[Caught up with Joel Cummins, keyboardist of Umphrey’s McGee. Have a great holiday weekend! –charlie]
CD: How and when did you become a Phish fan?
JOEL: My first Phish show was 6/18/94 at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago. I’m pretty sure I went by myself and I of course witnessed what is still one of my favorite shows. I was sitting Page side in the first few rows of the stands, probably mid-way back in the arena. There couldn’t have been more the 6,000 people there. I don’t think the upper part of the arena was even open for that first show there. I believe I got *IT* about Phish before I even attended a show. I remember getting the 12/31/92 Matthews Arena show on tape from a buddy and playing that “Mike’s Groove” over and over again. I really loved the studio work too and felt like there was so much to dig into in those first four albums, Junta, Lawn Boy, Picture of Nectar and Rift. I had acquired all of them and listened to them ad nauseum by the time I hit that show in June ‘94. I remember walking out of the arena feeling like my mind was about to explode. The band was so good and I didn’t even understand half of what had just happened.
My second show was 11/16/94, which I discussed a bit of during the Helping Friendly Podcast a few months ago with Brad TenBrook. The second set of that show was so far away from the idea of a textbook rock n roll show; my idea of what a show could be was again completely shaken. I think my favorite early songs were “Rift” and “Reba,” and they still are to this day. I remember hearing “Rift” on the studio album for the first time, sitting there trying to figure out what kind of music this was at all. It completely defied categorization. As a music theory major in college, the key changes and sudden shifts in meter or feel really spoke to me. My friend Chris McDonnell from Greenwich, CT, was the one who first shared their music with me. So I suppose I can kind of thank him for a career in music. Discovering Page McConnell’s style of playing in a rock band really gave me hope. Prior to that, most of the current music I had discovered had a keyboardist as either the lead singer or some ancillary, unimportant facet of the band (the keyboardist was even off stage for many of the heavier rock bands I liked in high school). So to see not just keyboards but acoustic piano being featured in a rock setting was very inspiring.
I met Page for the first time in the summer of ’95 after Sugarbush, and got to thank him for inspiring me to start a rock band that had keyboards as an integral element of the sound. Of course, it wasn’t for another two years that we started Umphrey’s McGee, but the germ of the idea was there, and I immediately started to think about finding players I thought could push me beyond where I was as a musician at that point in my life as a junior in college. So things really came together for me completely at Sugarbush that summer of ’95. I remember liking the shows, but hearing the outro to “Squirming Coil” underneath the Vermont stars hit home. I met up with some internet friends from Montreal (yes, the internet existed even back in ’95), and Thierry Arsenault is still one of my closest friends to this day. We spent hours on rec.music.phish debating music and occasionally Nietzsche.
CD: For those who don't already know, you're a founding UM member. What was your musical background before starting UM?
JOEL: I started playing classical piano with a bit of jazz and ragtime sprinkled in when I was eight years old in 1983. I studied privately with a wonderful teacher named Kathi Best in the suburbs of Chicago. She was the organist/pianist for the church I grew up attending, and I just assumed that every religious place had kick ass music like I got to experience every Sunday. She played different Bach cantatas, preludes and fugues every week. It was just incredible, and I now know that very few other people had experiences like mine growing up. My future vocal coach, Don Doig, was the director of the church choir. He was also a very positive, inspiring figure for me early on.
By the time I was in junior high, I was singing in a choir and performing in musicals. I played Rip Van Winkle at McClure Junior High in Western Springs as my first real lead in anything. I also started my first band with some friends—as lead singer —and was promptly kicked out after about a year. (Apparently pre-pubescent, Bon Scott -type singing isn’t all that impressive.) I played with a couple other bands in high school including one called This Side Up that was around for awhile. Our lead guitarist couldn’t solo so I had to take all but one solo each night. That helped me learn how to step up as a soloist though I’m sure I was pretty terrible. Meanwhile, I was singing in a number of acapella groups under the tutelage of Robert A. Boyd and Connie Lyda at Lyons Township High School. They really taught me what it was like to be a part of a group, and how to sing in tune with small groups of people. They also really got me interested in music theory, which became my major in college at Notre Dame.
Once in school, I studied both piano and voice privately, while singing with the Notre Dame Glee Club and getting my first tastes of touring the world. We hit the road for three weeks in Europe in the summer of ’96, and I performed with the Jerusalem Symphony in Israel in ’97, not to mention scores of domestic concerts. While at Notre Dame, me and a few friends also started a band called Stomper Bob & the 4x4’s. We played mostly covers, but did release an album of original material as well. The Stomper Bob tune “Vibe” was in the UM rotation for our first six months. I wrote “Nachos For Two” for Stomper Bob, but left the band before I had the chance to present it to them, and it became a UM tune as well. “Kimble” was really the first song I wrote (with original UM drummer Mike Mirro) that was an intentional UM song. We wrote that in January of 1998 right as Umphrey's was getting started. Throughout this time I was going to see all kinds of live music. From Kurt Elling or Mighty Blue Kings at the Green Mill to Ramsey Lewis at the Executive Plaza or Roger Waters in Berlin for his famous 1990 concert at the site of the wall. My parents encouraged me to explore many different kinds of music, which really helped me expand my comprehension and curiosity.
