Ignore the name.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra isn't some vast collective, the product of a thousand minds working together. Rather, the project is driven by one man: New Zealand native Ruban Nielson. Patching together songs in his bedroom, the songwriter chopped up trippy psych, retro soul, off kilter indie pop and more.
Debut album 'Unknown Mortal Orchestra' arrived in 2011, with Nielson beginning to find a few like minded souls to share his musical vision. Since then, Unknown Mortal Orchestral have been thrown into the whirlwind routine of touring, with Ruban Nielson struggling to adapt to life on the road.
As a result, new album 'II' - arguably their first as a fully fledged band - is driven by loneliness, alienation and a renewed sense of self. Out on February 4th via Jagjaguwar, it's an impressive document. Packed with vivid imagery and loose knit, stoned soul grooves it marks a huge leap forward from the promise of their debut. Intrigued, we tracked down Ruban Nielson and asked him to enter Their Library.
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What is your favourite book and why?
I really loved a book called 'Trickster Makes This World' by Lewis Hyde. When I was a little kid I was really into comic books and also I went through periods where I was bombarded by religious nonsense. I realized while reading this book that my heroes were all based on the concept of Jesus. A perfect being who perseveres through hardship without ever lying or being selfish. 'Trickster Makes This World' connected me to an entirely different history of mythological heroes who I could relate to a lot more. In Norse mythology it was Loki, in Hawaiian mythology it was Maui. My mother is Hawaiian and I was already familiar with the stories of Maui. Maui (and most of the trickster heroes) was sometimes selfish and sometimes flawed in other ways. He struggled with his humanity but his mischief always ended up being of benefit to the people around him. He wasn't a self-righteous hero. Instead he was a complicated, realistic hero. This became my new ideal. It felt like putting the right size shoe on for the first time in my life.
What other authors do you like?
I was very influenced by Aldous Huxley. His book Island was really important to me. Anthony Burgess was important too. 'A Clockwork Orange' was a film that I really liked as a teenager but I didn't really understand the story until I read the book, which has a very different ending. The novel isn't nihilistic like the film is. It's about moving from the extremes of angry youth into being something like a man or normal adult. Or at least it's about Burgess trying to reconcile that in his own mind. Being a somewhat extreme and angry youth myself I was really appreciative of the book's viewpoint.
What draws you to certain books?
Often the title will get me. I recently borrowed a book called 'A Mad People's History of Madness'. I also just finished 'Everyone Loves You When You're Dead' by Neil Strauss. I choose records based on their covers. It's the same thing, really. Using the way the author presents the product as an index of what might be inside. More often than not I can find what I need from the cover or the title. It seems like the first thing you get taught: 'Don't judge a book...' etc. But I've been disappointed a lot more by reviews. When I shop at second hand bookshops I just read the title on the spine and choose things that jump out at me. The first time I did that was with a book called 'Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: the Riddles of Culture' which was a really enjoyable book to read at the time. How could a book with that title be bad?
Have you ever discovered a real lost classic? What is it and why?
It's strange because 'classic' is sort of an anointed status, so a 'lost classic' seems like sort of an oxymoron to me. The canon isn't necessarily built from great things. I don't know how many 'classics' I've stopped reading because I got bored and some other more interesting book took my attention.
Do your literary influences have a direct impact on your songwriting?
Yes! I think the translated version of 'Nausea' I read a long time ago changed my way with words. It's strange because I was so amazed by how a Sartre's words could translate so well. Maybe they're not as good in the original haha.
What are you reading at the moment?
'The Cry For Myth' by Rollo May, which is about American society's need for myths. May was an 'existential psychologist' and his arguments are based on therapy sessions. I'm also reading 'Rythm Oil' (sic) by Stanley Booth, which is a history of blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll in Memphis and other parts of the south. On the plane ride from Berlin a couple of days ago I read 'The Grand Design' by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow which is a popular science book about quantum physics and relativity and string theory and that kind of thing.
What is the first book you remember reading as a child?
I think it might have been 'the Twits' by Roald Dahl.
Did you make good use of your library card as a child / teenager?
I used to bother my parents to buy me paperbacks. I went through the Chronicles of Narnia and Chronicles of Prydain and all the Roald Dahl stuff. I was into collecting the books themselves so booking them out of the library was frustrating for me. I liked to collect the Chronicles of Narnia one by one and line them up from 1 to 7 or whatever it was. I didn't read that much as a teenager. Other things seemed to be more interesting I guess.
Have you ever found a book that you simply couldn’t finish?
Lots! I find non-fiction a lot easier to read than novels. Do you read book reviews? Not really. I'm not sure I'm looking for the kinds of things book reviewers are looking for. I can't defend my taste in literature at all.
Would you ever re-read the same book?
I do quite often. Mostly non-fiction though. I re-read certain passages and skim the parts that weren't as important.
Have you ever identified with a character in a book? Which one and why?
I remember identifying with Danny in 'Danny, the Champion of the World'. His relationship with his Dad seemed familiar to me. Apart from that I suppose I relate to a lot of the characters in Huxley's books in some way. I guess we all relate to characters in good books.
Do you read one book at a time or more than one?
I always read two or three. It's really weird the way they interact when you do that. The same subjects will come up. That's why I like to choose books intuitively. Weird things can happen when you follow your nose like that I think.
Is there an author / poet you would like to collaborate with?
I don't know. I guess Will Self might be a good rock lyricist?
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'II' is set to be released on February 4th.