Interview: Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Plugging into albums like II and their self-titled can be a somewhat therapeutic adventure because at the end of the day, UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA create with a maddening amount of talent. Whether they’re lost in electric tones or strumming with an acoustic to strip a song down (watch this and wait for the chorus), it’s easy to miss how such an underrated band can sound… well, unbelievable. The trio visited Toronto earlier this week with must-sees Foxygen and Wampire – selling out an intimate venue in the process – and we caught up with guitarist Ruban Nielson to chat about the band’s visual experiments, working with Jagjaguwar and what actually inspires him.

As a band, you seem to put a lot of emphasis on visual creativity. How did Christopher Mintz-Plasse become a part of your ideas for music videos?

He’s a fan of the band. He’s seen us like five or six times and we hang out a bit. A friend of mine hooked us up with director Danny Perez for “So Good At Being In Trouble” and, when it seemed like it was going to turn out to be really funny, I called up Chris and asked if he’d be into cameo-ing because he’s such a recognizable face. He was totally into it. He did it all for free and was a real pro and treated it like a real gig. He wasn’t really “rockstar-y” about it and he worked as hard as if we were doing a movie.
What was it like making the clip for “Swim and Sleep Like a Shark”? It’s hilarious.

Joe Pelling and Becky Sloan, the couple that did the video for “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” for Tame Impala, asked if they could do a video for us, and I said yes, but only as long as it didn’t look anything like the Tame Impala video. That whole Tame Impala thing follows us around a little bit because I’m from New Zealand and they’re from Australia and we play “psychedelic music”. But yeah, they sent the treatment to us and I really liked it. That video might be my new favourite because, even though we had a video for nearly every single song on the last album, I like this one a lot. I think it suits the song and the sentiment of the video shows that they get what it’s about.
When it comes to music, where do you find general inspiration?

I like esoteric reading material. I like to read about Wiccan things and weird gnostic religion. I like reading about random subjects and, all at the same time, reading a piece of one book and then reading a piece from another book will always show you something that’s the same, and present some kind of synchronization, and I get inspired by that kind of stuff. I was reading about a tarot deck that was designed by a guy whose family had a really old tarot deck they had produced and he was kind of going crazy. He became so fluent in reading tarot cards that he didn’t need a deck anymore. He could just flip channels on his television and read the synchronizations between channels.

I don’t think of tarot as being magic, it’s almost a psychoanalytical thing where you kind of psychoanalyze yourself and the person that you’re reading for. It’s things like that I find really interesting. I always read about four books at a time because they are the most inspirational things to me. And the way they relate to things in your life… I’m sorry, I always go off on these weird tangents with things. I’ll start recording numbers if they reoccur in my life. Like, I’ll write the number down in my phone, and then every time something happens at that particular time, or when those numbers match up again, I make sure to keep records of it. So I have all these records of mad scribblings. I try not to take them too seriously, but sometimes you get inspired to write something about it.

Is that more of a personal tendency or is it just a compulsive itch you need to scratch?

I think that’s just where all the subjects and lyrics in my songs come from. It’s like some kind of weird game that I’m playing with myself. That’s just how I get inspired; it’s fun for me.
When you’re stuck creatively, what do you do to get back on track?

I don’t really get into a rut, but I do have creative meltdowns. I just break my ego down, and I usually have this thing where I scribble a bunch of stuff and beat myself up for a day or so. Then I bring myself back down to thinking I shouldn’t be doing anything more and I should just give up because I’m not talented enough to do it. From there I can kind of keep going. It’s usually when my ego gets too big that I’m at my least creative.
So the fact that tonight’s show is sold out isn’t going to send you into one of those spirals is it?

It’s not Madison Square Gardens or anything; it’s just Wrongbar (laughs).
Can you tell me a bit about working with Jagjaguwar?

I had been on tour for a year and a half pretty much without stopping. I went back to New Zealand and my old manager basically ripped me off for a ton of money so when I got back to Portland, I fired him and decided I was just going to make the record I wanted and not worry about what was going to come of it. It was just something I needed to do to get stuff off my chest. When I was finished, I sort of assumed I was going to put it out with Fat Possum Records, the label that put my first album out, but I wasn’t thinking very ambitiously about what to do with it or anything. My lawyer was saying I should send it out to all the big indies like Sub Pop or Jagjaguwar and see what they say. I thought, “Okay, whatever”, and then a bunch of different labels responded with interest.

