Interview: The pursuit of pleasure: Unknown Mortal Orchestra

The pursuit of pleasure: Unknown Mortal Orchestra

On 2015’s ‘Multi-Love’, Ruban Nielson saw his personal life laid out and analysed. Now, on fourth LP ‘Sex & Food’, he’s trying to keep it “dumb”. Or his version of dumb, at least.

It’s OK,” half-sighs, half laughs Ruban Nielson. “If I’m a killjoy, then I’m a killjoy…” Sitting in a cafe in the middle of London’s white-out snow storm, having just gamely contorted himself into various poses for DIY’s photoshoot, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s affable lynchpin seems anything but the vibe sponge he’s acquiescing to. With a tattoo of a third eye peering out at you from just below his Adam’s apple, he’s certainly no square at least. But, after opening himself up for public consumption on 2015 album ‘Multi-Love’ - a record written about the year he spent in a polyamorous relationship with his wife and a new partner - the New Zealander began to find that the heavy and meaningful way his life was being portrayed was at frustrating odds with his own view of himself. “The thing I regret is that it came across so deep and intense and I got so tired of that because it’s not my personality or what my records are supposed to be about,” he explains. “I couldn’t read much about that [last album] because the way that people viewed it just seemed so depressing. The time that I wrote the last album about was a whole year of being really silly and stupid. It wasn’t this intense thing – all that stuff came into it, but that wasn’t what the year was like…”

It’s an experience that’s clearly made him more wary in situations su
ch as these. Even now, three years after and with a new record on the way, he back-ends every insight into the album or the world at large with a giggled groan or an affirmation of his own lack of depth. “I’m really simple and dumb and I think that’s an important part of what I want [this new] record to be about,” he protests. “I don’t want it to be something that you delve into or something that’s weighing on people. I want it to be a relief from heaviness.” It’s also one of the key reasons why ‘Sex & Food’ is titled in such a primal fashion. “When I called this record ‘Sex & Food’ I thought, oh no, people are gonna think I’m being really intense and existential again,” he sighs. “But I wanted to call it that so the first impression that you get of hearing about the record would be very simple and positive. I had one more chance to put a frame around this feeling that I’m trying to achieve and I needed something that would explain how dumb I am.”

Ruban, though, is clearly far from it. Having managed to take his strange breed of woozy distortion out of his Portland basement studio and onto sizeable stages across the world, he’s now four albums in, and with his own singular identity. Other artists might draw influence from his bubbling, lo-fi sounds, but no one does it quite like UMO.

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“I’m trying to make the perfect pop song all the time but my idea of a perfect pop song is someone else’s idea of distorted noise.”

However, what becomes clear in conversation is that Ruban’s version of normalcy is just that bit skewed from most. What he sees as frivolous, the rest of the world sees as intriguingly oblique. What he regards as a normal day, other people see as the working practice of a madman tinkering around in a basement. What he counts as hi-fi, most ears regard as plain fucking weird. As he states, “I’m trying to make the perfect pop song all the time but my idea of a perfect pop song is someone else’s idea of distorted noise.” It’s a viewpoint that he’s fully embracing these days. If Unknown Mortal Orchestra has never been the kind of project to cow to other people’s ideas, then on ‘Sex & Food’ he’s being even more himself than ever. “I spend more time making it sound worse,” he laughs of his process. “I spend all this time and skill making it sound less commercial or less appealing to certain people, but that’s the way I want it to sound. And it probably makes my music less successful than it should be, but I suppose I don’t care. Or maybe I can’t care?!”

