Interview with Joel Cummins from Umphrey’s McGee: Stereo Virtues

If Dave Matthews Band and Dream Theater had a child, they would have named it Umphrey’s McGee. If Iron Maiden started jamming with Frank Zappa, the result might very well have been Umphrey’s McGee. If Radiohead was bitten by a radioactive King Crimson, they would have donned masks and jammed by night under the alias Umphrey’s McGee.

The Chicago-based band is an entirely unique, at times quirky, troupe of master class-level players with inhuman chops and no concept of stylistic boundaries to discourage them from doing exactly what they feel like. Quality studio albums and live shows characterized by long sets and extended jam sessions have earned the band one of the most loyal followings in rock music.

Keyboardist Joel Cummins took some time out of his pre-tour vacation in sunny Puerto Rico to discuss the band’s latest studio album, Death By Stereo, their upcoming summer music camp and much more.

So, you’re on vacation in Puerto Rico; has Umphrey’s McGee ever played there?

Not yet. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with our holiday events that we’ve done in Jamaica and now Mexico—we have a couple locations that we’re scouting out, and one of them is here in Puerto Rico. I got to scout out that site, and it’s a beautiful piece of property.

We’ve been doing this now—coming up next month, this will be the 5th year in a row that we’ve done it. We kind of try to give our fans from the U.S. a little break in the winter—December or January—so we set up a big stage on the beach and everybody gets to watch a rock show in the middle of winter outside. It’s a lot of fun.

Puerto Rico is on the list of potential places. Costa Rica is something we’re looking at in the near future. So we’ve got some good potential places where we can continue the tradition here.

So, how does word of the band spread to a place like Costa Rica or Jamaica?

To be perfectly honest, for the most part, the people who are coming to these shows are coming from the U.S. It’s a vacation kind of thing for people. So it’s more us going in there and trying to setup all the x’s and o’s well in advance and making that a possibility.

But I think in general nowadays, if your music isn’t Top 40, it’s definitely kind of a word-of-mouth thing. That goes for both in-person word-of-mouth and Internet word-of-mouth. One of the things that we try to do is put as much music as possible out there and available. A lot of it we give away for free, a lot of it we charge a fairly reasonable amount so people will keep buying things. Just trying to get our music in as many places as possible. I think that’s the secret to reaching as many ears as possible.

So let’s talk about the new album, Death By Stereo. The first couple tracks, I got a dancey, New Age kind of vibe. So I’m wondering how much of it is premeditated and how much comes out of jam sessions?

It’s really just looking at each individual song as its own entity. I think inspiration can come from anywhere. We’ve tried to make a habit of writing in a lot of different ways. [Guitarists/vocalists] Jake [Cinninger] and Brendan [Bayliss] do a lot of writing and recording and working on riffs at home, and I do a bit of that, too. We’ll also get together—sometimes two of us, sometimes three of us—and we’ll work on something. There will be days when all six of us will be in a room together trying to work out an idea, work out a concept.

We also have the aspect of the concept that a few of our songs, or sections of songs, come from concerts where we’ve been improvising and hit on something that we felt could potentially be a section for something.

So, when looking at a few of the tracks from Death By Stereo, “Miami Virtue” is a good example: Brendan was the only one on guitar when we were working on that song. Jake and I were both on keyboards, kind of coming up with different sections for that on keys. So that was one where we got together and had the goal of coming up with a couple different sections of material, and were just kind of trying to get those riffs and get them to lock in together. And we came up with what is now the A and B section of “Miami Virtue.” Brendan went back and tried out a lot of different things vocally. The final idea that you hear is the direction that we encouraged him to go. I think he really did a great job and knocked it out of the part.

Do you listen to all your live shows or just when something feels good live?

