Five months after releasing their eighth studio album‚ Death by Stereo‚ a successful New Years run in St. Louis‚ and a return to Mayan Holidaze in Mexico‚ Umphrey's McGee hits the road in 2012 for a continued run that takes them all around the country‚ culminating in late April with the third UMBowl in their home base of Chicago.
I sat down with keyboardist Joel Cummins before their recent sold out show at the House of Blues in Boston to discuss Death by Stereo‚ improvisational methods‚ a recent run in the studio‚ a deepening relationship with their core audience‚ and where he sees the band five years down the road. Of one thing there is little doubt -- this is a band at the very top of their game‚ not content to rest on the success it has earned‚ and still constantly pushing the envelope of what a rock band can and should be.
* * *

Jim Murray: I'd like to start with the enormous crowd you guys played for at the Super Bowl Village show. That must have been special.
Joel Cummins: Very pleasantly surprising and pretty awesome. You know‚ we were thinking back to the largest crowd we ever played for‚ and I think that might have been it. I mean‚ people were estimating there were between fifty and seventy-five thousand people there; it was pretty cool. One end was set up so that everybody could watch the stage‚ your normal rock show‚ and the other end they had big screens down there with more PA stacks‚ so it wasn't just the people that were in our immediate area watching and hearing the show. It just turned out to be a really‚ really fun night. And I never thought I'd say playing outside in Indianapolis in February sounds like a good idea. But it was great.
Five months later‚ I'm curious about your reflections on Death by Stereo. Specifically how have the songs evolved relative to songs in the past? "Domino Theory" and "Miami Virtue‚" for example‚ have really been opened up‚ relative to the time frames in which new-ish songs had been treated in the past.
Sure‚ sure. I think to start with‚ a lot of the tracks on Death by Stereo were a little more straightforward than the ones we did with Mantis‚ so as far as having a jumping off point for improvisation‚ both "Miami Virtue" and "Domino Theory" have been just great selling points. They really get the crowd's energy up and I think that's half the battle to improv for us is getting people there. You can start with an up-tempo song that has people already there within the original structure‚ and then have improv‚ and they're much more receptive to it than if it's coming off something that's lower energy. So you try and build it up from that point. Some of the songs we've been playing for a while -- songs like "The Floor‚" sometimes we'll improvise over the beginning of it…. we did one version of "Hajimemashite" that had an extended intro to it that we'd never done before‚ but I think in general the brand new ones have really lent themselves to being great improvisational vehicles for us.
And that leads me right in… you guys are obviously an experimental live act. I was hoping you could explain the process for what happens within jams: how much time is spent working on a framework‚ and how much of it is pure improvisation? How does that dual approach serve the live experience?
For Umphrey's McGee's improvisations‚ we really take A LOT of different approaches. There are times when it really is being improvised and being made up on the spot. For instance‚ last night in Buffalo‚ we have a song called "August‚" it's one of our older tunes and the middle of it has this open section where anything can happen. And so‚ talking backstage last night before the encore‚ we just decided that I would start an idea; I started something and laid out an A section‚ and halfway through it somebody got on one of the talkback microphones‚ "Jake‚ start a B section!" And then‚" alright were going to go to F sharp‚ then G‚" and he's sort of saying it all in the talkback‚ he's leading us through all of that in the B section‚ then we went back to my idea‚ back to his idea one more time‚ then I think we finished with my idea. That was an example of us really doing it on the fly‚ which is one way that things can happen.
Sometimes we'll talk about it‚ sometimes it'll just happen. Sometimes we'll be backstage and we'll work on a chord progression or a chord structure and have improv based out of that outline of what might happen. And of course there's always a lot of flexibility in there with where things might go -- typically we'll come up with an A and a B section‚ sometimes it'll be an A‚ B‚ and a C and sometimes we'll improvise a few sections on the spot to see‚ actually to kind of feel out the crowd‚ see what's working. You just never know.
Whether to pull it back or to launch off…
Yeah‚ exactly. There are really a lot of different things that might happen. Sometimes it's the talkback microphones to give each other cues‚ sometimes its visual cues‚ about what key something is‚ or for somebody to stop and someone else to keep going. I do think the wide variety of methods that we have to base around our improvisation -- that's one of the main reasons that things sound so different from night to night. You know‚ when you have all these different variables you immediately open up a lot of possibilities for where things can go.
And then the other side of things -- what happens when the improvisation is not working out -- how do you push through those rough patches?
I think the main thing is if something isn't working‚ you've always got the bailout to go to the next song [Laughter]‚ which is bound to happen from time to time. But more often than not‚ I feel like we end up with the opposite happening‚ which is‚ something we like too much‚ and then we fan it for awhile. Which actually -- it works out well for the context of the overall show‚ but then at the end we'll get down at the bottom of the setlist and we'll have to cut something. We would rather be in the situation where we have too much that we wanted to get to and we have to cut something‚ then‚ alright we have ten minutes to fill something‚ what are we gonna do? I think we're fortunate in that we figured out ways to take risks that aren't the type of risks that will totally create a train wreck [Laughter]. We've learned those tricks over the years. And there have certainly been many train wrecks‚ don't get me wrong.
Another thing to remember is that a lot of our fans‚ at this point‚ they've come to so many shows‚ they almost get just as excited about us fucking something up. They're like‚ "Oh my god‚ they blew this here!" Kind of still that human factor… there's times we can pull off ninety minutes of music and think‚ Oh‚ we were really tight‚ and everybody felt really good about the stuff‚ and then there are times when one person goes this way‚ one person goes that way‚ and you just learn to correct yourself as quickly as you can‚ to just….