Progressive improvisational Chicago rockers Umphrey's McGee are easily one of the most innovative and original bands ever as far as ideas, gigs and fan engagement go. They're reshaping the typical concert format, and they're putting technology to great use during their performances.
Up On The Sun: You guys are a really fan-driven band. Along with the Disco Biscuits and STS9, you guys hosted the very first Mayan Holidaze event in Mexico in January. Fans got to interact with you guys by playing tennis and a variety of other activities with the other two bands. What was it like to be a part of that adventure in Mexico?
Brendan Bayliss: It was spectacular. We took over a resort, so just imagine having an entire resort [and] an entire beach all to yourself and your friends and your fans. You just wake up and lounge on the beach all day and go do a rock show at night. It's pretty much an ideal situation.
UOTS: You allow fans to buy a flash drive of the show they just saw when they go to an Umphrey's McGee concert, or they can download it at UMLive.net. Clearly your connection to your fans is really important to you guys, and you want to give them the best live experience possible.
BB: We realized from the very beginning that we are out here because of the fans. Once they stop caring, then this whole thing would die. It's very much a reciprocal relationship where we try to give them as much as they want because without them, we're going to have to go get real jobs.
We learned a long time ago that we don't make our money selling CDs and albums. We make our money selling tickets. We changed things up and stayed in touch with what they want [in order to] stay afloat. It seems like a really good situation where, by giving out our shows [on flash drives or downloads] every night, it allows them to kind of do the advertising for us; where they can plus us for their friends. I never had that opportunity when I was in college: [being able to] go see a band and walk out with the show. It's been pretty sweet.
UOTS: How do you feel about the way other bands approach their fans that are illegally downloading music, whereas you guys encourage your fans to tape your shows? Plus you guys have been releasing bits and pieces of new material as free downloads as a thank you to the fans.
BB: To me it seems like most of the bands [that are] complaining about illegal downloads or [are] getting all messed up about it can afford to be hurt by it. They've made a lot of money in the past through selling music. You don't really hear people like Metallica or Britney Spears complaining about it. You don't really hear people that are a touring band complaining about it because it's never been a source of revenue for us in the first place. It's not really a big problem for us because we never really expected to make money from selling CDs. It really just affects the people that are used to having money come in from [selling music].
UOTS: Umphrey's McGee recently contributed a previously unreleased track, "Hajimemashite," to the second volume of the Patagonia Music Collective, which is a collection of songs that were put together to raise money for the environment. Artists got to choose which environmental charity they wanted the proceeds from their song to go towards. How did you guys get involved in that project? Why did you choose the charity you chose?
BB: We got involved because we've been friends with the Patagonia people for a while. They've been giving us gear and shoes and coupons we can buy backpacks and stuff. They've been a big supporter of us for a white, so when they asked us to do it, it kind of seemed like a no-brainer.
We all have different interests, so when things like this [come up], we rotate it around. I started a charity in Chicago that gives money to underprivileged kids and music classes and stuff like that. When this one came around, I let somebody else [in the band] choose it because we just like to rotate charities.
We donated to Climate Cycle. I think Joel, our keyboardist, picked it. It's kind of a no-brainer now to pick that, given the way the world's going. [Coming] from the big city of Chicago, we've got a lot of green initiatives too.
UOTS: Umphrey's McGee seems to consistently be one of the most highly recruited bands on the radar of American music festivals. Why do you think that is?
BB: I really don't know. Maybe it's because we tour more frequently than other bands. We've constantly been on the road for the last 10 years. Maybe people who put on the festivals see us because we're around. Maybe it's because we're consistently putting out a decent product.
UOTS: The UM Bowl II is easily one of the most creative formats for a concert that any band has ever concocted. Can you give a play-by-play breakdown of the game plan and describe how each 45-minute quarter will work?
BB: I can't because we're doing some of it secretly. Well, one of the quarters is [where] all fans vote, and we play all the songs based off of what they voted. Another quarter is like a "choose your own adventure," and there will be a couple of options. People vote in real time, and we'll kind of go with option A, B or C. Option A could be going to a techno jam. Option B could be going to this cover. We'll just have to do whatever they vote on. There are a couple of other things we're trying to keep secret, but it is very much a fan interactive event.
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UOTS: The band recently played a show called the Stew Art Series, which got a lot of attention due to your use of interactive technology.
BB: [That's] the S2. We do those around five times a year. People text us ideas, and we have to improvise based on the idea. We're doing something like that at the UM Bowl II.
UOTS: It's evident that Umphrey's McGee has a lot going on right now. Do you have anything else that you're working on? Is there anything else coming up?
BB: We're putting out a new album at the end of the summer. We're going back into the studio to finish that up in a couple of weeks. We're currently on the west coast, and we're coming to your town! Be prepared for a rock show and get some sleep the night before.