Around The World With Unknown Mortal Orchestra

“YOU’RE Mickey Mouse trying to end the world.”

Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson is perched high on the cliffs of Maroubra beach as a photographer’s assistant drapes red material behind him. He’s in Sydney on a brief promotional visit ahead of the release of Sex & Food, the fourth Unknown Mortal Orchestra album.

Ruban is wearing an outfit his eight-year-old son Moe picked out for him: Adidas compression tights under basketball shorts, runners, and a tatty black jumper, topped with a cap he bought on a recent holiday in Hawaii. “They’re mum’s people,” he says in reference to his Polynesian roots.

The material is flailing about on this windy Sydney afternoon – but photographer Cybele Malinowski has a plan. “Have you seen Fantasia?” she enquiries. “You’re creating all this energy. With this material you just need to let it go.”

The singer is a bit of a tentative subject at first – “I’ve got two modes today,” he jokes, holding up a bomber jacket he brought along for a potential costume change – but he eventually warms up, leaping precariously from rock to rock as I ponder what sort of insurance cover we have if he loses his footing and Thelma & Louises it over this cliff.

“I grew up in New Zealand,” Ruban assures me later. “I’ve stood on some rock.”

For the first time in more than a decade, psych rock’s prodigal son is contemplating a return.

Auckland, New Zealand

“THEY used to call us ‘The Munt Chucks.’”

Taking the piss out of the New Zealand accent has become a regrettable Aussie pastime, but Ruban doesn’t seem to mind. “It even sounds weird for me now,” he says, adding that he often gets mistaken for an Australian, or worse yet, an Englishman. “That really gets to me,” he jokes.

The Munt Chucks are, of course, The Mint Chicks. Formed by four high school friends (including Ruban’s younger brother Kody) in Auckland in 2001, they signed to New Zealand’s most famous label Flying Nun, and spectacularly imploded almost a decade later at an EP launch.

The tension between Ruban and his younger brother Kody – The Mint Chick’s unpredictable and volatile frontman – was at the heart of what made The Mint Chicks so great, but also what tore them apart. “The thing that made us work in New Zealand was that we weren’t cool,” Ruban reflects. “When we first came here [to Australia] it was a hipster thing … We never fit that. We were poor and we didn’t really know what we were doing.”

 

The Mint Chicks relocated to Portland in 2007, but Kody moved back to New Zealand following the band’s spectacularly fractuous demise. Kody started Opossom – which dabbled in similar lo-fi territory to Unknown Mortal Orchestra, but with the pop sensibilities dialled up – and has drummed on the last two Unknown Mortal Orchestra albums: II and the game-changing Multi-Love.

He’s now an official member of the band, and their dad Chris – a musician himself – could not be happier. “We had a rough time when we were kids and it’s been quite cool to get some victories. When a record does well and he is involved in it, it’s quite cool to think about how far we’ve come.”

While on the fringes of UMO for the past five years, Kody’s full-time place in the band cannot be understated. He’s provided fresh incentive for Ruban and long-time member, bassist Jake Portrait, to head out on the road again. But more than that: repairing the Nielson brothers’ once tumultuous relationship has become UMO’s raison d’être.

“I almost gave up doing it,” Ruban says. “I was just thinking, ‘What’s the point?’ The band was successful, but I had no interest in making money and going out there for no reason.”

“I like the idea of me and Kody getting our act together and I built the band around that idea: of me and Kody together again. Once that happened I started to get excited about touring again. I had already achieved all the dreams that I had for music.”

Some of the initial ideas for Sex & Food began germinating while Ruban was reunited with Kody back in New Zealand, including ‘Major League Chemicals’, which sounds like the product of a good-time brotherly jam.

How often do you go back to Auckland?

About once a year.

Can you ever see yourself moving back there for good?

Yeah, I mean I really love the new Prime Minister [Jacinda Ardern]. She’s having a baby this year and I think that’s so cool. It’s one of the few things that made me excited about politics this year. Everything else is doom and gloom. She seems really cool – the youngest prime minister New Zealand’s ever had. Her husband [Clarke Gayford] was a radio DJ when I was growing up. I kinda know him … There’s a story about him holding the fort down while his wife runs the country. It’s a nice story. It’ll change the culture a lot if they pull it off.

Portland, USA

PORTLAND has been Ruban’s home for the past decade. It’s where the Unknown Mortal Orchestra story started back in 2010, initially as a mysterious basement project that was catapulted onto the world stage via Bandcamp. Ruban has made the previous three Unknown Mortal Orchestra albums in Portland, including Multi-Love; a record dominated, for better or worse, by his personal life.

