At face value, Unknown Mortal Orchestra may seem like a band stuck in the past, trying to relive the heyday years of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Liquid amniotic soundscapes coalesce with lo-fi textures that sound like a classic 60’s vinyl- with the scratchy static and all. Somehow Unknown Mortal Orchestra still breathes new life into the dying genre as he fuses a modern and hip hop approach with psychedelic music.
But behind the layers of effect-laden riffs and Mo-Town inspired bass lines lies Ruban Nielson- the creative force behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Prefixmag was able to talk with Neilson before his show in Austin, TX. See what he has to say about being pigeonholed as a nostalgic band, Miles Davis, and his recent album, II.
As a young kid, you never had the intentions of becoming a musician. Do you think that’s ironic now?
Nielson: Yeah it’s pretty weird in a sense. Music has always been a part of my life so the transition was natural. I grew up in a musical setting my whole life. I didn’t start playing instruments when I was younger, but my parents have always been musicians. Then I got a guitar when I was in college, and it all started from there. I got into this punk band for a while, but I quit that to try and go back to college again. But I wasn’t against being a musician. I love playing music live.
In the early stages of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, you played with anonymity for a bit. Why did you decide to go that route?
Nielson: I guess the issue was I became sick and tired of a lot of things. The whole reason why I quit the punk band was because we all got caught up with the music industry and finding a label. Also, I got fed up with trivial things that come with being in a band: the constant arguments and gripes over small things. It was really childish. So when I first started recording, I really wasn’t looking to start a band. I was just trying to record some ideas and show them to people. It wasn’t so much anonymity because I wasn’t trying to hide myself.
You did painting and art before becoming a musician. Do you think you will ever go back to that?
Nielson: Where I’m at right now, I’m having way too much fun. Plus it’s also supporting me for right now; so I’ll probably be doing this for a while. There are some days where I do miss painting, so I occasionally take breaks and just listen to music and paint. Yet, as of right now, I still have more ideas for music and new concepts that I would like to put forth musically. It never hurts to have a pretty big fan base too. So I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.
Your music is often labeled as being nostalgic to psychedelic rock. Does that bother you?
Nielson: It sometimes does bother me. I really don’t like nostalgic because that makes it seem as if I’m stuck in a situation where I’m trying to regurgitate the past. But I do love the psychedelic sound and hip hop as well. I listened to that stuff all the time when I was younger- like Wu Tang Clan and Nas. When I first listened to hip hop, I would hear psychedelic and jazz samples that I really liked. That started the whole process trying to find the sample in a hip hop song and then discovering the original where the sample comes from. So I wouldn’t necessarily say nostalgic, but maybe just in remembrance of that music. I’m not stuck in the 60’s or 70’s. I still love using modern technology like Protools, guitar effects, Spotify, and iTunes. It gives me more opportunity to explore different sounds.
Do you think that early exposure to hiphop and psychedelic music helped you fuse them so well?
Nielson: I think it’s because I just grew up listening to that music so young. I would just shift through vinyl’s my parents had and listen to music all the time. It’s something that I sort of just got adjusted to at such a young age. While listening to A Tribe Called Quest, Wu Tang Clan, and J Dilla; I would always try to find out the samples they used in their songs. That sort of process just transferred somewhat into the way I record and make music.
You mentioned jazz earlier. Your dad used to play trumpet, right?
Nielson: Yeah he still does actually. He plays saxophone and trumpet. He’s still a working musician and that’s how he still pays the bills pretty much.
Did he show you any of Miles Davis’ stuff during his Bitches Brew era?
Nielson: Yeah, totally. I would play that stuff a lot with my dad when I was a kid. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Some Kind of Blue I listened to a lot with my dad. I didn’t necessarily play that type of music though. I was still a kid and dabbled with painting and art. I definitely wasn’t jamming out to my guitar while listening to jazz or anything. But it’s safe to say I do draw some influences from the psychedelic side of Davis. It was just kind of ingrained in me when I was younger.
Your latest album came from a lost and disoriented place. At any point did you ever want to stop?
Nielson: During the time while I was writing, I was also touring. I was definitely tired and exhausted from a lot of things. It was a pretty physically and emotionally taxing time for me even though nothing extremely bad happened to me. I was definitely disoriented and confused at the time, which is really embodied in a lot of the songs on the record. But I wouldn’t change it at all because it inspired me to write a lot more. And I also have some sense of responsibility while making music. I don’t really have a desire to be famous, but I do want people to hear my music.