These days, Ruban Nielson has one thing in mind when he’s recording music. That’s you, the listener.
“These songs are about my life, but I’m making them so they can be about your life,” says Nielson, who operates under the alias Unknown Mortal Orchestra. “I want you to think that the song is about you. I don’t want to be there really at all. I want to make the song and then it’s yours.”
It’s an understandable approach, given what’s happened to the songwriter in the public eye over the last few years. Back in April, the 38-year-old released one of the most pleasant albums of 2018 with Sex & Food, a psychedelic blend of lo-fi funk and danceable indie rock with a touch of R&B. That record followed up 2015’s Multi-Love, a project that dove into the details of a polyamorous relationship—a narrative that the media refused to let go—and so with his latest, he’s avoiding talking about himself. Instead, he’s making danceable music that’s muffled and introspective, but in the way that each of our lives is introspective. Tracks like “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” and “This Doomsday” offer a minimal, acid-drenched view at the world—one that each of us struggling to live in the world these days can identify with—while trying to avoid having his life picked apart.
Throughout the year, Ruban—who’s originally from New Zealand but lives in Oregon nowadays—has been touring the record successfully across the United States, finishing up tonight at the House of Vans in Chicago. Next month, he’ll take things international. Earlier this year, he stopped by the Noisey office to discuss what went into Sex & Food, why he’s not writing about himself anymore, and how there’s not enough spirituality in the world.
Noisey: One of the things I love about your music is the playful lyrics and titles. Like Sex & Food.
Ruban Nielson: The last year’s been such a heavy year. 2016 seemed like such a bummer of a year, but all that really happened was that a bunch of my heroes died. Seems like not so bad compared to people’s lives being ruined and all this blatant disrespect for any kind of social standards or civilization. So with my music, I was trying to keep everything fun—make jams that people can listen to on the train to work. That’s what my job is. Making music to help you get through your shift at work. It’s not really supposed to be apart of this heavy, adult world. My personality is depressive as well, and I’m constantly trying to keep my sense of humor alive in the music and not get bogged down in the heavy stuff. If I sit by myself and I’m writing music I can go into a very depressive state and start working on a song that does kind of a deep dive emotionally. So Sex & Food is kind of the dumbest, happiest thing that I could call it. [_Laughs_] I really feel like I make fun music. Life is heavy anyway, that’s automatic. All I need to be happy in life is sex, food, and music. The rest is noise.
"All I need to be happy in life is sex, food, and music. The rest is noise."
There’s something powerful in plainspoken language and ideas.
These songs are about my life, but I’m making them so they can be about your life. I want you to think that the song is about you. I don’t want to be there really at all. I want to make the song and then it’s yours. So I try to write things that are about open-ended enough, because I don’t really have any interest in people being interested in my life. The best thing that I have to offer to anyone is not a story that happens to me. The best thing I have to offer to me is the sound and that’s for other people to use. That’s what you love. People contact musicians that they care about to say things like, “You know, this album got me through when my mom died” and “this album got me through a really hard time or whatever.” That’s extremely heavy. But that’s all about you. So I want to release myself from the heaviness because it’s irrelevant. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m pretty old for a musician at this point. I don’t even know if indie rock exists anymore, but when I look around at the music industry, it’s a bunch of kids and it makes me think even more than ever that I’m irrelevant. If you like the song and you can use it, that’s awesome. But I’ve got nothing to offer. You know what I mean? I’m just some old guy. The song doesn’t care where it came from.
Getting older is a bit fucked up. Seeing multiple generations develop under my age is screwing with me.
[_Laughs_] You know, my band’s quite modern in some ways. The way we got started was all on the internet. Some people think I’m a retro purist. So it’s weird, sometimes I try to write about the version of life that’s something happening now just to offset the fact that most of the music I relate to is from the past, almost exclusively the 70s, late 60s, maybe early 80s. I grew up in a time when cassette tapes were the main way people listened to music—taping things off the radio—so that box-y sound, I can never get over that. And my favorite guitar is this shitty guitar that Kurt Cobain designed in the 90s. What I’m interested in is a lot of stuff from my childhood, and I have no idea how it relates to today. It’s just always there. So I don’t deny or feel embarrassed by it, I just get deeper and deeper into it.
We’re at this point in music where we’re so far removed from the specific sounds of previous generations that now we’re getting a jumble of all of them. I think your music is a good example of that.
When I first started, I was in punk bands and stuff. So I knew a lot of people who were from the older generation—people heading towards their 50 now—but when I was a kid they were running radio shows, promoting, things like that. When I came into music, there were things that were cool and things that weren’t cool. Compared to now, there were a lot of rules. During that time, if it wasn’t considered cool, it was the worst thing in the world. Then someone like Ariel Pink—who was a huge influence on me and artists like me—came around and cracked open all this stuff, and all these things that weren’t allowed to be influences before were open game or something. I’m not sure why or what, but it was fun. It reinvigorated.
"The idea of cool that I grew up with is gone. People don’t give a shit about that anymore. They just listen to what they want to."
That, plus the explosion of the internet, broke down the gatekeepers. Any music is worth talking about if you can provide an argument why. The last ten years of music have really dismantled the dickhead record store guy.
That’s kind of dead now, you know? Which is cool. Now it’s the streaming era and the generation that it is now, people don’t even think about it. People get my music more and more rather than less and less, which I think is kind of weird. I feel like as I get older, I should be getting more out of touch or something. But the idea of cool that I grew up with is gone. People don’t give a shit about that anymore. They just listen to what they want to. This era suits me a bit more, the idea of having a playlist of totally different things, that suits the way I grew up.
How are you feeling about your career?
