Aquatic Umphrey’s Talk with Joel Cummins
Photo by Chad Anderson
For the better part of a decade I’ve watched Joel Cummins work his magic as one part of the glorious machine that is Umphrey’s McGee. As a longtime fan of the band, I was a bit surprised to find myself in Cummins’ cabin on Jam Cruise 12, getting a sneak peak at one of the never-before-played tracks from UM’s forthcoming studio album. The song—I wasn’t clued in on its name—starts off with some of the hard rock edge that we’ve come to expect from Umphrey’s McGee before shifting gears with a pleasantly unexpected, ethereal string arrangement. It’s not really like anything the band has done before, and I look forward to giving it a proper listen once the album is out. Better yet, I look forward to seeing it jammed out in all its live splendor.
And that’s the beauty of Jam Cruise. One minute you’re lounging by a pool deck with a craft beer in one hand and a soft-serve ice cream cone in the other while Steve Kimock, George Porter Jr. and company put their spin on the Grateful Dead, and the next minute the keyboardist from one of your favorite bands is asking you to describe an unreleased song from his forthcoming album. Polar vortexes be damned, this is what humans should be doing in January.
It was on the aforementioned pool deck that I ran into Mr. Cummins, who graciously agreed to an interview. Over the course of an hour or so, we discussed a range of topics, including Umphrey’s McGee’s upcoming studio album, Jam Cruise, underground (literally) nightclubs, Mellotrons, New Year’s Eve in Colorado and much more.
So here we are on Jam Cruise. How cool is this?
This is your first Jam Cruise and you’ve come in on it now on year eleven, Jam Cruise 12, and Umphrey’s McGee did the first five years of Jam Cruises and then I’ve been on as a solo performer with a few different side projects, OHMphrey, Yacht Rock and I think maybe that’s it. And then just doing piano sets and sitting in with people. But it is insane to see how far it’s come from year one. Year one we came here, it was an 800 person ship—it was this big, ugly, grey, metal thing that I was somewhat frightened to get on—I thought there was at least like a ten percent possibility it would sink, you know? We would be testing the ship more than any other cruise group ever. So year one went great despite the fact that it was a somewhat scaled down production. When you do an event the first time you’ve got to make sure it succeeds and not try to do something too big from the get-go.
So here we are 12 years later in a 3,500-person ship that just set sail in 2012. This ship is insanely nice—we’ve got crystal staircases—but it’s not just that the ship has improved. Whenever I’m hanging out with Umphreys’ fans they tell me this, that there’s this Jam Cruise family element that has developed and all these people have come here—I would venture to guess at least 50 percent if not 75 percent have been on more than one Jam Cruise—and it’s one of these things where once you come once, you don’t ever want to miss it. You make friends from all over the country in such a cool, special way and then you get to come back next year or a couple years later and reunite with them. And there’s just an amazing vibe here that is hard to describe because you have all these people. It feels like an enlightened group of fans, who get that life can be great with just music and friends. What else do you need? Here we are on the open seas traveling for five days and you know you’ve got all these musicians pouring their hearts out and it’s so easy to do when you have an audience that is immediately open to having a great time. There are really no hazards on the ship. You don’t have to worry about walking into a bad neighborhood.
So really the only thing is just that you have to make sure that you make it back to the ship before port call on the land days. We got a little close yesterday. The cool thing for me is that, as an artist, there are a few unique things. I get to be a fan, I get to watch way more music than I do at any other festival because I go back to my room, chill for a few minutes, and there’s always something going on and having that option to go back and take a breather is really nice, especially when you can open your door and the ocean is going by. But you have that and being able to hang out and just casually mix with the fans is also a lot of fun. I feel like I’ve met so many cool people from all over the country. A lot of them don’t even know who I am; I am just hanging out with people having a good time. So to be able to just strip it down and just feel like we’re amongst friends, we’re amongst people who get it.
How’d you end up spending your time in Jamaica yesterday?
We did a little trip to this tunnel cave. It was insane. We went to this place that used to be a night club that was an underground cave but then they eventually decided it was unsafe because they’re like, “Oh yeah, maybe the base isn’t going to be so good for the support, it could cave in.” But one of our friends had a portable speaker with her so we were able to turn up the club one more time and have a little dance party in there. Then we got to go on an hour-and-a-half tube ride down this river after doing a little hiking up some rocks, too. I mean it was a pretty mind-blowing experience to be able to be that deep in nature just an hour away from where this was happening.
There’s also another thing about these. You can venture a little bit off the beaten path and discover some really cool unique things about whatever country it is you’re visiting. So there is a little bit of culture happening, too. Last year I did the Positive Legacy event. The Moog Foundation got off at a school in Turks and Caicos and I went with them. It was unbelievably inspiring for me, getting do a little moog clinic with Bernie Worrell and Rich Vogel from Galactic. Just getting to spend a little time with those guys, working with kids. We were demonstrating what the moog was, and these kids, their eyes were just lighting up. They’re like, “Oh my god!” And some of the kids who knew how to play keyboard stepped up and we showed them how to play with it a little bit.
At one point we were like, “Bernie come over here, you’ve got to play them some songs.” He’s says, “Okay, okay. So this is a little tune that I wrote called ‘Flashlight’.” So he plays it and a couple of the kids are like, “What’s this dude doing?” And then he says, “Yeah, we’ve got another one.” All the kids start singing “We want the funk,” and we tell them, “this is Bernie’s tune, too” and the kids are like, “Oh my god!” So it was this really, really cool inspiring moment. We also left the school with a Theremin there so they had something new there that they could play with for their music program. So it’s little things like that where you can go to a community and you know it doesn’t matter who we are to them. It was this awesome thing for them, that somebody from the United States was coming and bringing these instruments and spending the day with them. It’s cool. I’ve taught a lot of piano lessons over the years to people from the ages of seven to thirty, so to be able to reconnect with that teaching was a really special thing.