CD: Where were UM's first shows performed? Do you have any fond memories of them?
JOEL: We played our first 25 shows as Umphrey’s McGee around South Bend. We didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a completely fortuitous thing that we developed our sound around a local market where we were embraced and not really judged too much. I’m sure we were a lousy live band for the first few years, but what you really need as a band is that testing ground to figure out what your sound is, and how to write songs together. I was paying $150/month rent for awhile in South Bend, and that was what really allowed us to focus on music and not have to get 40 hr/week second jobs. I booked Stomper Bob, and had developed relationships with the “talent buyers” in town (aka the bar owners). So right out of the gates I was able to get us $500 guarantees at 5-6 clubs around town, and our shows were well-attended locally from the get-go. Most of the attendees were our friends of course, or people just looking to party, but we eventually made some fans in South Bend.
The first show was at an underage club called Bridget McGuire’s Filling Station. We probably had 175-200 people pay to our first show, which was a huge success. I don’t remember much about the early shows at all, though, other than that after our first gig, as we were loading out, we witnessed a car crash into a street pole across the street at a relatively high speed. Adam Budney and I were about to run across the street to see if the people in the car were ok, when the driver and the passenger both got out of the car and just ran away. I guess it was a stolen vehicle and they were just ditching it? Who knows, but we ran back inside, and didn’t tell anyone what we saw, as that was the last thing we wanted to deal with in the middle of load out! (I hope I won’t be prosecuted for that.)
Another funny memory from an early show was trying to get Mike’s roommates, who were 18 at the time, into the shows. We had let them carry gear in. One awful venue, named Xtreamz, carded one of our guys, who just happened to have my ID. As we’re loading in, I heard an Xtreamz bouncer excitedly exclaim, “We’ve got one!” It was a very awkward exchange to get my ID back from him. Mickey’s Pub and the Madison Oyster Bar were the two best “venues” in town at that time, though neither was truly a real venue. That said, our experience rehearsing and gigging in South Bend for the first couple years was very important in that it allowed us to develop our sound without much judgment. By 2001, we were ready to start touring, and thankfully we had all of those hours of performing live already under our belts.
CD: Are there any UM songs that were directly influenced by certain Phish songs?
JOEL: Phish’s compositions, especially the earlier material, are often some of the coolest and most unique rock songs one could conceive of. There’s some incredible and complicated songwriting in there. I don’t think there are any particular UM songs that have direct correlations to Phish tunes, though, as that was something we actively tried to avoid, especially after the first six months of being a band. We realized pretty quickly that we wanted to create our own sound for Umphrey’s McGee. In the earliest compositions, I’d say there is a Phish-ier sound to some of them, but once Jake and Kris joined the band, even the older material that we still play live gained a new edginess to it. We had one tune called “The Other Side of Things” that was actually pretty good lyrically, but there were a few sections that sounded too close to a moe. tune. I don’t think that was intentional, more of a subconscious thing. It is important to listen to a wide variety of music when you’re a composer, as I think that will keep influences that are too similar to your own music out of it. For us, being basically in same genre as Phish, we knew it would be a better choice to get out of the box from what their sound typically was. So I think you hear elements of crossover with the Umphrey’s sound, but the two are quite different these days.
CD: Do any of the other UM members continue to see Phish shows as often and regularly as you do?
JOEL: I know that Ryan and Brendan have gone to Phish shows over the past few years. I was with Brendan for some of the first night Wrigley last summer. Ryan took his daughter to a show in Atlanta last year I believe. My wife started seeing Phish in ’98 (she’s a few years younger than me), so she was always a little bit envious that I saw the band so much from ’94-’97. When we first started dating, Phish wasn’t together, and I thought we’d never see a show together. So when the band came back in ’09, we decided it would be fun to try to see them at least once a year together. We started with Red Rocks in ’09, and have seen shows all over, from Jones Beach to Bend to San Diego since then. So that was a pretty cool and unexpected bonding experience for us. I don’t listen to much of their live music anymore, so seeing them live is always a refreshing and fun experience. I made it to the Vegas Halloween show this past year, between UM playing Hulaween and St. Louis, and the Cubs World Series game in Cleveland. One of the most fun weeks of my life, that’s for sure! The Halloween show was fantastic and then to have the Cubs win the World Series two days later? Sign me up.
CD: Given your knowledge of Phish's improvisation over the decades, are there particular UM shows/sets that you'd highly recommend Phish fans check out in order to get a good sense of UM's improv? I was at the largely improvisational State Theater show in Portland on 1/27/17 with saxophonist Josh Redman, and really enjoyed it, which I have to say surprised the hell out of me because Jake wasn't there.
JOEL: Happy to recommend a few UM all timers for fans. I’ll just list these out in no particular order…. and mind you I’m doing these from memory (I’ve listened to quite a few of our shows!):
7/2/16 Red Rocks: felt like we nailed it last year for night one. Big show, lots of good improvisational moments.
