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Interview: Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson Finds Refuge on the Road



Unknown Mortal Orchestra was formed in 2010 by New Zealander Ruban Nielson and American bassist Jake Portrait. Though the band blends elements of perennial touchstones like '60s psychedelia, '70s fusion, and '80s pop, its overall sound -- containing as much abstract neo-soul and vapor wave as complex time signatures and Zep-worthy riffs -- is decidedly post-millennial. Perhaps the group's greatest attribute is its singularity: Once you hear it, you'll never mistake it for any other band.

In advance of the band's upcoming show at the National on July 6 to support its latest album, "Sex & Food," I spoke with frontman Nielson about brotherly love, life on the road and the consequences of oversharing.

Style: You and bassist Jake Portrait founded the band almost a decade ago. How has your relationship -- working or otherwise -- changed over the years?

Ruban Nielson: We're a lot closer than we were at the beginning, which I suppose is an obvious outcome. I rely on Jake a lot. He's not just a bass player, and I never asked him to join my band to just be a bass player. In fact, he didn't play the bass at first. I asked him to pick it up and he had to go buy one [laughs]. I just always found it easy to talk to him about music, and I thought it would be more important to have someone with interesting taste and opinions than someone who had all their chops. I figured that would come easily later on, which it did. I think we're both bored easily, and we both keep moving and changing so that's made us a good match as friends and bandmates.

Last year, your brother and former bandmate Kody Nielson, from the pre-Unknown Mortal Orchestra band Mint Chicks, joined the band. How difficult is it to be in the band with a sibling with whom I presume there's a long personal history?

We have our moments but it's been surprisingly easy. I think maybe Kody is a bit more of a homebody than me and Jake, so I've been really impressed how much he's learning and becoming more of a road musician. But really, I think I've needed Kody in my life at this time. Things have gone so much further than I dreamed they would, so I'm determined to stay normal in the face of the weirdness that comes with a little bit of success.

Your 2015 album "Multi Love" focused heavily on things in your personal life, while "Sex & Food" seems to me more universal: Only two songs are sung in the first person. Was this intentional?

I've heard people ask about this being a less personal album. I don't think it is, actually. I think I'm more explicit, and I'm writing about some of the most emotionally important things I've ever experienced. For the last album I opened my big mouth about what I was going through, and I think it made those songs less cryptic. If I did that for this album I think the same thing would happen, but I'm not going to. I'm not interested in letting the media turn my beautiful life into click bait. I learned my lesson.

I read that one of your techniques is to re-amp everything, sometimes multiple times. What is it about this sound that appeals to you, and how difficult is it to translate this into a live setting?

I suppose the thing that makes recording so magic is there is this element of going back in time, which you can't really do live. You can layer the same person playing different things and you can process the sounds after they've been recorded and add layers of meaning like that. Live is the opposite of that. It's the moment, and contemplative thought isn't the point. The point is to feel free in the moment. At a really good live show I totally forget who I am. The songs start playing and singing themselves. I'm not even there, in a way.

This album was recorded in locations like Mexico City, Seoul, Hanoi, Reykjavik, Iceland, as well as your home in Portland, Oregon, and your native New Zealand. You've also been touring a lot. Do you find the road a fertile time for you creatively?

A lot of things can happen on the road. It can be a very lonely place and it can be very emotional and intense. A lot is on the line, like your relationships and dreams. You're away from familiar things. You get tired. Drunk all the time. Meeting new people. Your ego is bashed around a lot. You feel really special some days and others you feel subhuman. It's a very exaggerated life. Personally, this is quite good for my writing because I like writing about overwhelming things. I like writing about emotions that are so big you don't even know if they're good or bad. For some reason, I attract a lot of energy, so I've always had something to write about.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra performs at the National on Friday, July 6, at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $17.50 in advance, $20.50 on the day of show. All ages.


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