A Raging Bull: An Interview with Ryan Stasik
I’ve always loved when bands have intro music playing just before they perform. The feeling that something epic is about to happen always puts a little magic in the air. Umphrey’s McGee are masters of creating atmosphere with their intro music, and now they’ve expanded on the ideas from those tracks to create You Walked Up Shaking In Your Boots But You Stood Tall And Left A Raging Bull.
The 12-song collection marks the band’s first instrumental album and feels like a heroic soundtrack. Bassist Ryan Stasik has several tasty moments to shine through the songs, from enormous distorted riffs to frenetic fills.
Stasik has kept quite busy over the past year and a half. Aside from Umphrey’s McGee, he has the band Doom Flamingo, which released two EPs – Doom and Flamingo. He also has a new punk rock trio called Death Kings. All of his bands have new albums coming – including a new Umphrey’s record to follow up on You Walked Up Shaking In Your Boots But You Stood Tall And Left A Raging Bull.
We caught up with Stasik while he was on the tour bus headed to a gig after a big night at home.
You live in Charleston now, is that right?
Yeah, I’m in Charleston. I actually stayed in Charleston last night because my wife premiered her new HGTV interior design TV show [Breaking Bland] last night. I went and partied with her. I’m feeling it a little bit this morning, but I took a flight and met the bus.
She’s been chasing an interior design dream for 20 years. She got in front of the right people, they gave her an opportunity, and she knocked it out of the park. They gave her a show. It was a lot of hard work and well-deserved. I’m super proud of her and super stoked that I was able to be there for it instead of having to be away, which is often the case.
Are you going to have cameos on the show?
Here and there with the kids, yeah. Fun Stuff.
Well, congratulations to her. I wanted to get the scoop on the new Umphrey’s McGee album. I was reading about it and it’s all music that you used as “walk up” songs. Can you explain it a little bit?
With Umphrey’s McGee we have… I guess you could call them “walk up” songs. They’re composed material that we made to set a tone for the show. When the lights go out, you set the [scene] so people are ready. We wanted our own original music to walk out to and then fade in or start playing and drop in. While we were all on lockdown during COVID, we brought it up to each other. We were like, “Why don’t we make a record of all of these instrumental tunes that we have and do it from the comforts of our own studios in our own homes?” This way we don’t have to travel because we weren’t allowed to and [we could] take the compositions a little deeper and really make them into songs.
It’s the first time we’ve put an instrumental record out. We had also recorded another record worth of material with vocals and songs that are coming out later. We thought this would be a very cool project to get out there for the fans and for ourselves too, plus we had the benefit of being able to do it at home.
When you had originally written these pieces, were they 30 seconds snippets or something like that? How much did they evolve?
Yeah, some of them were actually just an A section, 30 seconds. Some of them were a few minutes. Depending on how we wrote the setlist, the key signature, what vibe we were going for, we had a handful of them. Probably over 20. When we were making this record, we wanted to get everybody together and see which ones were really vibing and flowing. I think, to the dismay of many of our fans, some of our walk-ups or intros, or whatever you want to call it, didn’t make the cut, but I’m super proud of it. It was really cool to hear these come to life as everybody recorded it at their own home. It’s also unique for us, too, not to be in the same place recording. That was also a fun learning curve as well.
I thought that was really cool because I listened to the album before reading about it. It has the flow of a movie soundtrack.
Yeah. The other title was “Songs for Movie, Motion Pictures, and Video Games”, but we decided to go with “You Walked Up Shaking In Your Boots But You Stood Tall And Left A Raging Bull”. [laughs]
Do you connect with that title?
Yeah. There’s a deep sense of humor with Umphrey’s McGee kind of in the Frank Zappa element. Once Jake told us the story behind it with Los Lobos and Hidalgo and we were all riding in the back of a van. We said, “That is a fantastic story and what a great quote. We should call our instrumental record this and we should not abbreviate it. We shouldn’t let people during interviews try and shorten it.” It’s kind of an inside joke to ourselves, but hopefully to others, too. We just thought it was funny. Management didn’t like it and once they said they didn’t like it, we were like, “Well, it’s staying.”
Getting back to the idea of making intro music for concerts – When did you all start doing that? It just seems like strong way to set the stage. There’s a lot of drama. Is that something you guys have always done or do you remember when you decided, “We’ve got to start making this a full-fledged experience”?
