Umphrey’s McGee’s Joel Cummins on Returning to Chicago, Why Writing a Hit Song is Lame, the Cubs and More

Rob Slater on August 25, 2016

Tonight, Umphrey’s McGee will return to Arrington, VA for their third appearance at Lockn’ Festival, kicking off the first of two festival appearances, as they will then mark their return to Chicago for a headlining set at North Coast and a late night show at Concord Music Hall.

Checking in with UM’s Joel Cummins ahead of Lockn’,  it’s immediately evident the band is as in control of their music as they’ve ever been. Bouncing from major festival gigs to more intimate headlining shows, Umphrey’s is in the midst of one of their more challenging runs from a song selection standpoint, as the task to appeal to new fans and appease the faithful is presented. That task, as Cummins explains, is one the band embraces, as they dig deep into their catalog to craft a set that accomplishes the UM mission statement. 

The keyboardist also dishes on those pesky Chicago New Year’s rumors, his thoughts on writing a hit song with Umphrey’s McGee and what’ll happen with his football teams. 

One of the things I’ve become recently interested in is what you guys consider a really great, extraordinary night. What constitutes a particularly hot night for you on stage?

For me, the highlights are always when we get off the map and we’re in uncharted waters and can come up with something that works really well, communicating back and forth. There’s different sections of original improvisation that are happening. To me, when we can hit those places and really it feels like the whole room takes off, people know when that’s happening.

I wish I could give a more tangible reason for creating that kind of improv. Some nights it happens–we work hard to make it happen every night. It’s kind of this elusive magical thing about creating a good group improv together.

A lot of people think that it’s an expected thing and if you practice this stuff enough you can just do it and that is just not the case at all. You can listen to lots of Umphrey’s from 1998-2001 and hear us failing miserably almost every night trying to do this. It took a lot of hard work to get to the point where we were comfortable taking these chances on stage in bigger shows.

It’s a good mix of the setlist–we’re playing some older stuff, some newer stuff, a couple of hits for the people that are maybe seeing us for the first or second time and a couple of rarities for the people that are there for the fiftieth of hundredth time, lots of good off the cuff moments.

I suppose playing Peach Fest and then a show in Syracuse that was decidedly

And the other big factor was that we were playing from 1 AM. to 3 AM, you really don’t want to let the momentum die down very much at all for that. I was out in the crowd watching JRAD and the Zeppelin set, this was a really wide mix of ages in the audience, there were a lot of people in the their 50’s and the like.

Particularly, I feel like that was a show where we might have played for fifteen thousand to twenty thousand people, but I’d guess five thousand of them have probably never heard of us. Maybe there were then a few thousand who had seen a few shows and maybe there were a thousand who had been to a bunch of them.

That was definitely a festival and obviously with the line up, you feel like you’re playing to the ideal improv rock audience. These people are fans of the Allman Brothers and Trey Anastasio played right before us, so you know you have some Phish fans in there. We played more of the heavy hitters but at the same time, I felt like there was ton of improv in that set and I really enjoyed what we created that night. I felt like as far as doing that kind of festival set, we did a nice job of balancing those things.

The other one you mentioned, Syracuse, which was the next night, we played for one thousand people who are more of our diehard fans who have been to many shows so we kind of treated it that way. That was something that was special for its own reason for being that. It was pretty cool to have the variety of knowing that we’re playing for new people one night but a pretty good target fan base and a more diehard fan base the next night who had probably seen us a lot.

The festival sets are always interesting, there’s not that one song that everyone is sort of hanging around for, you have 15 of those you can sprinkle in but use them in different ways. Playing Peach and playing Lockn’ and then maybe playing something a little more mainstream like Bonnaroo, those three festivals are all done differently in your eyes, which I think is interesting.

It is interesting—there isn’t that one song everyone is hanging around for at the end of the set. There is no “All My Friends” or “Karma Police.” You have probably 15 songs that you can interchange in that “hit” spot.

Some of it also depends on the time of day when you’re playing, who’s playing before or after you. We’ll factor those in a little bit, in general I think we probably have maybe 10 songs that the more casual fans or the more causal jamband fans know. That’s exactly it, it’s nice to not have that pressure of, here’s the hit that we have to play every night.

It’s interesting because we’ve talked about this is as a band, would we really even want to have a hit song at this point? The two opposite cases of it are the Spin Doctors and the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead had “Touch of Grey” and then all of a sudden they’re playing to forty thousand, fifty thousand, sixty thousand people a night which is cool. It’s great to have that level of success, but at the point in their career did they really need it? Not really. It’s obviously a lot harder to play to a stadium thing with their situation.

Of course the Spin Doctors have a couple of hits, then they kind of, I don’t know if you want to say lose their credibility. The challenge is once you have the first hit then you have to write another one. Is that really what you want to try for? Is that your group’s voice? We don’t necessarily feel like that. We have some songs like “Bad Friday” that are very acceptable and could definitely appeal to a wider audience but I think the idea of trying to write a hit is kind of lame.

How excited are you to be playing North Coast solely to get the Chicago fans out of your Twitter mentions?

