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Published: 2014/12/30
by Rob Slater

Around the Horn with Umphrey’s McGee

For Umphrey’s McGee, 2014 has been bittersweet. The band played their first sold out Red Rocks gig, rewrote the Around the Horn theme song and put out one of the year’s finest rock records, but they also lost original drummer and friend Mike Mirro in January. Most everything the band did this year was done with their late friend in mind, from video tributes at UMBowl to a special dedication in their Similar Skin liner notes.

We recently caught up with Joel Cummins to assess the year for the band and what 2015 may hold, including a tease of a potential “career-defining” announcement coming early in the year. Cummins, who owns a degree in Music Theory and Performance from Notre Dame, alsp discusses his most recent solo set at Brendan and Jake’s Holiday show which featured the compositional work of Claude Debussy. As Cummins explains, the inspiration for the set came from his friend and bandmate, Mike Mirro.

Let’s start with the solo set you just played at Brendan and Jake’s Holiday Show. You incorporated some classical arrangements, which is fairly unique in your solo sets.

It’s the most nerve-wracking thing for me in the world, so it takes a lot for me to even agree to do something like this. With the music of Claude Debussy, he had been my favorite piano composer for a long time, and then when we decided to do the holiday show as a tribute to the Mike Mirro Neurological Foundation, I thought this is the perfect time to play some of this stuff because I introduced this music to Mike and he completely flipped out about it. It was exciting to see. It’s not everyday that you turn on one of your friends to classical music. I made that connection, and thought, ‘This is music that more people need to know about.”

One of the things that I think has been important in the history of Umphrey’s McGee, we’ll play some covers that are obvious and that people know, but some of the other stuff is more educational. We want to introduce people to music that they might not otherwise know. That’s certainly something that I wanted to do with this stuff.

I also did some improvisation and some original music after that to give them something sweeter. At the same time, Debussy’s piano music is some of the most listenable classical music that’s out there. He was about breaking the rules and, one of the things I talked about at the show was how much of an influence his modality and uses of floating seventh chords and destabilizing the root are. That sort of stuff really found its way into a lot of Umphrey’s McGee compositions, at least as far as my contributions to it go. So, there is that connection that happened there too.

Shifting to Around the Horn, you just did an interview with ESPN where you dug into the process a little bit more. Is it right you guys took the theme song from something you performed on stage?

Well, just to be clear it’s kind of a hybrid because they wanted to retain the original melody they had in their old version but they wanted the basic instrumental part underneath it to be hipper and funkier. [ATH Producer] Aaron Solomon who is a friend and a fan of the band sent he came across exactly what he wanted and needed for the show. Whenever you can get a super specific example of what somebody wants it makes it a lot clearer about—how can we execute something that the producers and everybody involved are going to like.

This relationship had been building over the last few years. For those who don’t know, you guys hung out on set last time you were in DC.

Yeah, and I have to give credit where credit is due—Andy Farag was the first one who suggested to Aaron that we should rewrite the theme song. He had mentioned to Andy that they were looking to redo it and Andy said, “why don’t we do it for you?” The initial conversation was really on him and by that point we had become buddies and were joking around in person and on Twitter about stuff and unbelievably it’s worked out really well.

And then, of course, Tony Reali sits in with you guys in Silver Springs, MD.

Yeah, I think that was the real kicker.

How was he as a player?

He was good. I have to admit, I was nervous getting him up there, I worried about “Okay, is this something that’s really funny but a complete musical disaster.” I couldn’t really hear him that well when we were playing it live but I listened back and I was like, “Dude, you nailed the changes.” He might’ve snuck in a rehearsal beforehand.

The reason that I knew he knew it was because he played me a video of him, I think it was after some awards show and there was a piano in the lobby. Someone recorded him playing it and I was like “Damn, that’s pretty good.” And he was like “Yeah I played that and thought I was all cool and then [J.A.] Adande sat down and played “Clair de Lune” by Debussy from memory and totally smokes me.” So there are a couple panelists on there who have some musical talent.

I don’t know if Kevin Blackistone is a player but he’s certainly a very well-versed listener, famously from the night that Tony and Aaron came out. Kevin came out for dinner with us too. We ended up shooting the shit and he was going to go to a jazz show downtown and he was like “Yeah I was just going to come out to dinner but I feel like now I want to see what your deal is, so I’m going to come to the first set and then go downtown.” He ends up coming to the first set and we talked to him at set break and he was like “I’m not leaving, man.” It’s always interesting to see people who are completely out of the scene and how they react to one of our shows.

I should also mention, those guys completely crushed it for our UMBowl segment this year too. Waful and I basically tried to write the script for them and feed them with as much denigrating information as possible because obviously they’re the best when they’re completely ripping something apart, so that was fun too.

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