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.