One of things that I realized that I should just tell people: Our fans need to stop looking at what’s on the schedule and saying, “Oh, they’re not doing this and they’re not doing that.” It’s easier to look back at where we played and when we played there and say, “Oh, that makes sense in the bigger piece of the puzzle.”

A lot of time I think there’s a reason the average fan is the average fan and not the booking agent or the manager. The fan often thinks they know better, for the most part. It’s like, look, this is something that is a long-term business for this band and we have a bigger plan and people just need to trust us.

All that being said, North Coast, we played the inaugural one and in 2012, it’s been four years since we’ve done it. It’s obviously kind of become one of those iconic Chicago downtown festivals and I like it for a lot of the opposite reasons that I like Ravinia. Ravinia has a built in crowd, a little bit of an older vibe there. North Coast has this more youthful energy because it’s this mix of live bands and DJs. You have fans of lots of different styles coming together to check out this festival. To me, that always seems like a great opportunity to find some new ears that probably wouldn’t have discovered us otherwise.

It’s a nice mix, we’re playing Chicago, it’s our original big city, where we’ve done all of the New Year’s runs in the beginning of our career. I will guess we will probably have a lot of fans who have seen us a lot of times and probably have some people there who have never seen us before. It should be another one of those, a good mix of old and new, both fans and songs.

It’s really cool that North Coast has become what it’s become. Electric Forest is kind of the closest thing in the Midwest to what they’re trying to do but obviously you’re out in the middle of nowhere in Michigan versus right in the heart of the city. It’s an interesting marriage of live music and the DJ scene but I think that’s great and I really hope that that kind of balance continues to happen.

Since we’re hitting on setlist construction a lot, for North Coast it seems like that dancey, electronic set is right there to be had. Is it hard to resist looking at the rest of the lineup and catering to the crowd?

I don’t think it’s hard to resist. Part of what we want to do, you want to have that little bridge of, here’s some dance music for people. We also want to distinguish ourselves from these other bands and say what can we do that nobody else is going to do here this weekend, it’s that opportunity as well. You want to throw a couple of bones out there but you also want to take advantage of these things that we can do that nobody else is going to over the weekend.

If you’re a fan of Umphrey’s McGee in Chicago, is this your last opportunity to see the band in Chicago this year?

…….

I’ve been thinking about how to word that one for a while.

I’m not going to answer that. You’ll just have to wait and see.

Speaking of Chicago festivals, was Lollapalooza in 2006 a one and done appearance?

I don’t necessarily think it’s one and done. Looking at the past few years of Lollapalooza lineups, obviously it’s hosted by C3 and we’ve played Austin City Limits as well which is their other big summer festival event. The Lollapalooza lineup, I get the feeling that they’re kind of looking for the hotter artists as opposed to artists that may have a decently sized fan base like us. They’re always looking on the up and coming side and who is the hot artist of the year which is cool, that’s fine.

There’s so much great music being made out there and there’s so many festivals out there in the world that there is plenty of room for everybody. I don’t know that if we played Lollapalooza and did an hour side-stage set in our career, our band would be really happy that that was what we chose to do in Chicago for our summertime Chicago play.

That was one of the things with North Coast, why it’s a good fit, they’re totally open to giving us that two-hour slot. The two-hour time limit at a festival, if you want to get your fans out, they want to see us for at least two hours. We’ve made that clear to them and it’s great that we’re able to work with them on that and they do that. I don’t know if there’s any other artist that has a two hour slot over the weekend this year. That’s one of the things and obviously we’re also doing the late night at Concord which we’ve never played before, it will be cool to put another room on the list of all the places we’ve performed in Chicago.

I was stunned to find out you hadn’t played Concord before. What other Chicago venues are missing?

Thalia Hall is a little bit smaller and that’s a new one that’s popped up. Maybe they’ll eventually finish the Uptown Theatre which is about a forty five hundred person room. That would obviously be a good one for us. There are a couple more out there.

Odds of a God Boner reunion at Lockn’?

They do encourage collaboration there, right? Getting to perform with Aaron, AKA Gene Ween at Summer Camp last year was a pretty cool career highlight. I like to think that we are kind of one of those smaller factors that was a bit of a catalyst to getting him back into that music and talking to Mickey about bringing Ween back together. It’s cool that we have that. We’ve stayed in touch with Aaron and Mickey since then, it’s very cool that Ween is back out on the road playing. Even cooler that we get to do an Umphrey’s McGee set and then Ween is right after us so it’s pretty sweet how that worked out.

Finally, who wins more games this year: Bears or Notre Dame?

I think Notre Dame is set up for the better season. It’s hard to say what’s going on in the NFC North these days. The Packers are still a force to be reckoned with, with Aaron Rodgers. I’m always optimistic, but I’m not sure this is going to be the years for the Bears. I went to my first Cubs double header the other day and that was pretty cool, got to see two wins. It’s just great when you have your leadership guiding the whole thing and Maddon and Epstein get it. Even the ownership, Tom Ricketts, look what he’s done in five years since he’s bought the team and how awesome things are now.


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