Unknown Mortal Orchestra
“Isolation it can put a gun in your hand.” That there is the first lyric of Ruban Nielson’s second record as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, II, a record very vaguely about being lonely, being in love, being tired, or just being – it’s one very much ambiguous in its message and very much up to the ear of the beholder. It’s also a dusty, fluid modern psych wonder nugget that smells of any patchouli-soaked hippy rock you’d care to mention, but in such a touching, personal and timeless way one can’t help but be entranced.
Not only is II Nielson’s second record as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, it’s his second band, following on from a long-term stint in legendary New Zealand indie mainstays The Mint Chicks (a name that sounds fantastic when spoken in the Auckland inflection). Unknown Mortal Orchestra was born long after midnight in Portland, Oregon, as Nielson tinkered away after hours with drum loops and a sound a little slower, a little more out there, and evidently a lot closer to his heart than he’d done prior. After a track found its way onto the internet, the story goes as per most modern music fairytales on the www: fans and fatcats alike came knocking on the door of the at-the-time mysterious, obtusely-named group, and an excellent self-titled debut album was released in 2011.
Apparently it’s a project that could have only been birthed in Portland. “I think it was really inspired by Portland, by being here,” he says. “And I think I went there because the first time I visited, I felt something inspiring about the place. The whole thing of going from bars to restaurants to strip clubs and every place is playing music that I like, it’s like a bubble effect. You don’t have to deal with Skrillex or One Direction or any of that stuff; you just pretend it doesn’t exist. You know, you go to East End Bar and they’re playing Zero Boys and then you go over to Rontoms and Rontoms are playing Black Sabbath. You go from place to place and it’s all music that I like. There’s something really good about that, you get stuck in your own zone and you don’t have to think, ‘hey I’m making a psychedelic record’ you just kind of sit down and start making that stuff.”
Not even two years later we have here II, and a more refined, assured, but just as dreamy Unknown Mortal Orchestra is in full effect. The songcraft is sinewy and sharp as a knife, but always full of surprising hooks and little melodic grenades, the production warmer and more intimate, and lyrics surfing a hazy emotional zeitgeist that resonates at a deep hum.
When we speak, Unknown Mortal Orchestra are in Holland, Michigan, on a headline tour of the US, and Nielson is coming to terms with how II is going down with the people. “I’m blown away by the response. I didn’t really think about how people were gonna receive it, I just tried to be a lot more honest in the songwriting and see where that went. I just had a feeling that would be the best thing for me to do next. So it’s kinda cool that people seem to be touched by it, are taking it to heart.”
After becoming clear that the new endeavour was a viable way of life for its creator following the vibrant reception of the first record, the impetus for II’s gestation was Nielson’s desire to be understood in a way he felt he couldn’t be IRL. “I wrote a lot of the songs on the road, so I sort of wanted the record to be a way of making people understand something about myself, for some reason I just thought the world would be a little less lonely if I found a way of confessing weird things. And so I wasn’t really sure how I was gonna go about it but I didn’t censor myself, if a lyric went into my head and I felt that it was honest and I didn’t really worry about whether I thought it was good or not, if I thought ‘well that’s the truth’ (and) I put that down.”
The band’s sonic evolution between Unknown Mortal Orchestra and II was significant if subtle, but their logistical approach changed up formidably. “On a technical level, rather than using mostly drum samples I wanted to record my own drums and make my own samples. I used breakbeats and stuff on the first record, out of necessity because I didn’t have any means of recording them, so that’s how they ended up being that way on the first record. But (this time) I didn’t want to rely on using found drums, I wanted to record my own drums to sound like classic breaks instead. I recorded drums to tape with one microphone and stuff like that to try and get that sound. So that was kind of a big deal.” His home base in Portland had also changed. “The first record I had to always try to borrow space, because I was living in such a small apartment I couldn’t really make noise in there and stuff. So friends would go on tour and I would borrow their basement for a couple of days, but I have my own house now, so I could do the whole record in one place.” II feels very, very delicately more luxurious and unwound perhaps as a result of its upgraded birthplace.
Lyrically the record feels more personal but at the same time, colourfully elusive, a consequence of Nielson favouring capturing a vibe rather than delving into detail, a kind of cosmic way of revealing more by saying less. “I don’t really think about the specifics of what the lyrics are, I just try to think about feelings and impressions because I think they’re more true. I think when you sit down and try to force an idea into a song it comes out cheesy. It’s like the difference between someone being able to see what you’re dreaming about or somebody looking at your Tumblr page where you’re trying to convey a version of yourself to people. That way I’m opening up myself without really knowing it.”
And there’s a clear late night streak to II, echoing the ambience of the time of day Nielson was busy piecing it together, and his personal affliction of possessing the desire yet inability to sleep, most explicitly expressed in Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark). “I’ve always been a night person. When I was around 12 I used to stay awake all night and then I would have to go to school the next day (but) I just wouldn’t go to school, I’d just go out to the garage and crash in my dad’s car and then wake up and pretend that I’d been to school. I don’t get enough sleep, it’s really hard for me, so instead of worrying about it for my whole life I just thought I’d try and figure out a job where you can be active at night. I used to think how I’d like to work at a gas station and be that gas station attendant that sits behind a desk and waits for people to show up. I thought maybe I’d end up doing that but music is better.”
Music making serves as a creative and mental therapy for Nielson. “I keep trying to give it up but then I find myself writing songs again. It’s in the family, in the blood, and now that I’ve gotten to a point where I can express myself I think it would be even harder to stop doing it. It’s sort of the only way to explain certain things, and my worst fear I think is being misunderstood by people, and since doing music, especially with UMO, I feel like people get what the deal is with me a lot more, compared to being misunderstood all the time and people making up their mind as to who I am as a person. I think I’m addicted to it.”
Now in his second life as a member of a happening band, this dreamer is comfortable in his place in the world. “I don’t really like days off, I just like playing music. I really only want a day off when I get sick or I’m too tired. I feel like, with my lifestyle, I’m already lucky enough. Most of the time I feel like I’m doing what I want to do. I used to go to school and be in maths and wish that I was wandering around in the forest and now I don’t really get that feeling. When I’m in the van or setting up for soundcheck, I feel like I’m where I wanna be.” He goes on. “Even though the album talks about loneliness and all that stuff I think a lot of those feelings just come from having too much fun and being overwhelmed more than anything really bad. It’s been a pretty big adventure.”