We were pretty dedicated about it back in the day when we were driving around in a van and trailer (laughs), I think probably for lack of much to do. You know, when you have a four or five-hour drive, to get things to speed up the time you kind of go through and critique things that happened the night before. And we still definitely do that. We haven’t done it as much as we have in the past, but we also have people working for us, like John McLennon. He puts together our Podcast and he’ll also send along ideas. We’ll have people who listen to everything and will say, “Oh, here’s something that you guys did that you might want to listen back to.”

So it’s nice to have a little bit of a filter for things. But we definitely enjoy going back through things and deconstructing whatever happened, and critiquing what it is that we’ve done and I think that helps us understand each other musically—where we’re trying to go and what we’re trying to do, while at the same time you can go through and see what things worked in the moment or what things kind of worked or what things definitely didn’t work and we need to fix. There’s always that element of self-criticism and critique that I think is important in continuing to shape and define the sound of the band.

At this point in your career, it seems like you guys are basically free to play shows as long as you want. But in the early days, how long were you playing sets that you were able to improvise on your songs?

In the beginning, we wanted to be a headlining band and tried to take gigs that were really aimed towards that goal. We started in South Bend, IN, which us not a music town at all. In fact, there were no music clubs there that even have a sufficient PA and gear to put on a rock show. So, right from the beginning, we had to go out and buy our own PA and learn how to wire the stage. We had to learn how to run sound. We had to pretty much do everything on our own.

So, in a sense, that gave us a good sense of confidence because we could do things independently and we didn’t need anybody’s help. It also taught us that we could pack our whole thing up in our trailer and go and setup and perform anywhere.

I would say, probably 95 percent of our shows in the early days were two-set shows, much like they are now, where we would play a set around 75 minutes or so. It’s funny, we used to try and not make it longer than 74 minutes because we thought it was a little bit awkward to have a set extend over the length of a CD. So, it’s funny to think back.

When we first started, we were recording these things on tapes and at the end of the night it was like, “All right, who’s going to take the tapes home tonight.” Then we’ve progressed through the era of CDs, which is now obsolete again. So now we’re kind of free to go anywhere between 70, and on the high end the 80 or 85-minute mark, with the set and the encore. Those were really the things that we were thinking about.

Of course, we did take some really great opportunities we had for opening gigs. One of the first ones we did that was a really big show for us back in 1999, we got to open for Maceo Parker and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones at a place called the Star Plaza Theatre in Northwest Indiana, a suburb of Chicago. For that one I think we had a 30-minute set and we were like, “Okay, what do we do with this?” (Laughs) We had no idea how to play a 30-minute set.

I think our fans have come to expect us to play a two-set show and really the only time that that kind of waivers is on a summer tour, playing a bigger place. We did a few shows with STS 9, a band called Rebolution played with us—I think that was last summer. So in those cases maybe we’ll do a two-hour set and an encore. But in most cases our fans really want and expect us to at least do a two-set show.

So, yeah, we really can do whatever we want with the songs now. It’s fun to take different sections and explore new areas and departure points for improvisation every night. Sometimes we’ll do things similar where we’ll open it up, sometimes we’ll try something new that we haven’t done before. I think the variety of possibilities really keeps it fresh for the band and keeps a lot of our fans coming back for show number 30 or 40.

Are you guys schooled musicians?

Yeah, a bunch of us are. I have a degree in piano performance and music theory from the University of Notre Dame. Kris [Myers], our drummer, has a Master’s in jazz with a concentration in percussion from DePaul University in Chicago. Jake has really been a live performing musician since he was about 11 or 12 years old. He started out as a drummer in a band playing with a lot of older guys because he was like a local phenom. I think he did a semester at Berklee and a semester at Western Michigan, focusing on music, but he just felt that he was far enough along that he wanted to be out there writing and performing. So he’s just got tons of experience in genres from hard rock to almost-metal drumming to—he was in a country band in Nashville back in the early ‘90s, so he was playing all kinds of really cool kind of Danny Gatton-style guitar, which was more in the country vein…

Between all six of us, I’ve studied a ton of classical, Brendan studied some classical guitar, Ryan [Stasik] grew up playing piano, guitar and eventually picked up bass, Kris has a degree and he’s been studying percussion forever. We have a really wide range of influences for all of us that I think you end up hearing in a lot of the variety of the music that ends up coming out.

