Hampton Beach, New Hampshire hasn’t quite taken off for the season yet in May. Many of the shops on the strip parallel to the beach remain closed until Memorial Day weekend. Umphrey’s McGee’s show at the Casino Ballroom, though, definitely kickstarted the summer festivities in the small beach town.
After finding out I’d be interviewing Umphrey’s keyboardist, Joel Cummins, I started spending quite a bit of time jamming to the band’s mashup album, Zonkey. It’s a multi-genre, cross-decade kind of thing. It has something for everyone and seems to really exemplify the spirit of the band. It’s exactly the kind of music I love to hear when I’m out on the town enjoying a beer.
In addition to their cool music, they have a name in craft beer as well. Rock Brothers Brewing, in collaboration with Cigar City and Boulder Beer Company have produced a pale ale in honor of Umphrey’s and their music called Nothing Too Fancy. The brew can be found on draft in select states and a can release is in the works.
On May 20th, just prior to Umphrey’s warm-up for their show, I navigated my way down a seemingly endless and mildly rickety spiral staircase to the backstage area of the Casino Ballroom where I found Joel. It took me a moment to recover when Joel told me his current diet didn’t allow him to drink beer but the interview must go on.
Nothing Too Fancy, obviously it’s music and it’s also a beer inspired by you guys?
We did three different rounds of taste-testing and wanted to come up with kind of a light, day-drinking beer. Something you could drink at a music festival and have four or five of them and it doesn’t wreck you. You want it to have good alcohol content but you also want people to, uh… I mean, I don’t know, our music does sound better the more you drink. We talked about it a few different times with the guys from Rock Brothers and Cigar City and it was a pretty fun little different collaborative project for us to work on.
Hey, fuck it. Let’s have some beers. What you got?”
It must be kind of strange to have a brewery approach you about wanting to name a beer after you.
Yeah, it’s great. You kind of hope at some point in your career there will be a few little interesting things that happen on the side. That’s one that I think is a lot of fun for people. The hopes are always that it’s a great product. Back in 2000, 2001, we had a local brewery make a couple beers for us and I remember the first one was really fun so they made a batch that would debut at the time we played a show on their back parking lot. The second one unfortunately kind of tasted like soap so after that second one we were like alright, maybe we need to take a little break from this.
I know you said, you’re not really drinking beer right now. I have beer I’d offer you but if you’re not, we’ll pass on that. When you were indulging in alcoholic beverages, what was your favorite beer?
I grew up outside Chicago and Bell’s brewery was the closest thing to us and we got those in Illinois even back in the 90s. I remember picking up six-packs of Two Hearted and Bell’s Amber. Eventually Umphrey’s started playing both inside and outside of Bell’s in Kalamazoo. We started in South Bend which is only an hour to an hour and fifteen to Kalamazoo. The end of the show can get a little foggy if you’ve had too much Bell’s beer. Shoutout to Larry Bell and the Bell family for personal favorite beer for many, many years and putting stuff on with the band for a number of years.
We’ll move onto the music a little bit. Is there one musical influence out there that prevails over another?
Yeah, for me personally, Miles Davis has kind of been my favorite musician. Both for his adventurousness in styles and willingness to really change and not repeat what he was doing. He really had the ability to put bands together and I think five of my top ten favorite keyboardist have probably played with him over the years so that’s another reason why he’s always number one for me.
It seems like your fans are hyper-dedicated. I talked with some guys earlier who think you guys are in the zone where you’re playing just the right amount. How do you feel about that?z
We’re trying to play enough that we’re playing all the markets that we need to on an annual basis. Most of us are married now and a few of the guys in the band have kids so it’s really more about that, about balancing our personal and professional lifestyles. With the kind of music that we play, if you play too many shows in a row it’s likely that one or two of those shows at the end is going to suffer because that creative edge is just missing. For us we’ve found that four nights in a row is kind of our sweet-spot. It’s a really nice balance.
Hey, fuck it. Let’s have some beers. What you got?
Stone Face IPA. It’s from New Hampshire, it’s from here.
It’s a local IPA, 7.5% so you’re trying to get me drunk? If I’m playing a little too far behind the beat tonight, it’s completely your fault. I want everyone to know that.
I’ll take 100% of the blame. So back to the balancing the work and home life thing. If your head’s not there, you’re not going to put on the greatest show that fifth night in a row.
Yeah. At this point, we want to keep things fun for us and for the fans. It’s all about making each show a cool, unique experience. We’ve been the same band for fifteen years and it kind of feels like we have our own language. That’s the biggest thing for a band is just to try to kind of stick together and figure out how to get along with each other and don’t try to radically change what you’re doing too much.
It’s funny because when we started the band, we were hoping to play enough live shows that someone from a label would recognize us and that never happened for us. By virtue of the fact that we didn’t accomplish what we were trying to accomplish, things actually worked out better. Now having our own label, circling back to Nothing Too Fancy Music, it’s been really cool to just put out whatever it is that we want and not have to worry about trying to please some middle man or an executive that thinks this song should be this way instead of the way you guys did it. There are a million examples of how things could go bad the more you involve upper management into creative decisions.
You guys have been doing this for twenty years and it seems like you’re still having fun. What’s your favorite between playing live shows, writing new music, covers?
That’s a hard question to answer because there are a few different things kind of centered around our original music that I really like. And the live arena, it’s those moments where we’re flying by the seat of our pants and trying to create something new that hasn’t happened before; I love that feeling. In the studio setting, it’s more about trying to figure out and change things from section to section of songs and really using all kinds of different sounds. I love the idea that I have six months from the time that we lay down the basic track to go through and find a bunch of different elements that we want to add.
Those two things are the favorites. I really do love the creative process both in the studio and live. I feel really lucky that we have people that are dedicated to doing the improvisational thing every night. I think that’s one of the secrets why this stays fresh for us, having that variety, and it’s kind of pushing each other on a nightly basis to try to come up with something.
Check out Umphrey’s McGee’s Tour Schedule for 2017 here.
Thanks to Jeff Kravitz for the header image.