Giving It Extra Umph: An Interview with Umphrey’s McGee’s Kris Myers.

Kris Myers is the drummer for Chicago-based jam band Umphrey’s McGee. Umphrey’s McGee have released 9 albums and sell recordings of the live shows via Kris spoke to me on the phone about joining Umphrey’s, whom he would love to tour with, and the evolution of Umphrey’s McGee’s sound.

Do you remember your first gig with Umphrey’s?
First gig was January 23, 2003.

Did you find it hard to make the transition from traditional jazz drumming into more of a jamband situation?
There were some adjustments to be made. I had to learn sixty of their originals in ten days. That was probably the hardest part. Knowing all the communication signals that we use to improvise with or segueway.

How do your signals work?
There’s a whole bunch of them. There’s a whole reference of signals  on one of our message boards. To give you an example, if we tap the top of our heads, it means go back to the form of the song. If we create a phrase and solo over it, it means start at the beginning of that. If the guitarists take one step forward during an improv, it means to modulate a full step higher. A step back means modulate a step lower. It’s been a great experience learning to adjust to all the people that are so into the music. It’s been such a great feeling. It’s been so amazing.

You played Wakarusa this year. What did you think of that experience?
I thought it was great, I hope the festival continues. It was a great location and a really good lineup. Everyone there was really cool. It’s a great Midwest festival. I was very impressed.

Did you get a chance to see any other bands?
Yeah. One of my favorites was Martin Sexton.

He was really good. 
Yeah, he was. Tea Leaf Green, saw them for the first time. I was really impressed with them.

What do you enjoy more: Playing festivals or your own shows?
I usually like playing our own shows versus festivals because we only get a certain amount of time. We get a tight, little slot to play in. Sometimes the conditions are not the greatest at a festival. I like playing venues just because of the energy, the vibe. I do feel that in terms of my health, I prefer to play outdoors. I have sinus problems, and the smoke is really bad. In terms of vibe though, I always like playing our shows best. We can really stretch out and create something in a longer period of time.

What’s been your longest set with the band?
Probably one of our late night sets. We played recently at Jazz Fest until 8 a.m. We started at 4 and ended at 8.

Do you have a favorite Umphrey’s cover song?
I can’t say the Van Halen ones, because I sing them all. I’m starting to really enjoy doing “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” It’s such a simple song, especially for a drummer, but the actual essence and the feeling of it is really amazing. “Making Flippy Floppy” is always fun. We can always stretch that out. It’s probably my favorite.

What artist would you love to tour with?
I would love to tour with Adrian Belew. I’m a huge King Crimson fan and hopefully we are going to learn some of their music. I would love to work with Joshua Redman’s band. No offense taken to anyone in the scene, but I prefer to play with artists outside the scene and mix it up a little bit. I come from a different direction anyway. I lean more towards jazz artists.

You were more focused on jazz drumming so how did you become involved with Umphrey’s?
It all came from reference from afriend of mine. He was a drummer in a band called Cornmeal, who are a great Bluegrass band from Chicago. He recommended me for the gig because he thought I would really mesh well with everyone. I didn’t know anything about them at the time. I went to the website and really dug the music. I could tell right away that there was a quality in it that was reminiscent of somewhere inbetween Crimson, Allman Brothers, Zappa and Phish all thrown together.. When I heard that, I was like, “Wow, this is interesting.” I e-mailed them and sent them one of my bios and packages. The next week, I got a call to come over, hang out with them audtion. Then I got the gig a week or two later. It just all kind of happened. It was also a time in my life where I was just looking to go away for awhile. I had just finished grad school, and I was just getting over a relationship. It was kind of ridiculous. At the time, I was pretty pathetic. I was very depressed, and I just wanted to get out. It just sort of happened. I thought, well this must be fate. I need to go tour with a rock band now. So I went, did it, and here I am now.

That’s amazing. What do you want Umphrey’s McGee to be remembered for?
I want Umphrey’s to be remembered for their uncanny sense of humor, and for our good taste and good times.

Do you have a favorite track off of “Anchor Drops?”
I’ve always liked “Plunger.” “The Pequod” too, the chord progession is really beautiful.

Describe Umphrey’s sound in three words or less…
Very uncanny knucleheads.

Did you find it hard to transition from playing live with Umphreys to going into the studio?
No, not at all. I’ve been always striving to be a studio musician before I even joined Umphrey’s. I’m familiar with the environment, how to make the producer happy, and how to make things work. I was not uncomfortable at all. I was very confident in the studio. The only thing that’s harder is that everything you play is on tape. Every movement you make is all considered a little more microscopic. You’re also trying to catch the best sound you can get out of your instrunment. Live, there is a little more freedom and liberity. You want to always keep it spontaneous like you do live , but yet more conceptual. It’s more about the concept in the studio.

In the studio, do you guys follow a certain process? Do you do songwriting first or work on your parts separately?
We work on our parts separately, usually. For the last couple of years, we have been doing this whole building blocks concept. It’s almost like Legos, Legos of ideas. Phrases or patterns that we work with at sound checks and rehearsals finally turn into songs. Usually, that doesn’t always work, but in our case it seems to work in a fun way. It’s like a collage. Over time, we are starting to write full pieces and full songs. The new album that is going to be released sometime next winter,  we’re trying to figure out how we are going to play it down. We had a few songs that were complete before we recorded. We added a little bit of embellishment here and there from our own playing, and then just laid it on tape. We’re kind of back and forth between concepts. We’re very flexiable now. We are trying to move  on and write full pieces as well as the Lego thing that we always do. It takes a lot of time when you mature as a writer as well as a player. You tend to play less, write less, not do difficult things for difficulty’s sake anymore.

Do you think that when you mature as a musician, you become more focused?
You’re most focused, you’re more mature overall. It’s like anything in life. You’re growing, getting older and you’re getting more aware of what is working and what is not working. Being aware of things, while hopefully still being true to yourself is something that we have no problem with. We will always be that way. We do leave it up to everyone to realize that we do changee a lot and we’re not always going to play the same style. We’re always exploring new  territories, which is a beautiful thing about this scene that we are allowed to do.

It seems like some of the hardcore people within the scene complain about their “favorite” band, “Oh they’re not like the old band.” They just need to let them change.
Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. They need to let them change and get comfortable with that. Anything new or different,, people tend to look at in a negative way.

For the latest news and tourdates from Umphrey’s McGee, please visit their website:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: