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Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Tuesday 18th December, 2012 9:38AM

Unknown Mortal Orchestra return to New Zealand in January to play Rhythm and Vines, a couple of side-shows and open for Weezer, ahead of releasing their sophomore album II in February. UTR caught up with Ruban Nielson to discuss the ride that was the first two years in the band, how he's feeling now and what we can expect from the second release.

Hey Ruban, where are you at the moment?

I’m at Portland - I’m just at home.

I imagine you've just finished a big tour?

Yep we went to Mexico and played a festival down there, it was pretty cool. I tried Mexicau(sp?) which is a smokey drink made out of cactus and it’s sort of like…it’s cool haha. We went to this bar - it was kind of a hipster place - and it was pretty full on. It was Tuesday night at 3am  in the morning and I had ended up drinking a whole bottle of this stuff and getting really sick, but it was an experience.

More generally, your 2012 must have been pretty full on right?

To be honest last year was more exhausting. We’d go on a big tour and come home for three days and then go back out, so I was wrecked last year. This year seems more mellow in comparison because we'll go on tour for two months and be back for a couple of weeks. That seems pretty extreme for a lot of people but to me that’s pretty sweet considering what 2011 was like, so I feel pumped.

And are you excited about coming back to New Zealand for a little bit?

Yeah I really miss my friends and family over there and it will be cool because this is the second time we’ve been back to New Zealand as a band. It seems like New Zealand is the place who hasn’t gotten into Unknown Mortal Orchestra yet which is weird because I thought it would be the other way around because of the Mint Chicks and stuff, but it’s been the slowest place to catch up. We’re bigger in Mexico and Spain and weird places like that than we are in New Zealand.

Further to that it must feel strange that it wasn't until you moved to the States - away from where you had built a base - that things started to happen for you?

Yeah it was weird the way it happened too because I was working on the Mint Chicks and we couldn’t really get anything going over here and when I gave up and stopped trying altogether suddenly all of these opportunities came up and now this is happening so it is a pretty weird thing. I’m just enjoying it though.

Were you surprised that it was the UMO project that became popular: the response to it was immediate and big, right?

Yeah it was pretty shocking to start with: it fried my brain a little bit because I couldn’t get my head around how, when I stopped trying, it happened. I had started to think that music was my hobby because I’d been doing the Mint Chicks and I was doing visual art as a hobby. I thought it would be really nice if I was making my money doing visual art and music was my hobby so I was kind of in that mode and then all these things started happened and it was really weird.

Now I’ve met so many of the people I’ve looked up to and I get approached by those people asking me questions about what guitar I used on a particular song, it's pretty crazy.

It must be surreal.

Yeah it’s totally surreal. We did a show with Dirty Projectors and then afterwards we went across the road to a theatre where Smashing Pumpkins were playing and we sat on the balcony and me and Dave (Longstreth) were hanging out and I was like “Wow David’s awesome!” He was asking me all of these questions while we were watching Smashing Pumpkins.
Billy Corgan was looking up at us and spitting and doing these weird things but by the end of it he said Hi to us and we were like: did he know who we were or was that just really weird? That was a ridiculous night, hanging out with Dirty Projectors and seeing Smashing Pumpkins.
Then I had this dream that I was hanging out with Black Sabbath and the next day I woke up and it took me 30 seconds to work out which parts were a dream and which parts had actually happened.

I also met Bradford Cox and that was awesome: he was hanging out at a show and he was into the band.

To become peers with these people who you’ve looked up to feels pretty strange and it’s a weird thing. When the Mint Chicks came over here and we tried to make it work I always thought that those were the kinds of bands I wanted us to be able to go on tour with and so it’s strange to be here now. After I totally stopped trying.

I’ve been a big fan of Liars since their first record came out and they were contacting me directly to ask if we would go on tour with them and it’s like “how did I get here?!” – it’s the only measurement I have of whether my music is any good or not: when bands who I respect like the music.

So you've been touring heaps but you’ve also been working on a new album that’s ready for release yeah?

Yep the album’s done and it’s mastered and they’re pressing it and it’s coming out in February.

You must be looking forward to playing some new material?

Yeah kind of. It’s funny because I’ve had three different drummers since the band started and the bass player is also this obsessive gear-tweaker – he’s always getting a different bass, different amp and different pedals every tour. SO, we have to keep re-learning the songs and teaching them to a new drummer, so the songs have become new songs every tour almost anyway.

It's going to be a bit stressful this time because I have to teach the whole record to the band in December so it’s kind of a big project: we have to fly the drummer out from L.A and he’s got to stay in Portland for a week and we have to go to work every day and learn it.

So you wrote and recorded the new album yourself again?

Yeah but the drums are real and I didn’t play all the drums - Kody my brother played some of the drums and the rest is me playing drums really averagely.

Was there anything different or new that you wanted to explore on the new album?

It’s a little bit more influenced by soul because I wanted it to be a bit more of a singing album. So it's more obviously influenced by R&B and soul but it’s also more classic rock-influenced. I play a lot more guitar and I was thinking a lot about Led Zeppelin and about the way a Led Zeppelin song will move through different movements and stages. The first UMO album would just have a heavy beat and the song would be repetitive and poppy whereas this album has elements of that but it also moves around a bit more: it’s a bit more complex.

When we’ve talked before you’ve mentioned that you don’t write albums to a theme: is this still true?

This is actually the first album where I’ve done anything like that. I didn’t sit down with something definite but this album is all songs written during a really heavy touring schedule last year.

When you go on tour for that long – and I didn’t really know this because in New Zealand you tour for two weeks and you’ve done the whole country, and I was going from the States to Europe and then back to the States and back to Europe – you're kind of just in survival mode. You don’t get to be a normal person or make normal decisions about what you’re going to eat or how you’re supposed to feel about everything – you’re just trying to get from one day to the next.

It was a pretty irresponsible thing for me to do to my brain and my body really but anyway I wrote most of the songs when I was in that place so there’s definitely a vibe and a theme to the album.

It’s all about living at night and it’s a lot darker than the first album. The first record is me in a really comfortable, happy situation and this album’s more me totally fried from being tired and always moving: going from city to city and meeting new people and weird things happening.
I dunno, just tour shit. I don’t want it to be a tour record because that makes it seem like “you wouldn’t understand man” and it’s not like that, it’s more about living and alienation and feeling desperate more generally. I don’t like to think of it as a tour record because it’s about more than that – an album about being on the road sounds like some Motley Crue thing or something.

Yeah so it’s the bigger ideas associated with touring: the isolation, the sleep deprivation, the feeling like you’re going crazy?

Yeah, all of my friends I had met within that year. I hadn’t seen my family or any of my old friends. I didn’t know who was on my side. I was only coming home to Portland for three or four days at a time and then going out for months at a time. You throw on top of that partying every single day and getting paranoid and just all of that stuff: I’m going to stop talking about it now because it sounds depressing. It’s not good or bad: I know I can’t keep doing it to myself but I don’t think it’s a bad thing that I went through.

I was just going to ask whether you want to keep doing this in the future? I remember last time I talked to you and you were exhausted, but now you seem in much higher spirits about the whole situation. Do you think perhaps you’ve laid the groundwork and you won’t have to tour as rigorously as you did that firs time?

I think that I just wasn’t very good at it: I was just throwing myself into any situation. Also I don’t think I was surrounding myself with people that had my best interests at heart. I have a different label and a new manager and I’m managing my abilities. I pushed myself to the limits last year and I can’t do that again so I’m just getting better at it. Also I feel a bit stronger now because I’ve done that and I’ve recovered from it so I can be in those situations and handle it.


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