Interview: Umphrey’s McGee

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As music fans and music journalists we want to define every band we hear. We want to place them into a nice, neat genre that “makes sense” in our mind. It’s a compulsion we all have, whether we like it or not. We want to be able to hear something and say that, “Yes, this is where this music belongs.”

People will argue that this is actually a very silly and sometimes unfair thing to do. However, we’re not hear to argue that point. What we’re here to do is talk about those bands that make it gloriously hard for us to define. Those bands that have so many sounds, sometimes within the same song that make it near impossible to say “where they belong.” Umphrey’s McGee is that band.

Listen to Umphrey’s catalog and you’ll find yourself at a wonderful loss. At times they’re riff-driven rock ‘n’ roll at other times they’re funky as hell, other times they’re jamming into the ether and then sometimes there’s a bit of electronica that comes into play. It can be maddening if you want to “define” this band, but if you put your compulsions aside and listen to the music you’ll find yourself fascinated by the fact you’ll never know which way this band is going to go musically. Each album, each song is a musical adventure and it’s always a thrilling ride to see where they will take you.

Currently, the band is gearing up for their Halloween show at The House of Blues in Boston (which is sold-out. Tickets for their 11/1 show can be found here), a five-night New Year’s run in at The Tabernacle in Atlanta, GA and have just announced a two-night stand (January 16-17) at the famed Beacon Theatre in New York City. We spoke with founding member and keyboardist Joel Cummins recently about the band’s new record Similar Skin, whether being placed in the “jamtronica” genre is fair or not and his personal love of lunch and time off.

Photo Credit: Chris Monaghan
Photo Credit: Chris Monaghan

I listened to the new record, Similar Skin, and correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems to have a little bit more of a heavier element to it. It’s just got a little edge to it, a little more guitar soloing in it.  Am I off base with that, or is this a new direction you guys were taking? Or is this something that you guys have always done, and I’m just hearing it through different ears?

I would say that’s probably 50% true, 50% false. Mantis, I think for me, was our heaviest, progiest album.  There are certainly some things on Similar Skin that would fit with that. I think that’s true with parts of Death by Stereo too, but to me this is definitely our most rock ‘n’ roll album. There are a couple tunes that would probably be our heaviest studio things that we’ve put out, but I don’t think that’s true for all of the albums. There’s still a pretty decent variety of different styles even within the subcategory of trying to make a little more like riff-oriented rock album.

Can you go into detail about how this is more of a rock ‘n’ roll album than the others?

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We definitely tried to pick songs that we felt made sense together, and it was kind of more riff-oriented rock ‘n’ roll vibe that we were going for in this. We’ve really put out some pretty dense things, especially Mantis, thinking back to all of the different layers and stuff. Maybe with the exception of Educated Guess, we tried to really make this record more just the six of us playing, and keeping it a little simpler, and really focusing on the melodies, and those rock riffs. I think the title track, “Similar Skin,” is a good example of that.

What was the reason for that? You said you wanted to make it a little simpler, was there a point where you were writing this record and you’re like, you know what, let’s keep it simple?

When we took a look at the inventory of songs that we would want to put down, we had a really good start with that as it was. A lot of the newer things, like “Puppet String,” and “Linear” we felt were some of our stronger, newer live skins really fit with that as well. [We’re] trying to put what we feel like is the most current new sound, and material for us, and then also trying to keep the continuity and the flow of the concept of the album working with it too. So it’s kind of those two things working together. “Bridgeless” was a tune that we’ve actually recorded for two other albums, and we just weren’t really happy with the vibe, or the sound of how it turned out. We said let’s wait and we’ll try it again some other time. And with the batch of songs we had for this, “Bridgeless” seemed to make a lot of sense. So we tried it out again, and we’re really, really happy with this being kind of the flagship studio version of it.

When you have songs like that, that just don’t fit certain records, and when you actually find one to have it fit a record is there – to me I would be so proud, and happy, and satisfied. Is that that moment of euphoria when you’re like, ‘Yes I finally have found where this fits?’

Photo Credit: Chris Monaghan
Photo Credit: Chris Monaghan

It is always nice when that comes together. I think the bigger thing for us, though, is that there are a lot of times when we write something, and we’re working on stuff, and I’m sure this is gonna be a tune that the audience loves, and then maybe people are just kind of so-so on it. I’m never too quick to feel like “Okay, wow we’ve really nailed it on this album.”  For this one in particular the fan reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, and within our fan base there’s so many kind of little sub-groups of style of Umphrey’s McGee that people like since we do so many things. There’s some people who like the heavier stuff, there’s some people who like dancier stuff, some people like the funkier stuff, some people who want more, you know, crazy compositional material, some people want more vocals, some people want more instrumental, some people want more improvisation.  So to have what has really come out as like a really song supportive album, you know, and that also goes for the fact that this one debuted the highest for us that we’ve had on Billboard, it got to 49.  And that kind of support is what’s really appreciated.  And I think a lot of also has to do with the fact that this is the first album we put out on our own label, Nothing Too Fancy Music, and he fans know that they’re not just supporting Umphrey’s and some label that they’re not really sure who that is. This is us doing it from top to bottom, so there’s an extra little sense of accomplishment. It’s obviously been a lot more hard work too, but to feel like, “Wow we really did this ourselves,” it’s a cool thing.  And it really speaks to how much the fans are willing to support us even in the studio environment.

