Interview: Umlaut

It's funny. Sometimes I'll write a song on guitar and only after it's come through me and I'm listening later that I hear an old influence that seeped into me as a kid.

Umlaut, the Melbourne based band fronted by Clinton “Bär” McKinnon (who was the saxophonist in Mr Bungle) have just brought out their latest track ‘Every Time’ and it is catchy, anthemic and a perfect start to the summer. Gavin Brown caught up with Bär, who told us all about the new song, what Umlaut have got planned for the future (including a new album) and his time with Mr Bungle and other bands.

E&D: Umlaut have just released your latest single ‘Every Time’. How has it been received so far?

Bär: I think people have been really digging it. Haven’t heard anybody reacting necessarily badly yet, so that’s good haha. But honestly, even if they were I’d not be looking, listening or worrying about it either way. Mostly because it’s a waste of energy and whether people like or dislike a thing is their own business.

E&D: Can you tell us about what the song is about?

Bär: The song is a light-hearted love letter to being excited to hear from your sweetheart via your phone. Love-bombs and dopamine. But it’s also an acknowledgement of how these smart phones have ambushed some of our better instincts if not our attention altogether. It’s the best and worst thing to have come along, but more negative than we know unless we are cognizant of our dependency on them. (#TristanHarris)

E&D: The song has a bit of a Thin Lizzy vibe, how much of an influence are the band on your music?

Bär: It’s funny. Sometimes I’ll write a song on guitar and only after it’s come through me and I’m listening later that I hear an old influence that seeped into me as a kid. Which is to say, I didn’t set out to write something that sounds vaguely “classic rock”. If it implies Thin Lizzy (which I’ve never really explored other than what I’d heard in a car on the radio as a kid) then cool, I’ll take it! I think I was more aiming for a Big Star guitar sound and vibe.

E&D: Are there plans for a new Umlaut album in the near future and is ‘Every Time’ an indication of where your music is heading?

Bär: We’re about to finish mixing the next album. There are a few unabashed ‘hits’ coming in this next installment. Whether or not they chart or are even considered as such remains to be seen (but I wont be holding my breath haha!). Feels like we were clearing out my old storage unit of rock/pop tunes with a few of them. I’m trying to embrace lead vocals more than I have in the past. We sorta gave up trying to have a horn section, vibraphonist and dedicated keyboard player (mainly because scheduling bigger bands is a headache and I was feeling more like an office manager than bandleader there for a minute). But things can always change. A four-piece is easier to navigate although Angus and I stretch ourselves pretty thin and almost have too many parts to cover because he and I are each doing the roles of two players as best we can– no walk in the park!

E&D: How did the idea of Umlaut and your music begin?

Bär: It started as me just learning how to finally properly write chord-progressions and melodies after Bungle’s last European California tour in 2000. Later, living in Australia with my wife and two young kids, a friend suggested I assemble a band to play the ideas I was generating. A young VCA guitarist named Mark Turner enlisted his Uni mates to be the first incarnation of Umlaut. So go ahead and blame that guy.


E&D: Does it feel musically inspiring having someone like Danny Heifetz in the band who you have known and worked  with for a long time?

Bär: Absolutely! He is my favorite drummer so having him on these songs is like having your cake and eating it too– we’re just incredibly lucky. He’s been very patient with me. I’m trying not to jinx it! He is still a little new here in Melbourne after having lived up in Sydney and the Blue Mountains for most of 20 years in Australia.

E&D: How does your hometown of Melbourne influence the music you make?

Bär: It doesn’t really. The initial full band was more Aussie than Yankee. Although I will admit that I’ve emulated a few little things about the way Angus sings in his band, Sex On Toast. And these days Angus (as producer) throws his weight around with Umlaut sonically which guarantees that our recordings are better quality than when I started. I kinda couldn’t be bothered with real sounds vs MIDI for longer than I’d like to admit. But Angus sees to it that I don’t sell us short.

E&D: What music are you currently enjoying the most?

Bär: I always love Deerhoof’s output. But lately I’m listening to kind of gloomy, minimal ambient stuff by Eluvium, Abul Mogard, nthng, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Bvdub, Brian Eno… William Winant’s association with the late Jon Hassell turned me onto some of the most beautifully restrained music I’ve ever been lucky enough to hear.

E&D: Who is your favourite band with an umlaut in their name?

Bär: Probably Björk

E&D: Will Umlaut be touring at all this year?

Bär: Only if we miraculously happen across an adventurous and brave promoter or swallow our pride enough to do a Kickstarter campaign to fund it. Otherwise, we’ll do whatever regional and local shows we can. I’d be willing to admit I sort of have a scarcity mindset around this project but maybe something happens?

E&D: What have been the most memorable gigs that Umlaut have ever played?

Bär: Probably opening for Les Claypool’s solo project back in (gulp) 2009. Those were certainly the biggest crowds we’d ever faced.

E&D: What is the status of new music with High Castle Teleorkestra?

Bär: I’m not 100% sure. You’d do well to ask Tim Smolens. I’ve lately just been focused on finishing this Umlaut album.

E&D: How did that band start in the first place and was making the The Egg That Never Opened album a great experience?

Bär: Smolens wanted to do something cool during the pandemic since nobody was really traveling or gigging then. It was a little weird doing it by correspondence and then not being able to be in-the-room to weigh in on mixes/arrangements as much as I could (with my two tracks on the album). Tim and Chris (Bogen) did some astonishing work and collaborations on that project but for me was an exercise in [relinquishing] control.

E&D: What were some of the highlights of your time with Mr Bungle?

Bär: Just meeting those guys was life-changing. Being able to make music with all those ears and talent and those cheeky sensibilities reminds me how lucky and blessed I’ve been. Kinda dropped in my lap to be honest. Like I said in that HCT song: “I got everything I wanted [in this life]”.

E&D: What are your favourite memories of making the albums that you did with Mr Bungle?

Bär: Everything. The creativity, the approach, the humor, the collective possibilities, the anything goes vibe, the power of THAT voice, Trey’s super-human production abilities…

E&D: What Mr Bungle gigs stand out in your memory today?

Bär: So many. Kinda hard to choose. The early ones when we opened for Suck On This-era Primus, the Bizarre Festival in 2000 in front of thousands of people, the infamous New Years Eve show with Melvins and Primus…

E&D: What are your favourite memories from your time with both Secret Chiefs 3 and Lakota?

Bär: SC3: playing with that first incarnation with Eyvind Kang, Trevor Dunn, Danny, Trey and Phil Franklin— just the absolute funnest first show ever, in a tiny non-venue in the Mission in San Francisco. Lakota: playing in southern Humboldt for a bunch of then illegally cultivating weed-growing hippies.

E&D: How was the experience of guesting with Melt Banana on the Charlie album?

Bär: They were always so powerful, raw, and polite to a fault. Also adorable.

E&D: What do you still want to achieve with your music?

Bär: To befriend a generous benefactor to be able to do tours, whether European or South American would be a dream for us. But honestly, to embrace more risk and probably shed the scarcity mindset! But other than that? We’ve done such a strong set of songs with this next album, I could probably die happy.

Photo by Bailey Judd

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