Ruban Nielson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra: "My musical career is like one big ticky tour"
Unknown Mortal Orchestra (due Friday, March 16 at the Gothic Theatre) is based on Portland, Oregon. The band's frontman, Ruban Nielson, however, spent nearly a decade in punk band the Mint Chicks while based out of Auckland, New Zealand. After a few records on the legendary Flying Nun label, Nielson parted ways with the group to move to Portland, where he had some family and wanted a kind of fresh start. His new band sounds very much in step with something that could have come out of the Nuggets era of garage rock, mainly because of the frantic pace of the music and its organic experimental sound and jagged melodies.
In fact, the group's self-titled album sounds like an impossible hybrid of late '70s New Zealand punk and the Northwest sound and its cadre of bands including the Sonics and the Wailers -- all shot through with a psychedelic sensibility that lends it an otherworldly flavor. We had recently spoke with Nielson about his origins as a painter, his time as a New Zealand band on a prominent label and why he prefers being a musician in America.
Westword: Being from New Zealand what music first inspired you to start making music of your own?
Ruban Nielson: It's weird. My parents were both musicians. My mother is a professional dancer, and my dad is a professional musician, so I grew up around all kinds of music. But I always thought I wasn't going to be a musician. I thought I was going to be an artist. My dad tried to encourage me to do art and stuff, and I went to art school and everything.
I think I was doing a bunch of weird tapes with my friends, like comedy tapes, and we had songs we did. So I would pick up my friend's guitar and try to make up silly songs. That's how I started playing guitar, I think, trying to make up comedy songs. We would sit around and do fake interviews with fake bands. We were bored in a small town and that was fun for us.
You're familiar with that Monty Python skit where they make up fake bands like Anthrax Ripple and Toad the Wet Sprocket? Though that one someone actually used.
Yeah, it was kind of that British comedy kind of thing. We liked Harry Enfield. I started out like that because I didn't want to be a musician because everyone in my family was a musician. All of my friends are like that. They were into Nirvana or Metallica or AC/DC and picked up the guitar because of that stuff and I completely avoided it.
What kind of art did you do at the time other than the comedy, which could be considered art as well?
I did realistic painting, I guess. My main thing was trying to be a classical kind of painter. I studied Renaissance painting and tried to paint things as realistically as possible. So that's really what I did and trained in and whatever.
Do you still do painting today?
I don't really have time and the space. I still do artwork but don't really have the time to do painting. You need a studio and the time. I do the artwork for the band and stuff.
You were in The Mint Chicks for almost ten years. What got you started along that path?
Well I was still at art school, and my brother wrote some songs and asked if I wanted to start a band. My dad had bought me a guitar for my birthday and I'd just kind of been playing it as a hobby. I just kind of thought I was just good enough to start a band. I didn't really think I was a good guitarist or anything. We kind of started off as just a punk band and we started playing.
I was planning on continuing to do art and stuff. But I was in this punk band with some friends from high school and my brother and Flying Nun signed us and that's how everything turned into a proper detour. I got busy and it kind of turned into a career. That's sort of the way that I kept planning to..."Well, you know when the next thing dies down I'll just go back to doing art." I'm still in that kind of mode being like, "Well, we'll do one more tour. Okay, we'll do one more record." And I kind of keep doing that.
And then twelve years later you're here.
Yeah, yeah, it's been going on for ages. In NewZealand we call it a "ticky tour." There are these tours around New Zealand called "ticky tours" where you just go off around the coast and stuff. In New Zealand, now they call it a "ticky tour" when you don't expect to go do something like a project, and you just kind of wander off, and it turns out differently than you expected. My musical career is like one big "ticky tour."
When you were playing in The Mint Chicks, were there other bands from New Zealand that made a big impression on you?
