Interview and Photos by Max Stewart
Umphrey’s McGee is one of those bands that is so damn good at what they do, it is a bit intimidating. All six members of the band are highly polished musicians, collectively performing every note with technical precision on a seemingly different realm of musical cognizance than most bands out there. If you have ever seen Umphrey’s McGee live, you know that their constant time signature adjustments, key changes, and heavy improvisation are not for the musical faint of heart. Even with the whirlwind of sonic adventures going on during the show, Umphrey’s McGee manages to package it all up in a way that provides a fun concert experience for everyone from classically-trained King Crimson fans to the Bieber-listening wife that was dragged to the show.
Before speaking to the band’s founding Keyboardist, Joel Cummins, I was not quite sure what to expect. Given that he is such a sensational talent and essentially the gatekeeper of the band’s inclusion of Jazz and Classical music influences, would he scoff at my lack of musical appreciation when I didn’t pick up on an obscure Chopin or Thelonious Monk reference? Worried? Who, me?
Immediately after we started talking, I exhaled. I could not have been more off the mark, as Joel is so incredibly down-to-earth and makes you feel like you are talking to an old college buddy. He was kind enough to chat before their April 20th show at Stubb’s in Austin, TX, where we discussed the bustling American festival scene, finding the right balance in touring, how to navigate playing keys in an improvisational band, all-time dream collaborations, and if Umphrey’s McGee suited up for his much-loved Chicago Cubs.
MS: First and foremost, although I go by Max Stewart, my true first name is James. So, “Jimmy Stewart” has a special place in my heart, especially as it relates to Umphrey’s McGee. I love seeing Jimmy Stewart on the sets. [READER’S NOTE: Umph uses the term “Jimmy Stewart” for improvisational sections of their shows, where they commit to doing something completely new and unrehearsed live. The name was inspired by one of their first formative jam sessions that happened at three o’clock in the morning in 2001 after a wedding gig in the Jimmy Stewart ballroom of a hotel].
JC: [Laughs] That’s amazing!
Well, we figured there was a decent amount of the population out there with the name, so it was probably a good move, you know. There’s got to be some other people named ‘James Stewart’ out there that are fans [Laughs].
It’s definitely an exciting point for me as a fan. So now that that’s outta the way.. I will be at your show at Stubb’s tonight, and will be speaking to guitarist Jesse Hensley from Big Something, too. Those guys are so talented and I am really glad you brought them on tour.
You know, I actually got to go to their show in Telluride, CO about a month ago and they were playing the Sheridan Opera House, which is one of my favorite venues out there. I’ve been out there for Bluegrass Fest and Blues & Brews before, and I got to see a Big Something show on a night off, when I was out there with some friends skiing. Yeah, I am big fan, they were a lot of fun that night and we are stoked to have them on tour!
For sure. Well, I know you have said that you are scaling back the number of shows you play per year, maybe as a result of band members’ getting married / having kids, getting older, etc. Do you think that playing less than 100 shows per year improves the quality of the shows you have? Maybe the band feels more refreshed and super focused on making the show great?
Well, I think you lessen the risk of having a bad night. For a band like us, we do anywhere between 45 minutes to 1 hour of more improvisation stuff every night. Doing stuff like taking some time definitely keeps it fresher. We talked about this a few years ago because there were a couple of times where we played six nights in a row, and we decided we needed to cut it back to at most four shows in a row. Because by the fourth show, everybody is on the fringe of being burned, and you want every night to be something that feels very inspired and feels good.
Without a doubt, we have just learned that it’s nice that we are able to mix that idea as a business and also have that creative aspect of it, too. You know, most everybody in the band is married and a bunch of us have kids, so it is a really nice thing to be able to go out and play four nights in a row, then go back home or do something else for a few days, then come back on the road. I think all of those things kind of play together.
We definitely feel like our shows have been more consistent than ever. There were a number of years where we felt like we had hit some pretty good highs, but there were also times for whatever reason we just weren’t doing things as well. So that’s something we have been trying actively to work on. Trying to raise the bar to be on what feels like shittiest moment of the show [laughs], except I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that [laughs].
Well hey, seems like the quality of shows definitely benefit with some time off. I think that “Jam Band” music, for lack of a better term, is at a high point right now. Lots of festivals focused on instrumentation type music out there, like LOCKN’, where I saw you all perform an unreal late night set in 2014.
Do you guys feel like you have a had a fresh wind in your sails in the past few years as more people are exposed to your music through these festivals, and has it re-energized a new fan base?
Yeah, I think there’s a number of younger fans coming in. We are one of those bands that we definitely dabble a little bit in the Electronic stuff, so as a result we are comfortable playing festivals like Electric Forest or Summer Set that might be a little more geared toward that sort of vibe. But we are also comfortable playing places like Austin City Limits or Bonnaroo, that have more of a Rock ‘N’ Roll vibe to them.
