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UMO front man Ruban Nielson discusses how Portland has shaped his sound, the debauchery that inspired II, and why album number three might sound a little more like Disclosure…
Congratulations on II, Ruban. How long did it take to make?
I wrote it over the course of 2011, while I was on tour, then I recorded most of it in February last year and finished fixing it over the course of the year, between tours.
Was the creative process similar to that of your debut?
Not really, because when I wrote the first one I had kind of decided that I was going to give up music professionally. I had been making my living doing music in New Zealand and [while] I wasn’t over making music, I was over all the politics of being in a band, and dealing with labels. So when I was making the first Unknown Mortal Orchestra album, I was thinking of it as a hobby, not thinking anyone was going to hear it. But with this one I was making it for people rather than just for myself, so that maybe made me put a little bit more effort into it. (Laughs)
Did you set out with a plan of where you wanted to go sonically?
Yeah, when I was on tour I was thinking about a few different things, like Led Zeppelin, because I’d been in the live band and we had an improvised section. I was thinking more about soul music; things like Al Green. And I just wanted to take all the things that I had really enjoyed about the first record, and really stretch them out.
It didn’t feel like there was any point totally turning the whole thing on its head. I felt it was at least worth doing one more record that had the same feel and the same production.
So would you be looking at going in a different direction next time?
I’m not sure yet. We’ve been so in the zone of this album, that I’m not really worrying about the next record yet. But I heard that new Disclosure track, and I really liked it...
That would be a bit of U-turn.
Well, it was the first modern thing I’ve heard in a while that I thought was cool. I was thinking maybe I could keep going in the R&B direction but I like playing my guitar as well. I’m not really sure. (Laughs) I always do this: on the last record I was trying all kinds of different ideas out in my head and it always comes all the way back around.
If they were my peers, that would be awesome: I respect both of those groups a lot and I listen to their stuff. But I’m probably more influenced by Ariel Pink than Tame Impala. At the moment there’s a bunch of us bands you could probably group together in some new psychedelic genre or something. So I’ve been trying to find the niche within the genre, and lean on what makes us different, which I think is the fact we have more of a soul and R&B influence.
According to your press release, II was written during a “punishing, debauched touring schedule”. Can you elaborate on that please?
(Laughs) Erm.... I don’t know.... It’s funny because [the label] need a story, y’know? So when I was getting asked about the bio, I just described what was going on. It’s kind of hard to talk about that year really… (Laughs) Every time I tell an anecdote about that time, it feels like I went too far...
Just how debauched did it get?
Let’s just say [it was] as debauched as it gets: I thought I was going to die, and I felt like my relationships were all going to turn to sh*t. The album actually says it all.
Have you thought about how you’re going to avoid the same pitfalls this time round?
Well, in the year between writing the record and now, I changed a lot of things: members of the band, my management, my label, my booking agent. I just had to change the structure of what was going on; surround myself with people I thought I could trust, and who were going to look after me and not run me into the ground. And then I had to change what I was doing.
Sometimes living the cliché of being in a rock n roll band has this really strange function to it, where when you behave like that you feel more human somehow. It’s like the weirder you act, the more normal you feel and the more normal you act, the crazier you get. I’ve seen people lose it trying to act normal: making it back to the hotel room early and watching Netflix every night, Skyping their loved ones or whatever. And I think the reason that bands behave that way is not because they’re self-indulgent; it just works somehow.
Sex, drugs and rock n roll is something that will perpetuate itself until you have collapses. Because you can still do it and play good shows, and sometimes looking after yourself doesn’t seem to work. So anyway, my plan this time is basically not to put myself in as many dumb situations.
Do you think your experiences on the road fed into the lyrical preoccupations on the album?
Yeah. I didn’t get really specific about it because I thought it would alienate people: I didn’t want it to be a tour record, I wanted it to be about a lot of different, emotional things. So I built all the songs around a feeling, or some kind of emotional idea and then was abstract enough about it so that if you weren’t in a band – if you weren’t on tour – you would still relate to the lyrics.
I feel like you can listen to the record and suddenly understand the way I was feeling that year. It takes you through all those places that I went to; it evokes that emotional vibe.
There are a lot of references to loneliness.
Yeah, it’s weird that. I was just writing songs and it wasn’t until after I mixed it and started putting the album together, that I realised that there were these really strong themes of nocturnal living and loneliness, alienation and heartbreak. I actually had no idea that [the album] was that sad and lonely when I was making it; I just thought I was making some pop songs.
To be honest though, by the end of that year I was just spent, emotionally and physically, so it’s not surprising that I would make a record full of those sorts of feelings. I don’t say that because I’m feeling sorry for myself; it’s just funny to look back. I didn’t realise how hard I was pushing myself at the time; I just thought I was saying yes.
Is there a track on the album you’re proudest of?
‘So Good At Being In Trouble’ I’m really proud of because it’s hard to write a strong song that feels simple. And it really captures the way I was feeling at the time I recorded it. It’s truthful, emotionally. The vocal that I used on the final track was actually the demo. I tried to re-record the song and I couldn’t get it to sound any more honest than I did the first time.
The music you’re making in UMO is very different to the music you made with Mint Chicks. Is that Portland’s influence?
I think that Portland did influence me. Making music in New Zealand was like being part of some sub-cultural activity or something; you have to fight for your right to do it. So the music I used to make was a lot more antagonistic, and a lot more negative in a lot of ways.
Portland is its own little bubble, so you have space and time to figure out what you’re about, without having to fight mainstream culture. It’s just nice here! You’ll go to a bar and they’ll be playing Black Sabbath and The Ramones, and then you’ll go to a restaurant after having a couple of drinks and they’ll be playing Led Zeppelin... In Portland you can pretend that Skrillex doesn’t exist.
Is the music scene competitive or is everyone supportive of each other?
It’s pretty supportive. For instance, our friend Rocky is in a band called Wampire and he came on tour with us, driving and tour managing, and our bass player Jake was encouraging him to make a record. So we did some tracks, sent some stuff around, and Polyvinyl decided they wanted to put it out. Jake produced the album and I did the cover artwork and now we’re taking Wampire on tour with us. So there’s a lot of that stuff going on and I think we’re going to do more of that. I like helping other people out.
I feel like the music scene in Auckland was quite competitive but I don’t feel that vibe here in Portland. There’s maybe a little bit of friendly competition but that’s always good; it makes everyone try harder.
You don’t miss New Zealand much, then?
I miss my family and all my closest friends from high school and art school. I miss pies and being able to get a decent flat white. (Laughs) I don’t miss the isolation. I like the fact that I can tour as much as I do living in the States because I like moving. I also like the level of musicianship you get in the States: bands are really good and people can play.
Are there any other bands in Portland that we should be keeping an eye on?
Yeah: R.I.P., Strength, Nurses. And I think people are going to start hearing about a band called Radiation City. Our bassist Jake is also in a new-wave band called Blousewith the drummer from my old band, Mint Chicks.
Ok, so what’s been your highlight in UMO so far?
Playing Radio City Music Hall with Grizzly Bear was pretty amazing. I remember being nervous at the soundcheck. It’s such an imposing room, a really impressive space. I thought, “Man, if I’m nervous at the soundcheck, how am I going to make it through the gig?” But actually when the lights were off you couldn’t see how big the room was, and I was fine.
And what’s the ultimate dream?
We’re taking it one day at a time at the moment. I don’t care if we become super-big or anything but it would be good to be the kind of band that can fill theatres. My dream doesn’t extend to arenas. (Laughs)