Interview with Joel Cummins from Umphreys McGee

Umphreys McGee
Umphreys McGee

Interview by Scott Preston

Photo by Chris Monaghan

Since forming on the campus of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN, a little more than 16 years ago, Umphrey’s McGee—guitarist/vocalists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger, keyboardist/vocalist Joel Cummins, bassist Ryan Stasik, drummer/ vocalist Kris Myers and percussionist Andy Farag—has gone on to perform over 100 concerts annually, releasing seven studio albums and selling more than 3.3 million tracks online. With their eighth studio album, Similar Skin, and first for their own indie label, Nothing Too Fancy (N2F) Music, the group has tackled the studio with the same intensity and focus as they do their fabled live shows, with an eye towards maintaining the very special relationship with their loyal fan base.

This time around, the band’s varied musical touchstones range from the melodicism of Police, U2, the Beatles and Nirvana, the symphonic prog of Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Yes and Genesis to the heavy metal thunder of Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Soundgarden and Pantera. Produced by Umphrey’s McGee in conjunction with Manny Sanchez and Greg Magers, Similar Skin was conceived as “a coherent vision,” featuring plenty of dynamics and contrast, featuring many of the songs honed from their live repertoire. In a shrinking music business, Umphrey’s McGee have found a way to connect to their audience on a grassroots, one-to-one level—albeit enhanced with high-end technology—that keeps them coming back for more. The best example is the group’s fabled “Headphones and Snowcones” live soundboard mix delivered directly to followers in their homes, as well as making past shows available online. Similar Skin is ultimately a paean to that complementary relationship between band and audience that has marked its impressive career.

Jamband News: How has the summer been so far? How was your Memorial Day Weekend?

Joel Cummins: It’s been a fantastic summer, might venture to say our best yet.  I’m writing from London where we’ve just finished 3 nights at the new Brooklyn Bowl over here.  Each night the crowd got bigger and more energetic, so it was great to finish on a high note here.  Last week, we played for 35,000 – 40,000 people at Bonnaroo on the main stage.  It really felt like we earned that one after 8 Bonnaroos.  I also performed with Skrillex, Big Gigantic, Robbie Krieger, Damian Marley, Warpaint & Thundercat as part of Sonny’s late night Super Jam.  It was an incredible experience.  Previous to that we did Wakarusa & Mountain Jam, and then before that Summer Camp over Memorial Day weekend.  Summer Camp had the best weather we’ve had in years and the overall joy about that was palpable.  Suffice it to say that 2014 has been our best summer yet and with the new album just hitting it’s stride, it’s only going to get better from here.

Jamband News: Tell me about the new album, “Similar Skin”, did your approach differ from previous releases? Why release the record on your own label?

Joel Cummins: We approached Similar Skin with a goal of making a real rock record.  That element stays consistent from start to finish, I have to give credit to producer Manny Sanchez for really helping us keep our eye on the goal.  Umphrey’s has become known for our ability to change gears live and that’s something that will certainly stay the same, but to go into the studio and produce something more cohesive, we had to reign in the stylistic differences a bit.  This album was probably the most fun I’ve had making a record from start to finish of the preproduction to the mixing & editing.  In the process, I picked up a new Mellotron keyboard which has really added some nice tones to what we can do with the live show.  As far as creating our own label, we’ve always been a band that operates outside the boundaries of normal or expectation.  Most people would probably think we’re a bit crazy to start our own label in 2014.  That being said, it’s a ton of extra work, but in the end, we answer to ourselves now.  We have so much creativity and input within the band that sometimes having another cook in the kitchen, aka a record label, doesn’t really add much to the equation.  I think the other element is that fans of the band and fans of music are more likely to support us when they know that they’re buying an album and that the majority of what they’re spending is actually going to the artist.  As we’ve worked to develop a stronger relationship with our fans, they’ve expressed more and more that they just want us to do our thing and be ourselves.  Starting our own label fits in with that concept and the fact that Similar Skin debuted at #49 on the Billboard 200 cements that our strategy is working.  That’s our highest debut by 13 on the charts.

Jamband News: What kind of environment does the band like to write in/create music in?

Joel Cummins: We create in lots of different environments.  Jake & Brendan work up a lot of bits or even full songs at home.  I like to collaborate with anyone & everyone, we’ll often work on riffs backstage and sometimes full songs will just happen through improvisation in the moment.  One of the keys to keeping ideas fresh is simply to use a variety of ways to create.

Jamband News: The band has been together for 16 years now, how have you guys been able to maintain everything for so long?

