After 21 years of playing keyboards with Umphrey’s McGee, Joel Cummins shares some of his sage wisdom in his new book, The Realist’s Guide to a Successful Music Career, written with co-author Matt DeCoursey. Umphrey’s has had a long journey in the music business, from college dives and house parties to three-night stands at Red Rocks and beyond.
“You learn by doing things the wrong way, and it helps inform what a better decision might be,” Cummins says. Some painful moments, though, were beyond the band’s control, like original drummer Mike Mirro‘s decision to leave the music business for medical school in 2002 and his premature death in 2014.
The band lost another friend this year with the death of former Yonder Mountain String Band singer and mandolinist Jeff Austin, who had frequently collaborated with Umphrey’s singer/guitarist Brendan Bayliss under the moniker 30db.
In an interview with journalist Jake Mooney, who first met the band when they were students at the University of Notre Dame, Joel Cummins—the father of a 9-month-old daughter—reflected on loss, change, and finding a balance between life and music. You can read the new interview below [Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity].
Jake Mooney: Does your family travel with you?
Joel Cummins: Sometimes. When we have a couple nights in the same place it’s easier than when we’re doing one-offs. My wife works in the music business too, so a lot of times I’ll be going to places where she and my daughter are, where she’s working. It’s a good balance. It definitely gets a little harder every time to go away from your kids, but I think in general we’ve got a pretty nice balance.
Jake Mooney: I travel for work sometimes, and for me, the first day I’m psyched to be on the plane, reading a book, being left alone. And then by the third day, I’m away from my kids, I’m just really lonely and antsy to get back. Being on the road as much as you are, is that tough?
Joel Cummins: I think we’ve gotten to the point of accepting that, even with the amount of work that we do, we’re going to get to spend time with our kids off the road. That’s the thing to remember: Even if we play 80 or 90 shows, and we have 40 or 50 travel days a year, that still leaves 200 days to do whatever you want to do with. Most people don’t have that, I think—so you just try to keep it in perspective that way.
Also, the way we tour, we’re only doing three or four in a row. So we’ll take a couple of days off, and everybody flies home and sees their wives and kids.
Jake Mooney: I know that you guys don’t all live near each other anymore, and I wonder how you approach that in a way that the band can still work.
Joel Cummins: One thing that has allowed us to have a little bit more space off the road is that we have consistently been playing 85 to 90 shows a year. That keeps us tight. We also have a practice rig set up backstage every night on the road. We have the ability to work on things offstage as well, which I think really helps keep us sharp, to make sure that we’re as tight as we can be, because that’s still very important to us. We’ll also get together off the road a couple of times a year and do some songwriting or recording, or working on new material.
We all made this decision to try living in different places back in 2011 and ’12. We had gotten to the point where our business was sustainable enough where we could fly and meet buses at the beginning of tour dates. I think it did really help, because it gave everyone with significant others that flexibility, if we were starting families, to go somewhere where we all had family to help out. I think that was a big decision because it really helped us achieve that balance of on-the-road and off-the-road life.
A couple of guys live in Nashville right now, a couple of guys in Charleston, S.C., a couple of people in Chicago and South Bend, and now I live in Los Angeles. We do our thing on the road, and then you go back to husband and dad mode, Sunday night at midnight. Like, ‘Alright, show’s over, time to go to bed. Got that flight at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning.’ I think it’s something that, at least where we are right now, has really been beneficial, and just allowed everybody to flourish in their home life however they wanted to do that.
Jake Mooney: Several high-profile musicians have died by suicide recently: I’m thinking of Neal Casal, Jeff Austin and David Berman of Silver Jews. Just as a fan, it’s really scary. Obviously, we’re in a poisonous atmosphere in a lot of ways. Is it possible to say what’s going on? Is it the economics of the music industry, or something about the loneliness of touring?
Joel Cummins: A lot of these individual cases for people are different, and different things are contributing. But the things that you mentioned are definitely true: It has not become easier to be an artist, or somebody trying to create, out in the world, over the past few years. I think some of the financial stuff can be a big issue.