I just feel lucky. It’s pretty hard for artists to break into the industry now. If I was starting a band now and was in my early 20s or something, it’s hard for me to think what I’d do. I’d probably do, like, a metal band or something. Just do the most and make people’s ears bleed. Use that as a way to set up a barrier of “I don’t give a shit” to protect me from people’s judgments on the internet. So apart from that, I can’t even imagine what it’d be like to put out a debut album. It’s interesting to watch people do that. I’m grateful for it. I’m really lucky I got my foot in the door and people have their ears open enough for me to make a living on it. Especially in this era when people are doing a lot of bad jobs. I have a cousin who delivers mail. And there’s nobody looking out for her. Amazon is just thrashing the mail citizen, using them to deliver all this stuff and making tons of money. And a mail person will get told their routes going to take seven hours and it really takes 13 hours because of all the Amazon boxes. So people doing jobs like that…and I get to make music? [Laughs.] So I’m super grateful to be able to do that.
How cognizant are you of the narrative around your band?
My whole life is in the record, and while I’m recording I’ll think, like, this is so psychedelic, surreal, and weird. And then a year and a half later I realize it’s embarrassing explicit. I just told everyone how I’m feeling and everything that happened to me. And often, lines that sounded weird or extreme at the time are just not. They’re just things that happened to me, and make music that is more universal. I want people to go, “man, this is what happened to me.” Because that’s really important. It will make the song more powerful if they feel it’s about them. I think it is about them.
"That whole thing that songwriters say about music coming through them—that really cheesy thing—I think that’s it. That’s why it’s special. There is a weird thing we don’t understand."
You keep referencing that idea. It’s sounds like it’s very important for you for people to experience your music in their own way.
That whole thing that songwriters say about music coming through them—that really cheesy thing—I think that’s it. That’s why it’s special. There is a weird thing we don’t understand. It’s like at the moment when people get really disappointed with artists that have made something you love, but then they turn out to be a be a piece of shit. That is really disappointing to people. And it makes you feel like you can’t enjoy the art anymore. But I think that there’s a lack of spirituality in our culture. We don’t understand and we don’t take it seriously that people are mediums for other things. The reason we think something’s good is because it didn’t directly come from an ego. It came from—I don’t know what it is. You can call it whatever you want. If you’re religious, you could call it God. If you’re new age-y, you have a million things to say about it. Could just be a subconscious thing. But it’s not coming from the ego, and the ego is the most disappointing part of humans. So when someone makes something good, it’s like once that musal—God or whatever you want to call it—is finished using that human to make that cool thing, they might just throw them away and they’re left as a little human to live out the rest of their life. So I never feel disappointed that somebody who made a great movie or whatever did something, because the movie or album or whatever doesn’t know anything about the person that made it. I guess my point is that I don’t want to talk specifically happened in my life because that’s actually not what the songs are about.
Catch Unknown Mortal Orchestra on Tour:
July 27 - Chicago, IL @ House of Vans
August 9 - Budapest, Hungary @ Sziget Festival
August 10 - Basel, Switzerland @ Open Air Basel
August 11 - Copenhagen, Denmark @ Haven
August 14 - Vilnius, Lithuania @ VU Botanikos sode
August 16 - Hasselt, Belgium @ Pukkelpop Festival
August 17 - Krakow, Poland @ Krakow Live Festival
September 5 - Christchurch, New Zealand @ The Foundry Bar
September 6 - Dunedin, New Zealand @ Glenroy Auditorium
September 7 - Wellington, New Zealand @ Hunter Lounge
September 8 - Auckland, New Zealand @ Auckland Town Hall
September 12 - Melbourne, Australia @ Forum Theatre
September 14 - Adelaide, Australia @ Fat Controller
September 15 - South Brisbane, Australia @ Brisbane Festival
September 16 - Newtown, Australia @ Enmore Theatre
September 18 - Perth, Australia @ Badlands
September 21 - Hong Kong, China @ This Town Needs
September 22 - Taipei, Taiwan @ The Wall Live House
September 23 - Tokyo, Japan @ WWWX
September 25 - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia @ The Bee
September 26 - Jakarta, Indonesia @ Empirica
October 4 - Guadalajara, Mexico @ C3 Stage
October 6 - Lomas Atlas, Mexico @ Festival Hipnosis @ Deportivo Lomas Atlas
October 26 - Madrid, Spain @ Sala Mon
October 26-27 - Bilbao, Spain @ BIME Live
October 29 - Porto, Portugal @ Hard Club
October 30 - Lisbon, Portugal @ Aula Magna
November 1 - Clermont-ferrand, France @ La Cooperative de Mai
November 2 - Antwerp, Belgium @ Filter @ Trix
November 3 - Paris, France @ Pitchfork Music Festival Paris
November 4 - Frankfurt, Germany @ Zoon Frankfurt
November 7 - Stockholm, Sweden @ Kagelbanan
November 8 - Oslo, Norway @ Parkteatret Scene
November 9 - Bergenhus, Norway @ Hulen in Bergen
November 11 - Da Groningen, Netherlands @ De Oosterpoort
November 13 - Vienna, Austria @ Flex
November 15 - Vevey, Switzerland @ Rocking Chair
November 16 - Amsterdam, Netherlands @ Melkweg
November 17 - Leipzig, Germany @ TransCentury Update No. 3
November 19 - Birmingham, UK @ O2 Institute
November 21 – London, UK @ Royal Albert Hall
November 22 - Brighton, UK @ Concorde 2
November 23 - Sheffield, UK @ The Leadmill
November 25 - Dublin, Ireland @ The Academy
November 26 - Glasgow, UK @ O2 ABC