For a band specializing in wonderfully unclassifiable music, Umphrey’s McGee has existed for nearly 20 years on a simple work ethic: play what you want, support your bandmates and enjoy yourself.
Hits? Gold albums? Who needs that when your music and principles sustain a wildly devout fan base?
“At this point, we’re lucky we didn’t have a hit,” Umphrey’s McGee keyboardist Joel Cummins said. “People come to the shows, and they all want to hear different songs. There’s not one song, one hit, they’ve come to hear. I think that’s kind of refreshing. We never play more than four nights in a row, so typically we do not repeat a song that entire run.
“We now have 260 or so original pieces of music and try to play at least 75 percent of them. There are a few in there that, well, we’re not very proud of. But it’s all about really having each other’s back on the road and having fun with the music but working hard at it. Really, 80 percent of what happens on the road is about when you hang out with people that you make music with. That’s a big part of it.”
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What of the music itself? What exactly defines the sound of the South Bend-born, Chicago-based troupe? Listen to the albums “Mantis” (2009), “Death By Stereo” or “Second Skin” (both from 2011) and you will discover a vocabulary of styles including prog-inspired instrumentation, jam-savvy improvisation and even folk-happy harmonizing. Check out “The London Session” (2015), named for the single day at the famed Abbey Road Studio Two, which yielded all of the album’s 10 tunes, and you will experience a streamlined quilt of those inspirations. Listen to its newest recording, “Zonkey” (2016), and what you get is a purposeful car crash of the band’s numerous influences.
“We all come from different yet slightly similar backgrounds,” Cummins said. “We’re all bringing something to the table. (Guitarists/vocalists) Jake (Cinninger) and Brendan (Bayliss) definitely write most of it. But there is a cumulative sound as far as we still play songs that we learned from 1998 to 2005. The entire catalog has kind of a different spirit as you go through each era. One might be an acoustic song with four-part harmony. The next one might be a really heavy, chugging piece that sounds like it could be Metallica.”
Cummins’ own inspirations run far beyond all that. How far, exactly? Check out one of the first groups he joined: the storied Notre Dame Glee Club, the 75-member choral group that has been in existence since 1915.
“I was singing 15th- and 16th-century music with them. We were listening to four-part pieces of music by Josquin des Prez. It was really cool, but a whole other world. The Notre Dame Glee Club toured all over Europe. We would save ‘Rah, Rah, Notre Dame’ for the football games. But at the concerts, we sang barbershop, spirituals, classical. We did Stravinsky’s ‘Oedipus Rex.’ I sang in Latin, Russian, German, Italian. We were really digging in deep with the stuff we sang. We did a performance at the Basilica (in Montreal). We got to do all the early French chanson stuff, including just a brilliant polyphonic composition.
“Interestingly enough, this was the moment that really told me music was what I was here to do. I didn’t know what kind it would be, if it would be rock ’n’ roll or if it would involve me being a teacher. I wasn’t sure, but that was the moment.”
Leap ahead to the present, and we have “Zonkey,” an album unlike any other by Umphrey’s McGee. It focuses on mash-ups, combining two or three cover tunes (and sometimes an original composition) into a single musical work. The record grew out of mash-ups the band began playing for fun at Halloween concerts.
“The first one, we played ‘Come Together’ by the Beatles with ‘Closer’ by Nine Inch Nails. The format was, ‘Let’s flip the verses and choruses of each song and sing the vocals of one work over the instrumental part of the other. The other trick in this, of course, is they’ve got to be songs people obviously recognize. The first one I really worked on was Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ with Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2.” It is absolutely uncanny how those two work so well together.”
More than anything, “Zonkey” is the product of musicians determined to call their own shots — through their recordings, nearly all of which have been on their own label, or performances, where their sounds and styles roam in whatever direction they choose.
“When we started, we thought, ‘We’ll play some shows and then some record company will check us out and sign us.’ Well, that never happened, so we started our own record label. People were like, ‘You just tour around the country, while these other bands that signed with a label are half a million dollars in debt.’ Well, we just lucked into it because this was all we knew how to do. For that, I feel very fortunate.”
If you go
MoonTower Music Festival
When: Aug. 26
12:30 p.m. DeBraun Thomas Trio
1:30 p.m. Vita & The Woolf
2 p.m. Tyler Childers
2:30 p.m. Elise Davis
3 p.m. Blackfoot Gypsies
3:45 p.m. Big Sam’s Funky Nation
4:30 p.m. The Record Company
5:15 p.m. Todd Snider & Eastside Bulldogs
6:15 p.m. The Travelin’ McCourys
7:30 p.m. Cherub
8:45 p.m. Benjamin Booker
10 p.m. Umphrey’s McGee
Where: Masterson Station Park, 3051 Leestown Road