Who Is Unknown Mortal Orchestra?

A new limited-edition 7” EP by the elusive Unknown Mortal Orchestra has been announced for release this month. Though it has only been recently affirmed that this is just one individual’s work, rather than a group, it seems a whole array of shadowy figures are backing this project. In fact, it almost feels as if we’re the only ones not in the know. Blogs and labels from all around have been surprisingly reserved in supplying information, offering only the odd hint that there is more to be learned.

The most notable of these collaborators is Flying Nun, who, strangely, is behaving just as mysteriously as anyone. Also driving the project is The Sounds Of Sweet Nothing which describes itself as “a record label and music journal built on the premise of Art Brut”. Outsider Art, as it is otherwise known, is a fitting description for this eclectic affair. At the same time, it draws a few connections together. And unveiling the identity of this particular outsider is dependent on tracing every connection one can find.

Several notable indie blogs were emailed in May of this year under unusually cryptic circumstances. That is, there were no apparent press releases or influences of bigger powers. You’d think this would instantly disqualify UMO’s no-name non-descriptor passage, just like the hopes of every young indie hotshot that assumes Pitchfork has the time to hear out their ‘alternative’ Radiohead covers. Somehow, either by luck or by fate, the internet gave a shit about this particular nobody.

While UMO is almost universally described as having only ‘the bare bones of an online presence’, one has to wonder exactly which bare bones these are and how well placed they happen to be. Loosely connected threads, all stemming from the Sounds Of Sweet Nothing website have popped up to hint at a bigger picture. An internationally bigger picture, in fact – connections between this site and very (very) fresh UK labels/blogs like Double Denim Records have been pushing UMO since before New Zealand even took notice. Despite his origins obviously being rooted on this side of the planet, UMO’s use of the all-inclusive internet has “allowed [UMO] to be judged solely on his means rather then [sic] utilizing usual channels of hype.”

Social networking sites like Twitter and blogging engines like Tumblr apparently don’t qualify as “usual channels of hype” according to UMO. By our books, though, they’re working wonders. For better or worse, they’re getting his name out in the world. It’s hard to tell which way he wants it, though – UMO convolutes his name with these means as much as he proliferates it.

Five days ago, Double Denim mysteriously (you’ll see a lot of this word, trust me) posted this cryptic passage:

‘A few years ago, a friend or [sic] mine and his lady became the reigning monarchs in the hidden valley. In the capital city of everything, there she gave birth to a child with purple eyes. Superstitious, they thought he had been born genetically inferior due to his purple eyes, and banished him to barren seabed leagues far away. He survived and sometimes writes them.’

Examples like these, red herring or not, are enough to show that UMO is thinking carefully about every step he takes. His aversion to ‘hype’ indicates that these well-devised tactics could somehow be an attempt to avoid the pursuit of recognition they are usually used for. This performer may not, as so many blogs are saying, “step out of the shadows any time soon”. Still, it’s obvious that he’s not trying to downplay himself, as evidenced by some notable peers (Grayson Gilmour is suspected to be involved) and distinctive collaborators (Flying Nun, whose sealed lips have been humming this secret tune ever-so knowingly well after UMO established himself online). On top of it all, his unique approach to songwriting has cemented his music’s worthiness above whatever reputations he is connected with. Whichever way it’s looked at, there is a lot behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra. So much that it displays all the right signs of being yet another annoying viral campaign. Except for this one important question:

Why is it so goddamn easy to figure out who he is?

(It’s Ruban from the Mint Chicks.)

‘Another one of these discoveries first appeared in May, with a mysterious email from a Ruban with nothing more than a link to music and simple “Thank You.”’

On last Friday’s 95bFM Rock N’ Roll Wire with Troy Ferguson, Ruban’s brother Kody sat in the studio with Bic Runga to discuss their new venture as Kody & Bic. It’s a strange pairing, but their differences are what define its individuality – which is glued together by a mutual fondness for the kind of nostalgic 60’s pop Kody also helped warp earlier this year on the Mint Chicks’ Bad Buzz EP. Thanks to the out-there influence of pop defilers like Frank Zappa, it became a Nielson family trademark, preceding both the creation and destruction of whatever world the Mint Chicks’ music lived on. Wormholes were formed after the band’s implosion in March which sent the brothers to separate universes with only their combined influences following them. Comparing their latest creations, it’s obvious that their predilection for bastardising the pureness of pop has kept their universes parallel to one another. Kody & Bic and UMO sound somewhat estranged, but still cosmically tied. As it turns out, Kody’s vocals aren’t as distinctive as we had guessed, either, since it seems Ruban, too, possesses the same high-register traits that characterised Kody’s part in the Mint Chicks.

