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Group (Re)Think

Umphrey's McGee is adapting to a changing musical landscape

By Alan Sculley · July 6th, 2011 · Music
Like many of today’s bands, Umphrey’s McGee has found itself debating the question of how to best release new music into the market.

Some musicians and industry professionals have gone as far as to declare the album a dying format. Especially with younger music fans, the iPod and similar devices has changed the way they listen to music. They want to download their favorite songs and aren’t as interested in buying full albums by their favorite artists.

This has prompted some to believe releasing songs a handful at a time on EPs, or even just releasing a series of singles, might become the predominant way music comes on the market in the near future.

Umphrey’s McGee has paid close attention to this debate, and it has the group re-thinking how it will release a new batch of songs that will arrive this year. In fact, at the start of year the band had announced its intention to release its new songs in a series of three EPs over the course of 2011. According to keyboardist/singer Joel Cummins, that thinking has since changed.

“This is something that has yet to be finalized, but we’ve really been searching for the right format to put out some new music,” Cummins says. “As the music business and the way people digest music changes, it’s something that we want to adapt to as well and really make it easy and fun for our fans.”

Cummins says the band is leaning toward releasing an EP followed by a full-length album, perhaps this summer. Releasing three EPs initially made sense, Cummins says, in that the new songs seemed to fall into three groups in terms of their style. But as the band continued to consider what the EP-release plan involved, other factors seemed to suggest that grouping some songs onto an EP and then putting the others on a full-length album made more sense.

One issue that will influence how Umphrey’s McGee will ultimately release its new material will be whether the group signs a record deal.

“We’re kind of shopping this stuff around right now to a few different indie labels that are interested in putting this stuff out,” Cummins says.

“So once that gets determined, I think we’ll have a little more kind of vision with the direction.”

This is not the first time Umphrey’s McGee — which includes Cummins guitarist/singer Jake Cinninger, singer/guitarist Brendan Bayliss, percussionist Andy Farag, drummer Kris Myers and bassist Ryan Stasik — has gotten creative in how it gets new music into the hands of its fans.

The group’s 2009 album Mantis represented an experiment on two fronts. In general, in the years since the band formed in Chicago in 1997, it had road-tested new songs on tour before they were released for any of the group’s first eight albums (two of which were live recordings).

But for Mantis the group decided not to play any of the new songs before the album was released.

“That was kind of a conscious effort for the first time for the band ever really to just drop an entire new batch of material on our fans and give them that experience and let us try that out and see how that feels,” Cummins says.

In addition to the album itself, the group also put together a bonus program for fans that pre-ordered Mantis in which over the next year they received access to a wide range of bonus material that included unreleased songs, live recordings, photos and video clips showing how band members developed certain Mantis songs.

“I think we were all really happy with how that went,” Cummins says.

However the band chooses to release its new music, one thing that appears certain is that the songs will be varied and reflect the fact that Umphrey’s McGee has not been sitting still musically since finishing the Mantis project.

Cummins hinted that a good chunk of the new material takes the band back toward the funkier, more groove-oriented sound that characterized the group’s early albums, as opposed to the heavier, more progressive Rock sound the group explored on Mantis.

“There are a couple of tunes that we’ve recorded that are in that heavier vein,” Cummins says. “That was going to be one of the EPs, some tracks that I think would probably fit in with the Mantis material well. Then some of the other stuff is a little more dance friendly, a little more women friendly, one of those things that never hurts. We like to make music for dudes, but we like to keep the ladies happy, too.”

Cummins says the new material, compared to the songs on Mantis, sounds a bit more spontaneous, free-wheeling and more like a live band performances. “I think the arrangements in general are a lot more open-ended with some of the newer stuff that we have,” he says. “The Mantis stuff, there was a lot of lyrical focus as well, but there were a lot of little things that were going on and there was a lot of texture and a lot of depth to every track that was happening. So maybe a little bit some of these (new) songs were kind of getting back to the feeling of the six of us in a room playing a performance and feeling the energy of that, as opposed to using that as a base and then just throwing layer and layer of different things on top of it.”

Fans can expect to get a sampling of the band’s yet-to-be-released new material on this summer’s tour, as Umphrey’s McGee began changing up its set lists at the start of the year.

“We’re very fortunate to be in the situation of having a really nice large chunk of original music from which to choose whatever we want to play that night,” Cummins says. “So we always kind of take the end of the year and the beginning of the year as well to work in some new original music and some new covers, too.”



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