A Conversation with Bruce Hornsby
Mike Ragogna: How are you doing, Bruce?
Bruce Hornsby: I'm doing fine, but "...you don't come to Vegas and talk to a man like Moe Greene like that!"
MR: [laughs] "Fredo, you're my brother and I love you. But don't ever take sides against the family again." Bruuuce! Here you are playing solo in some elegant halls in 2012 and 2013, and I'm imagining some people in the audience might have been expecting a different approach considering your pop history and previous live tours.
BH: I've been doing these solo concerts for a long time and I've been doing solo concerts since '95 when I rededicated myself to studying the piano, when I turned forty. I've been doing a lot of them for the last several years, but a lot of people who come to these concerts know what to expect. Now, a lot who come do not know what to expect, but a good number have followed me through this business, this evolution. It's not like they came and were shocked by all this. Mind you, of course, a good number of people are coming without a clue about this. You're basically asking me, "What happens at a solo concert in the last few years," right?
MR: I'm really just asking about this particular series of concerts. I've got all your albums, I know much about your solo shows, but to me, these shows come off as being more sophisticated than anything you previously recorded. And its intimacy definitely reminds me of The Köln Concert.
BH: Well, it's certainly a different level of, I don't know, expertise, maybe. This is very demanding, but I've been working towards this for a very long time. I've been trying to achieve a certain level of two-handed independence for about eighteen or nineteen years. It's funny, you brought up The Köln Concert. For the masses, that's sort of the archetypical solo piano record, but it wasn't the one for me. I'm a total Keith Jarrett devotee. If you could say there was one musician who influenced me the most through the years, it's him. Although this record, my first attempt at a solo record, I don't think it sounds anything like him. And that's good! There are lots of Keith Jarrett imitators out there and I have been one over the years, but not now. That was his third solo record, his first solo record was Facing You, a studio solo record on ECM back when ECM was a total import label, they didn't have an American deal. You'd have to go to a big Northeastern city and find the imports section of the best record store to get this record. I got it when I was eighteen. Then his next record was Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne a two- or three-record set on ECM. Then The Köln Concert, I believe, was the third. That was the one that was really "popular." I think it still is the largest-selling solo piano record in history. Well over a million records, maybe two million records now. I think the reason for its popularity, I would say that record spawned a major amount of lesser-than imitators, which started "new age" music. That's my theory, and I know a lot of other friends of mine who say the same about it. That Köln concert record is a fantastic record. I have a transcription book--someone transcribed the whole thing. From what I understand, he played that concert on a pretty bad piano. I think he felt that the only thing that sounded good for the most part on that piano was very simple, diatonic music; white note music. This is my understanding, I could be wrong about it, but my understanding is that because of that it's a very simple record harmonically, the chords he plays are very accessible. It's a beautiful record and of course the guy's a transcendent musician, one of the greatest musicians I've ever heard. But that, to me, is why that one was so popular, because it was very simple compared to Facing You or Bremen/Lausanne or the subsequent records.
I'm longwinded about that because then I'll fast-forward up to this record which is really not that, it's not at all like The Köln Concert because this is dealing much more with chromatic language and dissonance and atonality, frankly, and finding a place for that in the popular song context, because let's face it, I'm a songwriter as well as a pianist and singer. It all starts with the songs for me, but I've been interested in modern classical music with its very challenging, adventurous, harmonic language for a really long time and much more intensely for the last ten years and it's really influenced a lot of my songwriting, so you'll find a lot of those songs on here. "Where No One's Mad," "Paperboy," "Might As Well Be Me," the song I wrote with Robert Hunter, they all have this language, but at their roots, they're all pop songs, or rootsy, bluesy songs. So this record is a culmination of a lot of my explorations and experimentations in this area where I've been trying to develop two-handed independence, deal with roots forms like boogie-woogie, blues and New Orleans piano and hymn-influenced music, and finding a place for the modern, chromatic, dissonant, atonal language in and around these more basic forms. So there you go. There's a lot to talk about here, but that's it in a really big nutshell.
MR: Well, I feel that the musical "amalgam" presented on this album and in those 2012, 2013 concerts could be influential. I don't think a record's ever been done like this before.
