Two years or so is a long time in music, isn’t it? Back in 2010 when a track called ‘Ffunny Ffrends’ dropped out of nowhere, Unknown Mortal Orchestra were complete unknowns. That track, a combination of deep grooves, a whiff of the jazz cigarette and unexpectedly soulful vocal, came from the brain of one Ruban Nielson.
An early 30-something displaced New Zealander previously responsible for the underrated punk fun of The Mint Chicks, along with his brother Kody. The self-titled debut album was a very fine treat: a psych-rocking trip through a dusty collection of obscure 60s and 70s records played and produced almost single-handedly by Nielson, with a little help from his brother and friends. It was enough to pique the interest of the excellent Jagjaguwar label and got them on tour with some big hitters.
The follow-up record II was written on the road, or at the very least inspired by the constant touring, and it’s so brilliant and inspiring that it positively laughs in the face of the supposed second album syndrome. It takes the clear influences of Pink Floyd, myriad prog acts, the Beatles and soul music and manages to avoid being a period pastiche. It’s bigger and bolder than Unknown Mortal Orchestra, yet intimate and fragile at the same time, and marks Nielson out as one of the best song writers we have on our hands in 2013.
We caught up with Nielson at home in Portland, Oregon to talk about UMO’s new album, beginning by discussing the differences between number one, and number two. II appears to contain a much more expansive set of songs while managing to keep a real air of simplicity, so how did the record take shape? “Well… after the songs started getting a lot of attention online, I threw a live band together and went out on the road and didn’t stop touring for about a year and a half,” says Nielson. Is it fair to say then that II is a tour record? “It was a pretty insane idea to just tour that [the first album] intensely straight out of the gate but I got a lot of life lived in that time and another album’s worth of songs came really easily.” Nielson adds that it’s not simply an album about being on tour, though: “I didn’t try to create them or anything like that but after the songs were written I noticed there was this kind of hedonistic, paeanistic night owl kind of thing. Also, there is a lot of stuff about loneliness. I didn’t want it to be a ‘tour record’ because I thought people wouldn’t really relate to that so I don’t mention the specifics of the experiences, and focus on the emotions instead. I wanted to somehow make this record more soul and more classic rock than the last one.”
Given the amount of touring UMO has done, I want to know how easy it was to get the record written while on the road; Nielson reveals it wasn’t quite as difficult as he expected: “It was surprisingly easy! I had a bunch of melodies and lyrics on my phone. I’d been around the US six or seven times and been to Europe twice. I’d met thousands of new people. I guess experiences make songs easier to write sometimes. I’m good at noticing a phrase or a feeling that needs to be remembered for later. I’ll be blind drunk on some balcony somewhere and still record it.”
Over the course of that year and a half UMO toured with names such as Dirty Projectors, Liars, Best Coast and Girls, but one band really stood out for Nielson: “I learned a lot from Grizzly Bear. To me they seem to be this uncompromising band that still manages to be very successful and be heard.”
It’s important that Nielson mentions “classic rock” as there’s a certain sound to II – a, dare I say, “retro” feel in not just the influences but in the way the album is recorded. It sounds like it could be from 1974, so I ask him how the sound of the album took shape: “My taste in music is right on my sleeve in this band,” he asserts. “I think you can tell I listen to as much Al Green as Led Zeppelin and that I can’t name three Lady Gaga songs.” And as for the production side of things, Nielson has very strong feelings on this: “I don’t hear bigger and bolder in today’s production. My idea of big and bold is Dark Side of the Moon. The bombast in modern production is like a housing bubble. It’s like a Big Mac that leaves you hungry fifteen minutes after eating it. It sounds like white noise to me and it’s sexless too.”
If one sound dominates II then it’s probably prog rock. The influence of bands like Focus, Yes and Pink Floyd are there, right up front, alongside the classic rock touchstones such as the Beatles, so I ask Ruban if any records in particular influenced the sound of the album. “If it was a prog record it was probably Fragile by Yes,” he reveals. “Yes can be so boring but I think Fragile is a really great record. I guess [Frank Zappa and] the Mothers of Invention are pretty prog too and I love them, especially the first line-up from Freak Out and that whole Uncle Meat period.” Nielson reveals his love of prog is twofold: “Prog is impressive musically and also hilarious so it appeals to me both ways!” he laughs. “Fusion can be funny too. The Aura Will Prevail by George Duke is something I listen to a lot. Led Zeppelin 2 was something I was pretty obsessed with. [Syd Barrett’s] Madcap Laughs I would just wallow in when I was on the road. I’d listen to it over and over and drive myself to despair.”
Nielson continues – it’s clear he devours music – by talking about records away from the prog scene. “I’m Still in Love With You by Al Green was another record I listened to really hard, and Abbey Road was the Beatles period I was most thinking about. There are records that really influenced the first album that still had a big impact on the second one too like Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Stand! [do action="secondary-artist"]Sly and the Family Stone[/do] and [Captain Beefheart’s] Safe As Milk. I would try and inhabit that world without letting it make my music any less immediate and real.” How does Nielson make it his own, and avoid the danger of it becoming pastiche? “I love that sound but I’m not pretending to have anybody else’s feelings you know?” he states. “I’m singing my own modern ideas and emotions.”
