The band combines heavy riffage with poppy melodies, earning comparisons to Sonic Youth and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the husband and wife aspect of bassist Eric Larson and lead-woman Lauren Larson doesn't hurt. But Ume (pronounced Ooo-may) conjures up something entirely their own. With the new album "Phantoms" out August 30, the trio has been heavily touring the states and making their way to St. Louis for the second annual LouFest.
I recently caught up with guitarist and vocalist Lauren Larson to chat about her vintage guitar repertoire, passing the time on the road, guitar nerd-ery, finding the Ume sound and teaching girls to rock out.
Joe Roberts: What's the significance of the name of Ume?
Lauren Larson: It's a Japanese fruit blossom. At the time we were coming up with the name it was our friend's favorite food. And you know, that's a cool word!
You all have drawn comparisons to Sonic Youth and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. How would you describe your band's music? And who would you compare yourself to?
I think our music is an interesting mix of elements that are at once beautiful but also brutal. Definitely on the more aggressive side of indie-rock music, cause there's still a lot of pop elements and melodic elements. As for who to be compared to ... We're definitely trying to develop our own sound. I kind of leave it up to everyone else and who they want to draw comparisons to. But I did like once when someone said I was like the lovechild of Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin. I thought that was funny.
When did you all get together as Ume? Were you all in bands previously?
The bass player and I have been playing in bands on and off since high school. He actually saw me play guitar in my first band when I was 15 years old. Kind of a thrash punk hardcore band. And we had met at a skate park and started making music, different DIY punk stuff. And we actually met up with our current drummer this year. February of this year.
Who's the current drummer? Jeff Barrera or Rachel Fuhrer? What happened with the first drummer?
Yeah, it's Rachel now. We were just ready to take it to the next level, and I don't know, when you're in a band everyone should have the same goals. Jeff was awesome. We really love him.
What did Ume have in mind as for the sound of the band? Who are some of the influences for the band?
We draw from a wide variety of influences. You know, Eric and I grew up listening to bands like Fugazi and Archers of Loaf. ... My parents' one psychedelic '60s record, you know, Deep Purple. ... Rachel, now, she's heavily into Sabbath and Zeppelin.
Have you guys played St. Louis before? What'd you think?
Yeah, we played the Firebird and Cicero's. It was awesome. It was a lot of fun. My parents recently moved to St. Louis so we spend some time there once in a while, and decided to play [LouFest].
You guys have been on the road lately. What do you all do to pass the time?
Oh, man. (Laughs) It's a lot of driving, like 8-10 hours today. We haven't been getting much sleep, so I'm trying to catch up on sleep in the van. I play a lot [of word games] on my phone. But it's a lot of driving and, you know, trying to stay focused on getting there on time.
What bands are you guys currently into? What are you listening to on the road?
We've been listening to a lot of Queens of the Stone Age this trip. We always kind of get sick of our MP3 players, so we just scan the classic rock radio stations. You know. (Laughs) Bon Jovi's always coming on. There's always a band that you hear like 10 times a day.
Is anyone of interest playing at LouFest?
Oh, absolutely. I'm thrilled to see Deerhunter again and TV on the Radio, the Roots. ... Cat Power, I'm pretty excited about. We were actually booked to open for her years ago and someone on her team said that Ume was, kind of, loud to be on the show. So we're really excited we actually get to play with her again. I love her voice and everything. She's great.
So you guys didn't end up playing on that bill with Cat Power?
No. No. We were pretty raw and rough around the edges at that time. I think the venue had booked us on a bill, but someone on her team management or something said "Ume's too loud!" or something. So we didn't get to play it.
I guess I'd take that as a compliment! That sounds pretty cool.
Yeah. To say you're too abrasive or too loud. ... I think that gets a star!
I've gotta say I love your guitar sound. Can I be geeky and ask what the setup is?