I think it is great that people, and especially younger kids, are still going out to events. The Electronic music scene has built a lot of fans and that has added a new energy to the festival scene, as well.
We feel very fortunate that we are included in the many festivals that are out there. It is a great way for fans to see a bunch of different bands. No matter what, when you are doing a fun music event with your friends, it is still one of the enduring, great things about this world in bringing people together.
Agreed, nothing like it. And specifically that festival LOCKN’ is one that I love and have been to every year, it seems to have established a great niche and following with tons of solid musicians and collaborations, year after year.
Absolutely, and we have been really happy to be part of the last couple and obviously that is one we are going to be back this year.
I will never forget that 2014 late night show, I think you guys played until like 4 AM and then it started pouring rain. It was epic.
Right at the end of the show, yeah I remember that exactly!
I remember before we went on, everyone was saying the set might get cut short due to potential storms in the area, so we were just kind of waiting for it to happen. We were thinking, ‘OK, we need to play songs as if this is the last one, so let’s make it a good one!’ And that happened for like 45 minutes [laughs].
And then finally, it did rain, and we were in the last song. And at that point, it was more of a celebratory rain as opposed to a scattering rain.
Oh yeah, I remember it being refreshing and fun. You know those festivals can be a lot, so the rain can be very welcoming to wash away the heat and dirt of the day.
[Laughs] No doubt! But yeah, it is good that festivals are something that are very alive and well, not just in our country, but around the world.
For sure. It does kind of feel like the U.S. has really jumped on this in the past 10 – 15 years or so. I think Bonnaroo was maybe one of the catalysts to really start the trend of annual festivals like that. I mean, the U.K. and Europe have had a lot of these festivals for years, but there are so many in the U.S. now. But I love it.
It is interesting. You know there were some smaller scale, maybe tame sort of festivals out there. Like the Monterey Festival is one that has been around for a while. And a lot of the city jazz fests like the New Orleans Jazz Fest. That festival was instrumental in developing the scene with all of the late night shows that were happening back in the 90s and 2000s, and still happen to this day. I really think of it as an exciting phenomenon, everybody would go down to play Jazz Fest and play. And of course Superfly, promoters from New Orleans, started Bonnaroo, so that kind of tie-in makes sense to me as far as chronology goes.
There were also these one-offs like Woodstock and Altamont, but other than maybe Lollapalooza nobody was really thinking about continuing a thing annually or having more than just once over a weekend. But now, obviously, there’s got to be hundreds that happen every year [laughs].
It’s definitely interesting. It really keeps everybody on their toes, you are not going to get away with having a subpar festival and it surviving. You really have to put it together a good package and create a solid event. (NOTE: This conversation was before the Fyre Festival catastrophe, mind you).
Looking forward to seeing you guys at LOCKN’ this year again! I wanted to talk about your keys playing. I have always been a big fan of your Classical and Jazz piano playing amongst a lot of heavy, guitar-based instrumentation in Umphreys, it keeps the live sets fresh (see “Orfeo”). Also, I love the piano part on “Glory”, every time I hear that song, I get chills (NOTE: they played “Glory” that night in Austin!!).
What advice would you give a piano player in a rock band where there are many members with varying styles of instrumentation and many musical layers?
Thanks man! Yeah, I think a lot of it is about knowing the theory and learning and knowing the voicings. You can look at keyboardists like Tony Banks [of Genesis], for example, where some of the keyboards are very spare but it has all of the right voicings. I think that has everything to do with how you can add color and add harmony under guitar players and between the bass. That is kind of your zone as the guitarists are playing lead.
Another big thing for me, is switching up the tones. I try to use Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3 Organ, MiniMOD Synthesizer, Sequential Prophet, Roland Piano, Stage Piano, Mellotron. Make sure you are thinking about creating different textures all throughout the show. Because you know, guitars are gonna be clean or distorted or some variation of that, right? So the color or the tone is where the keyboardist has that opportunity to really define the bed of the pallet of the sounds that are being created. So, try to think about that.
And another really important thing is spacious playing and not over-playing. That is something we have worked on as a band over the years, figuring out that every little subdivision doesn’t need to be filled up. And when you have six people in the band, it is a really important thing to keep that in mind so that there is enough space in the music.
And kind of going along with that, as a Keyboardist, if there is something that I am playing in the lower register, I am trying to make sure I am really tight with [Umphrey’s Bassist] Ryan [Stasik] when I am down there and I am right with the bass, that’s the only way that is going to sound good. That’s another important thing for a keyboardist to be aware of: listening to and doubling the bass can often be a great thing when playing with a large ensemble.
That is some sage advice, especially from someone like you. I know a lot of musician friends and some piano players that will really appreciate hearing it.
I appreciate you listening and paying attention to keyboards! Always trying to make something interesting happen!
Speaking of playing with other musicians, what would be your all-time, living or dead, dream collaboration with any other musician?
