Souffland Budweisers with Umphrey’s McGee
At the Hot House, Kris Myers is getting comfortable at his drum kit before Drop Q, a side project developed alongside Om Trio's Brian Felix, pops out a toasty rendition of Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage." His band members in Umphrey's McGee appear one by one in support of their new(er) drummer and the mood is lively. The Hot House is an upscale lounge room and art gallery that provides a sound-perfect swank setting for jazz gigs like this. Large red booths line the outer rim of the venue and the ashtrays look like African artifacts. It is in this setting that I had the opportunity to chat with Umphrey's McGee bassist Ryan Stasik and guitarist Jake Cinninger.
Since the addition of Kris Myers in the beginning of 2003, Umphrey’s McGee has played over 200 shows, released a new album, Anchor Drops, and performed at the 3rd annual Bonnaroo Music Festival during one of four coveted late-night spots. They’re writing new songs too, and lots of ‘em. 2004 saw the debuts of labyrinthine numbers "Bridgeless," "Nemo," and "Plunger" the last of the three appearing as the opening track on Anchor Drops. Overall, the last year and a half has seen some of the most cohesive, precise and inspired playing since the band's inception in the late 90's. Two days after this interview, the band performed to sold out crowds on back to back nights at the Skyline Stage at Navy Pier in Chicago.
And while it might be a bit presumptuous to think that their recent successes are the cause for Stasik and Cinninger's beaming smiles, it doesn't seem so far off the mark. Aside from the mirthful expressions however, the two look like polar opposites. Stasik's long brown hair is haphazard (he tells me he's cutting it all off tomorrow, then comes on stage for the second night of the Skyline run with a full foot of blue mohawk). He relaxes back into his chair casually as we talk. Cinninger sits upright and his short, neat blonde hair is as compulsive as his furious guitar solos. The pair plays off each other throughout our discussions, and the chat exhibits both their dedication to music as well as their sharp wit, both band hallmarks.
HI: Tell me about Bonnaroo. What were the highlights both as a spectator and as a performer?
RS: My three highlights in no particular order were David Byrne, two was when the rain came pouring, I was right next to the Budweiser tent which panned out very nicely and three was right when we came up on stage. The crowd, the noise, the energy, the familiar faces.
HI: What was the mood for you guys coming off of the stage that night?
JC: Well by four in the morning you're pretty…uh…
JC: (smiling)...You're pretty listless you know? To me it's like, I've always had a problem stepping off stage and speaking English, cause you're speaking in notes like dikita dikita dikita dikta delumbda delumbda (drumming his fingers on the table) you know? So common language is sort of weird right when we get off stage. So it was kind of blurry.
RS: It's like sex. You need a cigarette or something.
JC: Yeah, there's no time to talk.
RS: No time to talk. Sometimes you roll over and go to bed other times you know, you cook breakfast.
JC: Sometimes you just do it again.
RS: Those are the best.
JC: That's right.
HI: About Anchor Drops, what kinds of challenges were you going into the studio with? What did you see as obstacles going in?
JC: We went into the record with the highest expectation for the end result. No stone is really left unturned for any little second of the album. Every little moment is accounted for so there's no excessive noodling obviously, no excessive sections that don't need to be there. It's like everything is kind of trimmed away. So we really spent a lot of time on song construction, placement of the instruments in the instrumentation. All right down the line, the vocals…We wanted it to be a little bit more vocal heavy and that's hard to do. It's hard to make a jam album seem songy.
RS: A jaaahmbaaahnd (in mock brit accent). I think it was really hard to make a record that was a record from beginning to end and not just information saying "look this is everything we know, here's this." We wanted to be able to write songs that you could play on the radio or anywhere. Not something that was unstructured and went on forever.
HI: Was there a concept or unifying idea that tied it together for you?
JC: No, I think we just kind of went into it wanting an album like what we used to listen to. All the great albums of the 60's and 70's – it's like they were concise as a whole. As far as, you could listen to them all the way through and it sounds like that's the way it should be. Not one or two cuts sounding great and the rest of its just B sides.
RS: (turning to Jake) Like what's your favorite Blue Oyster Cult album?
JC: Oh yeah, let me think. That's a tough one. Oh man. I would say "Secret Treaties."
RS: Is it perfect?
JC: (to Ryan) No it's not, but the thing that I like about Blue Oyster Cult is they're like American Spinal Tap. I like the bad things about them too, so let's not go there with our music.
HI: Did you ever find yourselves struggling to agree on certain takes or tracks during the production of Anchor Drops?
RS: I don't think we've had any conflicts or fights in the studio.
JC: Wait what about that black eye from all that blow in Amsterdam? (mock serious)
RS: We're so good at being able to talk to each other and if somebody makes a suggestion or somebody doesn't like it, they just tell them. And then that person isn't offended and you don't get in little tiffs and stuff. We're good in the studio. Now living in a van for a year then you might get in some fights about some stupid shit.
JC: Yeah, like I haven't talked to Ryan in two weeks.
RS: (smiling) Yeah he hates me.
HI: Have you guys ever come to blows?
RS: Um blows, no.