BH: That's nice. Yeah, I've always tried to stay inspired and move to new places, and this juxtaposition of roots-y piano styles with this modern harmonic language is something that I've been interested in for several years and this is the first public release of the music that I've been trying to put together. If it's going to be influential, it's going to be influential on people who are willing to work very hard to deal with this area. This is very difficult music to play and then to conceptualize and find a way to take this information and put it into popular song context. A perfect example--and this is why I've sequenced these things this way--is the combination of two pieces; the Elliott Carter "Caténaires" and then my song "Where No One's Mad," which is a sort of bi-tonal pop song. I've sequenced it like that, and in concert I play it like this, I'll often play the Carter piece and then "Where No One's Mad" because a lot of the information in "Where No One's Mad" is coming from little bits and pieces of the Carter piece. There was this one little couple-bar section in the Carter piece where I thought, "Okay, this sequence of notes here could work as an altered C7th chord, and if I play that and play a left hand bass part underneath it and then sing this one-note melody then that could be something really unique and special that I've never heard before." That's what I did, and that's the part of "Where No One's Mad," "Like wearing a stupid helmet on a big-wheeled trike and putting training wheels on my hand-me-down bike." That section, which is called the B section of "Where No One's Mad," comes from that Carter piece.
Another example is I'm playing an excerpt from the Schoenberg Piano Concerto, it's five pages of a piece that I love, a piece he wrote in the mid to late forties when he lived in Los Angeles, teaching at UCLA I think. That's a twelve-tone piece, and there's a twelve-tone row in that piece, it's mostly in the left hand. I took this row--or most of it--from this one little couple of bars of the Schoenberg piece and that was the melodic information that I used to write the song with Hunter, "Might As Well Be Me," which comes after the Schoenberg. So once again this is kind of a music lesson, I'm showing all three people who care where this information in my new songs comes from. Frankly I love the influence on my music because I would never write this way if I hadn't gotten interested in all this music. I've been interested in this music since I was in college. When I was at Berklee in Boston, you could check out records like you checked out books at the Boston Public Library. I would go into their little record area and I'd get all the modern music. I got turned on to Charles Ives at that point. It really started way back when, but it really moved into high gear with Columbia Records in 2003.
This is kind of a funny story: I was with Columbia in 2003 and one of the best aspects of signing with Columbia is if you're an artist on Columbia you can raid their catalog and it's all free. They have the most amazing catalog of classical records and jazz records--and obviously rock and pop records, too. So I ordered a hundred and seventy six or a hundred and seventy seven CDs. They were probably kind of bummed with me because I was really taking too much advantage of this nice aspect of being an artist on Columbia. I got most of the Glenn Gould catalog. Gould was a real modern music proponent. I got all his records, the Schoenburg Suite For Piano, I play a piece from that, "The Gavotte" on this in front of "Paperboy" because that influenced the song. I got him playing all this modern music, Webern, Schoenberg, and others, I got Pierre Boulez conducting the complete Webern, on and on. I could just keep going, but it's boring, so I'll stop. But it really sent me headlong even more so into this modern music area, and this is the creative result of all my forays into that atmosphere.
MR: In your opinion, is there anybody else exploring classical music in the way you are? Anyone you admire who's taking it to a similar level?
BH: In the popular or rock world, I really don't know anybody else. Certainly in the jazz world, there are people who are influenced by this, but I'm really not so up on the jazz world. I just got off the road with Pat Metheny, we had the best time playing together for the last month, but I would be guessing if I named names. I think there's a great musician out there named Vijay Iyer, he's very forward thinking. Brad Mehldau is another one who's of course an incredible musician. He may be doing something along this line but I'm not really up on it. In my world, which I guess is the singer songwriter world hell no. Maybe there are people, but I guess I'm unaware because I feel that they're probably just not interested and I understand that.
MR: On the other hand, it's sort of hard to go back to that title of "singer-songwriter" after your musical evolution. I don't think there's anybody else out there who are exploring and understanding the roots and connections that you're making through unifying the genres.
BH: It's a lonely road that I walk. [laughs]
MR: Yeah, I'll stop fawning now.
BH: But I appreciate it, and you may be right. I'm aware that I live in my own cloistered world.
