Interview: Unknown Mortal Orchestra

January 21, 2013 by  

1 - UMO - Colored - Version 3 - low res

There are relatively few bands that I can count as a soundtrack to my life, but Unknown Mortal Orchestra is definitely one of them. I have vivid memories of the time I first discovered ‘Thought Ballune’ and was naively in love, or walking with a tray of burgers in my hands and dancing with some of the best people in the world to ‘Ffunny Ffrends’.

I can only hope that the magic will continue with their new album II. But to be honest, songs such as ‘Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)’ and ‘So Good at Being in Trouble’ have such potential, and are such gems that I reckon it can only get better.

Trust me, this album will open your life to much sexier things, so I reckon you should buy it on the 5th of February and if what I, Jenny Kiffer, am telling you isn’t enough to convince you, I’m sure what Ruban Nielson – UMO’s frontman – has to say about the album, life on the road, the Mint Chicks and sheep rodeo, surely will…

Were you surprised that the UMO project became popular after just one song was posted on Bandcamp? (I have a song posted on Bandcamp, and I can’t say it’s working very well for us)

I was very surprised. I uploaded the song and then left it alone for a couple of days and when I came back to it there was a spike in traffic and I checked out where the hits were coming from and it was hundreds of blogs. Pitchfork posted it eventually and I started getting contacted by labels. I mean, I was proud of the song, that’s why I posted it online, but I didn’t realize things could get out of hand in that way.

You started out alone, was it difficult finding people to form the band?

The first person wasn’t difficult. I asked Jake Portrait to play bass in this weird fake band I had dreamt up. It was hilarious because I was explaining to him that Domino and Matador and Fat Possum and all of these labels were interested in this thing and I hadn’t even told anyone I was doing any music. He was somebody I knew in Portland and he had helped produce and mix an album from my previous band. Finding a drummer is harder. We’ve gone through 3 drummers already. I have a lot of requirements for a drummer and we tour more than most bands, which isn’t for everybody, although me and Jake love it. It can be hard to keep a steady girlfriend if you’re away 7 or 8 months of the year playing in a rock n roll band.

Do you still create the UMO material by yourself or do the other members of the band have a part in the writing process?

Nobody else is involved with the writing yet, although my brother plays some drums on the new record. Greg Rogove plays drums on a song and Jake plays bass on a song so I guess other people are slowly getting involved here and there haha

You said that your first album was some kind of experiment; do you think that you?ve achieved the style you were looking for with II? Do you feel it?s a more complete record?

The new one was put together with the knowledge that people were going to hear it. That made the process a little bit different. I put some more effort into the way the record would flow and the different places it would go. I made the first one for my own specific listening pleasure so all I did was record a song in one night and then just play it over and over on my iPod when I was traveling on the bus to work. There was no concept that it would be released world wide and I was going to travel the world playing it live. That was the context of the songs of the first album. Now it was like ‘ok, so I already know people are going to be listening to this in Norway and Argentina and Australia and Japan’ so I conceptualized it a bit more and put more time into each song.

Where and how were the songs written, and what were your influences for the new LP?

Most of the songwriting was done while I was on tour in 2011. Everything happened so quickly. I was suddenly in a touring band that had this buzz surrounding it and it completely turned my life upside down. It got really overwhelming eventually. I was working and playing very very hard and was just moving and playing out in the world and after a while I started to come apart at the seams. I suddenly had all of these new experiences and emotions to write about and I’d find a quiet corner somewhere or retreat to the van at night and record these ideas onto my phone. When it came time to record the album I had this sort of musical diary to sift through.

Is it difficult to translate UMO?s sound to the live stage?

It’s an ongoing labor of love to try and get the sounds and musicianship right. We are pretty geeky when it comes to getting the right sounds and stuff like that. Every tour we figure out a bunch of new stuff. I’m pretty happy with the way it is right now. It’s not just a case of copying the record. I want to have improvised sections and have the kind of live show you can watch again and again and see something different each time. I have a lot of people who will tell us they’ve seen UMO 6 or 7 times.

You’ve toured with bands like Weezer and Grizzly Bear – who don?t really play the same music at all – do you think people find it difficult to classify you?

The Weezer thing was kind of just a random one-off arena show in New Zealand. We didn’t tour with them, although it was awesome to play that show and watch them play as I’ve been a fan since I was a kid. As for Grizzly Bear, I think it was a good match for us to support them. Their audience were into us. I didn’t know what to expect but it turned out really well. Their audience is no doubt made up of a diverse group of people who are open to new bands. It’s a little bit tricky to classify UMO but that’s because there’s nothing exactly like it, which is a good thing I think.

Why did you move from NZ? Could you picture yourself living there again?

I just felt like I’d love to live in Portland, which turned out to be true. New Zealand is a really physically isolated place. I find myself missing the things that make New Zealand unique. My parents and siblings are still there. I might move back one day. It’s hard to say.

How’s the Portland music scene different from NZ?

It’s pretty similar actually haha

You said that the Mint Chicks was a sort of school to find out what you liked, are you happier with what you’re doing now?

I suppose I am happier with what I’m doing now. In the Mint Chicks every song was a new experiment. It was always testing something, which was fun at the time. UMO is the music I dreamed of being able to make back then.

Any chance you’d ever make music together again, or is it completely over?

It’d be fun to make a record that distilled what we were best at. We were an incredible punk band. That’s what we did best. We could make another record but I think I’d have to make it happen.

My Ffunny Ffrend from New Zealand Caitlin did rodeo on sheep when she was little, is that a common custom in NZ?

Hahaha it might be. I was a city boy so I don’t know anything about livestock.