Umphrey’s McGee: Falling Into Place

By Team JamBase Sep 16, 2011 1:32 pm PDT

By: Dennis Cook

Umphrey’s McGee by Chad Smith
It’s one of rock’s sad truths that bands don’t generally get better with age. The lifetime of experience and hopes, dreams and giant size effort stuffed into early work and a group’s first tours too often wanes with the years. But thankfully there are exceptions and Umphrey’s McGee is proving a very happy one as they head into their fifteenth year together. Unabashed champions for rock’s potential diversity, the band has released what is both their most concise, streamlined effort yet and also its most stylistically varied in Death By Stereo (released September 13), their ATO Records debut, where they join label mates My Morning Jacket, Dawes, John Butler Trio and Gomez. Perhaps a signal of the wider audience this band is garnering these days, at the very least it’s another solid jump outside the jam band cul de sac, which fits their tighter, increasingly radio-ready songwriting and leaner track times.

While maturity can hang poorly on some artists, it’s looking really good on UM, who operates with equal facility in the improv rich, solo stretched jam world and in more structured, artfully composed and executed realms. From the sweeping Steely Dan-esque “Booth Love” to the kick-ya-in-the-mouth attack of “Domino Theory” to the delicacy, grandeur and melancholy of “Hajimemashite“ to the off-kilter swing of “The Floor” to the confident, classic rock infused strut of “Conduit,” Death By Stereo makes it clearer than ever that this band may just be capable of ANYTHING they put their minds and considerable skills to. Throughout this new set there are signs of growth – punchier, more nuanced vocals, greater discretion in their instrumental contributions – but mainly a healthy disregard for anyone’s standards but their own. If there were any doubts about Umphrey’s McGee being one of the most original, exciting bands to emerge in the past 20 years, this album puts them to rest.

We snagged Umphrey’s McGee’s secret weapon behind all the guitar fireworks and low end sophistication, keyboardist Joel Cummins, to discuss their sixth studio effort and what makes this continually rising band tick.

New Album
JamBase: Umphrey’s McGee has been moving towards being a fully formed studio band for a while but I don’t know if you’ve hit the mark quite so resoundingly as Death By Stereo before.

Joel: That’s always been the goal, and this one, in a way, harkens back to the Anchor Drops album, which bounces back and forth between so many different styles that from the beginning to the end of each track you never know what to expect. I really like that element about it, and at the same time, the new album is just 42 minutes long, so we’ve got some really tight, condensed versions of songs as well.

JamBase: There’s value to recognizing the differences between studio work and what can be done with material live.

Joel: Absolutely, absolutely! Every one of these songs has multiple jumping off points into something else. We’ve had a lot of conversations about this. When we put out our first real studio album it was 72 minutes long and every single album has gotten shorter & shorter because we realized it’s really hard to sit down and listen to an entire album when it’s that long. A lot of the great classic albums are in the 40-45 minute range, and it’s nice to have something you can really sink into but when it’s done you still want more.

There’s reasons a truism like ‘leave them wanting more’ sticks around. You want people to wonder what these songs will be like when the band takes off the leash. Based on Umphrey’s rep as live powerhouses, there’s no doubt these will be wonderful springboards but your growing skill as editors should be admired. It’s something a lot of bands that started in jam scene simply don’t possess.

Joel Cummins by Susan J. Weiand
I appreciate that, and a lot of that is things we’ve learned over time. I have to give a lot of credit to Manny Sanchez, who co-produced and engineered the album and helped with arrangements. We’ve been working with Manny since 2004 and have developed a really comfortable relationship with him. The biggest thing is whenever one of us does a session with him we come out of it happy about the creativity that’s surfaced. So, when you feel you’re working with somebody who brings out the best in you that instills trust in them and faith that they’ll do the same with the final product.

This year’s been a big transition year for us since Kevin Browning has moved from sound production and being our front-of-house engineer into more of a business development role, which has been equally crucial – and I must say he’s been absolutely killing it. So, Manny’s really stepped up on the more producer side of things. That’s not to say Kevin isn’t involved in the album at all because he did a great amount of work on editing it and some producing, but this is a transitional album where we’re handing the reins over to Manny.

