By Laura Studarus; photo by Jasmine Safaeian on February 6, 2013
Despite a teenage stint as Auckland’s most obvious graffiti artist, Unknown Mortal Orchestra frontman Ruban Nielson’s goal was never to stand out. “I didn’t get caught, even though I tagged my actual name,” he says, his voice crackling with amusement. “There was this kid who was a tagger and got caught by the police and he had to change his tag. Me and him always had a little beef. So I changed my [tagger] name to ‘Ruban’ just to rub it in.”
Now 32, Nielson is still apt at hiding in plain sight. Slouched in a booth at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood, he could pass for any other Friday night patron—save for a mysterious, peering eyeball tattooed across his Adam’s apple.
This anonymity hasn’t always existed. Having found success with his previous band The Mint Chicks (which featured his brother Kody, now of Kiwi upstarts Opossom), Nielson discovered that life in the public eye was limiting.
“We were in the newspaper and on TV,” he says. “New Zealand is a small country, but it gets even smaller once people start to recognize you. There was nowhere for me to go. The only option was to become more mainstream or flounder.”
Unsure if he wanted to continue making music, and craving a respite from his unsolicited position as a big fish in a small pond, Nielson relocated to Portland, Oregon, where he took a break from everything connected to his old life.
“I’ve been trying to stop doing music from the start,” says Nielson. “I really like doing it, but I keep going through these phases of trying to stop myself. My dad is a jazz musician. My mother is a hula dancer; she used to do backup vocals for lounge singers. My aunt teaches Suzuki method violin. I have an uncle who’s a reggae musician… I think I’m genetically predisposed.”
Discovering that even a continent away he was unable to stop thinking in musical terms, Nielson returned to his craft, joining with friends Jake Portrait and Julien Ehrlich to create Unknown Mortal Orchestra (Ehrlich left UMO between albums; drummer Greg Rogove joined the band in 2012). The result of the trio’s partnership is a psych rock blend of bluesy guitar hooks and buzzy melodies. The band’s sophomore album, II, features slyly darker takes on themes explored on their 2011 self-titled debut. From the harmony-laden opening track “From the Sun” where Nielson muses, “Isolation can put a gun in your hand,” to the percussion-driven bad-girl anthem “So Good At Being in Trouble,” there’s a swinging aesthetic that places the album firmly in a distant psychedelic world that its makers have only experienced through musty vinyl.
“Most of the stuff that I’m influenced by was recorded and happened before I was born, so I don’t really feel like it’s nostalgia,” says Nielson. “It’s cool to forget about being in 2012, just making whatever music you think is the best from everything that you’ve absorbed over the years. I remember that there was more pressure six years ago to bring some element into your music that time-stamped it as being ‘from this time.’ I don’t feel that pressure now.”
Although, he admits, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s retro-leaning brew is a sea change from his own musical roots.
“I just grew up around punk rock and hardcore bands,” he laughs. “All of the stuff that I’m doing now is a guilty pleasure… All the Flying Nun [Records] dudes in New Zealand and all the punks that taught me about music, I can just see them going, ‘No! We didn’t teach you this! We didn’t raise you to be like this!’”
Regardless of genre, Nielson has the unflagging support of his 2-year-old daughter Iris, who graces the cover of the band’s seven-inch “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark).” Already happy to have won her ear with Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Nielson has plans to further expand his daughter’s musical palette past his band’s recordings.
“It’ll be cool when she’s at the stage where I can say, ‘This is The Violent Femmes…” he says. “Cool girl music. But she’s a real girl, she’s not going to want to hear Napalm Death. It’s all Blondie and stuff like that.”
At least Nielson knows he’ll always have one fan who will never fail to recognize him. F
3 albums that inspired Unknown Mortal Orchestra to make music
It was the first music I listened to that my friends didn’t know. It put me on a different tangent. RUBAN NIELSON
You put it on and it’s got its own thing going. I still listen to it all the time. JAKE PORTRAIT
They exposed me to jazz and hardcore. They were the entry-level band for a bunch of different stuff. RUBAN NIELSON
This article is from FILTER Issue 50