Interview with Ryan Stasik of Umphrey's McGee

“That’s the power of a live show. It’s healing, it’s musical, I mean, anybody who’s been a few times… they know it’s a circular thing where everyone’s giving back, and we’re giving back, and it keeps going round in circles until we blow up.”

 

BFS: “Hey Ryan.”

RS: “Hi!”

BFS: “Thank you so much for making time for me, I really appreciate it.”

RS: “Yeah, no problem.”

BFS: “Similar Skin just came out pretty recently… what was your favorite song to record on the album?”

RS: “I would say Hindsight, it was the heaviest.”

BFS: “Definitely, why was that one your favorite?”

RS: “That’s the one we blew up the amp on, me and our producer Manny Sanchez were having a lot of fun tweaking with my bass and the levels, how hot we could crank it, how high we could crank it, and the distortion. That one we really ended up smokin’ it out, and it was pretty fun.”

BFS:  “Yeah, that sounds like a blast! Which was the most difficult or frustrating song to record?”

RS: “I don’t think any of them were frustrating, but Bridgeless was probably the most tedious, because we began recording it probably 5-10 years before, and we just never got the right feel for it. So it took us a long time to get there but I think we finally nailed it on this record.”

BFS:  “I’ve heard that you were leaning towards naming Similar Skin ‘We’d Fuck Us,’ are you bitter at all about the final decision?”

RS: “I would never say I’m bitter; we’re just instilled with so many good ideas that we can’t use them all, so I think in the long run we made a better decision, from a PR standpoint.”

BFS:  “That definitely would have caused some controversy, that’s for sure.”

RS: “Well, if there’s one guy in the band looking for controversy, I think you’ve found him.”

Photo by Tim Bottchen

" It’s hard to guess a chord progression with your eyes closed with six people, without telling each other in some way. That’s what keeps it interesting, instead of just playing four on the floor with one chord for 20 minutes."

 

BFS: “Umph’s sound has transformed over the years, do you think that’s reflective of your personal growth as an artist?”

RS: “Yeah, I think for everybody, completely, you know. Everyone’s always listening to new artists and bands, influencing their creativity, bringing that to the table. I think for improvisational bands, what you’re listening to and what you’re practicing is going to be shown nightly and daily when you’re playing. I think we’re all evolving, and it’s always fun to see that change, and to roll with that change.”

BFS: “On that note, jambands often craft their songs live on stage and distill them in the studios. Can you give me more insight into that process?”

RS: “We play every night with improvs, so things are gonna happen and we’re gonna go back and listen to them, hopefully. Sometimes things slip through the cracks, but if we’re fortunate enough to go back and remember something that we really liked, you know, we put it into a catalog, and we use it when we’re writing, but a lot of stuff, especially for guitar players, they play a lot of the material at home, and bring it to the table. Sometimes we tweak that as a band and as a group, but writing songs live necessarily with us happens a little easier because we use eye contact and signals to change. It’s hard to guess a chord progression with your eyes closed with six people, without telling each other in some way. That’s what keeps it interesting, instead of just playing four on the floor with one chord for 20 minutes. Combining those things in the studio and at the live shows is how we construct the songs.”

BFS: “It’s cool that you can find a way to communicate on stage to get the sound that you want.”

RS: “We’re a team, much like a baseball game; we have to have eye contact and signals and play as a team. It’s not an individual sport, that’s for sure.

BFS: “Were any songs written just for Similar Skin and not performed live?”

RS: “No, we went in with a mindset of just rock and roll, so we got together and brought the songs to the table, and they were all kind of in the catalog of hard rock. The one song that kind of stuck out a little bit was ‘No Diablo’ by Bayliss, and we thought that the song was too good not to put on there. It’s not a heavy tune, but it’s such a good song that we wanted it to be on our next release and not wait too long with it. So if I were to pick one, that would be it. But the rest of them, we just picked about 12 from a block of 16 that we had ideas for.”

BFS: “So you paved the way for Puppet String while you were just kind of messing around. Can you share some insight into your inspiration and creativity and where they come from?”

RS: “You mean the bassline?”

BFS: “Yes.”

RS: “I was just practicing, you know, trying out new ideas, new patterns, and I just randomly did it one night in a chord progression, and Brendan and Andy just started singing over it. Usually when anybody starts singing lyrics over a chord progression or something cool that had happened we tend to go back and gravitate towards those. A melody and a vocal line is really what makes the meat of a song sometimes. So I think that’s how that happened, I’m sure there’s a lot of slap bass lines that I’ve used over the years that have just been forgotten, like a fart in a dust storm, but that one stuck around and the band kind of dug it, so we kept it.”

“These guys aren’t just fellow musicians, they’re like my brothers. Being able to work with them and put a smile on peoples’ faces who came to see us is the best job in the world, it never gets old.”

 

BFS: “I think it’s really awesome how you guys are able to draw inspiration from one another.”

RS: “Definitely, keep playin’.”

BFS: “Yep, you all bring something to the table! Who did you grow up listening to?”

RS: “When I was really young, I listened to my parents’ records, Hall & Oates, Foreigner, Eagle, stuff like that, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the classics. But when I started going to high school and listening to what my friends were listening to, it was more Guns & Roses, heavy metal, Iron Maiden, AC/DC. I didn’t really discover jazz or fusion or jam bands until late high school/college, the Grateful Dead, Phish and improvisational bands. So I went from smooth R & B, classic rock, to heavy metal, to jamband stuff. But I listen to everything now, everything’s so at the touch of a hand with youtube & spotify and whatnot. It was a lot harder to dig and find music back then, you had to have an older brother or a buddy to tell you what to listen to.”

BSF: “That’s very true. Who are your favorite current bands or artists currently, if you had to pick?”

RS: “Guns & Roses and Tool.”

BFS: “Did you say Tool? That’s my dad’s favorite band! That’s awesome.”

RS: “Yeah, they’re my favorite, too, I’ve seen them like seven times, and they keep getting better.”

BFS: “Oh, yeah. How has starting your own label opened up more artistic opportunities for you and Umphrey’s?”

RS: “Well, it’s a lot more work but the rewards are a lot better. We’re focused on ourselves, you don’t have anyone else to talk to or go to, it’s all an inside job. So we’re able ot do things the way we want to do it from the ground up, and put a lot of hard work into it, and hopefully doing it our way is a lot easier than having to answer to anybody else.”

BFS: “That’s true, you have a lot more freedom for what direction you want to take your work.”

RS: “Yeah, we listen to our fans, they play a big part into how we survive. Without them, we’re nothing. So we’re able to make it more centered to what they want, and what we want, instead of having a middle man.”

BFS: “I love that, definitely. Your fanbase is truly incredible, how does that dedication and passion play into your live performances?”

RS: “That’s the power of a live show. It’s healing, it’s musical, I mean, anybody who’s been a few times… they know it’s a circular thing where everyone’s giving back, and we’re giving back, and it keeps going round in circles until we blow up.”

BFS: “What attraction draws you to the stage and keeps you looking forward to each night?”

RS: “These guys aren’t just fellow musicians, they’re like my brothers. Being able to work with them and put a smile on peoples’ faces who came to see us is the best job in the world, it never gets old.”

BFS: “Definitely, your fans show so much love for Umphrey’s, it’s incredible.”

RS: “Yeah, they want us to take chances, and they inspire us to take chances, and we’re with our brothers up there, so we take chances, and it’s great. It’s a great reward.”

Interview conducted by Hanna Danecker