Q+A: Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Back in early October, Unknown Mortal Orchestra announced II, a follow-up to last years’ self-titled first. We still have yet to hear if it holds up to other albums with the same name, but our first glimpse, ‘Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark)’, was pretty enticing — a no less psych-baroque affair than usual, with all the usual tricks… but this time it felt like a personal revelation was in tow. It was a sense of catharsis. But what inspired it? Well, it’s interesting to note what Lead Dude Ruban Nielson had to say about the song: “Some people just understand wanting a break– like, a real break– somewhere between being alive and dead, where you get into bed and you just can’t escape your dreams.” Pretty understandable, considering he’s been off and on cross-continental tours since he was in his early 20s.

Over a decade later, under the influence of the internet and other miraculous technologies, the wider world has come round to embrace his music at last — but what brings them to accept this wild, acid-tinged flavour? Is it a hunger for escapism — the pursuit of dreams — or detachment? We figured that since Ruban’s heading back to his home country this summer (for some interesting gigs, no less), it would be worth asking him a few questions about this wider world we New Zealanders sometimes hear of.


So you just won another New Zealand Music Award – what do you think of that whole thing?

Umm, y’know, it’s nice. Better to win it than not win it, I suppose. I don’t really get it… It’s kinda weird because I’m always balanced between not wanting to be pretentious and say that I don’t appreciate it (because I do)… but also I don’t think more of myself or my music. It’s just sort of nice. I suppose if I didn’t win them ever I wouldn’t mind that much.

Is it weird for you being considered ‘famous’ or whatever over here while still having to fight for any recognition at all in the rest of the world?

No, I like the fight better. I’m getting a bit worried that things will start to get too easy here [in the United States] and then I’ll wonder what happens when you get to the point where every year is sort of… You remember that movie Conan The Barbarian? There’s that scene where he’s sitting on that on that chair, and he’s, like, bored, y’know? I thought that was a bit of a weird thing when I was a kid.

Why do you reckon stuff like New Zealand Music Awards exist? It seems like there’s this bubble, this airtight vacuum keeping culture inside. Why is there this bubble?

I think it’s just thousands of miles of ocean. (laughs)

But considering it’s 2012 now, is it really down to geography? I mean, considering the fact that we’ve got the internet.

Umm, I don’t know… I honestly feel like even though you can start a Tumblr page and someone can look at it in Pakistan, it doesn’t really mean that you’re conveying your ideas to that person. And also, being in a band, it’s like… it’s not just a collection of people hearing your song or whatever – you have to actually still work and you have to actually still play it to people and you have to actually still do the same work. The world can still run on planes, trains and automobiles, even though it seems like there’s this idea that there’s ‘The Cloud’ or whatever and that that’s where we’re really living – but we’re actually not. ‘The Cloud’ isn’t really a cloud, y’know, it’s a bunch of massive warehouses with resource-hungry machines running 24 hours a day. So the world is still not really like that in theory, and you can’t just zip around the world.

People tend to jump to the conclusion that the internet has cultivated this great landscape of the future, but really, it’s down to real people and real servers and real warehouses and that sorta thing.

Yeah. I don’t actually think that the internet’s the be-all and end-all. It feels like it makes a long-distance relationship easier, it makes sending letters easier and stuff like that — there’s a lot of things that it makes easier — but hopefully, eventually, you have to show up in person, y’know? Like anything else.

Would you say your band and your musical pursuits and stuff would be where they are without stuff that the internet has offered?

No, because I think that the way it started in the beginning was people hearing a song and that song going viral. That one virality was the thing that sort of opened all these doors for me. But I was sort of reacting to that really early on. I don’t want to be one of those bands that exists online and isn’t real, so I went straight out on the road and decided to go out and convince people one by one in real life of what I was capable of.

I see interviews about UMO where people are still saying ‘check out this elusive, enigmatic character that no-one really knows’, that sort of thing – do you get sick of that?

Um, I don’t really mind… People tell me that I’m mysterious when they’ve known me for years, and I don’t even know what they’re talking about. (laughs) You can ask me whatever you want, I’m pretty truthful. I answer most questions pretty straightforwardly, so I don’t really understand that. But I kinda think it’s not the worst thing [to be chased around], it’s kinda cool, like… enigmatic… dude… or whatever. (laughs)

Your interview with Pitchfork seemed pretty straightforward. I dunno if it was the tone of the interview, but it seemed like you were a bit jaded about what you’re doing.