MR: My feeling is that you're taking another jump in your musical evolution, one that embraces your amalgams in an easier way to hear or understand than straight on classical, etc.
BH: I think it's really easy to write formulaic pop music, and it's hard to be great at anything. That said, it's not difficult at all to write very simple music that most people when they hear it go, "Oh yeah, like that. It sounds very familiar." It's also, to me, very easy to be completely out and obtuse and obscure and inaccessible. I think it's very difficult to find that middle ground where you're pushing the envelope but it still reaches people. I just did an interview a while ago where someone said, "At your concerts I'm sure people are just totally not expecting this. The reactions must be strange." I think it was a good question, and I was happy to get it because I could respond very truthfully that in my case most of the "tour de Force" pieces, like "Preacher In The Ring" where I put the Webern piece and the Carter piece in as excerpts in that boogie-woogie tune about the snake handlers of Appalachia, or "Life In The Psychotropics" or "Where No One's Mad" or "Might As Well Be Me," any of these that are the more adventurous pieces. I know that in almost all cases, these are pieces that the crowd really responds to. I feel like I'm connecting with them with this esoteric material. I feel like I'm finding a way to do it. Now, obviously, it's not for everybody, there are a whole lot of people there who would like it if I really didn't do this.
MR: [laughs] But that music had its day, you get to grow.
BH: I play four or five every night. And two of them are on this! They're not the versions that they know, but "Valley Road" is a blues shuffle and "Mandolin Rain" is a minor-key modal version, the version I play with the Scaggs/Hornsby group. I will play "The Way It Is," I will play "The End Of The Innocence," the song I wrote with Henley, and I will play "I Can't Make You Love Me," because I didn't write that song but I played on the record for Bonnie Raitt and I'm proud to have been a part of that. That's a record that I consider to be the iconic hit song for her. It's a fantastic song. Mike Reid, a former defensive tackle with the Cincinnati Bengals, wrote it. I dutifully play those songs 1) because I'm really proud of them, and 2) I feel like since I'm demanding a lot of the audience I'm going to give them this, too. I'm hoping that it's a combination that makes everybody come away saying, "Well, this is not what we expected, but at least we got the songs that we wanted to hear."
MR: And you've accumulated years and years of entertaining, so you understand connecting to the audience. During this particular run of concerts did you feel a particular difference in the connection with the audience?
BH: I'm always gratified by the response to these more challenging pieces, the newer work. Mind you, there are definitely some nights where I'll play "Paperboy" or "Might As Well Be Me" and the response is rather tepid, but more often than not there's a real boisterous, enthusiastic reception. That gives me hope that this is something that is finding that difficult middle ground where you're moving to an adventurous place, a challenging place, but you're also doing it in a way that can connect.
MR: What has changed or evolved in the way that you're approaching these live performances?
BH: One thing that I've done--and some people might not like this--to achieve a level of proficiency playing this very demanding music, I have had to focus on a certain twenty-five or thirty songs and have these fairly tight arrangements of them so I can play them well. Some people who wish I would just play a different set every night and play all the requests that people throw up on stage may not like this. Look, I understand that. If they're coming on a sort of Grateful Dead level to hear three nights in a row and they want to hear no repetition in the sets I understand that. But at the same time, in the early 2000s, I would listen to concerts I would do where I was really doing that, playing eighty or ninety different songs throughout the course of a tour--and we still do that with our Noisemakers band. We still have a large group of songs that we choose from, and I have a large group of songs that I can choose from here--but I've been choosing to play this more modern music because I feel like it's the most unique, interesting thing I'm doing. The songs that are on this record, certainly CD one in particular are the songs that we're talking about.
MR: In some respects, it seems that the earlier material is more locked into everybody's minds, so maybe it makes it a littler harder to break the paradigms that built them?
BH: No, that's not really true, I reinvent those songs in the same way. "The Way It Is" gets a good eight-minute solo treatment, and I'll play "Bach Goldberg Variations" in the middle of it. It's not at all like the record.
MR: Another familiar hit, "Valley Road," also appears on the new one.