Hmmmm, ok. I will give you both. Dead musician would be Miles Davis, he is kind of my musical hero. Although, he would probably talk some mad shit to me, which is fine.
[Laughs] Yeah, he seemed like a wild character.
Oh yeah, no doubt. But an amazing, amazing musician and one of my favorites.
And living, I would love to do something with Bobby McFerrin, I always been a huge fan of his music. I grew up doing a lot of vocal work in like ensemble group sort of things. Everything from like 16th Century Renaissance polyphony to more modern stuff, Barbershop-type stuff too. So, Bobby McFerrin is an artist that I really love for what he has done for vocal innovation. Not sure if you are familiar with his stuff…
Yeah, he has a unique version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” if I am remembering correctly.
Yeah, and he has a duet with Herbie Hancock that is really sweet, too. And you can go through Spotify and listen to a lot of it.
One of the really cool things he did though – I don’t know what you would describe this kind of music as – but he takes an ensemble of singers and he creates usually 6 – 8 parts of things happening that he will then pass off to a group of two singers, and then go to next group and start something new and they will continue singing what he started. I think it is called “Circlesongs”, but there are some really, really beautiful vocal things in those that I like listening to a lot.
Cool, I will have to dig into his catalogue a little more and check it out.
Final question, this one should be fun. I know you are a baseball fan and specifically a fan of the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs. If you could classify Umphrey’s McGee as any Chicago Cubs player from any era, who would that be and why?
OK…OK. Very interesting. Well, first of all, I’d like to think of Umph as a five tool player, so we can start there. Again, I think I am gonna go modern day and a past player.
Modern day, I am going to go with Javy Baez, because I think we have his kind of crazy spirit on the basepaths, and all-around you never know what is going to happen, but you know he’s going to pull off some pretty cool stuff.
And then classic player, I’d go with Derek Lee around 2004-2005 Cubs. I mean that guy could do it all. You know, good hits, great defense, power hitter, could hit for average, you name it. So, yeah, Javy Baez and Derek Lee! [laughs]
Right on! I really appreciate it, thanks again.
Good stuff. Alright Max, nice chatting with you today. We’ll see you tonight!
Thanks again Joel! Be sure to catch Umphrey’s McGee on tour this year, including a string of festival stops this summer including our personal favorite LOCKN’ Festival, as well as Major Rager is Charlotte, Summer Camp Music Festival, Bonnaroo, and Peach Music Festival.
Also, Joel will be playing a solo set on Thursday, June 29 at Arcana in Boulder, Colorado to benefit the Conscious Alliance, a group that helps provide healthy food for food banks nationwide.
2017 Umphrey’s McGee Tour Dates
May 18, 2017 – Thursday – The NorVa – Norfolk, VA
May 19, 2017 – Friday – Pier Six Pavilion – Baltimore, MD
May 20, 2017 – Saturday – Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom – Hampton Beach, NH
May 26, 2017 – May 28, 2017 – Friday – Sunday – Summer Camp Music Festival – Chillicothe, IL
Jun 1, 2017 – Thursday – The Augusta Common – Augusta, GA
Jun 2, 2017 – Friday – Music Farm – Columbia – Columbia, SC
Jun 3, 2017 – Saturday – Mountain Music Festival – Minden, WV
Jun 11, 2017 – Sunday – Bonnaroo – Manchester, TN
Jun 17, 2017 – Saturday – Founders Fest – Grand Rapids, MI
Jun 29, 2017 – Thursday – Arcana – Boulder, CO – An Evening with Joel Cummins
Jun 30, 2017- Friday -Red Rocks Amphitheatre – Morrison, CO
Jul 1, 2017 – Saturday – Red Rocks Amphitheatre – Morrison, CO
Jul 2, 2017 – Sunday -Red Rocks Amphitheatre – Morrison, CO
Jul 7, 2017 – Friday – Central Park Summerstage – New York, NY
Jul 8, 2017 – Saturday – Levitate Music and Arts Festival – Marshfield, MA
Jul 9, 2017 – Sunday – Stone Pony Summer Stage – Asbury Park, NJ
Jul 21, 2017 – Friday – Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island – Chicago, IL
Jul 22, 2017 – Saturday – Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn at White River St. Park – Indianapolis, IN
Aug 10, 2017 – Thursday – Major Rager Charlotte – Charlotte, NC
Aug 11, 2017 – Friday – Red Hat Amphitheater – Raleigh, NC
Aug 12, 2017 – Aug 13, 2017 – Saturday – Sunday – The Peach Music Festival – Scranton, PA
Aug 17, 2017 – Thursday – Sloss Furnaces – Birmingham, AL
Aug 18, 2017 – Friday – Chastain Park Amphitheatre – Atlanta, GA
Aug 19, 2017 – Saturday – Ascend Amphitheater – Nashville, TN
Aug 20, 2017 – Sunday – Tennessee Theatre – Knoxville, TN
Aug 24, 2017 – Thursday – LOCKN’’ Music Festival – Arrington, VA