The members of Umphrey’s McGee have always cited metal and progressive rock as primary influences, so it made sense that the group quickly gelled with metal titans OHM when they met on tour. What is surprising, however, is how quickly that friendship has turned into an actual band. After a chance jam-session, Umphrey’s McGee members Jake Cinninger (guitar), Kris Myers (drums) and Joel Cummins (keyboards) formed the group OHMPHREY with guitarist Chris Poland (OHM, ex- Megadeth) and bassist Robby Pagliari (OHM). The five musicians quickly recorded a self-titled disc, released those sessions on Magna Carta Records last May and hit the road for a few West Coast shows. The collaboration worked and the musicians already plan to work on their next studio collaboration. While on Jam Cruise, Cinninger, Poland and Cummins discussed their initial meeting, recent recording sessions and where exactly metal meets Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.
Let’s start with some background on your history with Chris Poland. I know OHM opened for Umphrey’s a few years ago. Is that how the idea for OHMPHREY first came about?
Jake Cinninger: We were playing with OHM, I’d say about three years ago. We did a little run on the West Coast with them where OHM opened for Umphrey’s and that started this relationship. We really love their music and they really love our music, so it was pretty much a no brainer to do a side-project together. Chris was one of my childhood heroes—I really looked up to him. Out of all the gunslingers back in the ‘80s and ‘90s that were very much on the train to speedville, no one could really touch Chris’s playing as far as his character. He really sounded like himself, which was the hardest thing to do when everyone was trying to play with a crap-ton of distortion on their guitar. So he really sounded like himself, or if anything, he sounded like Jann Hammer from Jeff Beck Group or Mahavishnu Orchestra —just on the guitar. I never expected in a million years to get a hold of him to ask us to play in his band.
A few years his band was playing in Chicago and then he said, “Why don’t you come out, have a night out on the town, come in and sit in with us.” Kris was there, Joel was there and I was there. They randomly had a keyboard at the venue, luckily. Kris replaced OHM drummer Joel Taylor, and we did an hour-and-a-half jam at Martyr’s in Chicago. It was videotaped and recorded, so we literally took it home and couldn’t stop watching it. We were like, “This really worked—there’s like 30 bits of information in this hour-long jam and it totally kicked our ass.” It was kind of the nucleus to go, “Why don’t we do an improv record- together.” So literally, the jam that we did that night at Martyr’s kicked off the ideology of the group, which is supposed to be Bitches Brew meets metal.
Chris how familiar were you with Umphrey’s and the whole jamband scene at that time?
Chris Poland: You know, I was a fan of the Grateful Dead of course, but my heart and soul was always Clapton and the guitar slingers—especially Jimmy Page and Hendrix and Leslie West and then Robin Trower. I heard [John] McLaughlin and then I reheard Jeff Beck and all of a sudden I was just on my way. But as far as jam stuff goes, Cream really is the original jamband. That’s why I feel that we all have the same heart when it comes to the music that comes out of us. It all stems from place I think.
Jake Cinninger: We all probably have the same records at home,
Chris Poland: Exactly, except I’m sure Jake has more records, and I bet they’re not scratched. I swear I’m the worst. I open up my CD case and its empty. I don’t know where it is. And I’m talking special CDs, like Jack Bruce Out of the Storm. That’s a really rare CD and I’m like, “I gotta hear this right now.” Empty.
In 2009 you also recorded a self-titled OHMPHREY album. If I am correct that album was record in only a few days?
Jake Cinninger: Two days—two eight hour sessions, which we were saying in an earlier interview, is really hell on a drummer. So for Kris to be put through this brutal eight hours…
Chris Poland: Let me put it this way: I’m there with my own gear. It’s like I’m getting a massage. I got my rig, all my shit’s my own. He comes in, he’s got nothing he’s ever seen before. Jake’s playing one of my guitars, he’s totally out of his element, he’s playing through this Fender amp that I borrowed. Dude, it works.
Jake Cinninger: I’m smiling the whole time…
Chris Poland: I was so impressed. Everybody was like, t“hat dude walked in here out of nowhere, he could have played through a radio.”
Jake Cinninger: I appreciate it, man.
In terms of the material on the album, did you have a map of what you were going to do when you went into the studio?
Chris Poland: To tell you the truth, a lot of the ideas came from Jake. They were just spontaneous things, and we followed his cue. There were a couple things that everybody kind of contributed to. You know, it was mostly like somebody would start something, usually Jake, and we’d finish it.
Jake Cinninger: That was the cool thing: to bring in these ideas in a very infantile state—like a little riff—and then we’d arrange it. So it’s all about kind of the arrangement of the moment and what we can get out of this little riff.
Chris Poland: And the thing is, he’s there with the strength of the band, his band, which is basically Kris and Joel. And so they have their arranging—there’s a certain thing when you’re a band, you have these arranging ideas that you use. And me and Pag have ours too. So we kind of molded that together and made our suggestions and things came out differently.
Jake Cinninger: And you know, to be quite honest, it’s really a tricky thing to have two headstrong guitarists in the same atmosphere. It could be a real problem in most cases. But because our styles sound really opposite it works—I tend to go more ticky and percussive and Chris is more fluid and legato. And it’s really the polar opposites of styles.
Chris Poland: It’s kind of like Dickey Betts and Duane Allman and the way they played on some of those early Allman Brothers records.