Posted by: brad – Aug 26, 2013
Umphrey’s McGee (whose name makes them sound more like a Celtic folk-punk band than a progressive-rock band with funk and jazz influences) are heavy-hitting veterans of the modern jamtronica scene.
The band got their start in the late 90’s at Notre Dame University and originally consisted of only four members, Brendan Bayliss (guitar/vocals), Joel Cummins (keyboard/vocals), Ryan Stasik (bass), and former drummer Mike Mirro. By 2001 their lineup had grown to include two additional members, percussionist Andy Farag and guitarist Jake Cinninger.
Umphrey’s McGee (often abbreviated as Umphrey’s or UM) became popular amongst the college music scene of South Bend, Indiana and, within eight months of their formation, had recorded their first studio album (Greatest Hits Vol. III). In 2002 Umphrey’s drummer Mike Mirro decided to leave the band to attend medical school and was eventually replaced by current drummer Kris Myers, which marked the first and, to date, only, lineup change the band has seen in their over fifteen year history.
This level of compatibility between members would be an asset to any band, but especially so for the improvisationally driven Umphrey’s McGee. Genre-wise, the band rides a fine line between progressive-rock and an electronically influenced jam-band sound (with hosts of other influences such as funk, blues, metal, jazz, and folk).
Their latest studio album, Death By Stereo, was released in September of 2011. The album was praised for showcasing the bands songwriting ability but also criticized for a lack of cohesiveness. Umphrey’s McGee is currently touring with fellow electronic jam-band Sound Tribe Sector 9 and is set to return to Richmond at Maymont Park on August 29th. The band played there back in 2011 and, thanks to umlive.net, fans can purchase a live recording of the show online. Umphrey’s is famous for their imaginative techniques to involve the fans in the music itself and the show is sure to be a good time. To preview the upcoming show, I spoke with keyboardist Joel Cummins:
So how’s the tour going man?
The tour’s going great. Were on our seventh show to date and we’ve had some amazing audiences and It’s a great time being out with the STS9 guys. Both musically and personally those guys are a lot of fun to be out with. The production has been amazing, their shows have looked great, and we're still yet to repeat a song from the beginning of the tour, so that’s kind of fun now that we have our catalog up to the level where we can do that.
Yeah for sure, have you guys had any problems on the road so far?
(Laughs) I mean, you know, it depends what you classify as a problem. I’ve missed a few birdie putts if that’s what you’re asking. That’s kind been a problem for me, I need to work on my short game.
How do you deal with it when something like that happens?
I tend to throw the putter, in kind of a helicopter style, but I have a few that I’ve broken over my knee, depending on how strong I’m feeling that day. I’m a pretty happy golfer. Those guys are all honestly really good golfers, it’s been a bunch fun. We’ve been going out with like two groups of people probably every other day and gotten to play some awesome courses as well as well as gotten to play some music.
So, what do you think is the biggest change you guys have gone through stylistically since you guys started playing? Because you guys have been together for a long time now.
We have been! You know, I think, from the beginning, we really tried to get things tighter overall. I think when we started there was just less understanding of how to play well together as a group. You can look at the simplest things, like playing so that the kick drum and the bass lineup. (Laughs) We had no clue what we were doing when we started [but] we were just really passionate about it. We have a few songs from the earlier end that we still play, but that we play quite a bit better than we used to. But I think we’ve really kind of stepped into our own.
We didn’t know what the sound was that we wanted to be going for when we started and once Chris and Jake became part of the band we kind of had that vision come a little more into focus. I feel like we’re a band that’s influenced by 70’s progressive rock more so than most bands out there touring. So that little bit of a heavier edge really defines what we like to do, along with the improvisational aspects of what we do live and just the unpredictability and the variety of being able to approach a show every single night and try and do something completely different than what we’ve ever done before. Which I think keeps us on our feet and keeps the listening fan base engaged because they have no idea what’s coming from night to night.