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, so live, I play four different vintage Fenders. I have a '70s Telecaster deluxe, a mid-'60s vintage Duo-Sonic II, a '70s Mustang and an American Strat. And I go through a Marshall JCM 900 with a full stack. Mesa Boogie cab. And a Marshall cab on the other side of the stage. And I play, always, through a POG pedal. I do a lot of intricate, single note riffs, I'm not doing much of power chords. ... And I do a couple delay pedals and reverb. That's about it.
Who are some guitarists that inspired you initially or continue to do so?
Oh yeah, there's so many. It's funny because when I really started playing I didn't really have a lot of influences. I stayed up all night with a tape of Nirvana, and taught myself "Aneurysm". (Laughs) I really like Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, Prince, Joan Jett and her punk style. Archers of Loaf's guitarist, they had that unique sound. I've got my own sound because I have real small hands, so I really had to come up with my own thing.
It sounds like you play a lot on the higher end of the neck.
I play the whole neck. I max out the fretboard, for sure. I try to utilize every fret on there.
What is the writing process like? How does one go about writing a riff-heavy yet vocally melodic song like "The Conductor"? Does it start with the riff or the vocal melody? Is it a solo or group thing?
We always write collaboratively. But that song is pretty funny. ... That real heavy riff at the beginning I actually wrote on an acoustic guitar. I was just dallying around and thought this is a pretty cool riff. I think I was thinking of this song by a heavy metal band from Boston. But when we write collaboratively ... we try to combine the two in the song. Let's get a really heavy element and then it's transformed by a really poppy part. And I think we really pulled it off on that song.
Ume has received quite a bit of praise from some big names, Dave Allen of Gang of Four, Joan Jett, and you've played with the Meat Puppets and Mission of Burma. What's that feel like? Humbling? Inspiring? Where you into these bands beforehand?
Yeah, we had a couple dates with Mission of Burma. They were great. It's a real honor to get to know these bands. And we've been fans for a while. And, you know, Dave Allen of Gang of Four, he caught us on a whim ... and he really believed in us. It's definitely humbling and it's just awesome to have supporters like that.
So Rolling Stone featured Ume and a number of other unsigned bands for a contest to make the cover of Rolling Stone. How was that experience? Is making the cover of RS important to you?
I mean that was never a ... I would like to be on the cover of Rolling Stone in an instance that we became a huge band and they just picked us. The whole concept was a little gimmicky for us, and that aspect was never really promoted. But it was a great honor. ... It was great exposure for us. And we really appreciated it.
You've been involved with the Girls Rock Camp, how did you get involved? What have you noticed about young musicians at the camp?
I had heard about it for a while, and it was in Austin, and I had moved there. I signed up right away. I was a guitar instructor there and a band coach. What it basically is is a way to empower girls through music. I know growing up, I had been playing in bands since I was 14 years old, but I didn't have a lot of female role models. Even now, at venues people think I'm the merch girl, or I'm the girlfriend of the band or they're surprised to see me onstage or they think it's going to be a folk band or something like that. I think Girls Rock is going to introduce a whole new generation of female musicians that I really think are going to shatter our expectations. One day, people won't be surprised to see a girl play guitar that really rocks out. That's been of my goals, you know. ... Girls Rock is also about helping these girls find a voice through music, like how I found my voice through music. It's a real honor to work with them.
Do you feel like you might sometimes face more difficulties as a woman? More than a male would?
All people face obstacles in the music industry. I just get a lot of frustrating comments, I'll just say. (Laughs) Like I've never seen a girl play that well. You just get strange comments. ... Some guy would not believe that I played, you know, he was like, "What does she play? Violin?" It's just stupid stereotypical expectations. I don't think I look like some big heavy rocker. I am who I am. But I like to fight people onstage with my playing.
You're a grad student, as a fellow grad student, I'm curious what you were pursuing? Did you have different ambitions?
