Interview: Ruban Nielson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra on Counter-Culture and Covens

Kiva Ramundo / May 6, 2013
Photo by Kiva Ramundo
Photo by Kiva Ramundo

Unknown Mortal Orchestra began three years ago when an orphaned single entitled “Ffunny Ffrends” was innocuously released on Bandcamp. The musical community was so enraptured with its use of distortion and spacious vocals that record labels began to vie for partnership with the mastermind behind the song. Ruban Nielson, a Portland transplant and former member of the New Zealand pop/punk group The Mint Chicks, rose to claim ownership and give name to his music project which would further be known as Unknown Mortal Orchestra. With the addition of Jake Portrait and Riley Geare the trio has since supported artists such as Portugal. The Man, Weezer, Grizzly Bear, Starfucker and Foster the People with a sound that is one part divine cactus and one part psychoacoustic sycophancy.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra is very much a band that has come unstuck in time, something that has not gone unnoticed by critics and fans who arm themselves with undying praise for their unique compositions. One very kind associate of the band adorned in a respectable poncho has gone to retrieve Ruban while I wait in the lobby of a posh hotel across from Boise’s El Korah Shrine venue which will be packed in a few hours time for their performance during the Treefort Music Festival. He seems a touch tired but gracious.

SSG Music: Your lyrics, especially in “Thought Ballune” and “Ffunny Ffrends” sound like the hallucinogenic epiphanies of Robert Frost on a spirit quest. What, in the best possible sense, is going on inside your head?

Ruban Nielson: I do not even know about that [laughs]. The first album, I was more worried about the sound of the actual words and stuff like that. I remember seeing this thing about Nirvana and there was an early performance of “Sounds Like Teen Spirit” and the lyrics all sounded kinda the same, totally different [from the studio version], and I realized he was creating the sound before he figured out what the words would be. So a lot of that was going on in the first album. I had these weird sounds in my head and the sentences came afterwards. I figured out what the songs were after they were already written and recorded.

SSG: Since we are speaking of your self-titled debut, did you approach your recently released album with the intent that it lends to your discography as a whole or is it more important that each can stand on its own? Do you consider your latest // to be ‘debut part two?’

RN: So far I have done the two albums so it is like that is my whole thing, but they are definitely a set. I do not really care if I made a second debut. You could chop the first one up and use the second as the debut which is maybe why I called it ‘Two’ because it is the second have of the same burst of energy or the same idea. I do not know if I will go into the basement for the third album. I might do a lot of different collaborations with people and producers.

SSG: You mentioned the origin of the title of //; could you tell me about the art for the album?

RN: My friend was at a bookshop in New York- an occult bookshop- and she found a picture of this woman with a sword that was similar to the one we have on the cover. I had it as the lock screen on my phone for a long time. When we were trying to look for a cover-I designed ten of them or something-and I realized that I had this image that I was pretty obsessed with and she said she would not go back there because the owner of the shop was this crazy witch lady and she said some pretty scary stuff. So I asked my sister to go to this place and she found the book- it was called “A Witches’ Bible”- and she found a contact. The woman in the photo and the woman that wrote the book were the same person. [The author] was happy to be a part of it. She sent me the entire role of film. We chose a different one than the one that appeared in the book. That was really cool too because we got our own published photo. Janet Farrar is the high priestess of a witches coven in Ireland and she had two husbands. Which is kind of cool. She is still there; she is still doing what she does. We are going to meet her in Dublin. That photo was taken in the ’70s. We are going to meet this person but she is going to be way older. I am kind of obsessed with Janet right now. I have read a bunch of her books and things like that.

SSG: Does she know the finished album?

RN: Yeah, she has the album. She liked the album. She used to work at Apple, the Beatles store that they had in the ’60s so she was really a part of that scene. She really likes it.

album art for Unknown Mortal Orchestra's second album, //
album art for Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s //

SSG: What advantage do you feel low-fidelity recordings in music has over hi-fi? Does it change how an audience connects to your music?

RN: I do not really think of what I do as lo-fi because I always think that “lo-fi” comes attached with the idea that you are not doing as much work on it. I feel like I start with clean sounds and marinate them in tape saturation of distortion of some kind. I feel like I am doing something to it, like I am weathering it or something. I just like the sound. I feel like it sounds older, like it sounds lost. It has been what I liked hearing come out of the speakers. I did it the first time and kept doing the same thing, running a bunch of sounds running through 15 or 20 recorders, reel to reel. I find it fun and that is all, really.

SSG: I have heard your music described as “post-garage,” “trip-hop” and “neo-psychadelia.” You are very outspoken about counter-culture and I thought you would appreciate a quote from my favorite counter-culture author, Camille De Toledo, who says, “Society has lost the ability to examine itself through anything more profound than a prefix.” With those genres I mentioned in mind, do you think the same can be said about modern music?

RN: It is that kind of era, I think, that things recombine and not as many things can spontaneously happen. Taking this and taking that to blend together rather than raw expression. The things I like are like that. I do no feel any reason not to make music in that way. I have not seen the spontaneous flowering of a genre anywhere in a while. I think ‘why do I make music that is not interested in being from the time that it is made’ and I have not quite figured it out yet. The way genre names are formed is not interesting to me. Maybe they should be renamed by something like kicking someone in the nuts and seeing what sound comes out of their mouth. More nonsense should be involved in the process like it used to be.

SSG: With attempting to recapture some of the feel of early rock, I am curious to inquire whether you feel rock music is inherently rebellious or has it always been a convenient outlet for artists and the disenfranchised?

RN: In the sense that it is subversive to American culture and corporate culture, I never thought that it is against it; that it is as guilty as the rest of them. It is kind of propaganda for the American way of life. It is an advertisement for something really good about the country. I do not think it is against because if it were rebelious it would be anti-American and it is so pro-American. Then again, if rebellion means, on a more personal level, just saying ‘no’ to your parents or your mentors, then it always has been about that.

SSG: What has been the greatest difference between making music with Unknown Mortal Orchestra in Portland versus your native New Zealand and your former project, The Mint Chicks? Does the environment reflect in their sound?

RN: In New Zealand, it was more of a fight. It is mostly rural, an entire country of backwater towns. The way it used to be was you had to say ‘I want to make this kind of band’ and you had to fight for the ability to wear the kind of clothes you want and make the kind of music you want. That is all in the music. It is not at easy. The first thing that happened when I moved to Portland, I felt I could calm down. The music I was making felt like it had time to figure out what was going on. The old band, every song was full of specific sections. If it was too poppy, put specific section in it and they will never play it on the radio because now it had this crazy electro part in the middle or intro. Portland, I did not have any of that. You can just make music in the states and not worry about it. In New Zealand it is built-in, how it will sit in the culture and survive in a nation of rugby players. Portland is an easy place to be for me.

Photo courtesy of Greg Harris
Photo courtesy of Greg Harris

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