Unkown Mortal Orchestra: “I wanted to find a way into disco”

It’s a cold, wet and windy Wednesday afternoon when we sit down with Ruban Nielson, the mastermind behind New Zealand-via-Portland group Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Later this month, Nielson and his band (completed by Jake Portrait on bass and Riley Geare on drums) will release their third studio album Multi-Love. All Things Loud spoke to Nielson about the upcoming record, alongside his influences, what he’s listening to right now and why his guitar amplifier can change colour. 

By the time we sit down with Nielson, it’s late in the day and very clear that the beanie-clad frontman is starting to get tired. In his hand he’s holding “one of the many beers I’ve drunken today” as a label assistant walks past and jokes that everything he says “is a lie”. Whether or not we believe him remained to be seen, although our 25-minute chat did spark some interesting points of conversation. We begin on the subject of the ideas and concepts behind Multi-Love, to which Nielson replies with, “hold on, what have I been saying to everyone today?” He chuckles, before telling us that the phrase Multi-Love came before any of the music was even written, as he thought that it “sounded like a futuristic version of The Beatles”. It made Nielson question what Multi-Love could be and what meanings it could imply, deciding to start the record on the implication that Multi-Love is a “2015 thing”. He namechecks the American Ferguson movement as one key influence in starting the writing process, alongside the 60s Hippie and Feminist movements.  “We now live in this progressive time that was born from that. It [society] didn’t really change that much at all”, he continues as a waitress brings him a coffee. He makes a point of not wanting to make a political album, rather opting to use these key moments in history as building blocks for the feelings and emotions behind the music itself. On the subject of what influenced the music lyrically and instrumentally, Nielson thoughtfully stirs his coffee as he harks back to the interviews which surrounded Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s second album, II. During that period, every interviewer asked him the same question, namely what the point is behind II’s opening line – “isolation can put a gun in your hand”. It made him wonder why everyone found that line so interesting, thus setting out to make every line on Multi-Love as impactful and powerful as the line on II, which Nielson also claimed was his favourite line on the record. Instrumentally, he starts by telling us how he started fixing and modifying all of his guitars. This led into a story about how Nielson set out
to build his own Telecaster which had a distinct “out of phase” sound, similar to that of Kurt Cobain. He went on to develop his own pedals, including one which had no output sound, rather turning the input sound into lights which would change the colours on his amplifier. “It made my amp change colour. The way I played it affected the colour and the brightness of the light”, which made him consider how sound converted into voltage. From the phrase “sound into voltage”, Nielson went on to building modulating synthesizers and oscillators. His obsession continued when he decided to “buy old dead synths and bring them back to life”. He bought the first ever Korg Synthesizer, totally failing at bringing it back to life. Once he managed to fix the issue, it set the wheels of what came to be Multi-Love in motion. “There were synths all over the record”, he laughs as he dips a biscuit into his coffee.

As the rain hits the glass ceilings of the hotel lobby, we turn our attention towards the record itself, focussing on two songs in particular – the groove-laden Can’t Keep Checking My Phone and seven-minute long Puzzles. “For Puzzles, I had this acoustic guitar on tour and was getting bored in the van. I started writing these quasi-classical things, like wannabe Bach, with the one that I liked becoming Puzzles”. Can’t Keep Checking My Phone, on the other hand, emerged after Nielson spent time listening to traditional Moroccan and Middle Eastern “chant-based music”, in particular focussing on “melismatic singing, and the way in which they sing in different scales compared to Western music”. Nielson, as he admits, isn’t very analytical when it comes to music, rather focussing on feel and intuition as opposed to knowing the theory and terminology behind the different styles that influence him. The
disco genre also influenced Nielson on Can’t Keep Checking My Phone, something particularly evident in its bassline. “I wanted to find a way into disco. Not just because people would play it in a club, but because it’s a cool, record collector genre”. This led him to question how he would approach disco in a ‘cool’ way, trying to see what an outsider would see as cool. By this point, Nielson admits that Michael Jackson’s classic Off the Wall record was a huge influence on the record, “particularly the BPMs [Beats Per Minute]. I was matching the BPMs of songs on Off the Wall with those on Multi-Love when a friend of mine introduced me into [Ghanaian musician] Kiki Gyan”. Gyan played in a Ghanaian afro-funk band called Osibisa, making a funk album which influenced him in his approach to disco. When asked if it was in the vein of William Onyeabor, Nielson admits that he doesn’t know what it is, before being rather surprised to hear that members of Talking Heads and the Beastie Boys are currently touring the reclusive Nigerian’s music around the world. Once he hears more about Onyeabor, he knows enough to compare it to the story of Kiki Gyan.

