Ruban Nielson discusses failing to quit music and the terrors of Unknown Mortal Orchestra.


Ruban Nielson has always struggled to piss off his dad; a jazz musician who, once his son was born, moved his young family from Los Angeles to New Zealand and joined the Navy band “to clean up his act.” Up until that point (some time in 1980), Nielson senior and his bride of three years (a hula dancer, no less) had been on a massive bender from the day they’d met entertaining guests on a cruise ship. They’d sail from LA to Honolulu, Ruban’s mum dancing, his dad playing trumpet and saxophone in a lounge band called ‘Drumrolls’. Ruban’s arrival stopped all the fun.

“My dad is quite a cool guy,” he tells me. “He was always kind of a druggy and really into jazz, and would wear a leather jacket and shades, with long hair, tight, black jeans. It was really hard to scare him, but then with Wu Tang Clan he didn’t quite get it. I could see that it was taking him time to understand it, and that alone was like, ‘Yes! Got him! He doesn’t quite understand this!’.”

Sounds like the kind of dad that everyone at school wants to have until he is your dad.

“Exactly,” says Ruban. “When that guy’s your dad you’re like, ‘I wish my dad was normal and wore specs and had an insurance business.’”

Ruban’s first musical experience wasn’t a pleasant one. At the age of five, as the children of the Navy band were taking turns pretending to conduct their parents, he was snubbed. As he picked up the baton and walked to the rostrum, the clock had run down, everything stopped and everyone went home. “I was devastated,” he says. “It was a traumatising introduction to music.”

New Zealand, though, is something of a conductor of Anglo/Yankee pop culture; “bombarded from both sides” by Brit Pop and Grunge simultaneously by the time Ruban was a teenager. At home, his folks were still listening to jazz – John Coltrane and Miles Davis. “My dad didn’t quite get punk rock either,” he says, “because it’s so simple and loud, and so much of it is about assaulting people with noise.” It’s what Ruban and his younger brother Kody had started to do with their band The Mint Chicks – a group that would segue from discordant noise into increasingly more acid damaged melodic pop by the time they split in 2010, seven years and a lot of drugs after their debut single.

“I decided that the most shocking thing I could do after that was to tell everyone I was not going to make music anymore,” says Ruban. “I had it in my head that I’d be like Captain Beefheart and not make music anymore, just do something else, like visual art for the rest of my life. That was the plan.”

How this plan monumentally failed has been well documented in previous Unknown Mortal Orchestra articles – how Ruban moved to Portland, Oregon; how he made a track called ‘Ffunny Ffrends’ and posted it online; how no one knew who had made it but everyone loved it and blogs melted under its hip-hop snare rat-a-tat and stoner androgyny. Yet to hear Ruban describe the tale of UMO himself, it’s as if he’s still coming to terms with the fact that it’s true – that, after years of schlepping around in a guitar band, his greatest success (and work) would come as he finally let go of trying.

He realised that ‘Ffunny Ffrends’ had blown up five days after uploading it, when he heard his song coming from another computer in his office at film production company Kamp Grizzly. It was late and Ruban was finishing one of his illustrations (it was his job to sit in a corner and draw what he was told, anything from flaming skulls to a samurai slicing a basketball in two). “I went over to the guy who was playing the track and asked him what he was doing and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve got a friend at Nylon and they’ve just sent me this – it’s some band that’s really blowing up’. I was like, ‘I made this. I recorded it a few nights ago’. He was like, ‘this is insane!’, and I asked him not to tell anyone because I thought I could sweep it under the rug if I decided I didn’t want to do it.”

Once had picked it up, Ruban was soon contacted by many of his favourite labels expressing interest. It took him seven days to decide if ‘professional musician’ was still a career he was interested in.

“I thought I should forget about it for a week,” he says, “because I’d got to the point in my mind where I was really comfortable that I’d stopped and I had something else going on. I really didn’t need it. It was strange, because these things that would have been a dream come true two years earlier, I was now over that dream.”

