i know that there are things wrong with my music,” said Ruban Nielson, lead singer and guitarist of the psych rock band Unknown Mortal Orchestra. “My mixing sucks and my recordings are purposefully amateurish at times, but I try to focus on how to deliver something worth saying.” The New Zealand-Hawaiian singer calls on Zoom from his dimly lit basement studio in Portland, where it has just started to snow. For Nielson, perfection has always been second to none when it comes to the band’s signature DIY sound, which is impossible for him to summarize. “I’ve always made up genre names,” he tells me, suggesting “dad-wave” and “trouble-gum.” “Depression funk” is another fan favorite.
If the latter is correct, UMO could now be considered masters of music for mental health. The band is on album number five. The last, v, a dual offering, is packed with warm homemade instrumentals and fuzzy future classics that could only come from the creators of their once barn-crafted sound. Experts in alternative ambivalence, UMO are innovators of the bittersweet, often grouped with previous tour partners, Foxygen. The band – mainly Nielson and bassist Jake Portrait – started in Auckland in 2010, when the former anonymously released a Soundcloud track into the wild. Since then, their punchy music has received critical acclaim and helped sell out world tours. Last month, UMO celebrated the 10th anniversary of their 2013 debut album. The now classic || including riffy and recalling tracks like “So Good At Being In Trouble” – now gold.
“I couldn’t do that record again,” says Nielson. “It’s so specific to what I was going through at the time; all the limitations and desperation of, ‘Who am I? What am I doing?” he says. “It’s all ingrained in the plate itself. I can hear it.” || originated during a heady time spent sofa surfing and navigating “quite a bad drug problem”. But eventually, says Neilson, he realized. “At some point I’m going to have to decide if I’m just going to change and move on to the next chapter in my life or if I’m going to die,” he recalled explaining that many of his close friends “didn’t make it to 40” It was his kids that pulled him “back from the edge.” Nielsen looks straight at me through the camera, lit by his daughter’s selfie ring light. “I think if I didn’t have kids I wouldn’t be talking to you right now” he admits, “I was okay with sacrificing myself. I just wasn’t okay with sacrificing other people.”
Nielson has learned a lot over the past ten years. He’s learned that the band’s lifestyle can lead one to become a “self-obsessed s***”—and he’s learned that family isn’t just his reason for surviving, but for actually living. “I’d throw away any amount of glory to get my kids’ approval,” he laughs a little self-consciously. Neilson, his wife Jenny and their two children divide their time between Portland, Palm Springs and Hawaii, where Nielson’s mother lives. Until recently, he had a break from music and chose to invest time in being a good son and father. However, the pandemic resulted in a series of “tragedies” for his relatives that reminded Neilson why he started this career in the first place. Making music is how he “handles life”.
That’s when UMO’s new album v was born. Music and family collided, and inadvertently the latter became central to the songs, which were recorded in Palm Springs with his brother, father and longtime band member Portrait. “We didn’t come out of that period the same,” he tells me. Nielson even thinks they came out better. “We thought, if we don’t come out of this as stronger and less selfish people, then this is all another great tragedy for our family.”
Despite the tragedies, it was important to Nielson that the album was still uplifting. “I didn’t want to make a sad record because it’s such a sad time,” he says. “We wanted to ease the pain and bring light to the situation.” Tracks lyrically teleport listeners to the rushing waves of palm trees, shimmering seas and sandy skin. That said, as with most of UMO’s work, those sunlit sounds are overshadowed by a bit of darkness, as can be heard in the nuances of the nostalgic “That Life”. “When isn’t life like this?” says Nielson of the bittersweetness inherent in his music. “How can you actually be happy if you don’t acknowledge these dark things?” Given the circumstances surrounding the album, mortality inevitably became a theme for it v. But instead of weighing him down, it gave him a carpe diem approach to life and creation. “I think the baseline from which I work is constantly thinking about death, always using it as an excuse to be reckless,” he laughs.
The singer has always had a looming sense of doom about the world around us. “UMO started in this Obama era and everyone was in this daze. At the time, everyone seemed to think, ‘Oh my God, life is so great – but I was already very morbid.’ As Nielson got older, he felt a switch. “Now the baseline is everyone feeling pessimistic,” he chuckles at the bleakness of the situation. “You know, politically disillusioned, constantly thinking about death and things like that.”
It’s ironic, then, that Neilson feels less morbid now than before. The veil of appearances has been lifted and he is relieved. “That environmental sense that we’re going off a cliff is more or less established as real now,” he suggests. “This is when you can really start understanding things and start fixing things.” Nielson believes that now is the time to live life to the fullest. “If we’re all going to die, we’ve got to make it count. We need to party, we need to take care of the people we love, we need to tell our moms we love them! If it really is all over, now is not the time to be depressed.”
While there are clues, Nielson isn’t sure what the numbers are on v are just about left. In fact, it always takes him one or two years to find out the true meaning of his music. “I think the reason I’m really addicted to making music is because it’s such a weird, mysterious process.” He has come to regard the writing process as a kind of ‘religion’. “It’s a cheesy word, but it’s kind of like channeling something,” he muses. “As if what you create comes from your subconscious or a higher power. Sometimes when I write I think, “How did I even do that?” I don’t feel 100 percent the author of it. I feel like I was just there and did it by accident. He wonders if this means his songs belong to others, and recalls anecdotes from shows where fans have described acute situations in their own lives that his music perfectly articulates. He wonders, “What if the song is actually about them? What if I’m just the person delivering it?
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However, one particular album was written about something very specific in Nielson’s life. The record of 2015 Multi love centered around Neilson’s polyamorous relationship with his wife with another woman. The details were then detailed in a Pitchfork article, which somewhat sensationalized the relationship. The subject was made bigger than the music, and the woman involved felt aggrieved by the revelation. “I had to learn that the hard way [my life] is not entirely up to me to talk about,” he says. “I didn’t think anyone would care enough for it to be a problem.” I ask Nielson if the experience has been lyrically stifling. “I realized I need to be more skilled at giving as much of myself as I can… without dragging other people into ways they never signed up for,” he admits. “I like the idea of being a successful musician, but I don’t like the idea of people talking about me; that’s never the reason I got into this. It always feels like you’re trying to negotiate something: how much success do you want versus what the price is?”
He may not like the spotlight, but the stage is a special place for Nielson. “I walk over there and then another part of me takes over,” he says. “I don’t have any thoughts; I am the purist version of myself.” That’s an addictive feeling. “It’s almost like I’m a different person – you can escape your ego and yourself.” Escape is imminent for Neilson. UMO will soon be hitting the road for their massive tour of the United States and Europe. In September the band ends with a headline slot at End of The Road festival.
However, the tour is not without its worries. A few months ago, a nerve entrapment in Neilson’s left hand left him unable to move it; he had to go to physio daily to play his guitar. Always finding the silver lining, Nielson says the injury shifted his focus from achieving perfection to just being able to play the roles. Now, without the pressure, he can focus on getting something meaningful across. That’s all he ever wanted.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s new album ‘V’ is out now via Jagjaguwar