The Uniqueness Of Umphrey’s McGee

Even if you see hundreds of concerts a year, you probably won’t see a band quite like Umphrey’s McGee.

That’s because the group formed in 1997 by students at Notre Dame University has taken jamming and improvisation to new heights. With the band never playing the same show twice, each performance is truly unique upon itself, an event that will never be duplicated.

On Sept. 13 Umphrey’s McGee released its sixth studio album, Death By Stereo, available on CD as well as vinyl.

To find out more about the constantly touring band, Pollstar spoke to Umphrey’s McGee founding member Joel Cummins while the band was in the middle of a four-night, sold-out run at New York City’s Brooklyn Bowl. The keyboardist talked about touring, how fans regularly challenge the band and what it’s like to go on stage not knowing what might happen next.

Photo: Chad Smith
Rothbury Music Festival, Rothbury, Mich.

How do you describe Umphrey’s McGee to someone who’s never heard or seen the band?

It’s really about creating the most fun and energetic live rock show we can. There’s so many different sounds that we produce, whether it’s kind of more the progressive rock side – the funk element is definitely there, too – but what it’s about is the six of us coming together to organically create something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.

Regarding progressive rock, when listening to Umphrey’s McGee, there are times when the drums and bass sound somewhat reminiscent of the early 1970s Bill Bruford / Chris Squire rhythm section in Yes. Was that an influence as well?

Definitely. We’re certainly rooted in a lot of ‘70s elements of progressive rock – King Crimson, Yes, Genesis. In addition to playing hundreds of original tunes, we draw a cover or two every night, and we learned “Roundabout” by Yes. It’s one of their great compositions and a lot of fun to play. I know that for Kris Myers our drummer, Bill Bruford is a huge influence.

While playing “Roundabout,” were you trying to channel your inner Rick Wakeman or did you bring a fresh approach?

I wanted to do a little bit of an honor to the way Rick plays it, throwing in my own style but there are so many great riffs and licks that he plays. When you’re playing a cover of a great artist like that, you feel a little more at liberty to throw out some of their stuff and play original music. I try to kind of shy away from that and not play something that might be rougher but keep it more of my own.

Describing Umphrey’s McGee as an improvisational band almost seems like an understatement, what with the group playing totally spontaneous gigs where you don’t know what will happen until it happens.

It’s definitely a hallmark of our sound. It’s so much fun to be in the moment. You don’t know where it’s going and to be on that roller coaster as a musician and the rest of the band doing it with you is a fun engaging experience. I think that’s one of the things that really keeps our fans coming back.

How did the UMBowl come about?

We started about three years ago with this concept called the “Stew Art Series” where 50 fans or so come to an event that happens in the afternoon before the regular night shows. The idea is it’s fan-guided improvisation. They’re texting ideas up to a screen that’s visible to the band and fans. We then improvise off of whatever those ideas are. So that was kind of the original concept we came up with. And UMBowl is a natural evolution of this. One of the sets is where fans text from the list of 35 or 40 things and then we’ll perform what they vote on. One element is live voting during the show. We’ll throw up a few different choices on the screen. People will vote and whatever is the most popular thing, that’s what we go into for the next idea. One segment is like the Stew Art Series where they’re texting ideas up to the screen.

So it’s all these different elements of the band and fans to create an entire night of music together. It turned out to be this really unique and extremely interactive event. I don’t think there are too many bands out there that are doing things like this. Our fans are really creative with this and have given us some great material to work with.

Do the fans ever stump you and the band?

For sure (laughs). Most of the time our moderators are good at realizing the things that will completely stump us. So we don’t want to do that to ourselves too much. Most of the time it’s great when it works out, but sometimes it doesn’t work out quite as you hoped. The human element isn’t necessarily a bad thing for them to see all the time.

How does the UMBowl differ from the Stew Art Series?

The Stew Art Series is the shorter end. We do about 25 minutes of music, about 15 minutes of Q&A and then a 30-minute meet and greet. The Stew Art Series we limit to about 55 or 60 people. It’s an extremely intimate event. The UMBowl is still a more intimate event than our normal shows, but there will be anywhere between 600 to 700 people. The UMBowl shows have typically been about a four-hour, four and a half-hour event. They’re both stemming from that same spirit of doing some sort of creative element at different levels.

We will do about six or eight Stew Art events over a year while UMBowl is a once a year thing.

Are there ever times when something that’s emerged in a Stew Art event ends up in the regular touring performance?

