For years, the Indiana-based prog-jam band Umphrey’s McGee has earned a reputation not just as one of the most musically dexterous groups in the virtuoso-driven jam scene, but as one of the best cover bands on the planet. During their live shows, they nail songs by everyone from Radiohead to Funkadelic, sticking their landings with precision.
But on Halloween eight years ago, the band took their cover game even further and played a number of mashups, including the first one they ever worked through — a blend of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. II” — and started working these musical mixes, long a staple of DJs like Z-Trip, into their live shows. Now, with the imminent release of their new album Zonkey, on Nov. 11, the band has studio-fied these often-disparate concoctions with an album exclusively composed of mashup covers; including a couple of quotes from their originals thrown in for good measure.
“The idea initially was to do something with ‘Thriller,’ because it was Halloween,” guitarist and singer Brendan Bayliss told Billboard during a break from the band’s ceaseless touring schedule. “I think we did it in the key of D, and we were just vamping around with it. Once you start playing the ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ [hook], if you start just riffing on it, it just fit really easy. We have a policy that, before we say no to an idea, we should try it and listen to it first. Sometimes, like for that one, someone’s playing Pink Floyd and I’ll start singing Michael Jackson over it and then we’ll try and figure out, ‘Do we do a verse? Do we do a chorus? Is it even working?'”
Though that first mashup didn’t make the cut for the new album, plenty of others did, ranging from natural-when-you-think-about-it ideas — “Can’t Rock My Dream Face,” for instance, merges Michael Jackson-loving The Weeknd’s “I Can’t Feel My Face” with “Rock With You” (although along the way the band also finds their way into Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”) — to total bizzaro picks (“Frankie Zombie,” which blends White Zombie, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Pink Floyd.)
Sometimes, the choices come organically. “When you start singing [Bob Marley’s] ‘Exodus’ over [The Talking Heads’] ‘Life During Wartime,’ it’s the same key, same tempo, so that makes it look easy,” Bayliss says.
Others — like “Frankie Zombie” — take a bit more work. “I’m sure Rob Zombie never really envisioned his [‘Thunder Kiss ’65] chorus over ‘Relax,'” Bayliss says. “That one actually came out just because I thought it’d be funny. It actually turned out pretty rocking. Those were the same key, same tempo and that was another idea where it was just like, ‘Okay, you start playing that riff and I’ll start singing Frankie Goes to Hollywood.’ I can tell really quickly by the band’s reactions whether or not they’re going to go for it. Everyone just started laughing.”
Though every track has been played live at least once, bringing the mashup idea to the studio allowed Bayliss and his band mates the opportunity to bring back some song picks that had been retired, for a myriad of reasons. “Vocally, trying to sing Michael Jackson live — it’s very difficult,” Bayliss laughs. “Especially being a white guy from the midwest.”
Through each of the picks, Umphrey’s prides themselves on nailing the intricacies of the originals — and though that sometimes means aping Frank Zappa licks, it can also require some studio trickery. “When we were learning [Radiohead’s ‘The National Anthem’], [guitarist] Jake [Cinninger] was trying to get the atmospheric droning stuff. To make those sounds, he had to do seven or eight guitar tracks.”
Other times, though, it just takes a bit of research. “We were dissecting [Beastie Boys‘ ‘Sabotage,’ which is mixed with Ted Nugent’s ‘Stranglehold’] to do in the studio. I was like, ‘I think all he’s doing is Clash-style downstroke power chords [on one chord],” Bayliss says. “It was so easy that I went on YouTube and tried to find them playing on Letterman or something, just to verify that’s what they were doing. Yep: it is.”
Check the full track listing for Zonkey with each mashup’s original songs right here.