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Published: 2015/12/04
by Rob Slater

Joel Cummins Gets Reel to Real

Photo by Keith Griner

Umphrey’s McGee is enjoying a well-deserved respite from the touring life, but that doesn’t stop keyboardist Joel Cummins from hitting the stage. Cummins checks in from Colorado, where he recently completed the first of two shows with Roosevelt Collier, as a part of his Colorado Get Down event along with members of Big Gigantic, String Cheese Incident and others.

Of course, Cummins is eager to talk about what the future holds for Umphrey’s, including their upcoming “Real to Reel” event as well as the notable collaborations spread out over their early touring schedule in 2016. And yes, the longtime Cubs fan also dishes on his baseball team’s near brush with history this October.

What part of the world are you in these days?

Denver, Colorado. I’m out here playing some shows with Roosevelt Collier. He’s great, he killed it with us at the Fillmore that night in Miami. He’s asked me to do a bunch of things over the years, but we’ve been busy or I’ve always had something else going on, so finally he asked me about this run here in Colorado and I said, “I think I can make that work.” So we played that first show last night, we played with Jeremy and Dom from Big G, and Bill Nershi, and Matt Lapham, who plays bass with Roosevelt. Those guys killed it.

You pop up at a lot of these Superjam-type shows. Not just Roosevelt Collier’s Get Down but also Everyone Orchestra, Bonnaroo’s Superjam, etc. What do you like about those type of shows?

In particular I like things where it’s more improvisation and less learning songs. I spend most of my brainpower on songwriting and learning stuff for Umphrey’s. I’m all about playing with different people but it’s a lot more fun and easier when you’re playing with players who are really good listeners too. So that’s kind of what I shoot for when I’m doing things that are non-Umphrey’s.

Now onto more important matters, on a scale of 1-10, how jealous are you that Kris Myers gets to play with Dave Coulier and John Stamos?

I try not to be a hater. Nobody likes haters and jealousy, so I try to be happy for my friend Kris. Like the other day he was telling me, “Yeah, Dave Coulier is over. While they’re practicing, he’s pretty hilarious.” So I’d put it on like a 2. Definitely much more love than hate.

I’ve always been curious about this—do you guys check up at all on each other’s solo shows? For example, Jake’s recent solo show in Chicago, Brendan’s gigs, Ryan covering Nirvana with Turbo Suit.

Yeah, mostly to critique them on their setlist writing, that’s my main purpose. I don’t know, not too much, unless I’m in on the show. But a couple of people posted videos from Jake’s thing, so I watched a little bit of that, which I thought was really cool. He brought a drum machine, and had recorded some stuff, and had some keyboards and a bass and guitar. I liked that he really played to his strengths in the solo show—instead of just acoustic guitar and vocal.

Shifting gears slightly, how excited did you allow yourself to get about the Cubs possibly winning the World Series? At what point in the run did you say, “Alright, it’s okay to get excited, because this might actually happen”?

The first one was of course the game against Pittsburgh, when Jake Arrieta just absolutely shut them down. Schwarber hits the first of many big postseason home runs. That was the first moment where I was like, “Okay, this time we might actually advance past this first game.” Because, you know, obviously you’re incredibly nervous about that. The wildcard format gives heart attacks everywhere. But you have to love it, it’s like a super intense playing game that almost feels like World Series Game Seven before the playoff season starts.

That moment was big, and then the moment when I really believed “Wow, I think we have the series,” it was when Javier Baez hit that home run off John Lackey in Game 4 that gave us, I think, a 3 or 4 run lead. That was really cool.

I was actually there for game 4 when the Cubs lost to the Mets in that final game. I was also there for the first game of the year when the Cubs lost to the Cardinals, so I got to see a lot of games this year. It’s just the beginning of this window for us. Nobody expected the Cubs to be this good this quickly. So to me this was all an unexpected bonus. And the fact that we were able to knock the Pirates and the Cardinals out of the playoffs—that gave me a lot of pride, because they’re so…you know the Cubs-Cardinals rivalry, for years has been just this huge thing. And this was actually the first time they’ve ever met in the playoffs. So I can safely say Cubs versus Cards, head-to-head, all-time playoffs, Cubs are undefeated.

Could they have beaten Kansas City?

I don’t know. I mean, baseball is such a game of whoever the hot team is. And the Royals are obviously a fantastic team, and it’s really tough to say. They took advantage of every possible little thing that they could get in the World Series against the Mets. Those guys really know how to play the game. But I’m sure it would have been fun. The Cubs got ice cold right when the Mets series started. But I’m looking forward to the next couple of years there.

Now on to Umphrey’s business. Let’s go back to Halloween—how did the mash-ups come about?

Well, originally we had a different idea for Halloween, and due to some of the current events that were happening, this idea was kind of scrapped about halfway through the process. I’m not going to say what it is because we could still potentially do it in the future. We wanted to kind of take a little bit of the emphasis off that, and we weren’t really totally sure that we were going to do it, even probably a month or two out. Given that we only had four days to prepare this time, and that’s a little bit different than last time, we thought, ‘Okay, it would be better to focus our time on a couple of these.’

