Unknown Mortal Orchestra: “I had less money than I did when I started the first record”

DOUG WALLEN talks to Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson about basements, drums, touring like mad, and repeating himself in the right ways.

One of last year’s most deserving success stories was Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the work of Portland, Oregon-based New Zealander Ruban Nielson. The solo recording project (and live trio) rose almost overnight from total obscurity to rack up global acclaim for its self-titled first album. UMO also promptly started touring nonstop, bringing its druggy, solitary, funk-riddled psych-pop to a surprisingly large audience. While there was talk of Nielson stepping out of his friends’ basements and into a proper studio for the second album, next February’s simply-titled II was ultimately made in much the same fashion. The only difference is that it was his basement this time, and the drums he chopped up belonged to the band instead of to stock break compilations.

All that’s been shared so far from II is ‘Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark)’, which continues the insular yet liberating vibe of the first album. But there are new nuances, from the folky twinges of opener ‘From the Sun’ to the world-weary soul creases of ‘So Good at Being in Trouble’ to the quietly snarky closer ‘Secret Xtians’, as well as the expected psychedelic wobbles.

When and where was this album made?

Well, I was writing it while we were on tour last year. So a lot of it was written by [putting] synth melodies into my phone or writing down little lyrics. Then I didn’t really get to record – we just kept going on tour. I didn’t really spend any time at home. It just seemed like we kept going out and staying out on the road. And then, after doing it for about a year, I got to come home and set up in the basement. I had a month, so I set everything up and started making the record the same way I made the first record, which was basically staying up at night and recording with my computer and some tape recorder.

You weren’t tempted to do it a different way, or find a producer?

Last year, when I was touring, I had all these ideas about what I wanted to do and how I was going to spend some money and find a producer. But without going too into detail about it, for some reason we were working with someone that just didn’t give me any money. [Laughs] I had no money. I had less money than I did when I started the first record, actually. All of that [considering a producer] was just unthinkable all of the sudden. I had just moved into a new house … one of the things I was looking for was a big basement that felt comfortable that I could record in. Once I got set up there, I realised I had another record in me. Another solitary record.

You did the first one in a basement as well, right?

Yeah, but I didn’t have my own basement. Friends of mine would go on tour and I’d borrow their basements. It was recorded in a bunch of different borrowed spaces.

Why a basement? So you don’t have to worry about the neighbours as much?

I think so. That’s what I thought makes it convenient. Because I work at night, and I spend most of my time awake at night. So the basement is just really chilled. I don’t feel like I’m making too much noise. But also, I grew up in New Zealand and New Zealand houses don’t have basements. So it was just the novelty of being underground. It was really new to me and I really liked the idea of being in a bunker and being separated from the world.

I can see how that setting could give you that womb-like enclosed feeling the band has on its recordings.

Yeah, I think it does suit that. The feeling I’m going for is like being away from the stressful things in the world. Just having time and space to yourself to maybe heal or even just take a break.

How did you handle the drums this time?

This time I didn’t use any found breakbeats. I got my brother [Kody Nielson of Opossom] and the live drummer, Gregory Rogove, to drum, and I played some drums. I went through stages of just recording live drums and then chopping them up. I chopped them up in the same way the first record did, and I put together the record in the same way, but I didn’t use any found beats. I recorded the drums to tape and smashed it to tape so it would have that crate-digging sound, like a soul record or something. A really tight drum sound. And then just chopped up my own recordings.

“The thing I was concerned about the whole time was trying to get the right balance between growing and staying the same.”

Why did the old drummer [Julien Ehrlich] leave and the new one come in?

We didn’t really get along. We weren’t really compatible as people. Julien plays in the Smith Westerns now. He’s a lot younger than me and [bassist] Jake [Portrait]. There was a lot of … it wasn’t tension, but something just wasn’t working. We just started worrying that we were responsible for this younger kid who was just taking up a lot of our time. We weren’t behaving that well, so we didn’t really feel like good role models. (Laughs) Just being on the road with someone every day, all these things come up and you have to make a call whether you can continue to do that or whether it’s too much work or not sustainable. When I went to New Zealand my brother played drums in the band for a while. And now, through a recommendation of a friend, we have Greg [Rogove]. Greg’s working out really good. It’s hard to find a person who can play that well but is also willing to tour as hard and be as chilled out as me and Jake. It’s kind of hard to ask. It’s just tough to find the perfect match.

Did you try to avoid repeating yourself with this album, since you were making it basically the same way as the first?

I think the songs were really different. They had a really different vibe to them. The first album, I was going through a really mellow, friendly stage in my life. I’d just come out of this punk band [The Mint Chicks] where everything was really violent and there was a lot of negative vibes. I didn’t feel very welcome in the band, so I didn’t want to do music any more. Then all of the sudden I was in Portland by myself and I had my family with me: I had my wife and I had just had a son. So I was in this really good space, taking control of my life. And then I was making the record away from record label pressure or anything like that, so I just got to make exactly the kind of music that I wanted to make.

So that was what made the first album. The second album has been all songs written about feelings I’ve had being on the road and being tired and probably indulging too much and just kind of losing my mind a little bit. So a whole different energy. I wanted the record to feel like coming back to the same place for people. I wanted it to push the same buttons. So I wasn’t worrying about the repetition thing, because I thought people that liked the first record could take another round of the same thing. The thing I was concerned about the whole time was trying to get the right balance between growing and staying the same. That’s another reason why getting a producer seemed like a band idea: I wasn’t ready to have things sound way different and have things feel really different.

II comes out February 1 on Jagjaguwar/Inertia. Unknown Mortal Orchestra will appear at the Pyramid Rock (December 30) and Peats Ridge (December 31) festivals, and in Sydney for a headline gig at The Standard on January 2.