Related: Introducing Backline, The Music Industry’s Mental Health & Wellness Resource Hub
We were just talking about it the other day, sometimes people that are out there creating, they don’t have the support system like we have in Umphrey’s McGee. We’re very fortunate to have each other on the road, and to have close friendships where, if we’re having an issue about something, whether it’s something on the road or something unrelated to what we’re doing on the road, we have each other’s ears, and everybody cares about each other. When you’re on your own trying to deal with some of that stuff, I think it can become overwhelming.
There are also people who are dealing with various manic issues. Even outside of our scene, like Avicii for instance, that’s somebody way too young, and who actually had a solid amount of success and a really successful career. I also think there’s a lot of the troubled-artist vibe: For some people, that’s something in their personality that might be a positive for their music but might not be for the rest of their life.
Mooney: Just listening to the lyrics on his Purple Mountains record, David Berman was obviously somebody who suffered from depression. But at the same time, before he died, I think some of us told ourselves he must be in an OK place, because he had done the hard work of putting his record out.
Cummins: If you’ve read Jeff Tweedy‘s book, you know he went through a pretty serious thing right on the cusp of them having their biggest success—so sometimes the success can be a factor, but it also just might be something completely independent. You have to keep reaching out to your friends and talking to them, and make sure that they’re not keeping this stuff inside.
At this point, at least in my life, I’ve known a lot of people who have gone through deep, dark things. Some of them have come out on the other side and made the decision that they’re going to fight this and try to figure out how to get through it, and some of them haven’t made it through. It sucks, and it’s horrible. A lot of times you do see your friends trying to help them out. I know that was the case for Jeff Austin’s situation, for Brendan. Brendan cared deeply about him, and had done a lot of things to help him get out of it, but it just wasn’t to be. Unfortunately, we’ve lost some people that we really cared about and artistically were doing great things.
Mooney: When I found out that Mike Mirro died, I had not talked to him in 15 years, but it was jarring because I knew him years ago as somebody who was so buoyant.
Cummins: You know, his situation, he did deal with some manic episodes. He wasn’t quite sure where he was going to find himself, and I think that was always hard. And at the same time, life on the road was really hard for him, and that factored into his decision of why he wanted to pursue a career that would have him at home. But that was a shocking and horrible thing to find out, that none of us expected. We don’t really know the circumstances of whatever happened. It’s just one of those things: Life can be really crazy, and sometimes you don’t get all the answers.
Mooney: You wrote in your book that this life is maybe going to be harder on some people.
Cummins: It takes the ability to adapt to situations, and to not have a need for a lot of basic consistency. You have to find ways to develop happiness over the course of a touring life, especially for those hours when you’re not onstage making music. I think that’s the hardest thing.
For many of us now, it’s like, ‘Ok, we can figure out a workout regimen on the road; that will give us something to do, and physical health in the big picture.’ And trying to play the shows, and do creative things that we’re going to work on during the day, and have a little bit of fun with at night. And to not stay up and pound two bottles of wine after the show’s over! That’s not going to help the show tomorrow, or your flight back home—and then you’re in charge of your kids.
Things have changed, and there are a lot of great ways that things have changed, too. Last night after the show, I was just sitting around with a bunch of people outside, and got a call from my wife, and got to Facetime my wife and daughter and talk to them and look at video at the same time. I thought, God, it must have been really hard to tour as a musician in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and not have all these ways to stay connected to the things and people that are really important to you.
You can pick up a copy of the new Joel Cummins book, The Realist’s Guide to a Successful Music Career, here.
If you are a touring musician or crew member in need of mental health resources, you can find out about the various resources available to you via the newly formed music industry mental wellness initiative, Backline.
Joel Cummins and Umphrey’s McGee are preparing to head out for their fall tour beginning Thursday, October 17th at the Georgia Theatre in Athens, GA. To find out where you can catch Umphrey’s McGee live on their upcoming tour, head to the band’s website here.