BH: "Valley Road" is the same thing. "Valley Road" is always reinvented, it's just yet another version. The version here, the shuffle, bluesy version is most akin to the version I played with The Grateful Dead when I joined them for those twenty months from '90 to '92. We played a shuffle version, which was the first time that version was played. I kind of refer to it as "The Dead Version," and this is that Dead version with a very different kind of soloing on it, that angular style. I'm not just playing the classic piano blues licks. I like those licks, but I'm a little tired of them, so I'm looking for a different thing to play while I'm playing my left hand shuffle groove. So that's "Valley Road."
I don't really reinvent "I Can't Make You Love Me." Ballads somehow don't lend themselves as much to new interpretations or exploration and experimentation, but everything else I do, whether it's "The Way It Is" or "Mandolin Rain," they tend to get fooled around with quite a bit. But I would listen to these recordings from when I was playing a whole bunch of different songs and taking all the requests and I felt like, "Well I'm playing all of these songs but I'm not really doing them very well." I didn't like the performances. When I listened to myself do something I didn't do very often I thought it was not very good. So I felt that I needed to tighten it up and just perform a smaller number of songs better, more adeptly. That's what's changed over the years.
And also, like I said before, the technical demands of this music--whether it's Carter's "Caténaires" or "The Goldberg Variations" or the Ligeti Étude down towards the end of the record, the demands just on a memorization level and on a technique level are so demanding that I spend most of my time really just trying to do those really well. I guess in a nutshell I want to do a few things really well rather than a whole lot of things not that well.
MR: You're on Vanguard now. To me, that's the home for many energetic young singer-songwriters. As you do your meet and greets with the younger men and ladies, it'll be interesting to see how you might spread yourself around the Vanguard roster.
BH: I don't really know if we'll intersect that much. I don't really imagine coming into a lot of contact with the rest of the Vanguard roster. If it happens, I'm fine with that, I have no problem meeting with these young lions. This is a serious road that I'm going down here, but my next record will finally be our dulcimer record with the Noisemakers and it's completely the opposite of chromatic and dissonant. The dulcimer only has the white notes, not the black ones, so to speak. We're actually starting to record this in a couple of weeks, and it will be the opposite aesthetic of this record. I've got a couple of different areas that I'm dealing with here. I really love the songs that I'm writing with my friend Chip DeMatteo, and we've written several that we're recording on this dulcimer record and that's an area that I'm equally excited about. People have been asking me to put out a solo concerts record for years because they would come to my solo concerts and they would go, "Wow, we just love this, but there's nothing we can buy that sounds anything like this." Finally, it's here. Here it is, for anybody that's interested. All three of you.
MR: [laughs] What advice do you have for new artists?
BH: This comes from years of dutifully being nice and actually listening to aspiring musicians' files and CDs and tapes that they've sent me, almost every time I say the same thing: I feel that stylistically they're kind of generic, they're not unique. I'm always prodding and encouraging people to take it a little out and find your own sound. Don't take it as a compliment if somebody tells you, "Hey you sound like," fill in the blank. You really want somebody to say to you, "You sound like nothing I've ever heard." It's really difficult to get to that point stylistically in your music where you sound totally unique, but that should be the aim, I think, to carve out your own niche in the scene.
MR: I've never heard it put like that before, nice.
BH: That's just what I think. Your compliments regarding this solo concerts record fit right into this. For better or for worse you feel that this is a record that you've never heard before, stylistically. You, Mike, said that this is a record that nobody's ever done. That's the aim! My goal is to find things that inspire me and have them influence my music and take me to new places. If someone says that to me about this record that's a high compliment and exactly what I would love to hear, to be perfectly honest with you. This is my version of this, but when I talk to someone who's an aspiring artist I guess I would probably say, "You may not like this solo concerts record that I've done, but at the very least you would probably not say, "it sounds like so-and-so." That's what you want. That's what I want. That's what anyone should want.
MR: Beautiful. And that ends up becoming influential just from it being so unique, and you do it in a melodically dissonant way that makes it inviting. It's very tricky when it comes to Bruce Hornsby music, let me tell you.
BH: That's the fun of it though, right? I'm almost sixty years old and I'm tired of hearing the same old s**t. I've just had it. I couldn't care less. That's why it's hard to listen to the radio; there's nothing much in it for me. Look, they don't want me to like it, I get that, that's fine. Mind you at the same time there are lots of things I hear on the radio that I think are really well done and I'm a fan, but for me I don't want to do that. I like this, for better or for worse.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
NATALIA ZUKERMAN'S "COURAGE TO CHANGE"
According to Natalia Zukerman...
