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Interview: Unknown Mortal Orchestra Talks About New Album 'Sex & Food'

Interview: Unknown Mortal Orchestra Talks About New Album 'Sex & Food'

Chris Cudby / Wednesday 4th April, 2018 3:12PM

Ruban Nielson's psychedelic project Unknown Mortal Orchestra is one of New Zealand's great musical success stories, with the ex-Mint Chicks artist's kaleidoscopic recordings attracting significant acclaim and devoted listeners worldwide. Nielson is heading into the release of his fourth album under the UMO moniker Sex & Food, with singles indicating a melting pot of explosive guitars, graceful soul grooves and virtuosic jazz-inflected rock. Now joined live by Nielson's brother and songwriting collaborator Kody Nielson (Silicon) on drums, UMO are poised to leap into action with their record out this Friday and a long-awaited tour of New Zealand set for September. Chris Cudby sat down with Ruban Nielson while he was in Auckland prepping for the album's release, read their in-depth conversation below spanning the inspirations behind Sex & Food, his artistic relationship with Kody Nielson, and more...

I've been listening to the new album for the last two days and really enjoying it. My very first impression when it was rolling over me for the first time, it made me think of Frank Zappa intersecting with Royal Trux or something like that. Both of those artists are big on commentary on the culture that surrounded them at the time, I was wondering would you see Sex & Food as being an outward-looking album or otherwise?

That's really cool that you say that. It's weird, I think what it was is I was trying to not be political. Because I felt like there was so much going on, in the States particularly but everywhere at the moment is weird. There's these swings to the right and also I feel a sort of socialist thing that is happening. I used to like listening to bands like Nation Of Ulysses, I always felt like Americans were always performative communist, you know what I mean? But in New Zealand socialism is a normal mainstream thing that was part of our politics. There's all these new things that were happening and I was really engaged in that, reading about a lot about these things. I started to go back to a bunch of stuff that I read in Uni and getting interested in the Situationists, and all of these these things that I felt I'd grown out of sort of became really relevant again.

But then I didn't want that to be in the album, I don't want the album to be all political or intellectual or anything. I guess I wanted to try to make the album feel like 'now'. Rather than talk specifically about things that are happening, just make the mood of the album fit the way that I was feeling, about these things but not talking about them. I was scared it would get intellectual, I felt it was really important to have it not do that. I suppose that I was trying to keep it inward looking, at a time when it was quite hard to fight off all the things that were happening. I didn't want to look outward, I was trying to keep it inward looking.

It was actually Black Bananas more than Royal Trux [Black Bananas features Jennifer Herrema from Royal Trux]. I'm more of a Black Bananas fan than a Royal Trux fan and I've seen Black Bananas play a few times, it's kind of one of my favourite bands of recent times. Also Weird War, which is Royal Trux-related as well. It's weird, I'm more into the Royal Trux projects that came after I think. There's something about that whole retro version of that rock & roll attitude that they have. It's a bit more fun than the nineties version.

You've talked in public about the new album of a kind of zombified or re-animated idea of rock & roll. Through deliberately making something to do with 'rock', did that prompt a shift in the ideas you were exploring or singing about?

I think it was partly just getting to a certain age, because I'm about to turn thirty eight and getting to the point where I realise that not only is it inevitable that I'll become out of touch, but almost important that I do. Part of the thing about staying relevant as you get older is realising that you should be out of touch, so that's what you need to do. I was thinking being somewhat true to the ingredients of what formed my tastes or whatever, it's quite cool. It makes it more relevant to people who are younger than if I'm constantly trying to be aware of what the new things in culture are. I guess I doubled down on a lot of things, I always felt that I was moving, I kind of turned backwards and started to look back to things I'd done in the past and gathered these things together. Rather than do anything new I wanted to make a survey of what I'd done so far.

Lyrically, I don't know, because lyrics I'm always lucky to get them. I don't really plan what I'm going to get, these sentences just come into my head. I'm not sure what the album's about yet. It usually takes me a year and a half to sort of realise what I was talking about.

You make the thing, but then you figure out what it actually is.