I’ve had people tell me that they think we improvise better in the shows after the Stew Art Series. Maybe we’re in that mindset a little more. It might also be because we’re a little more warmed up because we already played an entire set. I would say it loosens us up.

Because of the improvisational element, when writing and recording music, do you ever reach a point where you feel you’ve finished creating a song? Or do you look at it as a constant work in progress?

There are some songs that, for whatever reason, tend to lend themselves to be more malleable and flexible in arrangement, anything that’s open to being reworked or redone. At the same time I think there are some tunes that we’ve messed with over the years and we get to the point where it’s like “OK. Here’s the arrangement. We’ve finally got there. This is how the song is supposed to be.”

But there’s definitely songs that have kind of a creative element. We have a song from our last album, Mantis, called “Spires.” I was just listening to one of the original four-track versions and it has this really cool intro and I’m like, “Why don’t we use this? This is so cool.” So that’s one that sometime over this tour here I’m going to bring back up to the guys and see if that’s something we can work into.

So it’s something we all have in mind. The democratic nature of how we do things, everyone has a really good ear for arrangements and organization of tunes. It’s nice to have all these different kinds of chefs in the kitchen, where it’s not just pressure on one guy to make something happen. We’re open to each other’s ideas.

It sounds as if everyone in Umphrey’s McGee is more in tune with each other than most bands, almost as if you’re reading each other’s minds.

One of the things I read over the past couple of years is how it takes 10,000 hours for a group of people to really be good at something together. I think a lot of it is because we played together so much and did so many shows together that we understand how we communicate with each other musically. There’s a lot of common ground to where things come simpler, more natural and more fluid.

Is there a strong sense of family among bandmembers?

Definitely. It’s interesting because I go on stage and the thought of being nervous performing never crosses my mind.

No flop sweat or pre-show jitters?

Well, maybe for Red Rocks. But it feels like home. I’m walking in an environment where I’m welcome to do anything I want to while at the same time I have this great framework of things we all created that are structured. It’s really the best of both worlds.

Where the band is now, was that always the goal? Umphrey’s McGee formed while members were in college. Was it just a weekend thing for some extra cash. Or was it always a career goal, not only to be successful, but to do it your own way?

We wanted to make a career out of it. The interesting thing is, when we started, the mindset was if we can build this thing up enough, eventually a major label would notice us and then we’ll have this network to get access nationally and internationally.

That sort of goal or idea melted away as the music industry changed. It’s very funny because there are other bands out there, people that I’ve talked to, that will say, “Oh, man, you guys did this so organically. You just troop around the country, put the time in and built up your fan bases in all these markets. We signed with a major label and thought this would bring us what we needed. We really wish we would have been smart enough to do it the way you guys did it.”

The whole time we were getting started, we weren’t thinking we were being smart about it. We were just doing the only thing we knew how to do. Building things up through a very natural and grassroots method from the start has been a great way for us to naturally grow. There hasn’t been that big jump where one night we’re playing a 200-person bar and a month later we’re playing a 10,000-seat amphitheatre. That didn’t happen. And you almost don’t even notice it.

Many long-time bands have found that not all their fans grow with them musically, preferring to hear their favorite group play the old tunes, but run out to the concessions or restrooms as soon as someone says, “Here’s something from our new album.” Are Umphrey’s McGee fans just as interested in something they’ve never heard before as they are about older tunes?

If it’s good. It’s interesting. We played a song from our new album last night called “Domino Theory.” Nobody had heard it before. We hadn’t released it at all beforehand and people seemed to really love it. They were getting down. That’s definitely a good thing. It’s pretty straight ahead and rocking, so it’s fairly accessible.

We have another new tune that our people seem to really embrace – “Puppet String.” Again, that hassome really big guitar riffs and some other cool things going on. I think if the quality is there, our fans will embrace it. We’ve definitely had some instances of us doing some complicated things that might be a little over some people’s heads. Then we’ll see at first they don’t get it, but six months or a year down the road we notice the song has become more popular with fans.

The funny thing is, a song we never play live, an older song, that’s what all the fans will want to hear. And I’m like, “Why do you want to hear that? That’s not a good song.”

Part of it has to simply do with holding out on things and not necessarily ever playing. Whenever a song is played, the more special you can make the performance feel, the better it goes over.

Improvising every night, playing UMBowl and Stew Sessions – do you ever kind of look down at other bands as if to say, “Hah! You guys need a rigid, carved-in-stone set list for your shows.”