"Janet Hutchinson is a great poet. She is also the mom of my friend and Winterbloom compatriot, Meg Hutchinson. Janet has been writing a poem every day for the last dozen years and for the month of April, National Poetry Month, she sends out a prompt a day as part of the April Poetry Challenge. I've been participating for the last few years and one of the prompts last April was to write about darkness. Jan sent a quote from St. John Of The Cross that read, 'If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.' Part of this quote became the chorus for my song, 'Courage To Change,' the first track on my new album Come Thief, Come Fire.
"The song talks about change, of course, but it talks about the slowness of it, the time it can take, the familiarity with the dark passages we have to walk down in order to get to the next place. Sometimes it feels like we aren't moving at all and as a culture, we like things to happen immediately. But in this song, I compel the listener to approach this path with compassion and a deeper look at the ways we walk through this world. As an opening track, it sets the stage for the character on this record who goes through a real journey of transformation, a process that can only really happen by digging into the deeper crevasses and really investigating what's there. Sometimes we need to close our eyes and walk in the dark in order to find our path again.
"The new album Come Thief, Come Fire initially began as two separate EPs--one raw, acoustic and stripped-down and the other lush and cinematic--but it soon morphed into a single album, anchored by the concept of fire as both destroyer and generator. In its elemental form, fire leaves wreckage where once there was order and harmony; however, it also serves the purpose of providing space for new growth in the wake of devastation. It's this paradox that I really wanted to explore musically and lyrically on Come Thief, Come Fire, and 'Courage To Change' really felt like the perfect introduction to that dialogue to me."
A Conversation with Iain Matthews
Mike Ragogna: Iain, your band Matthews' Southern Comfort had a hit with the song "Woodstock" although we also associate the song with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and, of course, its writer, Joni Mitchell. How did the song come your way and were you surprised at how successful the recording became?
Iain Matthews: I found the song on a Joni Mitchell album I'd bought that week. We were due to do a BBC recording session and needed an extra song. I suggested 'Woodstock' and we worked it up. Upon airing the session, the phone in response was so great on that song, the BBC contacted my label to find out the availability of the song. Uni--my label--had no idea what the Beeb were talking about and contacted my management, who asked me about it. Uni suggested that we record the song and add it to the newly recorded Matthews Southern Comfort album, Later That Same Year. I declined to mess with the completed album, but agreed to have them release the song as a single. It then took a full 6 months for the song to be a hit. A prominent BBC DJ, Tony Blackburn, made it his record of the week and all hell broke loose. It began to sell 30,000 copies a day, eventually going from #10 to #1 in a week. How can one NOT be surprised at the success of any recording, unless its totally premeditated, which this was not.
MR: Your "sound" as a solo artist as traveled surf, folk, pop and rock routes. Who were your creative influences and how did you become a member of Fairport Convention? What do you think their influence was on music during its early years?
IM: We should add jazz to the beginning of that list, as its subconsciously been a heavy influence on my music since the mid-sixties. I had been in a band called Pyramid. We broke up in early 1967, after having a single on Deram. Through a chain of events, to this day, I don't quite understand. I was recommended to Fairport Convention bassist, Ashley Hutchings, by my A&R man at Deram. I was invited to audition and met the band in the studio, about to record their first single. That recording of "If I Had A Ribbon Bow" was my audition. That's how it was in those days. I cannot remember Fairport having any influence on anyone in "those days." No one even tried to emulate us. We were unique in everything we were doing. Most people around the UK thought we were American.
MR: What led you from Fairport Convention to starting up your Matthews Southern Comfort.
IM: I left Fairport over musical differences. After Sandy joined the band, they were heading in a distinctly "trad" direction, not something I wanted to do. A parting of the ways was inevitable. I'd learned enough about what style I wanted to pursue and consequently, MSC was birthed.
MR: What's the Plainsong story?
IM: Plainsong was formed after Andy Roberts and I had toured the USA, in support of my new solo album If You Saw Thro' My Eyes. After eight weeks of touring, it was apparent to both of us that we needed to collaborate in some way. I then abandoned my fledgling solo career in favor of Plainsong. This was in 1972.
