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Published: 2014/08/26
by Rob Slater

Eternally Tours, Umphrey’s

Photo by Dino Perrucci

The line in the bio section of Umphrey’s McGee’s Twitter page simply reads: “Eternally on Tour.” A true sentiment for a band that is currently slated to play 105 shows in 2014 (and early 2015)—a number that is, believe it or not, just below their yearly average. While the road is where UM thrives, this year is centered around their latest studio release, Similar Skin, a focused, cohesive rock effort that has garnered praise from all corners of the globe.

This summer has offered the Chicago sextet a chance to show off their new musical achievements on some of the biggest stages, including a slot on the What Stage at Bonnaroo before the likes of Vampire Weekend and Kanye West as well as a sold out gig at Red Rocks Amphitheatre—their first ever. Now, they set their sights on a fall tour that finds them graduating to larger venues in major markets, with all roads leading to a massive, daunting five-night run at The Tabernacle in Atlanta, GA at the end of the year.

We caught up with Umphrey’s own Joel Cummins following the band’s Red Rocks show to talk about the whirlwind of a year and what lies ahead for Umphrey’s McGee and their fans.

I’m glad you had a few minutes available. I know it’s been little crazy the last month or so.

[Laughs] It’s been good crazy.

You’ve been literally all around the world.

Yeah, literally. Putting out the new album, you know you’re just going to have to play a lot of shows. Of course I couldn’t resist picking up a couple other shows. But it’s been pretty awesome. Bonnaroo to London to Electric Forest and then Red Rocks; that’s a pretty sweet little four-weekend run. And then of course we had Wakarusa and Mountain Jam and Summer Camp before that, too.

How was your Bonnaroo experience?

Really, really exciting this year, and a lot different than other years because I was a part of the SuperJam as well, so it was absolutely nuts. It was really exciting and very cool to see so many artists, some of them that I got to talk to and hang out with and some I got to watch and see how they rehearse with their bands—Janelle Monae and Lauryn Hill—it just brought all these great musicians together.

The practice room was this really fun environment to kind of hang out and shoot the shit with people. The funny thing is when you hear the word “superJam” my initial feeling about something like that is, “Oh, this is gonna be a disorganized, unrehearsed mess.” [Laughs] It couldn’t have been any further from that. There was a lot of thought and effort put into everything, and it was pretty amazing how smoothly it ran in the end when you consider that there were like 40 songs played over the course of 3 hours and 20 minutes or something. So that was a really cool experience for me.

Part of the tunes that I played I got to play with Robby Krieger of The Doors and the girls from Warpaint, because one of their keyboards broke and I just happened to be there, and so that was kind of cool. Just so many different vibes being thrown out there. And that song—with Warpaint we did “Pump Up the Jam,” and I think that was probably what really got me motivated for Pop a Shot the next day. That song always reminds me of playing basketball in high school or something.

Onto Umphrey’s, you played to what could be your largest crowd ever at Bonnaroo and then jumped to a much smaller room in London. How does the approach change? Or does it?

Well that’s always an interesting question. Some people ask, “Do you play a different set if you’re playing Electric Forest versus Bike Week in Sturgis?” And I feel like maybe there are little things that happen, but for the most part we just kind of try to do what we do, and really hit songs that cover lots of different eras. For a set like Bonnaroo, you always want to step up to the plate and feel like the bases are loaded when you’re playing there. You don’t want to pull out the acoustics and do “The Pequod” at Bonnaroo.

I think for the most part we just wanna set ourselves up for success, and the way that happens from night to night is certainly different in, I would say, a very nuanced way. So yeah, there will be songs that we wouldn’t necessarily play at Bonnaroo, but maybe that we would play in, I’ll use Omaha as an example, from a couple weeks ago, where we intentionally went really deep into the catalogue and pulled out some things that we hadn’t played in a while. I feel like those midweek shows—those ones on Thursdays and sometimes Sundays—are the ones where we’ll get a little bit more experimental and maybe do some things that we haven’t been doing very recently. So looking at the thing of like large versus small, I think it definitely allows you to be a little more dynamic when you’re playing in front of a smaller audience.

