When Umphrey’s McGee played the first Bonnaroo festival back in 2002, the band camped in the parking lot with the rest of the unwashed masses. Bassist Ryan Stasik slept in a friendly stranger’s tent when he could not find his own. That humble initiation was just the beginning of Umphrey’s long association with Bonnaroo, the nation’s premiere music festival. Since then the band has returned to the rolling green hills of Manchester, Tennessee to play the festival more times than any other band.
Along the way they’ve enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks of the jam band scene, and they are now considered by many to be one of the most adventurous acts in their field. A couple weekends prior the band played two smokin’ sets at Bonnaroo for their record-breaking sixth appearance. Glide recently caught up with Umphrey’s singer-guitarist Brendan Bayliss right before he and Jeff Austin (band mate in side project 30db) had the honor of singing the National Anthem at Wrigley Field on June 25th.
It must be gratifying to be invited back to Bonnaroo time and time again. How does Bonnaroo compare to the other summer festivals you play and to what extent does the band go the extra mile for Bonnaroo?
Well, I think there’s something just a little more significant to Bonnaroo than the other festivals because it seems like it’s the biggest in North America. The closest to compare would be like a European kind of festival like Glastonbury or something like that. I think it’s probably the biggest thing in the states, at least for our music scene. So to be invited there several times feels legitimizing. It makes you feel like we’re on our path and you know it’s a pretty elite group, when you look at all the bands that play there. So it kinda feels legit.
How has the band changed since you first played Bonnaroo in 2002?
Well, when we first played there we had a different drummer. so just that alone makes it feel like a totally different band because of Kris (Myers). It’s a different kind of animal. And so I think it’s probably more progressive and Kris is also pretty influenced by the electronica scene. So I think we do a little more electronic stuff with Kris now. So when I listen back… actually, I haven’t listened back! (laughs) If I were to listen back I think we probably sound a lot more polished now than we did then. We were a little rough around the edges eight years ago. I think it was eight years ago. Maybe seven. I mean to say that we’ve polished a lot… We’ve run through every song with Kris when we were teaching him all the stuff. We had to like, re-learn all these old heads and we tightened up in a lot of spots and we truly analyzed things. Kris is very analytical. So like, we’ll stop in sound check and re-run some sections that we mess up. But I think we’re a tighter unit.
I understand you guys had a pretty hectic, get-in get-out kind of day at Bonnaroo. Did you have time to see any other acts that you particularly enjoyed this year?
No, it was really from the minute we were up we were doing press all day. We had to do a live radio broadcast and interviews and I didn’t get to see anything, really. And I was really sick which really sucked. So I was kind of banged up. I had some really bad sinus problems. I couldn’t even sing well, so I was kind of just in a funk the whole day. I wanted to see Tenacious D but we had to get out on the last flight and didn’t have time to check it out. Usually we do. Some of the guys stayed but I think the bulk of us left.
How are the tunes from Mantis evolving onstage?
You know, they’re slowly becoming muscle memory. More like most of the other songs we can kind of do – because we’ve played them for so many years – we just know them without having to think about them? So it’s starting to get like that with the new stuff finally, after like a year and a half. I think they’re vocally more challenging and we’re not quite there yet with them but I think we’ll get there. It’s just a little more demanding material. It’s not the easiest stuff to remember. But I feel good about it. Compared to where it was a year ago, it’s a lot better.
You guys have a huge summer tour schedule ahead of you, including some really unique stops like Red Rocks and the North Coast Music Fest. What do you look forward to the most when you undertake a huge tour like that and do you have anything special on tap for this tour in particular?
Well, obviously headlining Red Rocks for the first time is a major pinnacle for us. So that’s on our radar. And a couple of the bigger gigs too, you know. There’s a couple new songs that we’ve been recording over this past break. And I’m not sure which of those we’re going to save and which of those we’re going to start playing live. But I think once we get back out on the road we’ll start practicing every night. We have like a practice room so we’ll start spending 14 days in a row together sifting through these originals and there’s a couple new covers that we’ll add to the set-list. So I would say by the middle of the tour you’ll start seeing some more new stuff.
What bands do you look forward to crossing paths with when you’re out on the festival circuit?
Well, we’re good friends with Disco Biscuits and STS9 and New Deal and moe. So that’s just like a reunion of friends when we get to do shows and festivals with these other bands. Usually for us we have like this whole day where it’s built up around this three hour period. And that’s the show. We have the rest of the day when we’re at these festivals when we get to actually catch up with old friends. So that’s really nice.
Have you guys ever talked about staging your own festival?
We have. And it’s gone back and forth. And I was kind of really against it for a while because I didn’t want to do it until we were really big enough to do something big. And I just… There’s a lot of stress involved with those things when you’re dealing with port-a-potties and… you know, like literally you have to deal with shit. And you know, like, if people overdose. There’s just a lot of stress involved that I just didn’t want to have to deal with. Some of the guys are starting to really push for it. They think it’s time to get on it. I don’t know yet. We’re just kind of in a holding pattern. We’re trying to wait for the right scenario to pop up, you know?
Tell me your thoughts about playing the National Anthem at the Cubs’ game this Sunday..
It’s pretty sweet when you do it at Wrigley. It’s not so cool when you have to do it at Comiskey. I’m a big Cubs fan. But I’m a team player. Like I know there’s some guys in Umphrey’s who are not big Cubs fans and they have to do it for Wrigley so I have to do it for Comiskey. But I’m really excited about this Sunday because any time you get to stand on Wrigley Field it’s pretty sweet.
Yeah, that’s an honor. I was going to ask for your thoughts about the band’s hopes of continuing to play larger venues, but Wrigley Field is a pretty good signpost on that road wouldn’t you say?
I know, right? (laughs)
Lastly, I want to ask if you might have anything you’d like to say regarding the direction of your next record?
Well, we’ve already started on it. And we’ve been talking about trying to go in a different direction than we did with Mantis. Mantis was pretty progressive. There’s a lot of involved changes. This next project we’re talking about trying to simplify it and make it a little more accessible, a little more danceable. Basically we’re trying to work on groove. We’re interested in locking into a groove for a while. So we’re kinda coming up with songs around that. So there’ll be more of a party vibe than we’ve ever put out before.