Jake Cummins of Umphrey’s McGee reflects on 20 years in music

Longevity and stability. These are two things every artist seeks, but only a few ever find. Umphrey’s McGee is one of the lucky ones. Founded in the late nineties, the midwest based rock band has long toed the line between epic arena rock and lawless jam band spontaneity with a natural ease that continues to impress audiences worldwide to this day. The group has spent the better part of the last year celebrating two decades of success, including surprising fans with new music, and now, for the first time, member Joel Cummins agreed to speak with Substream about everything Umphrey’s McGee has accomplished.

Substream: How are you doing today, man?

UM: I’m doing great. I just woke up in Chicago and got a couple of days off here after Summer Camp and spent the night in the studio last night recording some solo piano stuff. Our beloved I.V. Labs Studio where we’ve recorded the last couple of albums together is moving, so I wanted to get one more session there on their Steinway before they did that and, yeah. Just went to a Cubs game the other night and I got to spend a little time with some friends on a boat yesterday, gonna play a little golf today, so just taking advantage of the nice weather finally here in Chicago. I don’t live here anymore, I live out in LA, so I try to plan my trips accordingly so I can take advantage of the good times here.

Substream: I was just in Chicago myself. I like the golf game out there, though I’m terrible at it, I do like to play.

UM: I have my good days and bad days.

Substream: I went out yesterday, I was actually at the range yesterday, and I stopped at a gas station afterward and some guy was like “how did you do?” And I was like “Uh… I played, that’s about all I did.”

UM: “I played!” Ha!

Substream: I finished!

UM: That’s good, there you go. You finished.

Substream: You guys seem like you’re having maybe the busiest year in twenty years almost? It looks like you’re keeping busy.

UM: Well, I don’t know, that might be a hard one to make. We played 162 in 2003, and we’re at about 85 this year, however that being said, we’ve probably released more new music in 2018 than we ever have.

Substream: Yeah, that’s really what I wanted to focus in on. What was the fire that kind of inspired this two releases in six months idea?

UM: Well, you know, we went into the studio back in November of 2016 and we’d had a really good kind of lead up period to that where we were able to identify a lot of strong ideas, sections and sometimes even full songs that we had started on or that somebody had brought to the table, so as far as pre-production goes, we were really dialed in and we finally showed up in the studio, we had so many ideas, so that week that we spent in the studio I think we probably recorded a total of about 25 or 26 songs. And so, you know, as we were kind of working on these and trying to decide “okay, well, which ones are going to be on an album?” We kind of came to an impasse because all of our different presences within the band, we were all like “okay, none of these… there are only a couple of ideas that are unfinished.” There were 21 or 22 really strong ideas that deserve consideration, and so we talked about three EPs, we talked about actually putting out a double album at first, and then after some examination of how the industry is working these days and so forth, we decided that the best way to approach this would be to put out two completely separate releases that really kind of each have their personalities. This new album, It’s You, is not at all an album that’s a B-side, it’s really kind of its own thing. And I think if anything, you kind of hear a little more of the poppier side of things on It’s Not Us, and then this is diving a little more into the progressive world for most of the tracks, but certainly not exclusively that. I think that one of the hallmarks of Umphrey’s McGee’s sound has been the eclectic nature of our stylistic choices and I think that’s evident on both It’s Not Us and It’s You. It’s just a really exciting time. We’ve been working on playing these new songs and we’ve been able to debut a few of them over the weekend at Summer Camp, so it’s a nice shot in the arm to be going into summer tour with yet another batch of new tunes.

Substream:J: The thing that I love about the two albums thing is I feel like your genre so often gets pigeonholed as a genre where people go for the live show and the live experience, and you guys do have more live albums than most groups, but you seem so determined to create new stuff and I think that’s something that I really love about you guys, is having so much new music from you, because there are a lot of bands in your corner of the industry where you can get a lot of years between releases and here you are giving us 20-plus songs in six months. It feels good!

UM: Yeah, no doubt. You’re right. There is this kind of pigeonhole nature about improvisational bands. Do they even put out studio albums, can they even write songs, and I think that’s something that we’ve worked really hard at raising our game over the years and I really feel that since Mantis, when we put that album out which was like nine years ago now, that we’ve really hit our stride as far as being a creative studio band and being able to put together solid not just albums, but also just songs. Just trying to serve the essence of a song, and I think that’s kind of the goal in the studio, and more and more I think we’ve gotten less concerned about how we’re going to pull something off live. I think that’s another big challenge of how do you adjust studio needs versus live needs, and with six of us up there, the good thing is with four singers, most of the vocal stuff we can handle, but a lot of the times what ends up happening is someday is laying down a part on a certain instrument and then somebody else will end up playing it live because they’re like “okay, this is an essential part, but you’re singing lead there, so you should focus on that and this person will cover this part”, so it’s really kind of a fine exercise in how to operate as a band when we’re taking these studio songs that are pretty dense and trying to arrange them for the live setting.

Substream: Yeah, how much of this material are you bringing out on the road right now? I assume that it’s a balancing act between what people expect and this boatload of new music.

