The evolution of Umphrey’s McGee is an infinite loop, with the band seemingly reinventing itself with each record, show and tour. As we catch up with drummer extraordinaire Kris Myers shortly after the release of their latest twist, ZONKEY, a record comprised of past Halloween mashups, he confirms that the group is indeed evolving constantly and already looking to their next turn.
“I feel like some of us have really gotten back to the basics of working on our craft individually,” Myers says when assessing the band’s year. The back to basics approach allowed the band to mature, according to the drummer, and will carry them into the new year with all sights set on a new album of originals that lean more towards the band’s progressive rock influence.
That will all come after a triumphant return to Chicago for New Year’s Eve, which is sure to come complete with a few “Go Cubs Go” teases and jams, something the drummer notes as definitely nostalgic.
Read on for more musings from Kris Myers, including a reflection on the late Sharon Jones.
When you first started to explore these mashups in the studio, what did you learn about them and what did you set out to do that couldn’t otherwise happen on stage?
Really polishing them up because this was a recording so we were able to spend more time on it. We also were very happy about the experience and we learned a lot from it because it was a lot of simple pop tunes that were big hits back in the day.
Playing and writing that sort of thing you can sort of tell how effective simple riffs and simple ideas can be. So we were blown away about how fun this record was after producing it.
It’s unfortunate that a lot of it wasn’t our own original stuff but we learned a lot about it that way and you get a better scope of how to apply that to your own songwriting. I think we captured the vocal moments. We were hoping that we could be versatile enough to do that.
As far as applying it to your originals, what aspects do you think you can take back to the Umphrey’s canon?
Certain tones and certain articulations and phrasings. Also, taking pieces of little phrases that we would normally put together in a variety of forms—learning how to simplify things a little better and minimize a little bit because it’s easy to create a long strand of ideas but then when you actually try to arrange it, that’s where the good stuff comes out.
We learned a lot from that and of course not being afraid to make a big rock sound and production and be able to pull that off live. That’s kind of a new direction for us we’ve continued to evolve.
I have to imagine rapping Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” and playing drums at the same time is one of the hardest things you’ve ever been asked to do in this band.
(Laughs) It’s not as difficult as you would think. It’s difficult in that you have to push out a lot of air to do a screaming kind of vocals to rap like the Beastie Boys rap. We are more of an alternative band mixed with old school rap tendencies. They were literally shouting their lines and not smooth. It’s a real high voice range and you really have to push a lot of air so it takes a lot of physical dexterity. You have to play and take really deep breaths and carry on through it and try to hit those notes and make it so that your voice isn’t too taxed to do it either. You can’t be cracking a lot of notes.
One of the unique things about this record that I don’t think many people have touched on is that you all more or less contributed some form of lead vocals to the project.
We were grateful for the opportunity because it actually was a character building experience for us in a way. This was a great opportunity to have a little fun in the studio in a nice, high-quality recording environment and to take turns giving each other a challenge to sing the vocal parts, because this is an experimental record and it’s more of a party record. It’s a little more tongue-in-cheek and it just lends itself to doing this sort of thing and having different guys sing. It was fun. We had a great time doing it.
Shifting to Umphrey’s originals, you guys booked some studio time after Halloween. What can you say about how this new batch of songs are coming along?
I’m not sure what is going to come about of these recordings but we just went in with bare bones ideas that we’re going to compose later as we go on. We actually have full bodies of work that we finally agreed to in the moment and then rehearsed them and recorded them.
I don’t know if we even have a release date yet or if we have an album name or anything like that in the works. What we do have is little sections and takes and we’re going to eventually make something of them in the next six months I’d say and then hopefully we’ll have a better answer for you down the road.