But there two sides of the coin on the having your own label, and putting it out on your own — do you feel that being your own boss in many ways  put pressure on you in the creative process, or did you find it more liberating in the creative process?

Fortunately we’ve never really had to deal with too much of a label pressuring us to do one thing or another.  So it felt like business as usual because when we went in to record we hadn’t decided at that point what we were gonna do.  So it actually wasn’t until the album was pretty much finished, and we did have a couple other offers out there to do it with a label.  But, in the end we decided that the best route was to just invest in ourselves instead.

When it comes to the actual promotion, and release, and the business side of things of putting out your own record, was there ever a moment where you were like, “Man, this is the one time I wish we had a label helping us out?”

I guess I haven’t really felt that because we still have distribution, and there’s honestly been a better response from radio for this than anything we have.  So we still have these people that are working all the things that a traditional label would be doing.  So honestly no, I mean it feels like we’re doing it right, and I feel like that as a result more people are hearing our music than ever.

And one thing you had touched upon, and that’s something that’s really just intrigued me about the type of music you guys do, is the incorporation of the electronic element, and you know, the whole sub-genre of jamtronica comes in, and there’s kind of like this backlash between people who love it and people who hate it.  I mean obviously you guys have employed it before, but how does adding the electrical element to your sound, how does that open things up for your guys?

Well I gotta start with a little bit of background. I grew up studying classical music, but I also from a pretty young age, was just really a fan of lots of different things, and started listening to like the Top 40 radio in the era of New Wave, and there was tons of synths back then.  I grew up listening to a lot of synth music [but I] didn’t really get too into it as far as my performance of it with bands until around 2000, I believe.  That was when I picked up a Roland JV 1000 after seeing a band from Cincinnati called Ray’s Music Exchange, and their keyboardist, Paul Hogan had one, and it just – he did some really cool things with it too.   I was aware of this stuff before, but I didn’t quite hear how it was gonna fit into Umphrey’s sound.  And then after seeing him play it that kind of sold me on it.

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And then some time in, I think, late 2004 I saw the Bob Moog movie (Moog), and a few things happened.  Number one, I was just so amazed at this guy’s life. Number two, I thought to myself, ‘I can’t believe that I wasn’t aware of him earlier that I could’ve met him,’ when he was living.  And I thought well, you know, what does that mean?  That means I should probably reach out to Moog right now and say ‘Hey, I just watched this documentary and I feel like I need a mini Moog Voyager, what can we do?’  And so I did send that email, this was now at about February of 2005, and they wrote me back and said, ‘Oh we know your band, we like your band, do you want to be a Moog artist?’ Of course [I] graciously accepted, put my own order in, and then shortly thereafter had a Voyager on stage with us.

So, in the meantime we had changed drummers from Mike Mirro to Kris Meyers. Kris had expressed an interest in exploring a little more of the electronic sound as well.  So he ended up picking up some drum pads and different sort of electronic things that he could experiment with.  I should also mention that previous to this Andy Farag [Umphrey’s percussionist] had a group box and an MPC that he’s been using for a while on songs like “Triple Wide,” and I think that one we put out in 2001 or so.  So I feel like the electronic sound, for us, had really early roots in our sound, and once I had picked up that mini Moog Voyager, for me, that’s when things started to really expand.

And so since then I traded the JV 1000 for a Roland JV 60, which is kind of a more vintage, nice pedi square wave synth sort of polyphonic. Those two keyboards for me have been, and especially the Moog because it’s just got so much versatility, have really been kind of keys in unlocking things that I can do with a keyboard.  Of course the Moog is famous for being monophonic, so it’s a completely different mindset for me to switch from playing, you know, something that would be more like an acoustic piano. And that turned out to be, yeah, it’s opened a whole new world for me by trimming it back, and taking a little simpler approach.

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I see some people lumping in you guys in with like more dub steppy type groups, and I don’t see that.  Do you see you guys getting into, or ever dabbling into that, or do you think people making those comparisons are just a little off with that?

I mean it’s definitely not dubstep. There are times when I feel like it might be related because some of our stuff has a heavier sound, and can be super intense. So in that vein I see how they’re related.  And then the other part of it is, of course, that occasionally we do play dub, which is the simpler, lighter, reggae sort of thing that often, you know, people confuse with dubstep, as silly as that may sound.  I think it’s more just in linguistics than anything because they don’t sound very similar. 