Joel Cummins: We’ve always employed a long-term approach when looking at how we tour, how we record, how we spend time together, etc.  As our personal circumstances have changed with marriage or children, we’ve made further adjustments.  I think the secret is that for every band, there’s a different way of maximizing operation.  We may not be doing things the most efficient way now, but we’re making decisions that we hope will keep the band together for another 16 years as we all still really enjoy each other’s company and musical challenges.  At this point in our career though, it does seem the personal relationships trump everything else.  When we’re on the road, we’re only on stage for a total of 3:30 – 4 hrs a day.  So there’s 20 other hours when we need to get along.  You have to be patient with each other, you have to compromise, you have to have a sense of humor and you have to let your bandmates grow and be something different every day of the week.

Jamband News: The band seems to have a firm grasp of using the internet to promote the band, what advice would you give to a band just starting out?

Joel Cummins: Forget about the internet.  Work on your songs, work on your personal chops, etc.  If you’re good enough, others will spread the word about you.  But starting out, just get people on your email list so you can let them know when you’re playing.  The time for expanding social circles will happen, but no one is going to care if you’re great at social media but crappy at being a musician.

Jamband News: I see your NYE’s plans have been announced at The Tabernacle, any special guests?

Joel Cummins: We typically have a horn section on NYE that’s anchored by Jeff Coffin of Dave Matthews Band and Michael “Mad Dog” Mavridoglou, I would hope they’ll be on board again this year.  But honestly it’s very early in the process since we just announced the shows.  As of now, they will be “An Evening With” meaning that it’s pure, unadulterated Umphrey’s McGee.

Jamband News: What does the band do on the road to pass the time?

Joel Cummins: My typical day will be waking up, working out, eating lunch, working on a set list, then rehearsing, then soundcheck, then dinner, then a short pre show rest, then warming up again backstage, then showtime!  There really isn’t too much free time in the day if we are doing an afternoon rehearsal (working on new material or a new cover).  Sometimes we’ll have enough time in the day to get a round of golf in around 9 am, which can be a great way to start off the day.

Jamband News: Why do you think its important to archive all of your performances?

Joel Cummins: By archiving all of our performances, we’re giving our fans a chance to jump down the rabbit hole of Umphrey’s McGee and discover everything about the band from 1998 up to the present moment.  There’s a ton of original material, some songs we don’t play very often now, and in general, lots to discover on the improvisational front.  So not only have we created a streaming site with all of our performances from 2004 onward, we’ve been putting out live recordings individually since 2003.  With a band of our nature, it’s essential to have our history available – the fans absolutely love being able to go back and listen to past recordings.  Each night we also have them for sale digitally or via the old conventional CD.  It’s provided a crucial revenue stream that has allowed us to expand our operations a bit.  We’ve also upped the quality of the recordings significantly over the years, you’re now hearing some of the best sounding live recordings out there.  So fans if you’re reading this, keep buying our shows!

Jamband News: How does the band decide on a setlist for each show?

Joel Cummins: Brendan, Ryan & I write the majority of the set lists but Kris & Jake will occasionally step in and write one too.  It’s really whoever’s feeling it.  But now that we have the all things Umphrey’s website, we can go back and see the stats of what we’ve played in a certain town over the past 3-5 years.  It’s helped us not repeat songs too much in a market as well as realize, hey, we haven’t played “x” song in Cincinnati in 10 years!  In the end, it educates the fans and gives them the most access to the majority of our catalog as we’re now much more likely to play things that haven’t been played in those markets before.  But sometimes one guy will pick which songs we’ll play, then someone else will put the set list together.  Again, this sort of variety really keeps things fresh as one guy may think of something that another one wouldn’t.  Variety is the spice of life for sure.

Jamband News: What other big shows does the band have coming up this year?

Joel Cummins: Umphrey’s McGee has a lot of big shows coming up in the near future, it’s going to be a huge year.  If I had to focus on 3, I would say Red Rocks on July 5th, which is on pace to sell out for the first time in the band’s career.  That’s a huge step, selling out a 10,000 person amphitheater.  Next up is a 14,000 person outdoor amphitheater in Chicago called Ravinia.  This will be another huge stepping stone for the band and has easily been the band’s best selling Chicago date.  We’ll likely play for about 10,000 people in Chicago this summer as well.  The last one I’ll mention here will be our New Year’s Run, which we just announced.  We’ll be doing a 5 night stand for the first time and should that sell out, we’ll have sold 13,000 tickets in Atlanta.  So 2014 has been a big year of growth for the band, probably the biggest since 2004 when we really broke out with Anchor Drops.  We’re thrilled to be playing a lot of the larger clubs, mid-size theaters and for 2015, we even have a small arena or two on the books.  There seems to be a confluence of our live shows gaining momentum and continuing to get stronger combined with a new album that has received both critical & fan-based praise.  It’s a good time to be Umphrey’s McGee.