The Skeptics, the Clean, the Verlaines and there's a guy called Jed Town -- he's a big hero of mine who I stay in touch with. There's a band called The 3Ds. Mostly Flying Nun or Flying Nun affiliated bands. That's pretty much the main thing, the Flying Nun stuff. When we started the band the whole plan was that biggest thing was that if we put out a record with Flying Nun that would be it. We ended up putting out more than that. But Flying Nun was really the big goal.
How did you get hooked up with Flying Nun?
It just happened. At the time nobody knew anything about music. We didn't have any connections in the music industry. We just started playing people's houses, and then we got involved in the punk scene in New Zealand. Just playing underground punk shows and playing people's houses and stuff like that. And we just kept playing and playing, and eventually, the A&R from Flying Nun at the time just called me up at my house, and I don't even know how he got my number or anything. We hadn't gotten big or anything or drawing or anything. They just picked us up when we were still playing the punk parties.
What about Jed Town's music did you find inspirational?
I'd never heard of him before. He had this band called the Superettes, a punk band, and a friend of ours said he wanted to put the band back together, but he wanted to put it back together with a new band. So three of the members of the Mint Chicks at the time, me, my brother and the drummer, were his band and we learned all the old punk songs. We did a recording and ended one show with John Cale.
I didn't really know his music and then after learning the songs and getting to know him, I started learning about the music and realized that he was pretty much the figure for me. He was actually the guy I was most into.
He's done a bunch of different things. He did this band called Fetus Productions, which is really amazing. At the moment his band is called Ghost Town, he does Interactive Heart and all this stuff. He's just an interesting guy. He's done all kinds of things. He's quite dark, in a sense, and it's always experimental in some way. His lyrics are really interesting. The thing that always gets me is how underrated he is.
The people here know the Dead C and the Clean and stuff like that but nobody ever seems to have heard of Jed Town. I've always wondered why that was. I think it's because he's kept changing what he was doing all the time. And probably because he doesn't care that much about being famous and stuff.
Many people feel that there are distinct differences between the type of music or scenes that came out of Auckland versus that from Dunedin and Christchurch or Wellington. Do you feel this to be valid?
I think there's always something that separates those places but I don't think it's always the same thing. Usually Dunedin's really ruled by student culture. So one thing that's coming out of Dunedin sounds like is a bit sleepier and it's also a lot colder than Wellington or Auckland.
Auckland is really where all the industry is so often bands from Auckland might be more ambitious-sounding and they might have better production and recording. They might be more pop or metropolitan or something. Wellington is a really comfortable place. It's a little bit like Portland. It's influenced a lot by dub and roots music and reggae.
I wouldn't be able to say exactly what it is but I think that in each town there are phases that define them but I don't know what it is at the moment. When the Mint Chicks were going, the bands coming out that were getting bigger and more in your face. Wellington was much mellower. Less confrontational. Dunedin was just very isolated at that time. I guess isolation is a big thing in Dunedin.
When did you move to Portland and why did you move there?
I moved there about four years ago. I moved there to make music pretty much. My uncle lives there and he has four children and his oldest daughter has a bunch of kids so I have a lot of family there. Being around him was really cool. I didn't really know that Portland was known for being a good music place so I just kind of stumbled onto it. I didn't find out how many musicians lived there and that musicians are moving there all the time until after I moved there.
I just liked the vibe and it seemed mellow but a lot was going. I've never had a desire to live anywhere like L.A. or New York or any of those big cities. I think they're a little bit not my speed. It's really friend, I like that about it. The scene here, the musicians are quite tight knit and stuff. In Auckland I always felt like the music scene was quite competitive and people were quite stand-offish. In Portland people help each other and they're not really competitive.
When I first moved there I think people are welcoming of people looking to go there to contribute. I think the only thing people have against anyone moving to Portland is people going there wanting more strip malls and stuff like that. But I don't think people are too worried about people going there and having bands. I don't see much resistance to that stuff. I think that side of the culture is nice and people would like it to grow.
Your most recent album is sometimes reminiscent of early Pink Floyd or psychedelic garage rock from the '60s. Were you listening to any of that stuff when you were coming up with the music?
