Band to Watch: The Fuzzy, Flawlessy Poppy Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Band stitches together everything that’s worth remembering about 1972

Photo by Allison V. Stewart
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Click here to listen to Unknown Mortal Orchestra's self-titled album "Unknown Mortal Orchestra"

Who: Like T. Rex’s Marc Bolan before him, Unknown Mortal Orchestra's Ruban Nielson’s got a cool (if girlishly high) voice and an easy way with fuzzed-up, flawless pop hooks. He’s a bit of a shredder, too. Throw in some Syd Barrett’s lo-fi playfulness and the swinging teutonic beats of Can, and Nielson’s stitched together everything that’s worth remembering about 1972 on the self-titled debut that Fat Possum released last month. With the album's mashing of whimsical weirdness and classic hot licks it could easily pass for genuine stoned artifact.

Overnight Success: Twenty-four hours after Nielson, 32, posted a song called "Ffunny Ffrends" on the DIY musician website BandCamp in late 2010, he was being hyped by Pitchfork; within a week the offers of record deals and coveted slots on CMJ showcases started pouring in. Originally, he had a more private vision in mind: the album he was recording in his bedroom was supposed to be for his personal enjoyment only. "I just wanted to make something that sounded good coming back at me. I made this record alone and I made it for myself," he says. Fortunately, fate (and the internet) interceded on the guitarist’s plan on to be UMO’s sole member and fan. Like many fateful choices with unexpected results, it all was a result of a sort of loneliness. "I put eight or nine songs up on Bandcamp, in hopes I could find a community – connect with other people making like, folk records in their bedroom."

Insta-Band: A few days after the emails from agents, labels and journalists started pouring in, the New Zealand native – now living in Portland, Oregon – realized he had to get a band together. "I had to catch up to the demand. Lots of bands that get notoriety through the internet, their live shows are just totally substandard," he says. "I wanted to people to be surprised at how good we were, not how bad we were." He rounded up local Portland producer Jake Portrait for bass, though he wasn’t a bassist ("He seemed like he’d be good at it," Nielson says with a laugh), who in turn suggested drummer Julien Ehrich – who was hired on the basis of videos of him playing on YouTube.

Cinderella Story: "I started a different career, working as an illustrator," says Nielson. "I didn’t intend for any of this." Intentional or not, UMO is off to a pretty raging start; the little 10-date tour they embarked on to prove that Unknown Mortal Orchestra wasn’t just a studio-savvy fluke has turned into four straight months of worldwide touring. So much for keeping UMO to himself.

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