Interview with Joel Cummins (Umphrey’s McGee)
by Frank Poppe
February 2, 2005

We are a progressive rock and kind of improvisational rock band. We now live in Chicago, IL. A lot of our influences are Frank Zappa, Miles Davis, certainly a few more modern bands, you know Yes, Dream Theatre, Pearl Jam, bands like that. Personally I grew up as a classical trained pianist. I’ve always been be a big fan of people like Keith Jarrett because one of my favourite albums ever is the Köln concert Album from 1975, it’s a solo piano peace and it’s him improvising on piano and it’s one of the most amazing things ever. I’m a big fan of him and of Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, some of the more Rock’n’Roll guys like Chuck Leavell. He is the keyboardist for a lot of Eric Clapton’s bands and the Rolling Stones and stuff, just one of the greatest Blues guys ever and he is from somewhere in England, not sure where… You know all those guys have really been huge influences for me, kind of developing my own style.

Can you tell me how you got started as a band.

Sure. The first time we actually played together in front of an audience was at a piano recital that I was doing for my degree at the University of Notre Dame up in South Bend, Indiana and that’s where the original four of us all were in school at the time. That was in the fall of 1997 and I invited all the guys who are now in the band to come up on stage and do kind of a little improvisation thing as a part of my performance. We had a good time at that point and about a month later we got together and said : “Let’s quit our respective bands and see if we can do this.” because it’d be a lot of more fun than sitting behind a desk for 40 years. So yes, we started doing that and we took about two months and we had our first performance and that was January 21st in 1998.

So you have an unusual name for a band, where is it from?

Ahaha, it is actually kind of a derivative of our guitarists Brendan’s cousin whose name is pronounced the same way but he has an H in front of the U. So it is one of those things where we really needed a name and we’ve had a hard time coming up with something so we picked that. There you have it.

You are all located in Chicago but you come originally from South Bend, Indiana. Why Chicago?

South Bend is in the Midwest as well. Chicago is kind of the cultural and musical Mecca for the Midwest so if you’re in the central United States, let’s say this is a great place to be, so many wonderful musicians live here. There’s always an opportunity to collaborate with different people, so much in the arts. Personally, I grew up outside of the city, so I feel very much at home being here and most of the other guys are from around the Midwest, not too far away. So it just kind of made a logical choice and then logistically made a lot of sense to us, too, because we can get to pretty much any place except for big stream west coast in like one day. So we don’t have to go out on huge six and eight week tours. We can usually hit all the spots we want to in two or three weeks.

How many songs do you have in your repertoire, how many originals and cover songs?

See, we’ve got about, well, the last time we played I think we had 90 originals and since then we’ve probably gotten about 15 more done. We’re in the studio right now working on a new album. And then we probably rotate about, I would say something between 150 and 200 covers that we play. We probably play only like one or two of those a show but we like to put this kind of material in there for people who don’t know the band’s music, so they will be able to recognize something that we cover, something that they might be a little easier to grab on to.

I’ve read that you’ve been impressed by Roger Waters’ The Wall concert in Berlin back in 1990.

Yeah (laughing), that’s very true, yeah.

What are your personal musical influences and which musical styles influence the band’s music?

I think that was a huge one for me. I can’t believe the luck I’ve had. I happened to be an exchange student in Germany for about a month and we had three days in Berlin and we showed up in Berlin and saw the flyers for that thing and I said “What… What is this?” and I realized it’s Roger Waters with all these amazing people doing the Wall show. I was like “I have to go to this, there is no way I’m not going to that” and it was mind blowing. I’ve been a big fan of Pink Floyd before that and today that’s still probably the most impressive concert that I’ve been to. Of course the cultural significance just was, you know the concert on its own level was amazing but then when you put it in the context of what was happening... There really aren’t words to describe it. Let’s see, I trying to think of other concerts and things that I’ve enjoyed over the years. Definitely recently I’m a huge Taj Mahal fan. I’ve gotten to see him live and he’s one of my favourite people to see live. Who else? There is a couple of Chicago bands that I really enjoy that I’ve seen live this year, Tortoise, kind of what they’d call post-rock band or something like that. Wilco of course, they’re a Chicago band that I’m a big fan of.