Without rehashing the details, Ruban invited a journalist from Pitchfork into his home for five days. At some point he uncovered the polyamorous relationship at the heart of the record, and it dominated the narrative around Multi-Love to the point where Ruban felt like he didn’t want to talk about his personal life again.

“I can’t tell what I’m supposed to keep private now, or what’s my responsibility to the people who listen to my records,” he told The Guardian a month after the story broke in 2015.

Without prompting this is the first thing Ruban mentions when we head out to Maroubra. But it’s more of a caveat than an invitation. “I thought maybe I owed people that liked my music the full story,” Ruban explains, “but I kind of realised I don’t really. I’m honest enough in the music. It’s all there if you want to look for it.”

How much has Portland changed in the decade since you moved there?

Quite a lot. There was a lot of DIY stuff going on, but a lot of money has come in and changed that. Me and my friends often talk about old Portland and new Portland. Old Portland is really seedy. I think it has the most stripclubs per capita … there’s two vegan striplcubs. The first time I went there I thought it’d be more hippy and low-key, but it’s one of the most gnarly ones. It’s practically like a brothel. It’s totally vegan and also really seedy. That’s old Portland in a nutshell.

Are you old Portland or new Portland?

Well, I can’t really say. I’m a transplant … but I’ve been there a lot longer than most people that are there these days.

It’s a really transient city. I remember going there about five years ago and no one I met was actually from Portland.

There’s a lot of people that come and go. A lot of my friends have moved away. It’s still good if you know where to go. It’s still unlike everywhere else if you know what nights to go to what bars. Every Sunday night they have things like stripparaoke; a lot of things to do with strippers, karaoke, a lot of house [music] nights. And those are still as fun as they used to be. There’s still the odd warehouse or punk party, but not as much as there used to be.

Which part of Portland do you live in?

I live in Milwaukie, which is the white trash part. [Laughs] I shouldn’t say that because my family live there. But it’s quite nice in parts. Over the years they’ve put in a train stop. Do you read comics? There’s a company called Dark Horse comics. That’s where The Mask came from … They’ve been based here for a while. The township that I live in is owned by them so there’s all this Alien vs. Predator stuff from the ‘80s there, and a Steiner School. It’s quite a weird dynamic. It’s an odd place…

Do you still have that basement studio set up?

Yeah … [But] I just got lonely. I got sick of being down there for months on end. Because I don’t leave the house for a month-and-a-half at a time. So after doing that, just because I had a budget for the album, I just thought, “Well, they gave me all this money to record the album, so rather than just sit on it I should spend it.” My manager was just like [mimics an American accent], “If you really need to, let’s go somewhere else, let’s go to a studio.”

He probably didn’t expect you to pick four studios around the world.

That’s pretty typical of what I would do.

Reykjavík, Iceland

WRITERS’ block set in and Ruban decided to head somewhere with a similar topography to New Zealand; somewhere where he could indulge in his “night owl” tendencies in a more productive way.

He picked Iceland, spending a week in its capital Reykjavik over summer. Twenty-four hours of sunlight seemed to do the trick. “I would have a feeling about a place … and then I’d build up my own weird reason for going there,” he says.

What “weird reason” did you give for going to Reykjavik?

It was kind of vague thing. I was in a car from the airport, and I was talking to an Uber driver about Iceland. One in 10 people in Iceland publish a book there. They’re voracious readers, and tonnes of people write their memoirs and novels. A lot of people read because it’s nighttime for half the year. And so there’s a lot of time to kill indoors, you know.

He was telling me that I need to go to these specific places. He was talking superstitiously about absorbing energy out of the earth and all this stuff. [Laughs] He just seemed like an Icelandic dad guy, but he was pretty spacey … It was kind of what I was thinking anyway. I was thinking about geology. I’d been there before, I went travelling around a bit. A lot of the landscape inspired me to write certain lines in the songs. But I was just here by myself, just wandering around. It was the summer, it never went dark.

I really wanted to go to Iceland because I’m a night owl. I constantly stay up all night and sleep during the day. So I was wondering what would happen if I was staying up at night but it was daytime, so I kind of did that. I was there for a week and it was never nighttime. It was kind of weird because it felt really like a weeklong day, the day didn’t have a beginning, middle and an end. It was just like one long day. It drove me a bit nuts, but it was pretty inspiring.