That’s a good question. I actually do remember. We had all talked about how when a play starts the bell goes off or something that gets attention for people like, “Hey, you’ve got to come to your seat.” I think Tool actually has a timer, a countdown above the stage. I always thought it was interesting to find new ways to make fans aware that something’s starting – “Get your seat and here we go” – and how to prepare for the music that’s going to hit you in the face for the set.
We were recording every show and we were running into problems with copyright because we were using other people’s songs or walking out and it was getting on the recordings and we weren’t allowed to do that. We said, “Well, let’s just not do that and start writing our own material.” We were going through a bunch of rifts that we had and were like, “This is kind of cool. It’s an intro. It’s an introduction to Umphrey’s McGee’s Set One.” That’s how it started. It’s evolved and now we’re able to have it onto a full-length record.
Some of the track titles have places in the names, like “Leave Me Las Vegas” and “There’s No Crying in Mexico,” which led me to think they were made for the places you played. How did you come to name the tracks?
Actually, no. We’re an odd bunch when it comes to titles. We have the dry erase board when we’re in the studio and when we’re recording. Instead of naming it song one or COVID four, COVID five, COVID six, we come up with pretty ridiculous names. Then some of them take on meaning. Luckily with instrumentals, I would say there’s more humor inside joke material for us more than anybody probably knows, or that we even tell. When they fit, if it makes us laugh, we’ll stick with it. We don’t want to take ourselves too seriously.
Okay, cool. I wasn’t sure if some of these were for specific shows.
No, not at all.
Yeah, I don’t know where “Nipple Trix” would be from. [laughs]
That could be Vegas too. [laughs]
There were a couple of tunes where the bass really stuck out at me. One of them was “Leave me Las Vegas” where you just have these wild little fills in between the gaps. When you’re writing, is it just a total jam situation, or are you sending each other little things?
Well, specifically for this record, I waited until the drum tracks were done. I think some of Jake’s guitar had been laid down or maybe scratch tracks for the guitars. Then instead of just doing one take, I was able to overdub and do some of those fills. [On that song I was] just messing around staying in my studio, staying up late and seeing what works, what fits, sending more than one track or a couple of ideas to the guys and to our engineer in Nashville.
I still don’t think it’s up in the mix enough between you and me. [chuckles] It’s kind of buried a little bit but there’s something cool about that, which is funny because I actually emailed him and asked him to raise that but I don’t think he moved it up in the mix. As bass players, we’re sitting there like, “Hey, turn the bass up.”
That’s what I would say, too. I always feel like I’m a little biased about that obviously. But when it is a little bit lower, it sounds like you’re hearing a secret or something.
That’s a cool way of looking at it. I just had more freedom because I was locked down at home and I had more time to go [record]. My studio is right off of my bedroom so I could go in there at any time and re-listen and just try things, lay them down, and be like, “Yeah, that was cool. Let’s see where we go here.” Whereas when you’re in the studio and the drums are done it’s like, “Okay, did you get the bass while the drums were done?” I don’t have as much time to revisit per se.
The other bass thing that caught me of course was “Le Blitz”, where you’re just like hammering it for the intro. That sound is so killer. What were you using to record that?
It’s funny because I’ve actually changed my process after this record, but that I use a lot of 3 Leaf Audio DOOM 2, the Vulcan distortion, so fuzz and distortion. I also have an H9 Eventide. There are 99 presets and one of them is the metal preset. I’ll mess around with that a little bit to try and not take away too much definition. Sometimes those presets can be a little tricky. Other times I’ll do combinations of those. What I started doing now is now I track a clean DI and then the effected as well. When I’m sending it, they can blend in some of the clean. If I lose some of the bottom end of the definition, they’re able to dial it back in.
That’s like the best of both worlds.
Absolutely. You want it to be thick, right? You want it to be thick but you want to be able to hear it.
Then there are some cool unison lines on “October Rain”.
“October Rain” is actually an older, older track, a full song. I could be wrong but I believe we actually had vocals for it then we scrapped them. It was an intro, and then it became a full track, and then it was a full song with vocals, and then it became an instrumental track. I think when we were putting this record together, we were like, “This song is going to get lost. It seems like it fits. It’d be nice to anchor the record with it and get it out there so get some ears on it. Otherwise, it becomes a fart in a dust storm.”
