Inside Ruban Nielson's Heady Homegrown Pop - Rolling Stone
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Inside Ruban Nielson’s Heady Homegrown Pop

Unknown Mortal Orchestra guitarist channels Hendrix, Zappa into danceable future-soul gems

WHO: When Unknown Mortal Orchestra appeared in 2010, the band — essentially a vehicle for 35-year-old Portland-by-way-of–New Zealand singer, songwriter and guitarist Ruban Nielson — truly lived up to the first word of its moniker. Nielson posted his first few tunes anonymously to Bandcamp; after one song, “Ffunny Ffrends,” a loopy, lo-fi indie-pop nugget that floats along on boxy hip-hop beats, a strangled fuzz-guitar melody and Nielson’s own child-like vocals, gained traction, he signed a deal with Fat Possum. The label released UMO’s 2011 self-titled debut, and the group hit the road with acts like Liars and Grizzly Bear. A second album, the more introspective II, came in 2013 on Jagjaguwar, which also issued Multi-Love this past May.

PLAY YER GUITAR: Nielson says his guitar style, which incorporates everything from complex chording and fluid voice-leading lines to gnarly riffs and knotty solos, is an outgrowth of his three primary influences — Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and Bill Frisell. Of Frisell, he says, “I like the haziness of what he does, the way he bends the [guitar] neck and makes the notes wobble.” But Nielson also throws in his own idiosyncrasies, which include running his Fender Jag-Stang through a variety of self-modified effect pedals, and playing both rhythm and lead with his fingers. “It helps when doing counterpoint,” he says of his fingerstyle approach. “Plus, I thought it’d be cool to save money on picks.”

SOUL ASYLUM: Despite his considerable guitar skills, Nielson opted to build the songs on Multi-Love mostly around beats, keyboards and vocals. “I thought it would be interesting to put the musical emphasis somewhere else,” he says. The result is that the album — which, lyrically, examines the ramifications of a year-long polyamorous relationship between Nielson, his wife and another woman — is also a less rock-centric effort, with a sound that recalls artists like Stevie Wonder and Prince. “I was thinking a lot more about my voice, which I realized is very soul-influenced,” he says. “And then if you put a lot of piano and synth behind that, it starts to sound more like black music.” 

BASEMENT TAPES: Nielson recorded Multi-Love, like II before it, in the basement of the Portland home he shares with his wife and children — it’s that dimly-lit space that is seen on the album’s cover. For the better part of a year, he would work through the night while his family slept upstairs. “It’s a pretty normal way for me to be,” he explains. “I’ve always had problems with insomnia, but now it’s like, rather than let that get in my way, I just base my life around it. And I think it’s kind of comforting to my wife to hear music coming through the floorboards. It makes her feel safe — like somebody’s watching over the house.”

FREAK SCENE: Prior to recording his own songs, Nielson spent ten years with his brother, Kody, in the New Zealand noise-pop combo Mint Chicks. After that act dissolved, “I wasn’t really thinking about the future at all,” he says. “I just thought if I put my stuff up online, I might find other people who were doing the same thing as me — making psychedelic records in their basements.” Despite his best-laid plans, Unknown Mortal Orchestra has now become something much bigger — a few years back Courtney Love gave an online shout-out to their song “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark),” while more recently Lorde tweeted lyrics from the new album’s title track. “It’s kind of shocking,” Nielson says of UMO’s growing popularity. “I mean, we just played the Brick & Mortar in San Francisco and sold it out. And our first time there, four years ago, we had two people in the audience. It shows you how crazy life can be. Every now and again, you just kind of step back and freak out a little bit.”

In This Article: Unknown Mortal Orchestra


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