For over a decade, Umphrey's McGee has been melting faces with insane covers, complex compositions and wild fan-interactive show. Ideas like the Stew-Art Series, the recently added "sUMmer School," in which band members teach classes on songwriting, instrument improvisation and lighting techniques, and the UMBowl, are just a few of the ways the act keeps engaging and exciting for everyone. We recently caught up with keyboardist Joel Cummins for a chat about all that.
Westword:One of my last run-ins with Umphrey's Mcgee was the Stew-Art Series last year in Denver. How did that idea come about?
Joel Cummins:Its something we came up with as a band for something that would be able to involve the fans. One thing that we've realized over the years with the fans, the really devoted ones, is that they really like to voice their opinion of our music. Why not give them the chance to see if they can help us create something new.
So basically everyone texts in an idea, a theme, or anything really, and then you just take that and run with it?
There really is no limit to what can be up there. The thing about it is that, for us, if they want us to keep a certain song, but then we get some abstract ideas, there really is no wrong answer, and we can run with anything.
Do you have any favorite moments from the Stew-Art series? Last year I got to hear your "Daft Umph," which really stuck out for me, being a dance music guy and all.
Now that you bring that up, that one really shines for me. Being the keyboard player in the band, I'm a big Daft Punk fan, so whenever we get to throw out riffs like that, it's really fun to do on my Moog. Also, last year we got a theme of "soaring" or maybe "uplifting," and we really took our time with it. It was maybe an eight or ten minute segment that really went in the direction we wanted it to go. That was really rewarding, because it was really developed.
What do you mean by "It went exactly where we wanted it to go"? It just flowed perfectly, or the band just really came together?
Both of those things! I think that's the essence of trying to create something successful for our S2 concept. Musically, it needs to push us, and at the same time, it connects with the fans. When those two things combine, you can really feel the energy in the room, and that's exactly what we want. We've been accused of being somewhat of an ADD band, because occasionally, we go off on tangents. With this, we took our time and really let the music develop.
Continue on for more of our interview with Joel Cummins
How are you referred to as ADD band? Is that the stage chemistry, or is that there is so much excitement going on that you are pushing onto the next song too fast?
It's not anything that isn't right. It's just very much so that we are very remote, and if we feel like something musically can go in another direction, we communicate that on stage. We use very elaborate hand signals and cues on stage giving us the ability to communicate very quickly in the moment.
It's good when people can look back at a show and say, "How did that happen?" because of how we decided to play the set. That can be something that is a very positive thing of our ADD mode. It's difficult to judge in the moment -- should we take it this way, or that way -- but it's an evaluation of both what we're playing and how people are reacting to it.
So, "Jimmy Stewart" is the alias of an improv jam. How do you determine who takes the lead and who controls the improvisation?
We definitely play like a team, so whoever has the hot hand at the moment kind of takes the lead. It's occasionally something that before the set we'll determine, and say "Joel, this is your spot. Ryan, this is your spot, etc.," but it typically is just pretty organic. Generally, we'll start out on tour and be more acknowledging about who's going to lead certain things. As we go on, we just get in a rhythm. That's one of the most fun things about being in this band. There is a section we dedicated to improv coming up, and none of us know what's going to happen. Having that open template is really exciting.
Have you ever created songs off of the improvs?
All the time. In fact, one of our more popular songs called "In The Kitchen" happened that way from a show in Fort Collins, I think, back in 2002. We are constantly going back and finding improvisations where we liked the chord progressions, and where we feel like a song might work.
Kind of a "let's see what happens," then "look what we pulled out!"
That's one of the fun things about being able to record all your shows and then go back to the, because when we first started doing this, we weren't recording. If we liked something, it was lost in the airwaves forever. But now, thanks to recordings, everything is documented.
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