Bowling For Stew: Umphrey’s McGee Keyboardist Joel Cummins On UMBowl & More

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Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Scott Sharrard, Marco Benevento, Kyle Hollingsworth, Tim Reynolds, Eddie Roberts, Jorma Kaukonen and many more. (A full archive of The Art of the Sit-In is here.)

Words by: Chad Berndtson

Umphrey’s McGee ascended to the jam band vanguard for many reasons, not least for its musical chops, sense of adventure, originality and relentless commitment to innovation. But another reason is intense self-awareness: few bands, jam band or otherwise, are as in touch not only with their own strengths and how those strengths are received, but also with how those strengths turn into more opportunities to interact with fans and for fans to invest in what they do. From UMBowl to Headphones & Snowcones to Reel To Real to, hell, just the layout of their highly interactive website, Umphrey’s McGee offers an experience that gets deeper the more you’re willing to invest.

In other words, if it’s your thing, it really pays to be an Umphrey’s geek. And for Umphrey’s geeks, this weekend has been circled on the concert calendar for some time, as it marks the return of UMBowl, once again in Las Vegas. UMBowl VII will feature the usual four-quarter format in an-oh-so Umphrey’s way of doing things: Raw Stewage, All Request, All Improv and Choose Your Own Adventure.

For the latest edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, we asked Umphrey’s McGee founding member and keyboardist Joel Cummins to take us through what goes into this highly curated experience and what motivates UM to keep coming up with cool ideas. And stick around for his sit-in story — ask him about “Cirrus” by Bonobo sometime and see what answer you get.

JAMBASE: UMBowl is days away and for hardcore Umphrey’s fans this is a big event. How much and what type of preparation goes into this?

JOEL CUMMINS: Quite a bit to be honest. The voting started back at the beginning of April and closed when I think we were in Texas a week or two ago. So once we got there, we knew what songs would be in the top votes. The work that goes into it depends a lot on what the quarters are going to be, but the most work is probably for our Raw Stewage quarter. Flipping back to past improvisations and turning them into songs is a big challenge, and it’s all about finding pieces that fit together and make sense together, while remembering the important parts.

The listening and the deciding on that is interesting. It’s thinking about why these pieces of music are chosen and putting yourself in the fan’s position by trying to say, what exactly do they like about this one — what does it have? Is it just the overall feel or is it, oh, at two minutes and 53 seconds [UM guitarist] Jake [Cinninger] does this really cool thing with his guitar or plays this riff? So a lot of it is going back and forth between some of the recordings and trying to discern the crucial elements in a piece of music. So that’s the biggest piece of work. The rest of it is more getting ready for a night of improvisational-based music, and that’s kind of our life’s work, so there’s not much homework involved.

JAMBASE: For sure. Picking out what’s appealing about those past improvisations, though, that’s such a personal experience. What are you personally listening for?

JC: I’m dying to listen for sections where everyone kind of has his own part. I think that’s really essential to creation of the Raw Stewage, and a song that will stand up on its own and last a few years. Probably eight to 10 of the tracks we’ve picked for these have been things we continue to play after UMBowl. That’s a great, you want to be able to invest time again and play original music again, so we’re looking for good melodic and good harmonic content in there.

A lot of times, though, people will also vote on a jam that’s also gradual — just kind of a gradual increase in dynamics. It might stay in the same area, but develops over that area. So much of that we’re not quite conscious of at the time it’s being composed — it’s hard to recall what was going on in the exact moment of a show.

I think the other thing is that we try to find something we can write in some extra parts and also open up for improv, and that’s cool because that’s making time for improv in the improv we did before. Sometimes in the middle of these [jams] grows this opportunity to open things up after letting the song take a few minutes to build up energy. This is why the Raw Stewage stuff has become so fun.

JAMBASE: You guys have done more to lessen the distance between you and your fans than most bands, and all of these things you do, UMBowl included, really reward people who have invested lots of time in your music. Being an Umphrey’s geek can be a very rewarding experience. What goes into the creation of these types of endeavors, what does the spitballing and the idea process look like?

