Brendan Bayliss sits in his home studio, poised to write what will eventually become lyrics for a new Umphrey’s McGee album, “Mantis.” He’s got a pen. He’s got a pad. But words are still thoughts unrealized.
Things get flowing with a humming in his head, which morphs into a melody to fit the music he and his band mates have begun to craft. Slowly words travel along the waves of this melody, striving to ultimately encapsulate emotions in ways fresh, insightful, and — quite frankly — singable.
How those words ultimately are interpreted, however, he leaves up to the listener. He wants everyone to connect with the songs in his or her own way, thereby feeling as though they are an integral part of the musical experience, which in many ways they are.
So while Bayliss admits a certain lyrical theme ultimately emerged on the “Mantis” album, he’s reluctant to offer many insights. But he does share his favorite lyric: “Turmoil stands like old rubber bands unbreaking,” off the album’s title track. He says it’s his favorite partially because of its meaning and partially because it rolls off the tongue nicely.
You ready for some irony?
Rolling Stone hit upon this exact same lyric in its review, but not in a positive light:
Singer Brendan Bayliss’ lyrics sometimes veer into New Age hooey (“Turmoil stands like old rubber bands unbreaking”).
What does Bayliss have to say about this?
“I don’t even know what hooey is.”
Well, allow me to quote again…
Hooey, slang. Silly talk or writing; nonsense
Personally, I don’t think there’s much nonsense in the album, lyrically or instrumentally. As Jay Cowit points out in his review: “the band is dealing with some dark issues, going so far as to ‘carve their own headstones’ and take not one, but two ‘Cemetery Walks.'” Furthermore, in the February/March issue of Relix Magazine, UM keyboardist Joel Cummins had this to say:
Mantis is definitely our most important record lyrically, too. Our last big record, Safety in Numbers, is about dealing with loss and death. So there may be some continuity with that. The last album had a lot of very personal moments. I guess this is sort of the next step. At first you focus on events that shape one’s life and then you focus on how these events shape the greater world. There’s kind of this existentialist theme where we put out some of those bigger questions and mysteries about the world or life.
Sounds pretty serious if you ask me. So — no offense, Rolling Stone — but perhaps your comment there is what’s a bit hooey? Anyways…
Instrumentally, I find the album is also quite serious, with the band making a concerted effort to keep the songs as tight as possible, according to Bayliss. The title track, for instance, at one point was about 17 minutes long, but it comes in on the album at just under 12 minutes. The goal was to keep the final product at about an hour long, Bayliss said. It finishes at 54 minutes.
In that 54 minutes are songs that are surprisingly accessible, despite the band’s reputation for carrying on the torch of the progressive-rock movement. That, of course, doesn’t mean this album isn’t full of intriguing arrangements, because it certainly is. It just isn’t as complicated as anyone who’s listened to this band before knows they can get. And Bayliss said this was absolutely intentional — it wasn’t about being complicated just for the sake of being complicated, is how he put it.
Could that be why some tracks are actually getting radio play? Beats me. But Umphrey’s McGee did cut songs specifically to be more radio friendly. Funny thing is that Bayliss really couldn’t have cared less about the radio play, saying reaching fans that way has never really “been a reality” for the band.
What is a reality for the band right now is touring. And plenty of it. The band has dates scheduled across the country throughout the next few months, including shows April 10th and 11th in New York City the Nokia Theatre in Times Square.
As you probably already know, the tracks on “Mantis” had not been played live before the album’s release. This is such a rarity in the jam scene, that you can’t help but be excited to hear the tunes live for the first time. (Well, at least I know I am!) Of course you can listen to the shows via download if the band’s not hitting your city…
So what’s it like to play these songs live for the first time?
“I definitely have a bit of the schoolyard butterflies,” Bayliss said, after only playing the Colorado show and debuting some of the new songs.
For now, he said, he must focus on the physical act of playing; making sure he hits the right notes and sings the right lyrics. Then from there, who knows where these songs could go….
(Interview with Brendan Bayliss conducted Jan. 28.)