Interview with Joel Cummins

4.26.12 HUG Chicago Umphrey's McGee at Park West_-21.jpg

Frazier: One of the things I’ve noticed through your social media is that you like to travel a lot… what is one of the places that sticks out in your mind where you’ve showed up to play, you’re standing at your keyboards and you think, “Holy shit, I’m looking at this at a show?!”

Joel Cummins: (laughs) I’ve had a few of those moments, many of them in Colorado. Red Rocks is obviously the best view for both the fans and the musicians. You get to look up and see the rocks on either side – so amazing. Telluride is another place that is just a gorgeous view, at the Telluride Town Park where we played the Telluride Blues & Brews Fest. We really loved that. Any time we get to play on the beach, particularly the [Mayan] Holidaze events. The fact that we’re doing it in December or January and people are down there with their shoes off and feet in the water – it’s gorgeous. All of those have been pretty awesome, I gotta say. It’s definitely fun to scout out venues in a lot of the places I’ve traveled to. There are always some places where I think, “Wow, we gotta come check this out. We gotta make this happen.” A lot of it has to do with how well you do compared to how big that venue is and if the promoter you work with in that town works there. I will say it’s something that I try to pay attention to, to appreciate the fact that I do get to travel as much as I do. I think it’s easy — when you do something as much as I do — to feel like the grass is greener on the other side sort of vibe, like I wish I could be at home more. But it’s been pretty amazing, my wife is a big traveler and works in the music industry as well, so we get to do quite a bit of traveling together… I’ve definitely gone to some places that I can’t mention in this interview legally.

Frazier: Ohh, I like it! That leads well into my next question: out of all the places that you’ve been to but haven’t played, what’s the one place you said, “Man, we really gotta play here”?

Cummins: That’s a good question because I feel like most places I go to that’s how I feel – if we go there people would be so into it… I would say any place in Europe. I feel like our music is interesting enough – they’re into edgier, weird stuff there, dance music, a lot of the EDM movement that’s happening here has been going on there for a while. Yeah, I definitely felt like that when I was in Croatia. I actually saw Kaki King perform, the last night I was there in the place that was the former quarantine of the city of Dubrovnik, back like 500 years ago, a crazy place. Hearing everything they listen to on the radio there… I heard “Africa” by Toto, and I don’t think it was in a tongue-in-cheek manner by that DJ (laughs). I feel like Europe in general is a place where, if we could get out there more, it would be really beneficial.

Frazier: Yeah, Europe is always like a decade ahead of us in terms of their crazy festival production and their music… how many times have you guys played in Europe?

Cummins: We’ve played three Jams In The Dam; or Jam In The Dams? We had to turn down an offer to go play the Cannabis Cup this year, so we were very close to playing another one but we weren’t able to make it happen. You know, we’ve made our schedules pretty far in advance, so when you have something that falls in a designated time off, it’s tough to make it happen. So it would have been pretty cool to go back for that.

Frazier: Especially for Cannabis Cup! I’d love to see what kind of setlist you guys would write for something like that.


11.26.11 Umphrey's McGee, Cornmeal at Aragon Ballroom-43

Frazier: Shifting gears a bit… the rumor was that at the first North Coast Fest, you guys weren’t entirely happy with the way the set came out. I mean, I thought you guys brought some aggressive songs, which was appreciated at an electronic festival. So I was just wondering if guys felt like you wanted to top yourselves from the last one or if you have any different attitude coming into this North Coast?

Cummins: I gotta get the British accent going… “What did we play?” (laughs) I know we did the [Cee-Lo Green] “Fuck You” cover…

Frazier: That, and a big “Mulche’s” but not segued or sandwiched or anything. And a “1348,” a “Tinkle’s” and that hip hop sit-in.

Cummins: Yeah, ok. I mean, I don’t remember it very well, I felt like it went ok. It doesn’t stand out in my mind as something we thought was a bad set or anything.

Frazier: You know, it was internet chatter. Some of the kids on The Bort were upset with the lack of improv because those kids are fucking insane over improv.