JC: We always want to try various cutting-edge things but we also don’t want to get too swept up in it to the point where things become gimmicky. We’ve had a nice, consistent growth throughout our history and we don’t want to change that too much or let what we do become boring. We talk often about what will differentiate us from Band X or Band Y or Z that might give our fans a little bit of a deeper connection or more of a long-term connection — if they want to, they can really dig deeper into what we’re doing.

There are so many fronts on that, whether it’s the UMLive app which kind of merged into the nugs.net app, or UMBowl. Fans have a lot of material to dig through — so much material — and that’s intended. I love, too, that we can dig in with the fans and have conversations online and that fans can tell me something I need to go back in and listen to. Invariably, when I’m talking with fans, someone chimes in with something that’s a great recommendation.

JAMBASE: So that happens a lot?

JC: As a performer on stage, my brain is working in such a way that I’m constantly processing information as a listener and also processing information as someone who is trying to create. So there isn’t a lot of room to take that all in and try to remember what happened — you’re staying in that present moment, creating, and that’s the biggest difference, to me, between someone who’s listening to improvisation versus creating improvisation.

So we’ll get to the end of a show, and sometimes the feeling is very good but I don’t really remember what happened, so that ability go back in and listen and evaluate and analyze is great. In the old days, we’d play the show while driving to the gig the next day. But now, it’s become a way more open thing and an interaction with fans. I’m pretty active on Twitter, and I follow a lot of our fans there, so I not only get to watch them discuss and debate things but also occasionally chime in. And it may be a serious comment or a smart-ass comment from me or from them. But again, this is connecting at a deeper level with the people who care about your music. I meet a lot of these people in person, too — they come to our shows and they come meet us — and in some cases they’ve become this group of friends.

A lot of it has to do with the chronology of where we are today with social media, of course — this couldn’t happen with Led Zeppelin in 1976, you know? I think it’s OK for bands to not be as mysterious these days, at least as mysterious as rock bands once were. There are of course things we hold close to the vest — the Abbey Road album we put out we were able to keep under wraps and I still can’t believe that — but I think having this openness and a level of conversation is great.

JAMBASE: How often are you working on new ideas, a la UMBowl?

JC: I think there are always a few new things in the works. We’re talking often: could we do this? The Reel To Real is something different. We felt like we had a unique story to tell through a lot of the handheld camera footage that was created at shows and on the road. Headphones & Snowcones is another one — a way to connect in a deeper way. Some of our fans really want to hear everything that’s going on. Most bands probably wouldn’t want their fans to necessarily hear everything going on in that level of detail, but we’re cool with it.

We do use some backing tracks and things that [Umphrey’s McGee percussionist] Andy [Farag] samples or maybe an arpeggiator sequence I have, but 99 percent of what we’re doing up there is being made live. That makes us stand out in the 21st century because you have all these DJs and acts that are going out and playing quote-unquote “live,” but it’s something pre-recorded. That’s an advantage for us: we’re creating in front of you.

JAMBASE: I’m curious how many ideas end up on the cutting room floor …

JC: … Some of these, yeah, it’s hard to know if they’re actually going to work. The first UMBowl was probably the most nervous I’ve ever been before an Umphrey’s show. We had no idea: is this going to be something that people love, or is it going to be something people say, “OK, whatever,” and it never happens again. My bet was people would love it because we’re asking them what do you like and we’re playing what they want to hear, but it’s still a surprise for the fans.

It’s interesting, though. One time we used social media to say, for the encore tonight, we’re going to play one of these three songs, and vote on which one you want to hear. We got an incredibly negative backlash for that. As it turns out, our fans don’t even want to know what their choices are — they love the element of surprise. They were irritated that it was going to be even one of those three because that was only a choice of three. But to answer your question, yeah, a lot of these things are trial and error and trying new things. It’s definitely a balance.