You were mentioning you guys were at a festival today, this is kind of a question I like to gauge from different bands is like the way your guy’s music is it seems almost like apropos for — do you guys prefer the club scene, or do you like the outdoor performance?  And does the atmosphere …

No matter where you are the space is going to affect the show.  I mean well let’s start at the top there, so Red Rocks is the best venue, which would be an outdoor venue. So if you battled anything against Red Rocks it would lose. And there’s a good example of having that atmosphere gets your fans excited in a different way than being inside four walls ever can. Sometimes you’ll have beautiful nights there, and it’s just a magical experience. I’ve been there as both a fan and a performer, so that’s my favorite place to go no matter what to go see live music.  So I’d say that.  But then I’d also say, there is also a special energy when you have a sold out show and it’s maybe 2,500 or 3,000 people inside an indoor venue, and it’s all contained within those walls. So they’re two different – they can be two different really awesome things, but always in the end Red Rocks wins.

Hey that should’ve just written their marketing material for them on that. In the end Red Rocks wins.

I’m sure I won’t be the only one who says that either.

 Another question I’d like to ask you is we live in more of the Spotify, iPod generation where people are like “I want a song, – as opposed to an album, to start off with to discover a band. Now if people really wanted to find out a good jump off point to get into Umphrey’s music, what would you say is a song or songs that you’d be like here is an example of what we’re all about? 

That’s a good question. Well, I think from the most recent album I would suggest Educated Guess. I think that really has a lot of the elements of what we try to do with a ton of vocal melodies, but also a lot of left turns where there’s some surprising things that happen musically.  I think from the Mantis album, you know, I might say a song like “1348,” or even “Mantis.” I think those are all right there. And then I might say something like “Plunger” from Anchor Drops. I think those four would be pretty good intros to what we do.

I know every artist always says like every song, or every album is like a child, and you love them all the same, but is there one child of yours that you feel like has gone under-appreciated, or under loved maybe by the Umphrey’s faithful?

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What has gone under-appreciated?  Which one would that be?  I mean maybe Mantis. I don’t think you can appreciate Mantis enough, no matter what.  I mean there’s a lot of appreciation for it, but it should still be getting more, still underrated.

And here’s another broad sweeping, make you think question. What do you love about being in this band?  Like what, you wake up every morning, you’re in this band, and there’s moments where you’re like God this is why I love this band. This is why I love that I dedicated my life to this band, this is why I love it. 

I would say mostly the lunches and the time off.

Nice. Now what lunch do you love?  When you’re biting into a good BLT and the B is really lean, I’m sorry I’m bastardizing lines from Princess Bride at this point.  

Typically I choose breakfast a lot. I’m a big fan of various egg creations from frittatas, to omelets, to huevos rancheros, I think there’s a lot of good choices out there.

Then you go with the simplicity of eggs over easy sometimes. That’s all you need.  

Exactly man.

Awesome. One more question for you, and that is what do you guys have planned for the rest of the year? And also by the end of this year what would you have liked to accomplish musically with this band?

We’ve got our Halloween run, and we’re doing two nights up in Boston, so we’ll be working on some mash-ups for that stuff. And then the New Year’s run after that is kind of our – well I guess I should mention holidays too. We’re doing Dominican Republic for the first time, that’s beginning of December, and then New Year’s run up in Atlanta, or down in Atlanta for most people I suppose. And we’re playing our first five night run ever.

In Atlanta?

That’s a pretty major way to finish the year.  And, yeah, I mean I’m looking forward to more rock, less talk …

And also the time off, and the lunch.

And time off and lunches.

That’s gonna be the title of this and I’m gonna tattoo it to my inner wrist. 

I should give credit where credit is due because that quote was actually inspired. We were watching some old videos of us last night, and that was Kris Meyers answer to what do you love most about being on the road. So, you asked the right question, I was inspired, and went with lunches and time off because that’s what he said, and we just were dying laughing last night when he said that.

Umphrey’s McGee performs at the world famous Beacon Theatre in New York City on Friday January 16 (click here for tickets) and Saturday January 17 (click here for tickets).

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Bill Bodkin is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Pop-Break. He can be read weekly on Trailer Tuesday and Singles Party, weekly reviews on Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Hannibal, Law & Order: SVU and regular contributions throughout the week with reviews and interviews. His goal is to write 500 stories this year. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English and currently works in the world of political polling. He’s the reason there’s so much wrestling on the site and is beyond excited to be a Dad this coming December. Follow him on Twitter: @PopBreakDotCom
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Bill Bodkin is the owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, however, he is the proud father of a beautiful daughter, Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites

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