If all this presents the 38-year-old musical polymath as a kind of outsider art sorcerer, cut from the same cloth as music’s classic creative oddballs, then that seems only partly true these days. Sure, he’s not the 9-to-5 type (“I make my best work when I’m completely, 100% stimulated,” he nods. “If I’m working on whatever I’m working on for 12 hours alone in the dark or with a blue light on then I get into a strange state of mind and something happens”), but he’s also learning that to write about life, you have to actually live a real one too. Unlike around the release of ‘Multi-Love’, when the frontman confessed that while he didn’t know if his relationship was a good idea, he knew it would at least provide some artistic fuel, now he’s taking a more grounded approach to his existence. “I know musicians who are constantly throwing themselves into bad situations and letting their life go off the rails so they feel like they can have something to write about and I realised that’s like the law of diminishing returns,” he explains. “Life has to be happening for real – you can’t just be a method actor. I think I thought that was how it’s done, that it was what you’re supposed to do, but now I feel like life is crazy enough without having to allow the madness to overtake you. I want to be a real person. I don’t want to be a content farm for my own records.”

“I want to be a real person. I don’t want to be a content farm for my own records.”

And so, when he began work on ‘Sex & Food’, Ruban began to let what was happening in the unfiltered world around him seep in. Unsurprisingly as an American resident, a sense of the omnipotent unease of living through Trump’s presidency became unavoidable. “I was aware as I got into it that it was going to be impossible to keep all that out,” he notes. But rather than force a statement, the singer decided to allow this influence but not focus on it. Thus, ‘Sex & Food’ is not a political album, but an album that exists in a highly politicised time. “It’s not about hope or politics, it’s about human things. It’s about recording some feelings about living in this era that we’re going through, just recording them and capturing them all and putting them in a capsule,” he says. “Because I saw the last record [as] my fun, happy record, I thought, oh this is gonna be even worse where people are gonna focus even more on [me] being depressed and [thinking] that the world has gone to shit. But I don’t think that’s what this record is about at all. I think most of the dark things, or about 50% of what I say that sounds dark, is actually a joke.”

From the ballsy opening statement of first single ‘American Guilt’ – a loaded title fronting the most gnarly, riffy track to bear the UMO name to date – you can see why Ruban might need to stress the humour behind the apparent seriousness. Though ‘Sex & Food’ has its more obviously soft moments (the feather-light sweetness of ‘Hunnybee’ – an ode to his daughter – for one), there are nods to cultural unease, drug use and, on closer ‘If You’re Going To Break Yourself’, a track that’s “literally about some friends of mine that stopped hanging out with me because I wasn’t a junkie anymore”. It is not, on the surface, as free and “dumb” a record as Ruban makes out. But then, as ever with Unknown Mortal Orchestra, you’d be foolish to just stay on surface level. “I’m a person that needs humour a lot. When people need humour they see it more often and it’s easier to get what I’m doing,” he explains. “I suppose the problem is that I don’t think of it as serious because my life has maybe been a little bit heavy. When I’m writing things that I think are normal, other people hear them and think they’re really [dark]. But like, on ‘Ministry of Alienation’, which is one of the most serious moments, I put this really stupid lyric in there that goes ‘no-one will fuck the ugly robot’. People talk about sex robots and I was thinking about how funny it would be to have a really ugly sex robot that no-one chose and then the sex robot would be sad like a normal person that’s unattractive…” He laughs. “I don’t actually know what that means, but I thought it was a good line…”

Written in and influenced by travels to cities including Reykjavik, Hanoi, and Mexico City, ‘Sex & Food’ is a record in and of the world at large. It’s an album that could only have been made by the man at the centre of it, but one imbued with a sense of universality, in its title and beyond. It’s funny and sad and joyful and strange all at once, sitting in the strange middle ground between these things, again much like its creator. “I think more and more I’m discovering that the idea of being in some weird between realm is basically my entire personality and experience of everything,” shrugs Ruban. “I come from New Zealand and I’m mixed race and I have multiple citizenships, so I’ve never really felt included or able to identify with any of the categories that are around. I tried my best to do that but I’ve got to the point now where I’m old enough to accept that I don’t care about any of that stuff. At the moment, people are becoming more adamant about their identities and more atomised and I still can’t see what the point of that is. I just feel connected to other human beings.”

‘Sex & Food’ is out now via Jagjaguwar.

Taken from the April 2018 issue of DIY. Read online or subscribe below.

Photos: Jenn Five / DIY