On the subject of playing new songs live, Nielson tells us that they added a new member to the band, even though he did play and record most of Multi-Love himself. Bassist Jake Portrait also contributed to the writing of the album, creating the funk-laden bassline which holds Can’t Keep Checking My Phone in place. “At one point in the process, I was almost trying to make house music”, before adding that the next album could see some more ‘house’ vibes on the record. He doesn’t mean it in a dance club way, though, pointing out that he just enjoys the vibe of the music in general. After fifteen minutes of talking, we turn our attention away from the music and onto the life of being a musician. When asked how he copes with the life that comes with being a musician, including tours, press days and travelling, he admits that he didn’t cope so well at first. “I was usually trying to distract myself, because it can get mind-numbingly dull at times,” adding that the travelling part reminds him of the movie Groundhog Day. “It gets pretty samey, to the point where you just want to dull your senses with alcohol, drugs or something like that”. He looks down at his mug as he admits that he’s getting better at coping, using today’s press day in Amsterdam as an example. “Today I’m just getting more drunk than I did yesterday,” chuckling happily as he expresses his enthusiasm at staying in the fancy hotel we’re currently sitting in. “It’s cool, because this is quite a nice place to do an interview. My room is right there, I can eat here and go to sleep over there between interviews”. Only Paris and Brussels stand between Nielson and the end of his press journey, something which he looks forward to as Unknown Mortal Orchestra prepare to go back out on the road again.

We round off the interview with three anonymous submissions from fans, something which immediately fills Nielson’s face with a mixture of happiness (the “yes, no more serious questions” kind) and fear (the “oh god, what will they ask me?” kind). The first question concerns where the name Unknown Mortal Orchestra came from, to which Nielson says that he used it because the song he put up on Bandcamp needed a name. “I was like, ‘ah man, this song needs a name’” before questioning which criteria he’d take into account when picking one. He eventually decided that the name would “have to be something which would end up on some weird kids’ t-shirt at high school”. The second question we ask covers the subject of Nielson’s favourite cities to play in, which he claims are New Orleans, Houston and Austin. “Texas is really, really fun” he concludes, saying that Houston and Austin have always been very kind to them. He picks one venue in particular, namely Austin’s 850-capacity Mohawk venue. “We’ve become great friends with the promoters at Mohawk,” adding that their friend at the Mohawk has placed Unknown Mortal Orchestra on their wall of fame. Other towns that come to mind are Lisbon and Porto, both in Portugal. He points out that there are lots of ‘bad cities’ which have good music vibes, yet that he absolutely dreads playing hometown shows in Auckland,
New Zealand. Our final question concerns any artists he’s enjoying listening to at the moment. He immediately tells us that he’s really enjoying Morgan Delt, something which may seem a bit obvious as it’s clearly influenced by Unknown Mortal Orchestra. “I went and played some
guitar on Jonathan Rado’s [Foxygen] record, and on the way back I hear this music in the car
,” before recounting that one of his friends was in Morgan Delt’s band, something he was unaware of. The friend in question, Lionel Williams, is currently working on an exciting video project for Multi-Love which involves creating a virtual environment in which people can play and experience new things. Alongside Delt, Nielson also embarrassingly laughs as he tells us that he’s very much into Kendrick Lamar’s newer output, including the much discussed track The Blacker The Berry.

Ruban Nielson likes to talk, that’s one thing you can’t deny. Unlike with some other artists, though, Nielson knows exactly what he’s talking about. He is quite simply a musical genius with over twenty years’ worth of experience under his belt. By the time Unknown Mortal Orchestra release Multi-Love, people honestly won’t know what has hit them.

Listen to Multi-Love by clicking here.