Andrew Hincapie Interviews Joel Cummins
Joel Cummins has been playing piano and keyboards with Umphrey’s McGee since the band’s founding at Notre Dame University in 1997. He has also released two solo piano albums, Suspended in Time: An Epic and Common Sense, and he writes and performs with several other bands as well, including OHMphrey and the Chicago-based group Digital Tape Machine.
Umphrey’s McGee’s most recent studio album, The London Session (2015), was recorded in a single day at the legendary Studio Two at historic Abbey Road in London. Much of their writing finds inspiration in personal experience, whether from issues of fatherhood and mortality (No Diablo, Cut the Cable), or more metafictional storytelling that questions the existence of a higher power (Puppet String).
“Back to the moment, and digging deep enough this time, / you forget about your future at your past’s expense, / you know life is only living in the present tense.” –The Linear
Front Porch: I’ve noticed you use quite a few characters in your songs, a lot of people and names–like Phil’s Farm or Alex’s House, even Tobias in Walletsworth. Are any of these real people, and what role do these characters play in these songs for you?
Joel Cummins: There are a lot of characters that I think are kind of an Everyman, or a certain type of person but not necessarily a definite person. Then we also have some songs where the lyrics are about trying to be present–maybe as a parent, or it could really be anyone that you love in your life.
I think one of Brendan’s real strengths with the lyrics is his ability to write so many where you could think, “Oh wow, this really could be me, or this could apply to an event in my life.” He’s really good at these kind of cryptic lyrics in a positive sense where a lot of it can really be about anything. He’s said this before too, but he likes the idea that you can openly interpret what’s going on with both the lyrics and the band and sometimes apply them to different situations.
FP: You keep a nice balance between that and people you know, things you’ve actually done. Like Miss Tinkle’s Overture is a good example, actual stories from your lives.
JC: Yeah, there’s always room for inside jokes in song titles. We’re not that good at naming things.
FP: Much of the writing process is trial and error, just trying things out and seeing what works. And you guys do that a lot through improvisation, especially like the recent show with Josh Redman where the whole set was all improvised. Does this kind of thing help you work out new material you’ve been writing?
JC: Yeah, and I would say the other way around too–trying out new material is a great way to improvise. We’re always trying new things and taking chances. Sometimes you get lucky, and you end up coming up with something that ends up being a song out of that improvisation. That’s kind of the goal with how we improvise now, but we also use it as a songwriting exercise to come up with different sections that we can go back and forth to an A and a B, sometimes even a C section.
We use that as a launching pad for songwriting live–Brendan and Jake write quite a bit independently, or I’ll go to Jake and write some tunes with him, or sometimes the full band will get together for a couple of days and try to work on writing some new material. We have a lot of different ways that we write as far as the instrumental stuff.
Stylistically speaking, we have a lot of different categories of songs–some that are heavier, some that are a little more lighthearted, some that are pretty slow, some that are very intense as far as tempo goes. I think that’s something where we’re always going to keep the sound of what Umphrey’s McGee is because you have the six members of the band all contributing in some way, and we feel pretty open to trying a lot of different songwriting styles at this point.
The last thing we want to do is write another Bridgeless or write another Puppet String. So that’s really our only main goal when we step into it. It’s like, “Let’s write a good song that is something different from what we’ve done before.”
FP: At the Reel to Real show in January, you guys talked about having songs like the new one Gone for Good where you weren’t really sure if it was going to be an Umphrey’s thing. But like you said, with six different guys having different ideas like that, it seems like you’re always going in new directions.
JC: Gone for Good is an interesting example because it was something Brendan had sent us, and he initially was like, “Yeah, I don’t know if this is an Umphrey’s tune–but maybe it will be, maybe it won’t.” And I loved it, like “Oh man, this is something we definitely need to do.”
It’s something quite a bit different from what we usually do, but at the same time, we’re also thinking about what to do next as far as the next song that’s in the catalogue by saying, “What is it that we need right now, as far as a new song goes, to throw in with everything that we have.” It’s a little bit of a reactionary thing as far as the order in which we choose new songs, but sometimes if it’s good enough, you think, “Who cares, we gotta play this song.” Something like Booth Love or Bad Friday—those are a few that stick out to me that are a little more recent that we knew were going to fit right in with the live catalogue and go over really well.
