Interview: Unknown Mortal Orchestra


Back in the day teachers at my school would ask the students at the start of each year to state who their mentors were. Being from an all boys school in New Zealand, most kids would promptly reel off names of rugby players, sailors, and mountaineers. The question was lost on me so I usually just resorted to waffling out what my buddy said next to me. However when I was around fifteen I found my answer in the Nielson brothers, who at that point formed the core of the now defunct schizo art punk band The Mint Chicks. At that point in my life they represented to me what it meant to be a Reckless musician, a fearless artist, and a reductive innovator; and to some extent they still do.


The Nielsons over the course of 9 years and 3 albums helped to redefine New Zealand music and since then both members have gone on to do their own respective and brilliant projects. Kody the younger of the two brothers went on to form the psych pop group OPOSSUM, clear his throat with the future freak jazz funk of the self titled Kody Nielson EP and most recently formed SILICONWhich you make up your own mind what to call.

Ruban the older of the two,  has gone on to also form his own band, called Unknown Mortal Orchestra. A warped out Psychedelic RNB soul band of sorts. Originally conceived back in 2010, out of idle time and his own desire to create an obscure psych-rock album that he couldn’t find nowhere, but inside his own head. A psych rock album filled with break beats, jazz voicings, lo-fi leanings and melted melodies. Nielson put it online without expectation. The internet had its way with him and unexpectedly he once again was touring the world. Over the last 5 years he has gone from from being a cult punk musician from the other side of the world to one of the biggest bands in indie music in the world today. From shout outs from Questlove to collaborations with Toro Y Moi and Frank Ocean, Ruban Nielson is swiftly cloaking the world in his woozy psychedelic spells one brain at a time.
Next week Ruban and his band consistining of Jack Potrait and Riley Geare will be passing through Berlin after the release of their 3rd album Multi Love (which you can stream in full here). Its an album which once again sees the two brothers collaborating together, filled with other dimensional textures, weird funks and a lyrical focus on his family, polyamoric love experiences and the state of the world todayUnfortunately the concert is all sold out so if you didn’t get a ticket its a crying shame (but they will be back later in the year!!!). Ahead of the gig I sent Ruban a few questions over email and tried not to sound like a massive fanboy/nerd. Anyways here’s his response:

 LSD: You have said in a previous interview “The first album was like me making a really simple midnight snack for myself. II is like cooking dinner for my friends.” What is Multi-Love?
By that logic Multi-Love is probably a surprise party. Maybe even an orgy.


LSD: What was your song writing process like for the songs on this album?
Initially was similar to the process of the last album, building up a folder on my computer full of disconnected ideas recorded on the road and at home. I grouped them together and developed them into songs that worked acoustically. Just nice chord changes and melodies. Then I flew my brother over from New Zealand and we started to arrange them together. Working out what kind of grooves would take them from being acoustic songs to finished songs. Building up layers of instruments. That kind of thing. I was obsessed with the opening line from the last album: “Isolation can put a gun in your hand”. A lot interviewers and reviews had mentioned or asked about that lyric. I tried to think about what made that lyric the most intriguing. My experiment was to try and make every single line from Multi-Love as good as that line. I collected phrases and ideas in a notebook and tried to group them together later. So the lyrics are very dense and kind of strange. There are a lot of references and hidden and double meanings and slang.


LSD: II was largely based around the idea of loneliness and isolation, is there a common theme running through Multi-Love?
There are two themes that run together. One is the theme of me observing the world through the internet and traveling and trying to figure out whats going on and thats mixed up with different views of love and my love life. Every song is like a political love song. The theme might be that Im overwhelmed by the world and by love and Im writing about how that feels.


LSD: This album is definitely a growth upon the previous two album in terms of sonic quality. The instrumentation is far more diverse and audio quality more hi fi. Can you talk a bit about the key pieces of equipment for writing and recording Multi-Love?
An important part was a piece of equipment called a Kaimaitron which is a custom mixer built by a guy called Ekadek who lives in a house in the forest in New Zealand. It has very high quality hand made pre-amps with two gain stages which produce two different flavors of distortion. It can make a very clean, warm sound or become very fuzzy and distorted. The second gain stage uses vintage germanium transistors which is what a lot of fancy vintage fuzz pedals have in them. I used that for everything. Shure sent me a lot of mics. Their KSM44 was my main vocal microphone for the album. I used a Fostex 8-track tape machine that I love. I used a Retro Instruments Powerstrip which has a pultec eq, tube pre-amp and vari-mu compressor built-in. I mixed through a Chandler Mini-Mixer which has pre-amps based on the old Abbey Road console. I really enjoyed playing a Roland SH-1000 which is the first synthesizer Roland ever made.


LSD: Your particular brand of warped rnb and pop seems to have become more refined on this record. Songs like “Multi-Love” and “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” seem like they could easily appeal to a broader audience.  Is audience reaction something you reflect upon whilst creating?
Not in terms of scale, but I definitely think of the individual experience. I try to imagine what would be most interesting or enjoyable for me if I was on the outside of the band. I  have to assume people want the same things that I do. I think as a fan I would have wanted to hear UMO become more sonically ambitious and expand into slightly new genres. I think somebody telling me that the new UMO was influenced by disco would make me interested to hear it. Because it makes sense but its also maybe a surprise too.


LSD: Your brother Kody played drums on the album. Was there any talk between you two of doing any work as The Mint Chicks again in the future?
Not much. A little bit. Im sure we’ll work together more.


LSD: Your SB releases over the New Year were totally awesome and erratic. What does SB stand for and also, was this like your brain vomiting up all your unused ideas to start Multi-Love with a clean canvas?
I can’t say what SB stands for at the moment, forgive me. The SB tracks are just made of extra things that I work on. Some are like ‘deleted scenes’ from album work and some are just me having fun in the studio. Sometimes I get too serious working on songs and need to do something else to loosen up.


LSD: I saw a while back you could sense the new D’Angelo record was going to be a good one. What do you think of it?
It’s a masterpiece. It’s unlike anything else coming out right now.


LSD: What or who was inspiring you during the process of making the new album?
I was listening to Slavoj Zizek a lot while I worked on building things. He’s a really entertaining speaker. I also enjoy listening to Louis CK. Bowie’s Berlin era was a big influence on this record. I was influenced by Tony Visconti’s use of the Eventide Harmonizer and liked the idea of early digital effects, so I used a few early 80’s outboard digital effects on drums and things like that.



 LSD: I read some article where you said that the typical view of  what an artist today is a curator. Do you think music has reached a saturation point where nothing drastically new will be invented?
I think people are just lazy. Drastic invention requires more work than most musicians are capable of doing. If we study we find a lot of great artists from the past worked extremely hard and acquired huge amounts of skill that meant they were producing value from nothing. We’re living in an idiocracy. We’re producing with a consumer mindset when we should produce with a producer’s mindset. In fact we should consume from a producer’s mindset: we should buy a pencil with a goal to write a novel with it. Turn nothing into something. We just live with this bullshit capitalist idea that everything should be easy. It isn’t. Making things is hard. Another bullshit capitalist idea is that we need something “new”. Things don’t need to be new. Just great. You won’t know if something was innovative or not until 20 years later.


LSD: You guys are one of my favourite live acts. On your previous tours I always admired how well the songs translated into a live context. What can audiences expect on this upcoming tour? Will the UMO show change much performing these denser compositions?
We have a new member playing keyboards. Our approach is going to be the same but the sound is more lush and complex. I think people will enjoy the shows a lot.


Unknown Mortal Orchestra Play Kantine am Berghain on the 26.05.15


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