Ruban ums and arrs when I ask him if he regrets the decision he finally made. Essentially, he doesn’t, but the touring lifestyle that came with the release of his eponymous debut album in 2011 “beat me down a little,” he says. “Getting in control again was the process last year. Me and [touring bassist] Jake are cutting back on our drug use and doing various things to get our lives back on track again.”

‘II’, UMO’s second album (it’s far more imaginative than its title suggests), sounds like a direct product of a world turned upside down – the isolation experienced predominately by solo musicians, and the meltdown that comes with too many late nights and all that entails. In October of last year, Ruban told Pitchfork, “the last record was really warm and happy; this one’s lonely”. Indeed, ‘II’’s opening refrain goes: “Isolation, it can put a gun in your hand, it can put a gun in your hand / If you need to, you can get away from the sun, you can get away from the sun…”. On ‘Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark)’, Ruban wishes he could “fall to the bottom” and “hide until the end of time”, as he dreams of being a Great White – the most standalone creature of the deep blue. And new single ‘So Good At Being In Trouble’ (UMO displaying a penchant for the breathy, slow funk of Prince) is no less sombre in words, getting “lonely” in within its first 10 seconds. This is just the opening three tracks.

“The ‘isolation, it can put a gun in your hand’ line is just a truism, really. I guess it’s just that idea that the Devil makes work for idle hands. I also heard this story, and I probably shouldn’t use names but I went to someone’s office and they had a 44 Magnum and I was messing around with it and it was loaded. The person who owned it looked kind of nervous and I found out later that another musician that we knew had pointed the same gun at this person who owned it. Maybe that’s where that line came from – this idea of letting yourself get into a dark place, because I knew that was happening to me. It could be a suicidal idea as well – you never know what you’re going to do with a gun.

“Intuitively, the album came out feeling lonely. I was definitely taken over by this feeling of loneliness, and being lonely in a crowd. The loneliest thing in the world ever was travelling the world and meeting hundreds of new people, hanging out and talking shit with people, doing drugs and having these fake, epic conversations, but really it’s meaningless. It starts out fun, but after a while it’s kind of brutal.”

It’s ‘II’’s refusal to wallow that makes it such a smooth follow up to ‘Unknown Mortal Orchestra’. That record was full of rudimentary break-beats and good times; ‘II’ has a painful inspiration behind it, but it’s hardly a glum listen, full of ricochet guitar licks (‘The Opposite Of Afternoon’), ’70s wah-ka-wah-ka flange (‘One At A Time’) and Beck-ish disco (‘No Need For A Leader’). It’s a lot more psychedelic, from a man who’s been into psychedelia before he even knew what it was, as jazz filled his family home and he dreamt of being a comic book artist like his French hero Moebius. “When I discovered him, it just changed my life. Until then I didn’t realise there was all this culture surrounding psychedelia.

“It’s funny though, because when I first started making music I thought there couldn’t be anything less cool. I thought I’d removed myself from the zeitgeist completely, and it was nice to not worry about that, but now everyone’s talking about the psychedelic wave. It’s always disappointing to me when someone says, ‘oh this band is really psychedelic’, and you listen to it and it’s just a synth pop band.”

Ruban’s true psych chops haven’t come from his hallucinogenic drug use, the tattoo he has below his Adam’s Apple of an eye, his breathy whisper on his records, or his ringing guitar, even, but in fact his ability to let go. It’s how Unknown Mortal Orchestra started, and, so Ruban tells me, how he decided to make a second record – by “feeling the time was right to do something with the ideas I’d recorded onto my phone”. Equally, there’s nothing desperate about Ruban Nielson. He feels like a man who’s not about to kiss the feet of the music industry for giving him this chance because, truth is, he can take it or leave it. When talking about his father, he referred to him as “the black sheep of his family”. Somewhere along the line, Ruban was taking notes.

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