Music Scene sits down with Umphrey's McGee keyboardist, Joel Cummins
By EMMETT MALLOY
Music Scene: For starters, where did the band come up with the name Umphrey's McGee?
Joel Cummins: The name originated from a distant relative of Brendan's [guitarist and vocalist Brendan Bayliss] who shares a similar namesake. We've altered the name slightly, but let's just say that Humphries is an interesting individual. I heard that Brendan discovered another guy in the family with the name. I think they're both suing us.
Music Scene: How did the band form, particularly in connection with Notre Dame?
Cummins: Mike Mirro and I came from the more blue-collar roots of Stomper Bob while Brendan and Ryan [Stasik] played together in the finely-tuned quartet, Tashi Station.
The four of us had played together infrequently over the years — our first public performance was at a concert in the Annenberg Auditorium at the Snite. We did this long-winded improvisatory composition that had people coming up on stage until there were five or six up there, then everyone sitting down after awhile leaving solo piano in the end. There were some people out in the audience who were pretty vocally energetic about the whole thing, although the Snite people were not as receptive to our loud and unabashed amplification.
After that, we decided to leave our respective bands and put some serious time into the group musically. We added Andy Farag after the first six months; he's from Crown Point, Ind., along with Mike.
Music Scene: What albums has Umphrey's McGee released?
Cummins: In 1998 we released "Greatest Hits Volume III" independently. Since then, Street Gold Records, out of Merrillville, Ind., has picked us up. They remastered and rereleased our first disc last November and have since put out "Songs For Older Women" for us. The new disc was recorded live at the Madison Oyster Bar over two nights about a year ago, and features nine new tracks.
We'll get tapers showing up occasionally; we welcome them, too. We also have a number of MP3s that can be downloaded from the Web site, www.umphreys.com, most recently, an entire set of music from Dead Creek Campground this summer.
Music Scene: Umphrey's McGee recently released its first live album. Tell us more about that.
Cummins: We have the good fortune of having two excellent live and studio engineers — Andy Peck and Mike Brinker — working with us. The live disc was actually their idea. We set up two separate sound rigs — a house sound rig and a recording rig — for two nights and just taped everything we did.
With the songs, we tried to stretch out a little from the first disc while exploring more complex song structures. As far as describing the music, there's some evil funk, ethereal grooves, bluegrass and our first love ballad, which you have to do a little homework for to find it on the disc.
Music Scene: Joel, you've told me what a huge Phish fan you are. Do you agree with the band that it's tremendously difficult to capture the energy of a live show in the studio?
Cummins: I think it's hard to consistently give a live show the kind of energy that allows the music to explode. That's probably the most important thing I learned from my days of being really into Phish.
I agree that it's impossible to compare the two situations. Playing with a crowd gives you this ping-pong effect with the energy. There's no doubt in my mind that the crowd can make a huge difference in how I play. There's certainly a more refined and subtle energy to be tapped into with the studio.
Music Scene: What's the support from the Notre Dame community been like for Umphrey's McGee?
Cummins: Really good. We're fortunate to have people graduating and going all over the country. It's made our touring a lot easier. We always seem to have a pretty balanced mix of students and Benders, like me, around here. Otherwise, we've had people spinning live tapes for us all around the country. The world has been made a lot smaller with the aid of the Internet as well. Our Web site has seen some drastic improvements over the years and now has this sometimes funny message board that seems to keep people coming back.
Music Scene: Any plans to release another album in the near future?
Cummins: Our latest album is still relatively new, so I think we're going to try to work with that one for awhile. We're moving to Chicago in May and are focusing on writing new material while playing a lot here and there. We'll probably wait until after the move to record another one. We have around 10 tunes that aren't on either of the discs yet, but I think we'll let them breathe a little bit this time.
Music Scene: Where does the band see inself in a year?
Cummins: After the move to Chicago, we plan on sticking around there while doing a few things around the Midwest and perhaps the East coast again. Musically, I hope we're each individually more mature players and listeners.
I can't wait to experience the listening opportunities Chicago has to offer. There are so many outstanding rooms with many of the world's finest musicians in Chicago, though, so I'm glad we're moving there.
All Scene Stories for Tuesday, September 14, 1999