Ruban Nielson is an interesting man. As the brain behind psych project Unknown Mortal Orchestra, he has seen and experienced more than your average musician, from natural disasters to amazing spectacles and few and far between. On new album Sex & Food, Nielson travelled the world essentially in pursuit of putting out the best Unknown Mortal Orchestra record to date, a feat which you could suggest he has more than achieved. Its dulcet tones are equal parts cheerful and menacing, with the subject latter balancing itself somewhere in the middle of the two. We caught up with Nielson in Amsterdam for a lengthy and politically-charged chat (read: ramble) about the new album and everything that contributed towards its process, from Adolf Hitler and Marxist theory through to Mexico City and the liberating Obama era.
Hey Ruban, it’s been a while since we spoke. Three years, to be precise. How are things?
Good, yeah. I suppose I’m doing the same thing I was doing on Multi-Love. I’ve been doing this promo shit for a couple of weeks now, in New York and New Zealand. Now I’m heading through Europe, but I’m a bit fried. Today’s been a good day, though. I suppose it’s good to save Amsterdam till last, because the interviews have been a bit less same-y. A lot of media cycles require me to say the same things over and over again, but I haven’t had to do that yet today.
Anything you dread being asked?
Umm, not really. I’m just worried that I get to good at answering questions, because you end up answering them the same way again and again. Halfway through this process I was trying to figure out how to say different things.
Have you been coping with the terrible, freezing conditions while you’ve been out here?
It’s ok. What was really strange for me was that it was summer in New Zealand when I was there. It was super humid, so it was really rainy and really hot. Going from that to Madrid, which isn’t as cold as here, is one of those things that makes me really sick. Going between hot and cold. It’s really cold here, but it’s also a really cosy city. Whenever you’re inside it’s very comfortable, but some places just aren’t like that. Some places are just very cold.
So what’s the worst weather you’ve encountered on UMO duty?
I’ve been in three earthquakes. I don’t know if it counts as weather, but that’s definitely the worst experience I’ve ever had. There’s something very terrifying about an earthquake, because there’s no ceiling to how bad it can be and there’s no telling how long it will last. It might be over when it’s over, but you never know when it will happen again. That’s terrifying. I was in one in Mexico City for this record, so that was something which kind of influenced the mood of the end of the record when I was finishing it there. The things that I’m afraid of are tsunami’s and earthquakes, but earthquakes are the worst because they can happen anywhere and be of any power. I personally don’t get very terrified of something like terrorism, because with that you at least know it’s a random person doing it whose actions are controllable, but you don’t have that with an earthquake. Even nuclear war, the people doing it give some warning and there’s no malice involved. It’s when the earth shifts – that’s terrifying to me.
Let’s talk music. Sex & Food is the new album, but what sets it apart from Multi-Love?
I think of the first and second UMO records as being, like, brother and sister. But when I was getting ready to make this album I thought of it as being to Multi-Love what my second album was to the first one. You know what I mean?
Like a companion piece?
Yeah. More like a feminine version, counterpoint, conversation or extension to Multi-Love. That helped me, because it made me look at the second record more than it made me look at Multi-Love or the first album, if that makes sense. I just kind of felt like what I was doing was expanding and contrasting on Multi-Love. That album is really different, whereas the first two albums were pretty similar.
A new chapter of sorts, then?
Yeah. Like, it sounded different and it was more ambitious sonically. It made people describe it as a departure, so I looked at the second record and thought of bringing more guitar back into the mix. Lyrically it’s also changed so much. Multi-Love was my life caught up in relative bliss in that cultural moment, and now the world seems much darker. The government has changed. You know, not that Obama was this perfect president, but I think the effect that his era had on culture was that things became more open. There was a certain moment where those kinds of things started to happen, and looking back it felt really liberating. There was a lot of possibility for the future, and then that soured in this weird way to the point where things that felt liberating before now feel like diversions of themselves. Then this kind of fascism and neo-Nazism just appeared out of nowhere, haha. It all came back. It’s this rampant, wanton, post-capitalist idea, and the world just suddenly became really dystopian. And then all of a sudden it was back to revisiting Marxist theory. I was watching a lot of Adam Curtis and that, which I feel like a lot of people must have been doing too. I was trying to make sense of how to actually survive, because you can’t just be either sad or angry all of the time. You need your humour, art, and all these creative things which are a part of the way that you solve the problem. You can’t just fight fire with fire.
