Umphrey’s McGee made a conscious decision to show its “ripping, guitar solo rock band” side on its new album, “Similar Skin,” which drops June 10.
Bassist Ryan Stasik tells Billboard that the direction for Umphrey’s eighth studio release — and first since 2011’s “Death By Stereo” — “kind of happened organically, really. We got together in the studio in Michigan and wrote some new songs together, and everything people were bringing to the table had the same vibe. We were all in the same headspace of rock ‘n’ roll. It was a little progressive, a little heavy, a little pop, a little everything — but still rock ‘n’ roll. Our last record was a little all over the place, but this seems very focused and where our roots are.”
Guitarist Brendan Bayliss adds that the sextet “went into it saying, ‘Let’s make an old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll record. Everyone says rock ‘n’ roll is dead; let’s prove them wrong.” And that directed the way not only the group wrote for the album but also the kind of ideas it drew from its vaults of “a million ideas.”
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“We have a big pile of stuff to pick from,” Bayliss says. “But knowing they had to be rock songs, the pile had to be big. We had 15 or 16 (songs) when we went in to record,but knowing we were only going to do 10 or 12 (‘Similar Skin’ has 11 tracks) make it easier to make a better statement.” However, he adds, “the difficult thing was sticking to (the direction) we’d decided on,” and some songs surfaced that didn’t necessarily fit the format.
“There was a lot of, ‘What about this one? It’s great.’ ‘Yeah, but it doesn’t fit the theme. We’ve got to hold true to what we said we were going to do,’ ” Bayliss recalls. “It WAS hard, because our nature is to just record the best songs no matter what they’re like, and we were tempted to show all the sides of the band every time we record. For us to stay in one place is unusual.” Nevertheless, Bayliss is sure that Umphrey’s will “find a home” for the other song ideas that cropped up during the sessions.
Bayliss estimates that the group has played about half of “Similar Skin’s” songs on the road over the years, including “Educated Guess” — which dates back to sessions for 2009’s “Mantis” — “Bridgeless” and “No Diablo.” The latter, which is the poppiest and “happiest” moment on “Similar Skin,” was also the subject of a great deal of discussion. “We honestly had a long debate about including it on the record and does it fit with the theme,” Bayliss recalls. “But we came up with a new arrangement for it, and it doesn’t hurt to lighten things up a bit, you know? You don’t want to have just 10 pumping rock songs. It serves the whole idea of the record to have a little breath and space.”
Stasik adds that, “We love being in the studio and the art of the studio. We love the chances you can take, the different feel of being in the studio. Our bread and butter is tickets and playing live but, creating a record and being an artist, it’s wonderful, wonderful to me to do that.”
Umphrey’s is already starting to plot what it will do next — “We’ve talked about doing a more danceable, party record,” Bayliss says — but the group is mostly focused on taking “Similar Skin” on the road. The group has a festival heavy schedule for the summer, including the Mountain Jam Festival on June 5 in Hunter, N.Y., and stops at Arkansas’ Wakarusa Festival, the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, Milwaukee’s Summerfest and more, as well as a three-night stand June 19-21 at the Brooklyn Bowl London in the U.K. Umphrey’s will also return to the high seas for the Jam Cruise in January.