Umphrey’s McGee quests for beer money and world domination

By Andy Tybout

“Umphrey’s McGee”

Mr. Smalls Theatre

November 19th

9:00 p.m.

Tickets $22.50

All ages… “Umphrey’s McGee”

Mr. Smalls Theatre

November 19th

9:00 p.m.

Tickets $22.50

All ages welcome

There are self-important bands, and then there are honest bands.

When asked if his band had a long-term plan from the beginning, Ryan Stasik, bassist of the Chicago-based Umphrey’s McGee, showed how well his band fit into the latter category.

“[Our purpose for the band] was twofold,” Stasik, a Pittsburgh native, said. “It was definitely for beer money and then world domination.”

It’s safe to say Umphrey’s McGee has at least the former goal locked up.

After forming in the late ’90s at the University of Notre Dame, the band members quickly established themselves as pioneers in the experimental fringe of the jam-band scene.

Rolling Stone dubbed the group “the next Phish,” and The New York Times called it “one of the best” jam bands.

The best part about it is its members didn’t even have to starve for it.

“We’ve just been a very happy and successful band,” Stasik said.

The band’s appeal seems to stem from two things — its carefree disposition and its musical capability, which is a particularly nuanced knowledge of instruments that it regularly exploits during albums (most recently, the critically-acclaimed Mantis) and live shows.

“When you’ve lived together, when you’ve traveled together and slept in one hotel room or a van — and now, a bus — there’s a lot of intangibles that come to crafting your skills,” Stasik said.

Improvisation and a willingness to delve headfirst into unwritten territory is the staple of Umphrey’s McGee.

This is especially true of its live shows, which take an alternative take on what you’ll find in the albums.

“We have the type of personalities, the type of band, that if we had to go out and play our hit single for the encore and the same 10 songs every night, we’d probably f**king shoot ourselves in the head,” Stasik said. “The improv is what keeps it interesting, keeps us sane, keeps us challenged.”

To prove this, Umphrey’s McGee has crafted a new tool to let the audience decide what it will play next. It’s called the Stew Art Series, or the S2.

“We thought it would be a really hands on, intimate experience for the fans,” Stasik said.

Separate from its regular concerts, the S2 shows are an experiment in fan-band interaction.

During the show, fans text message certain words and phrases to an Umphrey’s McGee mobile interface.

The best suggestions are then projected onto a screen for the band to incorporate into a jam.

“Best,” of course, is a subjective term — the suggestions are rarely reasonable or easy to comprehend.

“It gets pretty creative,” Stasik said, referencing “Hall and Oats making a porno” and “safe sex public service announcement” as two highlights.

“Every one of us draws a blank every night,” Stasik said. “But that’s part of the challenge and the risk that we thrive on.”

All this — the S2, the improvisation — couldn’t have been accomplished if the band took itself too seriously.

Thankfully, Umphrey’s members have a propensity for mischief, especially Stasik.

During a concert in Jamaica, Stasik walked onto the stage wearing nothing but a bizarre stretched bathing suit from “Borat,” all because of a bet that he wouldn’t wear the suit live.

“I am a man of my word,” Stasik said. “I put it on. They gave me, like, 700 bucks, which I gave to charity.”

It’s moments like these that underscore the mantra of Umphrey’s McGee — make good music, but don’t let it swell your ego.

Umphrey’s knows its fans, and it knows that, more than anything, they’re just looking for a good time.

“We’re very happy and fortunate to do what we do,” Stasik said. “It’s not like we’re some emo band that’s shoe gazing at their feet and takes themselves way too seriously.”