Yeah because if I'm thinking about it and I'm trying to force it into being something, nothing really good comes of that. It should feel really random I think, when I'm making it. So I don't really know what the themes of the record are, I know what I was was thinking about and stuff... I kind of have this idea that I should say that it's apolitical. I feel like I was in an apolitical mood when I was making it. Anything that came in that sounded like politics seemed boring, so I didn't let that in.

What role does Kody (Nielson) have in Unknown Mortal Orchestra?

I guess at the moment the thing is that I've actually asked him back into the band to play drums, so that's sort of a big thing... I've been trying to bring him back in more and more over the years I suppose. We tried touring together but it was really hard, so he hasn't been touring with us. It's been about five or six years since he was last in UMO. Multi-Love, he helped me make most of that album and this album we worked on a lot. We'd travel somewhere, kind of came up with a place that felt like it would be an inspiring place, and then travel there. Meet him and Jake (Portrait) there and work on recordings. For a while I thought that he was going to be sort of like the silent member, like Brian Wilson or something, just be on the records and really important in the recordings but not interested in touring with the band. I woke up on January the first and it just popped into my head that I need him back in the band to make it interesting enough to for me to want to keep going.

The band got bigger than I ever dreamed I was interested in being. Even in the Mint Chicks, my wildest dreams were so small I realise now. I think mostly because my world was small, I just kind of grew up here and didn't know much about the world. So I kind of surpassed my wildest dreams quite a long time ago. It's got to the point now where sometimes I feel like, yeah I make an album, but what I'm doing... like I love making records but if I make another record and it does well then I'm kind of asking for it. Like forcing myself to do more work in a way. There's not much artistic inspiration there, just to tour because you can and because it's making money and stuff like that. I think I kind of got a little bit depressed and started to feel like I wanted to not do it anymore. But the only reason to do it would be to, not the only reason to do it but it was like... if Kody doesn't join the band and we don't work through our stuff, then I'm not sure what I'm doing apart from working and making money. The thing I like about music is that it's not a normal job, so I don't want it to ever turn into a normal job. So now Kody and me working on stuff together and working through our demons and all of our sibling rivalry stuff sounds like really exciting and a worthwhile thing to base the band around.

I'm really excited now, because from that one idea, choosing Kody to be the drummer for the new band, we've built the new personnel around that idea. He's been helping choose people so that made it exciting again, now I'm excited to go out on the road again. Whereas I was kind of like, I'm going to be in a tour bus, get a bunch of session musicians and we're just going to tour theatres and all these things that I never wanted. I never wanted to tour in a tour bus. Now we've been doing it for long enough that it sounds kind of fun to travel around, get a bunch of friends, get Kody in a bus and maybe do that, and that sounds fun. I think the tension of "are we going to be able to keep it together?" is exciting to me again, and the idea that musically it'll be the best version of the band that's ever been. That's the thing that's making it worth the risk or whatever, it's really fun. A lot of the time things will happen, like we'll have successes in the band, and it's hard to not have Kody there with me when I have success.

That's like a reimagining of the use or function of a band. From my own background, listening to your album and also the Spotify playlist you put up recently, it reminded me of the stuff me and my friends were listening to as teens [they both lived in Auckland suburb Birkenhead as teenagers in the mid-nineties]. Where you'd drag home records from op shops and inorganic collections, but you'd also be listening to the Melvins and trying to track down some crazy Japanese psychedelia from the city or something like that.

Yeah yeah, things that were so exciting when you're a teenager because it's rarity as well. I suppose it is, I mean UMO's quite a nostalgic project anyway but I think it's sort of going back into that cartoon version of rock & roll. Which I think a lot of those things are, which is what I like... I think fun rock & roll is the only one worth doing. I think definitely, my teenage years and a certain point in my development is part of this album. Like when I was first getting into manga and anime. There's a guy called Neil Krug, the artist who did the cover, I wanted to make the cover first. I wanted him to make the cover and then me to make the album to the cover.


