It’s been a big year for Unknown Mortal Orchestra. In February the Portland psych rockers released II, the bluntly named follow-up to their acclaimed 2011 debut, a lo-fi album of sunny, old-school psych that grew from a few songs New Zealand-born frontman Ruban Nielson posted anonymously on Bandcamp. II is a far darker effort, both musically and lyrically, and behind the strength of more polished singles like “Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark)” and “So Good At Being In Trouble,” the band has received more attention than ever in the wake of its release. Later in February they appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon before embarking on a headlining tour with up-and-comers Foxygen and Wampire acting as support. In May, UMO will cross the Atlantic for some European dates, but for now they’re taking it easy in Portland and getting some much deserved rest after what’s already been a busy 2013.
Paste was recently able to catch up with Nielson over the phone to talk about his experience at SXSW, the value of time off and what’s occupying his mind as he composes the band’s next batch of songs.
You guys got some great showcases, played a good amount of shows and by almost all accounts absolutely killed at SXSW this year. Looking at it in retrospect, how do you feel about your experience in Austin and the festival in general?
Ruban Nielson: One thing about South By is that it really favors a certain kind of music and it really makes it impossible for a certain kind of music to participate. Anything quiet or nuanced is not going to do that well there just because of the way it’s structured. I was thinking the other day that if Billie Holiday went to South By with her band and if she was an up-and-coming artist you wouldn’t be able to hear it because the venue next door would be too loud. If she did five shows in two days her voice would probably be shot after, by the second day. Meanwhile a really loud, aggressive rapper who just puts on an mp3 player and screams at people will be able to continue for another three days…Or a really messy garage rock band would be able to do the same thing. It just favors really aggressive music that can be blasted in shitty conditions, and it really discourages any music with nuance. Our band is kind of rocky so we can make do in that situation, but certain songs get wiped from the set and we end up playing everything we can that just blasts. It’s kind of a real pity because SXSW is still seen as the major event of the year in the music industry and I just think it’s changing music. It’s part of the reason why really shitty, aggressive rap and really shitty, aggressive rock and dubstup and things like that are so prevalent.
Yeah, I tried to see [ambient Icelandic instrumentalist] Ólafur Arnalds one night in a church and ended up having to take an elevator, stairs and walk through some other non-SXSW reception just to reach the room he was performing in. It’s really hard for artists like that to have a real impact.
Nielson: Yeah, a group like Odd Future can do fine in that environment, but anything that’s not like that, people are going to go to the show and are going to think, “Oh, that’s not very good.” You don’t get a soundcheck. It just takes a lot more subtlety to make that music happen. Nobody really acknowledges that South By is a certain type of environment for certain types of music, and people still take it really seriously as the place where the music industry goes. It’s kind of contributing to the death of certain genres.
Your tour mates Foxygen kind of had a rough go of it at SXSW. They had a breakdown on stage, ended up canceling several of their scheduled performances and have since canceled some upcoming dates in Europe. What do you make of that whole situation and how they’ve been getting a lot of flak in the media?
Nielson: I really sympathize with them because they were just two kids making records at their parents’ houses in high school, and they were messing around and thinking about going to college and then all of a sudden Pitchfork gives them Best New Music and they get to work with Richard Swift and make this really good record, and now everyone expects them to be the best new music there is at the moment. They just haven’t played enough shows and really haven’t found their footing live, so it’s just another symptom of the modern music world. When I was first playing music with my first band, we were playing house parties and doing stuff like that, playing punk shows and playing basements and stuff like that. We did all of our experimenting and all of our stuff in a kind of environment that’s conducive to that. Foxygen were thrown out on the road with a band like us and we’re selling out shows and there’s a lot of hype around them, too—they’re contributing to the selling out of the shows as well. People just expect it to be this really reliable, really complete thing, but they’re still young and they’re still experimenting and trying to figure who they are and stuff like that.
I don’t think it’s fair. I think that people need to understand that. On the one hand, people don’t really want too many new musicians to be older. They want these kids. But they want the kids to be born fully formed. They want them to emerge from the egg completely formed already. They’re not going to get that because the environment just sucks, so it’s just kind of a bullshit thing really, to expect a kid to have everything figured out. No one expects anyone else in the music industry to have anything else figured out when they’re 21. If they want more maturity then they should look to musicians that are older and who have done more and who have more figured out.
Yeah, I was lucky enough to see their first performance right after they arrived in town and they were incredible. I saw them after the show though and not only are they young, but they just seemed really young. I can’t imagine going through all you have to go through on the road and at SXSW when I was 19 or 20.
Nielson: Yeah, and [the media] should be talking about all the things they are doing that aren’t breakdowns. The breakdown part is really not that surprising. It’s all the things they have achieved that isn’t flying off the rails that people should be focusing on. I don’t know why that is. I think people just want musicians to suffer [laughs]. People want rock and roll bands but they don’t want anything to go wrong. They want this rock and roll thing, and then when it happens they get scared of it.
Before SXSW you guys played “So Good At Being In Trouble” on Fallon. What was that experience like for you, playing on national TV on NBC?
Nielson: It was kind of weird because I had the flu. I got really, really sick so I did the whole thing sick. It was kind of funny because I had been planning for it and doing all this stuff and then I woke up and I was just completely sick. I was sitting backstage just thinking it was a nightmare. I got through it. I wish I had not been sick because it would have been better, but I’m just thankful I got through it. People were saying it looked like I didn’t care, and I was just like, “I could barely stand!” I was just trying to look for a performing angle that would explain how down I was. It was cool, though. I was intimidated by being in that situation, being on that stage where so many of my favorite performers had played. Elvis Costello was in the building and I was like, “Oh man, why do I have to be sick!”