But Gone for Good is kind of a departure for us a little bit because we’ve been doing a lot of heavier stuff, and it’s been a few years since we’ve come out with a song that was basically intended to be on acoustic guitars. It’s nice to revisit that part of it, and it’s also given us an opportunity to do probably four shows so far that we’ve played it–so we can do a little acoustic segment with two or three other tunes around it, and use that to kind of break up the show a little bit. It’s nice to have some new material in there to rejuvenate that vibe for us.
FP: It’s great to have so much new material to work with, and I’ve heard rumors of a new album, but you clearly don’t have problems with writer’s block or anything like that.
JC: I know there’s a couple more new ones that we’ve been working on that hopefully we’ll play at some point in 2016. But the other thing that’s really been an interesting addition to our songwriting is the Raw Stewage quarter at UMBowl–trying out improvisation a tad, and the fans vote for their favorite segments of improv that we’ve done. It could be anything from the past fifteen years, so then it’s our challenge to piece a couple of these together and try to create a song out of something that was originally improvisation.
We have something like 190 original tunes in the rotation now, so it makes it interesting on a nightly basis. We’re not going to repeat something over the course of three or four nights in a row. It’s nice to have that at our disposal. After eighteen years of being a band, finally we have these options.
FP: And you still do plenty of covers too, but there’s been a lot more horns lately. Other musicians like Josh Redman or Mad Dog and his Filthy Little Secret. Is that something you’re trying to incorporate pretty regularly now?
JC: It’s something that’s just naturally happened a little bit more. We’ve wanted to work with Josh for a long time, and now we’ve been working with him every year, and he’s such a phenomenal musician to play with. Then we do the annual New Year’s thing with Mad Dog, and we’re actually doing a show in New Orleans with Shady Horns who will be joining us for that show.
There’s just a lot of good horn players out there so there’s a lot of options, and at the same time, we want to dedicate as much as we can to our original music, so we’re trying to get as many different arrangements of original tunes with horns on them as well. I think we have something like 54 different Umphrey’s originals that we’ve performed with horns. They’ve accumulated over the years, so it’s a nice thing to have at this point.
FP: As far as other writing influences, what kinds of things have you been listening to or even reading lately that maybe have influenced your songwriting decisions?
JC: I’ve been going back to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way, and I just downloaded the shows from the Fillmore East and that tour. So I’ve been listening to a lot of that live stuff. Also some Brad Mehldau solo piano. And I’ve been going back through some of Herbie Hancock’s catalogue, always a good idea. So those are three kind of older things I’ve been checking out.
Really dig Jason Isbell’s new album from this year, been listening to that a lot. Also some Snarky Puppy–I went on Jam Cruise, so I got to see them play twice. I got to see Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Marco Benevento’s Band, Dr. John.
And there’s a couple good books I’ve been reading. One is called War against All Puerto Ricans, and it’s a really scathing indictment of our country, the wealthy, and the government plundering Puerto Rico. Obviously it’s in really bad shape right now, with the way the government controlled the news and everything, it’s pretty intense.
King Leopold’s Ghost is another one that I’m reading now, something along a similar topic. The former Belgian King who staked out the Congo River Basin for his own needs, sort of a similar thing.
Then the other one that I’m reading is Dark Money, and that’s kind of a documentation of how the extremely wealthy and right-wing folks, particularly the Koch Brothers, have come to control the political climate out there and in particular the Republican Party. That’s a little more current with what’s going on, and again a really eye opening book. There’s so much money behind every opinion, and most of the time, it’s for self-interested parties for financial reasons. We live in a crazy time.
FP: From Miles Davis to the Koch Brothers, that’s quite a leap there.
JC: Yeah, Miles would not be a fan of the Koch Brothers.
FP: It does seem like there’s been a lot of his influence in your music lately too.
JC: In a Silent Way was one of those that when I heard it in college for the first time, that really made me want to be a musician. Sometimes you hit on those really deep places in music, and it’s cool to have things that we can still go back to and find new inspiration.
— Andrew Hincapie
For tour dates and other information about the band, visit http://www.umphreysmcgee.com.