Unknown Mortal Orchestra: 'I Call It Depression Funk. Like Funk to Depress People'

The Portland-based band pivoted by the New Zealand-born Ruban Nielson are bringing their psychedelic kaleidoscope to Australia and New Zealand.

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29 September 2015, 4:45am

It’s been a busy northern summer for Ruban Nielson and Unknown Mortal Orchestra. The Portland-based band led by the New Zealand-born Nielson, released their third album Multi-Love in May and have since collected their share of wristbands on the festival circuit that’s included stops at Primavera, Bonnaroo, Incubate and FYF.

The music Internet world also went into a slight tizz when Nielson revealed that Multi-Love was spurred by a polyamorous relationship. Whatever people, it's 2015. The album itself bursts with vintage synth, guitar, baroque '60s pop, and longer psych jams that bend inwards. It’s damn good.

The band will be chasing the sun in December when they return to Australia and New Zealand for a tour presented by NOISEY that includes stops at Meredith and Fairgrounds Festivals.

We had a long distance phone chat with Ruban to find out what else has been going on in the UMO world.

NOISEY: Do you enjoy playing on bigger bills or the more intimate club shows?
Ruban Nielson: At the moment I'm enjoying big shows, because the audience is really excited and stuff, so it's fun. Usually we like playing smaller shows, but I think with the new songs we need the bigger audience. It's the energy; it's ridiculous, and it makes you play better.

There's many different ways to describe your sounds; some people use the word funky, some use experimental or atmospheric. Are there any terms that make you cringe?
Sly & The Family Stone are one of my favourite groups, and James Brown is one of my favourite artists so I've always been into funk, but also I've always felt funny about people referring to us as funk because of what funk is usually associated with.

So you're okay with people calling you funky?
Well we've been going for so long that funky is kind of cool now. Thank God Kendrik Lamar's record has come out and it's got George Clinton and stuff on it. So now I guess it's cool to be referred to as funk.

But I mean, you can read any description of any genre into what we do, I'm sure we touch on everything at some point. A lot of the writing I feel is kind of classical, and there's rock elements. And the funk element is there too. But it doesn't matter to me. I think it's funny when we're branded with these genre names. I call it “depression funk”. Like, funk to depress people.

Your father is a musician? Was he listening to Sly and James Brown when you were growing up?
Yeah, a lot of that music but my Dad was a jazz guy. He was mostly into Miles Davis and John Coltrane and that kind of music. So I grew up around that kind of music quite a bit too.

I love that you covered Little Richard's “Baby” for the BBC. I think that Little Richard is often overlooked.
Yeah, he's one of my favourite vocalists, probably of all time. “Baby” is a song that, when I first started to feel more comfortable as a singer, as a warm up before shows I'd try and belt that one out. It was always my favourite Little Richard song. We got asked to do a song like a day before we recorded it, so it was obvious to me because it's my favourite rock 'n' roll song.

So many artists took so much from him. Like Paul McCartney's vocal is so influenced by Little Richard and probably John Lennon too. And a lot of people are influenced by his style, that androgyny. He had such a big influence on Jimi Hendrix, and people like Sly and Prince and David Bowie all did the androgynous thing.


Back in Little Richard's day things like where you charted really mattered. Do you guys give a shit about charts?
You can't really worry about that stuff too much, and I wouldn’t let anything like that change the way that I make my music. One thing about those early rock 'n' roll artists was that although charts were important not many of them got what they deserved. They were just making music.

I'm not going to hold my breath and wait for this culture of stupidity to somehow appreciate what I'm doing. I prefer to just count myself lucky that I have an audience at all. I travel the world and make a living doing crazy stuff.

Are you looking forward to these upcoming shows in New Zealand and Australia?
It's almost more important to me that we do well in New Zealand and Australia. We feel a little bit more pressure. I love playing Portugal, but if we screwed up our show in Lisbon, it's not like any of our friends or family are based in Lisbon. But every time we're either down in Australia or New Zealand I have childhood friends and family there so it's always quite a big deal. It'll be good though, the shows are selling well and right now I feel very lucky.

I've read that you've tinkered and toyed with some of the instruments to get certain sounds. Is that something that you're enjoying doing?
I used to do it as a way to get out of music for a while. Every now and then I would start working on something to give myself a break from making judgements all the time. Because I'm criticising my own music as I'm making it, and that can be really exhausting, you know?

Is this in the right key? Does this guitar sound cool? Is this melody good enough? Those judgements get exhausting. So every now and then I enjoy stepping away from that completely and building something or fixing something. And it's cool because in the end you have something as well; you have something to use. Sometimes I have gotten to the point that I'm working on something so intensely that I start to think “oh shit, I'm not making any music”.

What did you want to be when you were young? Was it always music?
I've always wanted to be an artist. When I was younger I wanted to be a comic book artist. And then when I was older I did art at school and I studied painting. I worked for a painter, like as his assistant, for a while. My mum was a dancer and my dad was a musician, so creativity of some kind.

NOISEY presents Unknown Mortal Orchestra Australia/New Zealand Tour 2015
Dec 3 – Perth at Astor Theatre
Dec 4 – Sydney at Metro Theatre
Dec 5 – Fairgrounds Music Festival
Dec 6 – Brisbane at the Triffid
Dec 8 – Melbourne at the Corner
Dec 9 – Melbourne at the Forum
Dec 11 – Meredith Music Festival
Dec 12 – Auckland at St James Theatre
Dec 14 – Wellington at Bodega
Dec 15 – Christchurch at Allen St
Dec 16 – Dunedin at Chicks Hotel
Dec 17 – Dunedin at Chicks Hotel
Dec 18 – Wellington at Bodega