Unknown Mortal Orchestra interview: “Playing against that idea of manly, white-guy rock music.”

23.04.15

It’s 8pm at a noisy bar in Shoreditch, and a guy with an eyeball neck-tattoo and five black fingernails is reassuring me that he wants to live. Ruban Nielson, psych-funk virtuoso, brains behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra, is clambering through our conversation like a wired prison escapee, every bit as jittery in human company as his fraught, suicide-hotline lyrics suggest. But he’s affable, too, and after a stream of assertions that things are, y’know, going alright, you start to believe him. "It's such a cliché," he says of the ‘live fast die young’ orthodoxy. "No one gives a shit anymore." Say what you like about indie rock’s vagaries, but rejecting cliché can save lives.

Fortunately for Ruban, the record he’s promoting, ‘Multi-Love’, isn’t hard to give a shit about. Loose and upbeat, it shoots a canon of disco glitter into the vibe-heavy bedroom-pop of UMO’s first two LPs, both of which drag by comparison. Ruban’s dad, a composer previously unmoved by UMO, was so impressed he played sax on a pair of tunes. The result is the New Zealand band’s most consistent and alive-sounding record yet.

That said, it might be all that’s consistent in Ruban’s life. After a non-stop tour regime that pushed him to the brink, he’s spent the past year readjusting to domesticity with his wife and two kids. After the interview he spills over into self-interrogation, dwelling on how he let down his family; how his early death would’ve affected the children; how "we got caught up in a dumb idea of what a rock band should be about, and we thought, 'Well, we're just gonna die. That's what's gonna happen. We're gonna die if we keep doing this.' And I didn't wanna die yet." He chuckles. "I wanted to make some more records."

What bad habits had you gotten into while touring?

Ruban Nielson: "Basically, we were doing a lot of coke and a lot of opiates. And a lot of my friends and peers and people that were doing really well got taken out by it, you know? Some of my favourite bands and best friends in the music industry are not putting out records right now because of drugs. And it's not romantic. You just crap out. You just stop. People start caring less about the music you're making, shows start sucking, you take your mind off making music and put it on a bunch of other bullshit that doesn't matter. It's just ultimately not cool at all. So it seemed like a good idea to get it under control. But addiction hangs over people their entire lives. You never kill it."

How else are you moving forward?

Ruban Nielson: "I'm always reading stuff. It's gonna sound pretentious, but I like reading philosophy. I don't necessarily have the greatest grasp of what it is, but it's interesting for me to read books that are over my head, like Derrida or something. You read something for a while and it'll somehow spark off an interesting idea. I was also building my own guitar pedals. I started trying to build a pedal that'd control a light show. But after I experimented and went through the entire process of building it – and it worked – I toured with it, with my amp flashing, and really it was taking my attention off the music. But I’d started to think about music in terms of voltage, and that led me into synthesis, analogue synthesizers and stuff."

"Some of my favourite bands and best friends in the music industry are not putting out records right now because of drugs. And it's not romantic. You just crap out. You just stop." – Ruban Nielson, Unknown Mortal Orchestra

How d’you mean?

Ruban Nielson: "I started to realise that all music is electronic music, which is really useful for me. So I started to build synthesizers and fix old synthesizers. Over about a year and a half, that process of thinking about the way guitars turn sound into voltage, and then fuzz pedals and manipulation, and then the way you can change that voltage into light, made me think about synthesizers. And then I started using synthesizers!"

Do your kids get involved fixing synths?

Ruban Nielson: "Sometimes my son would hang out – he'd be pretending to fix a synthesizer, but he'd be using Lego or hammering a piece of wood together. But they get kind of bored. I do a lot of it at night. You know Slavoj Žižek? I put a lecture of his on, just because I like the sound of his voice. [laughs] And then stay awake until eight in the morning trying to fix something. I don't really go out that much anymore, because I have it so set up in there."

Is that a problem for you?

Ruban Nielson: "A little bit, but the people that know me now, I don't bother to apologise for who I am. I've always been like that. I had real trouble in high school because I’d just stay awake all night. But then when I went to university and did art school, it was totally fine for me to stay awake all night and paint, and not have to go to a lecture till like four in the afternoon. Ever since then it's been my life. I don't beat myself up about it anymore, y'know?"

And your family are cool with it?

Ruban Nielson: "Yeah, well, y'know, my wife's known me for so long, I think she's just used to it. It's really common for me to go to sleep when they're waking up. So, yeah, it’s cool. [laughs]"

Back to ‘Multi-Love’ – is it a disco album?

Ruban Nielson: "Yeah! I was trying to think of things that, if I was a music fan, would make me excited about a new UMO album. One of the issues was, a lot of people like our live show but I was wary of the idea of doing a record that was all live. I wasn’t interested in that at all. Certain fans would like us to be in the vein of, like, the Black Keys or Jack White. I respect those artists, but that's not really what we're about. UMO going disco is a way of playing against that idea of manly, white-guy rock music. Y’know, Pink Floyd is part of what we do, and Led Zeppelin is one of my favourite bands, but I'm not all in on that. So at certain parts it's almost house music. I feel like that annoys the Black Keys rock music fan guy that’s dabbling in UMO. I was already thinking, I don't wanna do any guitar solos on this record. The only guitar work on it, I was thinking more along the lines of Prince than Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix."

"UMO going disco is a way of playing against that idea of manly, white-guy rock music." – Ruban Nielson, Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Multi-Love as a title has that utopian, hippie connotation, but is there something underneath it?

Ruban Nielson: "Well, the song is basically what you were just talking about. It started from thinking about a futuristic reassessment of the Love-with-a-capital-L, hippy kind of thing. And I tried to take that idea and make it personal. There's some things that happened in my private life that were… Well, it was ironic that I'd decided to call the album ‘Multi-Love’, because it started to have this double meaning. But I want people to have their own experience with it. Because it could be about infidelity too, or a love-triangle, or it could be about somebody dealing with bisexuality. And at the moment I don't wanna tell the story of what my experience was, because I don't want to make it just mine. That's the idea of 'Multi-Love' as well. It could mean literally everything – nobody's excluded from it. Because often, when a straight man writes a love song, how does that affect you if you're gay and you're listening to the love song? You have to flip your idea, you have to kind of go, ‘Okay that's not really for me.’ So I wanna write songs where people can relate to it in a way that's way less specific than me saying, ‘This is what's happening in my life.’"

You said earlier that you’re more optimistic and comfortable these days, but are things really looking up?

Ruban Nielson: "When I wrote ‘II’, I was in a really bad space. My health was bad, emotionally I felt really alienated, I wasn't looking after my family properly. And I was stuck in the middle of some bad drug habits. The music was fine, and I was kind of not taking care of anything else. So 'II' was kind of about that, but it was also starting to think, 'I'm gonna fix this. I'm gonna be a good person. I'm not gonna die. I can do this. I just have to care enough.' I started getting some new heroes. Looking at different things. If you don't die young, what do you do? How do you keep your life interesting? I'm never gonna be a 9-5 suburban kind of normal person, but I do wanna be a good dad. I don't want my kids to hate me. So then I'm in this stronger position, where suddenly I have some money to spend on better equipment. And rather than sitting around getting wasted, like, ‘Man, I'm gonna build a synthesizer’, I can actually do those things. So that's where I'm at now. The next chapter."

Jagjaguwar release 'Multi-Love' on May 25th 2015 (pre-order).