You can’t just wantonly hate the right wing. You have to figure out how you heal a society and get to the root problem of what’s going on. A lot of the things that are going on seem like they’re causing people to go sour. Part of the problem with that is that there aren’t an awful lot of options for people. Getting on board with somebody who is essentially evil but looks like they have a plan kind of seems attractive to certain people, especially younger people who have little option. I was talking about this infographic, and it was about all the areas in America where you could survive on minimum wage. It was only a few tiny areas, so I got thinking about the options. Like, look: you’re in high school and all you want to do is get a small apartment, be single and work at McDonalds. All you want to do is go to the movies every now and again and just live your life out and be happy. The most realistic and simple life you could imagine, and it’s not even possible. It’s not an option, and it’s crazy. Maybe it’s similar here, too. You just run out of options for living normal lifestyles. My parents’ generation told us that you could own a house, a dog, a car and have two kids and a job that you do for your entire life. You reap all those benefits, and then you retire. That’s a really nice promise of life, and if anyone was unsatisfied with that they’d be pretty strange. Most people would take it, falling in love, having kids and a job you can stand while watching some football at the weekends. There are worse things. I feel like that’s all people really want, but nowadays society is saying that we can’t have that and it’s painting an unrealistically precarious future where you work yourself to death while those at the top ride around in Lamborghini’s. It’s not surprising that the world is falling to pieces. At the same time, when things go dark artists have the option to consider what things they’re going to say. What kind of art will we make? It’s been quite hard for comedians these days. How can you make a comment about something without offending somebody? I feel like Saturday Night Live went all, “hey, we can make these parodies of Donald Trump and this is how we’re going to fight it”. You can’t be more ridiculous than him. He’s beyond anyone’s imagination for how ridiculous a president can be. There aren’t any fictional presidents who are as preposterous as Trump is. How do you make fun of somebody who is stupider than you’d have ever imagined? At the same time, that’s weaponised. That’s his weapon, and he knows that’s the thing that makes him so effective. He’s already more ridiculous, and he’s beyond criticism because he’s done the worst things we could’ve imagined anyway.
I just want to talk about the album title for a bit now. Sex & Food: how do these concepts personally interrelate?
I suppose what we were just talking about. Having a job, falling in love, retiring and all that kind of stuff. Sex & Food is about that. As I was making the record I noticed that it was taking on some themes which I thought were getting quite heavy. I felt as though I had one more chance to explain how simple and dumb I am, kind of. That I’m not spending all my time just worrying and complaining about all these things. The solution to the problem is partly based in the innocent appreciation of the simple things in life that we all have at some point in our lives. Going out and enjoying the things that make up human life. Not just human life, though! There are so many things which connect us to the animal kingdom, the things which make us simple creatures that need simple things. I suppose I just wanted to make the title of the record connect to that, as opposed to something critical or heavy.
Last time we spoke, you mentioned that the name Multi-Love came well before any of the music. Was that the case this time, too?
It came afterwards this time. I had a title for the record that came first, but which I don’t want to tell anyone. The thing about that title was that it was pretty heavy and dark, and that it also gave a pretty good description of what the album was really all about, thematically. Sex & Food, for me, is more of a contrast, and one which shows what the album is effectively supposed to be. You start with something, and then you have to cope with it. Not to be superstitious or wacky, but I do believe that when creativity gets its momentum it shifts your reality. Multi-Love was a really odd example of that, and it happens a lot to me in songwriting nowadays. I just have to be careful about what ideas I start with, so I shifted to Sex & Food because I don’t want to make it an album about how dark the world is. I want some relief, because it’s supposed to be medicinal or an antidote to the darkness of the world. When you acknowledge the darkness in the world you find that you can only enjoy things when you aren’t in denial. A lot of pop music is about enjoying yourself and stuff like that, but it’s in denial of how dark the world really is. I like that darkness to tie in with the things that I enjoy, because acknowledgement of the truth is partly what helps me enjoy myself.
You recorded the album in multiple different cities, among them Reykjavik and Mexico City. These two cities in particular are polar opposites, so can you tell me a bit about what you learnt from recording in Iceland as well as Mexico? What did that do to you?
