Unknown Mortal Orchestra: The space within
Passing through the Euro tunnel from England to France, Ruben Nielson waits at another border crossing of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s headlining tour that officially won’t be ending until the end of November. On the car stereo is their most recent studio recording of “Dock of the Bay” produced just days earlier with Mark Ronson, who has produced albums for a few artists you may have heard of: Adele, Bruno Mars and Amy Winehouse, to name a few.
From a home-recorded solo project to performing as a three-piece live band, tour support for Liars and Grizzly Bear, and now to their own headlining tour spanning the next six months, this wasn’t the exact lifestyle front-man Ruben Nielson had set into gear with that first recording. Joined by bassist Jake Portrait and drummer Riley Geare, the band released II this past winter, with critical acclaim, and an underlying current that is incongruent for the listener, and ultimately for the best. Mixing the emotions of isolation from tour and the fuzzy-pop psychedelic sounds that carefully construct each track, their sound and content has matured, according to Nielson. “The first album was like me making a really simple midnight snack for myself. II is like cooking dinner for my friends.”
In spring of 2010, Ruben Nielson having just moved to Portland Oregon from New Zealand where he performed in Mint Chicks, coming down from his previous taxing media buzz, he released a track to Bandcamp. What happened next pinpoints exactly how much the music industry has changed in the past few years. “Ffunny Friends,” as a stand-alone track, with no further information on who it could be attributed to, was posted. Its atmospheric and hypnotic groove caught the attention of the blog world, who on manhunt, were determined to discover the artist and be the first to reveal the next Portland sensation. In the blog world “who heard it first” is the most revered title.
“Unknown Mortal Orchestra started in an era when chillwave was kind of a phenomenon and people were creating these cool records in their bedrooms and getting record deals,” reflects Nielson. But what separates UMO from this rising number of private producers is the ability to capture the music on a live stage. He attributes the underlying problem being majorly systemic, some artists that “just straight up couldn’t play.” When releasing “Ffunny friends” and the debut self-titled album to follow Nielson wanted to have the opposite approach, relying on skill but also a Led Zeppelin approach where “the songs get twisted out of shape.”
As an independent endeavor to begin with, Nielson is still the brain behind the band. He hopes to draw inspiration from the rest of the group, especially in a live setting, “I guess I set up this world that we work inside of, but in my ideal band the other people involved get creative and do some weird shit of their own.” The band experiments heavily on stage, as mentioned transforming the songs and liberating some more recent “unspoken rules about how much a band was allowed to jam or display their skills.” As the leader of the group, he describes his role to keep simple boundaries in place within a larger framework stating bluntly, “Musical freedom is all well and good but I’m there to keep it evil and on track.”
With Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s burgeoning popularity, Ruben Neilson claims that II “is more about the world and more for the world.” The world likes what they hear, shows have been selling out all over Europe for bigger and bigger audiences. Bellingham has a chance to see this psych-rock outfit on June 14 at the Wild Buffalo with Bass Drum Death. Tickets can be found online at holdmyticket.com.