Creating The sUMmer School Syllabus
This week Relix intern Isaac Slone is attending Umphrey’s McGee’s sUMmer School at the Full Moon Resort in Big Indian, New York. Along the way he has had the chance to sit down with Umphrey’s McGee Creative and Business director (and former longtime sound engineer) Kevin Browning to chat about the event.
How did the conversations about sUMmer School start?
Zappa Plays Zappa has done a camp like this for a few years. Their manager thought it might actually be of interest to us and thought that Umphrey’s would be well suited for this kind of project. They called and turned us on to the place. Vince and Joel came out here last winter to do a site visit, look at the grounds and meet some of the people here. After that, we sat down and talked about what a camp might entail, how it would work for us, how it would work for students. The more we dug into it, the more we felt it was in line with the type of events that we like to offer our fans and like to do to keep ourselves interested.
What were the things you guys discussed to ensure that this worked? Any initial concerns or aspects you guys focused on?
At an event like this, there’s a thousand moving parts. On the surface, it looks calm and collected but below, we’re paddling like hell. There’s a full packed schedule everyday, it has everything from full band songwriting and improv sessions to breakout sessions with one of the guys, two of the guys, three of the guys. We tried to make something that was really all encompassing. Something that showcased Umphrey’s McGee as a whole, not just technique or songwriting but also some of the business side of things, the lighting side of things, the crew side of things, all the pieces that make up the whole that is Umphrey’s. We felt this would be a great opportunity to give people an overview and show people the team sport that it is to put on an event like this and a professionally touring rock band.
And your role in this project is from the Creative and Business director side of things?
Yeah my origins actually, I started as front of house engineer for thirteen years but along the road, I was always involved in the business side. Over the course of the last years, I’d spend more and more of my time working on strategy and business development and trying to continue to find innovative and unique ways to present the band and events. Things like UMBowl and the S2 Art Series, this is sort of a natural extension of that. I consider my role in this, one piece of the whole. Umphrey’s McGee is a team sport and it’s very much the sum of its parts. It’s not every one of us individually. We’re all better because we work with each other.
On that note, how do you see Umphrey’s McGee as a model to learn from?
We do it our way because we’ve figured out what works best for us. Is it the solution for every band? No, not necessarily. We work as a democracy, we work as a team and for us, when a lot of people have creative input and a lot of people have a say in the decision making process, it helps us refine our ideas, it helps us improve, and it helps us innovate when a lot of people contribute. We’ve been friends and brothers for such a long time that we work hard to keep the lines of communication open so that when people have ideas, you can say yes or no, sometimes its just business. So as a model for other bands, there are some things like communication that are paramount no matter how you run your band. Being able to have open lines of communication and not let things build up is essential. This works great for us. I personally like it a lot as a model. Is it the solution for everybody? Not necessarily.
Why now? Why this time in Umphrey’s history is sUMmer School a feasible thing? Is it something you’d do at a later time or is it something that just works for this particular time in the bands career?
We couldn’t have done this after five years or probably even ten years but after fifteen years, there’s enough of a foundation built that we do feel like we can have a five day camp and not just be bullshitting the whole time. You have to log a certain level of experience to be able to try to share. It just felt, much like a lot of the things we do, like the right time and the right place to do it. It evolved very organically like a lot of things do in our world. We throw a lot of things at the wall and some stick and some don’t. We continue to refine upon those ideas and this is one that just felt like the right place at the right time. There’s a strong chance that we could turn it into an annual event. If we did it next year, would it be just like this? Probably not. We like to evolve and see what works and what didn’t. We continue to refine the process to give the best possible experience for both the band and the fan.
Are there elements of Umphrey’s fan interactive events that you personally enjoy the most? Has anything stuck out especially to you?
We thrive on the energy and the community that we get back from our fans. That’s what keeps me motivated in the morning. That’s what drives me when I’m sitting trying to think of some idea. It’s the passion that we get from all of you guys that gets us excited and wants us to keep innovating. For me, I love the ability to have so much real-time contact and exchange with fans. The tools we have at our disposal, it’s never been easier to communicate in a genuine and authentic way. For me, my theory has always been to open up the doors and give people a look behind the curtain to an area or a scene that they might not normally see. At the end of the day, we’re not going to mask or hide and pretend that we’re something we’re not. If we open the curtain and give you a genuine and authentic perspective of who we are, you make like it, you may not but at least its genuine and it’s real. I like exposing it for what it is and then letting the fan decide if it’s something their interested in.