Cummins: Of course, of course. It’s always an interesting conversation because I always get pigeonholed as the guy who wants to do more Stewarts and more improv, and I think it’s because I think we experience our music differently when it’s composed and we know how it’s supposed to go, versus how you experience something that you’re trying to create in the moment where you’re totally involved in the front end of creating the music as opposed to really experiencing how things are working as much. I feel like at that point you zone into something a little more. So I can see why [people love it], I think it’s one of our strengths. I love our songwriting and composition and I think it lends itself well to having lots of different places where you can jump off and have that creative improv. That would probably be my reaction to that. I like the free-flowing, crazier sets quite a bit more. I wrote the setlist for last night’s set at EcoFest, and it was right in the middle of where the tropical strom was hitting, so it was pretty much windy and rainy all day and we weren’t able to get our gear down to the main stage. So we played an hour and forty five minute show with our practice gear last night. Just kinda went for it. There was a little bit of freedom in the fact that we were playing in a lean-to and the 300 people who were there, who actually came — it was a festival in the middle of this bullshit weather – they were so stoked, it felt like one of the craziest crowds we’ve ever had. They just didn’t give a fuck about he rain. It felt good to be able to come through and make music happen even though the original plan wasn’t gonna happen because it was unsafe. But yeah… I’ve seen what we’re planning on doing tonight, I’m feeling good about it, definitely. I feel like it’s a pretty creative and different festival setlist from what we’ve done. I feel like it leans a little bit more towards the electronic side of things because that’s the vibe of North Coast. We bring a little bit of the darker element, you gotta have some of the darker rock stuff that’s going on. I feel like we still do fit into a festival like this because of that, I mean we have at least 10-12 songs that are geared towards the industrial or electronic vibe. It’s cool that we’re getting to do this again after doing the first one. I think this is a great event for Chicago and the Midwest, which has kind of needed something around Labor Day. Obviously there are a lot of great city [street] festivals happening, those have a lot more of the local bands. But on the national level, [North Coast] has quickly become a respected and really cool event. Lollapalooza is like the big summer blowout, obviously Pitchfork happens here too, but this is one of the cooler events in Chicago.

Frazier: This is the festival for me. North Coast is my favorite every year. I feel like this is the one where you guys really fit in. If you guys were at Lollapalooza, I’d wanna see you headline so we could get the whole Waful experience. But if you played Lolla, you probably get one of the day time slots.

Cummins: We’re not quite at that level at this point…

Frazier: Yeah… Alright, so it was long known that Pony [Stasik] really pushed to get a Tool song covered. Is there anything that you’ve been pushing for a while to get covered?

Cummins: Good question. That’s one I have I have to think hard about…

Frazier: Those are the questions that I like to write.

Cummins: Well, I’ll say this: the cover that we’re playing today… ok, I’m gonna answer a couple different questions here (laughs). I lobbied hard for one of the covers that we’re gonna play tonight [Daft Punk’s “Voyager”], so I hope that goes over well. Two nights ago in Kansas City we played one of my favorite covers of ours. I don’t know quite what it is, but I really like this music. It’s a tune called “We’re Going To War” by Mark Knopfler from this mostly instrumental album called Wag The Dog. It’s just fucking fantastic. It’s one of the best 25-30 minute soundtracks. It’s all these short songs, some are acoustic, some are electric with slide guitar and stuff, you should definitely check that out – it’s fuckin awesome. So that’s one that I definitely wanted to play right when Kris joined the band and we probably haven’t played it in like at least a year. It’s a really fun bluesy, yet very melodic and driving song… Let’s see, a cover that I want us to play… One of them that I’ve actually mentioned is “Smokin” by Boston, which has a really sweet organ solo, but the whole song is a trip obviously. The problem is we tried to learn it back in like 1999 or something. I stayed home for a whole afternoon and learned the solo, fuckin got it. But we got there and we rehearsed and we realized that nobody could sing it because it was way too high. So I’d spent the whole day working on this thing, and it was like… fuck. (laughs) I’ll have to go back and re-learn it, but we kinda put in the work for that one…

Frazier: So it’s in the hopper, just waiting…


Umphrey's McGee at Canopy Club in Urbana, IL on 2.19.12-38.jpg

Frazier: Two of my absolute favorite Umphrey’s songs are “Day Nurse” and “Night Nurse.” So I wanna dig a little deeper, like how are the two songs related, they definitely feel related in addition to the name thing, but also how are they different? Like how does the band differentiate the two when you think about them?

Cummins: Well, I think in general everybody in the band likes “Day Nurse” more. I like “Night Nurse” too, but not everyone feels that way.

Frazier: “Night Nurse” is my favorite. The original “Night Nurse,” the original “Utopian Fir” jam that ended up on the Hall of Fame 2011 album, is one of my favorite pieces of Umphrey’s music EVER.

