Earlier this year, Ruban Nielson had to make a decision; to be honest about a complicated and painful aspect of his personal life, or to merely go through the motions of another record release without tipping his hand. Thankfully, for us anyway, Nielson opted to go public with the details of the polyamorous, cohabiting relationship that he, his wife and a female student shared during the conception of his latest basement funk opus, Multi-Love.
I say ‘thankfully for us’ because an understanding of the contextual specifics that coloured the record’s creation have afforded the finished product – a dense yet danceable slice of experimental R&B – an even greater emotional heft than found on the previous Unknown Mortal Orchestra records. We spoke with Ruban in advance of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s much-anticipated Whelan’s show about the perils of public plain speaking and his ongoing struggle to find balance between what’s best for the artist and what’s best for the art.
The new record is far removed from the lo-fi aesthetic you guys were lumped in with at the start. Did you ever feel any association with ‘lo-fi’ or was the sound just a reflection of the means you had available at the start?
It was more about the means, I suppose. I was trying to make what I thought was the best album possible with what I had and I didn’t really have anything at all. When I first moved from New Zealand to Portland, I didn’t really have any resources and was recording in secret, for myself. I didn’t tell anyone what I was up to. Even when I made the second album things hadn’t got much better in terms of what my resources were. This time around, I thought it would be kind of dishonest to make another album that was all lo-fi when I had money to spend. I was ready to try and expand what I was doing and improve my skills. I thought that a lot of people would probably give up on me if I kept up doing the same sound for three albums! It would have seemed, to me, like a way of saying I was going to stay in the background forever and played to a small audience. It would have been fine to do that but it just seemed boring.
It’s funny how lo-fi stuff is very of-the-moment, but can get dated very quickly. Stuff that is more explicitly informed by older works can somehow appear fresher or more experimental than a lot of bedroom stuff that’s more *a la mode*.
Yeah. I also feel like a lot of younger bands are starting to figure out what I was doing on those early records. I always try to be really transparent in what I’m doing, how I get sounds, what equipment I’m using and that sort of thing, so at some point what you’re doing becomes a little irrelevant because so many other people are doing something similar.
You brought up transparency there and that’s something I wanted to talk to you about and that Pitchfork article about you recently about the personal circumstances surrounding the making of the album. Did you have any misgivings about speaking so frankly about your personal life? Why did you decide to do so ultimately?
My initial thought was that I wasn’t going to talk about it at all, but then I ended up feeling like I didn’t have a choice. So I thought that if there was one person I was going to talk to about it then it should be that particular journalist *[David Bevan]*, that would be my one chance to do it on my terms. I was at the point where I was either going to talk to him about it or somebody else was going to write an article about it that had nothing to do with me. So yeah, I definitely had misgivings about it. I just felt like it was inevitable.
So now being in a position where you’re constantly being asked about it, do you regret being so upfront?
I don’t know. I don’t really regret it… there are some things I regret about it, sure. But it is a really important piece of information in understanding what the album is about, so there’s up and down sides to speaking so frankly, sure. It just comes down to if you value your art or your privacy more.
Can it be hard to disassociate the artistic benefits of a decision like that from the results in your personal life? Especially when your future benefits form you making decisions that will produce the most compelling music? What benefits the art isn’t always going to be the same thing that makes for the happiest life.
Yeah. I guess that’s sort of the whole moral, existential debate that’s been going on in my head all this year. That’s what I’ve been meditating on quite a bit and I’ve yet to come to any conclusions really. It’s pretty interesting to get into that territory where I need to think more about it.
Are you still willing to put yourself in uncomfortable positions for the benefit of the art itself?
Yeah, I think I’ve always been like that, seeing a benefit in putting myself out of my comfort zone. When I was younger I found that it was positive. That something would be really awful at first then help me out later on. When I first started playing guitar, for example, I sat in on a jazz session and got up on the bandstand for some reason, it’s totally ridiculous now, I didn’t know how to play jazz at all. So, I just sort of stood there and they all played a whole tune and I couldn’t play anything they were playing. I don’t know why I even got up there to humiliate myself. I went home and felt totally destroyed just thinking to myself, ‘You’re and idiot, why did you do that?’. But it put a bit of a fire in me to get better and to figure out why I failed and what I can do to get better. It helped me to do something impulsive and then think about why it went wrong and grow from there.
