Unknown Mortal Orchestra: “I Needed to Get Off the Road Because I Was Killing Myself”

Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Unknown Mortal Orchestra | Photo by Debbie Hickey/Getty Images

Unknown Mortal Orchestra released their fifth album, V, in March 2023. Band leader Ruban Neilson worked on the record with his long-time companions, brother and multi-instrumentalist Kody Neilson and bass player Jacob Portrait. V, the band’s first official LP since 2018’s Sex & Food, also features contributions from the Neilsons’ father, Chris Nielson, who plays trumpet, trombone and saxophone on a number of tracks.

UMO spent the bulk of 2023 on the road, playing shows all over Europe and the Americas. They’re back in Australia in January and February 2024 for a slot on the Laneway festival tour and headline dates in Sydney, Hobart and Melbourne. Ahead of the visit, Music Feeds spoke to Ruban Neilson about travel, his writing and recording methods, and the sprawling nature of V.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – ‘That Life’

Music Feeds: You were recently in South America. Had you played many shows there before?

Ruban Nielson: This was our second time there ever. In Brazil we’ve done three shows. This was our second in Buenos Aires and our second in Santiago in Chile. We’ve been to Mexico quite a bit though. We played Corona Capital [in November] and I think it’s the third time we’ve played it.

MF: Do you enjoy spending time in Mexico?

Ruban: Oh yeah, I love Mexico. It’s real chaotic, especially Mexico City and Guadalajara, the two biggest cities. [Mexico City] is like New York but even more chaotic.

The longest time I’ve ever stayed there, I stayed there for a couple of weeks and did some work on my recording and writing. I don’t know if it was just the neighbourhood I was in, but there’s just extremely loud motorbikes hooning up and down the street at any time of night and there’s always people yelling, and that part of it actually I really like, even though it disturbs my sleep.

I think it’s like, growing up in New Zealand, one of the things that always creeped me out about New Zealand was it’s just so quiet and isolated. The whole reason I went out into the world was to be in those places that are actually always alive. And Mexico City, I don’t really know the difference between the day and the night.

MF: It’s become a habit of yours to travel to far-flung places to work on your albums.

Ruban: I think I started doing that just because I was so addicted to being in my basement all time. And then as the band started to get a bit more successful, I would always hear about, you know, everybody was recording in some crazy place or recording in these really nice surroundings.

I’ve never been interested in recording in a studio really – I haven’t done that much recording in studios even though I’ve been putting out records for 20 years. But I thought I should get out of my basement, if nothing else just for fresh air and so I’m not breathing in mould my entire recording career.

At the end of the day, I still save incredible amounts of money when I record, so I can kind of spend my recording budget on just going somewhere and hanging out. So, I ended up doing that a bit more.

MF: Are you over the addiction to the basement? Or do you still long for the basement?

Ruban: I think in general, if I get set up in a place at home then my tendency is just to work and work and work. I think the other thing is my kids are now teenagers. When they were little, I could do 14 hours in the basement and get tonnes of work done and it wouldn’t feel like 14 hours. And now, with them being older and they have all their activities that they’re doing, I can’t lose myself in the recording process like I used to because there’s kids skateboarding in the house.

MF: When you travel, are you still getting lost in the recording process for 14 hours at a time?

Ruban: Yeah, that’s my preference. It just feels like a normal amount of work but then you look at the watch and you’re like, “Oh wow.” I think the other part of it is I get really focused in on particular details that maybe take longer than they need to. But it’s just the way I like to do it. It’s just a natural thing that makes it fun for me.

MF: Are the demoing, recording and mixing processes all entwined for you?

Ruban: Yeah, it’s not until I got older that I started to see any differentiation between any of the writing or recording and demoing and stuff. I think the thing is that I just demo. That’s all I do all day, is just demo, and then I release the demo.

I’m definitely one of those people that when I hear the demo version of a famous song, I’m always just like, “Man, this is so much better.” I’ve always been of that mind and I think you just have to be willing to pay the price, which is I think that only certain musical sickos find that rawness more important than polish and finish.

To be honest, I’m always surprised that as many people like my music as they do. I feel like I’ve been lucky. So I haven’t strayed very far from that [process.] I don’t write the draft version and then go, and now for the big single, it’s going to really hit. I just release the charming little demo.

MF: There is a bit of polish on V, your latest record. You must have been working on this album for several years given ‘Weekend Run’ and ‘That Life’ were released as singles in 2021. Was this a more drawn-out process?

Ruban: Yeah, I think it was just because of the pandemic. It just kept going. I’d always had, like, a lot of the releasing and writing and recording was all based around my tour schedule. There was always that constraint that was quite useful because it was a way of just getting me to hurry up and added a bit of urgency, got me out of bed in the morning.

And then when the pandemic hit, I really just needed to get off the road because I think I was just killing myself. And so I think the idea was that I was going to go have a big break and maybe try and learn about what it’s like to try and be healthy.

MF: How’d that go?

Ruban: Um. I think it was just basically not successful. But because the pandemic kept going, I just kept fooling around. I bought a new place in Palm Springs and the point of that was to – well the original point was I was envisioning my kids having memories of growing up partly in a place like that, and then the justification for it was, “Oh, this is my new studio.”

I was like, I’ll go there and I’ll hang out, but then when the pandemic hit, I found myself stuck there for three months at a time, just by myself and just fooling around. But it was good for me. I didn’t have all my gear that I’d set up in Portland so I was buying the bare basics and returning back to my early days when I didn’t have that much equipment. So that was good.

I think being trapped in a little house and then having to pare right back to the bare essentials was good for me. But just the amount of time made the project sprawl and sprawl.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra 2024 Australian Tour

  • Tuesday, 30th January – Sydney Opera House, Sydney NSW
  • Thursday, 1st February – Odeon Theatre, Hobart TAS
  • Friday, 9th February – Forum, Melbourne VIC


Further Reading

Laneway Festival Announces 2024 Set Times And Last-Minute Line-up Additions

AJ Tracey, RAYE, Faye Webster + More Announce Laneway 2024 Sideshows

Steve Lacy, Unknown Mortal Orchestra Announce Laneway Sideshows at the Sydney Opera House

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