When you hear “jam music” you wouldn’t be the only one to conjure the image of some fluffy, trippy set of dread-donning musicians that just “go with the flow” on stage. We’re not going to point any fingers, but those bands do exist.
Yet, the art of improvisation has infected the rock genre for enough time that it’s spread into further territory, and you’ll often find bands in the jam scene that specialize in much more progressive, technical, even almost metal-like sounds. That’s the name of the game for Umphrey’s McGee.
Tearing through the jam scene since they were students at Notre Dame in 1997, the psychedelic sextet flows through an inspiring set of musical styles from rock to metal, funk, blues, and beyond. For a firsthand look at how their sonic personality comes to life on stage, head to the Capitol Theatre for their show this Sunday, October 14. In the meantime, we caught up with Umphrey’s keyboardist Joel Cummins for a closer look at the group.
I hear The Cap is a great place to have your first Umphrey’s show. What do you enjoy about that venue?
The Cap itself is such a legendary venue. There have been a number of amazing shows through the years. Whenever you get a space like that, that’s been a live performance concert venue over decades, there’s some kind of feel with the walls of the venue.
It’s pretty amazing what the whole team up there have done to resurrect this venue because it very easily could’ve gone away and become, you know, like an American Apparel or something. I’m really thrilled to see new life injected into the venue and into the area. It’s a great thing and we’re very happy to be a part of that experience.
You guys released three albums so far in 2018, and you’ve hit this number in past years as well. To what do you attribute this sort of prolific output? Most bands barely hit one album every other year.
Well, back when we started recording stuff that we released this year, which was in November of 2016, we had a really solid game plan going into it. We’ve accumulated a lot of songs. I think that’s the thing; we just keep writing more songs no matter what.
So as opposed to trying to rush something in 2017 we kind of saw this opportunity as 2018 being our twentieth year as a band to really hit home the fact that we’re not resting, and we are actually at some of our most creative that we’ve been in our entire career as far as output goes, and the variety and stylistic bearings between all the original music. It’s something that we really felt we wanted to highlight about ourselves too. We weren’t resting in any way. We are moving forward 110 percent. It’s great to feel that kind of reenergizing feeling of having a bunch of new material to throw into the live shows.
How does this output translate to being on the road and onstage?
I think at this point it’s almost like we’ve created our own language that is the music of Umphrey’s McGee’s. That’s definitely true when we get improvisational. Kind of like you and I are speaking now. That’s what it feels like conversing musically with these guys.
I think we are at about our 2400th show this year, as a band. We have played many, many hours of music at this point together and it’s just a lot of fun to be up there and to be still pushing each other creatively, but also having fun. It feels like a family at this point and it’s been a long-term investment and it feels good to kind of have that paying off over the past few years where things have just been consistently successful for us.
I saw you guys at Lockn’ this past August. I really enjoyed the Herbie Hancock you played with Lettuce, and of course when you broke out When the Levee Breaks. That was really fucking awesome. Any personal highlights from this past tour, or these past few weeks in general?
I don’t think that there’s probably ever been two bands that did what we did there with Lettuce. To have two bands playing on a rotating stage and both bands being put through the PA at the same time playing the same song. We’re all about trying to create things that are breaking musical grounds. That was a really fun experiment and it went well.
Obviously getting to do Zeppelin tunes with Jason Bonham and with Taylor Hicks and with Derek Trucks sitting in was just really cool. Kind of really getting at what the essence of Lockn’ was about: putting musicians together that are passionate about some of the same things and letting them enjoy each other’s company.
Is it true that Trucks only heard like twenty minutes beforehand that he was going to be going on stage to play Whole Lotta Love?
Apparently he wasn’t very familiar with the Zeppelin catalogues. We were like ‘You should definitely listen to that one.’ He definitely found his spot. He was covering the awesome slide stuff in the course of that. Hearing Chris wailing on the vocals—he really knocked it out of the park. It was cool to kind of see us shift around and fulfill different roles too, to make the most optimal sound.
I would say that was a summer highlight and then going back to Red Rocks and playing there for three nights again was just kind of like a surreal dream come true. Red Rocks is a place that Umphrey’s McGee fans love as much as we love it. It’s become a really special annual event for us.
Where do you find yourself challenging yourself as a musician these days? And maybe even the band as a whole?
I think it’s important to always keep learning and keep working on your craft. For me personally, I think a lot of the woodshedding happens when I’m home and trying to push myself — a lot of solo piano, classical, and jazz stuff to keep on working on the chops.
Then, when we’re playing with the band together I think some of the hardest things are playing at the same time. Some of the newer songs, like “Triangle Tear.” Some days there’s some really tough vocal passages that have been a good challenge for me to learn. So when I’m home I’m working, I really love playing Claude Debussy and I’ve been working on some Vitali stuff. Some Thelonious Monk.
Thelonious Monk is actually really, really awesome. I started checking him out maybe I think last Fall and it’s perfectly chaotic, but controlled. Somehow I guess similar to Umphrey’s music.
No doubt, no doubt. That guy took jazz to spaces where very few people have been before at 21.
Any upcoming or surprise projects you can spill the beans on coming up in the near future?
I always get in trouble when I spill the beans. That’s bad for me.
I’ll just say this. Our Cap show is the only show in the northeast for the rest of the year so it’s pretty cool to be able to come back and to make that our one stop and I think it’s going to be a pretty exciting night. We’re going to give the fans something to look forward to.