Concerts

Ahead of Red Rocks, Umphrey's McGee Talks Releasing NFTs, New Album

Umphrey's McGee will play Red Rocks Amphitheatre June 17-18.
Umphrey's McGee will play Red Rocks Amphitheatre June 17-18. Tara Gracer
"Red Rocks is always the highlight of the year for me," says Joel Cummins, key wizard for Umphrey's McGee. "We get to play the greatest venue in the world that we've experienced."

The prog-rock/jam band is hitting Red Rocks for a two-night run beginning tonight, June 17, but that isn't all Umphrey's McGee has to look forward to. The band  Cummins, guitarist/vocalist Brendan Bayliss, guitarist/absolute shredder Jake Cinninger, bassist Ryan Stasik and drummers Kris Myers and Andy Farag  is releasing its long-anticipated album Asking for a Friend on June 30. Cummins hints that the Red Rocks audience may hear some of the new songs, which the band has never played live before.

But the Umphrey's news doesn't stop there: In a somewhat surprising announcement, the band is dropping 2,022 Asking for a Friend NFTs ahead of the album release that will provide exclusive downloads of the record as well as limited-edition art. And no Ethereum or crypto cash is needed to buy these NFTs.

"We've tried to minimize the difficulty," says band manager Kevin Browning. "You'll be able to purchase the NFT with a credit card if you don't have a crypto wallet, and it'll automatically create a wallet account on the site, which will give you access to the streaming premiere the night before the record comes out, with the band on a Zoom taking questions. You'll be able to download stems of the album tracks to get a deeper layer if you want, and you'll also get a piece of collectible art that's based on the lyrical themes of the record. It's a little bit of everything: access, utility and collectible."

The NFTs are $25 (or 0.02 ETH) and available at AFAF.io. The limited-edition artworks are "made up of things we've gathered along the way the last two years during the recording process, be that photography, handwritten lyrics from the guys, images that we took in the studio, images that a well-known Chicago photographer Barry Butler took," Browning continues. "I have taken a bunch of those assets to create individual pieces of art for each song, and then we combine all of those songs' artwork into a piece that hasn't been revealed yet."

The NFTs will also, at random, contain bonus prizes for lucky fans. "You can win actual handwritten lyrics or charts used in the studio, or copies of the vinyl test pressings," says Browning. "We'll take a physical mailing address and mail out these unique pieces of memorabilia. It's a cherry on top, if you will."

"I will," Cummins interjects.

Cummins adds that the idea stems from the band's annual Golden Tickets, which it has offered for a decade. When fans buy merch, they also have a chance to win Golden Tickets that bring prizes such as tickets to every show for a year or side-stage passes. "Now we can airdrop tickets into somebody's wallet," Browning adds, "and reward people over time based on all sorts of consumption. We can take every poster from those shows, and people can get a limited-edition NFT poster that we just airdrop to them because they're a supporter of the band."

This isn't the first time Umphrey's has integrated innovative tech into its ethos. "Looking at the big picture, we've always wanted to try out new technologies when things are coming out, and looking at things that involve NFTs is a natural progression for us," Cummins says.

At its UMBowl event, fans are given an electronic ballot that allows them to curate the sets by voting on songs; they can also text in requests that the band will choose from live. "Two of the sets in advance people will vote on, and also have two live sets where people are contributing ideas in the moment at the show. It's a special fan experience when they send an idea in and it pops up on the screen, and all of a sudden their idea is something that's a live track that exists forever," Cummins explains.
click to enlarge Umphrey's McGee plays Red Rocks. - ERIC GRUNEISEN
Umphrey's McGee plays Red Rocks.
Eric Gruneisen

He also notes that the band has begun renting fans headphones and a wireless pack for concerts so that they can get a more detailed acoustic experience. "It's named after our song 'Headphones and Snowcones,'" Cummins says. "We were apprehensive at first, because we thought it might be kind of isolating, like, 'This is weird, why does this person have headphones on?' But it's actually been really cool, especially for audiophiles."

The NFTs are "an extension of things we've already been doing, but it's a way to reach fans in a different way. Broad strokes, there's still a lot of buzz around the technology, but it's misunderstood in a lot of ways," adds Browning. "There's a lot of speculation, and people who see NFTs as a land grab or cash grab. But right now we're at the whim of how, when a corporation changes its algorithm, it affects how we communicate with our fans. On Twitter or Facebook, if the algorithm changes, you may not see what we're putting out. This is a way to connect with our fans directly via the blockchain. I think there's a lot of really exciting opportunities to it that not a lot of people have wrapped their heads around yet, but it's going to give us the opportunity to engage and reward in a whole new way."

"I'll say I'm the degenerate of the group when it comes to the NFT side," Cummins adds with a laugh. "Although I think it's safe to say there's some piqued interest, as we've been discussing this more."

The album itself is a knockout. It was two and a half years in the making, with the band starting in September 2019. "In the end, I'm happy we took longer to do it, because it helped us craft our songs and find all the little missing pieces that things needed because we weren't trying to rush anything," Cummins says. "The end result, ending up with fourteen brand-new songs we've never played live before, is really exciting for us going into the summer tour."

Since the bandmembers now live in different cities, they used several studios to record solo pieces — but they also got together during the pandemic.

"We went to Jake's studio in Michigan, where we did some of the basic trackings. We went to Ecto Productions, our lighting company, we went to their warehouse and did livestreams from there and did recordings during the day. We each individually were doing overdubs from all over the place," Cummins says. "I did some in Los Angeles where I live, Brendan did some vocal stuff in Chicago. Jake did some stuff in his studio. ... We also went to Kris Myer's studio in Nashville and did livestreams and recordings back in February 2021, which was essentially the end of basic recording. We put the last bits together into the winter of last year."

Songs such as "Small Strides" contain both the ethereal synths as well as chugging bass lines that fans have come to expect from the band, while others, such as "Hiccup," have a more upbeat, pop vibe that's less expected but more than welcome. While the lyrics deal with the realities of the pandemic, they do so in a conceptual format that allows the songs to relate to any trying times.

"We've approached each album with a new kind of thing," Cummins says. "We kind of had a dream-pop vibe and clean, great melodies with these tunes. It's not quite as heavy as our recent releases. ... I think it's a little bit different, but we were actively trying to find how to present these songs in a cohesive package. I feel like there's enough similarities, but also they're different enough from each other to where they work well together."

Umphrey's McGee, 6 p.m. Friday, June 17, and Saturday, June 18, at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison; tickets are $60-$80.
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Emily Ferguson is Westword's Culture Editor, covering Denver's flourishing arts and music scene. Before landing this position, she worked as an editor at local and national political publications and held some odd jobs suited to her odd personality, including selling grilled cheese sandwiches at music festivals and performing with fire. Emily also writes on the arts for the Wall Street Journal and is an oil painter in her free time.
Contact: Emily Ferguson