Umphstate: An Interview with Joel Cummins of Umphrey’s McGee

The hype from all of the New Year’s runs has finally died down and right on its heels come the first announcements of the festival season. Sandwiched right in between though, and largely overlooked, is the winter tour where bands often times debut new material and dig deep for old fan favorites. Umphrey’s McGee tour has begun and the band is set to blaze a trail right through the heart of Upstate New York, all within the first week of February. The band will make stops in Clifton Park, Syracuse, and Rochester among many other dates across the U.S. The Chicago-natives recently finished a two-night standalone set at the famous Beacon Theater in New York City which has only led to more anticipation for these upcoming dates.

Writer Jeremiah Shea had a chance to talk with keyboardist Joel Cummins about the upcoming tour and their new album that is due to come out in the coming months.

Jeremiah Shea: What are your thoughts on the recent two-night run at The Beacon Theater?
Joel Cummins: It was a pretty awesome weekend. Being able to play the Beacon last year and then doing two nights this year really let us soak it in a little more. The Beacon is one of the greatest venues in the country, if not the world. There’s been so many great shows there and amazing performances that when you play there, you really feel like you have to step up and not just bring your A game, but your A+ game. You have to wow people in New York.

JS: Last year in January you guys played Buffalo and Syracuse on back to back nights before making a stop at The Beacon Theater; this year you’re hitting Clifton Park, Syracuse, and Rochester.  Is there a reason you show Upstate New York so much love?
JC: A lot of it has to do with two things: where people are and how far you can travel between cities. Logistically, our typical limit is about 450 miles before you make touring increasingly more expensive. Coincidentally, there are a lot of good places in New York to play between Buffalo, Rochester, Ithaca, Syracuse, Utica, and Albany. There are a lot of good mid-size cities that we’ve been trying to build over the years. Since we played Buffalo in the Fall, it made sense for us to come to Rochester this time. We played the Harro East Ballroom one other time and had a great time there, so we’re psyched to come back. We haven’t played the F Shed in Syracuse before, so that’ll be a really fun night and we’re pumped to have Kung Fu out with us on that one.

JS: Are you guys doing anything special on this run of shows to celebrate the band’s 16th birthday?
JC: Every show is a special night to be honest; you know how we do it.  We try to mix it up and play as many different things as possible.  We have this website called All Things Umphrey’s where everything is in a database that we’ve played in the past.  We can use that to go back and see what we’ve played and haven’t played in an area and continue to shred as much of the catalog as we can to keep it fresh for people.  Once somebody has seen 8-10 shows, they start to hone in on what they haven’t seen yet; every city is different.  We’ll go in and see that we haven’t played “Booth Love” or “Hurt Bird Bath” at a particular place in four years.  It’s a really helpful tool for us to keep mixing things up.  This is our typical biggest tour of the year between January and April and we try to hit every corner of the US.  Our new album will be coming out in the first half of 2014, probably sometime in May, so this will kind of be the warm-up for that.  My guess is that one or two of the songs that didn’t make the new album will probably get played on this winter tour.

JS: You made some mentions of the new album on your Twitter account.  What’s on tap and is there anything you can share?
JC: Ya know, not too much at this point as we’re trying to keep it under wraps right now.  I can tell you that we started by recording 16 tunes, 7 of which were brand new and 9 of which we’ve played live before. I think we’re going to end up with probably 10 or 11 tunes on the new album with some bonus material. There’s at least 5 new tracks on the album, I’d say, that we haven’t played live previously. I think that’s always exciting for the fans when you can kind of inject the set list with some brand new stuff for people. We also have a couple of newer ones that we’ve been playing pretty consistently for the past couple of years and a couple of classic Umphrey’s McGee tunes that we previously haven’t been able to hit perfectly with the studio takes. We finally got a couple of these where we really feel like we nailed the essence of the song and they fit the overall vibe of the new album which is definitely heading in a more hard rock direction; there are tons of great guitar riffs on this album.

JS: Does the band’s approach vary nightly depending on the venue or city?  If so, how?
JC: It’s different every night and we mix up who writes the set list. On a typical day, we make a list of songs in the morning and people can add or subtract things depending on what they’re feeling. By the afternoon, somebody will pick it up and try to make a set list out of everything that’s been suggested. I think that really keeps it fresh, especially when you have different people writing the set list who think about it and approach it differently. We’ll typically try to always do a mix of newer and older material so that it’s fresh for everyone.

JS: How do you guys interject teasers into your songs live?  Are they planned or discovered during your set?
JC: Most of the time if we’re teasing something, it’s happening in the moment. It’s very rare that it’s something that’s planned. I think one of the things that we all thrive on is that stuff in the moment where nobody’s really sure what’s going to happen, but you kind of try to pick up a song. That actually happened at The Beacon. We started teasing the Eminem song “Lose Yourself” and then it ended up kind of morphing into “Kashmir”. That was an example from this weekend where we ended up hitting a cool little patch of teases there, but it was certainly not planned.

JS: What do you like about touring compared to the festival circuit in the summer?
JC: I feel like when we do our own shows, we’re playing to our people; everybody who’s there is there for us. That’s always a really special thing when you can do these tours and really feel the excitement from the fan base. That’s the fun thing about the beginning of the year. With the festivals now, it’s such a great time getting to see so many of our friends all around the country. That’s kind of the highlight of the summer festival season whenever we get to do that. That’s also the time when we try to convert some new fans, so we definitely approach the shows a little bit differently. We’ll still try to throw in a few rarities or things that you might not expect to see us play at a festival, but when we play for the hardcore fans, I’d say that these winter tours definitely have the biggest variety of our catalog that you’ll see. I looked on All Things Umphrey’s the other day and in 2013 we played 329 different songs, so there really is a lot of room for variety. It’s really nice at this point to have that catalog selection where we can play so many different things.

JS: Does Jefferson Waful have any new tricks up his sleeve this year?
JC: He does! He’s actually in the process of transitioning from the grandMA console, which we’ve been using, to the grandMA2. I’m not totally sure if he’s going to have it up yet for these shows as it’s probably about a month-long process to make that transition and learn everything that needs to be learned. That is definitely new though and in the works for 2014, so it’s only going to promise to make the production and light show that much stronger. We’re always tweaking our light show and playing different things out depending on what the venues allow. This most recent run at The Beacon we definitely had our biggest light rig that we’ve ever brought to New York. We’re definitely trending in that direction of bigger and better, which is a nice way to trend. We’ve been really lucky with Jefferson that he’s such a passionate, driven, and really great artist behind the light console. There are plenty of moments during the night when the fans get excited about the music, but you know you have somebody who has a really great eye for art and a way to connect that to music when the lighting designer can elicit cheers from the crowd.

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