Ahhh…UMBowl Week is upon us, Chicago. While it’s fair to say we get Buffalo Bill amounts of insanely good music through our fair city, there’s just something even more special about a homecoming, you know? Even though Umphrey’s McGee got their start at Notre Dame, they gained the fame and momentum throughout their formative years in Chicago that led them to sell out UMBowl IV in just a matter of minutes. Was that seconds? It was a blitzkrieg to snag tickets, I know that much. The demand was high: they have’t performed in Chicago since North Coast, Park West’s sound is top-notch, and the purchasing of tickets locks in dubious face melts of shreddy guitar, choreographed chochlear sensations and unexpected covers from confrontational genres, and six-plus instruments thrashing together in the sound of sweat, love, and sometimes pure silliness.
I mean, you see a lot of bands having fun up there, but UM definitely lead the pack in terms of goofing around, and not just with each other, either. It’s very common to hear about their fan interactions throughout the festival and touring circuit. BBQ’s, beers, meetups, you name it, they’ve done it. I mean, you even see them playing kickball at dawn at their own Summer Camp Music Festival with tons of spun wooks who couldn’t do that head-down-on-the-bat, spin-thingy if they tried, but shit if they can’t recite all the lyrics to Professor Wormbog (an Umph instrumental fave). If you’ve ever run into them at Chicago bars, or after their shows, they are all super down-to-earth, funny guys. They’re here for the party, and they’re people of the people. Very, very talented people of the people. Four years ago in 2010, they took this fan-utopian ideal to the next level and curated their first UMBowl, giving their fans a real voice.
An audience-interactive showcase, UMBowl works like, well, sports, in that there are four “quarters,” or sets, of live music equal out to about two full-length shows all together, but each quarter has a different theme. I was really lucky to get some time with Joel Cummins, UM keyboards/piano player and vocalist, to get some better insight last week. And, in the spirit of this unique experience, I proposed my questions for him in four sections just like UMBowl is split up. Please enjoy the music while your party is HAPPENING on Friday.
Umphrey’s first quarter, Raw Stewage, focuses on one of UM’s most prominent characteristics, their improvisation, so I followed suit.
Q: Can you speak loosely on your improv as a band?
A: Sure. Well, for one, it’s different now for communication. When we started trying improv as a band we were all playing with stage monitors, but now we have talkback mics and those only go to the band, lights and monitor engineer, so we have this whole way to communicate differently. The easiest way was at first visual cues, and now we have lots of signals like that. One of the best things, and fun things, about a band is to pass the ball around, and be a part of “who is leading the improv.” The conversation is all going back and forth, and we wanna have everyone be the leader at a different point in time. There is a big parallel between what we do, and improv comedy, we’ve come to realize. The number one rule with improv comedy is, if someone starts with it, you go with it. You don’t say, “No.” So we do that. That’s one of the biggest things. There are six people in the band trying to be creative, and you have to let it work. You have to sometimes let your thing go, and that can be a challenge at times. You think something’s gonna work and when you think is its gonna be your idea that takes charge, and someone calls a change for something different, you can’t say “No.” That’s probably the biggest thing for me; music is very personal, so, the quicker you can get over something, the quicker you can get back on your feet.
Q: So how do you recognize when it’s your turn, or when you have to back down?
A: A huge part of improv is ear training, and being able to hear what someone is playing and duplicate or compliment it either way. Either harmonizing or adding chords, really that is the secret. You have to be able to identify whats happening quickly and come up with something good in a split second.
Q: Is it hard to remember the loops you create when you’re performing live? Do you ever find yourself recreating what you did, say, the day before?
A: You just have to remember what you create. Bouncebacks are a challenge in themselves at times, but, I really have a hard time remembering what we even did the show before, or last week, or whatever. It is really just short term memory. Accuracy and creativity with rhythmic memory.
Q: Would you say it’s more of a reflex? Maybe that you’ve been playing so long now, and together at that?
A: Sure . Yes, I think a lot about Malcolm Gladwell. And Bob Lefsetz, he talks a lot about this. To be completely proficient in something you need to put in 10,000 hours. That’s the general bar. I’m not up there thinking about it during a show, none of us are. As Umphrey’s, we’ve been together so long and we just DO it. We don’t think about it. I don’t have to think about the progression in Water, I KNOW IT. You have to get to the point where all of you just know what you’re supposed to do at the basic level, then you can have fun with it.
Q: So you create your setlists before the show?
A: Yes, we all pass around creating the setlist.