MR: You released a number of solo albums including Valley Hi with former Monkees member Michael Nesmith producing. What was it like working with him and recording solo material during this period?
IM: That album was recorded in Los Angeles, in 1973. Michael was extremely involved in becoming an executive, forming his new label, Countryside, and developing his studio. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to work with the man and probably was, but it quickly became apparent that Michael's priority was not the recording of my album. Don't get me wrong, I had a terrific time around him and would make the same decision again, in a heartbeat, but that album was mostly produced by me. I'd moved to L.A. because of the burgeoning singer-songwriter scene developing there and was not disappointed. I made many friends and acquaintances in that first year, quickly realizing that was where I needed to be to develop my own art.
MR: Who's decision was it to rename you "Iain Matthews," adding that second "i"?
IM: It was no one's idea. It simply happened. I had always been irked by the bastardized English spelling of the name and it was really just a matter of timing, to change it. My daughter designed a cover for one of my albums, with a drawing and misspelled my first name. Rather than correct it, I simply changed my name.
MR: Your cover of Terence Boylan's song "Shake It" became one of your biggest hits. What's the story behind that song, how did it make it into the movie Little Darlings, and why do you think that recording became your highest US charter?
IM. I was living in Seattle and heard the song played on a local FM station. I called the DJ and he sent me a copy of the album. I actually recorded two of Terence's songs on Stealin' Home. The first I knew about the song being in the movie was when it came out and a friend called to ask if I'd heard it. I can only imagine that the US label submitted it for consideration. I was never involved in that side of things back then. It was more a managerial move, than an artistic one. Why is a hit ever a hit, regardless of where it charts? I have absolutely no idea!
MR: You also recorded Robert Palmer's "Give Me An Inch." Were you a fan of Robert Palmer's? Why did you pick this track over his other material?
IM: I was a peripheral Robert fan. I knew him when I lived in England and had followed his musical development. I heard the song and wanted to interpret it. This was before "Johnny and Mary" and in my estimation, his first standout song.
MR: Both songs are from your album Stealin' Home that is about to be reissued on Omnivore. What are your thoughts about that album all these years later and what are some of your favorite tracks on it?
IM: I think it's a good album, from another time and place. A stepping stone of sorts. It turned me and propelled me in a certain direction, which at the time, was exactly where I needed to go. I don't listen to it much these days, but would have to say, whenever I do, I'm pleasantly surprised by its musicality. This is special repackaging, as it includes live material from the era, reminding me again what a special time it was. If I had to choose favorites, I'd say, "Let There Be Blues" and John Martyn's, "The Man in the station."
MR: To this point, you've had a very prolific career with many albums, singles, and much international success. Do you have any thoughts about your catalog and life spent as an artist?
IM: I consider myself a very fortunate man, to have been involved in music for my entire adult life--give or take a year, here and there. Music motivates and propels me through life. So also being a creator is the greatest scenario I could ever wish for. I'm both proud and thankful of my catalogue--over 50 commercially released recordings. Not many can boast that.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
IM: Do it for the right reasons
Develop a songwriting style.
Build a grass roots following early on.
Follow the muse and respect it
Never settle for average.
Always give it your very, very best.
Be thankful for whatever comes your way and don't abuse the gift.
Stay healthy of mind and body.
A Conversation with Umphrey's McGee's Brendan Bayliss & Joel Cummins
Mike Ragogna: Rumor has it there's this Umphrey's McGee album titled Similar Skin, but until I hear it from you guys, I'm not believing a word of that.
Brendan Bayliss: Well, 85% of the time, rumors are true. We released the new album on June 10th of this year.
Joel Cummins: It's our first album on our own label, Nothing Too Fancy Music. The new album, quite simply, is incredibly rockin'. Possibly even more so than Dokken.
MR: Ooh, more rockin' than Dokken. So you sold out Red Rocks. Now what? Observations? Comments? Predictions?
BB: Playing to a sold out crowd in that venue is like standing in front of a giant tidal wave...it could either be the ride of your life or the end of your surfing career. That would be both an observation and a comment. I won't make any predictions.