How much material do you guys have that just gets scrapped? Are you just constantly building?
Tons. Oh yeah, tons. It’s why when we were on the road, we have– I’ll text Joel, our keyboard player and be like, “We should get in back into the vault here and start revisiting some of these riffs at least.” Maybe we’ll pull them out during an improvisation and see if they evolve or get any growth or how other people react to them over time. Jake, our guitar player, has thousands and thousands of completely finished songs that we haven’t even explored or touched.
As a group, we have a plethora of tunes too that just haven’t made their way to the top. I guess it’s a good problem to have, but there’s definitely– The creative well is deep. A lot of those tunes, which are some of them are bangers. I’d like to get them out there. It’s just more about getting all six of us on the same page and being productive.
Is it a democratic process to figure out what you want to pursue or not?
It is. Some people were more persuasive than others. Some people are quicker just to let it sink and not think about it. It really depends. There’s so much material that some stuff just gets forgotten. Plus, again, we have a whole new record that we’re sitting on all the tunes too, that we’re ready to put out either later this year or definitely at the beginning of the next year. All the bass and drums and almost everything’s done.
That’s amazing. What else can you tell me about that? Does it have a concept or anything like that?
Not really a concept. We’re discussing titles right now in artwork but it’s all Umphrey’s McGee original songs. It just sounds like us. It sounds like Umphrey’s.
All written over this past year during the pandemic?
Yes, but some of the riffs are like like I was talking about before where somebody will say “Oh, that’s a good riff. We need to use that.” Then, “Hey Jake, you have this. Let’s link it to that and see how these two work together.” We do a lot of arranging and changing around while we’re in the studio together. If something isn’t Vibing and we need to come up with something, we’ll write it on the spot to make a transition. Umphrey’s tunes tend to go from the 7-12 minute mark sometimes. I’ll have to go back and look because I’m not sure how many opuses we have on this next one.
It’s new. I’m proud of it. It just sounds like us. Hopefully, the fans will dig it.
Are you playing any of that during your upcoming tour dates or are you going to be sticking to the canon?
Yeah, we’re sticking to just sitting in on it. We are playing the new versions of the intros or as I should say, “You Walked Up Shaking In Your Boots But You Stood Tall And Left A Raging Bull.”
We are playing some of those numbers. Sitting on the new studio stuff is- I think it’s I just like it has more of an impact. Then those people hear them for the first time and then they get to hear the songs evolve live as well with improv and just it’s a little spice here and there over time.
Stretching the tunes to different places must be a democratic thing, too. Do you guys ever like get off stage and be like, “Don’t do that anymore?”
One hundred percent. It’s funny you brought that up because in the end of July, I think July 23rd, we played in New Hampshire. We played four songs that have never had improvisation in them ever. They’ve just always been played as a song for decades. We just wanted to take a chance and check that box.
It’s democratic and sometimes it doesn’t work. Obviously, it’s not going to work every night but other people would be like, “That seems really forced in that spot, and coming back was a little chaotic. That doesn’t seem the right spot to really- to put the jam in that tune.” We’ll try other things – trial and error. We’re always open to making it different especially for the fans that have seen 200 plus shows. That’s what they want. They want us to see us get out there on a song that’s been the same for 20 years.
I guess when you have people that follow you so much, you have to keep things spiced up. You have to change the setlist. You have to do new things all the time. Do you feel pressure to do that?
No, it’s just like a marriage. You got to keep it spicy. Try to keep each other on your toes. Make it fun. There’s no pressure. It’s just I think we enjoy that. We enjoy the creative part and the challenge, too.
I don’t want to be a downer here but how are you feeling about these upcoming tour dates? Are you worried about them being canceled or any kind of restriction?
I think most of our tour dates are outside so I’m not necessarily worried. I think the restrictions on inside might cause more of a problem for other bands. Fingers crossed, hoping for the best as I usually do.
I’ve got two other bands that were releasing some stuff too. I’m in a punk band called Death Kings. We just finished a record and then I’m in a synth-wave pop band called Doom Flamingo, and we just put out our Flamingo EP and we have an entire new record of material as well. I got five records done during COVID, so it’s been productive.
What’s the story with Death Kings?
