Interview with Joel Cummins of Umphrey’s McGee
I recently had the good fortune to speak to Joel Cummins, keyboard player with American band Umphrey’s McGee, freshly returned to the US after a three-night stint in London, England.
DPRP: Good Morning Joel, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today
JC: My pleasure, nice to talk with you.
DPRP: You have just returned from a somewhat rare trip over the Atlantic to play three London shows, how did they go?
JC: They were great, we had a lot of fun!
DPRP: Do you find much difference between UK audiences and what you are used to in the US?
JC: Well all audiences can differ depending on where exactly we are playing and also, of course, how they react to how the band are playing/performing which can fluctuate for all manner of reasons. However, there is a certain kind of humour evident in UK audiences that really resonates with the band and makes any shows we play over there very enjoyable. We would really love to make an annual trip over to the UK but logistically, and financially, it not easy with a six-piece band and all the crew. But we are doing our best to be more frequent visitors.
DPRP: Similar Skin, the band’s eleventh studio album was recently released, how has it been received?
JC: Outstandingly well. We have had lots of positive press from a wide range of sources and even made it to #49 in the Billboard charts, the highest position we have ever achieved.
DPRP: I found the album to be a lot more ‘immediate’ than some of the other albums, there seems to be a heavier aspect to the music but including some killer melodies and a lot more vocal harmonies.
JC: Well we consciously wanted to make a great rock record that was heavier but still have plenty of vocal melodies. We set ourselves the challenge of writing something that was based on the strongest songs in our catalogue and trying to find the elements that made those songs the strongest. But at the same time we wanted to ensure that the album had an overall different feel to the other albums but was still sufficiently Umphrey’s McGee to keep people interested. If you look at bands like Led Zeppelin or U2, they have a recognisable sound but not a consistent style.
DPRP: The new album is the first release on your own Nothing Too Fancy label, what made you decide to create your own imprint considering that for the past 10 years your albums have been released by Sci Fidelity Records?
JC: It is important to state that we were in no way unhappy with Sci Fidelity, they are a great bunch of people who have done, and continue to do, a great job. We just felt that it would give us a greater degree of flexibility and keep things together completely under our control. We also hoped, as I believe the response to the album has showed, that it would generate a greater feeling amongst our fan base of being more of a part of things. In some ways I think being completely independent has encouraged greater levels of support, there is a will and determination amongst our fans to make sure it succeeds!
DPRP: Umphrey’s always seem very engaged with their fans and you seem very appreciative of the support, releasing each album in a variety of special editions that provide lots of extras. Is this simply good marketing or is there another element to it?
JC: We like to feel we have a good connection with our fans, after all they are the ones that let us get away with what we do! The special editions and download material help to make a connection and, hopefully, create a deeper understanding, not just of what we are trying to do but also as feedback to us as what people want, or would like to see from us. It is a way for us to get closer to fans across the world where we can’t afford to tour and to keep the interest up. It is one of the reasons we like webcasts as although the timings may be a bit awkward for some people it gives the opportunity to have a level of engagement and interactivity fans can’t get from just listening to a CD or watching a DVD. Ultimately, we realise we are a bit of a niche band and so it all helps to spread the word!
DPRP: Does this interactivity extend to the live arena?
JC: Yes, we try and make each concert a unique event. That can range from selling specially designed posters and pins (badges) for each concert, we sell an amazing number of those, to having downloads available of each night’s show to innovative experiences such as ‘Headphones & Snowcones’ (a pristine soundboard mix piped wirelessly through audiophile quality headphones to up to 20 audience members that lets them experience the sonics of UM in a unique manner). we started that as an experiment and it has proved immensely popular, so much so that the demand currently way outstretches the capacity so it something that we would like to expand upon.
DPRP: Umphrey’s are famous for their improvisational skills, to what level are the improvisations made up on the spot?
JC: We frequently just jump right in with no predisposed plans although we sometimes do have a skeleton of ideas that we work around. Taking a variety of approaches helps to keep things fresh but not leave us too out on a limb. We aim to try and make the improvisations sound as if they had been composed, and, to an extent, they are controlled by different cues and a variety of hand signals so that we can all keep together. But for all that there is still a place for things to remain largely undetermined with the risk, or expectation, that anything could happen! We want to make the live performances a challenge but also exciting so that neither we nor the audience know what to expect.
DPRP: What about the cover versions that you frequently include in your set, how do you choose which songs to play?
JC: It’s a group thing, different members come in with different ideas and if we can make it work as a group then the chances are it will get performed at some point! There is also an element of exposing the audience to the songs and bands that we like. For example, I have been trying to get the band to play some material from the Mark Knopfler soundtrack Wag The Dog as I think we could really do something with that!
DPRP: Certainly something to look forward to! Thanks again Joel for your time today and hopefully you, band and crew will make the annual UK trip a reality so we can see more of you on these shores!