JC: Observation: Selling out Red Rocks still doesn't feel real to me a month later. It seems like we've been trying to get to the point of just being able to headline Red Rocks for so many years. Comments: Red Rocks is my favorite venue, bar none. There is magic in the air, and the audience and musicians know it. Predictions: This won't be the last time we sell out Red Rocks.
MR: Umphrey's McGee has recorded many albums. Why create another?
BB: When you write music, some of it gets officially released, some of it only makes it to the stage, and some of it goes unheard entirely. When you put it on an album, it definitely gets heard by more ears.
JC: As artists, we're always trying to push to the next idea that will represent our sound and who we are. We've made our name as a live band, but more and more people are being surprised by what Umphrey's McGee has created in the studio over our career. I'm incredibly proud of our most recent albums and Similar Skin is certainly the best album we've ever released top to bottom. The studio can be a challenging environment so why not challenge ourselves to make a cohesive rock and roll record. There's a lot of work left to be done for us. I think there will be many more Umphrey's McGee albums after Similar Skin.
MR: How did the creative process differ from how you approached previous albums?
BB: With this album, we specifically wanted to stay in the rock and roll world. We didn't want any sad "woe is me" ballads and we didn't want to throw a dance party. Usually, we try to cover a lot of genres, and this time we stayed more focused on a specific goal.
JC: We took inventory of what our best new material was and at the same time made a conscious effort to write a few new pieces of music that fit the "riff rock" vibe of Similar Skin. We got together a few times for preproduction days to work out new songs we hadn't played live like "Educated Guess" & "No Diablo." So, this album was a mix of about 4-5 new pieces of music combined with some of our more recent strong newer material. And then we threw in "Bridgeless," which might be the composition I'm most proud of in our catalogue. We tried to record "Bridgeless" for both Safety In Numbers and Mantis but those versions weren't hitting home. We finally nailed it.
MR: Beyond the name of the band, what is it about Umphrey's McGee that keeps your fan base growing and prevents all imposters from jumping into your musical space?
BB: I like to think that most bands improve over time, and now we have over 16 years experience playing live shows. We mix it up nightly, and we are very involved with our fan base. If someone wants to "jump into our musical space", they are more than welcome. Every band is influenced by bands that came before, so we can't really claim to own our own musical space. We are currently renting.
JC: The unique mix of personalities that the 6 musicians bring to this band will always keep our sound as something that exists in it's own space. And I think most people know an imposter when they see one. In all seriousness, we continue to try to push musical boundaries and that is what the fans want most. New material, new improvisation and keeping in touch with who we are and how we change is the most important thing we can do. Yes, we connect a lot with the fan base using various technologies to our advantage, but that doesn't mean anything if the music is not good.
MR: What is your advice to new artists?
BB: In the immortal words of Yoda: "Do or do not, there is no 'try.'"
JC: Focus on your music. Create something that is unique to you or your group and work on your sound. Practice. Listen. Woodshed. Write. Perform. Don't worry about social media or hire someone to help spread your music. The more time you can spend on music, the better off you will be. Also, there are no long-term short cuts. You have to be willing to give up everything if you really want a career in music. Make sure you're willing to do that before you jump off that cliff.
MR: Your music is referred to as "improg." How would you classify it and do you do more or less of that during concerts?
BB: We are a prog rock band that likes to improvise, it's what we do every night. There are a lot of composed parts, but plenty of moments where we don't know what will happen next.
JC: I would say that "improg" is probably the most accurate term as far as trying to describe our music in one word. We also skip around other genres live, so we may very well go beyond that term too. Some nights we veer more toward hard rock, some nights things are funkier, some nights things are more electronic. That's one of the most fun parts of being in Umphrey's McGee, the unpredictability.
MR: What does the future hold for Umphrey's McGee?
BB: It seems to me like we are hitting a good stride, and finding ways to tour that allow the dads in the organization some time to get home to be with family. It's an impossible balance but we are getting better at it. By playing a few less shows each year, I think you give a band a longer shelf life. I'd like to think we have a few more albums in us, and I see us touring until our children's band, Strawberry Switchblade, makes it big.
JC: I could let you know, but then I'd have to kill you. And that might actually screw up the future.