Joel Cummins admits that Umphrey’s McGee is not a band whose sound can be described in an easy to digest, cookie-cutter fashion.
“One of the double-edged swords of Umphrey’s McGee is that we can become many things,” explains the keyboardist and sometimes vocalist, “but it’s sometimes hard to pin down exactly who we are.”
In an attempt to clear things up a bit — both for themselves and their fans — they began work on their justreleased album Similar Skin with an aim to zero in on one particular sound so that, at least for one record, it would be easy for them to explain their sound to others.
“With Similar Skin, we approached the album as a versatile but focused rock record,” Cummins says. “We’re known for hitting many different musical areas stylistically, so we looked at this as an opportunity to focus on one of those.”
And Cummins is not kidding when he says this album leans heavily in the rock and roll direction. While there are melodic moments, like the Police-esque opener “The Linear,” songs like “Cut the Cable” are balls-to-the-wall rockers that teem with chugging, gritty guitar riffs. The space rock title track will have you air-guitaring in no time flat, and get ready for something different on “Hindsight” as it plays like a mash-up of sludge metal and dirty blues. One of Cummins’ favorites is the groovy rock track “Hourglass.”
“We had been playing that one live for a couple years, but didn’t quite have the energy perfect yet,” he says. “Then we went into the studio and refined it, let the vocal arrangement take over a bit in the chorus, added some synths, and so forth. We nearly stopped playing it for the past year just because we wanted people to experience it on the album and hear it live knowing it from that context.”
Make no mistake, the Umphrey’s McGee concert experience is a big deal. They are known for their energetic live shows, epic jams and electric stage presence, so fans will be in for a treat when the band plays Red Rocks on Saturday, July 5 as well as a long sold-out show at the Boulder Theater on Friday, July 4. But when you add in the prospect of hearing some of the new tunes from a rock-centric record like Skin, the experience will undoubtedly end up being something new for concertgoers. After all, if the band doesn’t believe in doing the same thing over and over again in the studio, it stands to reason that the same would be true of their live shows.
“I’m not sure how we’ll try to define the next album we put out, but I know it will be different than Similar Skin,” Cummins says. “One of the things I loved most about my favorite bands as a kid — Led Zeppelin, U2, Queen, The Beatles — is they all went through different periods where the sound of the band evolved. We don’t want to keep making Anchor Drops or Safety in Numbers or even Mantis. Similar Skin will stand on its own as a time piece and hopefully the next album will do the same for us.”
That never-ending urge to evolve, to push their own creative boundaries, to do the unexpected, is a large reason why the band’s fan base has followed them through thick and thin for well over a decade now. Sticking to their guns and making the decisions they feel are best — even if they seem odd to others — is what makes this band so noteworthy. Take their approach to touring, for example.
“The music is hugely important to us, but for us to keep doing what we’re doing, we have to enjoy being around each other on the road,” says Cummins. “So we typically tour a few weeks in a row, doing four shows a week, and then everyone goes home for a few days. That consistency helps keep the band tight musically while also allowing us to be at home with our families. It might not be the most efficient way to tour, but it’s the best bet to keep the band together for as long as possible. And that’s what we intend to do.”
They might not always be an easy band to describe, but as long as they are comfortable in their own skin then that won’t matter.