Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Back to the Future
by Kevin J. Elliott

Often times, it is the most personal and private of recordings, never intended to see the light of day, which become the most expressive and enriching records. For Ruban Nielson, now a native of Portland after growing up in New Zealand, Unknown Mortal Orchestra was a pet project, a way to exorcise the starburst pop sounds and hip-hop beats clogging up his head. For the longest time, the recordings had no name and no purpose other than killing boredom. After breaking up with his former band, the semi-successful Mint Chicks (a group he shared with his brother for seven years), adhering to the rigors of touring and sharing creative space with three other musicians seemed a chore rather than a pleasure. As a result, Nielson isolated himself from the music world and began slowly recording what is now Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s debut for Fat Possum.

Thinking of deep, personal albums, one instantly imagines heart-on-sleeve troubadour crooning and lyrics that read like latch-key diaries. But Nielson’s vision isn’t based in wallowing or going forth where the Mint Chicks left off. Songs like “Ffunny Friends” and “Bicycle” are effervescent, slightly frivolous, pop singles matched with dusty, yet strident, sampled beats. Try mashing the best parts of the Village Green Preservation Society with chrome-thumping Timbaland instrumentals and you’ll begin to get the picture. In fact, the decaying Yugoslavian Spomenik (one of those modernist Soviet monoliths built to celebrate communism) that graces the cover of the record is symbolic of the retro-futurist kaleidoscope of styles that define Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Partly out of necessity (Nielson didn’t have a drummer), and partly as a wild fantasy to carve his own niche into the realm of psychedelic curios, Neilson never had aspirations that this formula would be his entry back into the indie sweepstakes.

For a while, Neilson preferred the mystery that became attached to the internet buzz surrounding the tossed-off release of “Ffunny Friends.” But soon the attention warranted action, and Neilson revealed himself and subsequently recruited Portland producer Jake Portrait on bass and drummer Julien Ehrich to play out the funhouse pop that he had concocted on the record. Now, given the glowing reviews pouring in for the groups’ debut, the trio will be on the road indefinitely. That sudden move to camaraderie is something Neilson says he had to get used to again, but has also made the music he was once recording by his lonesome that much more elastic and layered. In speaking with Neilson during some time off in Portland, he claimed that Unknown Mortal Orchestra is developing at a rapid rate now that they have become a true band and are even bonding into what Nielson referred to as an “old session band” or pop-influenced Krautrock. Sounds like Nielson’s possibilities as a songwriter and sound sculptor have become endless almost overnight.

I really enjoyed what I was able to hear of Mint Chicks a couple of years back. You had a lot of success in your native New Zealand, but it never seemed to catch on in America. What exactly led to the break-up of the Mint Chicks?

Ruban Nielson: We moved out here (Portland) to try and do some stuff, but I think at that point we had become too lazy. We were certainly resting on our laurels. It was a combination of not catching many breaks and using the money we’d made in New Zealand to live a nice lifestyle in Portland rather than get out on the road and do the things we needed to do. My brother and I had a pretty strained relationship, and that was a big part of it.

I know that you had some downtime after moving to Portland. What eventually inspired you to start writing and recording the songs that would become the Unknown Mortal Orchestra record?

RN: I always like to do some things different creatively than what I am currently doing for money. Like when I was in the Mint Chicks making music, I always liked doing drawings. It was the opposite of being in a band. I can’t stay doing one thing for that long. So when I was working on visual stuff at a job in Portland, I started wanting to record music again.

How did you want it to differ from the music you were playing in the Mint Chicks?

RN: I don’t really compare it to the Mint Chicks because they were a real band. When I first started doing Unknown Mortal Orchestra, it was really just for my own amusement. It was more self-indulgent and wasn’t something I intended for others to hear. It was just for me. I was thinking I would like to do music again, but I didn’t think this is what would eventually happen. I thought instead I would just join another band in Portland.

The album has a particularly vintage sound to it, so I’m curious to know how you went about producing such a sonically distinct recording.

RN: Well, it was mainly done on ProTools, but I also used a lot of different tape recorders in the place of plug-ins. I would mix down from three different tape players to different tracks. I put a lot of effort into replicating the sounds I was hearing in my head. It was nerdy in the respect that I would work on a particular guitar sound until it sounded exactly like what I was hearing. I had a lot of freetime to work on this stuff by myself.

Were there any specific records that you were using as blueprints when writing and recording the album?

RN: There’s a Deerhoof record, though I know that’s not vintage, that was recorded on four-track. I wanted to know what it was about that record that made it sound old. I think it was Halfbird. Safe As Milk by Captain Beefheart was a big influence, and various parts of the Nuggets compilations. There was another compilation called Psych-Funk 101 that has a lot of crazy stuff from India in the ’70s.

I do think that even though you can hear the Beatles and Kinks in the grooves, there is a very futuristic approach to psychedelic music here, almost as if the beats are more influenced by hip-hop. Would you agree? Was that your intention?

RN: The whole idea of hip-hop itself is a throwback. I am definitely influenced by a lot of ’90s hip-hop because most of that is based on samples. The hip-hop records I really like take samples from things that are really old and the contemporaries of the artists that they sample is also music I’m influenced by. Does that make sense? As it was coming together, it felt good and it didn’t feel like it would be weird to have these two styles together because I think that both essentially come from pop.

And living in America now, has that given a new perspective to what you’re doing in this band?

RN: Not so much America, but I would say living in Portland and the atmosphere here really influenced the record. First of all, a lot of the old tape recorders that I wanted and started using were easy to find in Portland. A lot of my creativity to write came from how easy it is to get isolated here. So when I decided to make a private little psych record, I had a lot of time to get stuck and devote my motivation towards that one idea. Everyone here is of the same mindset, making their own little records. There is not much industry here, but there are a lot of musicians who have the same ideas about music and a lot of bars which are accepting of that community. You’re never in fear of walking into a bar that will be blasting Lady Gaga like I might be back home.