Ummagma have rather caught our fancy over here at Echoes and Dust with their beautiful blend of Shoegaze and Dream Pop harking back to the glory days of 4AD. To find out a bit more about them we asked singer Shanua McLarnon to tell us more of their story
(((o))): So, first and foremost, who are Ummagma and what are your musical backgrounds?
Ummagma is the two of us – Alexander (Alexx) Kretov and Shauna McLarnon – he’s from Ukraine and I’m from Canada. We are currently based in Ukraine, where we have our studio. Alexx plays everything (that I can think of), except for the sax and he still wants to do that. My voice is my only instrument, but that’s fun to play with too. We both had our own musical interests before meeting – I was composing with some musicians that you would only ever know of if you lived in Russia or even Moscow specifically. That’s where we were living when we met. Alexx was doing solo work – mainly on guitar but also experimenting with different instruments and such. Our runway, so to speak, only clearly emerged upon hooking up with one another.
(((o))): You are a couple in real life, how did you meet & what came first the couple or the music?
They actually developed simultaneously – we met at the concert of Ivan Smirnov, who enjoys iconic status as one of Russia’s best-ever guitarists. We were both hanging out with the band after the concert, flirting and chatting away about music. We talked all night and missed the metro closing, which presented the perfect opportunity to invite him back to my place and show him the music I had been recording with other projects. Ha ha – what an opportunist I am… anyways, the next day he invited me to his place and we jammed and wow, that is when we actually floored each other. It was apparent from then on that we had good reason to hang out with each other beyond romantic concerns... and so we did. Nearly a decade has passed and we’re still hanging out with each other, albeit as a married couple with a daughter :)
(((o))): Please describe your sound in the form of an haiku?
Ears reap waves of light
Resonate the love
Feel it within you
(((o))): Do you think your local music scene has had any impact on Ummagma as a band? You're based in Ukraine now, has that had an impact on the music you make?
Yes, the good old local music scene – despite the fact that there are a lot of good musicians about, the local scene leaves much to be desired. Performing live on a regular basis in this part of the world is a sure way to go into debt or starve, so that is a huge challenge for most bands and their talent often goes to waste. There also isn’t a strongly developed tradition or adequate venues for live performances here, so I think the biggest influence that living here had on us was that it encouraged us to invest in our own recording studio and to experiment there to find our own unique sound rather than putting our efforts into gigging and touring. This has given us the opportunity to be meticulous about what we produce and what we ultimately release and to do this all independently.
(((o))): You released two separate, and very different, albums at the same time. What was the thinking behind how that came about & were you not worried that might dilute your message?
Putting out 2 albums happened because it was time to lay down our cards. We had been holding those cards for 8 years – some songs for longer, some for less time. But we had been composing and recording material for that many years by the time we finally decided to stop hoarding it, so to speak. It was time to share it with the world. We first decided to release one album, but when it came to narrowing down our material, we ended up with about 30 songs and still had to narrow down from there. We decided on two separate albums, each with its own separate concept, which actually coincided with the specific time period the music for each album was written. Antigravity is much calmer and more melancholic than the more upbeat Ummagma, but it is mainly (not completely) material that was written in the last few years, while Ummagma was our wilder period of pre-baby and pre-immigration days (we immigrated from Ukraine to Canada and back again in that time and our daughter was also born). So it all just made sense to divide the albums up like that – they represent different stages in our own personal and musical development, though there are a few tracks on each album that are not from those specific chronological periods. Each album has its own personality and neither one is weaker than the other. In that sense, I think that our message is not diluted at all, but rather strengthened. Having said that, many people are interested in a passing fancy, a quick in an out, so to speak, with their music – they will likely not discover our music. Our music is something to savour like a good caramel sweet – you can suck on it and savour the taste for a very long time as it melts in your mouth.
(((o))): What do you think is the most difficult challenge facing new bands starting out in the industry today?
Well, to be honest, I think that what is the biggest challenge to some bands may not be the biggest challenge for others. For instance, a distinction can be made between performing bands and non-performing bands – for performing bands, the challenges are often about getting decently paid gigs, though they do have opportunities at a live set to sell products (i.e. T-shirts, CDs, vinyl) at their gigs. For non-performing bands, anything about gigs is not an issue – rather it is about getting your music heard through alternative means and trying to ‘push product’ based on that alone. That is a much tougher sell. The challenges differ, but it all boils down to who will listen to your music and the opportunities this creates for you in terms of payback (for all you’ve invested in this musical venture). Non-performing artists, I think, face an even greater challenge because of the inability to connect with fans face to face, to catch them on a high when selling your products at gigs, and capturing the interest of music industry professionals, labels, etc.
