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Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Monday 13th June, 2011 8:56AM

From an anonymous track on Band Camp to record deal with Fat Possum and a tour that will see out 2011, ex-Mint Chick Ruban Nielson is on the brink of breaking the States with new project Unknown Mortal Orchestra. We caught up with him on the road to discuss the new project, the mystery surrounding the band and how it feels to leave the Mint Chicks behind.

Hey Ruban, where are you guys at the moment?

We’re in a van driving from Pittsburg to Baltimore on the East Coast. We’ve been touring almost non-stop for three months, but the tour that we’ve been on at the moment is with Portugal The Man. This particular tour has been six weeks. We’re just at the second-to-last show of the tour now and our last show is tomorrow.

So you’re trucking across the States touring with a bunch of different bands?

Yeah, we’re playing with Portugal the Man right now and then this band called Yuck next and then with Toro Y Moi after that.

How are you finding the tour experience? Is this the most intensive tour you’ve experience?

Yeah, I’ve never done a tour this long before - this is the most in one stretch I’ve ever done really. It’s pretty hard I guess, but it’s fun. I have a wife and two babies so it’s really hard to be away from them, but it’s what I asked for so I can’t really complain about it.

Going back to the beginning, tell me about the inception of Unknown Mortal Orchestra?

I told Kody (Nielson) I wanted to leave the Mint Chicks at the beginning of last year, that I wasn’t enjoying the music anymore. My plan was to try and make some money off illustration or something. I went back to Portland by myself and the Mint Chicks broke up. We had a kind of, not really a falling out, but we had a little blow-up on-stage and I was ready to not be doing that anymore and not doing bands anymore. I went back to Portland and I was really looking forward to doing something else, doing some visual art or doing something that was a lot broader. I was working at a film production company doing illustration and stuff.

I just got a little antsy about recording again about writing music and recording again, it’s kind of an addiction, I just started missing playing a guitar. So I started doodling around and buying tape recorders and things and started experimenting. Eventually I decided that I was going to make a little psychedelic record for myself using a lot of the ideas I had wanted to try out for a long time. I’ve told this story like five times this week but I had been looking for psychedelic records with lost tunes. I wanted to find some lost record that I would be able to listen to and would really inspire me and after a while I got really specific about what I was looking for, so specific that I had this record in my head that I wanted to find. So I thought I may as well make this record.

I did this record and then loaded it up onto Band Camp and came up with a name and then went to work and started getting on with my life. The next day I checked the Band Camp to see if anyone had looked at or downloaded the track and there’d been a huge spike in plays and downloads of the songs. The Band Camp tells you where it came from and it was coming from Pitchfork and all these blogs and websites. Within a couple of days I was getting contacted by labels asking about the band; how many other songs there were and who was in the band and when we were playing next. It wasn’t a band yet, it got pretty out of control pretty quickly.

When Unknown Mortal Orchestra started getting noticed there was a lot of secrecy over who was in the band and what it was. Was that purposeful or was it simply the fact that everything had happened so quickly?

The only reason there wasn’t any information was because I didn’t have any. There was quite a big deal made about the lack of information about the song and the band at the beginning. It confused me a little bit because every time a brand new band starts a Band Camp there is hardly any information about the band. I hadn’t had time to put any information up; a song was play listed on Pitchfork a day after I had come up with the name. I wasn’t really thinking about putting any information up about it because it wasn’t a band, it was this thing I was doing. It got made into a big deal. I got an email from a blogger being like ‘this mystery thing is really cool, you shouldn’t tell anyone who you are or who’s in the band and keep it a secret’ and I thought that was kind of a fun thing, to have songs on blogs and have these people writing about music I was making but nobody knew who it was.

I didn’t want to have to deal with the whole Mint Chicks thing either – to face up to Mint Chicks fans and to people who were looking forward to a new Mint Chicks record or whatever. I didn’t want to deal with that and I didn’t want to tell anyone in the Mint Chicks what I was doing and just more generally not wanting anyone to know what I was doing. I thought this could end up being a hassle and that was the whole reason I was giving up music.

Tell me how you went from this one track to writing and recording this album:

I was just trying to make it sound like all of the records I was listening to. I wanted it to sound like it was from an old archive or an unreleased album. I wanted it to be a combination of everything but not have any rules, and I wanted to sing whatever words felt appropriate for the song. I wanted to play more guitar solos and be more jammy than the Mint Chicks. Theres a lot of vintage stores in Portland so I was running around finding dictaphones from the sixties, and I found a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and so I was recording things to tape and then putting it in Pro Tools, just experimenting to see if I could make it sound like something from a different era. Like someone had gone back in time.

Where did the album cover art come from? It’s a building in Yugoslavia. It’s called a Spomenick, which is a Communist monument. It’s really run down now and I liked the idea of this mysterious building that you don’t know what it is or where it is but it’s from the past, built for the future, and is now in disrepair. It seemed to match the music, so we used an image of that that looked like a tourist photo.

Does it feel liberating now to have an album out that is completely divergent to the Mint Chicks? Do you feel like you have moved on?

My brother was in the Mint Chicks and the other guys in the band were kind of like my brothers and it just got to the point where it seemed like we would never be friends again. We were in each other’s pockets all the time. My relationship with Kody was like twins or something and the more the Mint Chicks went on the more the differences between us became the main thing; things that we disagreed upon became the major part of our relationship. I just wanted to become good mates with my brother again, and that part of it is really good, and we’ve started fresh in that respect. I don’t know if people should be in bands with their brother.

What are the plans for Unknown Mortal Orchestra for the rest of 2011?

Our album comes out on Fat Possum in two weeks. We’re playing to 1400 people tonight and something like that tomorrow night. Then we go to a party in Malibu, and then we play on TV and then we go back to Portland for a couple of weeks. Then we go to England and play some shows in London and Paris. Then we come back to the States and tour with Yuck in support of the record being out. And then with Toro Y Moi and hopefully get to play Fallon or something. And then we go to Australia and New Zealand in January and maybe February as well playing a bunch of festivals.

Courtney Sanders