The Core: Umphrey’s McGee

Mike Greenhaus on April 17, 2015

Earlier this month, Umphrey’s McGee unveiled The London Session, a product of one special day spent recording at the famed Abbey Road Studios during a trip across the pond in the summer of 2014. To expand on the release and break down the songs, UM keyboardist Joel Cummins sat down with Relix to discuss the experience and the final product. This article originally appears in the April_May issue of Relix. To subscribe, click here.

Sarcastic Inspiration

When we announced three shows at London’s Brooklyn Bowl last year, Manny Sanchez, our producer and studio engineer, semi-sarcastically said, “I’d really like to go to London. Should we book a session at Abbey Road?” That planted the seed in [Umphrey’s McGee manager] Kevin Browning’s head, and he figured out who he needed to reach out to. Abbey Road is like most venues—there are a lot of people that want to record there, so they have something of a holding system. We were third hold on that day and were able to clear out some of the holds for a day of recording after our Brooklyn Bowl shows in June. Then, it was on.

A Historic Smell

Abbey Road Studio 2 is essentially a big square, and they have a few interesting ways to isolate instruments. There are these huge, swinging, movable walls that you can use to create these triangles of isolation, so we put our guitar amps in those. But for the most part, we set up in different places in this big room so that we could see each other but were far enough away that things didn’t bleed too much from track to track. The mixing room is up a staircase and there is a window that overlooks the recording sessions. That was the George Martin perch, back in the day. We got in there and it was a hallowed and preserved space, all the way down to the headphones and gear. They have to use the original equipment there because of its importance as an icon. You feel the magnitude of the room because everything is the same as when The Beatles were there—this time machine back to 1968 or 1969. It almost has this distinctive smell.

A Hard Day’s Night

When we went into the studio, we didn’t know exactly what we were going to accomplish. We had 12 hours—we thought we might only get to record one or two songs, an EP or some sort of extra, bonus deal. Our attitude was: “Here are a few things we really want to do—let’s pick things we are very comfortable with song-wise so that we can be as efficient as possible.” We just felt like we should take this opportunity to record at Abbey Road when we had the chance. What we didn’t want to do was go in there and spend half a day working on an arrangement for a new song. It was an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life—a beautiful summer’s day. I took a couple of breaks and sat on the patio for a while soaking it all in.

Track By Track

Before we went into the studio, we went through our song list, picked a few tracks and recorded multiple takes of a few numbers: “Bad Friday,” “No Diablo,” “Cut The Cable,” “Comma Later,” “Rocker Part 2” and “Glory.” There wasn’t pre-planning in terms of what we were going to do to the songs. At the same time, we recorded acoustic versions of “No Diablo” and “Cut The Cable” and made a few changes to their arrangements in the process. They were on the fly and we just went for it. After that, we had some time, so we recorded four more songs for the album: “Plunger,” “Out of Order,” “Eat” and a cover of The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” For those songs, we only had time to record one take, so we purposefully picked things that we were comfortable with live and we felt like we could nail. We pulled out the song list and looked at a couple of ideas for Beatles covers and thought that one would work best. There wasn’t a grand plan; we just picked those that day. We had never tried “Bad Friday” in the studio, and had never released studio versions of “Glory” or “Rocker Part 2” on an album. They were sort of in limbo. One reason I wanted to put “Plunger” on there is that I didn’t get to record it with the B3 when we did it for [2004’s] Anchor Drops. I wanted to update it a little bit. You are just going to end up with better sounding versions of the tunes using Studio 2 in Abbey Road. There are so many amazing songs that have been put down there. It is interesting: Not only did The Beatles record so many albums here, but also a lot of the early Pink Floyd catalog was done at Abbey Road.

Independent Ethos

After we started reviewing what we had, we looked at each other and said, “This is 10 songs. Is it good enough to put out as its own album?” (The album, which is slated for release as The London Session on April 7, also includes a live version of “In The Kitchen” from the same London trip.) One of the nice things about having our own label now is we could do whatever we wanted with the sessions. They were unique enough that we felt like our fans would be behind them. There isn’t this pressure to sell a certain number of copies. We didn’t need a marketing campaign and weren’t worrying if it was going to cross over. No one was telling us it had only been 10 months since we put out Similar Skin.