Last June you released your third studio album “Anchor Drops” under SCI Fidelity Records. What are the steps to a studio album and why SCI Fidelity Records?

Well, I give you the second answer first. We finished the album and had the opportunity kind of shop around with it and say: “Do you want to put this out? Do you want to put this out?” It ended up just being something where we felt really comfortable with the people working at SCI Fidelity and I think that kind of our intuition and our decision has been great for both of us. They have a lot of experience working with bands in our genre over here and we’re very excited to try to do something with this album, so I think that was one thing we were looking for. Somebody who was gonna be excited and really want to get behind this and help us try to promote it. They’ve done a great job.
With this album we wanted to accomplish two things. The first one was to put together a cohesive album, something that you could sit to and listen to from start to finish. And secondly, we wanted to put together songs that at the same time stood well on their own. So we went in the studio with a hand full of songs and some of the ones we thought would be on there ended up not being on there and so forth. We really started from scratch and said: “How can we service these songs for dust and try to make these arrangements work together.” We really went into that with that in mind and tried to have open minds about what parts would work and what might need to be subtracted, what might need to be added. We just took our time with that, we’ve had a lot more time to work on this than we ever had in the past. So we’re kind of using that, saying “All right time was obviously a huge factor with this last one.” It turned out to be pretty well with us. The next one we’re working on an acoustic EP right now. It’s got to be about seven or eight tracks with largely acoustic guitar based songs and then kind of working on a really heavier progressive album that’s probably gonna come out let’s say about a year from now. We really going to take our time with this album again and hopefully that same formula will work, we’ll take our time and kind of let things develop and out they go.

I think that you used to follow an interesting thing concerning the taped live shows from the fans. They record and copy them on CD, return them to the band, who then label the CD’s and give them back out. How do you handle the live recordings nowadays of your shows on CD?

That was really a huge promotional tour for us a couple of years back when people don’t know who the band were, so nowadays we’ve kind of taken what, I think, is the next step. Our house engineer, Kevin Browning recorded all the shows and tracked them live as they go. If people want to purchase them at the end of the show, we have them available that night. That’s something very exciting. We still of course allow people to bring in their taping rigs and tape the shows for free and do that, too because that’s still a huge medium when people just do that and distribute them and give them to their friends and things like that. We think that the more people that can hear our stuff who might enjoy it, the better, you know. We want people to hear our music, so…

Especially your live music…

Right, oh yeah.

How would you describe your relationship to your fans?

Oh, I think it’s great. They supported us all throughout the country so it’s something we’re thrilled to be able to say “Okay, we can plan a tour and pretty much go anywhere and know that people would come to the shows.” Yeah, it’s pretty amazing and people are always really excited. Whenever you have a high crowd energy at shows it makes your playing so much better. Just a great time to be up there playing live in front of them!

The jamband scene is a Northern American phenomenon. What do you think, why is this kind of music scene not well known here in Europe.

That’s a good question. You know, I think that there is certainly been a tradition of it that it happened and kind of continued to be passed on. You know, bands like the Grateful Dead did it. Then our touring, I think that part of it might just be a logistical thing. Obviously in Europe you gonna have to tour around numerous countries and so forth. Then maybe a little more just like a practical hurdle. Just as I feel like in Europe there is probably more the history of progressive rock and there are a lot of people who are into that. You don’t have that much over here. I think it’s probably just something that has been kind of passed on by convenience but I hope we can come over there and get some people to come out and see us and maybe we can come back to Europe then.

So what might be the reasons for Umphrey’s McGee and the other bands playing at the Amsterjam festival (Jam in the Dam) in March? Do you want to reach a new market or is it more a fun trip for you all?

Oh, I think it’s probably both. We’re looking for something to kind of make a big splash when we come over to Europe and at the same time I think we have two days off at the front end. Unfortunately we can’t stay very much longer because we have concerts back here in the States the week-end after that. But I think it’s a little bit of both and I think it’ll be a great time for everyone involved.

You got any expectations?

I know the music will be great. I’m very happy about all the artists playing with us. So I’m really looking forward to that and I think we’re gonna be ready to rock and put on a rock show.

Yeah, wonderful, we’ll see you in the Melkweg in Amsterdam.