Cummins: Nice, I’ll have to go back and listen to that version. But yeah, the reason that they’re related is that they’re kinda repetitive, more about the groove. It’s just a repeated groove each time that’s supposed to build in intensity. Not so much a melody going on there, I guess. There are little melodies that pop out and happen at certain points. But to me “Day Nurse” is this super uptempo, fun and funky song with really jazzy chords. There are a couple of voicings that we definitely don’t do that much. Both of those are really fun jams for us. The other thing is that “Day Nurse” has three different parts, whereas “Night Nurse” is just one thing and we end up staying on B flat or something and it’s just kind of open. So “Night Nurse” has more of an openendedness, and “Day Nurse” is more defined, at least until this point – who knows where things will go?

Frazier: Yeah! That’s what I fuckin love about you guys. One of the things I’ve always been curious about is when you shelve a song. Have you ever walked off stage after a show and been like, “That song? We’re done with it.” How does the process of shelving a song happen?

Cummins: (laughs) Yeah, I think it’s usually more one person in particular doesn’t like it as opposed to: “We’re just not playing that well anymore.” At least for us. We all understand that even if we don’t necessarily like something, we should probably still play it two or three times a year. That’s not asking too much, right? (laughs) But, do you have any specific examples?

Frazier: Yeah… I feel like “Padgett’s” fell out of the rotation for a while. And others like “Mail Package” and “Wife Soup” — two of my favorites – I feel like not only are they rarities, but almost like they’ve just fallen out.

Cummins: Ok, so different reasons for all three. I think with “Padgett’s” it’s more that we have a bunch of instrumental tunes and we try to consciously play at least like 75% of a set with vocals because we have these Jimmy Stewart, improvisation things that happen throughout the whole show. We try to avoid having 30 minutes in a row with no vocals. So part of it is that we have 40 or 50 instrumental out of 140 total songs, so we can inherently only play them so many times. For instance, I would love to hear “#5” some more…

Frazier: Yes! Love that song.

Cummins: I’d love to play “Get In The Van” a lot more. What else…

Frazier: “Smell The Mitten”?

Cummins: Yup, that’s a good one. It seems to get cut all the time too. We all seem to really like playing it, but it just ends up getting played less. For “Mail Package,” I agree, I wish we’d play that one more. Typically Jake doesn’t like to sing more than two or three songs a night, and he already sings most of the covers, so it’s tough sometimes to fit in songs where he leads the singing. And it’s probably about his 10th favorite one that he sings… But I think it’s great, it’s got a bluesy, Zappa vibe that I really like. So then “Wife Soup.” I don’t think Stasik likes that one as much anymore. But we’ve been practicing it for the past couple of weeks, we sound checked it yesterday, worked on it a little bit, trying to work on the tempo. I’ve felt like the tempo has been a little too slow, so we worked on bumping it up a few beats per minute. Kris has references of the tempos we like to play all the songs at, so we’ve been playing it a little on the slow side and I think we’re gonna play that one faster from now on. Maybe we will play that one tomorrow night? [Note: they DID] So there’s your answers, three different answers for ya.

Frazier: So many little tidbits of Umphrey’s info in that answer!

Cummins: Well… that’s how it goes. You know, when we make setlists we try to look at it and not give the same person three songs with solos in a row. We try to make it so it bounces around a little bit. Jake has so many great guitar solos that we could end up with him soloing four songs in a row really easily, so we really try to mix it up. I’ve always been a fan of having different people soloing over different parts of songs, I think we could do that more often. Like why not change it up to keep it fresh, that way we could have a little more flexibility and play certain songs back to back and maybe have Brendan take what’s normally one of Jake’s solos.

Frazier: I wanted to ask you about that! Have you ever said, “Hey Brendan, take Jake’s solo in “Glory” tonight.” Has that ever been discussed?

Cummins: That particular one hasn’t but that would be cool. That’d be really interesting.

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Frazier: So one of the hot topics of online discussion lately has been the intro songs, the pre-programmed songs that you’re coming out to. And it’s recently it’s gotten kind of hot and cold… I personally love them. I think it’s a really cool thing that nobody else does. And when I spoke to Jake he said that you guys were gonna do one in each of the 12 keys, like have a roster of them, and he even mentioned something like making an album of just intro songs in all the different keys. But I was wondering how you guys feel about the intros? Do you feel like you’re just getting started with them, or have they begun to run their course?

