20-YEAR HAZE: Umphrey’s McGee preps for sold-out show at GLA

Umphrey’s McGee keyboardist Joel Cummins talks pot, music and celebrating more than 20 years together. Courtesy photo


Now that hemp production is legal in North Carolina (as part of a state pilot program allowed under federal law) and CBD becoming a growing industry, NC seems prime to climb aboard the “Green Rush.” At least we’re reaching a point of normalizing conversations about CBD, hemp and marijuana.

“I use CBD pretty regularly and it helped my mom quite a bit in her later years dealing with arthritis,” says UM keyboardist Joel Cummins. “My dad also has some glaucoma issues and he was aided as well. The benefits are now well-documented and far outweigh the cons.”

It’s no secret some folks like to spark up at concerts—there’s even an occasional danky haze at GLA—especially at an Umphrey’s McGee show. Hell, the band (in partnership with MedPharm Holdings) had its own limited release of cannabis strains “Day Nurse” and “Night Nurse” over the summer in Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal.

“I for one am glad to see decriminalization and legalization taking place with cannabis,” Cummins notes. “The drug is useful and helpful both medicinally and recreationally. I’m also thrilled about CBD and how much of a wonderful impact it has had on people struggling with pain.”
Colorado mandates products are only available in licensed stores—so don’t expect it to be sold alongside CDs at the merch table—and while UM isn’t involved in any federal legislation advocacy, Cummins hopes we’re closer to all states decriminalizing cannabis. “Let’s not just limit the movement to states,” he adds, “we need to be heading in the direction of federal decriminalization as well.”

OK, no more pot talk. Music. Umphrey’s McGee released back-to-back albums in 2018 (“It’s Not Us” and “It’s You”) to celebrate their 20-year anniversary. Taken from their November 2016 sessions at Chicago’s IV Lab Studios, Cummins says they wanted to split up the songs into groups that made sense and were cohesive.

“We also didn’t want to have an album of A sides and an album of B sides,” he explains. “We wanted people to know we are moving forward in a big way and not resting on laurels just because we’ve been around for awhile. I think having some fire and determination accompanying the releases of the material made 2018 an exceptional year for the band.”

They’ve since released a live “BeSides (it’s not us, it’s you)”; curated a “Back at the ‘Nac” live album from their 2018 New Year’s run; dropped a deluxe set with hidden surprises for “It’s Not Us”; as well as revisited their 2004 studio “Anchor Drop” with a special video series and “Anchor Drop Redux” release.

Umphrey’s McGee will play from their extensive catalog at their sold-out Sunday at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. encore asked Joel Cummins about all their latest endeavors (there are many, it’s hard to keep up!), their decades-long career and what’s to come for UM.

encore (e): Tell us about the impetus for the “Anchor Drop” episodes. What’s a personal favorite or two?
Joel Cummins (JC): The “Anchor Drops” videos were done to accompany the 15 year re-release of the album. We remixed and remastered the album to celebrate it; I can’t say enough about how improved the new mixes are to my ears. So we did a video feature for every song on the album, in chronological order. Really fun little project and Jefferson Waful did an outstanding job putting them together.

My personal favorites from “Anchor Drops” are “Plunger” and “Wife Soup.” They’re two songs in our catalogue that have really stood the test of time. They’re songs that I think define our sound.


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e: Whose idea was it to hide the “Upward”/“Triangle” EP in the false wall of the slipcase in “It’s Not Us” deluxe set?
JC: That idea was Matt Heller’s, he’s our acting office manager. Matt will also tell you that he got the idea from Cards Against Humanity. I thought it was brilliant and I hope Matt gets a raise.

e: It’s been a few years since we’ve seen UM in ILM—will your sets mostly comprise the aforementioned albums, or will we likely get a healthy mix of your 20-plus year catalog?
JC: Every night is a different experience. For the most part, we’ll play anywhere from two to four new tunes a night and mix in songs from our entire history throughout. That formula, or lack thereof, has really kept people interested over the years. I think we have about 200 original tunes in the annual rotation at this point, and probably 125 or so that get played five-plus times per year. Variety is the spice of life, and music, at least for Umphrey’s McGee.

e: Speaking of spending eternity together—how does it feel to have more than two decades under your belt as a band? Are there words of wisdom for those young musicians out there just starting to put miles on their touring vans?
JC: I’m glad you asked. Yes, there are lots of words of wisdom I have for young musicians and you can find them in my recently-released book “The Realist’s Guide to a Successful Music Career,” available on Amazon. Two years ago I started writing the book with my co-author Matt DeCoursey, and the book is probably 50/50 music biz advice. But it’s not just about what we have to say. I also had conversations with lots of people in the industry from Huey Lewis to Susan Tedeschi to Chuck Leavell to Taylor Hicks. They shared their stories of what got them going and what mistakes they made as they created their own paths. It’s a pretty comprehensive starters work, and I’m proud to say we got to the #1 Amazon seller on our release day in two different musical categories.

As far as Umphrey’s McGee hitting the 21-year mark, the secret has been to keep pushing each other musically while being there for each other as friends. We still have a lot of fun on the road, and if you can’t do that you’re not gonna last very long.

e: How are 20 years of playing together reflected in your music today and/or on stage—what are some notable differences for you guys after all this time?
JC: Our sound has gotten a little more complex and occasionally more varied over the years. But overall I’d like to think the quality of our music has steadily improved while our stage production and light show has grown incredibly. But overall I’d say that our desire to stay fresh, do things differently and have fun doing it has really stayed the same.

e: What hasn’t changed at all over the years?
JC: What hasn’t changed, for me, is the feeling I get making music with my friends. Every night I go out there, I’m enjoying the fact we get to entertain people and make them happy for a living. It’s a lot of fun being surrounded by people more talented than me.

e: Any plans to enter the studio in 2019-20? Please, tell us about any projects you have in the works.
JC: Wouldn’t you like to know! There are some secrets that I shan’t divulge at this time.

Umphrey’s McGee
with Magic City Hippies
Sunday, August 18, 4:45 p.m.
Greenfield Lake Amphitheater
1941 Amphitheatre Dr.
Sold out • umphreys.com

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