Well, moving on from Jam Cruise, Umphrey’s just wrapped up your New Year’s out in Colorado? There were some new covers, some new tunes too. How was that?
The run was amazing. Colorado is an incredibly special place to play music, it’s a lot like Jam Cruise where you just feel like the audience immediately gets it. Everybody is just completely getting down. It was our first time doing New Year’s there so I think there was a little special energy for that as well. Of course, Red Rocks is my favorite venue. I feel that with the Red Rocks shows we’ve been able to do in the past couple years we’ve gradually just built the fan base and stoked the fan base to the point where we felt like we were finally ready to do a New Year’s thing there. So, yeah, it was amazing. We got to play a new original tune called “Bad Friday” that we’ve been working on for a long time. We had Mad Dog make a horn arrangement for it to. That was something that we hadn’t done before; play a new tune for the first time live with horns. It was definitely a little bit of a risk, but it’s kind of like the Talking Heads, just the groove keeps going. It’s kind of almost an anti-Umphrey’s song in the sense that we’re so known for these jagged changes and all these different parts. For this one we were like, “Let’s just make something that just keeps going, that can be a successful four-minute song.” But I think it can probably be a successful ten or fifteen minute song down the road. It’s got something that’s super catchy and danceable and fun, yet at the same time not predictable or lifted from something else. I feel like it still falls into that very original, unique Umphrey’s McGee. It’s one of those things where these six unique voices are creating the music and that’s still going to be heard no matter what song it is. So that was really fun.
Then the covers. We did “Rock the Casbah,” which has a pretty sweet little piano part so that was fun for me. We had Josh Redman the second night and Josh is just the best person to have play with your band. The first time that he played with us in 2004, we were talking to him before the run and tried to figure out what it is he wants us to do. Does he want us to play his tunes? Does he want to play covers? Does he want to play our tunes? And he’s like, “No, no, no. Dude, I’m really into what you guys are doing compositionally, originally. I want to play your music but I don’t want to solo over the top of it. I want to find a part and create a part and be within the textures of everything that is happening. I want to know what it is and I want to be inside of that.”
So we gave him a bunch of tunes and he picked up a few of them. One was “DBK,” and the first time he showed up for rehearsal he was like, “Well we should probably start with more of the complex stuff, so let’s start with that one. I made a few notes so it’s not going to be perfect but I definitely got through it and got notes on all the parts, so if we need to stop we’ll just make sure it’s tight.” So we played through the whole thing. I swear he did not make a mistake and that song took us three months as a band to get tight back in 1998, and that was not easy. We just all looked at each other and we’re like, “This is going to be cool and fuck you.” Yeah, he’s such a jerk for being so good. So we did, I think, five original tunes. We had “Redtape” prepared, too, and we didn’t get to it. And he was really pumped about that one. He was like, “I really wanted to play ‘Redtape,’ man.”
We also did a Weather Report cover for the first time called “River People” that Ryan has been wanting to do for a while. We did this obscure late 70s fusion-jazz tune written by Jaco Pastorius with Wayne Shorter on sax, Joe Zawinul on keys, and Peter Erskine as the drummer. We’ve never covered Weather Report before, so this was kind of a really fun thing for us to do. We’ve been wanting to give them a nod for a while so it was nice to make it happen, and having Josh on it was so killer.
The thirtieth we played Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me.” It was a really fun, funny song. I listened back to it a couple days ago and I was like, “Okay, it turned out alright.” Ryan wanted to do this super funky 70s tune by a band called Pleasure that I’ve never heard of before. Apparently they have this song called “Glide” that had some pretty sweet keys in it, too. So we got to do that one, and New Year’s I think we did four other new ones. We did maybe five. We did “Twilight Zone” by Golden Earring—which I think is maybe my favorite cover from that—and he killed it on the vocals and it just has this great driving groove that we kind of turned into a house jam. That’s another one that I feel like is going to have huge potential for improvisation for us to come back and revisit it and play it more this year. We did “Hit It and Quit It” by Funkadelic, which was cool. We did “Sussudio” by Phil Collins. I heard that one on the radio one day probably three or four weeks ago. I wrote everybody and I was like, “You guys, we’ve got to do this.” We were kind of waffling on a couple other ones that we weren’t sure were gonna be the right calls and I was like, “’Sussudio,’ everybody knows ‘Sussudio,’ it will be badass with horns and everything.” It was really funny because the horn guys were like, “There isn’t a real horn section that can play this; there’s no place where they stop to breathe.” So they did it like half and split it up, but they were telling us this was in the heyday of MIDI. I think I can hear MIDI horns where they had it recorded. But yeah, that was a fun one.
What else did we do? Howard Jones’ “Things Can Only Get Better,” another classic 80s tune that I always loved as a kid so that was pretty fun to be able to play with horns of course, too. Cool and The Gang’s “Funky Stuff.” I think this was the first time we’ve played that one, too, but I think that was the last song of the night just to go out with a fun party vibe with the encore. We had a great time with all of the covers this year. I think we ended up having a really nice variety of stuff from the 70s and 80s; some more rock, some more funky shit, some fusion jazz stuff.