Interview with Lauren Laurson of Ume
Ume plays Barboza Saturday, June 16th
Lauren Larson, singer/guitarist and one-third of the group Ume, comes from West Columbia, Texas, a town with a population of approximately 4,000 people. She left the town pretty much as soon as she could, in search of a wider selection of musical opportunities in Texas, specifically in Austin. At the age of fifteen Larson was playing guitar in her first band, Twelve Blade, a band she describes as “punk rock grind core influenced thrash.” She met a teenage boy who would become her future husband and future bandmate, bassist Eric Larson, after a Twelve Blade show. She recalls: “I was really shy onstage at the time. He was the first guy to talk to me and ask me out (after a show) and we’ve been together ever since.”
Larson has remained in Texas throughout her life, aside from a stint in graduate school (she studied semiotics and feminist philosophy,) and naturally all the touring Ume does. One thing about the name Ume. It’s pronounced ooo-may. I asked her if there were similarities in how she approached academics and how she approaches her music career: “It was very much a controlled chaos. Even with my academic work I wanted to be involved in the community. I think through music I’ve been able to do that a lot more. I think in both areas my goal was always to think outside the norm, outside conventional ways.” Larson is now able to work in her community as a guitar instructor and band coach with Girls Rock Camp Austin, an organization that she says “seeks to empower girls through music.“ This year though she’ll have to bow out, “I’m actually bummed that the camp will be next week and I’ll be on tour. I have to miss it this time. “
Ume’s Lauren Larson – photo by Paul Israel
Ume’s debut was 2005’s Urgent Sea, an EP you can still find on Amazon though there are not many copies left. Urgent Sea is a fast, dirty work you can go all frantic to. The band’s sound changed a few years later with Sunshower, an EP that begins to turn more melodic, more in line with their newest work, Phantoms. Speaking of Phantoms – this album is 100 percent guitar pop rock perfection. Where Larson’s vocals used to be wild, they get a little tamer, sweeter here. Her voice can go both ways, but somehow Phantoms displays a stronger Larson. She mentions that she “wanted to incorporate something beautiful with something very heavy and brutal at times. I’ve always liked merging divergent elements into songs. It was fun to incorporate some melody and harmony.” I asked her how she began singing, and I was surprised by her answer: “I’d never identified myself as a singer. I was a guitar player years before I was ever a singer. I was terrified to approach the microphone. It wasn’t until Ume that I decided to let my voice be heard through a mic. At the time I just had to scream. It was very visceral and guttural. As the years have gone by I’ve developed a little more confidence in my voice and I’ve really let myself try to sing.”
Lauren Larson is known as being one badass guitarist. I kind of think she’s intimidating but she seemed to find it silly when I asked her if she thinks she intimidates people, “I know I surprise them. I have no clue if I intimidate them, I’m actually a pretty shy person, but I do feel powerful with a guitar. I kind of feel larger than I am (Larson is petite).” One of her favorite guitarists is Prince, whom she got introduced to as a “young girl and he was one of the first guitar players that really blew me away. A writer for the Chicago Tribune did a comparison of Prince and me, because one thing I get a lot in press is “oh Lauren is so little but she rocks so hard!” And people take a look at me and are surprised. This writer said, you know what? Prince is little and no one has ever said that about him. I think there’s an affinity I have felt with him as a guitar player.” She also lists as favorites David Gilmour and Tony Iommi, and a local inspiration, “Rosie Flores here in Austin. A very different style from me – she’s a rockabilly and blues guitarist – but she’s been a great influence and role model for me. She went through tendonitis, just like I did. I was able to overcome that through stretching and getting the proper technique.” That technique saved her playing: “I was having the guitar too low and the neck was too wide. I was playing and a streak of lightning went down my arm. I’ve had to hike the guitar up a bit – might not look as cool but it’s a lot healthier.”
There was a small gap between albums one, two and three but it’s paid off. Larson explains, “I was in school. We (Eric and Lauren) lived a 1,000 miles apart and hadn’t got to the point where we were going to make a run at it.” The most recent change has been the addition of new drummer, Rachel Fuhrer. “She’s really helped us take it to the next level. We’re writing a lot of new material with her. There’s this new ryhthmic intensity she’s bringing to the sound. We’re going to be debuting a lot of new material we’re writing with her on this tour.” Finding Fuhrer went this way: “She’s originally from New York. For our Sunshower CD release show, her other band, Many Birthdays was opening for us. She’s the only member of the band who’s professionally trained. She teaches drums and went to Berklee College of Music and studied drums. When it was time for us to get a new drummer, she was the first person we asked. It’s been great.” They’ve also had support from their label, Modern Outsider, a young label based in Austin.
Ume seems to have such a fun way about them, and I bet that’s part of why Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations tapped them to be on the show. They hooked up with Bourdain at SXSW, and Larson remembers that the show picked “Sleigh Bells, The Sword and Ume. We were playing a show at the Brooklyn Vegan SXSW party and No Reservations was filming it. We didn’t know if Anthony Bourdain was gonna show up or not. (At) the second song somebody screamed, “Anthony Bourdain!” He was in the corner watching us and he said he’d never seen that much rock in such a small room, and if he’s smiling and the sound guy’s smiling that’s a rare occasion. We went to dinner with him that night, which was also filmed for the show. That was a lot of fun. We partied pretty hard with him. He’s very easy to converse with.” It turns out Ume is quite the foodie band: “We’re definitely foodies. He (Bourdain) said we were the first band he hung out with that were true foodies. We ate chicken testicles and shrimp heads.” Okay, chicken testicles. Yum, shrimp heads? “If it’s done correctly you can eat it with the shell. It’s really crispy – like a soft-shell crab.”
I’m aware that clothing style can be an important factor of how a band presents itself onstage. Larson has cool style to her and I wondered what she takes into consideration when looking for stage clothes. “I was always the kind of person as a teenager (who said) never wear a dress. One time I was hanging out (and someone said) I was dressed like Beavis. With the band I wear a lot of vintage dresses. There are so many great vintage shops in Austin. I used to try to wear shoes with a heel, and I was always falling down onstage. Once I had to go the emergency room after a show – I broke my arm. Now I wear what’s comfortable. I like vintage clothes.”
Larson’s favorite Muppet is Animal – hey, I had to ask, Muppets kept coming up in interviews with her for some reason or other!: “He rocks out and holds nothing back. When I was younger I identified with Gonzo because he was kind of nerdy. I used to do a routine to the Muppet album, Guns N’ Roses, Prince, Milli Vanilli when I was very young. I heard a Milli Vanilli song on the radio last week, and I was like, this is a great chorus.” Milli Vanilli did, indeed, have the formula down.
What does she do when not touring? “I do a lot of gardening. I’m on the road so much my plants are dying. I hang out with friends in Austin. There are a lot of great swimming holes here. Even on the downtime it’s a good time for me to work on music and songwriting.” What does she grow? “Right now I’m growing tomatoes, jalapeños, collards, okra, squash.” She says jalapeños grow very well in Texas, which makes me jealous. My jalapeño plant, while growing, is not so gigantic yet.
Larson and Eric Larson have two cats, who get very angry when they’re preparing to go on tour. One of the cats, Stitchy, is the band model. The cats will have a bad summer when the Larsons tour with Helmet and The Toadies, but music fans will have an excellent summer.
Stitchy announcing Ume’s summer tour dates
interview by Dagmar