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Umphrey’s McGee Return To Their Alma Mater

Observer Scene | Thursday, September 4, 2008

This Friday in South Bend’s own St. Patrick’s Park, locally grown band Umphrey’s McGee will perform their third annual first home game concert. Several of the band members have connections with Notre Dame, including guitarist and vocalist Brendan Bayliss, whose father Bobby Bayliss coaches the Notre Dame tennis team. Recently Brendan had the chance to sit down with Scene for an interview.

Scene: So Brendan, how did you first get involved with the band? How did Umphrey’s McGee come about?

Brendan: I was living in Keenan hall as an undergrad in 1997. The original bass player lived in Alumni, and his band was practicing in the basement of Keenan, which is how I met him. We started a band together. There was also another band on campus that had our original drummer and keyboardist. We kind of formed Umphrey’s McGee out of those two bands – we had to keep quiet initially, because it was kind of awkward at first. But I think it was the right decision. We were on campus, and there wasn’t much of a music scene.

Scene: It’s funny to hear about how dorm life had an impact on a band that’s nationally known. Notre Dame is a small world.

Brendan: Yeah, but it’s pretty far-reaching.

Scene: How did the band get started?

Brendan: We started playing at Mickey’s pub, which is now Finnegan’s. We played at the Oyster Bar, and all the local places. We didn’t really travel much the first year we were playing – the original drummer was two years younger than I was, so when I graduated, I ended up sticking around the Bend a few more years, and waited for Mike to graduate. Once he did, we decided to move to Chicago and see if that would work.

Scene: Was it tough to get started in Chicago?

Brendan: Yeah, it was very tough. It was hard to get a start here. We played every little hole in the wall, and we were willing to lose money just to get our foot in the door. I think moving here was good. We created a name for ourselves just by over-killing it and playing everywhere. But we come back to South Bend all the time, because it’s where we started, and essentially where we did best. We stopped coming for a while, but now we’ve been coming for the past three years for the home opener. We’ll be 2-1 after this weekend -we won the first year and lost the second.

Scene: How would you guys describe your sound?

Brendan: Well, I don’t know. It’s kind of … self-indulgent orchestral rock. That’s one description. We’re kind of all over the map, so we’re a little progressive in that way. It depends on what night you see us, really, and what environment we’re in. We have musical ADD – we’re never really in the same spot.

Scene: How would you describe your style as a live band?

Brendan: I’d say we’re pretty interactive; the live setting is the root of the group and it’s how we’re most comfortable. It’s easy for us to revert back to that. We interact a lot with each other – we do a lot of improvising, and use a lot of baseball-type signals to communicate. If the crowd isn’t feeling something, we’ll stop and move on. If they’re encouraging us, we’ll keep on doing what we’re doing.

Scene: Any funny anecdotes from touring?

Brendan: I couldn’t isolate one – I mean there are a lot of things you probably couldn’t print. In terms of our best experiences? Opening for Dave Matthews Band was really cool. We’ve done it the last two summers, last year and the year before. The catering was the best food I’ve eaten in my life. A funny story about Notre Dame, though – I went in my sophomore year to the music school, and I told the department head at the time that I wanted to be music major but I had no training. The department head told me that my trying to major in music was like me trying out for the Cincinnati Reds. He was probably right, but I never really listened.

Scene: What’s your favorite song that you guys play?

Brendan: Well, we do improvise a lot, but we have a lot of structure too. I’d say it’s about 50/50. To be honest, we like playing whatever’s the newest song, because we perform so much. Whatever’s the most recent is usually our favorite thing until we play the hell out of it.

Scene: How often are you guys touring?

Brendan: We played about 120 shows last year, I think. We’re probably gone for close to two-thirds of the year, maybe less than that. This year we’re trying to work for half the year … week on, week off … few weeks on, few weeks off, repeat the cycle.

Scene: It sounds like you’re very busy.

Brendan: Yeah, when we first moved to Chicago, I moved in, I left 2 days later and I didn’t come home for six weeks. That’s kinda how it was for a long time, but I’m home more often now.

Scene: Why return to South Bend each year?

Brendan: Initially, it was a ploy for us to go to the home opener, because we’re on the road so much. There was one year I didn’t go to any games, and we were getting frustrated with our schedule. We figured if we could book the Friday in South Bend, we’d just tell our management that we’re getting Saturday off!

Scene: Where do you see the band heading in the next five years?

Brendan: To be honest, I just want to see us still together, getting along and enjoying what we do. If we didn’t grow financially and stayed where we are now, I’m totally fine with that. In five years, as long as we’re still doing it, I don’t care. We’ve been on a slow, steady incline from the beginning. If we keep doing what we’re doing, I’m more than happy.

Tomorrow’s Umphrey’s McGee concert begins at 7 p.m. at St. Patrick’s Park in South Bend. Doors open at 6 p.m.

Contact Analise Lipari at alipari@nd.edu.