Did you get a lot of stuff out of it? Did you write a novel?

[Laughs] No. But I got a lot of lyrics and stuff. It was pretty cool.

Seoul, South Korea

A STINT at a K-pop studio in Seoul, South Korea, was inspired by David Bowie and Iggy Pop’s recording adventures at Hansa Studios – right near the Berlin Wall – in the late-1970s. “I wondered what the equivalent of that tension would be now and I thought of the DMZ [Korean Demilitarised Zone] in Korea,” Ruban says.

Was it tense over there?

The thing that’s really crazy is Seoul is one of the most chilled cities I’ve ever been to. But if you talk to people there you do get stories that are strange. A lot of my friends there had stories about sitting on the border with a rifle, watching the other side. It’s a strange thing to have to live with every day. In the States, they are so hysterical about Kim Jong-un and stuff. South Koreans just live right there, and they don’t stress about it as much. They get on with life. I got fascinated with being close to places that are communist now, and so after that my next thing was to go to Vietnam.

Hanoi, Vietnam

NEXT stop on the Communist bloc was the historic Phu Sa, a studio mostly used for traditional Vietnamese music, in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi. The full band had reconvened there, including Ruban and Kody’s father Chris, who contributes sax to the record.

It was monsoon season, and Ruban was getting most of his inspiration from the daily walks from the Airbnb to the studio in the oppressively hot conditions. “We didn’t know how to get around and really do life in Hanoi,” he recalls, “so we were kinda just walking through this hot weather. We’d get to the studio drenched in sweat. We were wearing ourselves out.”

But the sessions were productive. They befriended a local Vietnamese musician and recorded another album’s worth of material during the time they were setting their instruments up. Chris Nielson’s horn work features heavily on this “connective record” between Sex & Food and wherever else UMO decide to venture next.

“It sounds more like jazz than rock’n’roll,” Ruban says of the album, which he hopes to release later in the year. “It’ll all be instrumental. We grew up around Miles Davis and stuff.”

While beginning life in Auckland, the syrupy futuristic funk of ‘Hunnybee’ was finished in the Hanoi Airbnb during a storm. It’s one of Ruban’s favourite moments on Sex & Food, and when he hears it today it instantly transports him back to that time.

“That’s so great about music – when you listen to it, you go back to a certain summer,” Ruban says. “I can’t listen to Multi-Love that much because it just transports me straight back to that year … It’s heavy. It makes you miss the past.”

One of the album’s most abrasive moments, first single ‘American Guilt’, was a product of the Hanoi sessions as well. Ruban say he was fascinated by the connection between 1960s rock music, particularly Jimi Hendrix, and the Vietnam War.

“When I was a kid there was a lot of movies that took that music, which I like still today, and just melded it to that war. I was thinking it might be interesting to go there and see what that’s like, and see what a communist society is like.”

In the press materials for the album, Ruban talks about applying a UMO filter to the “living dead genre” of rock. “It seems so uncool right now that it seems irresistible to do the wrong thing and try and make a rock record,” he explains.

I was pretty curious about the part in the bio about you wanting to “revive rock”. Do you listen to rock music now? Have you kind of rekindled your love for it?

I grew up with Led Zeppelin being one of my favourite bands. Black Sabbath and all of that; the obvious stuff, Jimi Hendrix. I never stopped liking it … I started reading a lot of older rockers saying rock’s dead and it needs to come back. And I thought, “How stupid”, and then I thought, “What’s the big deal?” Just write a rock song and show people what the fun of it is.

It just seems interesting for you to put that [‘American Guilt’] out as the first song. It seems like a curveball.

I just think that when Multi-Love first came out the first single was the song ‘Multi-Love’ and it was a big surprise to some people and it made some people angry. But unexpectedly to me actually it ended up being the biggest song from that recording. I thought that it was just going to be a weird song that would throw people off and be like a prank almost … but it probably is the best song on the record. It’s my favourite one but it’s very weird.

Why do you think it made people angry?

Because people expected a psychedelic lo-fi thing, but it was piano based and had all this different stuff I don’t think people were expecting. But I think people would expect it now, so now it feels like the same move in this context would be almost like an old-school metal song. It’s not just to be contrarian or anything, but it just feels like a fun thing to do. As a music fan that’s what I like to do. I text my friends when a new song comes out and [we] have a little debate, an argument, and try to figure out what’s going on.

What was the last text exchange about?

Me and Jake talk about music a lot. The last thing we had a conversation about was Justin Timberlake. The Super Bowl but also just the logic behind what he’s doing because it feels like it’s not going to work, but it also feels like there was a good idea in there somewhere.

