Umphrey’s McGee On How They Managed to Record an Album In One Day

Chicago's Umphrey's McGee will fly south to Miami Beach this weekend.
Chicago's Umphrey's McGee will fly south to Miami Beach this weekend.
Photo by Kristine Condon Photography

On the day I speak to Umphrey's McGee keyboardist Joel Cummins, he's psyched about the privilege to throw out the first pitch at a Brewers-Cubs game (a matchup his hometown Cubbies wind up winning 6-3.) Additionally, Umphrey's McGee is scheduled to perform both the national anthem and the seventh inning stretch classic, “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” The Chicago-based six-piece jam band is between shows and readying to hit the road again for an extended fall tour. He tells me over the phone that Umphrey's McGee will play about 95 shows in 2015, down from their usual 100 plus.

Formed in 1997 at Notre Dame University, Umphrey's McGee has been touring relentlessly for many, many years. The band has brought its signature style of technically brilliant prog-rock combined with a freewheeling improvisational nature to plenty of cities, as well as the small screen – Umphrey’s McGee penned the current theme song for ESPN2’s Around The Horn (and yes, they all watch the show). 

On August 22, McGee will bring its merry circus of lasers and oscillating sounds to the Fillmore for their first proper show in the Miami area. Having played at Revolution Live, the University of Miami campus, and Jam Cruise, Cummins expresses his excitement about being back in South Florida as well as the ability to put on the full Umphrey's McGee experience at a well-suited venue such as the Fillmore.

What have been your experiences with Miami so far?
We played the University of Miami in 2009 and had a really fun, outdoor show there — gorgeous campus. I've spent a lot of time with my wife checking out Miami and checking out Miami Beach over the years and it's a place that we really love going to. The venue is obviously a great one. We have a pretty big production so it's nice when you can show up in a town and be able to play your full show.

As a prog-rock, improv jam band, you’re liable to go on as long as you wish. Let's talk about your live show style.
We really try to strike a balance between playing tunes that are danceable and have some good vocal melody stuff, of guitar melody, or keyboard melody going on and try to sprinkle improvisation throughout the night. We have probably 180 original tunes that we can play at this point, so it's nice to have a rotation where we can play four shows in a row and not have to repeat anything. I think the shows are different every night. Sometimes we'll play a song, the studio version, just as it is, and sometimes we'll do something different and jump off at a certain point and try and create some things in the moment.

Have you ever improvised a song on stage that killed, but then you weren’t able to recreate it later in studio?
[Laughs] Yeah, there's definitely something to be said, when some things work in a live setting, you treat some things different in the studio. We've definitely had some ideas that turned into songs and that's a cool thing to be able to go back to. Thankfully now, with everything being recorded and having really good versions of everything, it's very easy for us to go back and dig stuff up and figure out how to do it. We probably treat songs a little differently in studio as far as what we're going for. With the studio version, we're trying to put together a good, concise, definitive version of what it is.

Umphrey's McGee recorded The London Session in one day at the legendary Abbey Road Studios.
Umphrey's McGee recorded The London Session in one day at the legendary Abbey Road Studios.
Photo by Kristine Condon Photography

Let’s talk about the new album, The London Session. It was recorded in one day. That’s nearly unheard of. How was that possible?
The first thing we said was, ‘Okay. Let’s not commit to one day. We’re not trying to do anything here. Let’s go in here and see what we can get done. Let’s have a plan so we can be efficient.’ So we picked a few of our newer songs that we wanted to do. ‘Bad Friday,’ ‘Comma Later,’ ‘Rocker Part 2,’ and then the two acoustic ones, ‘Cut The Cable’ and ‘No Diablo,’ which were similar. We said, ‘Let’s make these the ones we focus on and if we have time for some other ones, great. We picked some stronger ones we knew we could do live in one or two takes and get a really good version. We spent probably the first two-thirds of the day on those five songs and quite a few versions of those. And the last hour and a half or so, we played those last songs and did maybe one take of them each. And we finished, we had ten minutes left, we had nine songs at that point, and Jake mentioned that the last tune The Beatles ever played in that room was, ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy).’ We thought okay, let’s go for it, and that was the one take we got in. It was a pretty cool way to end the night.

What’s the deal with Umphrey’s McGee and fan curated setlists?
UM Bowl is probably the main place where we have the fan curated thing as the focus of it. Ticketholders get a few choices of songs in advance, that’s the first quarter. Some of the things are chosen live, where people are phoning and texting things. It’s kind of a cool way to interact with the fans. And you get the feeling this is the sort of thing they like…you know they like a song before you even play it live. It’s a crazy way to turn improve on its head and a way to turn it into composition.

The band is full of talented musicians and even some music degree holders and you all seem to value precision very highly. Are there any current artists that impress or amaze you with how tight they are?
Oh yeah. Snarky Puppy, number one. They’re one of my favorite bands. Every single one of them is a world class musician. The arrangements they do are so tight. I’ve been listening to an Australian band, Hiatus Kaiyote. It’s like D’Angelo and Radiohead got together. Joshua Redman & The Bad Plus just put out an album together. That’s some killer playing there. You can tell I’m into a pretty wide variety of music.

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Is there anything else you want people to know about the band?
I think coming to an Umphrey’s McGee show is for somebody who wants to have a good time, get down, hear a variety of cool music, and see a really killin’ production and light show. I think in Miami there are a lot of people who like to have fun, so we just want people who want to come to the show.

Umphrey’s McGee. 9 p.m. Saturday, August 22, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-673-7300; Tickets cost $27.50 plus fees via

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1700 Washington Ave.
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