Austin-based by way of Houston (with a short stop in Pennsylvania for a PhD), post-punk/rock trio UME have been picking up legions of fans with their loud and intense live shows (read the concert review from The Satellite here). Their EP Sunshower landed them on virtually every music critic’s “band to watch” list and their first full-length album, Phantoms, is already being lauded as one of the best albums of the year. Before their show at Silverlake’s indie-rock shrine, The Satellite, lead singer and guitarist Lauren Larson took some time out to talk about learning her ridiculous guitar skills, championing gender equality in rock, eating rooster testicles with Anthony Bourdain, and how she is not ashamed to belt out some bars of Barbra Streisand.
Weeping Elvis: How do you pronounce UME? Is it Oooh-May?
Lauren Larson: That’s correct. It’s a Japanese word for plum blossom, but it’s also a symbol of perseverance and hope.
You guys have been together for a long time. How did you guys meet? And then from there, when did you decide to form the band?
I started playing music when I was 14 years old. I played in a punk rock, grindcore influenced thrash band called Twelve Blades in the small, hick town of West Columbia, Texas with some older guys. I got introduced to a DIY, youth-run, punk music community. At one of our first shows, my band was playing at a skateboard park, and Eric came up and talked to me. He had been at our first Twelve Blades show and said “If I ever see that girl again, I’m going to talk to her.” He was the first guy to ever ask for my number and we’ve been together ever since. We started playing music together in high school. We lived 80 miles apart. It was kind of a long-distance relationship. It wasn’t until years later that we decided to form UME after going to an Unwound concert. But, right after we formed the band, I moved away to graduate school for philosophy, so there is kind of this whole, kind of black hole in our history for a while. For us, it’s kind of been a real new beginning in the last year and once we got our new drummer, Rachel, that’s when things really have, kind of come together for us.
You said you started playing music when you were 14. What originally got you into picking up the guitar and playing?
Even as a very young child, I was into music. My mom said even when I was in utero I was kicking to the beat at the Bruce Springsteen concert. It probably started with me as a young girl imitating Axl Rose and doing routines to Prince. I played piano and oboe and then moved on to guitar when I was around 12 years old and I picked up my brother’s guitar and next thing you know I was picking out a Nirvana song. I thought well this is easier than I anticipated. My hands were too small at the time to do the power chord so it really forced me to throw away any type of guitar manuals and learn my own style and my own tunings. I begged my parents for a guitar and amp and then just started turning it up. I told some friends of mine that I played guitar and next thing you know, I was in a band.
So by your hands not being big enough and learning your own style and tunings, does that make your guitar playing more intuitive than traditional?
I like that you used that word, ‘intuitive,’ because for me, guitar playing initially was very intuitive, very instinctual. Most of the best riffs that I come up with just kind of happen. I know a lot of alternate tunings, then and now. I’ve been forced, you know, as I developed as a guitar player to learn the more traditional chords and structures, especially since I teach guitar at Girls Rock Camp now, but there are no rules with guitar.
Yeah, rules and music are two words that just shouldn’t go together.
Absolutely, I find a lot of freedom with the guitar, empowerment. I really just try to bring a physicality and a passion to my playing. It’s unique I hope.
What got you into Girls Rock Camp?
I’ve been a band coach and guitar instructor with them for a few years. It’s a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering girls through music. Many of them have never even touched an instrument before, and with other girls, they write a song and perform it in front of hundreds of people at a showcase. For me it’s a chance to be able to teach girls so that one day when a woman is loading in her gear, people aren’t going to say, ‘The merch table’s over there.’ That still happens to me now. People don’t even anticipate that I’m in the band and I think organizations like Girls Rock Camp are really paving the way for women to be able to get on stage and people won’t be surprised to see her there.
When you’re loading in and people are telling you where the merch table is, how frustrating is that? Do you just answer with your guitar? What do you do?
It happened when I was 15, it’s happening now, years later. It’s surprising because you feel like we should be beyond that, especially in a progressive music community but, literally, one of the last tours, we were in Pomona and I was bringing in my guitars and the door guy wasn’t going to let me in. I said I needed to load in and he said, ‘No, that band already loaded in all their gear.’ Well not my guitars! That’s definitely frustrating when people think that I’m the dancer in the band, to being in guitar shops and people saying, ‘There are a lot of pretty colors in here.’ and not even wanting to give me a guitar off the wall. My dream is just to be one of the women to help redefine the traditional rock paradigm and that one day we can be respected as musicians, as guitarists, not as an anomaly and not as anything to be surprised about.
