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INTERVIEW: Joel Cummins Talks New Album, Seeing Roger Waters in Berlin, UMbowl and more


Yesterday we sat down with Joel Cummins, keyboardist for Umphrey’s McGee, to talk about the new album, UMbowl, seeing Roger Waters in Berlin and more.

Umphrey’s McGee played an incredible set last night, including a phenomenal Bridgeless > Time > Bridgeless encore.

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So you guys just had a new album come out, Similar Skin, what is the one thing we still don’t know about the release?

We were learning a song called “Educated Guess” yesterday, that’s one of the tracks on the new album, probably the hardest one for us to learn. And we essentially had two different songs that we were putting together for that one. One of them was in the key of F and one of them was predominately in the key of F#. So we actually tried both ways of F and F# but then only recorded the version of F for some reason and then listening back we’re like, “Oh my God, we should have done it in F#” and so we actually moved everything up a half step after the fact because even though we tried it, we didn’t record it.

So that song, I think there were 16 different parts of things that happen, that I wrote down on a piece of paper as a road map because there’s just no way I could remember everything that happened. It was like a crazy jigsaw puzzle or something.

With songs that complex, how do you guys plan ahead for something like UMbowl where there’s a live voting element?

Well I think that’s the nice thing about that part of the night is that there’s a ton of preparation that goes into it. This year we did the Raw Stewage quarter which was repeating past improvisations and turning them in to compositions. We kind of modified and messed with those a little bit, but that takes a ton of work because we want that to be strong. We know that people are going to like it because the fans voted for it but constructing those is definitely a huge amount of work.

The all-request stuff, we usually do a couple new things which are different variations of things that we need to rehearse. Being able to have a quarter where you’re completely coming up with things out of thin air really helps open things up and it’s a different mindset on stage because you’re not so intensely focus on playing something that was essentially a composition.

So the votes were so close at times, did you guys ever thing you’d have to go one way and then pull a last-minute audible?

It did, yeah. It happened the past two years in Chicago too. I remember, we had already talked through the transition of how were go in to it and then were about ready to go and we look back and it’s not winning any more! [Laughs] It’s like, listen, once you hear that we’ve decided we’re going to do this, stop the voting, please! Don’t fuck us over! [Laughs]

But yeah, that happened a couple times and for a while, this year there was two things that were just tied and we were ready to go and everyone’s just looking and eventually the crowd got in to it and everyone got excited. Finally something won and we were like, “Freeze it! Stop!”

It’s cool to get some insight on that. I was there and was mind-blown as to how that’s even possible. You guys must be in a really great place as a band to go through the steps to do such a show.

That’s definitely the most intense musical thing that we try to do every year. I think the secret is working on things early. We had all the voting for the two pre-voting quarters done and with probably 2-3 weeks to go, we were able to practice those things on the road on our April tour. Then we got together one night before to just run through everything.

Are there certain tracks on the new album that you’re really excited to play out?

So the new tracks are “Similar Skin,” “Cut the Cable,” we added a chorus in “No Diablos,” “Educated Guess” and then “Little Gift” and “Hindsight.” So we’ve got like six totally different songs, “Educated Guess” has definitely been the toughest work and I’m looking forard to playing because once we get there it will be really cool.

It’s such a unique song. The mix of the vocals and the instrumental sections don’t really correlate that much so there’s some really changing half-step harmonies and strange things that happen in the big, long, heavy sections.

I think you said, “big, long, heavy sections” and so I want to talk heavy music. Who do you like on that side of the spectrum? Any particular albums or artists?

You know, I grew up in the 80s for the most part and the first one that really surprised me, and I was also slightly confused because there was no bass in the mix, but it was Metallica …And Justice For All. 

I liked a lot of things that were happening. I liked Led Zeppelin and Queen, Guns n Roses. I was definitely in to some pretty bad metal too. I went and saw, I think my first concert I went to without my parents, was Def Leppard with Lasers 1988. It was awesome…so cool.

So “with lasers” was a thing back then too?

Oh, no doubt! I don’t know about you, but I’m goin’ for the lasers.

So I also got to see some really cool stuff too. I got to see Roger Waters play in Berlin when they did The Wall in 1990, I think it was. It was insane. I was just there for three days as a part of an exchange program in high school and that was pretty insane. It was like 400,000 people too.

Is that the best concert you’ve ever been to?

I mean, certainly the most epic on scale of proportions. The Scorpions came out, if I remember this correctly [Editor’s note: he did, peep the video below], they came out some of them on motorcycles and some of them in a limo. And they drove out on stage, came out of the limo and started “In The Flesh.”


So we were at the Wanee Festival, which is a pretty different crowd from here. Do you guys try to play a certain way dependent upon the crowd?

I think we’re just trying to be ourselves and do what we do. We might say “that would be a good song to play at Wanee or Electric Forest.” I think the thing that we’re more focused on is that we’re playing shows pretty late at night so it isn’t really time for balladry.

At Wanee you guys played pretty early in the day too and I was wondering if you guys were going to hold back at all, but it didn’t really seem like you did.

Yeah the other set was an all cover set too so we kind of wanted to do our original pieces justice.

That cover set was amazing…

Yeah that turned out well. Having a couple guests too was really fun. Warren [Haynes] came out, [Eric] Krasno came out, [Adam] Deitch, John Popper, Oteil [Burbridge]…

That “She’s So Heavy” with Eric Krasno to close out the whole festival was a massive highlight of the festival.

Wow thank you!

Definitely. That’s all we have for you Joel, thanks for your time, so is there anything else you’d like to add?

Just that we have that new album out, Similar Skin, on our own label for the first time, Nothing Too Fancy Music. We’re really excited about it. We had a good debut and hit 49 on the Billboard 200 so that was really solid. In general, people have been diggin’ it. So spread the word and support the art of creating in the studio. I think that’s something that is teetering right now. We definitely take a lot of pride in what we do in the studio and are super proud of this one.

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