Q: Do you have any segues that go explicitly together? (A la Grateful Dead’s Help on the Way>Slipknot!>Franklin’s Tower)
A: We’ve actively tried to avoid that. We want people to be surprised every night. We’ll even do fake-outs of songs to avoid this, and we’ll even play the preamble then switch it up. It would be boring if there was one 15 min song that you know will go into another 20 min song. It won’t be something fun. We want it to be a surprise and engage the crowd.
Q: Can you explain the percentages of shows thing? Like- do you guys sit down and plan out the percentage of the show that’s gonna be jam/improv, and truly stick to that? I’ve read in multiple interviews how you don’t like to go a certain number of minutes without words, and plan for a only a specific percentage of the show to be improvisational.
A: No. And, that’s kind of what UMBowl is for. We will keep the die hard fans happy w the Raw Stewage and long periods of time w no lyrics. The long instrumental passages might be too much for new fans. Any given night there could be 500 people that haven’t seen us before. It’s a general thing we try to do , its not a hard and fast rule. One night it might go one way- and another go another way.
Q: So you don’t do say- 20% planned, 80% improv, etc? I’ve heard that.
A: Nope. We just want to keep everyone engaged. There’s nothing firm like that. But- as far as making setlists-all our past shows are documented. We just don’t want to play the same show in the same city, and we have around 150 pieces of music now. We also have to kind repeat stuff we think was a big hit at our last visit, without overdoing it, so it can be tough. Our music is hard to get into; it’s an acquired taste. I mean- you look at a band like Coldplay and they have some easy lyrics to relate to, and our stuff is just more arcane and obtuse. Stuff is intentionally there to create a sense of uncomfortability.
All Request Section: Just as UM fans are given the chance to ask the band to play their favorite songs, I asked UM fans for their own questions to ask Joel about the band, or really whatever they wanted. This section’s questions were entirely crowd-sourced.
Q: Who is your favorite band?
A: Currently, Radiohead, as far as big stadium bands. My current favorite… more-on- our-level band…Snarky Puppy. Current favorite band of the past, Miles Davis 1968 and his rotating cast of characters.
Q: How do you keep it fresh and progressively continue to make improvements over the years to keep it interesting?
A: You have to always have an open mind to learning new things. You can never be satisfied where you are, and then things will continue to be interesting. I’m far from being the best musician I’m going to be in my life.
Q: How do you feel being the only member of the band on social security?
A: Ahhh… that’s good. Little known fact- Jake and I were both born in 1975.
Q: What mood, if any, do you attempt to create at your shows?
A: The most important thing is that we try to create a number of different moods at a show. We want balls to the wall rock, and we want people to lose it and go crazy. There are times when it’s funky, or others more mellow, and it should go up in down here and there. The more important thing is that we create a story for the show overall. We wanna create an arc with that energy from the beginning of the show, in that the intensity level will rise and rise til we pick it up at setbreak right where we left off, and keep it up til the end… like a big crescendo.
Q: Does Waful (UM Lighting Designer/Director) like pancakes or waffles better? Does he secretly snack on pancakes when no one’s around? Does he like chicken and waffles?
A: (laughing) (yelling for Waful) He’s right here, let me ask him… oh wait, he already left. Well, I can’t say for sure without asking him, but I’ve never seen him eat either. I think he’s more of an omelet guy.
S2 or Stew Art, makes up Quarter 3 and is a “full set of improvisation based exclusively on themes, ideas, scenes, and concepts presented by fans.” As Quarter Three is a UM staple at this point, and is Joel himself, these questions are all about Joel …himself.
Q: What is the best collaboration you’ve been a part of? What is your #2 so to say?
A: Hmmm…DTM (Digital Tape Machine) probably, and we have a new album coming out May 17, Be Here Now. That is really exciting. I don’t know about the BEST collaboration. I had a fun time being an artist-at-large on Jam Cruise and sitting in with lots of different artists, that was fun.
Q: What festival plans do you have for summer?
A: Well, we have ten pretty big fests, Summer Camp, EFF, All Good, Camp Bisco… some others. It will be a lot of fun.
Q: Are you working on anything else, music-wise?
A: I’ll be sitting in with Cosby Sweater over the summer -that’s a cool hybrid of live jam and electro. Ohmphrey is another project, but that is more like, instrumental prog-fusion. Those guys are all just really amazing players. Occasionally I’ll sit in with Tiny Boxes based in North Carolina, too. They’ll do late night shows and I’ll sit in with them. I have also done some shows with Wade (Wyllys) as Space Disco, with me on keys and him as the DJ. I’ve sat in with some bluegrass too, Yonder Mountain and Railroad Earth… I love to play with bluegrass musicians too.
Q: So you’re all across the board with your genres… do you feel like you lean more toward the electronic or the jam side of things, if you had to say?
