When people hear the name Umphrey’s McGee, they typically respond with one of three things: “What the fuck is an Umphrey?,” “Crazy stoner hippies and their word-less music,” or “Dude, I heard the sickest ‘Nothing Too Fancy’ a few weeks ago!”
I, Carlye Wisel, am more than happy to identify myself as one of the fans in the third group. I mean, for God sakes, I asked their bassist Ryan Stasik to my senior prom. No, really though – I did. He turned me down, but no worries – I went with the lead of my high school’s production of “The Music Man” instead, which is WAY cooler than a rock star, right? Right? Ugh.
Anyway, let’s get back on track. When it comes down to it, you can call me an Umphreak, a McGeek, or any other combination of the band, a nickname that would have made me cry when I was five years old, its all the same — I fucking love Umphrey’s McGee. So, when I had my dream opportunity last week – interviewing their drummer Kris Myers – you can bet I was as excited as a seventh grade boy sneaking a peek into the topless jungle of a girl’s locker room.
Well, without the boner of course.
For those of you who are new to this Umph business, here’s a quick bio to catch you up:
The group started in Indiana but now based in Chicago, there are six dudes in Umphrey’s McGee — Jake and Brendan on guitar, Stasik on bass, Joel on keys, Farag on percussion and Myers on drums. Everyone but Stasik does vocals, Brendan and Jake sing the most, and Kris Myers joined in 2003 when former drummer Mike Mirro left the band to attend medical school.
Phew. What a mouthful.
“I was nervous about learning so many tunes in so little time,” Myers said about filling Mirro’s shoes. “We pulled through, and I was very confident going into the first gig. I felt very honored, since Mike’s a very talented player.”
Ever since then, Umphrey’s has continued to grow in popularity. They just got back from playing “Jam in the Dam” overseas, are joining Dave Matthews Band for a leg of their summer tour, and are slated to play at this year’s Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, and various other outdoor concerts nationwide.
Myers recalls the first Bonnaroo festival he played back in 2004 as an experience worth remembering.
“[It was] the late night show; we just rocked it,” he said, chuckling. “It was a really good show. We hit it right on the screws. I think that was probably the first time I felt like – yeah, we have arrived.”
And they have. After the success of 2004’s Anchor Drops, the guys recently released their newest album Safety In Numbers, complete with album cover art by famed artist Storm Thorgerson, who has most notably worked with Pink Floyd, in addition to artists such as Led Zeppelin, Phish, and Peter Gabriel.
“It was kind of unbelievable,” says Myers of the collaboration. “I have been a fan of his artwork for a long time now, and to have us in contact with somebody who is as seasoned as he is [made] the experience great. Just awesome.”
The title Safety In Numbers doesn’t carry as happy a memory, though – it comes from the lyrics of “Passing,” a song written for Brian Schultz, a friend who was hit by a drunk driver on the way home from a New Year’s party with the band last year. Myers recalls, “[He was a] great guy; we miss him dearly. The subject of the matter, of talking about passing on in this life — it has darker themes and connotations. It’s a little more somber, emotional album for us, since it’s a very personal subject.”
The untimely death of Schultz leaves a fingerprint on the album, but in no way sacrifices Umph’s signature style. In addition to thought-provoking, reflective lyrics and captivating vocals, their music is a roller coaster of sound, dipping in and out between the genre differentiations of musical definition. Known for their constant shifts between various time signatures, Umphrey’s McGee has typically relied on numerous eight-bar segments to build their songs. According to Myers, though, this procedure is evolving.
“We’ve been doing that the past two years, and recently we’ve been changing that up a little more. We’re kind of writing more complete bodies of work, and doing it in such a way that it’s like a process, where we write some patterns, phrases, riffs, or lyrics along with that, and then we develop the song from just playing it live, because luckily our environment and scene accepts that,” said Myers.
Hell, when you’re as talented as these guys, its damn near impossible not to accept that.
I don’t want to sound greedy, but due to their busy schedule, I could only land a ten minute interview. Although I didn’t have time to ask drummer Myers about his hopes, dreams, and marital status, I had the opportunity to talk to him about some other stuff, including NKOTB and Sesame Street. Seriously.
Look a little to the right to check out the interview.