Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
The day of my conversation with New Zealand-born, US-based artist Ruban Nielson is a spotless afternoon in London, but he’s still in bed in Portland – catching a few weeks of down time following Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s first bout of touring for 2013. He’s calm and collected, and sounds like this new ability to break up the shows into more bearable chunks is reaping its rewards, probably for the most part on his sanity. As we talk touring, it becomes clear how this compares with the experience of taking out UMO’s self-titled debut, which saw Ruban and his touring band take to the road for an unrelenting year and a half of constant playing. Saying yes to any show going – and not wanting to pass up on any chance to party – by the end Ruban knew something needed to change: “we had to start facing the idea that we weren’t going to be able to keep doing it, someone was going to do die or something.”
It’s a story as old as the hills, of a rock band tilting their way towards the brink of madness and destruction, but by distilling the intensity of it and building on that universal feeling of things catching up with you came the spark for Ruban’s next album. Removing himself from the light and taking to his basement studio, and recording using a combination of tape recorders, a couple of microphones, phones and Pro Tools, came ‘II’: those old-meets-new techniques speaking to the potency of the album’s blend of lo-fi funk, dirty psychedelia and a la mode hip hop-oriented backbeats. On first getting lost in ‘II’ a few months back I mostly took away its sun-drenched gleams, but the more you stare into it the more complex it becomes. It’s work rooted in the complications of reflection – in trying to reassemble the movements of a debauched August night, or trying to come to terms with the pangs of frustration and darkness that come through exhaustion – and for my money it’s one of the standout guitar albums 2013 has yet to offer us.
So you’ve been back in Portland for a few weeks, taking a break from touring?
Ruban Nielson: Yeah.
You were out in New Zealand, how was it being back?
RN: It was the best New Zealand trip we’ve had so far, really cool.
Are you pretty big out there?
RN: Actually, it’s probably the place where we’re the least big. It takes a long time for things to translate over there. I thought because of being in the previous band [The Mint Chicks] it would have translated really easily, but we’re just like another band from the States that hasn’t really caught on in some ways. But it is gotten past that point of being unrecognised; it’s just starting to happen over there for us.
I’ve heard a lot of the inspiration for the songs on the new album came from the experience of being on tour. What was it like taking these songs about being on the road, back on the road again?
RN: [Laughs] It’s a good reminder because before we’d just kind of launched ourselves into the touring. We’d do things like go out for a month and not take a day off. Stuff like that, which we didn’t realise until now is just crazy. You can’t just do that, no one does that.
“I definitely feel more inspired when I’m in some sort of abnormal situation.” – Ruban Nielson
Do you think that period of going a bit overload with the touring was key to the development of the band though?
RN: Yeah, I wouldn’t have changed it. Unless something really bad had happened, which we kind of thought might. Jake the bassist in the live band actually ended up in hospital, and everyone’s health was going downhill. So we had to actually get off the road and figure out where we were going wrong – which was pretty much everything. We were playing the shows really well, so we were just thinking that that’s all that mattered.
Was some of that coming from chatting with other bands?
RN: Yeah, we didn’t realise it because we didn’t ask anyone about it. But then after a year you talk to other bands and they’re like “We’ve been out for three months, we’re exhausted”. And we’re like “Dude, we’ve been out for a year”
Unknown Mortal Orchestra performing So Good At Being In Trouble.
Most of ‘II’ it was recorded with just you on your own in the studio, keeping nocturnal hours. Am I right?
Do you need to put yourself in an unreal state to get into a creative space – be that first getting sparks on an intense tour schedule or locking yourself away in the studio?
RN: I definitely feel more inspired when I’m in some sort of abnormal situation. But I find myself having much more control over that now. I want to know why I’m doing it – I want to know why I’m putting myself in abnormal situations, jumping into a mind state from being on tour too much and then getting inspired… but also feeling like I need to go to hospital [laughs].
Are you feeling settled in the US right now?
RN: At the moment I feel really comfortable here, I really like it here. There are a lot of places I’d like to visit and hang out, but Portland’s got everything I need at the moment and it’s not as American as a lot of places [laughs].