After doing it so long, in what areas are you trying to improve as a player?

For me, personally, I grew up reading all kinds of music and the listening and kind of being able to identify stuff with my ear—that training kind of came later. For me, that’s something that’s constantly improving. To be able to now listen to another guy in the band play and be able to identify what the intervals are, it’s kind of this second nature that’s sort of hardwired into me now. Whereas before, when you get started and you’re playing with other people and you’re listening to what they’re playing, it can often be challenging to figure out what key is it, and now I think all of our ears have progressively gotten better. We’re all just continuing to improve and still working towards that.

Ryan did I think 365 days of bass lessons with [longtime John McLaughlin bassist] Kai Eckhardt, virtually. Kai records videos, so Ryan will—before shows—he’ll be sitting there working on stuff with Kai on his computer. So it’s still exciting to see all of us doing different things to try to improve and try to become better listeners, try to become better songwriters. Just better players with each other, that’s what it’s all about: What we can create together.

What can you tell me about the music camp the band is doing this summer?

It’s a five-day music camp this summer that we’ve called sUMmer School. The idea is that we can share some of these techniques and strategies that we’ve used to both improve as a band and to improve as individual musicians and share them with people. It’s at a really beautiful, remote place up in the Catskills in New York. We’ll spend a few days up there in August with between 130 and 150 students; we’ve sold 75 of those spots so far [as of Dec. 21, 2011].

We’re just inviting musicians to come up and work on stuff with us. We’re gonna try to unlock some of the secrets about what it is that really drives us to continue to create together. What are the things that we do to try and improve the way we play together and try to improve what we’re doing? So that’s kind of the next step towards this. We’ve internalized the stuff for almost 15 years and now have to kind of give back and say, here’s some of the things the we know work and here’s some of the things to avoid that we’ve found as pitfalls. We’ll be looking at a lot of the musical aspects. We’ll also be looking at how to work with the band as a business.

I think that Jefferson Waful, our lighting designer is going to come out, too, and do a class on lighting design. We’ll have our crew come out and do a class on that… Something to incorporate what we do with technology and social media. There’s a lot of moving parts with the entire organization that we feel like we could help out some younger musicians and help them avoid some of the piles of crap that we’ve stepped into along the way.

So, do you have sort of a curriculum outlined?

A little bit. At this point, we have kind of a general outline and a few different sections that we’ve proposed doing and we’ve announced. But the other cool thing is that… there’s a survey that goes out to each participant, so we’re asking them, “What is it that you want to get out of this?” “What are the things that you want to work on?” “What is your level of musicianship?” So, some of it is being sourced from our participants and finding out exactly what it is that they want to do. Some of it is coming from us knowing these are the things that we can teach and these are the things that we can show people that will be easy to convey. It should be a really interesting mix of topics when we narrow it down a little bit.

You’re coming to New York in January for a two-night stand at Best Buy Theater; is there anything more special than usual that you guys have planned for those shows?

Well, any time we get to do a two-night stand somewhere, we really feel like we can kind of let loose a little more—set things up and just leave them there for the next night. I’d say it’s definitely going to be a throwdown. We had a pretty wild and fun run.

We did four nights at Brooklyn Bowl back in September, kind of leading into our album release. We had some really fun and funny guests for that. We had Biz Markie for that and we had Bob Weir come out. It might be tough to top that as a combo, but I think the energy of two New York shows is always something that brings out the best in the band. The fact that we’ll have been playing for three weekends in a row, we’ll be real nice and loose and ready to throwdown for New York. It’s gonna be crazy. It’ll be a lot of fun.

Umphrey’s McGee will perform at Best Buy Theater Jan. 20 and 21. For more information, go to