Maybe he’s trying to avoid being called a “culture vulture” by connecting some kind of authenticity from his background or something? But he didn’t quite do it authentically. Do you know [Alex Cameron saxophonist] Roy Molloy? He tweeted that somehow Justin Timberlake is now appropriating white culture. [Laughs]

It’s funny because I was doing an interview once where we were talking about R&B and this guy was like, “Do you ever run into that kind of issue, of people criticising you for appropriating black culture?”, because I work with elements of funk or whatever. And I remember saying that if I appropriate black culture then I appropriate white culture as well. And I think that’s what that ‘American Guilt’ thing is … I’m just a music nerd that listens to a lot of records, so it all feels like fair game to mess with.

Is there a line for you?

I would never rap. [Laughs] I don’t do rap. That is one of the few rules that I have. I definitely have lines. I have created some territory that I feel I’m allowed to be in. I’ve never been criticised for it. I feel okay about it. I think there’s something about the way I do these things that people seem to understand that I’m not trespassing. I am careful about it and I’ve thought about it a lot.

Mexico City, Mexico

THE vocals for ‘American Guilt’ started at Panoram Studios in Mexico City, but the sessions were cut short after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake devastated the city.

Ruban and Jake were the only UMO members that ventured to Mexico for the sessions, and the pair ended up sleeping on the pavement in Parque Mexico after their Airbnb was cordoned off by officials.

“It was pretty terrifying actually, but it was also pretty typical for this band,” Ruban says. “I felt guilty that I brought Jake over to that situation. It made me think twice about situations where I ask other musicians to come with me on some personal quest.”

I guess you can’t plan for an earthquake though.

There were two earthquakes at the time we were there. The first one everybody seemed so chill about it. It was actually stronger, but it was further away in Oaxaca, so it didn’t affect Mexico City as bad. But the second one actually shut the city down.

Do you remember where you were at the time?

We were on our way to go back into the studio and we were eating tacos and having breakfast, getting ready for another day of work, and then the whole world started shaking. A lot of buildings collapsed and our Airbnb wasn’t cleared for safety because it was an old building, so we had to sleep in the park. That was inspiring in its own way too. When things are hard I tend to get a lot more ideas.

Sydney, Australia

THERE’S an idea behind all this adventure – and it’s only in the Uber on the way back from Maroubra when it comes into focus.

America’s political climate had worn Ruban down creatively, and the album provided a good excuse to not only leave the basement, but the daily media maelstrom. “Reading about Donald Trump every day was really shutting my creativity down,” he says.

But as much as Ruban wanted to keep politics out of Sex & Food, the album is a political statement of sorts: about recognising music’s value as a safe space that can’t be touched by Trump, Putin or Kim Jong-un.

“My music works better when it’s humble; when it keeps its eyes on a specific, low-key goal.”

By creating a distraction-free atmosphere in which to make the album, Ruban was able to really interrogate the purpose of his music in the first place – to not just him, but to the world. If Multi-Love was an album that helped him process the complexities of adult relationships, Sex & Food is a functional experience that refocuses the UMO lens on the listener.

“The Sex & Food title is important,” he explains. “It’s really supposed to ultimately be to psych you up when you’re on the bus going to work. To keep my eye on what music is for and what scale it operates. It’s all just sounds coming out of my phone.”

I wondered too whether Ruban’s decision to let people into his private life so intimately on Multi-Love had inspired him to make a more outward looking, worldly record – but Ruban says that wasn’t the case at all.

“I don’t think I did that on purpose,” he says. “I tried to keep it about the internal world, internal feelings – and I tried not to make it political … It was important to keep the scale of it manageable, because my music works better when it’s humble; when it keeps its eyes on a specific, low-key goal. And I think politics is outside of that.”

We’re about to part ways when Ruban throws another curveball: his desire to produce a black metal record. “I’ve been sending stuff back and forth with Anderson .Paak for years, and there’s all these singer-songwriter girls that want me to produce their records. But I just think it’d be really cool to work on something abrasive.”

For now though he’s focussed on the release of Sex & Food, and all that goes with it – from press, which he’s admittedly more guarded about; and touring, which he’s rekindled his love for thanks to Kody. Tomorrow, he’s off to Madrid for ostensibly more interviews, but there’s a hidden agenda as well.

“It’s a chance to bro out with my manager,” he smiles.

Any weird excuse.

Something Else