A year ago, when I first wrote about Umphrey’s McGee in an issue of The Aquarian, I had yet to experience the multimedia spectacle of their live show. I likened the Chicago-based sextet to Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Dream Theater, Radiohead and a few other terrifically unique and enduring artists. While Umphrey’s probably draws bits of influence from each of the aforementioned acts, they have exemplified a total dedication to their craft that is uncommon if not unprecedented in rock music.
Each Umphrey’s show is a singularity. The band rides through original songs and covers, re-exploring, deconstructing and reengineering them to conform to the whims of the energy of any given night. A stunning light show follows suit as Umphrey’s approaches their eccentric progressive rock tunes like jazz musicians playing standards. They can play a cover song note for note or write something no one has ever heard before on the spot.
This week, Umphrey’s celebrates their 15th year as a band with a special two-set performance at NYC’s Beacon Theatre on Friday, Jan. 18. The group has played over 1,800 shows since forming in 1998 and Friday’s performance will be their biggest New York show ever. And they’ve earned it.
I caught up with keyboardist Joel Cummins for some insight into what it means to finally play Beacon Theatre, how the band puts together their trademark mash-ups and the secrets behind their jaw-dropping jam sessions.
So 2013 is the start of the 15-year extravaganza for you guys, right?
Yeah, it’s pretty crazy to think that we’ve been doing this for as long as we have. Looking back to where we started in 1998, I mean, I think our first 30 or 40 shows were in South Bend, Indiana. We’re doing okay; we’re on course.
The Beacon Theatre was certainly on our bucket list of places to go and after we were able to sell out two nights at the Best Buy Theater in 2012, it seemed like the right time to try to pull the trigger and make it happen. As of right now [Jan. 4] we have about 200 or 300 more tickets to go until that show sells out. Things are looking good.
Have you ever been to the Beacon Theatre?
No, I haven’t! I’ve seen photos of it and recently I saw Scorsese’s thing that he did with the Rolling Stones, which documented a number of shows there, I believe. So that was kind of a cool way to see what it was all about.
It kind of blows my mind in a way. When we started, this was something that was way off in the distance. We would play about 10 or 15 different places before this was even an option. But finally, being just a few weeks away from playing the Beacon is really amazing.
Now, you all have played so many shows, and this is your biggest NYC show ever; but does the size of show change your approach or feelings towards it?
The nice thing about having played 1,800 shows and now having done—I mean, we’ve had the same lineup for over 10 years now—is that there’s a certain comfort and confidence level about us going out there together and everyone having each other’s back and knowing that some of the stuff is planned and it’s going to be cool, but some of the stuff that is going to be the most memorable for the fans is going to be some of what we come up with on the spot.
For me, I’m not really nervous going on stage with Umphrey’s at all. I feel really lucky to be surrounded by such great musicians and I know that they’re going to pick the ball up and run with it. That being said, I think the most nervous I’ve been for something was the first time that we did an UMBowl show in Chicago. [At the 2012 UMBowl shows, Umphrey’s further pushed the limits of their improvisational chops by “crowdsourcing” suggestions from fans for their jams while they were playing.]
I think it’s cool that, at this point, we feel like we’re confident and we should go out there and leave it all on the stage and try to crush it. When you have 2,800 people that are out there that are really amped to see you, to be there, the kind of synergy of the moment takes over. All that energy that’s going back and forth really helps boost the momentum of the show.
My favorite UM moment so far was this summer in Asbury Park. You combined “Sad But True” by Metallica and “Clint Eastwood” by Gorillaz. Apparently, they’re in the same key, but how did you come up with that?
(Laughs) I’m pretty sure that one was one of Brendan’s ideas. We have been doing these mash-ups now for Halloween. Whenever we get done with the shows, it’s a clean slate and for the next six months, everybody listens to stuff. I’m always listening and thinking, “Oh, here’s these two songs, I wonder what they would sound like?”
So Brendan [Bayliss, guitars/vocals] came up with that one. Yeah, it was sort of a same key thing. One of the other really helpful things when you’re trying to do mash-ups like we do them is that there aren’t any really crazy [chord] changes or key changes that happen. That really helps the two pieces of music coexist.
One of the ones that I came up with that I’m really proud of is a mash-up of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” and Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” And again, it’s a thing where you have songs that are the same key, same tempo, same swing feel—those two go together so perfectly. It’s really pretty crazy.
Same sort of thing for the Metallica and Gorillaz tune: “Clint Eastwood” is pretty straightforward; it doesn’t have a lot going on, so it really allows you to open up and mix in the parts. I think Jake [Cinninger, guitars/vocals] was the one who came up with, during the verse, we’d be singing “Clint Eastwood” and still teasing the Metallica riff too. We like to get in and mix up as many parts of each of them as we can.
Is it more fun for you to do shows after an album is released or ones like this, between albums, where you can play an even mix of everything?
