Umphrey’s McGee, Ryan Stasik: Jamming Hard and Heavy

WHATEVER YOUR STANCE ON THE “TOO many notes” debate within progressive rock, there’s no denying the youth explosion of the last decade, from the prog metal onslaught of Mastodon and Opeth to the retro psychpop of Death Cab For Cutie and My Morning Jacket.
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WHATEVER YOUR STANCE ON THE “TOO many notes” debate within progressive rock, there’s no denying the youth explosion of the last decade, from the prog metal onslaught of Mastodon and Opeth to the retro psychpop of Death Cab For Cutie and My Morning Jacket. One band from Chicago—a city known for its unusually rich experimental music scene—has transformed the extended noodling of live “improg” into a communal party. “It’s hard for me to categorize what our direction is,” admits Umphrey’s McGee bassist Ryan Stasik, “because with the six of us, everybody likes so many different styles of music. With Death By Stereo, we were trying for something more progressive.”

In the midst of yet another coast-to-coast tour this spring, Umphrey’s has become a certified crowd favorite on the jam band circuit, and musicianship is a huge part of the draw. For his part, Stasik is a relative latecomer to the bass; originally a guitarist, he bought his first bass, an Ibanez, when the band started out in 1998. He has since thrown himself into the instrument, studying stacks of instructional videos and taking online lessons with fusion guru Kai Eckhardt. “I’ve been practicing his slap technique, which is pretty out there,” Stasik says. “I’m not even close to mastering it!”

Stasik brings an openness and versatility to his playing, whether it’s in the knife-like syncopation of Death By Stereo’s “Search 4” (complete with a funky, free-form bass solo at the song’s bridge) or the 5-string lows, aided by a vintage Moog Taurus II, on the kinky dance throwback “Booth Love.” Stasik usually records with a Rickenbacker 4003 owned by Umphrey’s guitarist Jake Cinninger, but his main axe is a blue Lakland 55-95 that came right off the factory floor in Chicago. He tracks a blended direct signal with an Ampeg B-15 in the studio; onstage, he plays through an Ampeg SVT Classic.

“I love the Rickenbacker tone,” Ryan says, “especially with the foam pads that you can dial in. But I learned on a 5-string. We have two guitar players and the synths up in the high registers, and sometimes I need those low notes to cut through live. Kris [Myers, drummer] often reminds me to keep it low— beefy, deep, and stabby. I bump the smooth jazz channel here in my car all the time [Chicago’s Smooth 87.7], and you can always hear those guys rocking that low string.”

Stasik is always ready to learn, and he credits his bandmates with a similar work ethic—a dedication that pays when you’re improvising a sizable chunk of your music onstage. “I’ve learned a lot just from talking to different artists about their techniques. Watching reggae and dub players pluck real high on the neck, or just an octave above where they’re fretting to get that deep vibration— that’s something. Then there’s palm muting and a lot of three-finger techniques, or Marcus Miller’s double-thumb; I can get a different lesson every day on YouTube. That’s the great thing about this band—nobody has stopped pushing themselves. Everybody practices and pushes new music and ideas, just to keep us moving forward.”

HEAR HIM ON
Umphrey’s McGee, Death By Stereo [ATO, 2011]

GEAR

Basses 1985 Rickenbacker 4003, Lakland 55-95
Effects Moog Taurus II, Moogerfooger MF-101 Lowpass Filter and MF-107 Freqbox; MXR Bass Octave Deluxe and El Grande Bass Fuzz
Rig Ampeg SVT Classic with 4x10 and 1x15 cabinets, Gallien-Krueger 2001RB with 4x12 cabinet
Strings D’Addario EXL170-5 Nickel Wound (.045–.130)

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