I started talking to him really early, before I started recording or writing or anything, I started talking to him about what references I wanted for the cover. I was getting into a lot of Italian horror stuff, like Dario Argento and Akira was a big thing. Just things that I was into when I was kind of younger that when I look at them now I realise that they were things that I was lucky to have discovered kind of early on, because I didn't seperate them from anything else. Because around the same time I discovered Akira I was into Wolverine for instance, but that's less interesting [laughs]. I was still into all these things but I was picking up on certain references. It's funny that sort of Birkenhead era, like that age, I guess about fifteen years old or something. Because I discovered Frank Zappa then as well. All these things that you realise, If I hadn't discovered that particularly weird thing then... they were just chance discoveries y'know? Like you say, getting something from the inorganic, you pick up something from an inorganic there's no other way you would have gotten that record at that particular time. Then you realise later it was a really lucky find. A lot of those things are in the record, things that I'm really grateful I discovered at a young age, because they weren't on TV and my other friends weren't into it.

I definitely want to ask you about visual inspirations and how they might relate to the sounds that you're making. You talked about this, but I was wondering if you had anything else to say? Were you thinking of any specific visual artists when you were working on Sex & Food?

I was taking, Katsuhiro Otomo obviously for Akira, and I was thinking a lot about S & M porn. It's not hot at all but I always take screenshots of certain things that I've always thought looked amazing, people in rubber suits and all that stuff. (Neil Krug) must have thought I was really weird, I kept sending him these rubber porn screenshots [laughs] going "this is part of it, a little bit of this." I'm so bad with remembering the references we went into. He introduced me to a lot of stuff as well. Legend Of The Overfiend was one of the movies, I hadn't seen that in a long time, I remember that being so shocking and cool to me when I was young.

There was a lot of comic stuff, Moebius is really big. It was more kind of hard-edge stuff, maybe eighties stuff. And a lot of late seventies and early eighties Italian horror stuff that I got into a little bit later, maybe late-teens or when I first started at Elam, (my friend) Ollie would show me Susperia. For my group of friends, these are all kind of real obvious things, but it felt like as I get older I find myself talking about things as if they're a little bit played out, and younger people don't even know what I'm talking about. Sorts of bands and certain movies that it's been so long, they've been important for so long that they've become sort of irrelevant and then forgotten about. So it's kind of funny to bring them back in, and then realise that actually it's still my favourite thing. I've gone back to a lot of my favourite Zappa albums this year.

It's funny with you mentioning Birkenhead and growing up there, because I think that you would get a lot of that thing where, you needed things to be more cool, because it was so boring... it was like a mixture of hostile and boring.

Yeah, hostile and boring is pretty much ideal.

[laughs] That meant that when you enjoyed something, you watched a movie or something it had to be extra funny, extra weird, extra gross, everything had to be like extreme. I suppose I was just going back to that feeling, trying to invoke that. And Greg Sharp's videos, he captured something about that era too.

I was thinking Zappa was overtly funny but he was also really serious. I was wondering if there was humour with Sex & Food, it doesn't seem overt?

I always think, I don't really like Zappa's lyrics that much. I always think of him more as a guy that makes sounds and weird feelings. I always thought vocally Zappa wasn't a big influence. I think that Morrissey is one of my favourite lyricists probably, just Lou Reed and Morrissey. Especially Morrissey, it's like he's sort of joking all the time and I think that's really the way that I feel about it. I don't really want it to be serious-serious.

I think the whole thing is like, it's always threatening to be heavy but I don't intend it to be. It's only heavy in a way that comics that I read when I was a kid were heavy. They would be really violent, like Killing Joke or Alan Moore stuff... (comic book) Lobo was such a big thing for me as a kid, I loved how gnarly everything was, it was so violent. I wasn't remotely a violent kid. It's really funny, because I have a kid now and he likes violent stuff as well and he's the most pacifist kid. But he loves watching these really bloody battles and stuff. I don't understand what it is but it's like more escapism for some reason. I feel a bit misunderstood with that stuff sometimes, that when I say something heavy it's actually a joke, but it's not taken as a joke.

'Sex & Food' is out this Friday 6th April via Jagjaguwar / Rhythmethod.


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