Yeah I think it did come across a little like that. I think that was my Kiwi attitude, you know what I mean? I reckon most Kiwis sorta talk that way about stuff. It’s not like I’m sad or worried about anything — or jaded — it’s just that I’m not having a big American party all the time. I was just answering the questions honestly and I think I’m a little bit self-deprecating. I think maybe that’s not that rare in New Zealand, but when you see it on Pitchfork, maybe it looks a bit weird surrounded by Grimes with all her mates with pink braids in her hair – next to me it looks like I’m maybe chilling out too much.

It does seem kinda like it’s not a thing for musicians from New Zealand to talk themselves up, in contrast to American culture. What do you think?

I think American musicians sometimes do that, and sometimes they don’t. With American culture, I think one really relieving thing I’ve found is that I’m allowed to be myself as much as I wanna be and I don’t have people to tell me that I’m doing it wrong. So that’s kinda cool. With that interview on Pitchfork, I’ve heard people say that they thought it sounded like I was jaded, or not having a good time, or something — but only British or New Zealand people really said it like that. Most Americans that read the interview were just more like, ‘Oh man you said a bunch of things that I was thinking, but I was too afraid to say it!’ And maybe I am a little jaded, maybe that is my attitude, but that’s who I am, you know? I guess in the States they’re like, ‘Oh cool, that’s your angle! You’re that jaded guy! Cool.’

There’s one particular point in the interview when you’re saying ‘the world doesn’t need more music’. Would you say that this has always been your view? Or is this a new development?

Oh, I dunno. I think when the Mint Chicks were doing Screens – that’s when I first started thinking about travelling forwards and backwards in time, so that idea kind of stuck in my head and is still sort of there now. I’ve heard a lot of bands — especially in the 90s — that would get influenced by music from the 60s and then they would record with new [technology] – and sometimes that sounds cool, y’know, like a modern recording with a Beatles kind of attitude. But I remember in 2006, Panic! At The Disco did their take on ‘Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and that kinda stuck in my head… because it was awful. It made me realise that part of the charm of those [old] ideas was that they were recorded as they were back then – or conveying sonically what was going on back then. You know, it’s like, if I wanted to do a riff that sounded like the Stooges, instead of just taking the riff and playing it through a modern Mesa Boogie amp with a Jackson guitar into some kind of digital recording mechanism… I would want to record it through a bunch of gnarly old shit. To try and actually make it feel like that. So I don’t know where I’m going with that, but that’s what I feel about it at the moment. I’d rather capture the actual feel of it… the actual sound.

And what about before UMO?

I guess in the Mint Chicks, it was like I could try argue for a way to do something, but I had to run it past other people and then it wouldn’t end up like that. And that was kind of part of what was enjoyable about that band, it was a bunch of people arguing or bouncing ideas off each other – but eventually it got to the point where I just felt like, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great to have to not argue and fight for every single idea and just see what happens?’ And then when I got to do that, I wasn’t thinking that anyone else would hear it, I was just doing it because I had been in a band for so long and I hadn’t gotten to do my ideas properly, from beginning to end. So, UMO was the first time I actually got to get all my ideas down and not have them get warped and changed into something else halfway through the process of getting put onto the record. And I dunno, it’s worked out so far.

Do you think that at the moment that other people are approaching music the same way you’re starting to approach it? In terms of revisiting old stuff and then crafting it in new ways and that sort of thing?

Yeah maybe, but I just think it’s always been like that to a certain degree. I just think that usually new styles of music or new genres of music are brought about by innovations in equipment, like musical equipment or recording equipment. Or innovations in drugs. I think if someone invents an entirely new, revolutionary instrument and released it with some kind of new drug built to usher in a new period of creativity and forwardthinking in American society to save America from some inevitable crash or something — if that was to happen (it’s not going to, but if it did) – then I would take that drug and I would use that equipment and I would make that new sound.

But I think that at the moment, what’s happening is that people are learning to say things by collaging things together and finding new ways to express that. It’s like how for a while everybody wanted to record in a fancy studio and get a producer to record it. So whatever their influences were, they would get put down [on record]. Like, Radiohead goes in, records OK Computer with Nigel Godrich in a big studio — and so the Beatles are influencing them, and Can is influencing them, and all these different bands are influencing them. But it’s not like they’re saying to Nigel, ‘Okay, I want to make this sound like we’ve literally cut this out of the Can record and put it into our record.’ They would say, like, ‘What beat was that that the Can guy was playing?’ They wouldn’t try and get the feeling of the recording, they would just take the ideas – and that’s totally not what’s happening now. Nowadays people are mixing things together and they’re going a lot further to try and evoke the vibe of the recording.

Are you of the opinion that politics and the general climate in that sense can affect art and culture over a period of time? Specifically, do you think Obama’s second term could affect art of the next four or five years? It’s getting a bit abstract here, I know.

