Unknown Mortal Orchestra: Back from the brink

By Scott Kara

Former Mint Chick Ruban Nielson tells Scott Kara his new success with Unknown Mortal Orchestra almost cost him his health.

Ruban Nielson (left), Greg Rogove and Jake Portrait of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Photo / Supplied
Ruban Nielson (left), Greg Rogove and Jake Portrait of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Photo / Supplied

When TimeOut last talked to Ruban Nielson in June, 2011, he was living in his adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon, in a tent with his family.

It was by choice, it has to be said, and it did sound rather cosy.

He also said at the time that he was going to give his new project, Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO) - which he started after the demise of fiery and melodic pop-punks the Mint Chicks - 18 months to see how things panned out, following the release of their self-titled debut.

Fair to say, given the recognition Nielson's catchy and whacky songs have garnered on the international indie music scene, and the accolades the album earned, including winning New Zealand's Taite Music Prize and scoring top marks on influential website Pitchfork, and his gong for Best Male Artist at last year's Music Awards, things have worked out more than okay.

Not only will he release follow-up, II, on February 4, but the Nielsons live in a house now, too.

Much of UMO's success has come from the relentless tour schedule the band - also made up of bass player Jake Portrait, drummer Greg Rogove and occasionally Nielson's brother, Kody - kept up through the United States and parts of Europe following the debut's release. But it hasn't all been rosy and Nielson, on the phone from his home in Portland, admits the touring took a mental and physical toll.

"In the Mint Chicks I'd never been on tour for that long. You could tour New Zealand in two weeks, easily," he says with a laugh. "But so much good luck had happened that I thought I could leave myself to my luck for a while, and I thought anything I got offered, I'd do it.

"But after a while I realised if I do keep doing this I'll be dead in two years. I started to realise I had to take a hold of what was going on."

He is not willing to go into the gory details but says it got so bad that he had to stop and pull his head in.

"I was losing control, but also in a rock band on tour and going through all these experiences that were really exciting, so it was like a year of having butterflies in my stomach and, after a year, I was starting to get sick.

"But I'm still alive. I didn't totally fall off the wagon. But I had to take a look at what I was doing, and recalibrate my career and the way I was living a little bit.

"This year has been a process of trying to figure out how I'm going to keep doing this because we've got a big year coming up and we can't just fall into it," he says of the world tour in support of II, starting with a show tonight at Cassette Nine in Auckland before opening for Weezer at Vector Arena tomorrow. "It's either I make it happen or I don't. And I realised the whole reason I do this in the first place is because of my family."

Still, this hedonistic delirium he was exposed to on tour provided the inspiration for II. "They are mostly songs I wrote when I was on tour. They're all about life at night, I guess. And when you're pushed, and what happens to you when you don't get much sleep and you are always moving."

If the first album was about fun and freedom, with songs like the delightfully playful Ffunny Ffrends and the psychedelic beatnik boogie of How Can You Luv Me, then II is more serious, thoughtful and darker.

"Less childish, or something," he offers. "When I was writing the songs I just thought I was writing a bunch of pop songs. But after sitting with it for six months I realised it was really sad. It was about loneliness and darkness and being out of control. But it also had this giddy motion to it, which is exactly what it was like on tour."

But they retain UMO's trademark lo-fi whimsy and trebly charm. The standout track - and perhaps most like his earlier material - is One At a Time, with its steely, jammin' guitar, moochy beat and beautifully random runs of wild brass played by his dad, Chris, who worked with his sons on the Mint Chicks records.

Then there's No Need For a Leader with its rat-a-tat beat and fuzzy groove, and sprawling, exotic epic Monki, which trundles along nicely between a mope and a dreamy chug.

"I wrote the main hook of that song way back, when I was still in the Mint Chicks," he says of Monki. "It was back when I was waiting for my son [Moebius] to be born and we were living in a barn at the time, and I recorded the chorus and put it away for three-and-a-half years. It's a weird one, that song, and it's about a lot of things that have already happened to me all mixed up into one thing.

"But I haven't really figured out what it's about yet. It's a mystery to me. Actually, I don't really know what my songs are about when I first write them. It usually takes about a year for me to figure out what the song is about."

In saying that, Nielson believes the 10 new songs are the most honest ones he's written, because up until now he has never been able to express himself so clearly.

"And I think it came from being exposed, by getting so worn out on the road and everything that happened to me needed to be expressed, I guess. I was living at the edge of what I was able to handle and when it came to write songs, it was like all these words just came out," he says. "I didn't second-guess, I just put down exactly what I was feeling, no matter how strange it seemed at the time, and I just went with that."

Who: Unknown Mortal Orchestra
New album: II, out February 4
Debut album: Unknown Mortal Orchestra (2011)
Playing: Cassette Nine, Auckland, Jan 10; Supporting Weezer, Vector Arena, Jan 11

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