UMO: Unknown quantities

By Joe Nunweek

His touring days behind him, Ruban Nielson set out to record a secret curator's egg of psych oddities - but Unknown Mortal Orchestra didn't stay that way for long.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Photo / Supplied
Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Photo / Supplied

He'd set a rule not to check how the song was doing during the day, because making music was something Ruban Nielson did, sure, but Ruban Nielson the musician was something else. A past life. It was a day or two later that he heard it blaring out of a co-worker's computer in the office where he jobbed as an illustrator.

"Suddenly I hear the first few bars and I'm like, 'Hold on, it's the song!'" he recalls. "So I race over to this guy's desk, and he's got Bandcamp open on his screen." Mere hours after its genesis, Unknown Mortal Orchestra's Ffunny Ffriends was on Pitchfork. And Matthew Perpetua, and all of them. 'Have you heard these guys?' "I was like, actually, that's me. I made that the other night."

Nielson is talking to me from Barcelona. Unknown Mortal Orchestra is a trio now, one that's spent the better part of 2011 on tour and honing itself to a rare form. Of all the epithets you might lob at his debut under the UMO banner, "live" wouldn't be one. Instead, its cut-and-paste drum breaks and overripe spurts of mutant funk conjure up a sort of hyper-reality. But the band is doing it, by all accounts.

"Because there was so much programming and I'd sort of stitched it together, I considered trying to take a laptop on tour and just performing that way," he reveals. "But you have to constantly worry about tech crashing and losing stuff. It's not like breaking a string. And I was just seeing musicians right now who might have recorded something themselves, creating it a similar way. Watching how awkward they seemed on stage just made me think of how hard I'd find it standing behind something."

Even then, he didn't take anything for granted. "We've all been excited to see bands and wonder how they're going to replicate a record, and then just find it really disappointing." So the group made sure they had a decent stretch of rehearsals under their belt before setting out.

Parallel to this, a bidding war of label offers came thick and fast. "Some were pretty sketchy; some were with big indies, like pretty significant interest. In the end, we wanted something that was a bit more 21st Century. If I decided I wanted to turn around and go back to Portland again, I wanted to only be locked down to one record. And not to end up locked down where one label had exclusive rights to put it out everywhere."

Although the eventual deal was, so the legend goes, more or less jotted down on a napkin with Fat Possum's Matt Johnson, it was at least sweet enough to remove the bitter taste of the Mint Chicks' label woes.

And what of his old band, the group that should have cracked the world, but didn't? Nielson acknowledges he's "a bit of a blank slate" when it comes to the press in the US and Europe, who never encountered the Mint Chicks. The loss is all theirs - especially since the group's final work (Bad Buzz, Say Goodbye) partly points the way to UMO's fuzzed-out psych reveries.

"Yeah, I think I was moving in that direction. The kind of stuff that was always around me growing up, but was hard to factor into a punk band."

To Nielson, the break from music when he left the band and returned to Portland felt longer than it seemed. When he set down to a friend's basement to self-record the bulk of the album, the idea was to "record something kind of like one of those weird cult artefacts. You know, the sort of album that basically never gets heard or sells and becomes this sort of funny obscurity and exists in its own little world. Like Syd Barrett, or Roky Erickson, or something. I would have liked to have seen how far I could have pushed it - putting the music out without any backstory, or my identity."

No such luck. For listeners though, the more UMO - on stage especially - the better.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra's self-titled debut album is out on Seeing Eye/Frequency.

* VOLUME presents Unknown Mortal Orchestra at San Francisco Bath House in Wellington on Friday 16 December and Kings Arms in Auckland on Saturday 17 December.

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