Umm’s Stef Drootin: From DIY Punk to Touring with Kids
It’s a strange occurrence when within minutes of listening to a record, you know that it’s going to become a part of you, the kind of record that when you listen to it five or ten years down the line, it will transport you to the place where you were when you first heard it. It’s exactly what happened as soon as I heard “I’m In Love,” from Umm’s excellent new record, * (1),* out July 28. A loud feedback noise gives way to a jangly melody that quickly burrowed through my ears and my heart and made me feel like a teenager listening to the Breeders for the first time. I felt a simultaneous wave of nostalgia that made me think, *I can’t wait to grow up and do cool shit,* but also I *am* a grown-up now who *does* do cool shit. It was like being struck by happy lightning.
Umm (SUCH a great name!) is made up of Stefanie Drootin and her husband, Chris Senseney, who’ve played in a variety of bands previously but most recently were part of a trio called Big Harp. Now the two of them have created the perfect summer chill-out record, and if you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to listen to it just once. I talked to Stef over the phone about traveling with toddlers (they love Las Vegas!), being a musician for hire, and the DIY-punk scene.
**Laia Garcia:** So where are you calling from right now?
**Stefanie Drootin** : I’m at my house in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles.
**LG:** Did you grow up on the West Coast?
**SD:** I did. I grew up here in the Valley, and then I moved out to Omaha, Nebraska, in, like, 2001 or 2002.
**LG:** That’s like the opposite move most people do!
**SD:** Yeah, it’s so funny coming to LA from Nebraska, but I was playing in some bands that were out there. It was so cheap there, too, and that’s when I started making a living playing music, which was amazing. That became my job, with rent being so cheap and touring so often that I was able to do it there and I would not have here.
**LG:** So how did you first get into playing bass?
**SD:** I would say there’s two reasons I started playing bass. One was, my brother’s a year older than me, and he hung out with some friends that were a little older than him, and they started a band together. I thought the bass player, whose name was Dave –– he’s one of my best friends now –– was so cool. He loved this band fIREHOSE, so I listened to them and I loved them. Then I saw them play live, and I thought the way Mike Watt played bass and sang was so cool! He was just all over the place. I wanted to learn how to do that, too.
**LG:** So you’d been making music with your husband already as Big Harp. What made you decide that these songs needed to be a different project altogether?
**SD:** The thing about Chris and I is that I feel like music is really like an art project for us in ways. Like, we’ve expressed that form of art, and then repeating it wouldn’t be satisfying for us. It would be very hard for us to make the same record twice.
This is very different, to me and to Chris, than what Big Harp was. We were listening to a lot of Everly Brothers, and we were so drawn to the tight harmonies, and we wanted to use that. We wanted to both be singing together, constantly, and harmonizing. We also wanted to kind of take a simpler, more laid-back approach to the writing and the songs.
**LG:** What was the first song that you wrote?
**SD:** I think it was “Some Jungle.”
**LG:** Did you write it knowing that it would be a part of a new project?
**SD:** We spent a few solid years touring and working and dealing with the managers and label stuff. We were just burned and fried and honestly just got so negative a little bit after that. We never had that with music before. We were put into a whole new situation, and so we were like, let’s take some time off, because why do it if we’re feeling bad about it?
No joke, the day after we said that, I think we started working on that song. We took a little break. Umm was kind of born out of the break from the other band.
**LG:** You play with a drum machine now. Was that a conscious decision because you really wanted to keep it a personal project between the both of you?
**SD:** Yeah, we wanted it to just be us. We also wanted to be a duo, you know, to make traveling easier. When we traveled, we’d have to get so many hotel rooms because we’d have a drummer — who obviously doesn’t want to stay with us — plus whoever is watching the kids. So it was just crazy. We just thought, *How much would it ?*
**LG:** How old are your kids now? Do they still come on tour with you?
**SD:** One will be seven in July, and the other one will be nine at the end of September. They do it when they can. Now I don’t know if it’s going to start getting tricky during the school year. Our plan is, yes, to bring them, but who knows what’ll happen. But we’ve taken them to Europe and all the U.S. tours.
**LG:** I mean, besides the obvious, how does touring with kids change the experience?
**SD:** I would say … yeah, the obvious would be we drink less. We’re better behaved. We sightsee, which is awesome. I spent twenty years of my life touring, and every time somebody asks me about any of the places I’ve been, I’m like, “I don’t know.” I mean, I know the club and the restaurants right around the corner, but I never made time to check things out. With the kids, since they don’t get to go to the shows or anything like that –– they’re at the hotels during the show –– we like to make time to try to see something in the towns that we go to, which is really cool for us, too.
**LG:** You’ve also been on tour with other bands and musicians, which I think is a an experience that we don’t get to hear a lot about. How did you start doing that?
**SD:** So I was in a real DIY-punk phase when I was in high school. There was just this really, really amazing community. I think there was a thing called (2), and there were phone numbers for people across the country that you could call: They’d give you their address and you’d send them your tape that you recorded at home of your band. They’d set up shows for you and feed you and give you a place to stay.
One of the places that we went on that tour was Omaha, Nebraska, where my band, it was me and this other lady and a drummer, and we broke down in Nebraska. I actually broke down there, by the way, about five or six times before I moved there, which was probably a sign. But anyway, we broke down there and stayed at Robb Nansel’s house, who runs Saddle Creek records, and Conor Oberst just came there to hang out. We became really, really good friends with them. Then, I think in 2001, I got an email from Conor asking if I wanted to go to Europe. He sent me these songs, and I started listening and learning them by ear, because that’s the only way I had played back in these punk-rock bands that I was in. I went to practice, and they were yelling out chords. I was like, *Oh, I don’t really know what they’re talking about* , but I faked my way through.
**LG:** Were you able to work on your own stuff while you were on tour playing with other people?
**SD:** I did a bit. I was just talking to a friend about this the other day, because I recently got offered a tour, and I was really conflicted about it.
Honestly, one of the hardest parts for me going on tours with other people is you’re spending so much time on other people’s songs, and you’re kind of not in this place to be writing. You don’t get the same satisfaction. Or at least I don’t; a lot of people do. It’s hard to be away for long, extended periods of time and have to put your stuff on the back burner. I still like doing it, but now I know that I definitely need to keep time aside for my own stuff. That’s important to me.
*This interview has been condensed and edited.*
*Laia Garcia is the deputy editor at Lenny.*