That’s a good question. I’ll give you two answers. The first one is that I love to play new music and I love having new music that’s come out on a new album. But, that being said, I think our shows are better when we don’t have new music because after you get to that comfort zone of knowing how something is going to sound and you’re all confident playing it together, the performance is going to be better.
Looking back at our Mantis  album, we had all of these new songs that we hadn’t played live. I think as a result, we played the shit out of them for five to six months because, A: we had a new album, B: we were trying to improve our live performances of them. But, as a result, the first few live performances might not have been as good.
I think in general, we play better when we don’t have a huge batch of new material, but we’re constantly trying to work in new songs and work on new stuff. Just this past New Year’s run, we did three new intro pieces. We will write something, kind of a shorter piece of music—two or three sections of instrumental stuff—and use that as the opening of the show.
So we will record ourselves playing something and then walk out to the recording of it and start playing along with it and kind of have this nice seamless switch between an intro that was pre-recorded to a band that is playing live. We’ve found that’s a really cool and unique and original way to harness that energy and the fans are obviously very excited right before the show. We can walk out and see that momentum going, rather than walk on stage and tune guitars and tune drums and hit keyboards. It gives you a lot more momentum to start with.
What do you think is the most significant part of the band’s continued growth over 15 years?
A couple things, but I think they’re centered around the same thing. We know how to go up on stage now and put on a great show. So, for us, I think the key is taking the time on the road and also taking the time off the road to still get together and work on new material together. That’s something that I know we’re all committed to doing and we’ve continued to do it. Just recently, we went to Jake’s studio and worked out forms for three new pieces of music we’ll be aiming to put on the next studio album, which will probably come out in early 2014.
We’re just continuing to push each other creatively and really focus in on the songwriting part. I really think that continuing to put out new music is going to be the lifeblood for us. I feel like we have some really strong older material that the fans love and that they love seeing us play live still. Even things that we put out that we made in 2001, 2002 and 2003. Some of those are still fan favorites. I think that gives us a nice amount of confidence, going into the future, that we can continue to write newer stuff that will, 10 years down the road, be what the 2001, 2002 songs are currently to the fans.
As far as songwriting goes, we do it lots of different ways too. That’s one of the things that keeps it fresh. We all write stuff individually and we’ll occasionally get together. Maybe I’ll go to Jake’s place or to Brendan’s or [bassist Ryan Stasik’s] and work on stuff. Just carving out the time and making sure that happens, that’s the key to making sure that we keep growing.
Can you explain how you guys communicate on stage while you’re playing? It amazes me how you’re all on the same page when you’re improvising.
(Laughs) Well, we’re somewhat deceptive because there’s lots of times when we’re not on the same page! It’s about finding the right times to lie out and not play when you realize that everybody is doing something you’re not doing. There are a number of ways that we communicate on stage. Some of them are with hand signals that we’ll give back and forth.
One of the really big things for us is that we have talkback mics, where the microphones just go to the band. Occasionally, we’ll be yelling cues or directions into those. Whether it’s “everybody drop out but guitars…”—Jefferson Waffle, our lighting designer, is also on the in-ears. So he’ll hear something like that, he can hit it with the lights as well and then it looks like something that was really coordinated.
Sometimes we’ll use it for actually directing, like, “Okay, here’s a chord progression, next one, everybody hit A minor; okay, next one, everybody hit D minor; next one, everybody B major 7; next one Bb major 7; next one, A minor—repeat.” So stuff like that will happen, where we’re coming up with a progression on the spot and everyone is playing along with it. The biggest thing that we do that is different is we try to come up with sections of music live, on the spot. We’ll come up with something like what I just described and say, “B section; E minor, tighten up, funk.”
Just those simple directions where we’re not telling anyone what to play, but at least when you make that change, we all know the general way we’re going to try to go. Then we’ll go back to the A section or maybe come up with a C section and come up with some improvised music within everything else that happens. To me, those are really the most rewarding parts of the shows. It’s such a great exercise for six people to try to be on the same page and to try to create something together on the spot.
What can you tell me about your and drummer/vocalist Kris Myers’ other band, Digital Tape Machine?
Yeah, well, DTM has had a really great 2012. We’ve been a band for two years. We’re essentially a live [electronic dance music band], but we do all kinds of stuff, from house to breakbeat to hip-hop, even a little bit of reggae in there, a little bit of progressive edge too. With this band, it’s all instrumental music for the most part—we’ve done a couple covers where there’s been vocals. But it’s original instrumental music that’s super melodic. The stuff is all over the place. It’s way keyboard heavy, which is a lot of fun for me. We’re doing a Kickstarter campaign right now. We have about 30 days left with it. We’re putting out our new album called Be Here Now. It’s got 10 original compositions.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I don’t know. I think that’s probably about it. Playing at the Beacon is going to be one of these apex moments in our career for Umphrey’s McGee, so I’m just looking forward to that.
Umphrey’s McGee will play the Beacon Theatre on Friday, Jan. 18. For more information, go to umphreys.com.