JC: Nah, it's like high school tussles. Like, we'll throw each other up against the wall but it's all good.
RS: No punching…no punching in the face at least.
JC: It's all about checking each other. Especially when there's a couple Budweiser's involved.
RS: Truth syrup.
HI: What do you feel individually is your biggest contribution to the band?
RS: Jake dances pretty well.
JC: I can do a mean tick. I can do a mean break dancing tick. (clearing throat) For me, I guess what I bring to the band is musical composition and themes. I don't bring a lot of lyrics, but when I do you know, whatever. I'm no true lyricist.
R: I try to contribute as a musician, in writing my own parts of sections as a bass player. But I try to bring the united team spirit. Sure, everyone has their own personality. The thing is we're like a great recipe for a nice soufflEvery ingredient is very important and it brings what it brings. I don't even know what the hell is in a soufflbut…
RS: But you know we blend well…
RS: ...together and we do get along.
HI: So what would you say the band contributes to you as a musician? What can you take away from it?
JC: I can say what I'm scared of.
JC: Bringing pieces of music forth that I think that are really good and they're not good in someone else's eyes in the band. That's probably the hardest thing. When you really think something is good and it's not. (laughing) It's hard to be your own critic.
RS: There's been very few, if any, things that he has brought to this band that we haven't thought were good. If other people, outside of the band might not have thought they were good, he might take that to heart as well. But I don't think there's anything that this man hasn't shat out that we haven't enjoyed or gotten something out of.
JC: Yeah, well that's a different story.
RS: Yeah, but the band is us. We're a team.
JC: It's a lego concept. It's bits of information tied together to create a stream of consciousness and that's the song. And it has to come off that way. For it to be bits and pieces of information and just stick them together- that normally doesn't work. But if you really spend time on it and create those little building blocks to get from point A to point B and from point B to point C, it begins to gel. Cause you can obviously tell when sections collide together and they sound forced. So nowadays we write songs over a longer period of time.
HI: How do you know when you’ve played a show that it’s been a good show or a bad show?
RS: You always know.
JC: When you've walked off, you know.
RS: You can compare it to any job. When you've had a good day and you've been productive and you did good things at work, you got shit done. You just know. If you had a day when you were lazy and you just didn't do shit and production wasn't good and your boss is pissed.
JC: Yeah…yeah…I mean, to deal with the rigors of the road and then to walk away from a long day at 2:30, 3 o'clock in the morning, high fivin' because it was a great show. That's the sign of satisfaction for me of living in a van and being on the road.
HI: When’s the last time you had a post-show high five?
JC: Our last gig probably.
RS: We're don't want to sound arrogant but we've been hot. We've been on a hot streak, we've been having a good time.
JC: A well-oiled machine.
RS: Maybe two out of the last 26 gigs (and we're tough critics) have been sloppy. But other than that we feel like we've been on fire. Good energy, good vibes.
HI: You just had the Rolling Stone write-up by David Fricke under the heading of "Hot Phish." How do you feel about that particular comparison?
RS: That was out of the woodwork. No one expected that to be in the article. It's definitely been an influence…but…
JC: I kind of have a problem with such a big publication coming out and saying that we're like the contenders for some sort of crown. It bothers me because it's going to be automatic that a lot of people are going to come out of the gates hating you just because of that fact. And they're not even going to give you a chance because the press associates you with that so closely. That's a little weird in its own right. But I mean whatever, its great press for us so I guess it's good.
RS: We didn't expect it to say, "Hot Phish" and I don't really care to tell you the truth. But just the privilege and the honor of being in there and having that exposure was big. And I talked to David for about 45 minutes and he brought up the fact that our first couple albums were tongue and cheek because it didn't fucking matter. We're playing in South Bend in some bar to 17 of our friends shitfaced. You know, in a club the size of this table. Of course in the beginning we were tongue and cheek because it didn't matter. But now having done Anchor Drops we're tying to be serious, trying to make a real record.
JC: It's kind of an artistic statement. Before I don't think any of the albums were an artistic statement. As a package, I feel like the whole package of Anchor Drops is linear. The photography and the artwork ties in with the music which ties in with all the little things that happen in between the songs with the city and the water theme.
HI: When will you know when you’ve reached the pinnacle of your career? What does that time and place look like?
RS: I have no idea. I know that right now I'm happy. I'm making music for a living it's what I'm passionate about, what I've always wanted to do and I'm paying rent and I'm healthy and my family is healthy…no complaints.
JC: I find a lot of satisfaction in vehicles for preserving ideas. So therefore, that might mean a really expensive big studio so I can sit on ideas and develop ideas. Where I have time to spend in my own environment that's electronically capable for what I'm about to do. I need the technology to put things down. I don't have the money or the means for that yet, but when it happens that's when I'm going to be like wow, I'm in the perfect artistic environment to flourish any time I want to. Cause it doesn't matter about money at that point, once you have the tools to put down your thoughts and your ideas and your expressions, that to me is the pinnacle.
RS: Yeah and not loading our own gear drunk at 3 in the morning, that's a plus. Yeah I don't know where the pinnacle is, but we're just strapping on our seatbelts and going for the ride.