BrendanÂ Bayliss is the guitarist and co-founder of Chicago-based band Umphrey’s McGee.
Their upcoming dates include the Hangout Music Festival and Summercamp.
BrendanÂ called in to discuss the growth of their fanbase, his favorite places to play, and how Umphrey’s sound has evolved.
McClain Johnson: How old were you when you first started playing guitar?
BrendanÂ Bayliss: I started playing guitar right around Christmas break my freshman year in high school. My older brother brought one home from college. I was 14 when I started playing.
McClain: Do you remember the first full song you learned on guitar?
Brendan: “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd.
McClain: You guys tour all the time. What have been some of your favorite gigs over the years?
BrendanÂ Bayliss: Typically, the New Year’s shows are always extra festive because a lot of friends and family come in town for it. Sometimes, because of that, they’re a little stressful. Some of my favorite ones are just the little surprise ones.Â The towns where you didn’t think it was going to be that packed, like a sold out show on a Tuesday night in the middle of Iowa. The ones that are real surprises I think are my favorites. Aside from the obvious, like playing Red Rocks or something like that.
McClain: You do play so many different markets. That’s how you really built up your fanbase over the years, right?
BrendanÂ Bayliss: Yeah. It was like very small, concentric circles. Starting out in South Bend, Indiana, and then, kind of, branching out. Hitting the small towns, hitting them back a couple of times. Then you go to the bigger city near that and you’re drawing from the small town to the bigger city. It’s been a slow gradual process from the beginning.
McClain: You guys have created really devoted fans so many different places around the country.
BrendanÂ Bayliss: Yeah, I wouldn’t change the way we’ve done it. I think that the internet helps a lot, with us giving away free music and trading. That is the best word of mouth, from fans-to-fans, sharing the music.
McClain: Once folks see you play, they’re going to want to see you play again.
BrendanÂ Bayliss: That’s the idea.
McClain: Do you have any places you would love to play that you haven’t yet?
BrendanÂ Bayliss: You know, the Gorge, in Washington. It’s an outdoor amphitheater that I’ve seen concerts there. I think that would be spectacular. Radio City Music Hall, we’ve never done that. I think that would be, again, a magical night. Then there’s the Pritzker Pavilion, which is in Chicago. It’s outside in Millennium Park. There’s plenty of places. I don’t know close we’re going to get to scratching all of them off the list, but it doesn’t hurt to dream, right?
McClain: Right. Your sound has really evolved over the years.
BrendanÂ Bayliss: It’s gotten a lot more proficient technically. When we started, the bass player and I were both, pretty much, self-taught. We were just kind of playing in a garage band. We were not very technically savvy. With adding Jake and adding Kris, it added a lot more precision to the sound. which kind ofÂ rubs off on us and makes us have to practice more. Looking back, I guess, we’re a lot more legitimately suited to be playing onstage than we were before. We’re a lot tighter. You do anything long enough, I think you’re going to get better at it. This is kind of an all-consuming job. When we were younger, we’d practice several hours a day, then go out on the road for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Come home Sunday. Take Sunday off, then set up again on Monday and start practicing again. It was just all you did. Then, when you went home or went to your room, you were still practicing on your own. It was kind of an all-or-nothing deal.
McClain: What inspires your lyrics?
BrendanÂ Bayliss: I don’t know. That’s a god question. Typically, they seem to be conversations. I don’t know if it’s conversations to old friends or things I would like to say to somebody, but can’t or never got the chance to. I get into being kind of vague, because it allows for a little more interpretation from the listeners. It could be a little broader meaning. It’s not as specific, so it could mean more to more people. Instead of coming out and being really clear about what a song is about, it gives the listener a chance to interpret it and take it as their own meaning for it. I like to be vague.
McClain: Do you do the the music first, obviously, and then add lyrics to it?
BrendanÂ Bayliss: Yeah. For me, I’m not sure how other people do it, but it’s easier for me if I can hum a melody to a chord progression. Then, I’ll put the words to the melody after the fact. Sometimes, in the moment, you can change a word or two to fit something that happened with the day or an inside joke with somebody in the band. Changing a word that still rhymes with that same scheme, it makes it unique to that moment. People who listen a lot pick up on that and appreciate it. It makes it different from the last time it was played or the next time it is played. Just to keep our own interest in it. We like to have something to look forward to. You do something for 12 years, night-in and night-out, you look for ways to make it more special. It’s more about us trying to entertain ourselves and it actually works for the fans too.
McClain: Who are some of your favorite folks to play with?
BrendanÂ Bayliss: Anytime we do anything with Warren Haynes it always comes out well. Anytime we do stuff with Jeff from Yonder Mountain String Band. I just really like playing with people who like to make eye contact and don’t like to just step up onstage, put their head down and start playing. People who play without trying to have a dialogue with anybody. Ivan Neville, every time he’s sat in, it’s been fantastic.
McClain: Who would you like to play with that you haven’t yet?
BrendanÂ Bayliss: I’ve played with a lot of people. I’ve covered a lot of the bases. I was going to say Medeski, from Medeski, Martin & Wood, but I actually got to play with him once. Over the years, it just piles up and you have to sift back through it. Jimmy Herring, but he played with us too. I’ve got to get back to you on that.
McClain: You guys are now at the top of the scene.
BrendanÂ Bayliss: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but I feel what you’re saying. I think we’ve made some progress and we’re happy with where we are at. That’s not going to stop us from pushing it and seeing how far it can go.
McClain: It’ll be awesome to see, 10 years from now, where you are.
BrendanÂ Bayliss: Absolutely There’s nothing we can do but keep doing what we’re doing, keep our fingers crossed, and have faith in the big picture.
McClain: What advice would you give to bands just starting out?
BrendanÂ Bayliss: There are no real shortcuts, and if you take them, you’re not going to be around as long as you want. So, it’s more like, you’ve got to believe in it and just try. There was a quote that Yoda said in the Empire Strikes Back, “Do or do not. There is no try.”