Intro by Bill Bodkin, Questions by Andrew Howie
Umphrey’s McGee is a band that cannot be placed into a single “genre.” At times they can rip up with riff-driven rock, funk it up with low end bombacity, throw us into the future with heavy electronic sounds, or just allow audiences to trip into the ether with a beautiful jammy sound.
And while it may difficult to define their “sound” there is one thing fans of UM can agree on — this is one of the premier live acts in the game today. And there’s a reason why they are regulars at outdoor venues like The Stone Pony Summer Stage, or venerated grounds like Red Rocks — they are brilliant live.
Recently, Pop Break caught up with Joel Cummins, (the same man who three years ago so kindly spent an hour with us talking about jamming, and brunch) to talk about their touring routines, technology, staying in touch with fans, and musical camaraderie.
What have been some of the most significant changes in the music world throughout your career? What are some positives and negatives about working as a musician today vs. when you got your start?
The most significant changes in music all revolve around what technology has done for creating music, sharing music and connecting with fans. When the band started, we were passing out tapes and handing out flyers for shows. Now we can create music, send it back and forth to each other. Fans can stream music from whatever artist or genre they’re into at that moment.
Everything is at your fingertips and the world is moving faster than ever. I’d say it’s easier to be a musician in today’s climate because you don’t need the machinations of the major label music industry to connect with fans. You can connect directly with people through your music and social media. There is more good music but there is also more bad music than ever out there. It’s like the wild west in the music world and we’re right in the middle of the free for all.
Something I noticed early in my listening was the interaction with members of UM and the fans and the innovation on the business aspects of music. The Hall of Fame album series, the new “augmented reality” poster, and of course the UMVIP perks at Summer Camp, etc. How do you keep coming up with fresh ways to keep fans engaged?
We’ve always embraced trying new things. I think that’s where most of the innovation comes from, just being open to new ideas. One of the secrets to using technology is using it to connect on a more human level with fans and fellow musicians. That’s one of the aspects of social media that can make it more personal. At the same time, it’s important to realize the difference between innovation and gimmickry. We want to connect with fans but it’s gotta be real. Most importantly, keep it centered around the music. That’s why people are here listening and care about Umphrey’s McGee in the first place.
The past couple years have taken a number of great musicians into the great beyond. With many stars already having passed on, how do you see the scene moving forward, in terms of torch-bearers, keeping alive the music of the past while at the same time refreshing it and putting a new spin on it, etc.?
Umphrey’s McGee has always embraced the history and the past musicians that have created the scene here in the U.S while also blazing our own trails as far as the sound of the band goes. From day one we’ve made it a goal to find our own sound and not ride on anyone’s coattails so I think that’s the kind of spirit that will keep music going into the future. Every person at a live music performance has the opportunity to be a tastemaker in the sense that they might be the ones who discover a new artist.
So I think the best of new music will rise to the top and get disseminated. I’m not just a musician, I’m also a fan. Discovering new music that motivates me or makes me think more deeply about a subject is a rush I chase every day. There are so many great young musicians out there blowing people away every day. I have no doubt the live music scene will continue to experience a renaissance in the coming years. Live music is where people connect with humanity & their own souls.
Your music is fairly technically demanding, and obviously there’s a large amount of improv. Could you describe a typical UM rehearsal?
A typical UM rehearsal will usually end of being a number of things. We’ll run the most difficult songs start to finish, run tricky passages or segues numerous times to make sure we’re on the same page and sing through vocal harmonies to make sure we’re warmed up and in tune with each other. We typically soundcheck for anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour a day and then have another 30 minute rehearsal/warm up an hour before we perform so that we hit the stage feeling like we’re already in the middle of set 1.
Once we’ve covered the difficult material warming up, we usually screw around for 5 minutes or so trying to make each other laugh or just be ridiculous backstage. It’s always funny when someone plays the last chord of a song a 1/2 step off. But it’s important for us to feel loose and jovial as we walk on to the stage…. the music will benefit from levity as we’ll all be a little more open-minded if we are loose.
What do you think it is about festivals like Summer Camp that keep fans coming back for more, year after year?
Summer Camp has an ethos that is all about the realness. There are no over-the-top corporate sponsors or big companies, Summer Camp is a festival that’s about the people. I think most of the attendees realize this and it’s a really friendly, down home sort of vibe. The Goldbergs do a great job with the programming, keeping artists coming back year after year while also mixing up the headliners. I think that also promotes a family vibe amongst the artists. So you really have this family-style feeling permeating the entire event. It’s the only way to kick off summer and it’s one of the best festivals in the country.
In your point of view, are there any particular upsides or downsides with respect to working in a studio setting vs. performing live?
Studio vs live are completely different beasts. I love both settings but you have to approach each differently. In the studio you don’t have the live energy of a show but you have the ability to harness your ideas a little more accurately since you have time to develop them. In the live setting, you have to execute your ideas so quickly that often that’s the biggest challenge.
In my experience with seeing you perform, often there will be songs debuted live that may not show up on albums for years. Do the songs ever evolve and become something you didn’t expect? Or is there more of a clear goal with some basic honing?
Songs can always evolve in the world of Umphrey’s McGee. Every song is it’s own thing though there’s no formula. In that sense you really have to listen to what each song is telling you and not try to control it too much once the creative process has begun. With the live element things can definitely change, but more importantly, we’ve written many of our songs by improvising live and coming up with ideas in the moment. Those are some of the most fun live experiences for me.
In my experience covering concerts and festivals, I’ve noticed a growing trend of collaboration; onstage, in the studio, and between artists at all stages of their careers. What do you think it is about the music world that allows for that kind of camaraderie?
Music should be about the human experience and interaction. For those of us who are making careers as musicians, it’s a unique language that we can speak with each other. With Umphrey’s, it’s often challenging for us to fit other musicians in because we have an even more developed and strange sense of how to create that’s really unique to us. A few people who’ve sat in with us over the years really get it, but for the most part I think our fans want to see what the 6 of us can do together without much augmentation. That said, it’s always great to learn from other musicians and to play with people who might teach you something about music.
Your touring schedule is pretty intense, and has always been that way in the years I’ve been seeing you perform. What do you do with most of your time when you’re not on the road?
When not on the road I do a lot of things. I of course practice and write music, but I have a lot of other interests too. I love to travel with my wife, most recently we’ve visited Japan, India and Nepal for a few weeks. Seeing the rest of the world is an eye opening thing….. we’re all just people trying to get by and live life. I play a lot of sports as well…. golf, skiing, yoga, baseball, running, hiking, biking…. living in Venice Beach in California affords you lots of opportunities to get out and enjoy the outdoors. I also like to watch Cubs games in person and on TV but if I have a choice between being on the sidelines for something or being in the game, I’m gonna play.
How has your approach to songwriting evolved throughout the years?
I’m not really sure if there is a distinct pattern to how my songwriting has evolved over the years. If anything, it’s gotten more streamlined and simpler. I did some writing with notation back in the day and I’ve switched to almost all rote at this point as we’ve gotten better at listening and remembering ideas in the moment. Whenever I’m writing a song, I have a specific goal for that song but I’m also trying to just follow the muse.