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UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA Guitars are back

Ruban Nielson is the mastermind behind the inimitable Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO). The band is set to release their new album, Sex & Food, this Friday, April 6, via Jagjaguwar and have just announced a date with Badlands Bar on Tuesday, September 18. MATIJA ZIVKOVIC finds the record’s first single, American Guilt, points to a harder-edged, more guitar-driven sound, a return to the band’s roots and to Nielson’s love of guitar music.

Based in Portland but born and raised in New Zealand, Nielson grew up around music and made his name with Kiwi noise punk tricksters The Mint Chicks. The band split in 2010 and since then he has recorded under the UMO name, growing from humble lo-fi, psych-rock beginnings to worldwide recognition, with 2015’s psych-soul masterstroke Multi-Love garnering global acclaim.

I’m a big fan of your music with Unknown Mortal Orchestra – I love your mix of lo-fi psychedelic rock combined with funk/soul, and as a guitar player I love your work with the band. With your first two albums you had that late 60s psychedelic sound going on, and then on the third album I was picking up more 70s soul/funk influences. With your new album Sex and Food my first impression is the songs are heavier, with more guitar. What musical approach did you take for this album, and why?

One of the things I wanted to do was bring the guitar back a bit more. (With previous record Multi-Love) it was fun to get into synths – I was getting a bunch of old synths and fixing them, I was in synth world and I put the guitar aside a bit. My brother (former Mint Chicks cohort Kody Nielson) helped me more on Multi-Love versus previous records and his main instrument apart from drums is the piano, so that worked its way into there. But on this new one, I could see what people were getting at with saying that a big part of the first record was its guitar style, so I wanted to get back to that. I started writing the songs on acoustic and really wanted to get the songs totally finished before I started recording, because with a lot of music that I hear at the moment, the writing and recording process is the same, do you know what I mean?

Yeah, the production’s such a part of it, it’s almost as if the songwriting takes a back seat sometimes…

Yeah, which I don’t think there’s anything wrong with, I think it’s a symptom of technology. Music’s always like that. But I felt personally that for what I wanted to do, and to make my music sound a bit different, I wanted the recording to not have that give-and-take on the songs initially, so I tried to finish all the songs on the guitar. A lot of it was based heavily around guitar parts and the way they interact with the vocals. I had a song called Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark) from the second record – that was an example of a song that I felt I could only have done if I had completely written the song on a guitar first and decided how to produce it later. So I wanted to get back to that. It does change things, and there are some creative decisions that get made in that recording process, but I wanted to have a really strong basis and thought that it would make the songs sound different from anything else out there.

I definitely picked that up. On the single American Guilt, that riff is very cool and drives the song really well. Touching on the production point – in other interviews I’d heard you mention that you’d taken a lo-fi approach in the past, recording a lot of the instruments and mixing it yourself. What was the approach this time to recording?

It was pretty similar, I was just more ambitious about it. Also, with the first two albums I made, I didn’t have any money. They were made with no budget. For Multi-Love I finally had a budget – so half of it was made with the idea that I was going to make something hi-fi, then halfway through making the record I went back to the old records and realised I hadn’t done anything wrong. I’d spent half the time learning how to get better at recording and make a record that was more hi-fi, then halfway through realised that I then needed to fold back and return to the first records because I liked the sound. With this record, I just started the whole thing determined that UMO records sound a certain way and that I was going to do that. Then I bought some more tape recorders and a bunch of analogue stuff, and started getting deep into the different kinds of distortion that I really like. But I went so deep into the whole recording process – given how much I enjoy that, that was another reason why I wanted to get the songs finished first, so that it [the production] didn’t overtake the songs.

On the guitar side, I play guitar myself and I love the way you play. It’s chunky and psychedelic. But at the same time – when I saw you live in Perth a few years ago, I could see you had a jazzy style with the way you flitted between the chords and how you played lines. What are some of your guitar influences, players you really respect and have learned from?

Jimi Hendrix is the most obvious I can think of. But for a lot of my lead playing I’m really trying to recreate something that I hear in Frank Zappa. A lot of his solos are still my favourite solos and ideally that’s the perfect guitar style for me. I also really love Bill Frisell and a lot of the warped sounding stuff that I do comes from listening to and studying him. I really like – the name escapes me right now – the guitarist from Yes…

Steve Howe. I can hear that actually…

Yes Steve Howe, I really like Steve Howe. I really like how eclectic he is, and how he shifts and mixes classical music.

