Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson On The Good, The Bad & ‘V’

By Karl Puschmann
Unknown Mortal Orchestra's Ruban Nielson. Photo / Supplied

Ruban Nielson is a changed man. The Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s main man has been through a lot in the last few years. Life handed him a personal reckoning that shook him to his core, challenged his belief in everything and almost saw him walking away from music for good.


“The pandemic created these awful things that all happened at once,” he says. “And I just stopped. I was like, ‘I don’t care about UMO anymore.’ I needed to take care of my family and make myself useful. When I was younger, I wasn’t very useful to anyone. I wasn’t a very useful member of my family. It always bothered me that I was far away from my family and running from something. It’s weird because it all culminated in me coming back much more vital and important.”

With the world shutting down due to Covid, Ruban began writing the follow-up to UMO’s 2018 hard-rockin’, riff-infested record, Sex & Food. Correctly guessing most pandemic albums would be lonely, gloomy affairs, he wanted to go the other way with his.

“I love doing the wrong thing,” he grins. “Doing the thing that’s not the thing is creatively inspiring to me.”

The album was to be called Guilty Pleasures and would be a “happy” record inspired by the “cheesy AOR rock” of bands like Toto and Journey. The mind reels at the possibilities of what that would have sounded like. But work instantly stopped when he got the news that his Hawaiian uncle was sick with only a short time to live. His thoughts immediately went to his mum back at home in Aotearoa trying to keep updated on her sick brother’s condition via social media.

“The idea that my mum would be experiencing her brother dying on Facebook from New Zealand… it broke my heart,” he says. “So I focused a lot of my time suddenly on trying to make sure that wasn’t the case.”

With his brother Kody, UMO’s drummer and solo artist in his own right, the pair helped relocate their mum back to her home country of Hawaii after 40 years away. This move would spark a revolution inside his head as he reconnected with both his family and his Hawaiian roots.

“It’s one of the things that was really painful. I always wanted to have been closely connected,” he says. “If we’d been maybe a more middle-class family or something then we would have been. But because everybody was so poor, we never were able to do that. That’s quite sad because after reconnecting with all of my cousins, I realised how similar we are and how much you can understand yourself through your family by understanding them.

“Seeing yourself in other people, you start to understand why you’re a certain way. That stuff is all really important. That process of reconnecting and dealing with my family and realising where I come from on a level that I’ve never done before really changed me and changed the perspective on everything that was happening.”

UMO’s albums have always been a direct line to his headspace and while it’s hard to top the deeply personal musings recounting the breakdown of his polyamorous relationship that was detailed on 2015′s Multi-Love, V may just do it. The album pulls you along with him on his journey of self-discovery and identity. He says this is because he was looking outward instead of inwards.

"I was looking for ways to express myself, using music as a coping mechanism for emotions, and dealing with life before I was ever making any money or could say it was my job," says Ruban. Photo / Supplied
"I was looking for ways to express myself, using music as a coping mechanism for emotions, and dealing with life before I was ever making any money or could say it was my job," says Ruban. Photo / Supplied

“I forgot that I was in UMO for long periods of time. I was so busy trying to take care of other people and thinking about other people that I thought, ‘I haven’t got any time to do this music thing.’ It felt so self-indulgent. I had too much real life to take care of,” he explains.

“But then there was a period of rediscovering what music is actually for, realising it’s not actually just my job. I was looking for ways to express myself, using music as a coping mechanism for emotions, and dealing with life before I was ever making any money or could say it was my job.

“The thing I rediscovered was I really need this stuff because I’ve got a lot to sift through and a lot of things that I’m trying to digest here. I don’t have any other way of doing that except making music. There’s a therapeutic aspect, which is something I’d forgotten. If I flipped burgers for a living or was a plumber, I would still need music just to deal with life in general.”

There was a lot to deal with. He describes “the heaviness of the past” as he recounts losing himself on the road, basically touring non-stop for eight years, before even getting to his damaged family situation.

“It was a weird, scummy coke-head life I was living before, we were always a bunch of dirtbags,” he says. “I didn’t look after my health or anything very well. I wasn’t getting much sleep. I was probably dehydrated for like a year. It really took its toll on my health. I was always preoccupied with my death. Like, I was thinking I’m gonna overdose, I’m gonna die in an accident in a van on tour.

“But the thing was, I’m travelling from town to town performing and not having to deal with my life or my past. We’ve been a pretty wild, fractured family for a few generations now and I feel it would be beneficial to try and figure out who we are and where we’re going.

“It’s quite hard sometimes to face your past,” he continues. “Not necessarily because there’s trauma there but also because it’s sometimes so beautiful that that’s hard to face. Like returning to where my mum was raised as a small kid and realising she comes from this breathtakingly beautiful place with a beautiful culture. Having to digest that and not having a lifetime to digest it, like running into it all at once while your uncle’s dying and your mum’s moving home and all this kind of stuff. You know, it’s a lot to take in.”

While trying to deal with it all had pushed him away from music, it eventually pushed him back.

“Me and Kody thought, ‘Well, we’re gonna have to cope with this anyway, maybe we should try and figure out this music and try and capture it. Maybe having it reflected back at us, being able to listen to it and share this with the world, maybe that will help us get through this time.’”

The result is V, the double album that ambitiously and flawlessly blends his lo-fi indie-music past with the sounds of his Hawaiian heritage. It even sneaks in some of his Guilty Pleasures yacht rock influence. It makes for a record that’s as breezy as it is bittersweet.

“When the pandemic hit the focus went on everybody else’s mortality. Things like, ‘How much more time do I have? How many more moments do I get to share with my mum or my dad or my brother,’” he says.

“You start to realise there’s only a finite amount of moments that you get to spend with the people you love. I used to take them for granted and think of the future as this place that goes on forever. It’s actually like a garden. It’s a finite place and you’ve got to spend as much time as you can with people that you love and make sure that you let them know or experience something that lets them know that you’re happy to be there with them.”

At the start of this feature, I said Ruban Nielson was a changed man. That’s not entirely true.

“It’s just like a return to who I really am,” he says, with a degree of peace otherwise absent from much of our conversation.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s new album, V, is out now.

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