, Bad Religion, Queens of The Stone Age)or Joe Chicarelli (Frank Zappa, The Shins, White Stripes/Raconteurs) Some of the newer heavier metal stuff that has a really sweet and warm production rather than a I high-end sizzling type of thing.
MT: So we’re talking about sort of resurgence of psychedelic music in recent years, have you been seeing that in the past few years?
Cinninger: Yea, I think the idea of psychedelic music is that it should embrace all styles. The idea of being psychedelic is to go into uncharted territory. I think the idea is to imply jazz, metal, reggae, country, classical
all those things wrapped into one should be the future of psychedelic music.
MT: Do you want to talk about some of the influences for Umphrey’s that might not be as apparent to listeners at first?
Cinninger: A lot of what we dig into is a lot of the unsung heroes of the studio of our favorite recordings. Luckily Google exists, so you can Google your favorite recording session and figure out who is playing what and then research those musicians further. It’s beautiful to have resources to find out who those killer players are on those classic recordings. The Steve Gadd’s of the drums, the Larry Carlton’s of the guitar, the Chuck Reiney’s of the bass, the list goes on. Kinda like those Steely Dan guys, who are those guys? It’s based around Walter Becker and Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, but the list of musicians is just endless.
MT: A cornerstone of early psychedelic is Pink Floyd and I know you guys have done your fair share of Pink Floyd covers. Roger Waters is heading to The Palace of Auburn Hills on Sunday, could you talk about how Pink Floyd has influenced Umphrey’s?
Cinninger: Floyd has a direct connection with Umphrey’s. The idea is that they could be very emotional and not cheesy. There’s a big thing that Pink Floyd developed because it’s hard to sing about a thing like love and something sensitive and come off genuine. The psychedelic side of love and Pink Floyd is very emotional and that’s the beauty in it. it brought emotion to rock and roll it wasn’t about just having a good time. it was about finding bits and pieces of your life in the music.
Umphrey's performing Shine On You Crazy Diamond earlier this year in Indianapolis with a natural lightning light show.
Friday Oct. 22nd, 8:30p.m. Kalamazoo State Theater, 404 South Burdick, Kalamazoo, Michigan
Umphrey's McGee is the second installment in our multi-part exploration of The New Psychedelic. Check back to more including Roger Waters. The first installment with Dr. Dog's Scott McMicken can be found here.