Every week, Medium will post a story or review from the vault, #tbt style. This week: a Q&A with Ruban Nielson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, who will be returning to perform at Cat's Cradle this Sunday. This Q&A was originally published on the Diversions blog on Oct. 2, 2013, and has been edited for clarity.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra was formed by New Zealand-born vocalist and guitarist Ruban Nielson in Portland, Ore., along with bassist Jake Portrait and drummer Riley Geare. Since forming, Nielson’s band has churned out two fuzzy, psychedelic soundscapes of albums. The band’s tour for its latest release, II, is bringing UMO’s nostalgic riffage to the Carrboro on Sunday.
The tour for the record will take the band across the United States and Europe, even as far as China and Australia in January.
Diversions staff writer Bo McMillan spoke with Nielson about the band’s development, changing sound and Nielson’s time in the United States — specifically, the notoriously weird city of Portland.
DIVERSIONS: What do you feel is different when playing and recording with Unknown Mortal Orchestra as opposed to your last band, The Mint Chicks?
RUBAN NIELSON: The thing about recording with UMO as opposed to The Mint Chicks is that with them it was a bunch of people arguing about stuff until we came to an agreement about what was going to be acceptable.
With UMO, it’s more of my own kind of personal bias, which is easier.
DIVE: How do you feel the band’s sound is shifting? How has it evolved since the first album?
RN: The first album was just kind of made as a hobby.
I made the second record knowing that people were going to hear it, so I made it a little more self-conscious and was a lot more ambitious with it.
DIVE: Your fingerpicking guitar-playing style is unique for a rock band like UMO. What helped you inspire or develop your particular style of playing?
RN: I went to art school with a dude from Japan whose dad was a monk, but he wanted to be a painter.
When his dad got sick, he went back to Japan so his dad would be happy, and he got rid of all his stuff, so he left me this (Fender) Jag-Stang guitar.
I messed around on it a lot and it ended up changing the way I play.
DIVE: How does being based in the Portland music scene compare to New Zealand?
RN: In New Zealand, if we toured there and Australia, we could be done in a few weeks, but being based out of Portland, I’ve been touring for months.
They’re kind of similar in some ways, and I guess that’s kind of why I live here. There’s lots of subcultural stuff in Portland and I like that.
DIVE: Is it anything like the stereotyped characterizations of the television show “Portlandia?”
RN: I think that it’s a lot of jokes that people who’ve lived there long enough would probably also make. But I don’t find it particularly funny.
It’s silly, but if they dialed back the ridiculousness, you could tell it’s really a nice place to live.
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