If Unknown Mortal Orchestra could be considered an enigmatic band then Ruban Nielson is a fitting front man. With superlatives being hurled at him from all angles since the release of third studio album Multi-Love, the New Zealand-born singer, guitarist and songwriter remains the epitome of laid-back, but seems strangely insightful at the same time. In a colourful discourse that covers everything from song-writing, to family relationships, to David Lynch, Ruban talks to State about why UMO, a band known for their psychedelic undertones and minimalist production, have ended up creating a surprisingly mainstream record.
“Production-wise I worked so much harder on it and so I guess it would make sense if it’s the most mainstream,” states Nielson. “But it’s more the fact that I couldn’t make the same record again, I couldn’t make that sound. I had no money when I made the other records (2013’s II and 2011’s self-titled debut) so I just made the most of the situation. With this one I had a decent budget and I had a lot of time, so it would’ve been a bit dishonest to just make the same record again.”
From a musician routinely praised for his creativity and versatility it’s a fair point, but was there ever a danger that Multi-Love’s glossy finish and upbeat pop injection could alienate some of the band’s fan base?
“Yea I was bit worried that people might not get it,” he admits, “I have some close friends that made the jump from making these cheap, lo-fi records from home, to having more money and upscaling production and haven’t done well. But it was what I was excited about, what I wanted to do, and I was kinda heading in that direction anyway. I always think I’m making pop music and then find out later that people think that production is really weird.”
In terms of content there’s been plenty of suggestions for what the album might be based on. One popular theory, that the aptly-titled Multi-Love relates to a polyamorous relationship last year between he, his wife, and another woman, seems to fit the profile, but it’s a subject Nieslon does his best to avoid. “It’s hard to know how much of the album is about that,” he maintains. “I don’t really know what any of my songs are about until like a year after the record comes out. I think that I’m writing these really surreal, psychedelic songs, and then later I realise I’m talking about straight forward things!”
Quite a Dylan-esque response on the matter but Ruban is a lot more forthcoming about the different inspirations behind his records, together with his approach to making them.
“It’s more that I feel there’s a state there that I’m supposed to go into, connect to something greater than yourself and I’m not sure what to call it,” he philosophises. “If you were Stevie Wonder or Prince you would just say it’s God, which is completely adequate, but some people talk about God like anything good that comes out of them comes from him!”
At that point the conversation takes an interesting turn, with cult film director David Lynch, of all people, making an appearance.
“I’ve never heard him say God but he always talks about the mystery of where the ideas for his movies come from – how they come to him in pieces and how he doesn’t ever talk credit for them,” he says, referring to Lynch. “The sense that his ego has to get completely out of the way before he can make anything good, I feel that way about music. There’s the stuff that comes from out there, and then there’s the stuff that comes from me. Whenever something comes from my ego, or I try to make plans and design something really consciously, then it always sounds mediocre. Music to me is something that helps me connect to something more than myself.”
Renowned for his interesting, cerebral lyrics, Nielson details the processes involved with writing an album, which, for him, is anything but formulaic.
“I’m not really designing the songs, it’s not something I sit down and think about before I do it,” he stipulates. “I get phrases that just pop into my head that I just write down in a notebook or on my phone. Then I come back to them later, group them together, and then build a song out of it rather than sitting down and writing lines one by one. It can be tempting to finish a verse really quickly but someone like Leonard Cohen will take two years to write a song just waiting for the right lines to come! So that’s inspired the way I write, waiting for stuff to come to me rather than just rushing.”
A native New Zealander currently living in Portland, Oregon, you would imagine someone like Ruban would take from his travelled background when it comes to writing an album, but, as is often the case, his main inspiration comes from a lot closer to home.
“I think the thing that influences me the most is my family, the relationship I have with my wife,” he states, before delving further. “I also think my emotions are influenced by things that happened in the past, like when I was growing up, my Dad (also a musician) was an alcoholic and drug addict. He slowly managed to stop through a 12-step programme over about 15 years but the experiences I had as a kid, with his drinking and stuff, still influences me now. Even when I’m writing I can always find some reference in that, like when I’m talking about my own drinking and stuff like that. But I think with my family, music has always been the thing that has put us back together. It’s the closest thing to religion that we’ve found, it just makes everything make sense to me.”
Following the release of Multi-Love back in February, and the subsequent wave of excitement that it’s provoked, UMO have been on the touring/promotional circuit for some time now. With an extensive European tour currently ongoing, the good people of Dublin will be treated to their presence on September 26th, with a one-night performance at Whelan’s. After a hectic summer of touring and festivals, Ruban seems content to play a relatively small show, but remains apprehensive nonetheless.
“It’s such a different task to entertain at a club,” he muses. “In some ways it’s actually easier to play a big festival crowd who are already partying and enjoying themselves than winning over a small club who are only impressed if you do something good. We haven’t been to Dublin that many times so there’s no guarantee that the audience are gonna know all the songs, so it’s completely on us to just be a good band. The kind of band somebody would go to and know nothing about and still really enjoy themselves. I love that stuff, so we’ll just try to keep it real!”
Unknown Mortal Orchestra play Whelan’s on Saturday, September 26th and latest album Multi-Love is out now.