Photo by Dusdin Condren
Three years ago, Ruban Nielson was at a crossroads. The mastermind behind soft-focus psych outfit Unknown Mortal Orchestra was on the heels of releasing II, the follow-up to 2010's intriguing, out-of-nowhere debut and a record that stood to gain the New Zealand indie lifer a larger audience—but things didn't feel right. Over a phone conversation earlier this month from his home in Portland, Oregon, the 35-year-old describes his mindset at the time as "me finding myself on the corner with no money again and in bad health."
Success was nice—the band had just logged a considerable tour with indie rock titans Grizzly Bear—but there were the pitfalls that come with an increased profile, too: getting ripped off, being surrounded by people who don't give a shit about you. "When I started the band, I thought I had a responsibility to say 'Yes' to whatever came up," Nielson describes. "You can't really do that for too long before it starts to affect your music." Things needed to change, and so they did: prior to II, Nielson made the jump from the high-profile, oft-controversial blues-cum-indie Fat Possum to the less controversial but no-less-well-established Secretly Canadian subsidiary Jagjaguwar. He also found a new drummer in Riley Geare—one of the guys who contributed to Unknown Mortal Orchestra's latest, most excellent album, Multi-Love (out May 26).
Unlike its predecessors, Multi-Love sounds like a record that would have been impossible to make on one's spare time, so the newly initiated Geare is one of a few musicians who contribute to Multi-Love, as well as a touring member; as Nielson and I speak over the phone, the band's in rehearsals for their upcoming tour supporting the album. According to him, the moving pieces of Multi-Love, which shift and wriggle with constant energy like a child being told to take a nap, have been hard to configure for a live setting—"We've had to work pretty hard, it's like a puzzle"—but they're getting there.
A dense, colorful trip of an album, Multi-Love finds Nielson and his collaborators diving headlong into the vintage-R&B sounds only hinted at on previous songs like Unknown Mortal Orchestra's "How Can U Luv Me"—not to mention II's knockout single "So Good At Being In Trouble," a tune so perfectly redolent of swaggering 60s soul that I have personally found myself heading to the internet many times to double-check that it wasn't a cover of an older song. There are the type of psychedelic keyboard runs that would give any Stevie Wonder fan the warm fuzzies, and Nielson's voice is elastic and helium-infused as ever, the alien glow of his pipes radiating a specific humanity on this go-round.
The arrangements are intricate and labored-over, with breakdowns that suggest Frank Zappa's own freak-outs and melancholic ambient passages smacking of Ariel Pink's drugsick hymnals. Despite the idiosyncratic reference points, though, it's also a record smeared with pop immediacy, one that stands to possibly break Unknown Mortal Orchestra to an even bigger audience. To wit, pop megastar and fellow New Zealander Lorde recently Tweeted lyrics to Multi-Love's radiant title track. "It's weird," he says without a hint of humblebraggery. "I don't know if it makes that much difference to what we're doing."
Clearly, though, it does: he's recently logged collaborations with Frank Ocean and Kimbra, as well as a Brooklyn recording session "working on some disco" with genre-bending up-and-comer Chet Faker. "Collaborating with other people is a different skill. I wasn't particularly good at it before, but I've been putting myself in different situations where I was forced to try to do it. When I get into a situation where I'm supposed to go into a studio and collaborate, I would go in there and there would be too much going on in the studio, and I'd think, 'I can't be creative in this situation.'"
Multi-Love arrives in a musical climate where the notion of a rock guy hopping in the booth with pop and R&B auteurs is practically the norm, to the point of self-parody—but more than ever, Nielson's expressed vision sounds as reverent to history as it comes across as a work of his own. He's not shy about sonic cherry picking to make his own unique pie. "I have a few stylistic tics now that are kind of rare. I worship some different gods—the old gods," he says with a chuckle. "I'm not a clueless rock'n'roll douchebag—I know what's going on. I'm just really obsessed with old music in the sense that I try to learn what makes those old songs tick."
Regardless, non-black artists playing around with the sounds of black music has been a hot topic over the past few years, and Nielson's own mixed-race background—his mother is Polynesian, his father white—allows him his own perspective on the perpetual issue. "I'm in such an ambiguous space in terms of my racial identity that I really don't feel in that zone. I'm not a blue-eyed soul singer—for one, my eyes aren't blue. I'm just as much influenced by white British guys as I am by black Americans. If I'm appropriating black culture, I'm probably appropriating white culture, too."
The expansive sprawl of Multi-Love finds Nielson exploring new territory in a few ways. He's an artist who typically writes and records alone, to an extreme extent: when Unknown Mortal Orchestra's breakthrough single, 2010's "Ffunny Ffriends," made its way onto college radio, some of Neilson's closest friends initially didn't know that the song was his. Up until recently, going it alone just suited him best. "When I'm by myself, I might loop four bars of a song for three hours, sit there, zone out, listen to it, and wait for the next idea. I have that luxury of doing that, and it doesn't seem that long to me because I'm in the basement just doing my work."
For Multi-Love, Nielson wanted to break out of his comfort zone and possibly shed his rep as a guitar-pedal abusing, sonic-wizard recording studio hermit—the same archetype that often allows him to be lumped in with Australian psych-rock traveller Kevin Parker of Tame Impala. Mostly, though, he just wanted some company. "I knew I was going to be working on [the album] for ten months, so I thought, 'Oh, God, I don't want to be lonely again!,'" he says with a tone not unlike how one feels when you're stoned and staring at a ceiling fan. "Singing in front of other people is a new thing to me, but it's becoming more of a normal thing now—getting into that zone and not being weird about it."
Contributions from Kody Nielson—Ruban's brother and former bandmate in notable 2000s noise-pop band the Mint Chicks—provided some much-needed company as well as a rejoinder to their previous band's tumultuous collapse in 2010. "I used to really enjoy making records with Kody," he says of his brother, who's been working on his own solo material as well. "I wanted to take the easiest aspects of our relationship and try to avoid all the bad stuff that used to get in the way of that. When we did get into the point where we would get into a disagreement, I'd just say, 'I don't do this shit anymore. I've grown up now.'"
Family is a theme splayed across Multi-Love, an album that Nielson readily admits is largely autobiographical—if you've been paying attention to the internet lately, you already know that the album was largely created in the midst of a polyamorous relationship between Nielson, his wife, and another woman. But there are other insecurities explored as well, including Nielson's continual return to themes of addiction and drug use, inspired by his own familial struggles.
"My family's been pretty plagued by drug problems," he says. "When I was growing up, half of the adults around me were dealing with some part of the cycle of addiction—using, recovering—so before I even tried drugs, I knew about the 12-step program. During my dad's recovery, we spent a lot of time talking about not being on drugs—the reasons to not take them—so I always have some kind of relationship with that theme. I don't think about what I'm going to write a song about—when I write lyrics, I shut my mind down and almost go into a meditative state, and that's what comes out of me."
So the lyric sheet for Multi-Love is loaded with drug references—"Jesus doesn't know my name/ He charges fifty bucks a gram," goes the opening lyric of "Like Acid Rain"—but his own relationship to substances has quelled, somewhat: "I used to actively seek out things, and now I don't. I'm just trying to keep the band going. You can't do that if you're doing drugs all the time—it doesn't work like that." His personal life may prove chaotic, and even if it seems like he doesn't know quite what he wants just yet in many respects, he has at least one overarching goal in place: "I just want to make as much music before I die. That's my mission."
Larry Fitzmaurice can't keep checking his phone. Follow him on Twitter.