Artists We <3: Upset's Lauren Freeman

There’s a strange duality to fandom. Bands feel untouchably, unapproachably cool; yet at the same time, an artist’s music speaks to their fans. It’s because of those perceived shared experiences that we feel understood by our favorite musicians, as though these strangers were friends from long ago.

The first time I saw Lauren Freeman perform was at The Beat Kitchen, a small venue in Chicago, in April 2015. I was already a fan of Lauren’s previous project and had been listening to their current band, Upset, on daily repeat. Something about the music made me feel understood, accepted, a little less lonely during a difficult time. At that point I was still too anxious and insecure to talk to the bands I liked after they’d finished a show, so I sheepishly bought something from the merch table and made my way home without saying a word to the band. Three months later I moved across the country into a midsize apartment building in Los Angeles, only to learn a month later that Lauren Freeman was my neighbor in that building. Their apartment was decorated with crystals, chunks of smooth driftwood, an “evil eye” pendant, and a record collection that closely matched my own.

On stage, Lauren Freeman is a commanding presence. Watching from the audience, one has the impression that Lauren exists fully in the moment behind the mic, carrying the tempo of each song with a whole-body sway and a passionate, syncopated strum across the six strings of their electric guitar - which is why, no matter the venue or the various conversations being held during intermission, all eyes and ears are immediately drawn towards the stage once Lauren’s band begins. I was intimidated to meet Lauren, fearing I’d say all the wrong things and come across as an anxious dork. When we met in person, though, I was immediately struck by Lauren’s calming demeanor, which quickly put my anxiety to rest. Lauren has, from our first meeting, always been approachable and personable, the kind of friend you want to sit and have a beer with while talking about life and music - which is exactly what we’ve done on many occasions since we met as neighbors three years ago.

Lauren’s early work with self-described “pot punk” band Benny The Jet Rodriguez combined beachy, Southern California surf vibes with a steady, driving rhythm that makes you want to floor the gas pedal on a winding stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. If Benny The Jet Rodriguez helped Lauren build a reputation within the Southern California DIY scene, Lauren’s current band, Upset, has extended that musical reputation to an ever-widening audience. Since forming in 2013, Upset have put out one LP, She’s Gone, and one 10-inch vinyl/cassette release, 76. Their next LP is currently in the works for a late-summer release.

Upset is widely seen as a supergroup within most pop-punk circles. Lauren plays guitar with singer/guitarist Ali Koehler (formerly of Vivian Girls and Best Coast), bassist Nicole Snyder (of LA-based band Slutever), and Patty Schemel (drummer for Courtney Love’s band Hole). Over the span of just five years, Upset has gone from playing dive bars and small local venues to sharing the stage with bands that they grew up idolizing. Last year they played at Riot Fest; earlier this year they shared the stage at the Hollywood Palladium with punk/indie rock icons Jawbreaker and Waxahatchee.

Though currently in the process of packing and preparing to move across the globe, Lauren took some time to chat with me about what music and fandom mean to them as well as how communities are built.

Brian: You grew up in Southern California but have lived in other parts of the country as well. Do you feel as though you were more influenced by your environment (culturally and geographically) here where you grew up, or have you found more influence in the places you’ve moved to?

Lauren: I think emotionally I’ve been influenced by living in different places, such as being 19 and moving to Brooklyn impulsively. That time made for a lot of heartache and great song inspiration. But, musically the bands that have made Southern California, Los Angeles, and the beach towns specifically drive my songs. The vibe and natural sounds that come from living within close proximity to the beach and the city specifically fill my music.

As a musician who’s lived in both LA and NY, how would you characterize the DIY scene in both cities? What are the biggest differences and how did you navigate the cultural shift of moving from West Coast to East Coast and back?

Ha. The New York DIY scene was daunting. I moved to Brooklyn with my Fender Telecaster and some basic recording equipment in hopes that I’d meet some people and start a band. But, the scene felt very exclusive, I was so young and quickly defeated. So I stuck to writing songs for myself in my bedroom. I’d go to shows in artists’ lofts and DIY venues like Death By Audio, get all inspired and then go home and write. I never worked up the nerve to talk to folks though and ask them to start a band. Practice spaces were expensive and hard to come by. Besides that biggest fact that everyone felt too cool to approach.

Los Angeles DIY scene on the other hand, around 2012 when I moved back, was at an all time high. Everyone played in each other’s bands or helped their friends out, whether it was with a free recording or booking the band’s first gig. I moved home and landed in San Pedro. A small seedy beach town with a lot of heart for punk music. A town with the true ethos for “Do It Yourself” or with the help of friends. Don’t get me wrong, it had some downsides that come with everything, drugs easily available, and a few unsupportive misogynists. Overall though, I looked past the haters and got a lot of love and support from that town and the people in the scene there. Specifically, Todd Congelliere and the Recess Records Family. They didn’t know me and welcomed me with open arms. After playing one show by myself at the local bar Harold’s Place, Todd came up to me and offered to record my songs that I had been holding onto.

As Upset’s following has grown, you’re now playing with, touring with, and building friendships with musicians that have inspired you for a long time. Has that changed your relationship with music, having to differentiate between being a fan and being a professional peer? The old adage “Never meet your heroes” comes to mind.

Just joining Upset in general, I felt that from the beginning. I had grown up watching Patty Schemel play drums on MTV. And I was a huge fan of Ali Koehler’s when she played in Vivian Girls, I had seen them play when I was still living in Brooklyn. So I was nervous and thought I had to be at the top of my game amongst two women that inspired me in the first place. The longer I've played with them and the amazing opportunities we’ve had to play with bands that have influenced me such as The Muffs, Jawbreaker, That Dog, Polaris etc. All my “heroes” so to speak have actually been very cool to meet and quite humbling to realize how normal they are. I always tried to play it cool though and would almost act like I had no idea who they were. I think it worked.