With the band, we weren't doing much as I was in a Ph.D. program for philosophy. I always thought I could do both [Ume and school] and after I got my dissertation done with the Ph.D. program and just decided let me just do music full time. That was my passion. I did [school] for the teaching aspect, and I might go back to it one day.
So where do you stand with school now?
I've completed the masters and all but the dissertation on the PhD. It's taken a few years!
I've meant to read "The Republic." Do you have any other recommendations?
"The Republic" was the first philosophy book I read, so that's a good place to start.
Are you all finally situated in Austin?
Yeah, yeah. We all live in Austin.
Does living in Texas have an impact on your sound?
I think whenever we first started we were in Houston, that's where the band first started. And we shared a practice venue with a bunch of black metal bands. There's just this grimy, heavy element that I think influenced the edge in our sound and the heaviness. In Austin, there's such an eclectic scene of musicians it forces you to practice on your skill a bit.
How often do you all get together?
A couple times a week. We've been touring so much recently. With our new record, we had to get with our new drummer and hash out the new material. Things are a lot quicker with her.
Which drummer is on the new record?
I've heard theories on siblings playing in a band and creating one-of-a-kind sounds, like the Stooges and Kings of Leon. Would that theory hold over to husband and wife?
I don't know. Being in a band is like being married with someone anyway. We're all in a band together. 12 hours a day, sharing a room, you know, it's a real intimate connection. If the chemistry's there, it's definitely there.
I heard you've played on the same bill as the Wu-Tang. How was it?
Yeah. (Laughs) Yeah, it was awesome. It was for a Village Voice SXSW party. Wu-Tang and Yelawolf. It was a real eclectic bill. There were indie-rockers and then hip-hop artists. It was crazy, the crowd was really receptive to us. We sold a lot of merch. A lot of people that had never seen us before. And we got to hang backstage with the Wu-Tang crew. That was pretty fun.
Ume and Wu-Tang, that's got a nice ring to it. Would you ever be interested in collaborating with a hip-hop artist?
Oh, yeah. I'd do any kind of creative collaboration. That'd be fun.
You've got a new album "Phantoms" coming out August 30. How has the sound / process changed since 2009's "Sunshower" EP? Or since 2005's "Urgent Sea"?
["Urgent Sea"] was a real raw, early collection of demos. We were still finding our sound. Yeah, when we started off on that very first album, that was getting to do it the first time. We were doing real punk rock back then, real edgy improv there. And we didn't really know people were going to be into our music and be embracing it or that we'd go any further. It's just where we were at the time. Plus, the band didn't even live together at the time. We practiced maybe three times a year.
When "Sunshower" finally got recorded, we all lived in the same town and [we were] finally practicing. We were like, "Let's find our own sound. Let's try to develop who we really are." I tried to find my voice as a vocalist. I always thought of myself as on guitar not really a singer. So I was like let me try this. We were just coming into our own. "Phantoms," the new record, develops those melodies. We're going to keep the intensity, keep the raw garage-y elements, but we really want the songs to pop a little more, some more poppy elements, a little more melodic elements.
And this will be your third release, right? You all released "Urgent Sea" in 2005. Are there any other recordings out there?
There's some weird demos floating around out there, but that's it.
I heard that you had some major label interest where they wanted to change the sound a little? What happened there?
I think right after the EP we got bombarded by a lot of different labels and different management companies and whatnot. The whole thing was, get the single, get the single. I think a real quick contract to a label isn't the best for the band and the contractual elements are probably the most frustrating.
I've got one last question for you. Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin?
Probably Zeppelin. It depends on the mood though. Pink Floyd's probably been my favorite recently. I just saw Roger Waters perform.
Did he have the floating pigs?
Oh, man. He had the floating pigs. A teacher dropped from the sky. A plane crashed into the wall. It was the craziest show I'd ever seen.
Well, thanks for the interview, and best of luck on the tour and with the new album.
Ume performs at LouFest in Forest Park on Sunday, August 28.