Umphrey’s McGee: You never know what you’re gonna get

By Elizabeth Thomas 

July 7, 2016

From originals to covers to mashups, “improvisational” is probably the only word you could use to describe Umphrey’s McGee in perpetuity. “Much like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get,” said UM’s keyboardist, Joel Cummins.

Aptly put, as a night at an Umphrey’s show could yield jazz, classic rock or blues, but one thing you can definitely count on: UM brings the jam. We already know about that visceral light show, and how Headphones and Snowcones can upgrade your show experience, so we decided to get to know UM at the core a little bit better.

CLTure was delighted to again catch up with Umphrey’s Joel Cummins as the band gears up for their Saturday show at the Fillmore with opener The Werks

photo_16band_bw_thumbCLTure: How did UM come together in the beginning, and where did the name come from?

Joel Cummins: Umphrey’s McGee started as two bands coming together in South Bend, IN in late 1997. We were all students at Notre Dame who didn’t want to sit behind desks for the rest of our lives. We had this crazy idea that maybe we could write songs and improvise live for a few years and just go for it. That was an insane idea, but somehow it seems like it’s worked out. As far as the name, the late, great Rodney Dangerfield bestowed it upon us at an early club gig in South Bend. He had a relative in town and ended up at the bar where we were playing that night. What are the odds?

CLTure: From where does UM draw inspiration in terms of both lyrics and musical style?

Joel Cummins: We’ve been known to have lots of stylistic idiosyncrasies and we’ve drawn inspiration from nearly every musical corner of the map. Our internal musical diversity comes from our various backgrounds. Some of us have degrees in classical music, some in jazz, and Jake has been playing live shows with bands since he was 11 years old. So you’re likely to pick up things as varied as Led Zeppelin, Claude Debussy, Miles Davis & Metallica.

CLTure: Having been together for nearly 20 years now. How has the band evolved since its inception?

JC: When Umphrey’s McGee started we had no idea what we were doing. We played as many shows as possible to pay rent and worked on songwriting every day in between. I think we’ve come a long way in the department of playing less and playing what’s necessary. We’ve also spread our wings into many other musical directions. Once Jake and Kris joined the band, we could head into even more musical directions thanks to their versatility. Now, our sound is very complex mix of styles.

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Umphrey’s McGee – August 2014 in Charlotte – Photo by Carter Short

CLTure: Which artists and albums are you listening to now while on the road?

JC: I listen to a huge variety of music all the time. I love revisiting the Stax hits of the late ‘50s and ‘60s. I’ve also been listening to more current artists like Jack Garratt, Local Natives, Robert Glasper and D’Angelo. When I fly I often like to listen to more relaxing, albeit complex polyphonic early vocal music like Joaquin Des Prez or Palestrina. As previously mentioned, Claude Debussy is my favorite piano composer so I spend a lot of time listening to his work as well. I’ve recently been introduced to Organ Freeman and Psychic Temples… dig both of those too.

CLTure: Hypothetically, if you could only listen to three albums for the rest of your life, which three albums would you choose and why?

JC: My three albums to listen to for the rest of my life would likely be Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Keith Jarrett’s Koln, and Concert and the Stax complete box set (is that allowed?). Miles’ album is the peak of improvisation and crossover between jazz and rock. Some of the best players in the world are together and just making things up. Jarrett’s album is the most incredible improvised solo piano recording ever made. It’s masterful and insanely uplifting. The Stax box set is about the most American thing you can listen to. So many great singers, songs and performances from the house band.

CLTure: What one moment so far really stands out to the band as your biggest, most-defining moment?

JC: I think the first time we sold out Red Rocks really felt like a huge accomplishment. We’re just coming off nearly selling out two nights at the historic Colorado venue and that is something I never dreamed we would achieve. There’s no greater feeling than being in the best venue in the country and having 10,000 fans loving life along with you.

CLTure:  As a touring band, you spend a lot of time on the road and you’ve probably had some crazy experiences; is there a particular moment that you guys often look back on and laugh about?

JC: There are hundreds if not thousands of moments we go back and laugh about. That’s one of the coolest parts of being in a band, the shared experience of life on the road. There are jokes that have survived 15 years. One of the funnier (and maybe scarier) touring moments we had happened back in 2003. We had agreed to play High Sierra Music Festival in California over 4th of July weekend and were trying to add a few other gigs along the way to help make ends meet. We booked a show at a “venue” called the House of Glass in Dunsmuir, CA. When we showed up to a ramshackle-looking motel at the address of the venue we knew we were in for an interesting experience. The “venue” turned out to be a converted daycare/babysitting space with a few kids toys still sprinkled about. While the venue and motel were absolutely awful, we later learned that many of the employees were being rehabilitated back into society after having spent time in jail. The real surprise came later in the night when the “staff” knocked on our door and asked if we needed fresh towels at 3:30 in the morning. I’m pretty sure there was also some sort of meth lab on site because these people hadn’t slept and had no idea what time it was. We were just happy to get out of there alive, it was the strangest gig we’ve ever had. I recently drove through Dunsmuir but couldn’t find the House of Glass. Was it even real?

Chicago's Umphrey's McGee brings progressive and jam attitudes to the Upstate Concert Hall in Clifton Park tonight. From left are Andy Farag, Jake Cinninger, Joel Cummins, Brendan Bayliss, Kris Myers and  Ryan Stasik. Photo courtesy Umphrey's McGee.

CLTure:  It’s been a rough year so far for the music world, in terms of legends passing away. Which musical legend’s passing had the most profound impact on the band and why?

JC: We’ve lost some really wonderful musicians this year and it’s heartbreaking whenever that happens. But for me, my dad passed away at the beginning of the year and that’s had the most impact on me. He was an incredible supporter of our band, had been to over 200 shows, and always taught me to believe in myself and go for whatever I’m doing with the most effort possible. So when we played in New York at the Beacon Theater this year, those were some of the most emotionally trying times I’ve experienced. But at the same time, I was able to throw myself into music more than I ever have and to me that really evoked his spirit. In Madison the following week, we did a cover of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” and Brendan brought me to tears with a little motivational dialogue about how my dad lived his life in the middle of the song. So despite so many important musical legends passing, losing my dad has been the most impactful loss to our music.

CLTure:  What can fans look forward to from UM in the near future?

JC: There’s a lot to look forward to if you’re a fan of Umphrey’s McGee. As always, plenty of live shows will be happening, particularly our second installation of the Chucktown Ball down in Charleston, SC in September. But we’ve also been hard at work in the studio. I can’t say much more about that project but I’m hoping we’ll have something that’s a bit unexpected before the end of the year.

Catch Umphrey’s McGee Saturday, July 9 at the Fillmore.

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