What is UME most influenced by?
Our sound stands as a Black Sabbath to Blonde Redhead. Especially with our new drummer, she can really bring this heavy, Bonham rhythmic intensity to our sound. I think it’s really helping bring out some of the heavier guitar riffs that I try to bring. Eric and I grew up in this kind of punk rock community so bands like Fugazi and seeing At The Drive In! play with two people in the audience. Seeing bands putting themselves completely into their live show, I think has really been a big influence on us personally, holding nothing back. But as far as influences it ranges from everything from Deep Purple to The Descendants.
Did you say when you were young you used to imitate Axl Rose, Nirvana, and Prince?
Yes, well, when I was very young, I was always doing routines, imitating Axl Rose, playing “November Rain” on the piano then jumping off. My friend actually had the long, brown, curly hair so she had the tennis racquet and she would do Slash. It would take me several years before I could imitate him. Nirvana was the first band I ever learned on guitar. I stayed up all night with a tape of Insesticide and picked out “Aneurysm” to show my brother. Prince is one of my all-time favorite guitar players. I think he has the best moves. I saw that recent video of him doing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and he throws the guitar, someone has to catch it, it was awesome. But he had to get a hip replacement so I think some of his moves might be too intense. One of my favorite guitar solos is “Purple Rain,” for sure.
How has living in Austin influenced the band? Would you guys ever move? What was it like leaving Texas to move to the frozen tundra of Pennsylvania for your PhD?
I don’t think we’re leaving Austin anytime soon. From everything, the food, the eclectic music scene, the heat which I love, the swimming holes, it’s definitely a place we identify with and it’s definitely home for us. It’s a type of city where every night there’s shows happening downtown. Even though Austin is changing, the legendary Emo’s recently shut down on 6th St. so that’s sort of re-shaping that side of town but then people are picking it up now further on the east side of town. The music community is still very vibrant here and growing. For me that time in Pennsylvania was desolate, devoid of music. We were in the frat capital of the world and we got out of there as fast as we could.
What’s the songwriting process like? Is it collaborative?
It’s always been collaborative. Each person writes her or his own part but we write very much as a band. One of us might come in with a riff or what not, but we really try to have that organic natural sound that happens when three people get together and bang it out.
What was the recording process like for this latest album?
Several studios, several dollars, several things breaking. For a while we even thought, “Is this place haunted? Is this album even supposed to come out?” But it all came together in the end. We started out at The Bubble in Austin which is a great little studio. We recorded vocals in a broom closet, did some other tracks in people’s houses. It all kind of got brought together at a studio called The Blasting Room in Fort Collins. It’s the studio run by Bill Stevenson, the drummer for Black Flag and The Descendents. It really helped the cohesiveness of it. We tried a lot with the record, orchestral layers, a lot of vocal harmonies, just tried to have this kind of beautiful lushness that is a little different to our sound. Live, we’re a three-piece so it’s a much more, primal, visceral, raw experience, but the album hopefully highlights some more melodic textures and delicacy to the sound.
What is your favorite song off of the album? Favorite one to write? Favorite one to record? Favorite song to play live?
I don’t know if I have a favorite song off the record. I think that changes at different times. There’s a track on there called “Hurricane” and that was actually a very old UME song that had been demo-ed a couple times before. We did that one last. That’s a pretty emotional song for me. I enjoy playing that one live a lot. Also just started recently doing “The Task” live, which is the first acoustic song we ever did. That’s fun because it’s so different. You have to sit in a chair for that one, so I’m not thrashing around.
You guys have toured a ton, especially in the last year. Do you have any favorite touring moment?
