Joel Cummins has been with Umphrey’s McGee from the very beginning, playing keyboards for the jam band and current music festival favorite since they formed at the University of Notre Dame in 1997.
Twenty years and 21 live and studio releases later, Cummins and his fellow bandmates — Brendan Bayliss on guitar and vocals, Ryan Stasik on bass guitar, Andy Farag on percussion, Jake Cinninger on guitar and vocals, and Kris Myers on drums and vocals — are a little older and (maybe) a little wiser. They still love performing as much as they day they begin, however, and will soon prove that to Augusta music fans when they play with opener The Marcus King Band at the Augusta Common on Thursday, June 1.
Recently, the Metro Spirit spoke to Cummins about the band’s growth, his favorite musical experiences and his influences. Here’s what he had to say.
Metro Spirit: You, and everyone in Umphrey’s McGee, seem to have a lot more of an understanding of the business side of music than other bands seem to. Is that the case?
Joel Cummins: Yeah, I kind of figured out early on that we would be a much more successful band if I kind of helped out with the management, the booking, so it’s something that I’m really comfortable with. I think it also stems from being a kid before there were things like iPads and iPhones, so I ended up on a lot of car rides with my parents sitting in the backseat looking at atlases. You know, I think it’s important for a band to have kind of a line of communication between management, the booking agency and the band itself and I think you’re gonna get a better feel for how a gig was when it’s something that someone in the band can kind of chime in on: how the crowd was or how the venue was or all kinds of things that need somebody there with the experience to contribute and make informed decisions.
MS: Do you use that information when booking gigs and whether or not you return to a certain city?
JC: Well, not necessarily whether we choose to go back or not, but if that was the right venue or, a lot of times, you’ll play somewhere and you’ll be like, “Wow, the crowd was really loud tonight, really into it,” and you’ll feel like that’s a good time for your next time around and it’s not like something that, looking at numbers on a piece of paper, anybody’s going to be able to get that information. Was the crowd into it? Is it a younger crowd? Is it an older crowd? These questions can inform whether we should play a city or town during a school year or whether it’s okay to play there during the summer when school is not in. All kinds of decisions like that. We have our own record label, too, and I think a good part of wanting to have that autonomy and independence is wanting to have control over what we’re doing. A bunch of guys, myself included, are married now and a few of us have kids, so having some control over our schedule — when and where we play — has become an increasingly important thing for us as we plan out the year ahead.
MS: Umphrey’s McGee plays a lot of music festival. Are there some you can recommend to someone who’s never been to a music festival before?
JC: [Laughs.] The interesting thing is that there are so many festivals out there now. I think the first question you want to ask yourself is if you want to camp or if you prefer staying in a more city environment or hotel room. That’s a big one for me. I know a really good one that a lot of our friends do that’s in the southeast is called Whigfest in Tampa, Florida. They do that President’s Day weekend. That’s a really cool event and it’s right in Ybor City in Tampa, which is a pretty historic district. That’s one that comes to mind. Ones that we’ve played? This one might be a little bit obvious, but New Orleans Jazz Fest is kind of the forefather of what a lot of festivals became. Bonnaroo started out from the late-night shows. Superfly Presents was the company. They were the ones promoting all these late-night shows in New Orleans. The late-night stuff is not a part of the festival proper, but it’s really part of the whole experience and New Orleans is certainly one of my favorite cities in the entire country. If you’re a fan of music you have to do New Orleans Jazz Fest at least once in your life.
JC: Jam Cruise is one of the most exciting events out there and, actually, we could name that as a festival that’s also a must-go-to, although it’s pretty intense. You’d better really love music if you sign up for that. It’s pretty open-ended and that’s what I think is one of my favorite things about it is that it really allows the artists to interact with each other and this goes for on an off the stage. There are very few events we go to where you have this ability to wander around and get inspired by all the other great musicians that are out there. I think I have played on 11 out of the 14 Jam Cruises that have happened and probably seven or eight of those have been with Umphrey’s and the others have been me doing the solo thing. Yeah, it’s really a great opportunity to just get out there and experience. It kind of feels like New Orleans Jazz Fest on a boat. You have your set time to do something but, the rest of the time, you don’t and, as a result of that, so much unique collaboration happens and everybody just feels comfortable. I don’t know. I sometimes think about these venues that you play and the fans are already feeling like they’re an eight out of 10 before you even play a note, and that’s one of those where you feel really open to trying new things because these people are already having a great time and they’re not going to be standing there with their arms crossed frowning at you in the front row because they don’t like what you’re doing. It’s a really special event and one of my favorites. Unfortunately, last year and this year it didn’t happen. Umphrey’s was on tour and we couldn’t go, but it’s one that I always look forward to because it’s such a special event for the artists an the fans.
MS: I know one of the band’s big influences is Genesis and Phil Collins. What do you think made them so popular in the 1980s?
JC: I think there were a couple things going on there. Back in the early ‘80s, once you had a radio hit it was ubiquitous. The second part of it is these guys were really well-known. Originally, Peter Gabriel was in the band and he was a very avant-garde guy back in the day. My first exposure to him was when “So” came out and, at that point, he was a little bit more clean cut and a pop icon, but they were a hugely artistic band and albums like “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” really showcased some special musicianship. I think when you look at bands like Yes or King Crimson that were also in that vein of progressive bands in the late ‘70s, Genesis was one that made a pretty smooth transition from being progressive to having some pop songs on the radio and I think that coincided with the switch to Phil Collins on vocals. You probably know the story that they tried out all these kids and Phil was singing all the parts to them to teach it to them and they were like, “Well, you know it all and it sounds good so why don’t you just sing?” And, man, what a fortuitous decision. But I think that, as a keyboardist, Tony Banks [of Genesis] is one of the great, subtle masters of the keyboards where he’s doing a lot of things that are somewhat understated. And this is notwithstanding some of the earlier stuff, which is some intricate compositional stuff but, later on, when you get into the ‘80s era, he’s providing a lot of harmonic context and, for me, I think that’s a big example of what I can do with Umphrey’s. We’ve got two great lead guitar players in the band and it’s all about trying to contextualize what they’re doing to make it original and more interesting and Tony was great at that.
MS: Umphrey’s McGee has made Augusta part of its regular rotation of live shows, and music fans here really look forward to the kind of musicianship you bring.
JC: Well, thanks for that. And to kind of come full circle as far as the audience experience, the fans totally exemplify what I’m talking about, where you show up to play a show and the crowd is really into it from the first note. That’s one of those things as to why we keep coming back is we keep having that experience. It’s something we definitely look forward to and we’re glad we have it on the books.
Umphrey’s McGee w/ The Marcus King Band
The Augusta Common
Thursday, June 1
$35, general admission; $80, VIP