Q&A: Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson Explains His Super-Fi, Hard-Edged Multi-Love
It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly five years since Ruban Nielson — the mad genius and mastermind behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra — first started mysteriously posting his music on Bandcamp. In the years since, Unknown Mortal Orchestra have released two increasingly amazing (and at times totally confounding) full-length records of kaleidoscopic psych-pop that not only wowed critics, but garnered an almost cultishly devoted fanbase. Stereogum named them a Band To Watch back in 2011. This May the band will release its third record — the sanguine and surprisingly funky Multi-Love — and head back out on the road. I asked Nielson a few questions about the making of the new record to see where his head is at these days. His responses — which discuss topics as diverse as biocentrism, super-fi recording techniques, and the “hard-edged” love at the core of his new record — are pretty much the best. Listen to the title track and read the Q&A below
STEREOGUM: On prior Unknown Mortal Orchestra recordings, you played pretty much everything yourself. How did the writing/recording processes change for this record?
NIELSON: My brother came out to Portland for five weeks around March and played drums and keyboards on most of the record and collaborated on some of the songs. I knew I was going to be spending a lot of time late at night by myself last year recording and stuff, so I needed some company and feedback and help so I wouldn’t go too crazy. My brother’s name is Kody. I also flew out to Brooklyn for a few days in the middle of the year, and my bandmate Jake recorded and produced vocals on a couple of the songs. Working alone is fun, but I get stir crazy and need a fresh perspective every now and then. I’m trying to learn how to collaborate.
STEREOGUM: So much of the last record was all about loneliness, whereas this record feels more optimistic. What changed for you since II came out? Were there specific themes that you were trying to explore more fully going in to the making of Multi-Love?
NIELSON: I needed to change a lot of things. I was typically off the rails and sick. I think that happens to people; you pursue your job so fiercely you let it possess you. Looking back I can see I was feeling sad and sick and trying to dream of getting better. I wanted to start living a more subversive dream. No more hospitals and other strange beds. No more hanging out with my kids with a leaking nose. I wanted to put danger aside and focus on love. A new kind of futuristic multi-love. Not some hippie bullshit, but a hard-edged, cynical, and sharp kind of love. Got to keep it hard-edged or it becomes invalidated.
STEREOGUM: Did touring so much in support of II affect the vibe of this record?
NIELSON: I think after Jake, Riley, and I had gotten some love as a live trio, some people might have expected some kind of live recording with extended jams or something. I couldn’t think of a worse direction for this record. It’s not that at all. So I think maybe touring did affect it, but in reverse.
STEREOGUM: Multi-Love is a huge leap forward in terms of sound. Three albums deep, has your approach to production and engineering changed?
NIELSON: Not much really. My basic process and technique and I suppose philosophy or whatever is probably shockingly similar. Of course I have a lot more shit than I had during the first two records. I made those with mostly one cheap microphone, a laptop, a little 15 watt amp and some tape recorders. That is more than enough if you have a few tunes I think. I picked up other stuff as I went but those were my main tools. I had to upgrade some of the stuff I was using just to keep myself interested and curious, and I’d learned how to fix and build a lot of stuff in my studio. I had this idea of trying to make this super-fi album using the same process as the other albums. The same process, but employed to make a different texture. A super-fi texture instead of a lo-fi texture.
STEREOGUM: How will it be to play these new songs live?
NIELSON: We’ll be a four piece and I’ve been working on patches for keyboards and stuff like that this week. I don’t think it’ll be a radical change, but it’ll probably be better in a lot ways. Especially if you’ve seen us play a bunch of times. It’ll be fun to hear more sounds I think. It’ll mean every show can be that much different from night to night. Which is ultimately the main reason we do this, because we’re all addicted to that feeling of playing and being better than our normal unknown mortal selves for these fleeting stretches of time.
STEREOGUM: I’ve admired your no-nonsense attitude in interviews when it comes to talking about your work. You’ve occasionally been described as a kind of contrarian. Has dealing with the music business gotten easier for you?
NIELSON: I’m not trying to be a curmudgeon. I’m just attracted to extremes and contrast. Can I be a contrastian instead? I feel like contrarian has already been done and maybe I’ve been influenced by the great contrarians of the past but am not one myself. Contrastian sounds more synthetic. I work with such good people, I don’t really deal with much music industry bullshit these days, to be honest. I just make my recordings and tour and eat and bone and read and build things and hang out with my kids and my girls, and any business stuff is usually kind of fun or at least educational. Attention is so weird now. Nobody knows how famous anyone else is anymore. I defy anyone to explain what the hell they are looking at on their phone, ever.
STEREOGUM: What is inspiring you right now? What is bumming you out?
NIELSON: I’ve been reading about this Biocentrism thing. I’m actually kind of dumb, but I like reading stuff that is over my head. Like I’ll read some Hegel just to get inspired by how confused I get. Robert Lanza is a genetic engineer by trade I think, and he’s got this theory that consciousness is the center of reality. I’ve been reading about Artificial Intelligence as well and between biocentrism and reading about A.I. I became convinced that the universe is a sandbox simulation. I figure maybe we’re being tested. That’s why atheists have become so boring, because what if our consciousness is engaged in a simulated sandbox reality and we reincarnate into the simulation over and over just like a video game, and the landscapes around us spawn just like video game landscapes do, only the resolution is on a particle level? As for being bummed out, I’m bummed out by the obvious stuff. I want cybernetic IQ enhancements and free energy and modular gender. I don’t know what modular gender is but those two words together seem cool. The species feels so held back. I can’t be the only one who feels this way. Oh well, why waste any more bandwidth on that.
STEREOGUM: What will the rest of 2015 be like for you?
NIELSON: I’m going to travel and play music this year. Plans already in motion.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Multi-Love will be released via Jagjaguwar on 5/26. Here’s the cover art, tracklist, and new tour dates.
02 “Like Acid Rain”
03 “Ur Life One Night”
04 “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”
05 “Extreme Wealth And Casual Cruelty”
06 “The World Is Crowded”
07 “Stage or Screen”
08 “Necessary Evil”
5/07 Eugene, OR @ WOW Hall
5/09 Seattle, WA @ Barboza
5/10 Spokane, WA @ The Bartlett
5/20 Bristol, UK @ Thekla
5/21 London, UK @ Islington Assembly Hall
5/22 Coventry, UK @ Warwick University w/ Django Django
5/23 Liverpool, UK @ Liverpool Sound City
5/25 Amsterdam, NL @ Bitterzoet
5/26 Berlin, DE @ Berghain Kantine
5/27 Brussels, BE @ AB Club
5/28 Paris, FR @ La Flèche d’Or
5/29-31 Nîmes, FR @ This Is Not A Love Song Festival
5/30 Barcelona, ES @ Primavera Sound
6/02 Boston, MA @ Brighton Music Hall
6/03 Montreal, QC @ Theatre Fairmount
6/04 Toronto, ON @ Lee’s Palace
6/05 Pontiac, MI @ Pike Room
6/06 Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall
6/08 Minneapolis, MN @ Triple Rock Social Club
6/09 Omaha, NE @ Waiting Room
6/10 St. Louis, MO @ Firebird
6/11 Sun. June 14 – Manchester, TN @ Bonnaroo
6/13 Atlanta, GA @ Terminal West
6/14 Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle
6/15 Washington, DC @ U Street Music Hall
6/16 Philadelphia, PA @ Boot & Saddle
6/17 Philadelphia, PA @ Boot & Saddle
6/19 Brooklyn, NY @ Warsaw
[Band photo by Dusdin Condren.]