Unknown Mortal Orchestra: “If I didn’t have kids, I wouldn’t be talking to you now”
I I know there’s something wrong with my music,” says Ruban Nielson, vocalist and guitarist for psych rock band Unknown Mortal Orchestra. “My mixing is poor and my recording is intentionally amateurish at times, but I try to focus on delivering something worth saying.” The New Zealand-Hawaiian singer calls Zoom from his dimly lit basement studio in Portland from to where it has just started snowing. For Nielson, perfection has always taken a back seat when it comes to the band’s distinctive DIY sound, which he can’t possibly pinpoint. “I’ve always come up with genre names,” he tells me, making suggestions like “dad-wave” and “trouble-gum.” “Depression Funk” is another fan favorite.
If the latter is true, then UMO could now be considered masters in mental health music. The band is on album number five. The newest, v, a double offering, is packed with warm, homemade instrumentals and flaky future classics that could only have come from the creators of their once-forged sound. Experts in alternative ambivalence, UMO, are innovators of the bittersweet, often alongside previous touring partners, Foxygen. The band – mainly Nielson and bassist Jake Portrait – started out in Auckland in 2010 when the former anonymously released a Soundcloud track into the wild. Since then their spirited music has won critical acclaim and helped them sell world tours. Just last month UMO celebrated 10 years of their debut album 2013. The now classic || contain riffy and reminiscent tracks like “So Good At Being In Trouble” – now gold.
“I couldn’t do this record again,” says Nielson. “It’s so specific to what I was going through at the time; all the limitations and despair of “Who am I?” What do I do?’” he says. “It’s all burned into the record itself. I can hear it.” || emerged during a tumultuous period of couch surfing and navigating “a pretty bad drug problem”. At one point, however, Neilson says he had a realization. “At some point I have to decide whether I’ll just change and move on to the next chapter of my life, or I’ll die,” he recalls, explaining that many of his close friends “didn’t make it to their 40s.” It was his children who “pulled him back from the abyss”. Nielsen looks at me sincerely through the camera, which is lit by his daughter’s selfie ring light. “I think if I didn’t have kids I wouldn’t be talking to you now,” he admits. “I agreed to sacrifice myself. I just wasn’t okay with sacrificing other people.”
Nielson has learned a lot over the past decade. He’s learned that the band lifestyle can lead to becoming a “self-obsessed s***” — and he’s learned that family isn’t just his reason to survive, it’s his reason to truly live. “I would throw away any amount of fame just to get my kids’ approval,” he laughs, a little embarrassed. Neilson, his wife Jenny and their two children divide their time between Portland, Palm Springs and Hawaii, where Nielson’s mother lives. Until recently, he took a break from music, choosing instead to devote time to being a good son and father. However, the pandemic led to a series of “tragedies” for his relatives, reminding Neilson why he got into this career in the first place. Making music is his “life management”.
That’s when UMO’s new album v was born. Music and family collided, and the latter unintentionally became a central part of the songs recorded with his brother, father and longtime bandmate Portrait in Palm Springs. “We didn’t get out of that period right away,” he tells me. In fact, Nielson thinks they came out of it better. “We figured if we don’t come out of this as stronger and less selfish people, then this is all just another big tragedy for our family.”
In light of the tragedies, Nielson felt it was important that the album is still uplifting. “I didn’t want to make a sad record because it’s such a sad time,” he says. “We wanted to ease the pain and bring light to the situation.” The tracks lyrically teleport listeners to the rustling of palm trees, sparkling sea and sandy skin. That said, as with most of UMO’s work, these sun-kissed tones are overshadowed by a bit of darkness, as heard in the nostalgic nuances of “That Life.” “When isn’t life like this?” says Nielson of the bittersweet inherent in his music. “How can you actually be happy if you don’t acknowledge these dark things?” Given the circumstances surrounding the album, mortality inevitably became an issue for her v. But instead of depressing him, it gave him a carpe diem approach to life and creation. “I think the baseline that I work from is to think about death all the time and always use it as an excuse for recklessness,” he laughs.
The singer has always had an impending sense of doom about the world around us. “UMO started in that Obama era and everyone was in that daze. At the time, everyone seemed to be like, ‘Oh my god, life is so great – but I was really morbid.’ As Nielson got older, he felt a change. “Now the baseline for everyone is to be pessimistic,” he laughs at the bleakness of the situation. “You know, politically disillusioned, always thinking about death and stuff like that.”
Ironically, Neilson now feels less ill than before. The veil of pretense has lifted and he is relieved. “That sense of the environment, that we’re falling off a cliff, has become real now,” he suggests. “That’s when you can start addressing things and fixing things.” Nielson believes now is the time to live life to the fullest. “If we all die, we should make it count. We should celebrate, we should take care of the people we love, we should tell our mothers we love them! When it’s really all over, it’s not the time to be depressed.”
Although there are clues, Nielson is not sure which songs the songs are on v are still there. In fact, it always takes him a year or two to discover the true meaning of his music. “I think the reason I’m really addicted to music is because it’s such a weird, mysterious process.” He’s begun to view the writing process as a kind of “religion.” “It’s a cheesy word, but it’s like you’re channeling something,” he muses. “As if what you create comes from your subconscious or a higher power. Sometimes when I’m writing I’m like, ‘How did I even do that?’ I don’t feel 100 percent authoritative. I feel like I was just there and I accidentally did it.” He wonders if that’s why his songs belong to others, and recalls anecdotes from shows where fans have described acute situations in their own lives that are his music perfectly articulated. He wonders, “What if the song is actually about them? What if I’m just the person delivering it?”
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However, one particular album was written about something very specific about Nielson’s life. The record of 2015 multi love revolved around Neilson’s polyamorous relationship with his wife with another woman. The details were subsequently given in a pitchfork Article that made the relationship somewhat sensational. The subject grew larger than the music, and the woman concerned felt unfairly treated by the revelation. “I had to learn that the hard way [my life] It’s not really my thing,” he says. “I didn’t think anyone would care enough to be a problem.” I ask Nielson if the experience was lyrically stifling. “I realized that I had to be more skilled at giving as much of myself as possible… without swaying other people in ways they never signed up for,” he admits. “I like the idea of being a successful musician, but I don’t like the idea of people arguing about me; that’s never why I got into it. It always feels like you’re trying to negotiate something: How much success do you want versus the price?”
He may not want the limelight, but the stage is a special place for Nielson. “I go out there and then another part of me takes over,” he says. “I have not a single thought; I’m the purist version of myself.” It’s an addictive feeling. “It’s almost like I’m a different person – you can escape from your ego and from yourself.” Neilson’s escape is imminent. UMO will soon be on their way for their mammoth tour across the States and Europe. In September, the band will end with a headlining slot at the End of The Road Festival.
The tour is not without its concerns, however. A few months ago, Neilson was unable to move his left hand due to nerve compression. He had to go to physio every day just to play the guitar. Nielson always finds the silver lining and says the injury has shifted his focus from achieving perfection to being able to just play the roles. Now he can focus on delivering something meaningful without pressure. That’s all he ever wanted.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s new album “V” is now available via Jagjaguwar
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/unknown-mortal-orchestra-v-interview-album-b2302307.html Unknown Mortal Orchestra: “If I didn’t have kids, I wouldn’t be talking to you now”