Yeah, yeah. I was listening to that kind of stuff and I had been for quite a while. I really wanted to make music like that. I'd been making the album for pretty self-indulgent. I wanted to make it so I could hear it, really. Then looking for albums from that era that I hadn't heard yet and scouring the internet for things. Literally, I got so specific what I was looking for, I could actually make the album and make it fill this gap of what I wanted to listen to.
Which I think is cool because I think it ended up being all the things that I was looking for but I guess there wasn't exactly that album out there. So when I made it I felt like when people hear, maybe other people wanted to hear that album as well. The first Pink Floyd record is one of my favorite albums. We've been playing "Lucifer Sam" the last couple of nights.
What is it about that music that you found particularly attractive?
I think I've always been attracted to psychedelic things. When I was a kid I liked things like that. I guess a lot of kids do and it never wore off. Before I knew what psychedelic drugs were, I still liked that kind of stuff. Crazy surreal stuff. Mind-expanding things and stuff like that. I used to draw comic books as a teenager. In these stories people always went into different worlds and stuff like that.
One of the people that influenced me the most was this artist called Moebius. I named my son Moebius. I discovered his artwork when I was twelve or thirteen. It struck a chord with me straight away. I didn't know the druggy aspect of it at the time. I just thought it was cool. Later I realized he was inspired by taking mushrooms. So later on in life I got into that stuff. But I don't think it was necessarily it was to do with drugs, the psychedelic thing. It was a childhood thing and I don't think of it as something born of drug experience.
I read this thing that the first two records from Os Mutantes, which I think are the best two records, were made under the influence of them imagining what it would be like to take LSD without actually having access to it. They couldn't get it in Brazil. And then when they finally got it, their records became a little bit less interesting because it's such an active thing for your imagination to imagine what it's like to be expanded. LSD and those kinds of drugs narrow it down and it's like, "Well this is actually what LSD is like." I think it has less to do with drugs and more to do with imagination and mind expansion in general.
How did you become exposed to the work of Moebius?
I was really into comic books. And my dad really encouraged me, I think to keep me away from music. All my family were making music but none of them made much money out of it. So I think he thought I was creative but he should encourage me to do more art because I think he had this idea that that's where all the money was or something. Which is not true at all.
I think he had the idea that you become an artist and paint and painting and sell it for a million dollars. He used to buy me all these books on painters and stuff. And I got into comic books when I was young and eventually I got into Moebius through comic books. He's still my favorite now. He did work in X-Men, which is what I was mostly into. Spider Man too.
You have some interesting spellings on your album, is that related to making people think about things a little differently? Like the spelling on "Thought Ballune."
Mostly it occurred to me, and I try not to think about it too much, but since then I was thinking I always liked how Aleister Crowley spelled "magick" with the "k" at the end. That whole thing about being aware of language. But I didn't think of that at the time. And I was imitating Prince a little and how he never seems to spell anything properly. The other thing is that I like the idea that you can look up the song specifically on the internet and it takes you straight to the song.
You can put in "Ballune," and I think it would probably take you to the song. It has its own name. Our parents named me and my brother slightly different spellings. And I think we're the only people with exactly those names. Same kind of thing, just phonetic spelling. I don't know why they did it. Same with my brother whose name is Kody with a "K."
What are the biggest differences you've found between being in a band in New Zealand and operating here in the USA?
I think it's easier to be in a band in the US. There's this thing in New Zealand called "The Tall Poppy Syndrome." They don't like displays of talent. I don't know, it's kind of a weird thing. I like it better here. You can just try and make the best music you can possibly do and then people will appreciate it more. I guess the other thing is that you can be on the road as much as you want here because you can just go around and around the States and by the time you come back around it's been long enough for you to get a crowd again. In New Zealand you usually just go a little bit of the year and the rest of the year you have to figure out what to do with your life. It can be a little bit frustrating. I like it a lot better here.