Lauren Larson of Ume: "I want to help lead a whole new generation of female musicians."
At this point, much has been mythologized about the badassery of Ume (due at the Larimer Lounge this Sunday, February 12). The heavy-rocking Texas trio is fronted by an almost precociously petite blonde, but Lauren Larson has a leg up on her stereotype -- and another one up on her amp. "Yeah, I get it, I'm a girl," she moans from the band's home in Austin in another stereotype -- the pretty Southern drawl. "And I rock. In fact, we've all got it. It's like, 'Let's move on now.'" From here, she'd like you to give your shit about her band's live reputation instead.
On stage, Ume sounds like bottled rage, as if someone corked their explosive riffs and stratospheric noise rock, shook it for pressure and then shot it wildly at the audience for a sound so frenzied that Larson admits it hurts to play. (This could be because she has both tiny hands and tendinitis, but the fact remains that a) she rocks hard, and b) She gets sore.
The band's backstory is sufficiently cuter than its snarly sound: At age fifteen, the already aggressive guitarist Larson earned a fan in her future husband, Eric Larson, who asked her out and later married her before recruiting former drummer Jeff Barrera to join a newly established Ume in 2002.
The act's 2005 debut, Urgent Sea, was solid and highly praised but ultimately forgettable until the guys resuscitated their act in Austin in 2007 with the dynamic call to action that is their Sunshower EP. The band's first full-length, last year's Phantoms, finds Ume exploring its edge without pretension in a tangle of rock antics, brutal guitar and wild bravado.
We spoke with Lauren about her very small hands, vintage guitar equipment, doctoral dissertation and what the hell is so surprising about a lady shredder in 2012 (spoiler: nothing).
Westword: You've played in punk-influenced bands since you were fourteen, but you still get an incredible amount of attention for your gender alone. When do you think we'll all get over the whole "girl shredding a guitar" thing?
Lauren Larson: Even when I was fourteen, I said my dream was just to be respected as a musician and a guitarist and not some sort of anomaly as a girl guitarist. It has always been my goal just to erase those gender lines, or at least ignore them. I remember having a talk with a guy at the time, probably when I was fourteen or fifteen, about being in a band, and he asked me, "Are you the singer?" "No." "Are you the bassist?" "No." "Well, you must be the dancer."
That kind of notion being in someone's mind is astounding, and I want no part in that. Now I work with the Girls Rock Camp, and my goal is for anyone to be able to take the stage and have no one be surprised to see them there.
So how do you get rid of that stereotypical attention?
Honestly, I just have to keep doing exactly what I'm doing. I like to shatter expectations. For me, personally, I want to help lead a whole new generation of female musicians. We're a band. I want people to focus on the music. I hate the focus on our appearance or our looks, but I know I don't fit the typical heavy-rock-musician paradigm. But I don't even know what that is anymore. I want to redefine that. We have an extremely rocking female drummer now [Rachel Fuhrer], too, and she causes people to rethink those lines in the same way.
I saw you guys in St. Louis over the summer, and your live show is hugely physical. Where does that active aggression come from?
It's absolutely a result of the music we produce. For me, I'm usually very awkward and shy and reserved at all other times -- though people tell me they wouldn't know it. I'm actually terrified of speaking on the mike when I'm not playing. But with the guitar, that's my chance to hold nothing back.
How many other chances in life do you actually have to do that? When I found that freedom in my performance, when I realized I could channel that every day on stage, I couldn't stop. So many bands now look like they don't want to be there, but I'm thrilled, and I want to communicate that with the audience.
What kind of toll does that physicality have on your body?
I have to do stretching, for sure, right beforehand. Probably the first couple shows of every tour, we're sore and aching in the van for a long time afterward. A few years ago, I developed tendinitis in my wrist. We were rehearsing, and all of a sudden I had a shooting pain in my hand, and I couldn't even hold a guitar. They told me I might not be able to play for six months, and it was terrible. So I really have to protect myself from now on. I've never taken lessons, and I had no training, so I didn't know that I was holding my guitar too low and that was the problem.
The band -- and you in particular -- have been compared to a huge swath of '90s idols. I've even heard you and your husband, Eric Larson, compared to Thurston and Kim. If you could choose only one comparison, which is the most accurate?
People are always going to make comparisons. One of my favorites was that I was the love child of Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin, but we've also gotten things like a heavier, more metal-edged Blonde Redhead, somewhere between Black Sabbath and Blonde Redhead. That spans our horizon pretty well.