In another avenue of trying new things, we’ve had Joshua Redman come play with us about eight or nine times now, and that’s become something we’re doing annually — also part of that balance of things we do. It’s been good because fans are picking up on who he is and getting introduced to other great things he’s done as a musician. And look at that: they’re not mad, they’re not just saying, “We just wanna see Umphrey’s, man, only Umphrey’s!” OK, there’s still some of that but, hey man, we’re playing 95 shows a year and this is creatively engaging to us. It’s making us more creative. And I certainly understand that if you only go to a couple of shows a year and that’s one of the shows you might not want that, but fans are pretty understanding. Doing those things with Josh has helped us improve our musicianship and bring new ideas to the table.

We know what our fans like, but that in-and-of-itself creates a dichotomy of, how much of a mix of compositions and songs do we bring, versus how much improv. What’s the right percentage for a show? Some people want words they can sing along and melodies they can hum to. But for some people, they just want improv.

JAMBASE: “Guys, just paint!”

JC: Yeah, exactly. So back in January, in Madison, we decided we would do an entirely improvised set to see how that would go over with the general listener — a non-themed, regular Umphrey’s show. The feedback was that they loved it. So when the vote came for S2, where fans can text in ideas, the overwhelming response was they just want us to improvise, so that will be one of the quarters at UMBowl.

We look at what we can do to make these shows unique and special, and like with Josh, that sometimes also involves inviting some other players to come out with us. The Shady Horns came out and played with us in New Orleans, and that was awesome. And Jen [Hartswick] and Natalie [Cressman] are a double threat in that they can sing and play the crap out of their horns. They’ll be back with us at UMbowl: it’s nice to have them and get more female energy up there.

We’re really happy with how far we’ve come, and the fact that we can now do two-set shows in bigger places and don’t have to do co-headlines. Fans have told us that if they’re going to come out and be asked to pay $30 – $40, they want the full two sets. So now we’re able to do that. It’s always a work in progress. We’re famous to 10,000 people and unknown to millions.

JAMBASE: Now that you guys are spread out around the country instead of concentrated around Chicago, is it harder to prepare for tours and for events like UMBowl?

JC: No, I actually think it’s easier. We’re not getting on each other’s nerves and we’re not right on top of each other. [laughs] We can send ideas back and forth and that’s easy to do with file transfers and all the ways to communicate. We work on things quite a bit at home by ourselves and a lot of it is just listening.

We also get to do a lot on the road together. One of the big changes we made in 2005 or 2006 was that we all got little practice rigs that we bring backstage. That allows us to rehearse and work on music outside of soundcheck: we don’t have that soundcheck pressure of it being the only time we can work on stuff. That’s been big — that helped us incorporate new things in what might be included in a show that night. An hour before our start time, maybe we’ll get together for 25 – 30 minutes and play through some of the things we want to arm up and be tight on. That gives us energy, too — sometimes it feels like we’re already halfway into the show by the time we start the first set.

I think there’s a perception in the jam band world that the first set is …

JAMBASE: … “the warm-up set”…

JC: … Yeah, the warm-up set and the second set is where the action happens. Our take is why ease in? The first set should be as intense as the second set, why not? No, let’s go in and launch.

JAMBASE: Is there new studio product in the works from Umphrey’s McGee?

JC: We’re always working on something new, but aside from admitting that I’m not at liberty to say much. I will say that people will be fairly surprised by what the next thing is we put out. Personally I love going into the studio and working in the studio realm because I can go in and work with tools and focus on layering and subtleties. That’s a keyboardist’s dream. So I look forward to when our next project comes.

JAMBASE: No other hints, really?

JC: That’s all I can say. Management already wants to kill me, anyway.

JAMBASE: You guys have played a lot of shows with TAUK and it seems like your band and theirs is really simpatico. A lot of bands at TAUK’s level would have killed for this much exposure on Umphrey’s tour — what stood out about them?

JC: I heard them at some point on Jam On, just driving around, and remember thinking to myself, “wow, these guys are pretty cool.” A few of us went and watched their set at Bear Creek in, I want to say, 2014, and hung out with a couple of them after the show. They played a bunch of dates with us last year and then a bunch more.

