Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s second album is a joy to behold: intimate, unfussy and magical. If you loved their first album, you are pretty damn sure to like II. We catch up with singer and guitarist Ruban Neilson to talk about how it came together.
Bowlegs:The new album feels really relaxed and, well, it sounds like you’re in love? Were you thinking of any particular feeling when you were putting together the sounds this time? The song So Good At being in trouble suggests a strong Al Green lurve vibe.
RN: The songs were all written on tour, so it was all made up of things that happened at night and on the move. The fact you’d even mention Al Green is very generous. I think there is a more hedonistic feeling that soaked into this album. It wasn’t by design really it just came out that way.
Bowlegs: You’ve kept the production pared back too. Most second albums tend to put too much in at the expense of ideas. Was this the intention when you started recording?
RN: I wanted to revisit the same idea but from the point of view of having turned UMO into a real touring band. The ingredients and techniques were similar but I’d changed a lot in the year and a half I’d been out there. I keep thinking about that movie Return to Oz, where Dorothy goes back and everything is slightly twisted, darker and more grown up. Musically I wanted to stay with the concept of doing the most I could with intricate finger picked guitar arrangements and strong drums and bass. The vocals are way more exposed and up front. I wanted a lot of it to be really dry sounding. I was reacting a little bit against the past three years of verbed out hipster music.
Bowlegs:What’s the secret behind your great guitar sound? We want to know pedals. Betcha won’t tell us.
RN: Haha I have no problem telling. I play short scale Fender guitars. I think the fact that they sound a bit like toys is a joy to me. I like that some Fender guitars have this scratchy texture. Single coil pick-ups are my thing. I mod all my guitars with shielding and low noise pick-ups and sometimes I change the pots and caps. I play Fender amps too but I also have an Orange AD30 that I’ve played a bit. Ideally I’d like to have both the Orange and a Deville. The pedals I use are Octafuzz, Doctor Q, Disaster Transport, Holy Grail, Small Stone, Grand Orbiter, Fuzz Mite. I have a bunch of other pedals I’m going to add. I have a bunch of Earthquaker Devices pedals I’m trying to fit in.
Bowlegs: One of the new songs Swim and Sleep (like a shark) mentions not closing your eyes. What’s that about?
RN: Basically that song is about escape. I have this daydream of floating along the ocean floor with thousands of tons of water between me and society. It’s also about always moving. I’ve always been someone who is on the move.
Bowlegs: How are you making The Opposite of Afternoon sound so goddamn close and intimate? It’s freaking us out.
RN: Haha I don’t know! I always liked the way Serge Gainsbourg sounded like he was whispering in your ear on Melody Nelson. It’s very vibrant and also kind of creepy at the same time. Vibrant and creepy is a good combo. I’m glad it’s freaking you guys out.
Bowlegs: The whole record has such a lovely mid afternoon sunny demeanour, is that what you’re like in your day to day lives?
RN: I’m like that half the time. I think in general we are the world’s most chilled out band haha. I keep getting told I’m either being silly and happy or brooding like a little bitch. I want the album to be a pleasurable thing. I want it to have this kind of healing vibe as well. Like a safe place to escape to.
Bowlegs: There is something in common with the vibe Ariel Pink hits. A kind of displaced idea of what an era was like. What are some of your most influential albums?
RN: Ariel Pink is an influence for sure. A lot of the older generation don’t get it. They think he’s reviving music that’s outside the established canon of rock n roll or something but he’s not a revivalist. neither am I. There’s way more humor in it than that. There’s not this great reverence, necessarily. Talking about it makes it seem more complicated and pretentious than it really is, but basically I like to use the textures of older music to create more depth and richness to the album. It’ll take you to a lot of different semi-familiar places at once and the song gets that added to it, you know? It’s like sample based hip hop beat production, which is a very successful way of making music I think. It pulls this vibe from a lost jazz or soul record and puts it in a new context for modernization. I relate to that crate digging vibe. I create my own samples. I could easily re-purpose my production style for hip hop. It would be like sample based hip hop but I’d have recorded all the samples. Albums like Liquid Swords were important to me on this musical level, even without the rap element. The weird, distinctive sound of kung fu movies on VHS tape. It kind of messes with your head on a whole different level. I got a taste for things like Frank Zappa and Sly Stone through hearing samples on Hip Hop records. By the time I discovered soul I was already a fan without knowing it. The first time I heard Led Zeppelin was through the Beastie Boys sampling When the Levee Breaks. Anyway, end of rant haha.
-Interview by Julian Tardo-