Unknown Mortal Orchestra
On the back of 2011’s ‘fresh, effortless and catchy’ self-titled debut, which combined ‘fuzzy indie guitar hooks with hip-hop breaks’ and at times sounded like “the result of a collaboration between Hendrix and RZA”, Portland-via-Auckland trio Unknown Mortal Orchestra have taken the indie music world by storm. Band frontman and former Mint Chicks guitarist Ruban Nielson caught up with FL from the neo-Nazi heartland of Mobile, Alabama to discuss playing to 10 people, watching VHS tapes and tapping into the blogosphere.
Hey Ruban, where are you at the moment?
I’m in Mobile, Alabama.
What moments stand out as the most exciting so far while touring with Unknown Mortal Orchestra?
We played the Filmore a few months ago, that was pretty amazing… the American Music Hall. When we were in New York, we played a show with the Smith Westerns, and ?uestlove from The Roots on the Jimmy Fallon Show came to see us, and he came backstage and hung out with us, that was pretty amazing. There’s a lot of stuff actually, but those two things sort of jump to my mind straight away.
You’re heading to Australia in early December – do you enjoy returning to the southern hemisphere or does it feel like something you were trying to get away from?
Nah, I’m really excited about it. I was kind of… I guess not trying to get away from the southern hemisphere or anything in particular, just trying to get away from everything that I knew and everything I’d been doing. Just to try and take a break and do something else. So now I feel like I’ve been touring around America for so long that the idea of coming back to Australia and New Zealand seems really exciting.
Did you find when you moved to Portland in 2007, while the Mint Chicks were still going strong, that it took time to adjust to such a different culture or was it a seamless transition?
It was hard. I sort of found that it was hard to even communicate with people – they have a different sense of humour over here, and the accent’s really strange to them… even that was really hard. And going from having a fanbase in New Zealand and being able to have a tour and stuff like that, to being totally unknown in America was pretty hard for everybody. I mean it’s kind of what we wanted to do but it still made it difficult.
How did you distinguish yourselves in the flourishing Portland music scene?
We weren’t really sure how to go about doing what we did. It was a weird sequence because we had some success in New Zealand and we had some money to live on, so we went there and paid for our rent with the money that was coming in from our success in New Zealand but we were totally unknown in Portland. I feel like we’d play a bunch of really great shows to 10 or 20 people. It took a while for people to start to notice us. There were a few weird things like Michael, our bass player, had left the band, so it was a strange time. It was really fun but now, looking back at it, it feels more like it was a year off, like having a holiday in Portland really, more than anything else.
The sound on Unknown Mortal Orchestra is a very interesting juxtaposition of retro and futuristic elements, which creates a really unique listening experience. How much did the records you listened to as a kid play a part in defining the record’s sound?
Quite a lot, because it sort of feels like there’s a certain period of my life that influences it quite a lot. Sort of around the time when I was listening to a lot of hip-hop, and grunge was quite big, and at the same time, when things like Wu Tang and Nirvana were quite a big deal with my friends and things like that. I was discovering my dad’s record collection, and he had things like Frank Zappa and The Who and Jimi Hendrix and stuff.
It sort of feels like I’m realising that at that time, there was sort of a year or two where I was being exposed to all this music, and it really made a huge impact on me. And I guess everything that I’ve gotten into since then has gotten involved as well, like punk rock and stuff like that, but it’s really weird how this music could easily be traced back to this one year or so where I discovered a bunch of different things that weren’t really connected but I listened to them all in the same space of time and was excited by all of it.
What made you decide to pair indie rock sounds with hip-hop breakbeats and throw those two genres in the same melting pot for your own music?
I don’t know, it just sort of happened like that. When I first started I thought I was going to make a psych record. The Mint Chicks were getting more and more psychedelic and so I felt like that was where I was at musically. I first started making it in this little apartment I was living in with my wife and my baby, and at the time I couldn’t really make any noise so I ended up using hip-hop breaks. I found it really easy to fit that into what I was doing – straight away it just sounded like it fit. It was pretty easy to continue the record like that using drum breaks.
Later on I had some more space and did some drum recordings and stuff, but when the sound was coming together it was because I was having to use drum breaks instead of actually recording drums.
How long did it take you to write all the songs and how long was spent actually recording them?
I didn’t really record any of it in a studio, it was just all kind of at home and in people’s basements. Friends of mine would go on tour and I’d ask them if I could record in their basement while they were gone, so I did that. I think the whole album was written and recorded in the space of about three months.