Unknown Mortal Orchestra: Rebirth and Multi-Love

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Two years ago, Ruban Nielson’s life seemed to be idyllic: The musician had just released his second LP, the acclaimed II, with indie-psych band Unknown Mortal Orchestra and toured the world with trend-setting bands like Grizzly Bear. But his whimsical melodies and lo-fi soul grooves were masking a serious depression. “I didn’t realize that I was sad,” he says. “But I knew that my life was kind of out of control. I was living a pretty wild lifestyle, but I didn’t realize how down I was until the record was finished and I was going over the lyrics, checking for quality, like ‘Do I like this album?’ And then I realized, ‘Wow, I’m really sad!’”

He didn’t have to search hard. “Isolation can put a gun in your hand,” he sings on that album’s jangly opener “From the Sun,” harmonizing with himself over murky guitar riffs and tumbling Motown drum fills. II is loaded with similarly troubling lines, reflecting the turbulent state of his personal and professional life—the drug use and partying and strained family life he’d amassed. But this self-discovery was eye-opening for the 35-year-old husband and father, who used the II tour as a springboard into a new life.

“I don’t know if it’s a guy thing, but sometimes you get out of touch with the way you’re feeling,” Nielson says. “I realized I was sad. When II came out, touring after that album was actually a really positive experience. I’d made this record that was really sad, but the process of touring it was like putting my life back together, trying to get my shit together. I made that record backed into a corner. I’d been ripped off by my old manager, so I had no money. I’d been touring for a year, but I realized I had nothing. And in the three years since then, I changed a lot of things. I changed the label I was with [now Jagjaguwar], the drummer in my band, my manager. It was really important that I put together a new team of people who were good influences. I knew I needed to be more ambitious and more organized to make the record I really wanted to make.”

That record is Multi-Love, Nielson’s most kaleidoscopic and optimistic work to date. Where his previous two LPs squashed colorful songwriting with intentionally fuzzy production, Multi-Love embraces a more hi-fi approach that brings his eccentricities into sharp, joyful focus. The evolution makes sense—Nielson’s home life was evolving at a similarly rapid pace.

As he explained in a recent Pitchfork profile, the musician wrote and recorded the album during a time of romantic experimentation, as he and his wife began a polyamorous relationship with a woman he met after a show in 2013. What began as a casual friendship became more complicated when his wife, Jenny, started carrying out her own long-distance communication with the same individual. Eventually all three were living under one roof—along with Ruban and Jenny’s children. And though this emotionally strange and confusing experience didn’t last in the long-term romantic sense, it did spark a creative drive in the songwriter, who spent the better part of a year working on the new album in his Portland basement studio, translating these feelings into songs themed around the unpredictable nature of love.

“She don’t want to be your man or woman,” he sings on the spiraling, psychedelic title-cut. “She wants to be your love…We were one, then become three.” The melancholy space-funk of “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” nods to the long-distance relationship Nielson and his wife shared with their partner when an expired visa forced her to leave the country.

On a sonic level, Multi-Love branches out significantly. Nielson’s nimble falsetto still moves in unexpected shapes, gliding over lush psych grooves—but the textures are thrillingly varied. “The World Is Crowded” approaches legitimate neo-soul with its sparse, bass-heavy groove; Nielson describes “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” as his own twisted approximation of a disco-Bollywood song.

“I knew that [a musical shift] was kind of inevitable, just because I was excited about trying to use some different equipment,” he says. “I was already starting to get bored with using the same techniques over and over. I was excited about preserving the things I like about it but also shifting it—I thought it would be more exciting for people to have a different sound, as long as it didn’t come out really sterile. If it has impact and is still fuzzy in a certain way, it would be exciting. I try to think about what I would want to hear. What would be acceptable for me in terms of changes?

“When this first started, I didn’t necessarily think it was going to be focused on keyboards,” he continues. “I knew I wanted horns and strings and synths on it, but I didn’t think I was going to be taking the emphasis off the guitar so much until I started working on the record itself. And I was working on synths—it started to become a hobby of mine. It’s very different from touring or being a musician. I’ve gotten quite deep into it now. I was working on synths through my hobby, and I didn’t think it was that relevant, but after a while, I started working on new projects, and the sounds I was getting I really liked.”

As Nielson’s real-life Multi-Love continued to evolve, he also found himself growing closer to his family in other ways. For one, being around the kids more was huge. (“My kids are really silly,” he says. “They’re always in this ridiculous mood, and they’re always laughing. They just laugh all day, and they’re so ridiculous that I think it kind of made its way onto the record.”) Nielson also used the talents of his father, a jazz musician who recorded breathtaking horn parts for tracks like “Necessary Evil.” Kody, Ruban’s brother and former bandmate in The Mint Chicks, worked on the songs’ propulsive percussive grooves—an intimacy that brought the siblings even closer.

“The way Kody plays drums and the way I record them are really compatible,” Nielson says. “I went into the album wanting it to be more upbeat and happy. Me and my brother were hanging out for days on end, staying up at night and sleeping during the day. We’d go to this diner near my house called Shari’s. We’d work until three or four in the morning and then go to Shari’s and hang out and joke around. He was really excited to be working on a UMO record. He got really excited when he heard the first UMO record, but he didn’t even know it was me. He was a fan of UMO but didn’t even know it was his brother. He played it for my dad at my dad’s house, and my dad told Kody that it was me.”

For Nielson, making Multi-Love was a process of rebirth, of transforming the pain and disillusion of the past few years and reining in on a more hopeful future. “Songwriting is a spiritual thing,” he says. The songs are proof.

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