Ruban Nielson interview

Getting to know Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013 | interviewZ, musiX, pdX | No Comments

I like Portland. I liked the Mint Chicks. I love New Zealand. I dig noisy pop music. But as much as I like these things it doesn’t necessarily mean I’d like Unknown Mortal Orchestra. I’m easy, but I’m not that easy.

But I do like Unknown Mortal Orchestra. That’s because Ruban Nielson writes good songs. The PDX by way of NZ musician surprised a lot of people (including himself) in 2010 when he posted the song “Ffunny Ffriends” on his Bandcamp page. Blogs ate it up before they even knew who or what was behind it, and Nielson–who was just writing songs for his own amusement—soon found himself releasing an entire record for Fat Possum in 2011.

There’s no mystery surrounding the band’s latest LP II, out now on Jagjaguwar. The songs again dip into the nether-regions of Nielson’s psyche, as he pushes garage rock and soul through some sort of futuristic meat grinder. It’s a little hazier than their self-titled debit. Zeus knows there’s been plenty to draw from in Nielson’s life over the past few years: The breakup of his longtime New Zealand band the Mint Chicks (caused by a strained relationship with his brother, Kody); the roller coaster that came with the release of UMO’s debut, which came after deciding he was going to quit music; and a tumultuous year of touring that saw Nielson nearly party himself to death in 2011.

It sounds like the makings of a juicy autobiography; instead we get II. And it’s a good one. Nielson took some time to answer a few questions about living in Portlandia, making music with a clear head and missing his Ffriends in New Zealand.

TDoL: You wrote and performed II yourself, right?
Ruban Nielson: I wrote it, but my brother plays some drums on it. Greg Rogove plays drums on a track and Jake Portrait plays bass on a track. It was still a pretty solitary process overall though.

It’s good stuff. It’s more dynamic than the first record, more live sounding  …
Thanks. It has more drum fills and is a little less repetitive I suppose. I put some extra effort into the big picture of the record. The first record was me just trying to make jams to listen to on my iPod on the bus. It wasn’t intended as a real album. On the new record I thought about the little journey it would take you on. I knew people were going to hear it so I stepped up with a bit more conceptual ambition.

What were you going for in that respect?
I was just trying to capture the way I felt about the year and half I’d just had. Every song was coming at that idea from a different angle. I thought if I could make an album that invoked the feelings I’d had it would come out pretty heavy, and it would be good.

I remember hearing the Mint Chicks’ Bad Buzz EP and being really excited about the new music, and then poof they were gone. What happened, and what did you take from that experience?
My brother was just treating me like shit, basically. I needed to get out of the situation of working with him on a daily basis. I was working really hard and putting a lot of effort into it and getting nothing back. I’d just grown out of it. I wanted my life to be more rewarding and fun.

How long was it before you started working on the UMO stuff?
For about six months I think I was just trying to figure out how to pay my bills in Portland and stuff like that so I didn’t think about music much. I had this plan in my head that I was going to do something else with my life that wasn’t music, and that whatever it was it was going to be awesome. Eventually I started making recordings as a hobby. While I was in the Mint Chicks I worked as an artist’s assistant and did visual art as a hobby and music for a living so my plan was to flip that around. I got really excited about making music without arguing with bandmates about whether an idea was good. I got excited about making music without having to send demos to the label and all of that stuff. I got excited about removing the ego bullshit from the process.

Were you surprised by how quickly it caught on?
Of course. I remember working on “Ffunny Ffrends” and specifically thinking, “OK, now I’m just removing myself from the zeitgeist entirely. This is officially the most untrendy music in the world. Nobody is going to want to hear this.” If you’d asked anyone if they wanted to hear overly distorted music in an annoying falsetto about funny friends over old-school breakbeats … and, oh, did I mention the guitar solo?

How did you end up in Portland?
I have an uncle who lives here and I stayed with him and his family for a couple of weeks, and just felt like I wanted to move here. I went back to New Zealand and basically started planning to move. I have dual citizenship but I’d never had the desire to move to the U.S. permanently until I’d hung out in Portland. Of course, it’s changed a lot even in the five years I’ve lived here. There wasn’t a TV show about how ridiculous things are downtown. I still like it a lot though.

Do you miss New Zealand?
Sometimes. I had a great time last time I was there. My good friends I have there are irreplaceable. My immediate family are still there. I get along a lot better with my brother now that we aren’t in the Mint Chicks together.

Were you more influenced by New Zealand bands growing up, or American bands?
I was influenced by everything. Flying Nun, East Coast hip hop, alternative rock, punk, post-punk, jazz, jazz fusion, avante garde music, dub, drum and bass, noise music, classical. My family are all musicians on both sides so my poor brain was under siege from music. That’s why I didn’t want to be a musician growing up. I got into it accidentally, almost.

If you could go back to a certain era of music, what would it be?
2010, man. Things were so good then.

It sounds like 2012 was a hectic year for you. What are your goals for a smoother 2013?
I think 2012 was a great year—not that hectic, just busy and successful. 2011 was the hectic one. Just touring and touring and touring. This year I’m going to be busy again. There’s never telling what’s going to happen. I don’t know if smooth is what I want.

“Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)”Unknown Mortal Orchestra

“So Good at Being in Trouble”Unknown Mortal Orchestra

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