“Everything Came Together” Unknown Mortal Orchestra Interviewed

Ruban Nielson on their new album, personal relocation, and letting ideas flow...

“I had four years of working aimlessly, just trying to use up time because I didn’t know when the next tour would be, or even if touring was going to happen again at all. We worked on music thinking, ‘is there a music industry any longer?’”

We forget now, but such extremities of thought were never far from our minds in 2020. The sense of paralysis and despair was palpable for most of us, although for those in the entertainment industry, there were larger questions marks; namely ‘if’ rather than ‘when’ they would return to normal work.

That’s not to say there weren’t some perks to being a successful musician at the time, or indeed that they deserved our unbridled sympathy. For Ruban Nielson, the mastermind behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra, his time was split between Hawaii and Palm Springs, but the lockdowns coincided with a planned hiatus following years on the road, as he explains over Zoom: “When I finished the tour for the last record (2018’s ‘Sex & Food’), I was in pretty bad shape, physically. I was heading towards my Fat Elvis era so I just had to get off the road, I’d been touring for eight years and I’d never had more than two months off. It takes its toll and I wasn’t treating my body particularly well. I worked quite hard, and most of that was in the band. We only graduated to the (tour) bus towards the last album so I was ready to get off the road.”

“I’d saved some money and I’d found a place in Palm Springs where I wanted to dry out,” he continues. “Try and get my health back, cut down on my drinking, all that kind of stuff. I was ready to be a hermit and then the pandemic hit. I was lucky enough to have been planning for a break for different reasons. But then, as we went into it, I went a little too far into the hermit phase! I was lucky enough to be one of those people who had time to reflect on their life. I had friends who were nurses at that time and they didn’t have time to reflect, they were constantly going to work and trying to save people’s lives. I realised how lucky I was to be lonely and locked away, but I think it made the sense of time even worse!”

It seems to only be dawning on people, now that the relief of normality being restored has worn off, that we collectively lost two years of our lives. In Nielson’s case, he doesn’t feel that he’s been away from the public eye for half a decade: ‘I’m not really different to anyone else. It feels like forever and it feels like not long at all. It seems like whenever I talk to anyone about it, it’s like we lost a good two or three years there. It’s not really ‘normal’ time.’

“I would be in the house for long periods of time by myself, practicing instruments and writing songs. When I think about whether it seems like a long or short time… it feels like a long time even though a few years disappeared.”

Although it felt like a period of stasis, life did go on and other things happened. In Nielson’s case, that involved caring for his family in a time of need. “There were a bunch of things that happened,” the New Zealander explains; “My uncle got sick and it seemed, of all these things that were going on, I had some amount of power to make a little bit less tragic.”

“I was thinking about my Mum, who had been in New Zealand for 40 years but we moved her back to Hawaii so she could be closer to her family and she wouldn’t be scrolling Facebook, having to watch the whole thing from a distance. That was a big deal and I was back and forth between Palm Springs, Portland and Hilo in Hawaii trying to see if I could make myself useful.”

As it transpired, it was an offer readily accepted. “There were a lot of things to do,” he continues. “My uncle has a plot of land that a lot of my family live on and there were all kinds of things and odd jobs that needed doing there. I dedicated myself to that, and through that process I was putting all the music stuff out of my mind for a while and try and focus on life stuff.”

“Then it sort of forced me to reconnect with what I got into music for in the first place. I filled up with a lot of feelings and thoughts and I haven’t got anywhere to put them. Then, all of a sudden, these things would start coming up, pieces of language and lyrics and melodies and things. In a roundabout way…it gave me the ability to finish the album as I had all this stuff I needed to express. My brother (Kody, percussionist) was going through all this family stuff with me at the same time so it put us on the same page. We were at a wedding and I said, ‘why don’t you come back to Palm Springs and we’ll finish this record?’ We came back full of all these thoughts and feelings about what we’d just experienced. It was quite easy to know what we needed to do to finish an album, because we knew the mood that we needed to express. Everything came together.”

With a new-found motivation to record an album, and the world still in disarray, Nielson and his brother set about making a cheerful collection of songs, taking inspiration from an unlikely source, given their psych-rock leanings: “I had this idea that the record would be called ‘Guilty Pleasures’ because I really wanted to make a happy record that was not at all focussed on the heaviness of the pandemic. I wanted to make something that was connected to the music I really loved that I wouldn’t necessarily put on unless I was driving or in the supermarket. Toto, Journey, and all that. I always thought it would be so hard to make that kind of immaculately crafted music. I had that idea in my head and I didn’t really know how that would work as an album.”

Nielson was sure of one thing, however: the need to leave the record open to interpretation. “We knew the record should be called something more open,” he explains. “We knew, with Roman numerals, ‘V’ is really obvious because we called the second record ‘II’. In some ways it does look back to that beginning, but I wanted something that was open enough so people could find their way into the record.”