That does come up once in a while. And every time it does, I feel really lucky. We were riding in the van back to the Brooklyn Bowl after a live stream performance in Manhattan and we were coming up with the set list for the night. Everybody’s chiming in, throwing in ideas. It’s a fun thing. It’s almost like an adventure every day. We’re also very lucky because we have a very talented production team with us. As far as I can tell, it makes it look as if this is the set we do every night even though it’s a completely different thing. I don’t think we’ll repeat one song over the course of four nights here at the Brooklyn Bowl. I don’t know if I could be in a band on tour that plays the same set every night. That would be an enormous challenge to keep that fresh.

I love how we approach things and everybody is open to creating something different every night. We do end up with some nights better than others. But the fact that you go in with somewhat of a blank slate is really fun. I think that’s one of the things that keeps our fans coming back. People tell us, “I saw 30 shows this year” or something. It’s like, “Wow. Thank you for helping us pay our mortgages.”

Umphrey’s McGee was one of the first bands to really dive into downloading and provide recordings of shows shortly after the performances.

Yeah. We do as much as we can with technology to generally benefit us. We actually made a bit of a controversial change this year. One of the things we used to do was you could buy CDs of shows you just heard when you were walking out of the venue. With the shift to virtual music, downloads and everything, it wasn’t profitable for us [to sell live CDs after the shows]. More people were buying online so we made the shift to offering things just online. You can still buy the CDs, but not when you’re walking out. We don’t produce them every night. The advantage is we can pretty much have the previous night’s show online by noon the next day. I think we’re opening us up to more listeners. The turnaround time is a little bit longer than when we were producing CDs. And it really is about that turnaround time. These things have a shelf life of 48 to 72 hours. People want to scoop them up the next day.

The fact that somebody who’s a fan of ours in Australia, Europe or Asia can go to our website 12 hours after the show and listen to it. Things like that just blow me away, technologically. It’s really, really cool that we exist in that space and that we have an audience that wants to scoop up that music.

Did you ever determine how many people might listen to a single download?

I figure for every person that buys it once, there’s probably 10 people who got it for free. That’s my estimation. Just multiply everything by 10.

But that’s also 10 people who might buy tickets to your next show.

Exactly. You can’t really get too upset, anymore, about people that are going to pirate content. We feel if we can get to them that way, and get them through the door into one of our shows, they’re going to walk away from the show and probably get something else. We’re fortunate in that we have a little bit of a shelf life in where it takes a while for a listener to really get the band and understand what’s happening. It’s a nice thing that there’s kind of a depth to what’s being offered.

Are you ever approached by budding musicians telling you Umphrey’s McGee inspired them to play music?

Yeah and it’s kind of a flattering thing when it happens. It doesn’t happen all the time. One time a fan of ours brought her little brother to a show. I think he was 11 or 12 at the time and he decided he wanted to play the guitar after coming to our show. So I gave her some keyboard music and now she and her brother play music together and have worked out some of the arrangements to our songs. Now she’s telling me that not only did it get her into music but it gave her and her brother something really cool to do together. Things like that are totally unexpected and are the kind of things that give you al little extra resolve to keep going and doing what you’re doing.

Speaking of the unexpected. How did the band decide to do “Dick In A Box”onstage?

(Laughs) That was a popular thing right around the time we played it. I think, , who is now the Dave Matthews Band’s sax player, plays with us every New Year’s Eve. I think he kept singing it or something and we came up with the idea that night. So we worked on it a little bit. And lo and behold, it’s kind of a double-edge sword that it’s easily one of the most-viewed videos of ours on YouTube.

Are you comfortable with that?

But again, if someone who didn’t know we were saw this and then looked at something else we did, then great. You just exposed yourself to somebody that wouldn’t have seen you any other way.

Last question: What’s new about Umphrey’s McGee that no one has asked you about?

Here’s a new one. Lessee… As of last night, our percussionist Andy Farag is the only member of Umphrey’s McGee to play with all four surviving members of The Grateful Dead. Bob Weir sat in with us last night. We did one of our tunes, called “Glory” and we did a Buddy Holly tune, “Not Fade Away.” It was pretty cool to have him up there.

Photo: Chad Smith

Upcoming dates for Umphrey’s McGee include Northampton, Mass., at Calvin Theater Sept. 16; Portland, Maine, at the State Theatre Sept. 17; Pittsburgh’s AE Stage Sept. 21 and Atlantic City’s House Of Blues Sept. 22. Other stops include this year’s “Moogfest” in Asheville, N.C., Oct. 30 and the “Jam Cruise” Jan. 9 – 14. For more information, please click here for the band’s website.