Though Bic Runga’s influence has clearly suppressed the teetering dizziness of Kody’s lyrics by introducing a new, heavier undertone, Ruban appears as playful as ever with funky beats that twist and distort in an ongoing ear chemistry experiment to uncover the sounds that tickle nearly as much as they wound. UMO’s Screwed Mixtape toys with the R&B sounds of Aaliyah and Brandy in the kind of playful way the Mint Chicks usually wouldn’t have had the time to muck around with. Just as Kody has filled Ruban’s void with Bic Runga, Ruban has replaced Kody with his own unrestricted experimentation.

So there’s the ins-and-outs of this can of beans, spilled. But it’s a can of worms, too, as it turns out. With the above descriptions in mind, in makes more than enough sense that Unknown Mortal Orchestra is a former Mint Chick. But for all the intrigue surrounding this example of ‘Outsider Art’, the clues are surprisingly straightforward in leading you to the inside of what ever ‘mystery’ these international label-blogs, Flying Nun and Ruban are trying to purport. What’s stranger, still, is that this could be exactly the point. So far, UMO hasn’t been thinking within the box offered by conventional standards, both promotionally and musically. The purpose of Unknown Mortal Orchestra could be simply to demonstrate an alternative, more effective path.

The words ‘alternative’ and ‘mainstream’ have been thrown around by so many for such a long time that it’s become a garbled mess that tires most sensible ears. That is, if there is anything at all left to discuss. But in all, challenging conventions is a decidedly Ruban Nielson thing. Everything from his music to his artwork shows that Ruban has characterised the core of Art Brut – although he wouldn’t have qualified by its typical contextual requirements, he operates as an artist who harbours creativity best by questioning it. The meaning of ‘art’ is getting broader and broader, of course, so Ruban is continually finding more ideas to challenge it in as many ways.

It’s all here on the Mint Chicks blog page, helping to explain much of his reasoning and inspiration as well as the Mint Chicks’ involvement with the edgy media-melding platform MusicHype. Extending his art from his own contemplation, Ruban’s outsider art now means finding art not through itself, but through its process. UMO stands for this – a demonstration of the way the internet has destroyed the ownership of art. Again, it’s an argument we’re all sick to death of hearing (I hope). The difference is that now someone is actually being practical and taking advantage of it in a profound way. I’m not talking about viral YouTube marketing, either. I’m talking about music’s first masked vigilante, in a sense. New Zealand’s, at the very least. My aim isn’t to unveil him, either. I’m trying to point out the significance of someone valuing their art over their identity, or themselves or their egos. Unknown Mortal Orchestra represents that in these times more than ever, the most you can tie to your own creation is a name.

10 Comments

  1. “I’m talking about music’s first masked vigilante, in a sense.”

    Although you did immediately backtrack on the comment, seriously?

    This has definitely been done before in a much less viral/annoying way…. Burial and Zomby come to mind

  2. this is a cool article but how did you figure out who it was? you seem to gloss over that part and just start talking about kody and bic instead…

  3. Did somebody tell you who it was?

  4. matthew says:

    it’s been obvious for ages who it is, also how is this outsider art at all even a little bit? didn’t ruben go to elam?

  5. Signing something “Ruban” made it pretty obvious, especially when people were already thinking it was Mint Chicks related. Wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t want people to know. This is just all good PR, and I am not saying that in a bad way. The Mint Chicks have always been great at this kinda stuff.

  6. Peter McLennan says:

    yeah, kinda agree with Matthew – outsider art from an art school grad who has won half dozen music awards… not so much outsider art but choosing to opt out of conventional methods of the music biz. Grand theory tho…

  7. This is a nice write-up – includes lots of elements I hadn’t considered or seen elsewhere. But, as said, the mystery isn’t exactly that mysterious. But it is fun. And mystique can be such an important factor with music projects (and other arts). It helps that the music is inventive and, well, good.

    This being said, I felt like a killjoy when I even considered it – but it’s always worth checking WHOIS information with these kinds of things. That’s all I’ll say.

    Looking forward to more music – and more mystique.

  8. Michael says:

    Me: “Why is it so goddamn easy to figure out who he is?”
    You: “Wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t want people to know.”

    More or less.

    It’s easy enough to see the evidence for yourself, too – like Paul said above, WHOIS info and various promo shots are very good hints. I decided to avoid these because I’d rather focus on the context of what he’s doing rather than get busy supplying my evidence. If you really need the proof, I can point out a lot of stuff (some of it very confusing). As has been said, “people were already thinking it was Mint Chicks related.”

  9. Following the links it looks like the blogs and labels are the ones who tired making it into a big secret. If the emails had his name on them it seems like it was more just minimal, rather than totally anon?

  10. Like Peter & Matthew I fail to see the art brut…

    Cool write up, though, I was totally intrigued (even if the mystery is some sweet PR).

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