Ruban Nielson's Unknown Mortal Orchestra has defied its name to become one of the best-known acts in America. The third record explores new territory, including Nielson's own polyamorous relationship, writes Lydia Jenkin

When Timeout phones Ruban Nielson at his home in Portland, Oregon, he's in a good mood.

"My friend just sent me this link to a Brazilian radio show, and they have this psychic medium on, and she contacts dead rock stars and asks them what music they like and that kind of stuff.

"She contacted Jimi Hendrix today, and apparently he's listening to Unknown Mortal Orchestra. That made me feel pretty good. Maybe I can put that on my grave."

The Kiwi expat and ex-Mint Chick seems to be in a pretty good place. Unknown Mortal Orchestra is a great success - critically acclaimed, award-winning, and in demand across America, Europe, Asia and, of course, Downunder.


Nielson has been sought out to work with acts like Frank Ocean, Mark Ronson, Toro Y Moi, and fellow expat Kimbra. And it seems he's finally found some balance between family life and rock star life.

It's a bit of a change for a guy who was clearly strung out after spending too many months on the road, as you could hear on his second album II.

It was a brilliant record, and by no means a downer, but it did shine a light on how isolated and turbulent Nielson was feeling. So to write his third UMO album, he took a break.

"I felt like I was starting to age about three years every year," he says, laughing. "You've got to get off the road a little bit for your health sometimes."

He actively wanted to make a happier record this time around, something more outward-looking, more extroverted.

"I like being a guy that can make a record that people might turn to in a hard time, but I felt like this time I needed to make a record that would get you out of the dumps rather than help you wallow in them."

He still wanted to make this record on his own, however, not with the band, and he wanted to get away from "becoming pigeonholed in that American rock place. There's a lot of money to be made in that world of dudes playing rock, but I don't want to get bored. I just kind of thought, if I can keep growing, that's going to be the best thing."

Nielson definitely kept growing, both technically (he spent a lot of time building patches, fades and effects, and fixing and building synths for this record) and on a personal level.

As he detailed on American blogsite Pitchfork recently, during the making of the album his family grew (himself, his artist wife, Jenny, and their children, Moe and Iris) to include a fifth member - a young woman named Marla, whom Nielson had met in Tokyo, and who became close friends with both him and his wife via email.

Also an artist, Marla came to live with the family in Portland (at his wife's suggestion) as they explored the idea of polyamory - hence the album title Multi-Love.

Nielson professes that the unexpected situation was profoundly influential on his work.

"I thought, there are a million ways for this to go wrong for my life, but there's no way for this to go wrong for me artistically, as long as I keep my eyes open and I'm brave."

This new relationship wasn't the only influence on the record, though. Nielson began the record before he met Marla and continued to work on it after visa issues meant she had to leave.

His father, Chris, flew over to write and perform some horn arrangements and his brother, Kody, flew over to play drums and keyboards, and to write songs.

"I kind of liked the idea of starting the record in my basement, but I thought 'How is it going to be happier if I'm just working by myself at night all the time again?' [He's a lifelong insomniac.]

"So the idea of getting Kody out really appealed. We hadn't worked together that closely since The Mint Chicks, so it was really fun to have him out here.

"We'd just get up in the afternoon and work until like 3am, and then go to this diner called Shari's near my house. The local waitresses all knew us, and we'd just drink coffee and eat pancakes, and then go back to work until 9 or something."

Nielson had a folder full of loose song ideas and when Kody arrived they went through them all, looking up favourite tracks on YouTube for reference.

"We'd start going, 'Ah that reminds me a little bit of Off the Wall by Michael Jackson', and then we'd check out all these different Michael Jackson things, or stuff by Prince. And we'd be measuring the beats per minute, and talk about technical ways we could make the snare sound."

Mostly, the lyrics came last, drawn out of another folder full of lines Nielson had written about places he wanted to mention, favourite restaurants, memories, or moments. But above all he was trying to beat himself.

"On the last album, the first line was 'Isolation can put a gun in your hand', and everyone seemed very drawn to that lyric. I started to think, 'What is it about that lyric that makes people talk?' And I thought, 'What if every line was that quotable?'

"I wanted to make every single line of this album as good as that."

His kids, Moe and Iris, are woven into the record's hallucinogenic tapestry too, both the sounds they make, and the way Nielson thinks about them and around them.

"My son, Moe, was sitting on my knee one time, and he started to make his humming drone sound, and then I was bouncing him, and it kind of sounded like a weird bouncing drone, so I put a mic up to him and recorded him, and that's mixed into the album. But mostly it's their energy all over the album.

"And I think I was open to the album sounding futuristic this time, because I was thinking about the future, thinking about my kids, and thinking of the world more as a place that my kids are going to live in, not so much as the place that I live in."

Nielson has been living in Portland for nearly seven years now, so that has also affected his mindset, mostly in that he feels less American than ever.

"I used to think that New Zealanders and Americans weren't that different, but now I'm not sure," he says. "Like I kind of got to the point where I felt I was pretty successful, but in the States, there seems to be this general idea that you keep going. Everything could always be better. Your house could be nicer, your car could be nicer, you know there's this idea that you need more stuff, and more success.

"But I don't really care! I want to keep making music, and I want the music that I make to get better. But here it seems you shoot straight past satisfaction and happiness and keep heading on to Mars. It's weird."

Even though Nielson thought he'd given up music for good when The Mint Chicks broke up and he moved to Portland with his family, now he feels it's a necessity.

"These days I almost feel like music is my religion, or my connection to something else, something beyond me. A lot of songwriters talk about getting their songs or their best ideas from some other place, like religious people might talk about God. Stevie Wonder for example. Or Philip Glass talks about an underwater river of music. And David Lynch, he uses a metaphor of a room in a house where his movie already exists, complete. All of those metaphors kind of point to the same idea, that the ego part of the artist isn't responsible for the art they make.

"And I think everybody that does anything good is just, all their good stuff comes from the same place, wherever it is, nobody knows."

UMO have more than 60 shows lined up over the next five months, which sounds a daunting prospect, but Nielson seems to have put his touring demons to bed.

"I can't wait to get back out there. I mean, the kids and my family are the most fun, they really are more fun than any rock'n'roll lifestyle, but it was never playing music that worried me really, it was everything else that goes with it - before you get on stage and after you come off stage - the drugs and travelling and so on.

"But I'm rested up now, and I'm just ready to do it. I miss playing every night."

And you can bet that whatever experiences befall him out there on the road, they will provide ample stimulation for the next album.

Who: Ruban Nielson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra
What: New album Multi-Love, out now
Where: and when: A November tour of New Zealand is to be announced soon.

- Timeout