“The best sound that I ever got out of a guitar was an Orange AC30 five minutes before it blew up,” says Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s vocalist/guitarist Ruban Nielson of a (disastrous? Inspired?) show he played in Australia. “It started smoking and smelt like a BBQ. And I think I’ve been trying to make that sound ever since.”
Nielson attempted to recreate this thick, grating tone with a homemade Fuzzface guitar pedal for ‘American Guilt’, the most rock and roll track off UMO’s new record Sex & Food. “What I like about this pedal is it sounds like something is almost wrong; like the amp is broken.”
Like said smoking amp, Nielson has a knack for pushing himself right to the edge of burning out. He’s flown from the States to Sydney for two days to push Sex & Food into the Australian eye, and when asked if he’s jetlagged, he sounds a little stunned. “I don’t even know,” he says, with a laugh.
He is also somewhat of a perfectionist. “I get really nerdy and specific about [sound]. I use a lot of tape recorders and of different qualities.” He lists the tape and cassettes used to make the album: quarter inch, half-inch, micro cassette tapes, all of which add a different quality. “I think growing up I listened to a lot of cassette tapes and that sound is really a part of what I think good music should sound like.”
After making his own pedals, Nielson made the natural progression to building his own modular synths, machines that added noise and textures to the album, patiently withstanding the irritating struggle of building power supplies. “There’s just a lot of math involved and I’m not very good at math,” he explains with a shrug.
Nielson was raised in New Zealand by musician parents. His father is a renowned horn player and his mother is a two-time winning Hula Champion from Hawaii (although the first time she entered she was disqualified for being underage).
“I was going to art school when I was around 19 and my dad was going through a 12-step program – like, going through rehab – and one of the steps is to make amends to people,” Nielson explains. “One of those people was me, so he bought a guitar for my birthday.”
His brother Kody convinced him to start a punk band called The Mint Chicks, and they were soon picked up by iconic NZ label Flying Nun. “The New Zealand punk scene, the thing that I was really grateful about it was that it’s a very small, tight knit scene,” he says. “A lot of promoters would join forces and a lot of bands put eclectic lineups together, so it wasn’t that weird to have indie rock or even like, a DIY rap group playing with death metal bands. I’ve always thought that was really normal.
“It’s funny, a lot of people that came out of that scene have a similar ability to appreciate all kinds of music. Like, Kimbra came out of that scene and the guys in her band, they play everything from prog rock to jazz to RnB and chart pop. It’s like everybody’s unable to figure out what niche they’re in because they’re kind of everything.”
While he identified more with punk when he first started playing shows, NZ’s mixed bills gave Nielson access to different styles of playing and making music; this, he says, is rare to come by in the States.
“I think that the exposure to all of the old Flying Nun bands had a massive effect on me. Just their whole songwriting approach and also the fact that a lot of those bands did everything themselves: it made me really self-sufficient.” Nielson soon learnt how to make an entire record from scratch, doing everything from the layout to web design and sound engineering.
One of the particular scenes in New Zealand Nielson has a soft spot for is the port town of Lyttelton. “It’s weird, it’s quite a dark spot. I heard that it was the suicide capital of New Zealand and it doesn’t get as much sun as other parts but it’s so picturesque,” he says. “The mood there is different from anywhere else and it has its own sort of community, but I think it’s quite hip now. It used to be sort of strange and there were a few weirdos, but I think the weirdos have taken over maybe.
“There’s a bar called Wunderbar there which was started by a guy from Berlin and it has pieces of the Berlin wall in there. It’s one of the coolest places; I really recommend it. That’s the scene that Marlon Williams and Aldous Harding and a group of people came out of in Lyttelton. It’s a very special place.”
On commenting on the dark sense of humour that seems to emerge from NZ, he says, “Yeah, people are quite [dark]. I get misunderstood a lot because I have a pessimistic, dark sense of humour. It’s just a way of talking about the world.”
UMO gained essentially immediate recognition in 2010 when Nielson anonymously uploaded the hypnotic and soulful ‘Ffunny Ffrends’ on Bandcamp, with the song being picked up by Pitchfork within the day of its release.
I always think that what I’m writing is some kind of surreal poetry. Later I realise that it’s just a shopping list of very explicit things that happened to me.
Sex & Food’s predecessor, 2015’s Multi-Love, was a deeply personal narrative that explored a polygamous relationship between Nielson’s wife, himself and a young Australian woman. On the title track, he sung in fluttering falsetto: “Multi-love checked into my heart and trashed it like a hotel room.”
After extensively describing the experience to music media outlets, Nielson found himself questioning the publicity of the relationship. “I realised that I don’t have to talk about my life anymore after the fact, which is the mistake I made last time. I’m already telling everybody what’s going on in my life. I thought that I owed that to people, but I don’t think I do.”
Multi-Love spins imagery of Aurora Borealis, the upper hemisphere’s Northern Lights, and the record ends on a request for America to open its doors. That final note seamlessly makes way for one of Sex & Food’s central themes: namely, what does it mean to be a modern American, and what does the future hold for what he dubs the “land of the expensive” in ‘American Guilt’?
Sex & Food begins with a surreally cool instrumental, which is foreshadowed by a swerving and glitching bassline in ‘A God Called Hubris.’ The meaning of the Greek word ‘hubris’ has changed over time and is now commonly used to describe an overconfidence that leads a person to ignore the limits of humanity in an ordered cosmos. But it can also be used to describe an act of intentional violence that aims to humiliate – which might even be a diagnosis of modern America.
Liberals’ brains have been broken by Donald Trump.