The first night [at Brooklyn Bowl London] we were going up against England in the World Cup, which turned out not to be in our favor. We probably had like 200 people there that night, and then the other nights were between 4 and 500. So the other two were good—felt good in the room. But at the same time, you can totally bring this down, and I think by virtue of the fact that the London audience is a little bit younger too—there were of course probably a hundred people from the states that were there, checking it out too, that were more familiar with the band—but I think generally you have more of a listening crowd when it’s people who don’t necessarily quite get what it is they’re supposed to do when we’re playing music. Our music is not the easiest to dance to, but people do it.

I feel like in Europe in general, there’s more of this sort of listening fan base, where people come out to shows and just hang out and stand there. And that’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with that either. But I definitely saw—the other night, Kris [Myers] and I went to see Steely Dan at The Forum, and everybody sat down until like the last two songs of the encore. And it was just so weird! You want to stand and move around—I mean, it wasn’t slow music. But yeah, you definitely notice things like the energy in the air Friday at Bonnaroo.

We talk about this a lot, about the difference of playing a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. Because by Sunday, people are just super burnt, but Friday, it’s the first day and everybody’s just jacked to be there. So we’ve talked about that being—that we really like playing the first day of festivals.

How was it up there on the What Stage? I know some fans were disappointed that it wasn’t a late-night slot again.

The fans are always going to want a four hour late night throwdown with crazy lights—that’s certainly kind of how we made our name with Bonnaroo. There’s somewhat of that that I totally get, but at the same time it was an awesome step-up for us to finally be on the main stage, and to have as big of a crowd as we did at that time, it was just perfect. There was some good cloud cover, so people weren’t getting completely cooked out there. I’ll tell ya’, that’s something you’re always worried about at Bonnaroo.

Did it feel like you guys were playing to a ton of new listeners?

I did a media session earlier that day, and somebody asked me a question. They were like, “Okay, so now that you’ve played Bonnaroo eight times, what are you guys going to do different for the fans this year?” And I’m thinking—it just didn’t seem like a very improv-centric Bonnaroo lineup this year. To me, I just thought there were probably way more new ears and people that hadn’t heard us before, that hadn’t seen us at Bonnaroo. But who knows, maybe there are more people that do it every year that I’m just not that aware of. It’s kind of interesting to think about that. Yeah, we’ve played eight times at Bonnaroo but there are probably 10,000 people out there who are hearing us for the first time right now. So that’s always a cool moment for us. And one of our things, we just kind of feel like we’re this band with a strange name, and we need to just be put in front of people. And sometimes people will get into it. It’s kind of like scotch—not for everybody. It’s an acquired taste for most who like it.

Umphrey’s McGee scotch sounds like the next big marketing campaign. So, Similar Skin came out June 10. How are some of the songs—“Cut the Cable,” for instance, and you recently played “Educated Guess” for the first time—how are they coming along? Are you comfortable with them yet in a live environment? How long does it generally take to get them at least okay for the rotation?

Every song’s a little different. The whole thing is we try to practice these things ad nauseum before we play them live for people. Your goal is to make it sound like the 25th time it’s been played, not the first. We’re slowly getting better at that aspect of it, I think. But, as with anything—and especially because a lot of the time we’re both playing our instruments and singing—getting those two things down at once is usually the trickiest thing for me.

So yeah, I think we’re probably there with “Similar Skin” now; we’ve played that one enough where that’s pretty comfortable. “Cut the Cable” is getting close. I felt like the last couple performances were getting better at the vocals. Part of the challenge is not just getting the pitches of the vocals, but it’s new for [Front of House Engineer] Chris Mitchell too, so he’s trying to balance things out front. And he needs those expanses just like we do. It’s definitely a group kind of collective feeling. You know when it’s coming together and things are sounding pretty good.

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