When I first listened to UMO’s music, I had no idea that he was also the brains behind The Mint Chicks, the young New Zealand punks I’d been introduced to a number of years back by a Kiwi friend. UMO’s music does sound substantially different to The Mint Chicks, so I ask Ruban what he sees as the differences between the bands. “It was just more collaborative [in The Mint Chicks],” he reveals. “I tried out all of the ingredients of UMO at some point in The Mint Chicks. There is a Mint Chicks song called ‘Hot on Your Heels‘ which I wrote and I kind of think of that as the proto-UMO song. You can even hear me singing in my kind of soul falsetto in the background. There would be lyrics in the Mint Chicks that you can tell are me. The album Screens opens with the lyric “Why is it less of a hassle to die in your sleep?” which could only be my words.” But more musical influences started seeping in, which perhaps signalled the end of his Mint Chicks phase. Ruban explains: “Also I started getting into Bach while I was still in the band. I would suggest these weird classical sounding parts and I think the other dudes thought I was being stupid or something. Back then I would listen to Margo Guryan and think ‘why can’t my band be like this?’” he laughs.
Turning back to UMO, Nielson discusses the lyrics and themes that tie II together. “It wasn’t on purpose, but there is this theme about the night,” he reveals. “I suppose that’s because I lived my life at night for two years, including the recording of the album.” But that’s not all that’s at work, as the striking album art attests to: “There is also this kind of feminine energy to the record. I guess that’s why I chose the image of the high priestess witch Janet Farrar for the cover – some kind of idea about female power, women not to be trifled with.” Feminine rather than feminist? “Not feminist power; Witch power. Pre-feminism; your mother’s power to smother or abandon you, and your lover’s power to forget about you.”
The opening to the album is rather striking, with the lyric “isolation can put a gun in your hand”, then ‘Swim and Sleep’ also seems to suggest either loneliness or wanting to be alone, to get away from something, so Nielson reveals what’s behind these lyrics and feelings. “Because I’ve always had these kinds of thoughts, I assume everyone does. I’ve always been either really silly or really serious.” Is it a case of it’s either one extreme or the other, no middle ground? Ruban agrees: “Talk too much at the party or be like a mute the whole night. Either ready to storm the ramparts or crawl under a rock and die. Feeling either very strong or very sickly. Not much in between. It’s a strange feeling to write a song and be able to share a feeling with the world that I could never explain in conversation.”
By producing and playing most of the record on his own, is there not a danger of adding to that isolation simply by choosing to make music in this way? “It’s actually through interviews that I started to realise this, interviewers will bring it up, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” says Ruban. “Strangely enough, solitude isn’t always so isolated. I think when you sit alone night after night making a record of your ideas and feelings for other people to enjoy, you don’t feel so isolated. You’re contributing something positive to society. You’re creating value out of nothing. And yet you can spend time partying and talking and doing drugs and even making love with people night after night and feel completely alienated from real communion.” On the sound side of the recording process, Nielson has been quoted as saying he’s not much of a fan of digital recording, and we’ve already heard how he dislikes the “bombast” of modern records, so what goes on in the studio – does he have a mixing desk straight from the 70s? “I actually edit and mix in Pro Tools,” admits Ruban, “but I have a collection of tape machines I use to get the sounds I want. I actually really love Pro Tools, but I’d hate to use it by itself just because I don’t prefer the sound. If I didn’t have tape I couldn’t work the hours I do. It’d hurt my ears too much. I like the way information is organised on a computer screen, I just don’t like the sound, as far as I can tell.”
There’s more touring planned for 2013, but if Ruban wasn’t making music, where would he be, what would he be doing? “I was obsessed with painting. I went to art school and then worked as an artist’s assistant. I watched a film about Lucien Freud recently and I really liked it. The way he was painting these portraits of naked bodies when pop art and minimalist abstraction were trendy, and yet his work is always so fresh and real.”
Looking ahead to what this year will bring, Nielson enthuses about some new friends: “Next year we’re taking two bands on tour that I’m excited about. The first is Foxygen, they’re on the same label as us and they’ve done a record with Richard Swift that I think people are going to flip out over. The other is Wampire. They’re from Portland and our bass player produced their album which is coming out on Polyvinyl. Both of those bands have similar names in some way; both kind of childish and foolish. That’s kind of weird.” I suspect strong friendships will be forged between this like-minded bunch of people; while Foxygen have made a promising debut that pulls from the 60s and 70s, and Wampire have a touch of the Ariel Pinks about them, they’ll have to go some way to beating the ever-improving, nascent genius of Ruban Nielson and Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
II will be released through Jagjaguwar on 04 February.