We had a great time, last summer, we played this festival, LouFest, in St. Louis. I guess, one kind of interesting story with that is that we got to play with Cat Power and TV on the Radio. That was kind of momentous for us because years earlier when we were very raw and rough, we got kicked off of a Cat Power show for being too abrasive. Her management kicked us off before we ever got to play. I’ve been a big fan of Charlyn for years so it was pretty cool to now be able to share a stage with her. This past South by (Southwest), we were playing one of our songs and someone screamed, “Anthony Bourdain!” He was in the audience and there were a bunch of his cameras filming our set and afterwards we got to go to dinner with him. That was a very cool moment in our live show.
So you ate bull testicles with Anthony Bourdain after your set or something like that?
Oh you really did? You did eat chicken balls?
I told my mom that. She goes, “Well chickens don’t have balls.” So, rooster testicles, shrimp heads, and I don’t even remember leaving that night. We had a good party. It’s going to be airing in September on (Bourdain’s show) “No Reservations.”
So you guys are gearing up for your one day trek from Austin to Los Angeles.
We stop in Phoenix so it won’t be too bad.
You guys have had troubles with tour vans breaking down in the past, how is this one holding up?
Many thousands of dollars of debt later, I think this van is running. It should be able to hold up. Even if we break down, we don’t give up. Many times we’ve had to jump in a rental van, drive literally a hundred miles an hour, pull up to the back of the stage, jump out with my dress still tucked into my underwear, and get up on stage and play. Despite blowing head gaskets in the Mojave Desert and stopping on the I-10, we keep going.
A band dynamic is something in itself. What’s it like being in a band with your husband? Is there any separation?
I consider ourselves very fortunate. We met around music and our relationship has always been rooted around that. I think being in a band with anyone is kind of like a marriage. There’s going to be the same issues. It’s three people in a cramped van with each other 24/7. The issues are obvious but the shared experiences and the just, being able to make music with someone you love is something I’m grateful for. Even if you try to neatly categorize your life, you can’t. For me, making music, there’s no formula we’re following. It’s very intimate and personal to me and it’s a very passionate experience for me. Of course those emotions in the creative process are going to bleed into other aspects of your life.
What’s been your favorite place to play so far?
We had a really fun time, we really love the city of New Orleans. Last summer we got to play at the legendary Tipitina’s Bar, which has hosted so many of the rock and blues legends. That was a really cool stage to get to play on, especially with all the work they’ve done in that area post-Katrina. Of course, we love the major cities like New York and LA and Chicago and Toronto. We had a surprisingly fun time in Hot Springs, Arkansas. I’ve never seen so many girls stage dive and headbang and just completely thrash out to our songs. They really appreciated a band like us coming through. People still stage dive up there, which is really fun to see.
What’s a dream place that you still have yet to play?
I would love to get in to some of those major festivals up there, like Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza. While we enjoy, you know, playing in the basements and even if we’re playing to five people we’re going to do the same thing, having a big stage and room to move around is a lot of fun. Europe’s also a dream of ours. We did just recently wrap up a record deal there. Looks like we’re going to be going over there for the first time this fall. That’ll be a dream come true.
What are the things that you want people to get out of your shows?
One thing we get a lot of people saying is that they haven’t seen band that passionate on stage in years. For people to get that emotional connection with the performance and seeing three individuals up there that are putting themselves completely into the moment and holding nothing back, I hope is inspiring for people. I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, “I want to pick up my guitar now. I haven’t touched it in years,” or “You’ve really inspired me to use my voice or express myself.” To me, that’s a real honor. I think when we take the stage, people don’t expect what is about to follow. I’ve been told they expected us to be a folk-y type band or light rock or something like that. We like to shatter their expectations and surprise people.
What would be your dream bill to play on?
Queens of the Stone Age, Pink Floyd reunion with David Gilmour and Roger Waters, actually maybe not because nobody would care at all if UME were opening for them so that probably would not be the best (laughs).
You wouldn’t be opening for them. It’s a shared bill.
Maybe playing guitar alongside Gilmour, that would be awesome. I don’t know, Bjork and Black Sabbath? A very eclectic show (laughs).
What is your big, guilty pleasure song?
I really wouldn’t call it a guilty pleasure. I don’t feel guilty about it. Ever since I was 5 years old, I’ve really loved Barbra Streisand’s “Woman in Love.” I heard that the other day at a bar and I just started singing it out loud.
Check out UME’s Facebook Page for upcoming tour dates.