Did you get to hang out with ?uestlove at all? I know he’s said he’s a fan of you guys in the past.
Nielson: Yeah. We got to hang out a bit. I’d met him before; I met him a couple of years ago. It was cool. I find those people so intimidating that I would kind of rather not hang out with them. Those people hold a lot of control over me. Music is my favorite thing, so he could ruin my week. If ?uestlove walked up to me and said, “Man, you’re not a real musician,” that would really…Nobody could do that to me except him. If someone said that I would normally just laugh, but if it was one of my heroes, it would take a while to recover from.
When you guys first started out there was an air of mystery about you. You posted a song or two on Bandcamp and were reluctant to take ownership of what you’d done. Now it seems like you’ve fully embraced every aspect of being a musician today—you’re doing interviews, filming videos, you tweet a lot, you’re on Fallon. Does the fact that you’ve embraced all the exposure surprise you at all? Was there something that caused you to approach the idea of being in a band differently?
Nielson: When I started I felt like I might want to do something else with my life. Whatever I do I do 100 percent, but at first I just didn’t know if I wanted to be in a band. Once I decided I wanted to be in a band I went all in straightaway. I still have certain things…Every time I make a video I have to argue about not wanting to be in it. I hate having to do press photos and stuff like that. It’s a thing like…we already have photos. There are plenty on the Internet. I have my Instagram. Who cares what we look like, though? We make sounds. But I’m just trying to do my job now. I have my life all based around being in a band. But because I grew up in New Zealand, partly…New Zealand has a kind of reluctant attitude and I grew up with that. I think New Zealanders understand. They’re not like, “You’re the guy who’s all mysterious!” It’s just your job. There’s no need to see a picture of you; you just go do it. It’s kind of a default setting in New Zealand to not want to be in the spotlight.
You’ve got some time off now before you hit the road again. How valuable is this time off for you and how do you spend it? Do you try to put music out of your mind completely? Are you uncomfortable with the inactivity and overly anxious to get back out on the road?
Nielson: I do get uncomfortable. I get uncomfortable and want to get back on the road. But if you don’t get breaks you go crazy. Or at least I do. I start to lose my grip on things a little. I don’t see how people…We just did six weeks. The first year of touring we’d do a tour like that and then we’d take four days off and then go back out for two months again. When you do that it’s almost like you can’t even take responsibility for what you do out there. You get so tired and so lonely and your perspective gets so warped. It’s good if you go on tour and come back and spend enough time off the road that you get back to ground zero and become your normal self before you go back out again. But I’m just writing. I’m writing and writing at the moment. I’m inspired to write another batch of songs.
You seem to have a very worldly perspective on things and seem to be concerned with a lot that goes on in life outside of music. I know you have a background in visual art. When you’re writing music, are you inspired by other artistic disciplines or other spheres of culture?
Nielson: Yeah, I read a lot. At the moment I’m really interested in tarot and tarot cards. There’s a director called Alejandro Jodorowsky who’s from Chilé and he re-worked the Tarot de Marseille. It’s just interesting. The way I think about it is not like reading the future or anything quacky; it’s just a cool way of analyzing yourself or analyzing a friend or something like that. It’s the kind of thing that’s just an interesting way to look at problems. Sometimes it reveals things. Usually it reveals something from inside you or shows you a problem from an angle you’re not aware of. I’m really into visual art as well. I wanted to be an artist—I was TRYING to be an artist and the music keeps getting the way [laughs].
You’ve said that the darker themes on II were inspired by a lot of the lonliness and isolation that you experienced on the road after releasing your debut. Are there any new themes or things that have particularly been on your mind as you promote the new album?
Nielson: I’m trying to get deeper into…I didn’t realize it until it was finished, but the second record was quite dark. I didn’t really think it was going to be like that. This time around I just want to get a little bit deeper into the idea of why do I feel sad when I get everything I want, which is kind of where I’m at at the moment. And that’s part of why I’m getting into tarots, as well. Trying to analyze myself. Seeing if there’s something to relate that people might be interested in. It’s not worth me doing this band unless there’s some other reason, some other thing I’m getting from it and that people are getting from me. So I’m sort of going down this path of trying to figure out what’s wrong with me [laughs]. When people talk about listening to my music and they talk about as being healing or something. They’ve had a rough day and listened to my record because they’ve had a bad day and need that kind of energy. That’s what makes me happy. I’m kind of trying to go further into that and to see how far I can go.
My background is pretty screwed up, really. Both of my parents were musicians and there was a lot of drug addiction. It’s kind of a mystery to me. It’s not really, but in a way it’s a mystery as to why there is this constant link between drugs and music and also the pressures and how they’re all related and why something good comes out of that. Why creativity comes out of that. I’ve been thinking about that stuff a lot. I also don’t want to make a really dark and depressing album. I want to get back to some of the happy sort of stuff that was going on in the first album. I think that comes from my kids. I was spending so much time with my son when I wrote the first record that he rubbed off this happy, childish kind of energy. I’m trying turn my phone off and go hang with them for long periods of time. The answer’s not in the past. Some of the answers are in the past, but a lot of the answers are in the future.