Well, I think Reykjavik had a few different reasons for going there. I had an internal logic about these places, and I did make a list of cities at the beginning where I wanted to go. I would go somewhere and then come back to Portland, and then I’d feel drawn to another place. After visiting New Zealand – my home – and recording with my brother, I left and went for Iceland. It always reminded me of an upside down New Zealand in a way, and I thought it was a good thing to go to a place which was a twisted version of my home country. I’ve been reading a lot over the course of writing the record, and I’d heard that Reykjavik is a hyper literate place where the people write and read a lot of books to help them get through the constant darkness. They have a lot of time to read, and it was very nice to be around that kind of energy. I don’t know if it’s still true, but I think that Americans tend to read a lot less than other places. The other thing about Reykjavik was that it was summer, which means that it’s never night. Weirdly, I only record at night and sleep during the day.
Has that always been a constant for you?
Yeah, it has. I’ve always been like that, ever since I was very young I had trouble following normal sleeping patterns. I’m not entirely sure why, but I thought it would be funny to force myself into the day. The reason I wanted to leave my basement was because it was bad for me and because it was depressing. I went to Reykjavik and it was always day, so I’d have these catnaps of two to three hours and then wake up.
It must really fuck up the sleeping schedule.
Yeah, and it created a totally different rhythm for me. I was sleeping a lot less and working a lot more, which was kind of interesting. I liked that, but I couldn’t imagine doing it again. I’m at a time in my life where I want to get a lot of work done, so there’s something quite magical about waking up at 4am when it feels like 5pm. I like it, and I’d never experienced it before. Not even in New Zealand, and I’m not sure why it doesn’t happen there as we’re so far down south. I think it only happens in the northern hemisphere. That was cool, and then I went back to Portland. I was thinking about where to go next, but politics was causing me to stop and just follow this whole Bernie Sanders situation where he lost the primaries and Trump won. I was kind of traumatised by that. My brother and I were Bernie Bros, haha. We went to his rallies, contributed money to the campaign and all that stuff. We got really excited about the whole prospect. And then when Trump won – like a lot of people – I became slightly radicalised. Maybe radicalised is the wrong word, but it certainly made me commit more to certain beliefs. It also created this fascination with communism which the US is now heading towards. It’s always been there, but more in the underground. I used to listen a lot to bands like Nation of Ulysses, who practised performative marxism. Basically using communism as a performance tactic, much like Marilyn Manson with satanism. Now, socialism is an actual belief system which is claiming some cultural clout. When I first moved to the US ten years ago, you could destroy a presidential candidate by attaching the word socialist to his name. Bernie was filling arenas full of people and openly declaring he was a socialist, which was a huge change.
It was like waking up in a nightmare that one day in November when Trump won, right?
I honestly thought it was a joke. It seemed so stupid. The thing that really annoys me, though, is the whole liberal outrage or panic about Trump and this cargo cult waiting for the silver bullet of some collusion with Russia that will bring Trump down. Something that will make everything “okay” again. What it’s actually about is just realising that nothing has ever really been great, and that this is a highlighting of the problems. In a way, what was already there was just being brought to the surface so that everyone would look at it properly. Going back sounds worse than being where we are and having this time to try and promote some real progress, you know? It’s denial to want to go back to the Obama era. It’s ridiculous, and it’s just going back to sleep. Sorry, I keep going into politics and now I’ve opened a can of worms and I can’t stop talking. Music! I went to Mexico City at the end of the recording process, and started back in Iceland. I started in Reykjavik because I first wanted to be somewhere peaceful and that reminded me of home whilst being surreal, but Mexico City was down to me having always wanted to record there. After recording in Seoul I went there to finish the vocals, and I thought it might be an inspiring place to do my vocals. I felt like I had my vocals and had some lyrics to write. I had friends in Mexico City, so I always wanted to go back there, in particular to a certain studio. The contrast between the two cities is something I never really thought of as they were spread out ten months apart, but I had this idea that David Bowie and Iggy Pop going to Berlin must have been really inspiring regarding the tension there. It’s an interesting idea to be near the iron curtain, and I thought that the DMZ (demilitarised zone) in Seoul was the modern day one. I wanted to find a studio as close to the DMZ as possible, so Jake and I found a hip hop studio where we hung out and recorded whilst exploring the city. I liked being there, especially after talking to people who had been living there and experienced certain aspects of the regime. In the time since we returned from Seoul, Kim Jong-Un became this kind of threatening figure. Scary stuff.
It’s scary stuff indeed. I’m afraid we’re out of time, Ruban. Thanks for your time.
No worries, cheers. Sex & Food is out now.