In interviews Nielson often comments on the importance of detaching from his own ego while he’s writing music. For each record, he’s not sure what he’s trying to say until the dust has long settled. “I always think that what I’m writing is some kind of surreal poetry when I’m writing it and when it’s about a year and a half later, I realise that it’s just a shopping list of very explicit things that happened to me and how I was feeling about those things,” he explains.
“It’s quite weird and embarrassing, because you realise that you were confessing all these feelings,” he says. “I think that when you’re writing songs properly that should be the way it is, because you shouldn’t be hyper-aware of what’s going on. That’s when your ego gets involved and you start thinking about the quality of what you’re making.
“When you’re being unaware of it a little more and it’s coming from a different place, then you make better work. But later when you figure out what the songs are about, you learn that you’re really just writing really honestly; you’re just writing your entire life down.”
When asked if this record is less personal than Multi-Love, he laughs. “No, I don’t think so. But I think that I’m not going to spell out exactly what was going in my life to explain the record because I think that’s kind of a boring way to present a record.” The songs are peppered with references to information technology: he sings, “Terraform a hostile wasteland” and “my thinking is done by your machine” among mentions of Freudian auto-correction.
The symbolism of Sex & Food remains rooted in Nielson’s dark, blunt satire and socialist politics, criticising fake democracies, the age of paranoia, crying Nazis and an incoming doomsday. But the heaviness of the record’s themes is broken up with tracks like ‘The Internet Of Love’, ‘Not In Love We’re Just High’ and ‘If You’re Going To Break Yourself’, songs that ooze with the romantic sentimentality of seventies-era artists, a period he’s most fond of.
The songs were recorded in every corner of the planet; Hawaii, Vietnam, Seoul, Mexico, Reykjavik, Auckland and Portland. Nielson brought in guest professionals from all over the world to build upon the tracks that were initially written for acoustic guitar as finished folk songs.
“I think at the moment a lot of music, especially on the radio and stuff sounds like they’re recording, producing and writing as all one process. People will put down an entire bed of music and then write lyrics and vocals on top of that but it makes music sound a certain way.
“I want the songs to feel sort of old fashioned, and still have a little bit of harmonic sophistication,” he says, listing Stevie Wonder, Prince and The Beatles as major influencers; he describes his music as “dumb pop” in comparison to rhythmically and harmonically sophisticated bands like Hiatus Kaiyote.
Nielson collaborated with his brother and the band’s bassist Jake Portrait for Sex & Food, as well as Australia-based New Zealand animator Greg Sharp, who interpreted the track ‘American Guilt’. The animation pans onto the final resting place of our material excess: we see discarded porno mags, takeaway containers, and green bills soaked in a bloody, dark colour palette.
When it’s mentioned that the aesthetic is similar to the 1988 Japanese post-apocalyptic sci-fi Akira, Nielson lights up. “That was a big, big reference for me, because it was one of the things that I liked when I was a kid … for some reason I kind of felt like that was important. “It’s pretty easy for [Sharp] to understand what the themes of the record are … Sometimes I think it’s more like somebody is going to get the record before I will. So I think it’ll be interesting because watching those videos and what he did with them will make me hear different things in the record.”
Trump is in some ways the ultimate American president for right now because it’s not like he doesn’t represent a big part of America.
Sex & Food features the soft psych track ‘Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays’, so naturally the question arises: what’s the craziest shit Nielson’s seen recently? “Liberals’ brains have been broken by Donald Trump and it’s really quite scary – how do you make things better? It seems so impossible,” he says. “They have this fantasy with having this collusion with Russia as if there’s going to be some piece of information that’s going to bring Trump down. I think it’s just so far from possible that any single document or recording would stop him.
“Trump is in some ways the ultimate American president for right now because it’s not like he doesn’t represent a big part of America. He’s the most American president ever in some ways. He’s just the really bad parts of it. But the worst part is dominating now, so it makes sense.”
As a “Bernie-Bro”, Nielson discusses the socialist push for single payer health care and unravels the absurdities of how less fortunate people are cared for in America. “Yeah, it’s crazy because the way they argue about it is like, ‘Well if I’m smart and I make money and I’m strong then I should be able to choose whatever healthcare I want.’
“It’s weird for a place that claims to be so Christian to have such an unchristian way of looking at it … And people aren’t just weak because they’re just born that way, like some people get old, you know? Some people were strong until they turned 75.”
It seems Western narcissism and material excess is a kind of hubris at the centre of Sex & Food: its arrogance and self-centeredness leads to a violence caused by the refusal to acknowledge and support those less fortunate both within its borders and, just as importantly, outside of them.
It’s either music or I would have to medicate myself.
Nielson recently spent time in Hawaii connecting with his heritage. For a while, he wanted to record the entire album there, although he eventually decided against it. “I’d love to live in Hawaii but a lot of my family cautioned me against it because they think that I’m too ADHD; like I’ll get too bored there, which might be true,” he says.
When bringing up different meds to treat ADHD, he says, “I’m scared of medication and that if I take something I won’t deal with life because I’ve spent my whole life using music as a way to regulate myself. I get scared that if I take anything I won’t be able to make music.”
On the subject of friends that started medicating their mental illnesses, Nielson can’t help but feeling a little betrayed. “I got really angry at them for abandoning me in crazy town.” He laughs. “It depends on how manageable your stuff is though and whether you can actually function. Some people are just over that line where they’re just constantly on the edge of falling to pieces and that gets really tiring I think.”
When it comes to what motivates him to make music, Nielson says, “I feel like I don’t really have an option. It’s either this or I would have to medicate myself. It really is what keeps me functioning in the human race and gives me a place that makes sense and a bit of dignity.”
Sex & Food is out April 6 through Jagjaguwar / Interia.