Humble beginnings aren’t always a common thing in bands, especially in those which know they’re onto a unique and powerful sound. The restraint it takes to develop with patience is often beyond the band members themselves; it is simply too strong a temptation to throw their hands up and yell to the world, “It’s us! We are the ones you should be adoring – give us your love and praise!”
Unknown Mortal Orchestra managed to maintain their composure when the single ‘Ffunny Ffrends’ appeared on the internet with no information or credits listing who created it. The song’s popularity took off and roaming packs of bloggers began an online manhunt to discover who was responsible for the track.
Ruban Nielson, formerly of New Zealand experimental rock-pop band The Mint Chicks and founding member of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, eventually raised his hand and took credit.
“When I first started, I thought it would be more basic – someone would like the song, they’d listen to it and that would be that. When it started taking off, it was funny because no-one knew who made the music, and I didn’t want anyone to know it was me. I mean, even my family didn’t know I had started making music again. It wasn’t me trying to hide or anything, I just didn’t think the knowledge of my involvement was a necessary factor for the song’s popularity. And I was right.”
Origins as humble as these only made Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s success that much more impressive. After finally being ‘outed’, the band went all-out, releasing its debut self-titled record in 2011. The album won NZ’s prestigious Taite Music Prize, as well as being nominated for Best Alternative Album at the New Zealand Music Awards (with Nielson himself winning Best Male Artist). More recently, UMO have won several awards for their second album II.
“It’s a bit weird to go from our quiet beginnings to winning awards and having such notice and reception,” Nielson admits. “[But] I’ve been working so hard for so many years now that it doesn’t seem as weird as it used to. When we first started getting noticed, there was a bidding war between my favourite labels to sign us. That was weird. To have such amazing labels fighting over each other to get us, it was pretty surreal. It doesn’t feel that weird now because it just feels like my job.”
The atmosphere of UMO’s music is key to their success. Driven by an intoxicating groove, their simple and psychedelic sounds are underlined by the expansive tones evident in all their songs. “Our music usually starts out with a sound. I’ll mix with a pedal and a mood and an ambient noise; some pretty weird-sounding stuff, basically, and then I’ll start working to get the atmosphere and mood right before we begin to turn it into a more understandable song.”
On top of their musical signature, UMO have also gained quite the reputation for non-stop touring. After the release of their Blue Record EP, they went on the road for almost a year straight. II was also conceived and written while on tour. Nielson finds that both touring and studio time have their equal but very separate effects on the band.
“I like both the same, even though they’re opposites. I’ll do one and then want to do the other. I definitely need to do both of these things. It’s like, I’ll want to be alone and write and record music, and I enjoy doing that, but if I do it too long it starts to feel as if I’m unemployed and I begin to wonder what’s going on in the world outside my door. So we go touring and it feels great again, very freeing, while having that sense of work and accomplishment. The downside is that we can get strung out and narky with each other and need some alone time, which is difficult to do when you have to work with the same people day in, day out for such a long time.”
Over the years, bands develop a way of dealing with these things; keeping morale high and making sure everyone’s enjoying what they’re doing. UMO’s approach is simple. “We party a lot. It’s one way to deal with the stress. It’s probably the best way. But, I mean, we think about it a lot and we always worry about morale. Like, if everyone has been working too hard, I’ll send everyone to a spa, tell them to get a massage.
“Everyone can get a bit touchy, and it’s a weird thing to be stuck with the same people all the time, you have to be careful not to annoy anyone. I bought everyone a present for Christmas recently, so right now everyone is still in high spirits!”
Booked for performances at the St Jerome’s Laneway Festival in 2014, as well as other tour dates across Asia, Australia and NZ, UMO are lining up another big year.
“I’m looking forward to going to China, I’ve never been there before and I’m quite excited,” says Nielson. “Also coming back to NZ and Oz and hanging out with some friends there. The [Laneway] Festival will be great, the band will still be touring and it’ll be awesome, but we won’t be touring as much [for the rest of the year]. Instead, we’ll be getting some studio time to get the next album ready. It’s going to be a good year.”