Ruban Nielson is the brain behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the 1960s-influenced group that headlined Boston’s Brighton Music Hall on Monday night. Yes, “1960s-influenced” is an overused description for bands, but Unknown Mortal Orchestra is one of the few that actually sounds straight from the past.
After years of touring with New Zealand band The Mint Chicks, Nielson anonymously unleashed “FFunny FFrends” to the blogosphere in 2010. The earworm track quickly grew popular and Nielson’s anonymity vanished. The band released their second album, II, earlier in 2013. II is a complex, delicate and occasionally spooky record and the mixing alone is worth the price of admission.
Earlier in the week, I talked to Nielson about the concept of the struggling artists, Nielson’s interest in electronics, analog recording, UMO’s bizarre music video for “Swim And Sleep (Like a Shark),” and more.
Lucien Flores: What is the best thing that somebody has ever said or written about your music? What compliment or comment touched you the most?
Ruban Nielson: The thing that I like is when people say that they had a really horrible time…there was somebody who contacted me on Facebook and said that they had lost their dad…and they were just saying thanks for the record…because they were listening to II over and over again and they said that it was really helping. They were saying that they didn’t know how they would be coping with it if they didn’t have the album. For me, I want the album to make people feel better. I think that my records are for when you’ve had a bad day. It’s supposed to be escape from all the bullsh*t in the world. When people say that that’s the way that it’s functioning in their lives, it seems to feel like the most satisfying thing.
LF: I can imagine that it’s quite an interesting experience to hear how meaningful and how important your record or your art can be.
RN: It’s just good to have my record be that record. I know what it’s like to be listening to something and think ‘oh man.’ It can help. Something bad happens, you can kind of get drunk or you can listen to a record. If it’s my record, it’s amazing.
LF: I watched an interview with you where you said that the band’s last album was filled with songs about things that battle your happiness. What’s your take on the idea of the struggling artist or the idea that the best art comes out of hardship and strife? Do you agree with that?
RN: I think it can come out of that but I don’t think the best art necessarily comes out of that. Sometimes unhappiness comes with isolation, you know? Sometimes that can be a good thing just because you’re not distracted. But I think the first record wasn’t like that. I wasn’t in a sad state when I made the first one. I was in a really happy state but that was really inspiring. I think that the first record is born out of being in a positive headspace and the second one was just a negative headspace. They were both inspiring in different ways.
LF: I’ve read a little bit about your career in visual arts. Aside from music and visual arts, what else inspires you?
RN: I was just talking about electronics — that’s my latest thing. I’ve been working on that a lot, like analog. I’ve been really deep into that recently. It’s taught me a lot about music and all that equipment. I’m just fascinated with the way that it came about. I’ve also been reading about the history of it and it’s interesting because I think that when electronics first began as something people that were interest in, it was sort of like a voodoo art. It wasn’t something that someone took seriously. I think it was seen more like people studying extra sensory perception in this era. It was a bit like a pseudo-science and I don’t think that people thought it had an energy that you could harness to power things. I don’t think that it was really a mainstream accepted idea, which is crazy when you think about it. And now we have these power stations that produce millions of volts. It’s just really interesting to me.
LF: I’ve never heard that people may have considered it an illegitimate form of science. That’s fascinating to hear actually.
RN: Especially when you think about how important electricity is to us now. It really makes you wonder about all the things that people consider to be fake sciences or not worth pursuing…because electronics began as people trying to measure static electricity by rubbing different rocks on different materials to try and get some kind of static…or studying magnetism and stuff like that to try and see if there was anything to it. And now we can harness huge amount of power and voltage and we have cities that are completely lit by electricity at night. It’s really crazy.
LF: Where are you reading about this?
RN: I just have a bunch of books that I’ve read on the history of electronics. I have this book that has a chapter on a bunch of the most important people in the history of electronics. It’s just something that I got interested in.
LF: Are you working on a third record?