A: I like it all. I think branching out makes it fun, and is a personal way to develop, and bring back to Umphrey’s. It’s fun to get into the more electronic side of things, but I love prog-rock, too, and I like … most everything. I want to keep my chops fresh in all genres. I want to have a little bit of skill in each of the languages.
Umphrey’s Q4 is called “Choose Your Own Adventure.” The audience texts the band their choices out of options projected onto a big screen, allowing the audience to choose the setlist in real time. As no one else I’ve ever heard of has done this type of event, there was only real topic for our last section to round us out: UMBOWL itself.
Q: Was UMBowl created after the Superbowl?
A: Yes kind of– we came up w the analogy that it’s the UM version of the Super Bowl. The timing worked out that they announced it halftime of the Super Bowl, and that’s been the analogy. We figured we’d do something that would be…all these different things where the fans have something intimate. Plus, we love to get back to Chicago.
Q: Who picks the list of options the crowd chooses from? Are they sent electronically?
A: A lot of different people put input. For The All Request Quarter, we went through a lot of things we used to play but don’t as much now. We picked a couple covers we haven’t done before, and we also did a little bit of fan surveying to see what people wanted us to play. For the Raw Stewage quarter- there are a few contributions from the band on the ballot, but it was a team of Jon McLennand , Jeremy Welsh, Adam Steinberg, …people who really know the music. Jon said it best when he said, “What I’m looking for in improvisations is – A. bouncebacks between section to section, B. main melody, C. that all members of the band have their own part. A lot of improvisations that we do that start small and build dynamically, but don’t really qualify in these ways…you can do that with a chord progression, just build it and build it. The benefit of doing this was that it sparked some new songs. Four to five new songs of the nine-10 that we’ve played through the year, in fact. It helps us because we go back to stuff we’ve done in the past that we may not even remember. You really have an idea that this worked in the past and people liked it. We can revisit it and add a bit more structure, and then we can do a new piece of original material. Its kind of nice that we can do that.
Q: Will you put them on an album? Those nine-10 new tracks? Would it be live or in the studio?
A: Definitely possible to do a studio album. We’ll be in the studio May- June, and that will be right after UMBowl, so it’s quite possible some of that will make it on there.
Q: What is your favorite quarter to play?
A: That’s a good question. Let me go through ’em here. The Choose Your Own Adventure is fun because you can see things change in the moment. I think I like the Raw Stewage quarter the best because we’re revisiting things we’ve done that we’ve forgotten and bringing them back to life. And we’re playing the things people wanted to hear most, and that is a really cool thing. Taking them through really obscure pieces of music…I love that feeling of putting that much time into it, even five-10 yrs ago, and seeing the audience get into it NOW… it’s really cool.
Q: Tell me about the lighting for a show like this – or one that is less planned than normal. How does Waful prepare?
A: There’s a lot of conversation that will be going on in our talkback mics and in-ears. He is in on that as well. He can hear us giving cues, and watches for visual cues too. It’s funny, he actually says that the improv stuff is sometimes easier for him than the composed stuff. The reason being, it’s 4/4 time in improv, when composed it can get weird w the time signatures. There are definitely times when he does something w the lights and the crowd then reacts, and it keeps us going on that song. It’s like a conversation with the lights, and us, and the crowd.
Q: What has been the most surprising thing that’s happened at UMBowl?
A: You know the one that I remember, and I think it was from UMBowl, someone texted “hip hop tribute” in the S2 Quarter. Two different ideas came to mind for people in the band, Tibute to the Spinal Shaft, a song of ours, is what Jake was thinking. A hip hop version of Tribute, someone else said, and I thought it was a hip hop tribute – like play a hip hop track in a tributary way- so we did both of those things. It was kind of a statement of the openness to interpretation of things. That was pretty memorable.
Q: Do you set it up so that you’re prepared no matter what?
A: Yes definitely. We’ve been talking about this for a couple months. We’ll have rehearsals for today – through rest of tour. We typically have an hour-long rehearsal before soundcheck dedicated to UMBowl, including new songs and re-learning the Raw Stewage section. It doesn’t have to be a note-to-note recreation; we can also do it better and reorganize it, and the creativity flows and that’s good. Other times it’s good the way it is. Its good to have that option.
As UM always says, make sure to Rage, Rest & Repeat when Friday cometh. \mm/ See you out there.
Umphrey’s Mcgee plays at Park West, 322 W Armitage Ave, Chicago, IL, 60614. Friday April 26 at 7:30 PM. 18+
Umphrey’s Mcgee is Brendan Bayliss – Guitar, vocals, Jake Cinninger – Guitar, vocals, Joel Cummins – Keyboard, piano, vocals, Andy Farag – Percussion, Kris Myers – Drums, vocals, Ryan Stasik – Bass.