UM: Yeah, we try to keep a pretty good balance of playing the new and old. I mean, every night is going to be something different, and typically we’ll go out and play three or four shows in a weekend, and we won’t repeat anything over each little weekend stint, so we’ll play probably an average of like three or four songs total from both albums each night. You don’t want to intimidate people with new stuff, but you also want to be able to give them that experience of if they’re excited to hear a new song coming to your show, you want to give them a little something. But that’s always kind of how we approach it. It’s never just slamming people with new material because we’re very lucky in the sense that one of the things that people like about Umphrey’s McGee is coming to the shows and hearing some of our older stuff that we still play live and we have probably a little over 200 original compositions at this point, so we try to keep as many of those as we can in the rotation so that new fans get to know the older songs and older fans still get to hear some of the classics that they saw 15 years ago that they still get to see. So yeah, this past weekend we did use “Triangle Tear,” “Seasons,” “Push & Pull,” and “Xmas At Wartime,” and I think “What We Could Get” and “Nether” are the other two from the album that we haven’t played yet. And we’ll probably be playing “What We Could Get” this coming weekend and continue to work on “Nether.” That’s one of the ones that’s a little bit more challenging as far as how to address how we do it live, so that’ll be an interesting one to work out.

Substream: Absolutely. Well, I wanted to ask you this and maybe it’s a bit of a heady question for you, but with the location of the band’s origins, do you think that’s always kind of had a role in the success? I think that every region kind of gets their band like you guys and I feel for the Midwest it’s always been, you guys. I grew up 30 minutes from South Bend and I live in Grand Rapids now, so I’m from McGee’s territory. When I was growing up and since I can remember, I’m 30 now, so I was like 10 when you guys started, but as long as I can remember from then until now, The Intersection in Grand Rapids, you guys frequent, and it always just kind of felt like this was your territory. Do you feel like this is an influence to the music at all, having such roots here in the midwest?

UM: I’m sure it has, and it’s hard to pinpoint exact things about that but there’s something about the blue collar, hard working midwestern vibe of “we’re all in this together”, everybody struggles through the winter, and we try to come out and spring and get the cabin fever thing going on and get out and crush it in the summer, and I feel like that sort of hard-working ethos as made its way into how we operate. I mean, we’re probably the most punctual rock band out there.

Substream: I like that, that’s a good one.

UM: I think with six people in the band, you have to stress punctuality. I don’t know how many hours of my life I’ve spent waiting. That’s like, a scary stat right there. So the nice thing is if you’re in the practice room waiting, there’s always something to do. If you’re waiting to leave for tour, that’s not so good. But yeah, I think there’s something about that, and for 20 years we’ve just made a name for ourselves touring around and continuing to do the same thing over and over again. Releasing music and then going around and supporting it and touring and I think, in particular, the Midwest crowds and even Michigan, it’s always wild, man. These people get crazy about our shows, and we enjoy that. We want our shows to be something that hits you on an intellectual level but more importantly, it’s making you dance and have fun, and we want everybody to forget about the rest of their lives for three or four hours of their night and just let loose with friends and to celebrate the good parts of life and music and friendship and all that stuff. It’s all interrelated with the audience, and it’s become a pretty special community over the years, too, and that’s a whole ‘nother tangent we could get into, but kind of the way people have connected both I would say via social media and in person at shows, it’s just cool to see so many of our fans that are friends with each other and whenever we play in a different place they’ll visit each other, whether it’s Denver or New York or Chicago, and I think that’s one of the things that has really been one of the most pleasant surprises for me, is getting to enjoy and see all these people getting to know each other and just see a beautiful community develop around our music.

Substream: Yeah, I took a peek at some of the Umphrey’s McGee Facebook groups I could find online, and it is kind of amazing when you see people kind of asking “who’s going to what shows? Is it worth making the drive to Red Rocks?” and things like that. It’s kind of interesting to watch a whole community kind of come around a band.

UM: Yeah, no doubt, no doubt.

Substream: People planning their once a year vacation around “where’s the band gonna be this summer?” That’s got to be humbling, in a way.

UM: Oh yeah, for sure. I’m a music fan too, so I’ve done this for other artists, and I think it’s a special thing. Music is one of the very few things out there in the world that breaks down all the lines, and you don’t have to look at the person standing next to you having a great time at the show and wonder what are they all about when you get away from the concert. No, that doesn’t matter, you guys are enjoying this moment right here and living in the moment, and that’s what’s important.

Substream: Absolutely. There are so many artists that would kill to have that kind of community, and I don’t know exactly how you guys have managed to develop one yourselves, maybe you don’t even know, but it’s kind of interesting how you’ve hit this kind of point where it’s almost like a self-propelled community. You guys could be quiet for a bit, but there’s still this whole area of fans that’ll be like “what’s your favorite song that the band did in the last five years?” and a hundred comments show up and people are like “oh, lemme tell you.”

UM: Yeah, I think a lot of it is going back to keeping the shows really fresh for both the band and the fans and when you do that and you put some effort into not playing the same songs that, for instance, coming to Grand Rapids, we will look and see what we’ve played the last three years coming through Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo, and try not to repeat sometimes any of the songs that we’ve played throughout that time. I think it kind of starts there because that’s what makes people want to come back to shows. Maybe someone will come to a show and another one a couple of months later, and it’ll be a completely different thing with no repeated songs. We care about that, and I think that kind of help drive the fans and the improvisational aspect of what we do where you’re probably going to get somewhere between 40 minutes to an hour of improvisation every night. A lot of people like that too.

Umphrey’s McGee stay busy throughout the year. Visit their official website for tour dates and additional information