Unknown Mortal Orchestra's Ruban Nielson is Fine Staying Indoors, Thanks

We talked to the punk-gone-psych frontman about recording everything in his basement, hating nature, marinating sound, and how when he says psychedelic, he means psychedelic.

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Jul 11 2013, 7:00pm

I met Ruban Nielson for brunch at Starbucks the morning after Unknown Mortal Orchestra performed their set at Broken City in Calgary. The band was getting ready to leave the Sled Island Music Festival for a show in Winnipeg, embarking on a 17 hour haul across the Saskatchewanian expanse just in time to barely miss the impending flood that would hit Calgary later that night. Knowing the band only through their thick-toned and heavily-saturated recordings, I was anxious to see how their set would come across live. Over some oatmeal and a microwaved asiago pretzel, Ruban calmly told me about (somehow) recording everything in his basement, hating nature, marinating sound, and how when he says psychedelic, he means psychedelic.

Noisey: I just noticed you guys did a live recording of Otis Redding's "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay" for BBC radio. What made you pick that song? It was kind of unexpected...
Ruban:
Some girls took us out to a karaoke bar the night before and we were all choosing songs, and the I choose "Dock of the Bay" and I got really excited about singing it, but we left before my name was called. Then the next day we were doing the BBC session and I started playing it just for fun, and I just thought, "Let's record it."

You're originally from New Zealand and you live in Portland now. Are you an outdoorsy guy? Do you like getting out in nature?
Not at all. [Laughs] Well, I have really bad allergies—in fact, they're attacking me right now. Every time I try to go hiking, my eyes puff up… I'm more of a city person. I mean, I like nature, I like hanging out in it, but not, like, "conquering" it.

Your first track, "Ffunny Ffrends," was self-recorded and self-released right? I'm curious about the rest of that first record and, of course, the new record [II]—how did the production evolve from the basement?
Everything I've done has been self-recorded, on both albums. They're all just basement recordings.

That's actually really surprising. Listening to it, I'd figured that you had started that one track in your basement and that the new album was done in a fancy all-analog studio. What do you record onto at home?
I have a collection of tape recorders and I use ProTools just on my laptop. I record most things to tape and then put them into the computer to mix everything.

The new album does have a pretty different sound to it though…
Yeah, I think I wanted it to be a little bit different… I was trying to split the difference between giving people more of what they like and showing some amount of progress. That's kind of the ideal when a new record comes out; I want it to be giving me the same fix as the last record but I don't want it to be treading all the same ground. So I thought about that a lot, but it was made in the same way with basically the same equipment.

So was there a different approach to the mix?
I think the way I do it is pretty particular to me because I don't really know how to record properly and I kind of made it up as I was going along. I still don't really know the normal way to record—I don't really know how to record analog and I don't really know how to record properly digitally. I might record something to tape and then record it from the tape into protools and then build on it like that. It can be quite painstaking, it probably take 10 times longer than most recordings. But I think of it as marinating—I like marinating the sound, putting it through tape, and putting it through these old 70s mixers to get the sound that I want.

It's funny I was sort of anticipating one of those stories about how the first album was done at home and how the second album had maybe been a challenge to preserve or build on the fidelity of the earlier stuff. I guess that's not the case!
Well, it might be for the next record. I was thinking about working with some producers. But it's weird because the first record did well and the second record did better, so I figured there's nothing really broken, but it would be fun to try some different stuff just for fun and work with some name producers, just to see what happens. If it doesn't work out, I can always just go back to the basement and do another record there.

Obviously, you've put a lot of effort into getting tones and getting sounds. What's one of the craziest things you've done to get a sound?
Well, I built a whole guitar from scratch for one of the songs. I didn't think that was what I was going to do but it kind of ended up that way. There's a song called "Opposite of Afternoon" and I was trying to learn how John Lennon plays guitar, trying to figure out a few licks he uses a lot, and I thought, "Oh, it's kind of country, there's kind of a country style in there somewhere." The Telecaster is a really good country guitar and I have a Telecaster, but it didn't have the right pickups or the right neck scale—the scale just didn't feel right and it was annoying to play. So, I changed the pickups and wired new ones in, and then I kind of went down the rabbit hole with it. I started redoing everything on the Telecaster. I kind of got completely distracted for about two weeks and when it was finished I bought a new body and a new neck. By the time I was done, I had a totally new guitar that I'd just built from scratch. So I played it on "Opposite of Afternoon" and thought it was a really cool guitar but I only really wanted it to record that one song, so I finally just gave it to my uncle. I'll do that kind of stuff; if I need a preamp or something, sometimes I'll just build it, I'll go online and find schematics and just build some weird preamp or fuzz pedal just because I can't find what I'm looking for. I can't just go to Guitar Center and get what I want, so sometimes, I'll just build what I need.

And last night you were playing a [Fender] Jag-Stang, which is basically like a short-scale Jaguar?
Yeah, Kurt Cobain designed it because he was really into those short-scale Fenders. I really like them; they change the way that I play. I used to play a regular scale Telecaster in a punk band I was in [The Mint Chicks], but when I changed to the Jag-Stang, I could play much more intricate stuff. It's a really subtle difference, but it makes a big difference.

I'm sure you've heard people relating your music to "psychedelic" a million times. What do you think about the whole concept of psychedelic nowadays?
Well, when I was a kid, I used to want to be a comic artist—an illustrator—and I discovered this artist Mobius. I think I was about 14 or 15 when I discovered him. I didn't know about psychedelic drugs, I didn't know about acid and stuff until later, but I was always really into that surrealism, and things changing, and the idea of somebody being in a dream state… So I got really into those comics and then when I got into music, I kind of saw this crossover. Mobius did some portraits of Jimi Hendrix and I started to hear more about LSD and what it did, and then I got really into it. [Laughs]

Iwas in a punk band and we were playing house shows and free punk shows and stuff like that, and then we started doing a lot of acid and our music started to get weirder and weirder. Eventually, I just wanted to make psych music, and I left that band because I felt frustrated—like I couldn't make the music I wanted to make. I remember somebody described my old band as "punk music damaged beyond repair by LSD" and I thought that was really cool when that came out. So I don't know, what do I think of psychedelia?… I don't think it starts with drugs, but I think that mushrooms or acid or salvia or DMT or any of those kind of things help to inspire you to get to that space, but you know the first two Os Mutantes albums were made with them just imagining what LSD must be like, so I don't think it's really about drugs. I think Os Mutantes made better work before they'd even tried LSD yet…

Speaking of The Mint Chicks, I looked on your YouTube page—did you make some of the videos for some of those older studio tracks? Do you do visual/video stuff too?
I used to do all the artwork for The Mint Chicks, and always did some video stuff, some animation - just messing around. I had more time since we didn't tour as much as Unknown Mortal Orchestra so I had more time to mess around with stuff like that. I can't really remember how I did those videos now, I had some pirated editing or post-production program and was just misusing all of the filters.

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