I think so. I think it affects what people want more. I think it affects the market — if people want comfort, then they’ll choose comforting music; if they want something that makes them feel on the edge then they’ll choose that, and I think politics affects that. I feel like if politics affects music, there’ll be a lot more angry music – but I think at the moment, people just don’t know how to tackle how angry they are about it so it’s not expressed directly anymore.

Do you still write angry music with UMO?

Yeah, I think so. Somebody was telling me that there’s some kind of weird angular bubble under what I’m doing, but I actually think the whole point behind UMO is to try and create some feeling of togetherness, a sort of positivity. I’m trying to reach out to people. I think the Mint Chicks was a little bit of an alienating vibe — with UMO, it’s not about that. It’s about empathy and trying to connect with people.

Because I remember you mentioned ‘Sleep And Swim (Like A Shark)’ and all the kinds of people that would be connecting to that. The kinds of people who would be getting something from it would be the kinds of people you were writing it for.

Well that’s the thing, it’s supposed to be empathetic, but empathetic to a certain type of person. It’s not happy-happy-joy-joy kind of music, it’s more about… what’s the name of that Modest Mouse album? Good News For People Who Like Bad News? If you are smart, if you take the cynicism of all kinds of things — like the way the world is — and take that as a given, it seems like then you can move from there and talk about empathy and things like that. I don’t really want to make people who are complacent about the world feel more comfortable, you know.

The issue of complacency seems to be the kind of thing a lot of people are having to grapple with at the moment…

There’s this sort of idea that our generation is apathetic, but I don’t think we are apathetic – I just think we’re just powerless. Just because we haven’t got any way of changing how fucked up things are doesn’t mean that we’re apathetic… just because we don’t pretend we have as much power as people did in the 60s. I dunno, it’s like… do they expect us to pretend we have power? And, like, run around on the streets and smash things? Like people from the older generation whose fault it is that we are in this situation! They label our generation ‘apathetic’, but really we just don’t have any way of figuring out what the first thing is we’re supposed to do to change anything. Apart from, I mean, destroying everything. If that’s what’s gonna happen, y’know, then that’ll happen one day.

I think about it a lot… it’s hard to figure out what a good plan of action is to even live your life and feel like you’re moving in the right direction. I don’t take politics seriously in this country. I try not to get pulled into conversations where I have to pretend to take the American party system seriously – it’s just two different parties with two different groups of corporate ownings that are slightly different, but basically, ultimately, the same.

It’s kind of funny how something of such importance to millions of people, in millions of different ways, is whittled down to a binary in the end – you have to choose one team or the other, kind of thing.

Yeah, well, as simple as that is I think everybody knows that it’s simple. Nobody wants that. Nobody wants two parties to choose from. People don’t get to decide who their masters are. I remember in the 90s when I was a kid, I used to think ‘What if… what if there’s a conspiracy? What if stuff doesn’t work the way we thinks it works?’ [laughs] I was thinking stuff like that. It seems like back then it sort of was a conspiracy with this stuff… but there’s no conspiracy about it now. There’s no, like, secret conspiracy that the banks and a bunch of arms dealers and people on Wall Street are buying the government – everybody knows it. What are you gonna do about it? It’s like– they’re the most powerful human beings in the history of mankind.

It’s kind of funny, when you think about people complaining online about how things get swept under the rug by the mainstream media. But when you consider that most of those people spend more time on Facebook than they do reading the news anyway, it’s probably not that much of a secret to anyone anyway.

Why do people expect the mainstream media to bring them news that matters anyway? The mainstream media is entertainment for most people. People don’t wanna hear the truth, they wanna hear whatever is gonna be easy for them to digest. It’s like expecting Friends or Seinfeld to give you the truth about the world. It’s like… turn your TV off. I dunno… at the end of the day, people like me and you aren’t part of the power structure of the world anyway. So at that point you gotta be like ‘What’s gonna make me happy? Can I be happy amongst all this?’ That’s what most people, I think, are actually trying to do.

That kinda gets back along to what you’re talking about in terms of basically trying to make music that represents you without needing it to be a big song and dance. Trying to bring people together and keep you happy on the bottom level. Would you say that would be a good concluding statement?

I just think that art is about humanism.



  1. Sam Valentine says:

    Nice one, Michael.

  2. jo saded says:

    totally wrong about seinfeld

  3. This is a real good interview. Good work Michael.

  4. “most powerful human beings in the history of mankind” suuuuuure

  5. @durr so the US corporate and military industrial complex are NOT the most powerful people in the history of mankind? You should go and smash them over bro!

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