Writing off hangovers with Ruban Nielson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Blake Gillespie

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Exclusive artwork by Steven Fiche

In our Desert Daze interview series we've discussed the widening of the pyschedelic scope, but for this week's interview the term was attached to the band since the track “Ffunny Ffriends” graced Ruban Nielson's bandcamp page under the moniker Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Supporters theorized of the vintage equipment employed to capture the hazy, fuzzy splendor that clung to the production like moss. Since the inception of UMO though, Nielson has operated on mostly digital equipment in his basement, those signifiers of vintage were either accidental or a result of his tinkering with instruments until he'd modded them to his satisfaction.

Going into Desert Daze, Unknown Mortal Orchestra has been crafting its follow-up to the 2013 sophomore effort, II. On II, Nielson was battling his tour demons, writing off the hangovers from nights in which the temptation to indulge by the handfuls was a monkey on his back in every city. With time off and back in Portland with his family (particularly his brother and songwriting partner), Nielson answered questions on the progress of the new record as well as his philosophies on vintage versus digital, and writing happier songs now that he's off tour.

Ruban, you've maintained a larger portion of control over UMO than most bands tend to have over their recordings. In looking forward to the next record, can we expect the UMO sound to remain contained to basement recordings?

I've been recording the next album in my basement with my brother over the past month. I had some serious upgrades for this album so it's going to sound more lush but it'll still feel familiar, I think. I guess basically I'm approaching the same sound but with the ability to make everything more hard hitting and beautiful.

The albums are imprinted with this vintage psychedelia, but the recordings are laptop/Protools productions. You've also said in the past that you don't know how to record analog and to a degree it's the same digitally. Are you trying to learn either though or are you committed to a level of blindness because it's benefited the band up to this point?

I've definitely learned a lot. Just through experimenting and thinking about music constantly. I just think it's boring to give a shit about skills and expertise, I guess. I think because I'm not a professional engineer I have the luxury of only cultivating one particular way of working. Professional engineers often have to be super diverse because they'll be recording different artists all the time. I've gotten way more skilled and my basement studio is pretty legit now but it's only made me better at making my own sound. I'm grateful for that though.

You've built your own guitars and amps in the past. Has that skill been natural for you or did you have a mentor who enlightened you on how to use your hands?

I just started doing it. I really wanted to, so I just started and wrecked a lot of stuff before I got any good at it. Now I just fix and build stuff. Make my own cables. Build my own pedals. Refurbish old synths myself. Mod my gear. I was always really impressed with the idea that Les Paul was this great guitarist but used to make his own recording equipment. One day I have this dream of building my own recording console that sounds and looks exactly the way I want it to.

Whether it involved drugs or not, what was your most psychedelic experience and how did it change you?

I dont really know what a psychedelic experience is but I accidentally read a Camille Paglia article when I was a little kid and that was pretty wild.

You ended the last album with “Secret Xtians”, which takes a dismissive stance towards a specific group of people. Was there an event in specific that inspired this song or has it been an accumulation of them?

It's not dismissive to anybody specific. It's more a joke about the tendency of people to hide their deepest convictions. It's not about christianity specifically, it's about this idea of 'secret christians'. I have more respect for people who live and die by their convictions. It's not a religious thing.

You've said in past interviews you're trying to write more optimistic and uplifting songs… how have you fared with that? Is it working out and were there any changes in your life that assisted the positive songwriting mentality?

I'm not sure what the tone of the songs are. I think I realize that stuff way after the fact. Right now my lyrics are focussed mostly around unusual permutations of love that aren't perversions. Like what kinds of ideas about love can I write about that aren't status quo but are still healthy and real? This is kind of my writing exercise at the moment. I suppose it's pretty optimistic and inclusive when I think about it.

You've also mentioned purchasing a piano and the possibility of writing songs on it for the first time. Has that happened and if so, how has that challenged or altered your process? If not, were there complications that stifled you?

Definitely been writing on the piano. I write differently on it which is cool. At this point being less skilled at the piano than the guitar is a really good thing. Still a novelty. I'll hear things in my head and pick the notes on the piano kind of slowly and I won't have any habits to get in the way of that. I also got obsessed with buying broken synths for cheap on ebay and fixing them or recapping them, and also I flew my brother out here from New Zealand for a month and he plays piano. So there are some nice piano and synthesizer parts in the mix now.

For interviews from our Desert Daze series go here. Also there's still time to purchase Desert Daze tickets.

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