You found touring out around America a bit of an eye-opener, right? Is that what Secret Xtians is about?
RN: It’s actually more about what the title says, about people who are secretly… It’s not really just about religion – it’s about my apprehension that people aren’t something they say they are. I guess I have my heart on my sleeve a lot of the time and I do that as a way for people to accept me as my faults and stuff like that, but also so they know where they stand with me and can accept me for who I am. But America’s quite strange, one of the things I’m most surprised by is this the Christian Right thing here, which I think has been pretty damaging to the world in general. But then it’s funny when you meet people individually how lovely most people are if you take them out of their political context, you know? You find out what they believe or who they vote for and you just have to kind of agree to disagree.
“In February last year, I came home and just went into the basement and pretty much recorded the second album in the same way as the first one. With the same microphone, because I only had one microphone. The only thing that had changed was life, you know?” – Ruban Nielson
The album’s got this really potent sound to it. What was your approach going into the studio? With it being your second album I’m guessing you might have had more studio time?
RN: Well, I didn’t really have any more money or any more time to make it. When I signed to Jajaguwar I did end up getting some money for making the album but it wasn’t really until the album was already done. One of the things that caused the wake-up call about how I was running things was that I ended up getting ripped off quite a lot of money, and I had to change managers, and ended up changing labels. But in February last year, I came home and just went into the basement and pretty much recorded the second album in the same way as the first one. With the same microphone, because I only had one microphone [laughs]. The only thing that had changed was life, you know? So I got better at using the same technique of using all my tape recorders and Pro Tools. I have about fifteen tape recorders with little pieces of tape with the name of the instrument I prefer for that tape recorder. So I was making up my own way of getting the sound that I wanted. It’s part of how I work now.
Is your instinct usually to go for older techniques like tapes over laptops and Pro Tools?
RN: I like Pro Tools, I like the way it works, the functionality of it. But I don’t really like the sound that much. I like the sound of tape, so that’s where it comes from. I’m not sure I’d want to record the old school way, but I do like the way old records sound. I think the recording techniques from the ‘60s and ‘70s are just better – they just knew how to make records better.
Are you quite an obsessive, a perfectionist when it comes to capturing your sound?
RN: I tinker a lot. I’m not sure I’m a perfectionist, like with the drums I’ll often record them straight into a tape recorder using the built-in microphone. I’m not really anal about getting the perfect technical sound but I do spend a long time – like if something doesn’t sound right I’ll bounce it through three or four tape recorders and try and get the right sound that way.
Are there any tracks on the album you’re particularly proud of in terms of the sound?
RN: I thought Swim and Sleep was probably the best recording. On Monki I felt the drums came out really good. Monki was funny because it was recorded with two microphones, which is the most I’ve ever used on drums so far.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Swim and Sleep
That’s not a lot…
RN: Yeah, a lot of people use up to 15 microphones or something. But I just found myself recording with less microphones and getting the sound I wanted. There’s no point adding anything if it sounds the way you want it to sound. I bought an EQ, which is the first real piece of studio equipment I’ve ever got, an APA EQ, and ran everything through it. I was kind of proud of that, this one professional recording layer.
“With So Good At Being In Trouble I came up with that one line first… I heard a girl say that at a party actually and then remembered it.” – Ruban Nielson
Were you calling in the other guys when you needed rhythm parts put down?
RN: For the second album my brother recorded some drums Kody Nielson, formerly of The Mint Chicks. And Jake played on No Need For A Leader. Apart from that I was doing everything by myself. I’m working at such odd hours that it’s not appropriate for me to call people asking them to help me.
I’ve heard that you were surprising yourself at how dark your lyrics were going. On something like The Opposite Of Afternoon the lyrics go into some dark places but they’re set to this really blissful melody. What’s your process with lyrics and melodies?
