Unknown Mortal Orchestra: ‘If I hadn’t had children, I wouldn’t be talking to you now’

I know that there are things wrong with my music, says Ruban Nielson, vocalist and guitarist in the psych-rock band Unknown Mortal Orchestra. “My mixing is bad and the recording is purposefully amateurish sometimes, but I try to concentrate on how to deliver something that feels worth saying.” The New Zealand-Hawaii singer calls on Zoom from his dimly lit basement studio in Portland, where it’s just started snowing. For Nielson, perfection has always taken a back seat when it comes to the band’s distinctive DIY sound, which he finds impossible to sum up. “I’ve always made up genre names,” he tells me, and comes up with suggestions like “daddy wave” and “trouble gum”. “Depression funk” is another fan favorite.

If the latter is true, UMO can now be considered champions of music for mental health. The band is on album number five. The last, V, a double offering, is filled with warm, homegrown instrumentals and fuzzy future classics that could only come from the creators of their once-scrubbed sound. Experts in alternative ambivalence, UMO are innovators of the bittersweet, often grouped with former tour partners, Foxygen. The band – primarily Nielson and bassist Jake Portrait – started in 2010 in Auckland, when the former anonymously released a Soundcloud track in the wild. Since then, their lively music has garnered critical acclaim, helping them sell out world tours. Just last month, UMO celebrated 10 years of their 2013 debut album. The now classic || including riffy and reminiscent tracks like ‘So Good At Being In Trouble’ – now gold.

“I couldn’t make that record again,” says Nielson. “It’s so specific to what I was going through at the time; all the limitations and desperation of: ‘Who am I? What do I do?’” he says. “It’s all baked into the record itself. I can hear it.” || was created during a tumultuous time spent couch-surfing and navigating “a pretty bad drug problem.” But eventually, Neilson says, he had a realization. “At some point I have to decide if I’m just going to change and move on to the next chapter of my life, or if I’m going to die,” he remembers thinking, explaining that many of his close friends “didn’t come up in his forties”. It was his children who pulled him “back from the edge”. Nielsen looks at me earnestly through the camera, illuminated by his daughter’s selfie ring light. “I think if I didn’t have children, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now ,” he admits. “I was fine with sacrificing myself. I just wasn’t good with sacrificing other people.”

Nielson has learned a lot over the past decade. He’s learned that the band lifestyle can make you a “self-absorbed arsehole” – and he’s learned that family is not just his reason for surviving, but for truly living. “I would throw away any honor just to get the approval of my kids,” he laughs, a little self-consciously. 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 invest time in being a good son and father. However, the pandemic resulted in a series of “tragedies” for his relatives that reminded Neilson why he got into this career in the first place. Making music is how he “copes with life”.

It is then UMO’s new album V was born. Music and family collided, and the latter inadvertently became central to the songs, which were recorded in Palm Springs with his brother, father and longtime bandmate Portrait. “We didn’t get out of that period easily,” he says. In fact, Nielson thinks they came out better for it. “We thought that if we don’t come out of this as stronger and less selfish people, then all of this is just another big tragedy for our family.”

Considering tragedies, Nielson felt it was important that the album remained 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.” Tracks lyrically teleport listeners to the noisy sway of palm trees, sparkling seas and skins of sand. That said, as with most of UMO’s work, these sun-kissed sounds are shadowed by a slight darkness, as heard in the nuances of the nostalgic “That Life”. “When isn’t life like that?” says Nielson about the bittersweetness inherent in his music. “How can you really be happy if you don’t acknowledge these dark things?” Given the circumstances surrounding the album, mortality inevitably became a theme V. But instead of weighing him down, it gave him a carpe diem approach to life and creation. “I think the baseline I work from is to constantly think about death, and always use it as an excuse to be reckless,” he laughs.

The singer has always had an impending sense of doom about the world around us. “UMO started in this Obama era and everyone was in this daze. At the time, everyone seemed to be saying, “My God, life is so great—but I was already very sick.” As Nielson grew older, he felt a change. “Now the starting point is that everyone should feel pessimistic,” he chuckles at the gloomy situation. “You know, politically disillusioned, constantly aware of death and things like that.”

It is ironic, then, that Neilson feels less morbid now than before. The veil of pretense has lifted and he is relieved. “The ambient feeling that we’re heading off a cliff is now kind of established as real,” he suggests. “This is when you can start getting real about things and fixing things.” Nielson believes now is the time to live life to the fullest. “If we’re all going to die, we better make it count. We should party, we should take care of the people we love, we should tell our mothers, we love them! If it really is over, now is not the time to be depressed.”

Nielson (second from right) doesn’t know the true meaning of his songs until a few years after he’s written them

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Nielson (second from right) doesn’t know the true meaning of his songs until a few years after he writes them

(Juan Ortiz)

Although there are clues, Nielson isn’t sure what the songs contain V is about yet. In fact, it always takes him a year or two to find out the true meaning of his music. “I think the reason I’m so addicted to making music is because it’s such a strange, mysterious process.” He has begun to think of the writing process as a type of “religion”. “It’s a cheesy word, but it’s kind of like you’re channeling something,” he muses. “Like what you create comes from your subconscious or a higher power. Sometimes when I write, I think, ‘How did I even do that?’ I don’t feel 100 percent the author of it. I feel like I was just there and did it by accident.” He wonders if this means his songs belong to others, and recalls anecdotes from shows where fans have described acute situations in their own lives that his music articulates perfectly. He asks himself, “What if the song is actually about them? What if I’m just the person who delivers it?”

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I like the idea of ​​being a successful musician, but I don’t like the idea of ​​people discussing me

Ruben Nielson

However, one particular album was written about something very specific in Nielson’s life. The 2015 record Multi-Love centered around Neilson’s polyamorous relationship with his wife with another woman. The specifications were then detailed in a Pitchfork article, as something startling the relationship. The motif was made bigger than the music, and the woman involved felt offended by the revelation. “I had to learn it the hard way [my life] is not entirely mine to talk about, he says. “I didn’t think anyone would care enough for it to become an issue.” I ask Nielson if the experience has been lyrically suffocating. “I realized I have to be better at giving as much of myself as I can … without pulling other people down 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 discussing me; that was never why I went into this. It always feels like you’re trying to negotiate something: how much success do you want versus what the price is?”

He may not have any desire for 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 don’t have a single thought; I am the purist version of myself.” It’s an addictive feeling. “It’s almost like I’m a different person — you can escape your ego and yourself.” Escape is imminent for Neilson. UMO will soon hit the road for their massive US and European tour. In September, the band ends with a headline slot at the End of The Road festival.

However, the trip is not without worries. A few months ago, a nerve compression in Neilson’s left hand left him unable to move it; he has had to go to physio daily just to play his guitar. Always finding the silver lining, Nielson says the injury has shifted his focus from achieving perfection to just being able to play the parts. Now, without the pressure, he can concentrate on conveying something meaningful. It’s all he ever wanted.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s new album ‘V’ is out now via Jagjaguwar

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