We actually had a new original that we were going to play too, but Brendan got kind of sick that last day and was losing his voice, so we had to put that on the shelf for the moment, but I think that will be appearing relatively soon, for one of our next shows.

We just decided, let’s just do two of these this year—we’ll try to do two of them really well. One of them, the first one that we did was kind of more in our traditional wheelhouse of trying to find a couple of songs that kind of sound similar that you might not think of right out of the gates. The Weeknd tune and Fleetwood Mac—“Dreams” and Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” I thought worked well together. And then the second one was one of Brendan’s ideas which we thought was just really funny, and we weren’t trying to make it really good or serious, more just for a laugh. That being “Back in Black,” and “Sexual Healing,” together—two songs that have nothing to do with each other.

We really just wanted to have the show to be more of a rock show, focused on more original material. I think that’s kind of a general trend that we’ve been moving in and that we’ll continue to move in for over the next couple of years.

What’s the status of the mashups moving forward?

Personally, I would like to take a little break from the mashups just to do something different. And I’m not sure what that would be, but when I put it out there on Twitter it was really interesting, at least the people who are my followers, they said, “Just play a great rock show.” It’s always cool to do something that’s different and unusual, but sometimes it’s also just good to play to your strengths and not worry about having to do something that’s going to be clever or witty or funny.

I think our mash-up costumes this year were definitely clever, witty and funny, so I would give us that—going with the Game of Thrones theme and everybody was a variation of Jon Snow. That was pretty entertaining, I thought.

Would you ever consider covering a whole album, or is that Phish’s thing?

I don’t know, you know, again, it’s the same thing. I just feel like, if we’re going to dedicate that much time to working on songs, I’d rather we were working on original stuff at this point. A lot of people always say, “Oh, you guys have got to play by ‘Inca Roads’ Frank Zappa, or by ‘La Villa Strangiato’ by Rush.” And I’m like, “Okay, this is going to take us like, five weeks to really get this to where we want it to be.” I just think our time could be better used. We have so many original tunes that are kind of in the process of being made right now, and a few that are pretty close to being ready to play, so I always want to keep pushing forward on that because I think that’s really what will keep the life-blood of the band going more than learning a new cover.

Since you brought up the new originals, let’s talk about those. So far we’ve seen “Piranhas” and “In the Black” in heavy rotation. What else is coming?

We did “Full Frontal” at the beginning of this year, too, which is kind of just more of a jam as opposed to a full-fledged out song.

We got together in May for a couple of days and worked on some new songs that we’ve kind of been tossing around. We’ve got about I’d say four to five that I would guess will probably be played within the next four to six months, they’re close to being ready.

It kind of feels like it’s back to the Anchor Drops vibe where we have four songs, or five songs that sound completely different from each other. One of them’s a little bit funkier, one of them’s more of an acoustic tune, one of them’s a little more straight ahead rock and one of them’s kind of more on the prog/metal side. I think that variety is also nice to have as far as when you have a bunch of new songs. It’s a little harder to work in five new songs that are all like, super funky or very heavy rock and roll. Yes, I’m really excited about all of these and just happy to have some new things to sprinkle in the rotation.

How do you feel “Piranhas” and “In the Black” have progressed after some time in the rotation?

I think with our new originals it’s very extreme because you don’t want to overplay them too much, and we’ve been playing both of those a little bit less than once a weekend but pretty much every five shows or so for the past six months, so they’re really kind of getting into their comfort zone now.

I think they’re both strong in completely different ways, which is cool. “Piranhas” kind of has this dark, brooding but danceable, focused groove, and I like it for that, I think it’s got some great lyrics from Brendan. “In the Black,” you know, it’s the same thing, it’s kind of got the three part, three sections going on. That’s one that I wrote with Jake earlier this year and then Brendan came and did the lyrics after that. So it was cool to have something, again, that’s a little bit heavier, and it has some pretty good dynamics in it between what happens in the verses and the choruses—the parts that are really sparse and then some parts that have quite a few more parts.

How far into finishing new originals does the talk of releasing a new album start?

Something like maybe 12-15 new tunes and then it opens a whole can of worms of “Should we be putting these out as an album? How do we want to release this stuff?” That’s the next thing. At this point, we’re trying to get them together, and hopefully we’ll have a new batch of songs that we feel pretty strongly about. At this point we’re still just trying to write and come up with more new things. And I’m sure we’ll get back into the studio again in 2016 and start putting some stuff down.

There’s no real time-table right now, there’s no rush. We obviously put out Similar Skin last year, and then we had The London Session this year, so we’ve got plenty of things coming out. We put out some new live videos as well, our Red Rocks performance from this past year, and then we are getting ready to put out five separate discs of the Atlanta New Year’s run from last year.

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