Halfway between South Bend and Chicago, Brendan Bayliss is uncomfortable.
It’s January, the snow is coming down hard and Bayliss, a 1998 Notre Dame graduate and the lead singer and guitarist for Umphrey’s McGee, is squeezed into the back seat of a crowded GMC Suburban barreling west down Interstate 80. His discomfort, however, have less to do with his cramped surroundings than with the music blasting from the car’s stereo.
The band, whose five members are moving to Chicago this summer, is on its way to a club called Martyrs’ for a Saturday night show. With current sound man Kevin Browning, then a junior at Notre Dame, piloting them through the winter weather, Bayliss, bassist Ryan “Pony” Stasik, a ’99 ND grad and drummers Mike Mirro, a 2000 ND grad, and Andy Farag are free to concentrate on a recording Browning made of their previous night’s performance, at South Bend’s State Theater.
Self-criticism abounds, especially when Bayliss hears his voice crack in the middle of a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain.”
“That stings, man,” he says, wincing, as Farag replays the offending portion.
Bayliss may be the band’s biggest perfectionist, but he isn’t alone in a group marked by relentless work ethic. The members of Umphrey’s McGee share a singular dedication to their chosen career that shows in the hours they spend each week on rehearsal, analysis and heavy lifting.
They listen to their own performances to find and repair weak spots — even those, like many that elicit groans from various band members throughout the ride, that most average listeners wouldn’t even notice.
“We probably hear the stuff 10 times more than everyone else does,” keyboard player Joel Cummins, a 1998 ND graduate, explains later, “and when you play it you don’t want to botch it.”
Umphrey’s McGee was a long way from botching the State Theater show. The crowd of 800 to 1,000 people that filled the newly remodeled nightclub, Cummins says, was one of the largest the band had ever played for indoors, and by the time club management shut the band off just after midnight to turn on the venue’s usual dance music, a large and vocal portion of those in attendance were yelling for an encore.
“It’s overwhelming,” Bayliss said after the show, pausing to shake hands with friends and well-wishers. “When we stopped they let us know they wanted another song. We weren’t booed off the stage.”
As far as anyone knows, Umphrey’s McGee has never been booed off the stage. But the band’s evolution from its days on the Notre Dame campus music circuit has not always been easy.
Besides playing concerts most weekends and practicing at least four days a week, the band members haul all their own equipment and spend hours before and after they play setting up and packing away their instruments.
Then there are the horror stories, comical only in retrospect.
“One of the most valuable lesson,” Cummins says, “is that when things go wrong and it’s out of control, there’s nothing you can do but laugh.”
That includes the time the band almost missed a show in Michigan after finding themselves stuck in traffic at the back of a motorcycle rally. Or the time they shared a bill with an aging, overweight David Bowie impersonator whose costumes, Bayliss says, filled an entire room backstage.
“People are showing up and wondering, ‘is this Umphrey McGee?’” Farag remembers with a laugh.
It wasn’t Umphrey’s McGee, but what Umphrey’s McGee is can be difficult to explain. The band’s influences are as diverse as the posters in the house Bayliss and Farag were sharing on Saint Peter Street: Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Phish, Bob Marley and the Beatles. Also, Lionel Richie, whose 1980s pop songs they sometimes cover, with a wink, to the delight of audiences.
The result the band achieves from combining those varied elements can be hard to characterize, but their initial success in undeniable.
Cummins estimates that the band has sold 1,500 copies of its debut CD, Greatest Hits Volume III, released in May 1998. Sales of a follow-up entitled Songs for Older Women, recorded live in South Bend and released a year after the band’s debut on the independent label Street Gold Records, have reached almost 2,000, he says — impressive results for what so far has been a local South Bend outfit, handling most of its own merchandise sales.
In support of Songs for Older Women — like its predecessor, made up entirely of original music — Umphrey’s McGee has played in Chicago, Indianapolis and scores of smaller cities around the Midwest. Brief East Coast swings that included New York City and Boston have yielded what Cummins calls an encouraging surprise: The band received a warm reception at its two shows at the Manhattan club The Wetlands Preserve, a venue that has been a key stepping-stone for other bands.