(((o))): Every band has different aims, and sadly very few decent ones get proper fame and recognition. What would have to happen for you to feel like you have ‘made it’ as a band?
Oh, I don’t know about that. Likely once you feel you’ve ‘made it’, the game is already over. You likely stop exploring at that point. It seems like we are more interested in the journey than reaching some imagined destination. I do think, however, that it would be great to one day actually make a living (or at least nicely supplement our living) based on our music. Soundtracks, commercials, etc. – I’m not opposed to any of that, because I can tell you that, of the few hundred musicians I know, nobody actually has their head above the water as a result of their music.
If I look at what we could do with our music apart from delivering it to individual listeners, I would hope to eventually see it end up beautifying some film or, yes, even some TV show or commercial. If you are surprised by the fact that I haven’t answered something like “we want to change or positively affect the lives of people who listen to our music”, don’t be – we are already doing that. That recognition is already there. The difference will only be in numerical terms – i.e. whether our music will be touching a thousand or a million hearts.
(((o))): Ummagma is an interesting name without an obvious source (to us), how did you decide on that & do you get annoyed with people calling you Ummagumma?
Actually, the answer is right there in the question. Ummagma was derived from the word Ummagumma. We are Pink Floyd fans, mind you Alexx is a much bigger Pink Floyd fan than I am and basically is responsible for properly introducing me to their music beyond “Learning to Fly”. We don’t get annoyed when people mix up the names. The fact that they know the latter name at all indicates that they are familiar (and maybe even love) Pink Floyd and that indicates that this is a person who may also appreciate the soundscape concept found in much of Ummagma’s music.
(((o))): We have another column called Echoes of the Past in which we get people to talk about albums that strongly influenced their musical outlook. If you had to pick a single album that strongly influenced the music of Ummagma then what would it be and why?
It wouldn’t be an album at all. It would be one or more mixtape created by my friend Jennifer back in university (back when mixtapes were still on cassettes). They were packed with all kinds of 4AD and Beggars Banquet loveliness – Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, Dead Can Dance, among others. But speaking about individual albums affecting us, I can only speak for myself. It would likely be a tie between David Sylvian “Secrets of the Beehive” and Cocteau Twins “Four-Calendar Café”. As for Alexx, I really don’t know, but it would likely be a bouquet with Pink Floyd, Cocteau Twins, Joe Satriani, Tortoise and Slowdive (but I’m just guessing); hence the fusion we’ve got today.
(((o))): This is ostensibly a column for introducing new bands. Who do you think we ought to include in it in the near future?
Oh, we are really into several bands that are definitely worth exploring. Her Vanished Grace is an awesome band from New York and they produce rather blissful dreampop (band member Charlie has also written a bunch of songs for Debbie Harry in the past, but that’s another story). Jane Woodman is from San Francisco and she’s an incredible one-woman DIY gotham-style dreamgaze machine and besides, she’s got an album coming out within the next month. Presents for Sally are Bristol’s own indie dream vendors. I really like A*Star, who are based out of Chicago, and although the latest focus has been on their vinyl releases, they have a bunch of singles on their Bandcamp that are really great too. Brazil has some pretty hot acts – Robsongs is Robson Gomes’ solo act and I’d sum it up as psychedelic trip post-punk gazing – yes, that simple! Ha! He’s been releasing and EP every month through The Blog That Celebrates Itself and I love this sound. The same goes for Bela Infanta (also from Brazil). They are awesome and often referred to as Cocteau Twins’ Brazilian children. That is totally true, but with male vocals. Sounds of Sputnik, Aerofall and Everything is Made in China are likely the three most interesting musical projects coming out of Russia these days, and Nameless (UA, Ternopil) is one of the most interesting projects (for me) in Ukraine. Plastic Animals from Scotland and Selenian from France are two other bands worth keeping your eye on.
(((o))): Finally, what are Ummagma’s plans for the near future?
Well, we’ll be presenting some new releases this year, including extended physical LP releases of our 2 debut albums with a few extra tracks on each album. This should happen this summer. We are also organising an Ummagma remix competition, and, so far, it looks like it will involve roughly 80 partners (mainly blogs, magazines, radio stations, DJ collectives, record labels) from 24 countries. We also plan to release an EP later on this year and we are writing and recording material for that, but we’re also currently working on several other things: a remix for Brazil’s Robsongs and a joint EP with Moscow’s Sounds of Sputnik. The latter has a really nice mixture of powerpop, post-rock, shoegaze and indie rock, which fits really nice with Ummagma’s style so we can’t wait to present that to the world. One friend, who’s already had a quick preview of some of the tracks, thinks it sounds like the brighter side of Mogwai and Airiel in bed with Ummagma. You may also enjoy it, but you’ll have to wait a bit until the release so you can hear it for yourself.