RN: I usually come with one or the other first. With So Good At Being In Trouble I came up with that one line first… I heard a girl say that at a party actually and then remembered it. What usually happens is I’ll write the whole song and then I’ll let the lyrics come to me without trying to force them to be about one particular thing. I want it to be subconscious, I don’t want to think about what the song is going to be about and then force that into it. But when you write a song that way sometimes you don’t notice what the song is about until long after you’ve written the song. Often it seems sort of natural and nonsensical while you’re writing it and then later you realise you’re choosing words for a specific reason, and usually the song is about something more truthful that way. It’s like having a dream and then not knowing what the dream is about, and then explaining the dream to someone before realising what it’s about.
That comes through right from the get-go on From The Sun, this feeling of over-exposure, like you’ve been sunburnt and you’ve got to retreat in on yourself…
RN: I think everyone feels that at some stage, it wasn’t really about touring or anything, just about that feeling of being overwhelmed.
For the most part is this an album about memory and reflection?
“I think when you listen to the album it’s like you knew what it was like to be me for that year.” – Ruban Nielson
RN: I think it’s more just impressions. I want to get a feeling across, an idea I can put across in the listener’s mind so I can share the experience with them. I think when you listen to the album it’s like you knew what it was like to be me for that year. When Jake became familiar with the album I think he kind of came to understand me a lot better. He was kind of like “Oh really? You were feeling like this the whole time? That explains a lot!”
For future recordings will you keep to the writing entirely by yourself?
RN: I think for the first two records I was trying to find my bearings and I didn’t really feel comfortable handing any part of that process over to anyone else, because I thought I had such a strong idea of what I wanted to do. But now I think it’s pretty obvious what the UMO thing is about and people have faith in me enough and I have enough confidence that I could start working with other people again. I just think it sounds more exciting for me to travel round and record in a few different places and stuff, and there’s no harm in doing that I think because if it doesn’t work I can always come back to the basement. I think I’m going to take longer to do the next album and reach out to some different people. And now that the band’s at a certain level there are more options that are opening up where I can reach out to people who’ve made some of my favourite records and see if I can make something happen.
“I just think it sounds more exciting for me to travel round and record in a few different places and stuff, and there’s no harm in doing that I think because if it doesn’t work I can always come back to the basement.” – Ruban Nielson
Could you share any names?
RN: Well nothing’s really set in stone but I talked to Dev Hynes, I saw him at SXSW and talked to him about doing some stuff, maybe co-writing or something. I talked to Dave Lunoihf from the Dirty Projectors and a guy called John Congleton who produces all the St. Vincent stuff. I started trying to reach out Russell Elevado, he’s kind of the neo-soul guy, he’s done a lot with D’Angelo and Erykah Badu. But he’s also a real rocker – really into the Beatles and Hendrix and Zeppelin and stuff like that. But it sounds like he’s never real got the chance to do a really great rock record so I was thinking about whether he’d be interested in working with me. I just love his records, like ‘Voodoo’ by D’Angelo, I’ve been listening to that for a long, long time but I kind of revisited it recently.
Dev Hynes is so hot right now, what with all the Solange stuff and working with the Sugababes…
RN: [surprised laughter] Really? The Sugababes?! [This is referring to MKS, who aren’t legally allowed to call themselves Sugababes any more… – Ed]
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “Rà-àkõ-st” (Lindstrøm cover)
RN: Well I just keeping thinking it would be cool to work with someone like that… I did this remix of a Sky Ferreira single that he did and I just kept thinking maybe it would be cool to write something poppy and bounce some ideas off him. I kept bumping into him… maybe it was a sign.
Remixing too, is that something you feel like you’ve done a bit of but you’d like to try more?
RN: Rather than doing remixes I’ve wanted to do whole re-recordings of people’s songs. A lot of what I’ve been doing recently has been taking things that are already for the dancefloor and then turning them into headphone music. I did this remix where I took a space disco track that Lindstrom did and then re-recorded all of the instruments so it was kind of a cover, and then turned it into this funk track. It’s funny because I don’t know if you’d really call it a remix or not, it’s almost like de-mixing it. It’s like a de-remix… like I’ve made it sound like he’s the guy who’s remixed my song. It’s good fun, and it kind of feels like something that isn’t being done all that much.