Interview: Umphrey’s McGee keyboardist Joel Cummins talks new album, 20th anniversary and his favorite moments from 2017
Umphrey's McGee/YouTube

Umphrey’s McGee have done a pretty good job of keeping their music and their live show fresh for the countless fans who still follow them around the country every year. After 20 years of writing and performing their signature mix of improvisational prog-rock, the group from rural Indiana could say they’re at the point in their careers where they achieved what they initially set out to do.

“When we got started with this, we made the commitment that we wanted to play a different show every night,” Umphrey’s keyboardist Joel Cummins can be heard saying on the other end of the phone line. “Starting there made it more interesting for people who wanted to come back and see us again.”

That journey has led the six-piece group to become one of the bigger names in today’s jam scene. Their loyal following of fans can often be seen wearing headphones out in the audience so they can get the audio feed straight from the soundboard into their ears without any ambient or non-musical interference. Similar to jam band behemoths like Phish or Dead & Company, Umphrey’s have earned the drawing power of their fans following them from coast to coast, and even down to the Dominican Republic, where they recently hosted a five-night destination musical getaway along with The Disco Biscuits, STS9 and more.

Unlike their jam/rock predecessors, Umphrey’s are still at the point where they can release a new album with a shared anticipation from their fans. That’s just what they plan on doing in 2018 with a new studio album titled it’s not us, due out Jan. 12. The release comes in sync with their 20th anniversary this coming year, which will be marked with a North American tour and a three-night residency at New York City’s Beacon Theatre in late January.

AXS spoke with Cummins via phone recently, where the keyboardist was still catching up from his time spent down in the Dominican the week prior. Cummins had plenty to say about their plans for the upcoming year, in addition to looking back on what was a pretty exciting and busy 2017 for the prog-rock outfit from Notre Dame, Indiana.

AXS: You guys had a whirlwind of a 2017 with your residency at Red Rocks and that wild Central Park summer concert in the pouring rain. What were some of your personal highlights?

JC: I think the three nights at Red Rocks were something that was beyond my wildest dreams. I never really anticipated us being able to do something like that, so it was pretty cool. Of course, having great artists like Snarky Puppy and Bruce Hornsby playing with us was just outstanding… that was really bada**. The Central Park show was a really interesting one because there was a big storm that came through earlier that day. It had cleared up but just kept getting muggier and muggier as the night went on. By the time it started raining again in the middle of our show, it felt like everyone was a bit relieved and excited about the rain. Sometimes there’s a rain that clears everybody out, but this particular one really seemed to amp everyone up. I remember this very vividly because we were in the middle of playing “Plunger,” which is thankfully kind of an uptempo, intense tune. More recently we just did out Dominican Holidaze event where we pick a resort in the Caribbean, buy up all the rooms, and put a stage up on the beach with our friends the Disco Biscuits, STS9 and a few other bands, and just have a four-day beach party. This was the first year where it did not rain!

AXS: With the band celebrating two decades together this year, what do you think it is about the music you perform that has allowed you guys to keep doing this for a living all these years?

JC: A lot of artists out there play the same or similar show every night, and that in the end, [not doing so] keeps it fresh for not just the fans, but for ourselves. It kept us focused on writing new material and always trying to come up with new things. Another aspect would be us staying friends with one another and continually trying to not let personal stuff get in the way of us having a career together. The final thing would be adjusting our working schedule depending on the needs of the musicians. We started out doing two or three week tours, then once some of us started having kids and families, we knew we had to change things around a little bit. It keeps a freshness and balance that’s been able to benefit us.

AXS: As a jam band that embraces improvisational and controlled freedom as the base of your live sound, how does that change when you perform for a totally controlled environment like a recording studio? Do you look at the album process for It’s Not Us as a challenge to create something that successfully translates how you sound live?

JC: The first thing is to not worry too much about having your sound translate from the live format to the studio. In the studio, we can obviously do a lot more with the vocals and layering and using different sounds from section to section. Having two approaches really opens up so many more possibilities, and we’ve gotten to the point now where we’re not concerned about replicating something in a live format. It’s okay to have two different [sounds] which may work better in a live setting than others, and after trying it a few times we can always re-assess where a song is as far as how it fits into a set. The studio should be a different creative vibe, and for us, it’s impossible to go there and have the same energy you’d have on stage, where the fans are really a part of it all. You have to go a little more inward and dig deeper when you’re in the studio to get those great takes.

We’re always playing live in the studio to figure out the arrangements so that it really feels like a band performance when we’re recording. That starts with getting a good drum take with Kris. Once we’ve really figured out the arrangement, it’s about getting Kris comfortable with what he’s doing. Once we get that drum take, then everything opens up from there.

AXS: After two decades of playing with these guys, how do you challenge yourselves on what the band can accomplish in the studio as well as on stage?

JC: The big challenge is just writing new material and trying not to come up with something you’ve already created. Using that approach has been so beneficial for us, as it’s prevented us from falling into the trap of trying to recreate something we’ve already done. At the same time, you don’t want to get too far away from what people know as your sound. We’re trying to create something new that still captures the essence of Umphrey’s McGee.

AXS Anyone who has ever seen the Umphreys would probably first define them as a guitar band, but when it comes to the team effort required to pull off an improvisational performance, a keyboardist can really carry a song as strongly as any other member. What were you personally excited to bring to these new songs with your own instrumentation?

JC: That’s a good question, you know there’s a lot of harmonic structure that is really important for how I fit into the band’s sound as a keyboardist. With the duel guitar attack thing, sometimes you have both of them playing lead elements or just one, but it’s my job to figure out how to fill out the sound and figure out what’s needed beyond just what the lead guitarists are doing. That’s an exciting thing for me. I have a degree in music theory so it really fits right into my alley of what I’m comfortable with. There are some really cool melodic and textural things that I got to add as a part of these songs. We have a track called “Maybe Someday” that I’m really proud of. I feel like it’s one of the more complex tunes we’ve written in the past few years. We don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into that 70s progressive rock element, so it’s about finding those sounds that are both vintage and current while coming up with something that feels pretty timeless. There’s just tons of different sounds on this album, with everything from Fender Rhodes to MiniMoog synthesizers to Mellotrons to acoustic piano or a Hammond B3 organ. One of the more fun things for me in the studio is just having a lot of diverse options to go in a create sonically.

AXS: Probably one of the notable marks on your upcoming winter tour is the three nights at New York’s Beacon Theatre. Your last NYC show was pretty wild, how can you possibly top that?

JC: [Laughs] Well thankfully we’ve got a special event here for the 20th anniversary show. I think we’re going to have something going on, I just don’t want to reveal too much, but yeah it’s going to be a really special weekend at The Beacon. I’m pretty thrilled that’s where our actually 20th anniversary show landed, and I can guarantee you that The Beacon Theatre will be quite an improved and better experience than our show 20 years ago at Bridget McGuire's Filling Station in South Bend.

Tickets to select shows on Umphrey's upcoming 2018 winter/spring tour are on sale now and can be purchased by clicking here