Yes, does a bit of country music sometimes…

Yes, he does a lot of different things very convincingly. Moving from fingerpicking to lead guitar, stuff like that. It’s funny because I didn’t realise what an influence he was for a long time. I don’t listen to a lot of Yes, but Fragile is one of my favourite albums. I listened to that album and The Yes Album a lot. And I was listening to Fragile one day and thought “Wow I really try to play a lot like this, I’m really thinking of this a lot when I wrote my stuff”. And of course I also like the Beatles and Jimmy Page as well. Prince as well. I guess a lot of it’s obvious stuff, now that I list it. It’s a lot of the classics, you know.

I know what you mean by Frank Zappa though, I can definitely pick out some of that in your work. More generally with Multi-Love I was picking up a bit of Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, things like that. With your upcoming album Sex & Food, what are some of your general influences?

I was, in a way, not really picking up new stuff. What I needed to do is take a stocktake of what I’d done so far. I did experiment a bit with listening to modern R&B and trying to update my phrases a bit to something that would sound more like modern R&B rather than drawing from vocal phrasing only from the 70s. I wanted to incorporate some new things to keep myself inspired. I tried phrasing things in triplets – with a lot of modern singers now, I don’t hear the blues and gospel as the influence so much as rap music. With rap music like Migos and others, a lot of singers are rapping in tune a lot of the time. Which I think is interesting enough to explore.

What about the lyrical approach? The single American Guilt sounds to me abstractly socio-political, to coin a phrase. What are some themes that you had in mind lyrically for this album – is there any thematic consistency, or anything you wanted to get out there?

I felt like this social stuff that was going on at the moment, especially in the US but really everywhere – with Donald Trump and the rise of the far right and everything – it was inevitable that those things were going to influence everything. I wanted to ‘resist’ it a bit. That’s a funny word to use actually – but I wanted to stop that from making the record political. I wanted to stick to my usual approach, which is to talk about the way I’m feeling about things. I think all of that paranoia – with people not really knowing what’s real – was going to effect the record regardless of what I did, so the main strategy was to keep politics out of it and let them go in subconsciously. I think American Guilt is the song where it’s hard to say to people “it’s not political”. Because obviously… it is… but I didn’t set about to try and say anything.

Yeah, looking through the lyrics sheet, it’s abstract – it catches the idea, but it’s on the tip of the tongue. You don’t have to actually say it…

What I wanted to avoid was to end up talking about this year. A lot of what I did was to think about whether what I’ve written will still be something worth listening to…

Yep, relevant…

I don’t think about relevance in terms of overall society but I do think, “Is somebody going to want to put this on, on the bus to work five years from now, if it’s really specifically about this political moment?” This is why I didn’t want it to be political. There’s certain artists that I really like, they talk about things that are happening and they do overlap with politics. My favourite painter is Goya. He did a bunch of work that captured the horrors of the age, but you can still look at those paintings now and they still describe what they’re going through today, if you think of it from the point of view of the human experience. So what I want to focus on is on the people in our lives, and the only way I can do that is to talk about my own feelings and hoping that other people can feel the same way.

Yeah. Like a lot of the 60s albums that referenced the Vietnam War, but luckily for us they didn’t reference it so specifically, and so that music stands the test of time. It’s about humanism…

Yes, and wars always happen for the same reasons. The same people are always starting them for the same reasons, and the same people always end up suffering. So it’s kind of weird to blame everything on Donald Trump – he’s just a symptom of stuff that’s been boiling for a long time.

So is there anything that you’ve learnt, anything new, from writing and recording this record?

I did a lot more travelling and collaborating on this one than I had before. I’ve always tried to collaborate but I have a tendency to be really DIY and finish things. But on this one I was spending so much time in my basement, that I forced myself to leave. I thought that I could go into a studio in Portland or go to New York or LA or something, but I decided I should think of a place and go there and meet my bandmates there. We ended up going to Iceland and Seoul and Vietnam. I’ve learnt that getting out of my house, meeting up with my friends and making music in other places is a workable technique for doing things into the future. I think I learnt that I can make a year of my record collaboratively without losing the essence of what it is, because I can always take it home to my basement later and modify it [laughs].

On the note on travel, you came to Australia two years ago now, and you’re in Sydney currently. How do you like Australia?

I like Australia yeah. It’s one of the first places that really embraced UMO and understood it I think. With Australia, we started to get an audience here on the first album, but in New Zealand things only just started to work for us there on Multi-Love. I feel that the acceptance you’d think New Zealand would give the band was actually what we got here.

We do like psych rock and the sound that you’ve brought, we have a bit of a home-grown thing here…

Yes, it’s the home of Tame [Impala] and King Gizzard. It’s not foreign, it’s not like you need time to understand it, it’s already a good place for us. And actually those bands have always been so accepting of us and we were early fans of each other’s bands. So it’s a weird and pleasant thing to think that you were in a band that was just a little indie band, and now they’re a group of peers that are achieving this success. It’s quite nice, you know?

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