I used to work on a veal farm, honey,” quipped Jake Cinninger, while laughing. As the guitarist and frontman for Umphrey’s McGee, the goofily-named, prog-rock jam band that has exploded in popularity, there’s a lot he could boast about. But despite a successful three-night New Year’s Eve run in Chicago, a recent improvisational compilation release, and a new two-disc album complete with Storm Thorgerson artwork on the way, he’s still the same old Jake – a self-proclaimed blue-collar boy from small-town Michigan.

As a teenager, Jake worked on his uncle’s farm raising baby cows for livestock.

“I used to have such compassion for the animals,” he remarked. “I’d let them go run out in the field, and I’d have to take each one of the cattle back to their spot, and literally have to carry them.”

Even more interesting is the reason why he took the job – to pay for a drum set.

“I had my parents co-sign for my big drum set, and they’re like, ‘You gotta pay it off, kid! Seems like the veal farm is calling your name!'” he laughingly recalled.

On the verge of his band’s eighth album release, it’s probably safe to say that his summer spent working on the farm was worth it. In early April, Umphrey’s McGee – comprised of guitarists Jake Cinninger and Brendan Bayliss, keyboardist Joel Cummins, percussionist Andy Farag, drummer Kris Myers and bassist Ryan Stasik – will release The Bottom Half, their new, highly anticipated two-disc album. For their previous CD, 2006’s Safety in Numbers, 35 songs were recorded, but only 11 ended up on the actual disc.

“We had this plethora of material left over,” explained Cinninger. “We just went back and cleaned it up over the year, and then we made The Bottom Half off of that.”

While the first disc contains songs that didn’t fit into the emotionally driven storyline concept of Safety in Numbers, the second disc has rougher cuts of songs that let the fans in on the way the group writes music.

“[It’s] kind of like a sneak peek into our personal recording catalogs. It’s our four-track recordings from my personal studio that end up actual Umphrey’s McGee songs,” he said.

Cinninger, who enjoys heavy metal bands such as Blue Oyster Cult – “They’re the whole reason I’m in a rock band” – went back to his favorite studio recordings from various genres for inspiration during his three weeks in the studio. Though he listened to old Electric Light Orchestra, Steely Dan and European progressive rock from the ’70s during this time, he finds current metal bands, such as Lamb of God and Satyricon, to be extremely artistic and forward-moving.

It may seem surprising that Jake – whose speedy fingers, soulful playing and natural talent have accelerated his band to the top of the jam rock hierarchy – considers the new wave of American and European metal to be “the hottest stuff on the market right now.” But he’s just being true to his roots: “I used to be such a metal-head as a kid – that’s where I got my chops, how to play heavy. I kind of let metal go for years, and now I’m getting back into it, realizing, ‘Wow, this makes me feel like a kid again.'”

While crediting Black Sabbath with Ronnie James Dio at the Merriville Star Plaza as the best concert he’s ever been to – “Black Sabbath at Star Plaza? Sign me up!” – the impact live music has had on him becomes apparent.

“It takes a lot to surprise me now; I’ve seen a lot,” told Cinninger. “I go back to those feelings of those early shows. You know, I probably ran home and practiced for three days.”

Experiences like these have shaped Jake into the fan-oriented performer he’s become. “Sometimes I get a little reluctant singing an alt-country type tune at an Umphrey’s show that might be one of my tunes,” he admitted. “It just doesn’t go over as well live, I feel. The kids wanna rock, so we gotta give them the rock show.”

With hundreds of rock shows under their belt, the band can’t help but grow tired of their more popular tunes. Jake explained, “After playing [a song] a thousand times over, you gotta find reasons to bring the heat again. Because you’ve gotta bring it, you know? You can’t just fake it! If we’re not all feeling up to that song for a particular night, we just won’t play it for that reason. One night I might feel like, ‘Guys, I don’t want to sing tonight. I just want to be a guitar player.’ Some nights you just don’t feel like being that frontman, you know? Luckily there’s [Brendan] Bayliss over there, taking care of that.”

Umphrey’s McGee has been anything but disappointing – just look at the way they exited 2006. After three nights of crazy concerts at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom with Los Lobos, North Mississippi Allstars and Taj Mahal & the International Rhythm Band as opening acts, they still had enough energy to ring in the new year with a rendition of SNL’s “Dick in a Box.” Yeah, they’re that kind of group.

“New Year’s is like our Super Bowl – that’s kind of how we like to look at it,” Cinninger commented. “These are our biggest shows of the whole year, and it sort of sets up the way next year’s gonna feel. It’s really awesome to walk into three nights a little reluctant, a little frightened, a little scared, like, ‘I hope we can pull this off, guys,’ and then walk right out of it smiling and high-fiving, feeling that we really accomplished something.”

With Umphrey’s McGee’s ever-increasing fan base, Cinninger has noticed a change in his audience, especially at larger shows like those on New Year’s Eve. “High school kids are really diving into this whatever-progressive-jam-rock we’ve got going on, and I think it’s really exciting,” he said.

Not as exciting for Jake, though, is the pop-rock music that reigns supreme on MTV countdown shows – he considers the network’s transformation of music into a visual entity to be nauseating.

“It’s not really about the music or being a musician, you know?” said Cinninger. “Sure, some of these kids can play … but they really can’t play play. They don’t really know the ins and outs of rock and roll, they don’t know the ins and outs of jazz, they don’t know the ins and outs of funk, classical, and to really get a broad scope, you gotta go there for a little bit.”

Cinninger, who favors old-school types of recording, also dislikes the way those aforementioned bands release and record music. “It’s just sort of backwards now. You don’t really have to pay dues and get good, you can just use ProTools and make your stuff sound perfect … and then you sound like crap live!” chuckled Cinninger. “I think it’s all about keeping it real, you know … the way Pink Floyd would record, or Led Zeppelin would record – that’s the right way of doing it. It costs a little bit of money, but that’s what separates the men from the boys.”

There’s no doubt that the phenomenally talented members of Umphrey’s have solidified themselves as true leaders – men, if you may – in the prog-jam-rock world. It seems, though, with any popular jam band, there are fans who are just there for “the scene.” Jake’s response: “A lot of times people are hearing these progressive rock stylings for the first time, so they don’t understand what they’re hearing sometimes. So, I mean, maybe five months down the road it will hit them like a ton of bricks – ‘Oh, I get what I’m hearing now.’ It’s just like wine – it’s got to sit on the shelf a bit. And then, it’s very much drinkable.”

Regardless, there’s still the die-hards – “I was walking around Wakarusa [Music Festival], just trying to find where the stage was, and all the sudden, there’s some guy on my back, literally piggy-back-ride kinda style,” Cinninger recalled, while laughing. “I’m like, ‘What is going on here?’ It would have been different if it was a girl … but it was a dude!”

No matter how famous Umphrey’s gets, or how many sweaty men jump on his back, he’s still good ol’ Jake Cinninger at heart. When I sarcastically requested that he play my favorite song at Wednesday’s show, he said he would – but suggested I call him the day of, because he might not remember. “You like my music, you’re a friend of mine,” he said. And, for some reason, I know that this heavy metal-loving, blue-collar boy turned big-time guitarist truly meant it.

Be sure to see Umphrey’s McGee with special guest Adrien Belew on March 14 at the Canopy Club. The show is 18 and over, and tickets are $20 in advance.

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