“The first time that we played there showed us that you can do this right in a whole lot of cities if you prepare for it,” Cummins says.
That preparation began closer to home, in the smaller, less heralded rooms of South Bend, Indiana.
“They call me ‘South Bend veteran,’” says Cummins who, at 25, is the band’s oldest member. “I think I’ve played in almost every room in South Bend that you can play in.”
In fact, if Umphrey’s McGee had never formed, Cummins, a music and theology major, and Mirro, a music and marketing major, would still have a small place in the annals of Notre Dame campus bands: Both were members of Stomper Bob, a popular cover band that released its own CD of original music.
Bayliss and Stasik also were musically active during their time at Notre Dame, in bands called Reverend Fund and Driftwood, respectively. They eventually got together in a group with the Star Wars-inspired moniker Tashi Station, where they first wrote and performed several of the songs that appear on Greatest Hits Volume III.
Bayliss, Stasik, Mirro and Cummins were all restless in their respective groups, however, and began rehearsing together over Christmas break in the 1997-98 school year. They made their debut together the following January at Bridget McGuire’s, under the name Fat Tony.
Withing weeks, the band was calling itself Umphrey’s McGee. Bayliss claims the moniker comes from the name of a distant relative he met at a wedding. “My father’s aunt’s sister’s son’s kid,” he says. “He’s just a nice guy. Lives on a farm, I think.”
Farag, who went to high school with Mirro in Crown Point, Indiana, joined the band five months later, transferring from Indiana University in Bloomington to the South Bend campus to be closer to the other members.
From the beginning, Cummins says, Umphrey’s McGee operated with an eye toward the future.
“Stomper Bob kind of ended because Mike and I wanted to do something else,” he says. “We didn’t want our music careers to end with our college cover band.”
To former Tashi Station keyboard player Greg Andrulis, who watched intently from the audience at the State Theater show, it was the right move. “It’s fantastic, because these guys are so talented,” he said. “To see them up there together, I’m very glad it all happened.”
Support from friends old and new is not unusual for the band, which possesses networking abilities that rival those of Andersen Consulting’s best.
Vince Iwinski, a 1997 Notre Dame graduate who works for AT&T in Chicago, splits the duties of managing the band with Cummins, and has done much of the work of booking the band and promoting shows in their new hometown.
In addition, Bayliss says, attendance at concerts in remote cities usually gets a boost from college acquaintances. “The Notre Dame thing,” he says, “has helped us a lot, because we’ve got people all over the country.”
The band is working to expand its list of contacts even further. Umphrey’s McGee, Cummins says, has made an effort to develop relationships with promising local bands from other areas, most notably in the Cincinnati-based fusion group Ray’s Music Exchange, with which Umphrey’s has shared numerous bills.
“My feeling,” Cummins says, “is that [when] you put together a good bill, get Ray’s Music Exchange, a band that regularly blows people away, you get a good buzz.”
The band has also joined the Home Grown Music Network, which sells CDs and helps with promotion for a long list of young bands. Finally, the band’s music, tour dates and merchandise are available through a web site, maintained by Iwinski, at www.umphreys.com
With all the promotional mechanisms in place, the band’s next task is to continue building its fan base. Chicago is the next logical place to do so for a band that played its first shows at Bridget’s, Club 23 and Finnegan’s.
“Chicago is probably the highest percentage of Notre Dame people of any town,” Cummins says. “We’re not moving too far off our home turf.” In fact, the band will return to its fan base in South Bend on occasion.
Umphrey’s McGee won’t be changing its approach to music either, he says.
“We all realize that there’s no shortcut,” Cummins says. “What it takes is time practicing and time spent thinking about what you’re doing.”
Back within the tight confines of the Suburban, that approach is what keeps the band’s members focused on the music they played the night before. Stasik is resting, curled up on the floor behind the back seat, while in the front seats Browning and Farag bob their head in time to the music. The mood is light, thanks to Mirro’s exuberant backing vocals on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”
The snow is falling even harder and travel is slower as Bayliss peers out the side window. “I wonder how many times I’ll be making this drive next year,” he says, the factory smokestacks of Gary glowing in the distance.