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Plugged In: Ume


Photo by Sandy Carson 

Plugged In: Ume

March 7, 2011 – Chrissy Mauck

When their touring van broke down two weeks ago in the desert on I-10 outside Los Angeles, noise-rock trio Ume dialed AAA for a tow, transferred their gear to a minivan and kept on rolling.

“We had just gotten a lot of work done on the van and now it’s got a bad oil pump,” says singer/guitarist Lauren Larson in an accent that strangely hints of lands faraway, even though she grew up in West Columbia, Texas. “I guess the van debt is just piling on.”

Such is the life of an unsigned band.

 

I’ve got a huge collection of Fender guitars,” says Larson. “Those are my babies. If my husband is ever getting me anything for a gift, it’s always a guitar or an amp or a guitar pedal. I have a ’57 Fender Duo Sonic; a ’70s Mustang and a ’70s Tele Deluxe that I really love. My first guitar was a Fender American Strat and then a Fender Acoustic.”

Her Favorite Guitar Part to Cover: 

“This changes all of the time. Recently I’ve been on a big Zeppelin kick and trying to learn all of Jimmy Page’s parts. I just got down ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ on guitar, so that’s been a lot of fun to play recently.”


Photo by Bill Ellison. 

Fortunately, Ume (pronounced ooo-may) just received a leg up from Rolling Stone’s “Do You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star” contest. The editors chose the Austin-based trio — featuring husband-and-wife duo Lauren and Eric Larson and brand-new drummer Rachel Fuhrer — as one of 16 unsigned acts that will compete for a chance to appear on the magazine’s August 2011 cover and receive an Atlantic Records recording contract.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for us because we’ve been a working band for many years now and (are) still very do-it-yourself,” offers the Ume frontwoman during an interview phoned in from a gas station somewhere between San Francisco and Santa Barbara called the Garlic Farm, where the band was momentarily parked. “Being in a contest isn’t something we’ve ever done, and it’s been great to see the way the community and our fans have gotten behind us. It’s created a lot of exposure for us. To hear Jimmy Fallon scream Ume on television was a lot of fun, and we’re featured inside Rolling Stone magazine right now. It’s the one with Justin Bieber on the cover, and although I wish it was a rock band instead, it’s still very surreal and we are really honored.”

What hooked RS editors was actually an unmixed version of a new Ume CD; their first since 2009 EP Sunshower.

“We’ve completed a new album and we’ve got a few offers on the table that we are exploring right now,” says Larson. “So our manager has been handing it out to a few people, and Rolling Stone got it and really liked it. It’s definitely a step up from our EP, and we worked really hard on it. There are some different elements; not only am I playing guitar but there’s also keyboard elements that I’m bringing in. There are also more vocal harmonies.”

In the meantime, Larson recommends Sunshower’s “The Conductor” as the best Ume introductory track.

“Even though it’s the oldest song on that EP, it showcases the heaviness of our band, and also some of the poppy elements we like to bring into our music,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun to play live because it goes from a real poppy-straight-edge thing to a shredding metal-type riff here and there.”

And boy does Larson ever like to riff. Ume concertgoers are constantly surprised that someone of her petite stature can flat out shred.

“I’m still playing shows where people assume I’m the merch girl,” she shares. “I get up there and perform and then I’ll still have people ask if the guitar parts were pre-recorded. So my dream is that a woman can get onstage and play and that no one will be surprised by the fact she is shredding.”

Larson began acquiring her guitar chops at age 12.

“I was always going around imitating Axl Rose and trying to copy Prince routines as a kid, but finally I decided to try my brother’s guitar one day,” she recalls. “So I started trying to play Nirvana’s ‘Come as You Are’ and I ended up staying up all night with a little tape player and practicing that song so that I could show my brother what I could do. From then on, I was addicted and I’ve never stopped playing.”

Guitar did take the backseat for a few years while Larson worked on a Ph.D. in philosophy at Penn State.

“I taught ethics courses and was writing all these papers, but then I’d find myself running down to the basement to pick up my guitar,” says Larson, who completed all course requirements except her dissertation. “I thought I could do everything and could have both academics and music, but it really got to a point where I felt that my voice was best expressed through my band and my guitar and making music. It was a hard choice, but I felt that my music was more rewarding.”

Band name “Ume” was chosen by a friend who liked umeboshi, a Japanese pickled ume fruit dish. “Ume” is usually translated as “plum blossom.”

Photo by Sandy Carson. 

With more time on her hands, Larson played guitar so much that she developed a severe case of tendinitis and was told she’d have to shelve the instrument for at least six months.

“I was having this shooting pain down my arm and I couldn’t even turn my arm so that my palm was face up,” she says. “I still deal with it, but I started doing yoga; I stretch a lot and I don’t wear my guitar as low any more.”

Larson’s playing arm has been in a sling for several weeks after she fell on ice after an event back home in Austin featuring ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. But the injury hasn’t slowed her.

“Fortunately, it’s stuck in the guitar strumming position,” she laughs. “So I can still play.”

It was Laura’s chops that first drew the attention of her husband/bassist. She was 15 at the time and performing in a punk/grindcore band called 12 Blades.

“He actually saw me play my first-ever show at this local community center, and I guess he said, ‘If I ever see that guitar player again I’m going to go talk to her,’” shares Larson. “So he saw me three months later at a skate park where we played and came up and asked for my number. It’s funny because I was such a young girl then, and super-self-conscious. We were a super-heavy kind of political punk rock band, but I would keep my back to the audience and my head down. It was very different than how I perform now.”

She still likes to bring the heavy, though. In fact, Ume was once booted off a bill with Cat Power because they were deemed too heavy for the minimalist performer.

“I was going to grad school in Pennsylvania when we got offered the chance to open for her at this club outside of Philly,” she recalls. “I’m a huge Cat Power fan, so we even bought a ticket to fly up our drummer at the time. Her management came back and said we were too heavy to be on the bill, and I was like, ‘Wait, we can tone it down!’ Even though she’s more stripped-down than us, she’s still got such a raw power to her music, which is what we try to do.”

“Raw and unadulterated power” is how Larson sums up Ume’s sound, which she says they’ve developed from a wide range of influences.

“We draw from the whole gamut of music — anything from Black Sabbath to Blonde Redhead to a lot of punk rock bands like Fugazi to Fleetwood Mac and contemporary indie rock stuff,” she says. “I think our inspiration would probably surprise a lot of people, but we try to put our own spin on it and make music that is intense and heavy and passionate.” 

Their alternate tunings and distortion jams, plus the whole marriage thing, often invite comparisons to Sonic Youth. Interestingly, Thurston Moore once showed up to see them play at a South by Southwest festival appearance, but Ume had to cancel because an ailing Larson had lost her voice, leaving Moore to write on his blog, “Ume, who I never got to see.” 

Thanks to the buzz created by the Rolling Stone contest and the imminent 2011 South by Southwest festival, we think we’re safe in predicting that people will be seeing a lot more of Ume. 

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