Ruban Nielson's 2011 went by in a blur. The debut of his psych-leaning outfit Unknown Mortal Orchestra had perked plenty of ears, his solo project had morphed into a full band and non-stop touring ensued. One night (the details are understandably fuzzy), he sat in a hotel room with a few other people. It was late. This girl he'd never met had shown up bearing "party favors" and spent the rest of the night rambling, upset about one thing or another, her mouth and mascara both running.
"And then at one point during the night," Nielson recalls during a recent chat with Rolling Stone, "she said, 'I dunno, man – I think I'm just so good at being in trouble.'"
The words hit Nielson like a brick, leaving a dent the shape of an indelible pop hook. Not missing a beat, he sang it back to her, and immediately regretted it. Not because he felt bad about flouting social mores – there were other songwriters in the room, and this nugget was too good to let slip away.
"I knew right then," Nielson says, "that I maybe had the single." A subtle soul number with shrewd chord changes and Nielson's falsetto sidling alongside, "So Good at Being in Trouble" is an undeniable standout from Unknown Mortal Orchestra's follow-up album, II, out February 5th (Jagjaguwar).
The other tracks on II have similar origins. Throughout that exhilarating, exhausting 2011, often late at night at a party or bar, a lyric or melody would come to Nielson and he'd retreat to the band's van or a quiet room to record it into his phone. Last February, the native New Zealander returned to his new home in Portland, Oregon totally wiped out but eager to record. He set up a studio in the basement and went to work making sense of the snippets.
"I put more thought into arrangements. The songs kind of take you on more of a journey," says Nielson of the new album, contrasting it to the immediacy of the first, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, which "was just bombarding you with these hooks. For the second record I wanted it to be more thoughtful, more dynamic, and have the hooks be there when they're there."
Nielson also wanted to emphasize the soul, funk and R&B elements he believes make Unknown Mortal Orchestra unique among his psych- and garage peers like Ty Segall, Tame Impala and Thee Oh Sees. While on the first LP he cribbed breakbeats from hip-hop and R&B tracks, this time he tapped his brother Kody and Greg Rogove (now the band's official drummer) to construct sturdy beats bolstered by the stout bounce of Jack Portrait's bass. The supple low end on cuts like "One at a Time" and "Monki" provided the perfect foundation for Nielson's confident warble and the serpentine contour of his chord progressions and guitar solos, a style initially inspired by secret practice sessions with Ry Cooder and Frank Zappa recordings while he was a member of the punk group the Mint Chicks.
Unsurprisingly, II took the shape of one of those road-weary all-nighters. "In a lot of ways it was the most extreme, fun time I've ever had, but obviously emotionally it was . . . " Nielson trails off, then adds with a laugh: "You know, when you're coming down and the reality hits you that maybe none of this stuff actually matters.
"When I'm writing songs, I start with a feeling that's impossible to explain in words, and then I build a song around that," Nielson says of what he discovered about himself while making the new album. "And then all the other stuff – technical ideas, or what chords you're using, or what the melody is – is totally irrelevant. None of that stuff matters. It's just kind of building whatever you need to make that feeling communicable."
Isolation – the kind cloaked in a toked, boozy haze that overwhelms most while in the company of other people – is a constant theme, and the guitar licks Nielson slings on "Faded in the Morning" sting like sober sunlight. Moments like those are crucial. Nielson didn't want II to be a "tour album," but rather one that tapped into something more universal – the flurry of emotions that exist exclusively between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.
"A night album," he calls it.