‘V’ is something of an amalgamation of previous Unknown Mortal Orchestra records, with large periods of the record devoid of vocals. “We wanted to keep some space in the record too. I wanted there to be times when I would shut up and stop singing and have some space to reflect. I guess a lot of the final mix we were devising in the car. Sometimes we’d just drive around in the car and see how the music felt. A lot of it started to feel like on a road trip. Sometimes you turn it up, and it drives your experience. Then, after that, sometimes a conversation will develop and you want the music to fall away and be the soundtrack to something that involves you talking to someone. I really wanted the record to feel like that. It had that connection, and me and my brother hanging out. It was a thing that developed out of turning away from music, then getting the key by dealing with life for a while. It just worked out that way, and we’re lucky that it did!”

While ‘Sex & Food’ was the flagship album for their last campaign, an instrumental album (‘IC-01 Hanoi’) followed six months later in the autumn of 2018. The numerical designation was purposely intended as being the first in a series of instrumental recordings, but Nielson’s ambitions were swiftly curtailed, as he explains: “I suppose the idea was that we wanted to make something like electric jazz or Krautrock. Can would be the best example. Just play what we wanted to, record it, and then edit it later. Then the idea was maybe I could make a series of these and press them onto limited vinyl. I’d always been really inspired by the way Sun-Ra would make an album: Press as many as were pressed, sell them at the shows then once they were gone, they were gone. I was originally going to do that with the IC series, but I sent some music to my manager and the label and they wouldn’t let me do it like that! They wanted to put it out properly!”

“But the ideas are still there,” he continues. “We went to Columbia recently and did another one where we could play with the musicians we met there. It just showed me that there’s a certain audience that that’s fine with listening to more expansive things so I could try some stuff out. That gave me good confidence for sure, but there were a lot of good songs where, attempting to write the lyrics, there was so many heavy things going on that I was thinking about. There was no way of writing the song without the song being too painful or feeling uncomfortably vulnerable, so I stopped trying to force lyrics into these pieces of music when really the subjects that I was thinking of when I wrote them were a little bit too heavy or expansive to capture.”

“I realised when we were driving around that a lot of these things needed to be finished so there was some space. I never put out a double album before and, as we were listening to it, I realised that there was quite a hooky, repetitive pop-art thing going on with a lot of the songs and I didn’t want the record to be smashing you over the head with these vocal hooks and melodies. I thought it would be nice to write songs that are tightly arranged and then go into something more expansive to cleanse your palette. It was also a solution to the problem of having so much material and ending up with something that was inevitably going to be a double album because it was so long (that) we’d spent writing.”

“It was just about making music for us but where people would say, ‘I think this will work,’ rather than ‘where’s the vocal?’ I like the idea of, on a double album, me singing for a while then not singing for a while. That feels really good. There are a lot of records that I like that have that dynamic to them.”

With the album now in the can, attention turns to the forthcoming Unknown Mortal Orchestra tour, due to start later this month in North America before hitting Europe in early summer. Despite the fatigue he suffered from at the tail end of his last tour, Nielson has no such qualms about re-entering the live arena, aside from Imposter Syndrome: “It’s funny because I haven’t seen everyone one together for such a long time so I’m personally looking forward to seeing everyone. It’s always really hard because whenever I go to a concert, I always look at the band and think, ‘I do that! How do I do that? Everyone’s looking at them!’ and it makes me feel really anxious when I’m in an audience. Then it occurs to me that I’m going to have to do this at some point! That’s always been a weird thing.”

“I remember going to a Perfume Genius concert. I was sitting there watching the performance, thinking it was such an amazing performance, then, ‘Oh my God, that amount of attention…I’m going to have to do that soon.’ But I just have some faith that it just happens. I don’t feel like I’m the same person when I go onstage. Something possesses you. All those thoughts go out of the window and you just behave like an animal for an hour! It’s a very addictive feeling, so I just put faith in the process really.”

Nielson has been distracted from self-doubt however, albeit not for the most ideal of reasons. “A month ago, I had a nerve entrapment issue in my hand, and it stopped working,” he tells us. “I thought I might have some sort of degenerative nerve disease or something because I couldn’t hold the strings down on my guitar. I’ve been doing physio and my hand is finally back to normal. It’s not a crazy disease or anything. I’ve been concentrating so singularly on just getting the ability to play the guitar that I haven’t been worried about all of the other stuff; people scrutinising you, the idea of making mistakes, have I still got it? All that kind of stuff has been held back by the idea of working the strength in my hands. It was nightmare for a minute but now I look at it and think it’s a blessing because it’s another month out of the lead-up to this that I wasn’t able to start doubting myself!”

With a plethora of new tunes, and his soul and hands repaired, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s psychedelic pioneer stands in good stead to re-enter the fray. 

‘V’ is out now.

Words: Richard Bowes
Photo Credit: Juan Ortiz Arenas

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