3/4/17 Wilma, Missoula: high energy and weekend ender for us. It’s also up on Spotify so you can check it out in many places.
7/19/07 10,000 Lakes: we really hit a comfort zone in this classic festival set. “Utopian Fir” for the ages. Lots of improv throughout.
1/27/17 State Theater, Portland, ME: An all-improv set featuring Joshua Redman. Jake missed this gig due to being sick, so a very unusual set.
6/7/07 Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR: This is a favorite for many fans, tons of improv and lots of wildness going on.
5/2/14 UMBowl, Capitol Theater, Port Chester, NY: I think this was our best UMBowl to date. Lots of interesting composition, unusual covers,and lots of improvisation.
1/20/17 National, Richmond, VA: The energy in the room translated to the music. This was a dark and ferocious performance for us!
8/8/14 Hampton Casino Ballroom, Hampton Beach, NH: Probably the loudest crowd we’ve had on the east coast. The improv went places, excitement was palpable.
1/28/16 Orpheum, Madison, WI: Our first “all improv” set, this one has the full band with Josh Redman again.
12/31/08 Auditorium Theater, Chicago, IL: Lots of our fans think this NYE show holds up. Chicago Mass Choir featured on this performance.
2/1/14 Fillmore, Detroit, MI: Packed with emotion, this was our first show after we found out that our original drummer, Mike Mirro, had passed.
11/2/11 Northern Lights, Clifton Park, NY: For whatever reason, this lovable dump of a venue always produced fiery shows with great improv.
12/29/13 Fillmore, Denver, CO: This date stands out to me from 2013. I don’t remember anything but the “Plunger” being good, but give it a listen. Josh Redman also played this show and killed it.
2/21/07 Culture Room, Ft. Lauderdale, FL: Another fan favorite, definitely worth a listen for the improv.
I would also recommend listening to our podcasts, which feature a lot of our best improvisation, and those are all free! Our “Hall of Fame” albums, which are compilations of fan voted (live) highlights from each year, are also up on Spotify, so I’d recommend checking those out too.
CD: You've performed in a lot of different rooms/venues over the last 20 years. Any special favorites (and why)?
JOEL: Red Rocks will always be my favorite outdoor venue. It’s still a bit mind-blowing to me that we’ve gotten to the point where we’re doing 3 nights at Red Rocks this year. I think it’s equally inspiring for the band and the fans to be at such a naturally beautiful location, so we can all have a good time with some music. I’ve also always loved the Tabernacle in Atlanta. The energy in that room gets crazy. The double balcony situation also keeps everyone very close to you, no matter where you are in the venue.
I also really love the Fox in Oakland. That’s how you renovate a classic room. For smaller rooms, I’ve always enjoyed the Park West in Chicago and the Fox Theater in Boulder. Both have a unique vibe to them that seems to produce good shows too. I also absolutely love the Fillmore Jackie Gleason in Miami Beach, Florida. The Iroquois Amphitheater in Louisville is a personal favorite of mine. It’s in a Frederick Law Olmsted designed park and the venue is only about 2,500 people, so intimate and gorgeous. Finally, Ascend Amphitheater in Nashville is a really beautiful and artsy small amphitheater. We played there for the first time last year and will be back this year. It’s wild to think we’ve played 2,300 concerts and that we’ve probably played over 1000 different venues.
CD: We traded tapes in the 1990s, and you sent me my first UM tape, 5/21/98 set one at Czar's in St Joseph MI. Do you have any particular "favorite" Phish shows?
I probably had around 150 Phish shows on tape by about 1996, most of them from ’92-’95. I listened a lot to 8/13/93 from Indy, 6/18/94 from Chicago (my first show), and 11/16/94 from Ann Arbor (my second show, as noted above). So you could say my attended show bias was, and still is, in full effect! The Champaign show from ’97, which I also attended, is also a favorite. I went to that one with Ryan (UM’s bassist), and freaked him out by calling every song of the second set before it happened. I guess I understood how they were set-listing at that point in their career. There’s a Nutter Center Dayton show from ’96 or ’97 that I’ve enjoyed listening to over the years, too. In general, August of ’93 and Summer/Fall ’94 probably stand out to me as the best few months of live Phish that I enjoy listening to. I attended 12/31/95 as well, which I thought was an amazing NYE show of course. I called the “Drowned” second set opener, which is just crazy. I indulged in some interesting things that night, and ended up in the first row right behind Fishman. I could hear the band talking to each other over the music at times. It was pretty awesome and kinda freaked me out, in a good way. My favorite songs compositionally are “Reba,” “YEM,” and “Rift,” with honorable mentions going to “Divided Sky” and “Mike’s Groove.” I think “Ghost” and “Tweezer” are probably my favorite improv vehicles. My favorite more obscure songs are probably “McGrupp & the Watchful Hosemasters,” and “The Sloth.” My favorite tease is “San Ho-Zay.”
CD: Thank you Joel!
Umphrey’s will be playing Red Rocks this weekend. After that they’ll be playing in NYC, at Central Park’s Summerstage, on Friday, July 7. They’ll also be performing soon at Northerly Island in Chicago on Friday 7/21.
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