By: Anand Harsh
Keyboard whiz Joel Cummins of Umphrey's McGee rejoins Cosby Sweater for a two-night stand at The 1UP Colfax in Denver, CO this weekend (Oct 3rd and 4th). The veteran pianist has spent nearly two decades at the top of the heap, but still makes time for fun side projects in between massive UM tour legs (he's back on the road this fall with Umphrey's supporting Similar Skin, the new album which dropped just this summer). Cummins graciously took the time to chat with me before Friday and Saturday's dates to analyze his role with Cosby Sweater, and explore saxophonist Nicholas Gerlach's mysterious origins.
You're on the road with UM enough to pay the bills, I imagine. Couch technology has also improved dramatically in the past few years. What makes you get out of the house, pause your vacation, and go play with Cosby Sweater? Do they have compromising photos of you?
Unfortunately, they have more than photos so I may be at it for a long time. I've thought about this a lot, there are a few things about me that keep me wanting to play with friends and in new groups such as Digital Tape Machine, Everyone Orchestra, Bill Evans' Soulgrass, etc. I do love to travel, but more than that, I love to create music. Playing in an improvisational group like Umphrey's McGee for 17 years has really trained my ear and improved my ability to think ane create on the fly. In particular, playing alongside Nick Gerlach, we can have a lot of creative exchanges throughout a Cosby show. With two lead guitarists in Umphrey's, it's a good thing for me to practice taking more of a lead role. Whenever Umphrey's has more extended breaks (a month to two months, usually), I also like to stay sharp by performing a few times during the breaks. Practicing at home is of course incredibly important, but there's no replacing the pressure of putting yourself in front of an audience. With Cosby specifically, I enjoy their adventurous sense of musicianship and their penchant for humor, something quite prevalent in UM.
We discussed this a bit at Electric Forest, but tell me about communication with the guys--you're stepping into a tight three-piece that's been road-dogging it for months at a time, is their a steep learning curve jumping into the mix, or have you been doing this so long it's like second nature?
With Cosby there are fewer weird time signatures and left hand turns than in Umphrey's, so it's inherently a bit more straight forward. As I touched on in the previous answer, there's a musical language that I've learned that at this point feels like speaking English to anyone. There's always a bit of a learning curve with something that's new, but as long as I do my homework and listen to their songs in advance, I will know what's going to happen. Nick and Dave are also very good at giving me in-the-moment cues so that we're not stepping on each other's toes, though I don't mind stepping on Nick's toes… he needs someone to step on him once in awhile.
Each song seems to be a little bit different, but we'll try to do a mix of trading solos, doing a multi-faceted melodic structure and then one guy supporting the other guy. I can play leads and comp, so it's nice to have some options in what is usually a fairly wide-open harmonic palette with Cosby.
The jam world is well-known for its astringent opinions. Do you feel like your acceptance of Cosby Sweater into your world and vice versa, allows diehard Umphrey's fans to be like "Alright, electronic music is OK, I guess…"
One of the most important things about the music of Umphrey's McGee is that "our sound" is not really just one thing. We've forced our audience to embrace musical diversity to start with, so the music of Cosby Sweater shouldn't be too far off that map. Cosby has the advantage of having some really strong musicianship when compared to a lot of producers / creators in the EDM world -- their songs are more intricate and have a bit of a jazzy side to them -- and that will lend itself to more originality and less redundancy between songs. Much like Digital Tape Machine, when you have those elements, the songs can go in so many different directions. I think it's a horrible practice to be dismissive of any subset of music without really exploring what an artist has to say individually. If there's one thing people have learned with Umphrey's McGee, it's not to judge a group of musicians by a generalization of style such as "jamband" or "EDM."
What is Gerlach hiding under that beard? He is the real D.B. Cooper?
This goes back to your first question, I cannot answer that without fear of the compromising photos being released.
Any surprises in store for fans in Denver for this weekend's double-dip of shows at The 1UP?
In fact, yes there will be a number of excellent surprises including some pretty high profile special guests that will sit in with us. I wouldn't miss these shows if you live in Colorado, plus, the 1UP is perhaps the coolest small venue in the country. I had a blast there playing with UM over our NYE run last year.
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