Music is a way for me to express some aggression or heavier emotion, but there's also this beauty with that brutality. But it's still listenable. Having those divergent elements and playing with distortion gives people a '90s mindset. We're an indie band that really calls on the rock element. If people want to compare us to the '90s, that's their right to do so, but I prefer the other options.
How did you develop your guitar setup? It's pretty impressive.
When I first started playing guitar, my hands were so little that I couldn't even play the barre chords. What that forces me to do is come up with my own tuning. The reason I have five or six guitars on stage at a time is because I have so many different tunings in the songs. It makes it easier for me to play and also makes me more creative as a songwriter.
My amp now is the first amp I've ever had other than a little practice amp I had when I was fourteen. It's a Marshall JCM-900. I have a Fender twin and a vintage Orange amp, but my sound has been really dictated by that Marshall sound. I just go with the actual distortion built into the amp, and I love the built-in reverb as well. Now I play with two speaker cabinets and a stereo on either side of the stage, and if they were piled up on top of each other, they'd make a stack bigger than me.
Ume, sans new drummer Rachel Fuhrer.
The last time you played Denver, your van broke down and you only made it in time for two songs at the Westword showcase. What can we expect this time?
We're going to be there on time, and we're not going to break down. We're going to be showcasing a lot of the new material that we wrote with our new drummer Rachel. We've got a couple of heavier jams, and we were able to do some stuff with rhythmic intensity that we weren't able to play with our old drummer. We're already demo-ing new material, so we're hoping for a new album out this year.
What percentage of the time do people pronounce the band's name correctly?
It's gotten better from word of mouth, but we still get "Ummmy," "You Me" and "U.M.E." a huge amount of the time. That's why we always try to say it in parentheses beforehand and spell it "oo-may."
You spent years pursuing a doctorate in philosophy. Are there any similarities between that life and life on the road?
That's on the back burner. I've been focusing on music for a while, and I did complete my master's, but I'm not sure that's the path I want. I've finished all of my Ph.D. except for the dissertation. Being a philosopher and a rock star -- neither are easy paths. When I was in that academic bubble, I couldn't stand the cerebral lifestyle, so I was always running down to play my guitar constantly. But in both areas, I want to rethink convention and shatter the norms. I find my passion definitely with my guitar and music more so than with academia.
How has Rachel's entrance into the band as a drummer changed your creative process?
She's such a talented drummer, and she's the only member of the band who is professionally trained. She can come into play with anything, but there's always a learning curve working with new people. It's still so new, less than a year since we've been playing with her. We always write collaboratively. One person might come in with a riff or idea, but it's always transformed. I like creating a tangle and then unraveling it all with every member's contribution.
We've always been a band that epitomizes being a working band, going on tours and driving 10,000 miles to play to maybe 100 people. What's awesome, though, is that even if there are only 100, people sign up for our mailing list. Sometimes if we drive eight hours for a show, there will be someone there who drove three hours to see us. We never lived in the same town or state until three years ago, and that's really when we got to experience the collaboration of living within less than 300 miles of each other.
With Urgent Sea, I had come from a real punk-rock background, and that was before I knew about press releases or talking to the media or any of that stuff you're supposed to do to get people to actually listen to your band. It was real, people just getting into the studio without editing or flash or anything like that. I had never sung, and I had a very growly voice back then.
Anytime we're recording now, we still have very limited time. We never have the leisure of being able to record it over a month. I think I've grown more confident with my sound and my voice and all these things bands do in the studio, but it still feels very much like a natural performance.
What is one thing Ume has done right this year, and one thing you guys have done wrong?
One thing I think we've done right is this past year I've tried to be a lot more positive. I think it's easy for a band, especially one that works this hard, to get cynical, to think, "Oh, look at that band's success." In the past few years, I could find myself being negative and wanting to compare us to other bands. But making Phantoms was very difficult for us, emotionally and financially. I think since then I've just really let myself have fun with it and let myself go crazy on stage, whether we're playing for five people or 500 people.
One thing we maybe shouldn't have done, let's see, I wish we hadn't broken down so much. I don't know if I should say this, but putting ethanol in our diesel gas tank and being late to a show was a disaster. I think we broke down four or five times this past year, but that's less than the year before. And the only show we were late to was the Westword music festival.
We literally parked, and I jumped out with my dress tucked into my underwear and my shorts. It was embarrassing, but the response was awesome. They told us we could only play one song, and we did no soundcheck and just had no clue what it was going to sound like and just ran out there and played on the other band's instruments. So when the response was good enough for us to play one more, that was a great feeling. I promise we will be on time this time.
Ume, with Cursive and Il Cattivo, 8 p.m. doors, 9 p.m. show, Sunday, February 12, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer, $16-$18, 303-291-1007
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