What began as a fun segment during shows has become the latest hot selling album from the band Umphrey’s McGee — and it is indeed loaded with surprises. That’s because the cleverly named “Zonkey” album features live mash-up covers of tunes both obscure and widely known.
What do you think a song that melds AC/DC with pop-reggae start Eddy Grant’s one-hit-wonder sounds like? For McGee, it’s “Electric Avenue to Hell.” How about Metallica’s “Sad But True” merged with dance act Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood?” That gets the “Zonkey” treatment as well.
In fact, there are 12 such crazy-quilt mash-ups on “Zonkey,” just the latest chapter in the diverse career of McGee. The band will play a show on March 10 at Montbleu Resort Casino and Spa in Stateline.
In an interview in late February, Umphrey’s McGee keyboardist and founding member Joel Cummins said that the band doesn’t play songs from “Zonkey” at every single show, but “you never know when one might pop up.”
“Typically, we go out and play four nights every week, and so we try not to repeat any original songs in those four-night runs. That’s been our modus operandi. We have a (web)site called All Things Humphreys where the fans keep track of what’s been played in each market, to make sure we don’t repeat things.”
The band may also try out some new songs on this tour.
“We have a few new originals that debuted since our last stop in Tahoe. We’re always in the process of writing and recording.”
In fact, Cummins said the band is planning to release a new album at some point, but “we are taking our time with that. Since we have our own label, we’re really in no rush to put anything out before it’s ready.”
The art of the mash-up
It was time for McGee to put out the “Zonkey” album, Cummins said.
“It was more of a little studio time capsule thing we wanted to do. It was more of just something to do in the studio and really get the perfect version of each one out there.”
Cummins said the band started doing mash-ups in 2008, often at Halloween shows.
“We’ve done typically three to five a year, so we had about 30 that we had to choose from. So when we got into the studio, we could pick a diverse selection of things. Some of them felt more serious and some were more funny, like ‘Electric Avenue to Hell.’ It was a good opportunity to showcase both the musicianship and the humorous side of the band.”
The project also taught McGee a lot about music in general, especially when it comes to writing their own material of late.
“It was certainly a lesson in simplicity for us, and in using dynamics,” Cummins said. “We kind of discovered going into it that a lot of the parts of these hit songs are not complicated things. It showed me that there’s a lot that can be done with some pretty straightforward ideas.”
“Zonkey” also demonstrates something that longtime McGee fans have always known — the band is adept at all styles, from quiet to blisteringly loud.
“It was certainly a huge group of stuff, everything from funkier, dance numbers to things that were more acoustic to things that were more progressive,” Cummins said. “In that sense, we are still kind of staying true to what we always do and bring a lot of stylistic elements to the table.”
Going out on a limb
Taking risks are something Umphrey’s McGee has made into a career on its own terms. The group began on at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, in 1997, forming from the lineups of two other bands on campus. Current McGee members Brendan Bayliss on guitar and Ryan Stasik on bass joined Cummins in the early days, while percussionist Andy Farag joined the band in 1998. Current guitarist Jake Cinninger started with McGee in 2000, while present drummer Kris Myers joined in 2003.
Right from the beginning, Umphrey’s McGee toured relentlessly, including many festival shows including Bonaroo, which Cummins said the band is returning to this year. At this point, McGee can sell out theaters around the country and also self-releases its own albums and DVDs. The band’s best known songs include “Bridgeless,” “In the Kitchen,” “All in Time,” and “Intentions Clear.”
While the band is known for its diverse songwriting, it recently has been delving into the realm of improvisation. The group recently recorded a live set with jazz musician Joshua Redman that was completely improvised, and McGee plans to keep doing improvised sets from time to time.
“We’re always trying to come up with different ideas and new things,” he said. “We were constantly hearing from our more dedicated fans that they’d love to hear us do more improvisational stuff, so we dived into that with Joshua. He’s probably the outside musician that’s planed with us the most, something like 25 or 30 shows over the past 12 or 13 years. And, he’s super comfortable in that setting, so we thought, ‘Why not try this without a net?’
“It really seems to get those fans jazzed about us stepping on stage and just going for it. In contrast there are a lot of people that come to the shows just to sing along with things they know. But, it was really interesting to stretch out, and a fun challenge to just get up there and see what we can do.”
So, the rest of the year for McGee is set: more touring, some studio work, a little seat-of-the-pants playing and what Cummins called “just trying to make people dance and smile.”