Cummins: I think there’s a lot more to do with them. They’re so fun to write and I think the idea is to come up with a bunch of things that evoke a different mood right from the get-go that can set you up. In the past, 2002 or 2003, we’d start the show with an actual piece of improv and I know people seemed to really like that. But at this point, it seems like something that not everybody [in the band] is comfortable with and I get it. Now that we’re playing bigger shows, there’s a lot more pressure on coming out with improv. So part of it is trying to do something with the great energy that the crowd has, this energy peak right before the show, people are amped. Why not take that opportunity to build the tension and drama a little bit? Like you said, I think it’s a pretty cool thing to have something that we’ve written and recorded playing as we walk out and make that transition from something that’s pre-recorded to live. I don’t think anyone…

Frazier: Nobody else does that. I also think it adds a certain sporting event vibe. Like how boxers walk out to intro music and the energy is there.

Cummins: Yeah! Totally. Well here’s how I think we came to that point: we started using pre-recorded other things, like “Rocky” or “Jaws” or other things we’d play over the PA. The problem was that we wanted to record us walking on the stage, but you can’t use that stuff for our live recordings. We’ve gotta pay for that or else we’ll get ourselves in legal hot water. So that’s kinda of how the idea started. We were like, “Why don’t we just make our own intro music?” I’d love for it to be 2015 and for us to have 25 or 30 different ways to start. I think eventually that’s what we’re thinking. It’s one of those things that doesn’t have to happen every night. And some nights we can’t because we don’t have the ability to play something from the front of house, over the PA. Some festival scenarios are like that, so that might be a reason why we don’t have an intro some nights. I don’t think it’s something that has to happen all the time, but I definitely think it’s a stronger way to start than just walking on stage and goofing around, making sure everything works [the faux-soundcheck]. (laughs). To me that’s anti-climactic and I like the idea of harnessing that energy of how things are gonna start and getting things on a roll. Then when we hit that first song from whatever it is, it just adds a little more tension and release to the whole thing.

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Frazier: Alright, I’ll wrap it up with a pair of questions… I think some music fans, especially jamband fans, get really into these eras. Like some people are really into the Fall ’97 cowfunk era of Phish, or some Umphrey’s fans are really hooked on ’06 when you guys had a certain irregularity to your jams. So do you feel like bands have eras like that, or is it more of a linear evolution?

Cummins: Hmm. Well, it’s probably a little bit of both. But for me, our evolution has been very much stream-of-consciousness. I think one of the things I’ve consciously done is to play less and less as I’ve developed. Listening back I feel like I overplay a ton. It’s a different experience for me because I can’t get out of being in critical mode when I listen to what we’re doing. Well, maybe after like 10 beers, yeah, maybe I can relax a little more and enjoy it. But I definitely think improvisational bands in particular have these times where they get into something certain then eventually move on. We try to always push our sound in different directions simultaneously. So, depending on what our jumping off points are for improv in certain songs, sometimes that will influence where things will go and what fits most naturally. Obviously we don’t always do the same things in songs, things will lean more one way or more another. But I’d say we try to keep it different. We played “Red Tape” the other night and it ended up having almost a dub-reggae feel in the middle of it.

Frazier: “Dub Tape”?

Cummins: (laughs) Yeah, exactly. Which doesn’t have anything to do with “Red Tape” itself, but that’s the nice thing about improvisation: you can get to different places in different ways and we have the ability to communicate with each other more than most live bands do. So yeah, I think it’s a little bit conscious, a little bit unconscious. We wanna play things that make people groove and dance, but we also wanna play things that rock and are heavy. There’s good music and there’s bad music, and hopefully we can always make it good.

Frazier: So then, what was your favorite era: the Mesozoic or the Paleozoic?

Cummins: (laughs, sighs, laughs again)

Frazier: (laughs) You have such a good sense of humor about the whole ‘old like Joel’ thing!

Cummins: I know, right? (laughs)

Frazier: I mean, I had to get an old joke in here somewhere…

Cummins: Well, I was a huge fan of Pangaea…

Frazier: (laughs) Before everything broke apart? Must have been fun to live during the time of one continent!


Cummins: Yeah, I mean the funny thing is that our manager Vince is older than me and I’m only older than Jake by 11 months. But yeah, I think I was just able to take jokes the best and it’s just how it went down. Don’t worry, there’s a lot of things that I refrain from saying on stage, but in private Bayliss definitely gets it back.

Frazier: Good to know. He sure gives you enough shit about the setlists.

Cummins: Oh always. But it’s all in good fun.

Frazier: Hey man, thanks a lot. That was a really fun interview.

Cummins: Definitely, definitely.

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Jeremy Frazier is the editor-in-chief of Soundfuse.