It's been a weird 18 months for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the psych-pop trio that anonymously released tracks from their 2011 eponymous debut before widespread critical acclaim thrust them in the indie spotlight. Portland, OR-via-New Zealand frontman Ruban Nielson had already released three albums with the shambolic noise-rock group the Mint Chicks. But with UMO, Nielson traded in abrasiveness for pop trippiness, absorbing the Beatles and early Pink Floyd and refracting them through his own lo-fi lens.
We've already gushed over UMO's SXSW set. Now, Nielson speaks to Fuse about monkey obsessions, celebrity Twitter endorsements and why he's done fighting with "drunken idiots."
It says in your bio that you wrote the new album while “fearing for both your sanity and health.” How hyperbolic is your publicist?
[Laughs] I just wore myself out. Me and [UMO member] Jakob [Portrait] have been in the band since the beginning and we went into it with this thing like, “Everybody likes these songs. Let’s start a band and go out on the road and say ‘Yes’ to everything and see what happens.” So we did that and it was really fun and then it got too much fun and then it got just too heavy.
Can you define “too much fun”?
We’d take three days off and then go out for another two months and then come home for four days and go back out. We never got off the thing. There’s a thing that happens to you on tour; your metabolism changes. Your thinking changes. Really weird stuff starts to seem really normal. People think that with musicians, the whole sex and drugs thing is something like, “Oh, let’s get this going!” But it’s something that becomes normal; it’s something you need to do to make it all make sense. Otherwise, you’re like, “I’m just playing music out here and sitting in a van. None of this makes sense." It’s a weird lifestyle.
Most of my life was stuff that happened when I was “on” something, so the album sounds pretty druggy.
This is your second successful band. Does the whole experience of being a professional musician still feel surreal?
Well, Mint Chicks were different because it was like a violent gang. It wasn’t really that much fun and hedonistic. We’d get in fights with each other, people in other bands, drunken idiots, whatever. People would throw stuff at us onstage. UMO is just more fun and there’s a lot more pleasure going on and I think the music is like that too.
So If Mint Chicks were a gang, UMO is…?
Like a cult [laughs].
When your debut album was released, you kept a fairly low profile. Was this a conscious effort to not become overexposed or just your personality?
Part of it’s me and part of it is growing up in New Zealand. It’s a really low-key country and not big on the spotlight. If you’re not in the spotlight, you’re less of a target for people. I just want to make music. We’ve always had it really good. We’re not one of those bands that people either love or hate. People either really tolerate it or love it, so that’s really cool. I spent this time in Mint Chicks and we were just antagonists all the time and I got sick of it. I just want people to like my music.
Do you feel more pressure now that there are more eyes on you?
I had to prepare myself for it and try to put myself in a good zone. Push all that stuff out of my head and try and keep it pure.
How do you do that?
I don’t know; I just try to think of all the angles before I start. I sit down and wander around the neighborhood thinking about it. The first album, I accidentally stumbled onto what I’m about. I didn’t want to suddenly lose that. I made the first album thinking, “Nobody’s going to hear this anyway, so I may as well just write a song called "Ffunny Ffriends" or write first lines like “Looks like a bag of Cheetos exploded.” I don’t care. Sounds good to me. I like it. For the new album, now there are people in Brazil and Korea that will be listening to this, so I had to block it out and try to get in a good place.
It’s a little jarring at first juxtaposing the album’s dark lyrics with overt pop melodies. The first line is “Isolation can put a gun in your hand.”
Yeah, it wasn’t an emo thing; it was more like a whirlwind. When I would sit down and think about the way I was feeling, I’d be meditative and down. I thought the album was going to be just a pop album and then when it was finished, I was just like, “Man, I used the word lonely four times on this album.”
That wasn’t planned?
It wasn’t planned at all. It’s just that I had such a specific life for a year and a half [on the road]; all I could really write about was what really happened; most of my life was stuff that happened when I was “on” something, so the album sounds pretty druggy. I was talking to someone and they called it a “delirious, dead on your feet” album; like how you feel, half-dreaming, at five in the morning.
Are you in a better headspace now?
I’m in a much better headspace. I’m more aware of what I should and shouldn’t be doing. It’s just time for some new problems [laughs]. The next album, I want to work with a producer and do different stuff because it gets pretty lonely making the album by yourself.
Courtney, definitely. That was weird because Kurt Cobain’s a big hero of mine and I’m obsessed with the guitar that he designed and I have the same birthday as him. But [the Roots’ 1996 album] Illadelph Halflife was one of my favorite albums. It’s amazing. One of my musical dreams was to play in front of Questlove and him be like, “That’s pretty good.” He came to a show that we played once and I met him and that was huge. He’s working with Elvis Costello on an album and I can’t believe I’m even able to be in the building as people like that. It’s just a dream come true.
You have a monkey tattoo, a song named "Monki" and you brought them up earlier in the interview. Where did the obsession come from?
I just get these vibes. I was sitting around with a bunch of friends and—it’s kinda weird—everyone was talking about Harry Potter and saying, “What’s your patronus?” Everyone was being honest. Nobody was saying, like, “Tiger” or something because tiger would be a weird thing to be. I just said, “I think I’m a raven-clawed monkey” and everyone was like, “Ohhh sh-t. Totally. That’s it. That’s what you are.” I also started realizing that in eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, there’s always a monkey traveling around and being a trickster. And monkeys are cool, too.