Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

Rising Rocker

Kris Myers '99 is the celebrated new drummer for the hot rock band Umphrey's McGee.

Kris Myers was a fixture on the Chicago music scene, playing drums for a popular jazz fusion ensemble named Kick the Cat and regularly hiring out as a studio session player, when he heard about another job opening.

Word was out that Umphrey’s McGee, a Chicago-based rock band that seemed poised on the brink of breakthrough success, was losing its original drummer to medical school and was on the lookout for a replacement. Myers rushed a CD sampling of his drum work to the band. “I found out later that it was the first package they received,” he says. As it turned out, it was the only one the band needed to hear.

Jake Cinninger, a guitarist and vocalist for Umphrey’s McGee, invited Myers to his basement performance space to audition for the band. The tryout went smoothly. After Myers and the band had chatted, run through a few Umphrey’s McGee songs, and done some jamming, Cinninger and the rest of the band excused themselves to huddle upstairs, but invited Myers to continue playing on his own. It was only later that Myers learned that as he played, the band was upstairs listening to his solo through a hidden microphone.

“They pulled a covert operation on me,” Myers recalls, laughing. “That was the first thing I learned about the guys. They have a great sense of humor, and some things you just have to laugh off.”

Myers can laugh about it now, because the members of Umphrey’s McGee clearly liked what they heard at Myers’ audition. Myers joined the band not long after that tryout, and the ensuing ride has been a wild, and wildly successful, one.

Umphrey’s improvisatory and eclectic style has won the band both critical praise and a passionate fan following. Michael Deeds of The Washington Post called the band “rock’s undisputed lord of sonic shape-shifting.” In The Village Voice, Richard Gehr wrote that “no one is doing anything else as ambitiously musical as Umphrey’s McGee.” Their fans seem to agree, to judge by the packed houses at Umphrey’s high-energy live shows. The band has become one of the hottest tickets on the national jam-band circuit. Their fans have become known as Umphreaks for their devotion and Trekkie-like knowledge of the band’s history.

Joining a band like Umphrey’s in mid-ascent would be a dizzying experience for any musician. It has been especially remarkable for Myers, whose training and early professional focus was in jazz drumming. But Myers says the chance to join Umphrey’s was just too good to pass up. “I was just so impressed with their music, how adventurous it was,” he says. “I never would have wanted to be part of just another cookie-cutter pop group.”

Myers began drumming when he was eight, after an uncle bought him a drum kit. As a music major at Elmhurst, he played in director Doug Beach’s acclaimed jazz band, an experience he credits with teaching him the meaning of professionalism. “He was one of the single most important people in my life,” Myers says of Beach. “He teaches you to play with intensity.”

Myers says the jazz band learned to be self-sufficient, spending most weekends on paying gigs to help fund trips to jazz festivals. “You couldn’t ask for a better education. We had to just do it ourselves, and that’s the way to learn,” he says. “You see what it’s like to work, and that’s how you become a real professional. You develop the work ethic very quickly.”

Beach remembers Myers’ freshman audition for the band. “He was young, he was green, and I don’t want to make myself sound like a prophet, but when he was finished playing I said to someone, ‘This kid’s going to be great.’ Now I go to other schools and I’ve had people ask me if I know Kris Myers. He’s getting to be really well-known.”

Myers went on to earn a master’s degree in jazz studies from DePaul University. While he never envisioned playing in a rock band, Myers’ jazz training at Elmhurst and DePaul has turned out to be surprisingly relevant in Umphrey’s, where a sense for improvisation and the ability to set up a soloist come into play every night. Still, joining Umphrey’s was no simple task for Myers. He had to master a new repertoire even while adjusting to the band’s relentless touring schedule, which put them on the road about 160 nights a year. But most challenging of all for Myers was integrating himself into a famously tight-knit ensemble.

Umphrey’s had formed in 1997 at the University of Notre Dame. They spent years performing tirelessly, working to establish a name for themselves. By 2002, when they released their breakthrough CD, Local Band Does OK, they had moved from South Bend to Chicago and their efforts were beginning to produce dividends. Only then did Myers join the band. “There’s a really thick chemistry in this band. They all knew each other, and they had this incredible history together,” Myers explains. “I was always behind. They’re hardcore Notre Dame guys, and they’ve shared that since they were 18. I went to Elmhurst. I had a whole different history.”

Then there was the matter of adjusting to his newfound fame as a member of an acclaimed rock band. “The guys warned me that some of our fans get a little obsessed,” Myers says. “They’re watching your every move and asking you thousands of questions about the set list. You just have to be flattered that they’re interested in what you’re doing.”

More and more people seem to be taking an interest in the band. Their most recent tour included appearances at Chicago’s Lollapaloooza Festival and on Jimmy Kimmel Live, with stops everywhere from Paris to Petaluma. Myers says life on the road—weeks on end with your band mates in a Prevost bus trying to make it to the next one-nighter—has offered its own lessons. “You get to know the people you’re traveling with, and you get to know yourself. You learn to give and take like a family,” he says. “It helps to bathe a lot.”

As Umphrey’s tours the nation in support of their album Safety in Numbers, they’re looking ahead to their next recording. Myers says the band’s new songs often grow out of the improvised jams they produce on stage. On breaks from the band’s touring schedule, Myers pursues several side projects, maintaining his interest in jazz drumming. In March, he performed a program of contemporary classical works for percussion in a concert recital at Elmhurst. Meanwhile, he is at work renovating the Wicker Park home he recently purchased.

It was hardly the most likely career path for Myers, but the job he landed with that audition in Jake Cinninger’s basement has been good to him. And like his new band-mates, Myers had a good feeling about it from the start.

“I remember the first time I saw them play, I was blown away,” he says. “The most impressive thing was the way they were laughing and having a good time, feeling the music.”

From that first meeting in the basement, it’s been a steady ascent for Kris Myers and for Umphrey’s McGee.

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