You mention the business side of things and I think that’s an important aspect to Umphrey’s McGee’s success. You guys comport yourselves as professionals at every turn. You run a pretty tight ship, and it doesn’t seem like the romance of the road that seems to derail a lot of bands is all that prevalent in Umphrey’s. You guys are serious about creating a relationship with your fans and potential listeners that shows a lot of care in the details.

You have to these days. We’ve got six guys in the band, so we’ve got to get it right. We’re at a great crossroads in the music industry right now and the ball is in our proverbial hands to do whatever we want to with it, and that’s just a great gift to have. Knowing we have dedicated fans out there who say, “What do you want to give us?” gives us the ultimate freedom to do some unique, creative things. We try to approach things from as many angles as possible. While the number one concern is to deliver the best music possible, we want to get the fans involved with things like S2’s and UMBowl. The opportunities to come up with new and different things is out there, so why not do it?

Umphrey’s McGee by Brian Spady
Having a willingness to do that is just plain exciting. I find Umphrey’s to be a relatively fearless band.

It’s important to get outside our comfort zone. When I think about improvising I’m trying to do the same thing, thinking about performances and songs as a chance to create unique moments. If you can do that both musically and business-wise it can open a lot of doors.

The people committed to your music, really committed to your tribe, appreciate that effort to come up with new situations, some of which have become annual traditions. I can’t think of any other band doing something like the Stew Art Series.

The idea is to create our own little world for people to exist in. That’s not to say we don’t collaborate or share stuff with other people but it’s important to us to come up with original angles where it’s not just figuring out what we do and inviting people to come to show and that’s it. There’s so much out there to do now that it seems silly not to explore this stuff.

So many bands that got their start in jam world like Umphrey’s McGee seem to want to go onto something else, mostly mainstream recognition and success, but in creating your own world your band has grown into something unique that’s evolved organically. You don’t seem to be making decisions to serve the appetite of some outside entity.

Umphrey’s McGee by Chad Smith
The thing with how we write is we’re always trying to do something different. The first thing is to never rewrite a song that’s one of our popular songs – that’s how that song is and let it be. Inherently that will bring change and growth, and the nice thing is we have enough versatility that we can do a really progressive oriented album like Mantis or we can do something that’s a little more accessible to the average music listener like Death By Stereo and still retains a core sound that is Umphrey’s McGee. No matter what we’re doing it’s still the six of us. Sometimes we discuss if something is too different for us, but even if we sometimes forget, we’re all still part of this and you can’t really take away the way someone plays.

Umphrey’s McGee gets more interesting with each passing year, and that’s really hard to do the longer a band sticks around. It takes dynamic effort to avoid becoming a band that plays the same 13 songs every show.

Well, I think this is it. It all goes downhill from here [laughs]. No, you’re absolutely right, and the key is always working on new things. Since this new album we’ve performed about five new tunes live that are newer than the studio album and we have four or five more waiting in the wings. It’s just a matter of us finding the time to work on them. We want to take enough care with every song we put out there so that they have enough quality that they’ll survive the test of time.

Umphrey’s McGee by Dave Vann
Continuing to write new material, work on arrangements, etc. has always been something we all feel the urge to do. If a couple months pass and we haven’t played a new tune we get antsy. It’s funny to say we’re sick of our songs when we’ve got 120 of them in regular rotation! It’s a testament to our collective desire to keep pushing things forward. We’re blessed to have a bunch of guys in the group who want to write and put the time in. We do it lots of different ways, be it working at home or a couple of us getting together to work or all of us backstage working on an arrangement together. That variety is a key element to keeping things fresh.

Variety is one of the most striking things about Death By Stereo. Each time I spin it I have the experience of forgetting I’m listening to Umphrey’s McGee at some point and I think, “Damn, that’s a really good song! I wonder who it is?” and then I snap back to the realization that it’s all one band.

[Laughs] Nice, nice, that’s exactly what we were going for with this one. You may find yourself listening to “Search 4” thinking, “This is rippin’!” and five minutes later it’s a horn-laced dance party with “Booth Love.” Everything has an identity of its own. When we go into the studio we think, “Each of these tunes is its own thing, so how can we make this work as an entity standing on its own?”

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