RN: I’ve been mostly touring so I haven’t had that much time to record…but I’ve been writing a lot so I have a bunch of stuff that I’ve been working on. I’ve been thinking about the third record a lot. It’s funny that you mention the thing about being in a negative headspace because I really want the third record to be more like the first one where it has a lot of uplifting and optimistic stuff in it. I don’t want it to be another tour record about being lonely and lost.
LF: I also saw that you’re considering going into the studio for this album. Do you think that will help fuel that inspiring or uplifting feeling because you’re no longer recording the albums in your house by yourself?
RN: The thing with recording out my house is that that’s not the thing that really creates the loneliness, which is kind of weird. I enjoy recording by myself at the house. That part of it is not depressing. I had been on the road for a year and a half and I’d really worn myself out. All of the songs had been written on the road so I was recovering from that. Actually the process of recording the album by myself was really fun. I think I’ll do some more of that on the third one but I think I really want to try and record in different places. When I did the first record, I didn’t have any space in my place to record so friends of mine…musicians would go on tour and I’d ask them if I could borrow their basement for a couple of days. And so, I recorded it in a lot of different places and I kind of want to do that but this time I’ll have a budget and I’ll have more friends and resources and stuff. Maybe instead of just traveling around and recording in different places, I’ll actually go to different studios and work with different producers. I’ll work at home a little bit as well.
LF: Do you think there might be more piano or acoustic guitar on this record?
RN: Yeah, it might end up being like that. I don’t think it will be particularly acoustic. Who knows? At the moment I feel like it will just sound like UMO. I think it will probably involve that kind of stuff.
LF: I’ve read that you’re not a huge fan of music with more digitized sounds. What is it about that element that you might not like as much versus a song that mostly sticks to creating something with your main/basic instruments?
RN: I like electronics. I’m really interested in electronics and that’s one of my hobbies that I work on quite a lot. I don’t have anything against electronics…and actually digital technology is good for transmission of information. But just sonically…it takes a huge amount of information to make a plugin that simulates tape saturation, for example, and that’s taken a lot of research and development and it’s taken so long for people to imitate that sound in plugin form and yet you can just record to tape and that technology was in used in the ‘40s. So I don’t see the point of a lot of digital stuff just for my purposes. I can easily make a record with technology that they had in 1978.
So I think just it sounds better…digital audio just doesn’t sound that good…it just doesn’t have the same effect on the human brain and I think that’s part of the reason why music is less important in our culture than it was because it just doesn’t have the same impact as it did when it was recorded the way it used to be recorded, using the kind of technology that they used to use. That’s just the way I feel about it.
LF: What’s your favorite way of listening to music then? Do you prefer tape or vinyl or mP3?
RN: I like vinyl, I like cassette tape…reel to reel. Sound doesn’t really describe it for me. When you listen to analog audio in the right conditions—it could be a Walkman…it doesn’t have to be something fancy or audiophile—but just sometimes it has this effect that just doesn’t come from Spotify or from my iPod. I think listening to music on an iPod is a little bit of a simulation of listening to music. You can get the song…you get addicted to a song and listen to it over and over again but it’s not giving you that extra sonic element that people used to take for granted with music.
LF: I read once that you said that a good record should make you feel high, being almost a substitute for drugs. I was wondering what records accomplish that the best for you?
RN: Oh man, just every record that I like. They all have different effects. I really like…Syd Barrett. That makes me feel a certain way — it’s kind of like gin. Tago Mago, do you know that album by Can? There’s a pretty cool effect if you listen to it at the right time. I really like listening to Voodoo by D’Angelo. It came out in the ‘90s. It’s and R&B record that’s really cool that has a pretty strong effect. Then there’s really obvious records that the people who made them were thinking about trying to create that kind of thing. Do you know Loveless that [My Bloody Valentine] record? I think that’s specifically supposed to make you feel like you’re high or something.