It came down to choosing between Jagjaguwar and Domino. Jagjaguwar flew me and Jake out to Bloomington where they’re based and just hung out with us – got drunk with us, had dinner with us and we even went swimming, and we got a really good vibe from them. Then they told us that they said yes to all of our demands but I didn’t make any, so I pretended like I knew what they were talking about and I rang my lawyer later on. I asked him what demands he made and when my lawyer informed me, my first was reaction was just, “Oh my God!”. We decided to sign the deal with them and it’s been really good. They’re a really amazing label; they really know how to get the record into the hands of people who are going to appreciate it.
Do you have a preference when it comes to digital or vinyl?

I listen to both a lot. I don’t have a particular preference but I think vinyl sounds better, looks better and is more beautiful aesthetically. But digital is the way I listen to music the most on the road – like with programs like Spotify. It’s pretty cool but it doesn’t have everything. I find that if there’s a record everybody says you have to listen to – like Frank Ocean’s – then I’ll buy that on digital and I’ll listen to it on my phone. When I go to the record store, I just buy stuff that looks cool. I’ll look through and I can usually tell if I’m going to like an album by its cover. My phone and my iPod are what everyone’s kind of listening to and my vinyl is just oddities.

What’s been your best random find?

I have this soundtrack for La Planéte Sauvage (Fantastic Planet), this French animated film from the ’70s. It’s this weird science-fiction animation and it’s this really cool funky soundtrack that I listen to a lot. I think it’s one of my favourite records. I found it randomly and it’s all in French and it has this weird picture on the front.
I love following your social media trail as you seem to have a solid concept of branding even in something as simple as an Instagram photo. Is this conscious or something that just effortlessly complements your music?

I think I’m just stuck in my own opinions about things. I have a really set idea about what’s good and how I would like to present things so I think that ends up being a branding exercise because it’s cohesive. It’s mostly because it’s just one person, and also I try to be really honest. I used to over-share on my Twitter and stuff because sometimes I’ll just get drunk and tweet, but I think people deserve that from me (laughs). If I’m making my living from music then they deserve to know what I think about things.
We appreciate it; I think it makes you seem more “real” to us.

Well I think that’s why I do it. And it also means that if I feel more honest about who I am, it will ease the process of gradually gaining fans over time – and no one is going to be surprised or shocked by anything that I do. They already know who I am and they’re a fan of the band and the music I make.
Does psychedelic culture play into your music at all?

Not really psychedelic culture in that I get together with a bunch of people and we have Ayahuasca sessions or anything like that, but I think so. The comic books that I used to be into when I was a little kid look psychedelic but they’re different when you look at them now. I didn’t know about drugs back then so I was kind of into that aesthetic and that surrealism before I realized they even had anything to do with drugs. It’s kind of “yes and no” because drugs are definitely a big part of our lifestyle and what we do, and I don’t like lying – I don’t think creativity stems from drugs. Like any of the books I read; they’re just subjects I become interested in.

Getting stuck on one perspective is like getting addicted to a drug, because, for example, if you’re taking morphine every day then you’re just going to be looking at the world from that one angle for a long time and that’s what makes it bad. The whole idea is to keep stepping around the cube, you know? You have to look at life from different angles rather than get stuck in one place. People who take too much acid are looking at the world from this acid-point-of-view and it becomes boring because it’s just one perspective.
Do you think people are quick to label a band as creative because they assume that they use psychedelics rather than simple imagination?

I don’t know. I think that if people need to think about drugs to think about somebody being weird is kind of… you know. It’s like if somebody draws a picture of a lion and it’s got bat wings, riding a surfboard in a pool of blood or something, then they think it’s easier to understand what they’re doing if they say, “Oh, well they were on drugs”. Some people just don’t need psychedelics to get into that kind of state. I don’t like the whole idea that somebody who hasn’t already got the ability to think outside of a normal boring way of thinking is going to take drugs and then all of a sudden become interesting. I don’t think that’s true at all.

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