One thing is that those guys are incredibly hard workers, and they’re all about taking the music seriously but not taking yourself too seriously. Certainly, there’s a vibe. We see a lot of ourselves from 10 to 15 years ago in those guys. You know, a lot of bands – when we started – reached out to us along the way gave Umphrey’s some big opportunities. The moe. guys were the first and we got boosts from Gov’t Mule and String Cheese and Panic. They all kind of took us under their wing and showed us how to tour like pros. So that’s something we’re happy to give back to a young band that really deserves it.

In addition, their personalities are awesome. I’ll give you an example: one of our favorite things to do to each other, and there are a couple of names for this and we did this with Greensky Bluegrass, is the veiled insult. You’d say this as someone was walking off the stage, and it would have only vaguely to do with the music and nothing to do with what was actually played. For instance, we’d say, “I really dug how you guys had great spacing up on stage between you. I don’t know, is it eight feet or 10 feet? You guys have to remember that, that’s working for you.” Or it’s something like, “You guys really seemed like you were having fun up there. Seemed like.” Or, “I love what you’re going for up there. You’re really trying.”

JAMBASE: [laughing] And the TAUK guys got into that?

JC: Oh yeah, they were great.

JAMBASE: Let me close by extracting a sit-in story from you, Joel.

JC: OK, I’ll give you two: one that was really cool and one that was a complete disaster.

JAMBASE: I’m ready!

JC: The really cool one was that we’ve done a lot of Tauking McGee sets where a couple of us do a late night or something with those guys in TAUK. For me, that’s incredibly awesome because I’m used to being in a band with two guitar players but can jump into a band with another keyboard player. We can share a lot and have a ton of interaction, go back and forth, trade solos, and not have to cover all the parts. That’s pushed me to play to complement another keyboardist and compose things that I might not otherwise. So those shows that I’ve been part of have really been a good time.

And the disaster. Well, this had to be sometime back last year, maybe October or November. [Umphrey’s McGee drummer] Kris [Myers] did a side project out here in L.A. called Stickum, and it was a couple of really amazing musicians: Bob Reynolds, who plays sax with John Mayer, and a bunch of Chicago guys. I told Kris, “hey man, I’ll be around, I’d love to come check out the show,” and some point later he said, “you should come up and play on a tune, it’ll be great.” And I was like, “great, tell me what you want me to learn,” and he told me to learn the song “Cirrus” by Bonobo. I hadn’t played it before but i was like “OK, cool, let’s do it,” and I learned it.

So before the show I go up and meet the band and I’m talking to Kris and he’s like, “this is my buddy and bandmate Joel and he’s going to join us for ‘Cirrus,’” and they’re all like, “OK, cool.” Kris says, “right before the song I’ll announce you so you’ll know to come up.” Before that on the setlist was a Radiohead cover, so they started that and I walked up toward the front of the stage toward the end and tried to make eye contact: hey, here I am. The song started and Kris didn’t say anything. The keyboardist knew I was coming up, but I wasn’t introduced and I’m not just going to jump on stage.

So I’m down in front and there’s a few people standing around but I’m very close to the stage and I’m thinking Kris has clearly forgotten about this, and I’m just standing there and trying to dance a little near the people up there so it looked like I was intending to stand here. So they get through the song and at the end of the song, Kris says, “oh, hey yeah, one of my good friends is here, give a warm hand to my bandmate from Umphrey’s McGee, Joel Cummins.” I jump up, and the keyboardist is like, “OK, we’re going to do this song, and it only has these eight changes and [Joel hums something insane and complicated] that’s how it goes.” I try it for a second and then I’m like, “OK, no, you play this and I’ll just take a solo” [laughs].

Kris was super apologetic after it: “I completely spaced on inviting you up.” It’s all good. Almost every side show we do, though, it’s become this running thing where I suggest we cover “Cirrus” by Bonobo, and maybe [laughs] … maybe it’s a little out of spite.

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