We haven’t really released any material. We’re mixing an eight-song… I guess EP, but it’s punk rock songs so it’s a record. It’s Mike Carubba on drums from Turkuaz and Mike Gantzer on guitar from Aqueous. It’s kind of absurd, you know? We just started to FaceTime each other, hanging out and talking and everybody started writing in their own studios. Mike, who is a good skateboarder, and I had worked together on other projects and we were like, “We should write this skate thrash punk stuff. Like, let’s get this other angle of our creative wealth out.” I have the chaos of Umphrey’s, the rage of Death Kings, and the sexuality of Doom Flamingo.
All right. You’re like covering every human feeling you’re getting.
When is that going to be dropping for Death Kings?
Our first gig is at Summer Camp. Actually, all my bands are playing at Summer Camp, which is convenient, but we’re hoping to drop a single before that. Then that gives us more time with the engineer and the mixing and getting these songs done hopefully by the end of the year, for sure then. Maybe by the fall.
How about Doom Flamingo?
Doom Flamingo just released our Flamingo EP. We’ve got the Doom EP and a Flamingo EP out. We’ve got a bunch of tour dates coming up at some after Umphrey’s parties as well. We have a new record that I have a meeting with the guys and girl to discuss when we get home and figure out the concept and flow and which tracks we want to keep for the actual record.
I know everyone from Doom Flamingo is from the Charleston area, where you moved a few years ago. I get the impression that Charleston is one of the new hip places to be.
It is. It’s fantastic. It’s got everything that you’re looking for: Food, music, vibe, beach… and downtown is hip. The music scene is killer. I’m really impressed with them and there are players everywhere. And it’s not clique-y or anything. It’s not competitive. It’s very supportive. It’s not like Chicago or New York City, but you can go out every night and catch some real players doing every genre, which is super fun for me.
There’s the gospel guys, the church guys, the funk guys. What’s really interesting is now that everybody has Instagram, or YouTube, or Facebook, the accessibility just to see and meet and what all these players are doing everywhere, we didn’t really have that until the last decade. It’s insane. The talent runs deep and the drummers, guitar player, all of them.
I’ve got a shout-out to Kanika Moore, the singer for Doom Flamingo. She’s special, she’s unbelievable. It’s a privilege to play with her. I’ve played with her in front of thousands of people and I’ve played with her in an empty room and she can command both easily. I watched her command an empty room and I had goosebumps. It was crazy.
For us bass nerds, can we just get a little rundown of your gear that you’re running?
Absolutely. I mainly play F Bass, but I did just get a Fender P five-string last week.
What made you do that? You just felt the P calling out to you or were you inspired by something?
Well, it’s easy to be inspired, right? It’s just legendary. That was more of a phone call where they reached out to me and we talked and discussed what my vibe is, what I’m inspired by in sound and made a custom one. I’m hoping to bust it out soon. I brought it up on this tour.
Most of my pedals and effects, I swap a lot in and out, but I have a lot of 3 Leaf Audio. Spencer Doran makes really, really good stuff and it’s roadworthy and durable and just sounds amazing. I’m a fan of Tim Lefebvre, and I’m always hitting him up to see what’s new on the pedals and what he’s doing.
Over COVID, I took lessons from Kevin Scott, Tim Lefebvre, Mike Bendy, and Felix Pastorius. That was super fun. They’re all buddies of mine, but it was cool to go on the other side during the lockdown and just pick their brain, hang out and just watch their fingers move up and down the neck.
My rig is GK. I just love GKs- I always had problems putting other amps into safety mode or standby with the amount of octave and low-pass filter I use that GK has just been through and through. I have a 2001 RB with 4x10s, and then I have two 18-inch Bag End speakers on stage that I’m running through a solid-state amp for my low end.
Then for Doom Flamingo, I’m going to get a custom Sinobas Amps 4×12 or 2×12. Those things pound so I’m excited to get that. It’ll be hot pink, which will be pretty dope. Then I just use GK as well.
I have Taurus pedals as well. I have a Moog Taurus 2, but that just stays in the studio because it’s not roadworthy. I decided to have it completely redone refurbished by the guys at Moog and my buddy Zack – shout out to him. Then I have a Taurus 3 on stage with Umphrey’s that I used for that super low-end. Sometimes I’ll get down to play with my hands a little bit, get outside the box for some good noises in there. But when you need the drone, the Taurus it’s awesome because you have much more freedom up on the neck and the bass then, too.