Understanding Unknown Mortal Orchestra
October 18, 2018
Unknown Mortal Orchestra is a Portland Oregon-based New Zealand versatile rock group started by Ruban Nielson, offering four albums with four distinctly different ideas, themes, and moods. When we listen to music we tend to associate our own meanings with the lyrics. Ruban doesn’t want you to think his music is about his life directly he just wants his art to improve the listeners day with what he creates. All the lyrics and moods are entirely based on Rubans decisions, whether it’s where he records to the art of the album cover, but most noticeably by his personal experiences. He invites new and sometimes strange experiences into his life hoping to capture those feelings and use it in his art. Whether it’s having a child, experimenting with drugs or inviting a third person in his marriage he’s willing to put himself into some emotionally intense situations for his music.
Ruban first started UMO shortly after moving to Portland from New Zealand, equipped with a cheap guitar and microphone and old tape recorders he uploaded his first songs anonymously online on Bandcamp and in May 2011 he uploaded the song “Ffunny Ffriends” and the internet fell in love, on a hunt for more from this unknown artist. That year Ruban signed with Fat Possum Records and released their first self-titled full-length album, Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Ruban mixed together psychedelic rock riffs, pop courses, some funky base lines and break beat drumming, then recording everything on vintage tape reels giving it a lo-fi distorted sound, like it’s from another era. At this point in his life, he just started a family, the band is taking off, times are good, and it seemed to bring light into Ruban’s life and you and see that in his music. Came time to tour the album, the band hit the road living a rockstar life style. Ruban was experiencing life as a fantasy and worries about his health and wellbeing, he came back to Portland different from who he was before leaving, dealing with insomnia and depression, he brought this feelings and emotions to his basement studio in Portland where he began his second album “II”
“Isolation can put a gun in your hand” is the first line we here in the album and it sets the mood for the rest. On multiple occasions mentioning his loneliness and lack of sleep in tracks “Swim and sleep” and “One at a Time”, and “Faded in the Morning” is a jam about being up all night and the morning after, but these dark thoughts clash with the blues rock riffs and the funky grooves. The writing process helped focus Ruban before going on another tour. Upon returning he was fueled to write, but this time focusing on love. UMOs thirds full album is called “Multi-love” focusing on relationships, his relationships. When on tour in Japan for “II” he met and made a connection with a woman (name was never disclosed) at one of his shows. After keeping in touch, she went to other shows in the tour, eventually meeting Rubans wife Jenny. Jenny and this unknown woman also formed a strong connection and the summer of 2014 she moved in with Jenny and Ruban. They found themselves in a Polyamorous relationship. Ruban was experiencing his two most important relationships at once, feeling terrified he felt like its fate, originally wanting to focus on love he wanted to continue with it and translate it into his music. Using synthesizers break beat drumming, and a well use of space and time, he creates this psychedelic vibe with clashing frequencies and beats, parallel to his clashing emotions and feelings for the two people in his life. The women even had impact on the album cover, being one who took the picture of the basement studio. Her visa eventually expired and had to leave; Ruban’s marriage survived and the Multi-love relationship is well documented throughout the album.
After “Multi-love” Ruban wanted to share less of his personal life, not wanting to think his music is about his life, saying it steals the record away from people when he gets to detailed in his life. The first two album covers he used pictures he was obsessed with at the time of recording, it being his phone or computer background. For his next album, Ruban asked photographer Neil Krug to create a cover before the writing or recording process. Ruban would then make the album to match the cover, giving us “Sex + Food” This is the most calm, relaxed album yet, bringing the most soul and funk. It’s a mystery on what evils, if any inspired this album. Recording in many different studios and cities across the world, each giving their own aesthetic or personality to each track. As lyrics point to greed and politics, in songs such as, “How Many Zeros” and “American guilt”, even calling democracies fake and sick in, “Ministry of Alienation”. However, when asked about it all Ruban denies it being a political record, wanting it to mean whatever you want it to mean, your own record.