Your first band, Benny the Jet Rodriguez, was founded in 2012. What’s changed for you in the ensuing years, and do you feel that your current music reflects those changes?

Benny The Jet was a great stepping stone for me to get my feet wet and build my confidence as a front person and songwriter. I always hated being the person everyone looked to, and crowd interaction - I still don’t do much banter and pass the job off to someone else. The thing with BTJR is that I had very low self-confidence going into it, and I felt more comfortable with myself overall as time went on. I was touring, mostly playing exclusively with other women, non-binary and trans musicians, and it felt very reassuring to have that community that I could connect with. From BTJR, it’s made my current music a lot more thoughtful; there’s no rush to finish a song or settle on something I don’t necessarily like in my songs.

Does your earlier work still resonate with you on a personal level?

My earlier work lyrically still resonates with me at times. If I’m feeling a certain way I’ll listen to an old song to remind myself how bad it used to be and how it’s only gotten better. Or listen to a song where I maybe made up some lines that at the time didn’t personally apply. And going back I’ve felt like I predicted the future through my lyrics or something. Ha. I write all my songs for me, when I create a song it’s to fulfill an emotional void or get something off my chest. So they will always resonate with me on some level.

What was the impetus for starting Upset?

Ali and Patty started Upset via Twitter going back and forth saying they should start a band together. I joined the band replacing their lead guitarist. Since I’ve joined, we’ve had several bassists. But, the lineup now and on this new record we just finished recording feels like it’s a completely different band from when I first joined Upset a few years ago.

What does the band’s name mean to you?

I didn’t really think about the band’s name when I first joined. I liked that it was one word, very punk. Today...I think what the band’s name represents for me is the underdog, specifically women/NB/trans people in the music industry and any other field for that matter that are just unhappy with being treated a certain way. How we aren’t gonna fucking stand for it anymore and something needs to change, the system needs to change.

How did you, Ali, Patty, and Nicole know each other?

Ali and Patty met on Twitter. They knew the same groups of people though. I joined the band because my friend Sam in Radiator Hospital commented on their post where they were looking for a new guitarist saying that I should be it. Although my old band had opened for Upset a few times, we hadn’t really met. Nicole joined from being in the same friend circle. It was an easy fit.

Can you describe the band’s songwriting process?

For this new record we just finished, Ali wrote five songs and I wrote five songs. We wrote them completely separately. Every time one of us would finish the barebones of writing the song we’d make a shitty recording of it and send it off to the rest of the band to hear and make their own parts. Then we’d come to practice and flesh out the songs with harmonies, lead guitar riffs, and so on. It was very natural feeling, nothing felt forced at all. Surprisingly enough all the songs go very cohesively together on the tracking for the new record.

What would you say is the most consistent theme in your music?

In my songs specifically… Girls. Weed. Certain looming fears that I think everyone has about being alone, questioning oneself, death and losing control. There’s some hopefulness sprinkled in there somewhere from time to time.

The music industry is widely seen as a “boys club” that isn’t particularly inclusive. What has your experience been like in the music business?

The music industry is still very much a boys club, at least for bands that get signed to major labels. Except that we are starting to see it be forced to open it up to marginalized voices cause that’s what the masses want these days. They want to not just see a band of 4 white guys, but rather a mixed band of gender and race representing something for everyone up on stage. My experience has mostly been that, being told what to do by the sound guy, or the manager of a venue wanting to pay out the guy in my band instead of me. But once I joined Upset, I saw another side. Ali is a boss bitch and doesn’t care to take shit from any guy, so I learned that confidence from her. Even though there were still assholes we had to deal with, she wasn’t having it.

But, saying that… There are a lot of great, supportive men out there who helped get me started! Like my dad who only showed me awesome women-fronted bands from the 90’s like The Breeders, That Dog, Veruca Salt.

Do you sense those struggles in the DIY community and at your shows? Or do you feel like it’s more confined to the industry side of things?

You don’t see that as much in the DIY community. I experienced it in San Pedro by a few dudes that for the most part, I think they just felt threatened that someone younger was getting the offers they were hoping for. There’s also the case of the “let’s just throw a female-fronted band on as the opener to please everybody.” But now that is quickly changing, as well as the words “female fronted”.

How important is identity to you as an artist?

My identity is all I’ve got as an artist. I’m not trying to hide behind anything, although I do respect those musicians that create personas. But, for me as an artist, I start writing the songs for myself and put them out there knowing there’s others that probably feel the same way. So, I don’t want to hide the fact I’m genderqueer or gay. I want my fans to know that they aren’t alone and see that they are being represented on stage, that they can let their freak flag fly.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were younger?

I wish I would have cared a lot less about what others thought when I was younger. It seems so silly but when you are 21 and first starting out you just want to please everyone and do everything for someone else. None of that matters, most of those people don’t matter, everything will come and go from your life.

You’re moving to Australia later this year. If you were able to magically make things fall into place when you arrive there, what would that look like for you?

If we lived in a perfect world and everything could take off for me right away, I would be living in the cutest apartment with my girlfriend. I’d have a perfect band put together for my new project Varsity Cheerleader. We’d be working on a record that I already have the songs written for. And I’d have the perfect chef gig at this amazing vegan restaurant there called Smith & Daughters.

Thanks Lauren!

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