Yeah and it makes it a really exciting thing to see you guys live every time you go to a show. So, because you guys are so improvisational, do you ever struggle with deciding how you want a song to sound and how it’s going to go when you actually get into the studio and start recording?
Yeah, we’ve kind of come up with a process for anything as far as arrangement goes. Our general rule is we will try anything if somebody believes in it and then listen back and kind of make decisions about what’s going to work best. So it requires a little bit of letting go of ego to be ok with that. But we’ve all realized that once you put the big picture into it, that sometimes something that you think is really sick, but that nobody else does, you just kind of have to be ok with it.
With six guys in the band, if you spread that out evenly between everyone, you would get to make the decision 17% of the time. It really does involve a lot of compromise and a lot of going with each other’s ideas. One thing I read a couple years ago was that improv-comedy is really only successful when everybody on stage is willing to say yes to whatever’s happening or whatever somebody else puts on the table. That’s something that we’ve definitely tried to become more and more of, is yes-people to each other. You know when somebody starts an idea on stage, you can’t say, “hey that isn’t what I was thinking, go with my idea.” It’s easier said than done because there are a lot of time live when we’ll be doing something and something happens that one of us didn’t expect and you just immediately have to flip that switch and leave whatever in the past and move forward.
But I think, with the creative process in the studio, we’ve only gotten better over the years and we’ve actually been in the studio quite a bit for the past few months, putting stuff down for a new release in 2014. We’ve got like sixteen tracks going right now, nine of them are things we’ve played live, and seven of them are completely new songs. It’s definitely going to be a nice thing to have some more new material coming up soon.
Yeah and it’s really exciting as a fan just to hear you guys are in the studio. Is there any more information you can give me on the actual album, how it might be different from Death by Stereo and some of the other stuff you’ve done in the past?
Well, with Death by Stereo, we were kind of considering putting out a few EPs for a while because we had sort of a funkier electronic sound with a few of the tracks and then we had kind of a heavier rock feel [on others]. So for this one we took a lot of our songs, and some of the newer things, that were more in that heavier rock vein. We definitely decided that we wanted to create something where the songs were a little more related than with Death by Stereo. With Death by Stereo we really focused on each individual song and weren’t really too concerned about creating more of an overall vibe. For this one we wanted to explore that. We have a few more up-tempo, dancier, songs that we definitely could have recorded as well but we decided to wait on those, so that’ll probably be kind of the direction of the next release, whenever that is.
We have a few things planned here for the next few studio and recorded versions of things, but this particular thing that we're working on is definitely going to be very rock'n and lots of fun. I think there’s kind of a lack of good rock and roll that’s being put out there right now. Bands like Queens of the Stone Age are still really doing it. They might be my favorite true rock band out there right now. So, with that kind of jerk in the scene, everything has kind of shifted more into the electronic vein. So we kind of feel that this is the perfect time to put out something that really showcases that side of the band.
So you guys are pretty famous for really creative ways of using technology in not only your writing process but also in how you interact with fans, and what do you think is the best way fans of your music can get involved in the music itself other than just going to shows, and buying the albums?
Well we have our UmBowl event each year which is really the most fan interactive thing that we do, where fans are voting live on what’s happening on stage and also voting in advance on a couple things. That’s definitely a good one but also, I would say, hit me up on twitter, my account is goldlikejoel. I’m definitely pretty active with that and [enjoy] engaging the fans and seeing what they like and what they don’t like. A lot of time people will send me requests there. I’m definitely, in particular, looking forward to the Richmond show, as my wife is from the Richmond area and she’s got a lot of family coming out to the show. It’s always a good time to get to play for the in-laws and give them a little rock and roll. They’ve got a pretty good taste in music so I’ve got to step up my game every time.
Well I know Richmond’s really excited to have you guys play here again so I’m definitely looking forward to it.
Very cool, very cool, we're excited to come back and Maymont is a beautiful venue, I know people like that a lot down there too and it’s always great to be able to play outside in the summer.
By Sam McClelland