It must be interesting for yourself to kind of evaluate that process as you get older. As responsibilities increase it must be harder to make impulsive decisions when you have other people you’re responsible for.
Yeah, and it gets really blurry when music is your job and my lifestyle is being exposed to family members and they may not be thrilled [laughs]. It’s a weird one, I don’t understand why more people don’t have this problem. I wish I could just make a normal record with having to put myself through this stuff.
Do you think the decision to go for a much lush, fuller style of production was, despite the clarity of sound, a means of shifting the focus slightly off the hyper-personal nature of the songs themselves?
I think in some way I might have been trying to keep the lyrics secondary. I wanted people to delve into them afterwards. I had this idea that people would get on Rap Genius and read the lyrics and theorize about what they were all about! There’s a lot of references and private jokes in there. As well, I think that as soon as you know the lyrics you can hear them really clearly, but until you actually know them it can sound like I’m singing in a different language. I really like that aspect. It might not be the most commercial approach, but I wanted it to be something that if people really wanted to know what was going on that it would take some time and effort to unpack it. There’s a lot of stuff in there, a lot of my life. They’re quite dense with information.
That kind of muddying of something that is so absolutely honest is even reflected in the cover art. It depicts the room where the record is recorded, so it couldn’t be more upfront and biographical in that sense, yet you’ve got that lurid pink light seeping into it, giving the whole image a kind of otherworldly quality.
Yeah. I was trying best to explain what my life is like. If I just had a photograph of the studio it wouldn’t really show how it felt down there, what the vibe of my work environment was like. I think that photo really captures something about the experience itself. I think the lyrics and the production are the same thing. I feel like when people listen to the album they’re going to understand the feelings I was feeling. I think the undercurrents of darkness and whatnot are just a reflection of the way I see the world, because it was actually a really upbeat time when I was making the record. The darkness is just me and my past and where I come from, and I guess the way I see the world just has a dark edge to it. Even when I’m happy, I guess I see things in a way that might appear kind of morbid to people.
You were talking about honesty in your work. Do you as an artist feel you have a responsibility to be upfront with your listeners?
Yeah I definitely feel a responsibility. I feel like it’s my job and I get to pay my bills doing what I love so I have a responsibility to make it authentic . It’s therapeutic to me, when I’m turning my life into music and everything into a story it helps me digest things and deal with painful experiences and stuff like that. It just brings some dignity to the ongoing chaos of like, y’know? People that buy my records and support me and help me to continue to do this deserve to see me pushing myself to some sort of limit
It’s interesting that you suggest that the process of writing songs about what’s going on in your life can offer a means to make sense of it in real time. Do you think writing a song about something affords you the opportunity to look at it from a different perspective even if the situation is ongoing?
I think so, yeah. I think I’m dealing with trying to become a better person as I’m becoming a better musician. At the moment the problem is that I’m starting to become more and more bold in relation to how I live my life and it’s come to a point where you think “when do I back off, what decisions do I make next?”. That’s interesting to me because I am thinking about that personal stuff all the time, how you’re supposed to live your life. That stuff is really important to me and I figure the best way to think about that at the moment is through music since that’s what I’m best at.
I was reading about your collaborative work with Frank Ocean and Chet Faker, for somebody that’s associated with working alone in your basement, have you kind of garnered a better understanding of your strengths as a songwriter through working with people?
I’ve mostly been trying to learn how to do what I do on demand. When you have your own studio set-up that isn’t costing you thousands of dollars a day you’ve got all the time in the world. But lately, through doing all this collaborating, I’ve learned how to respond really quickly and come up with the best idea I can. It’s interesting to try and learn how to instantly get into the state of mind you need to be in to come up with real lyrics or real melodies. I’ve kind of been discovering that it’s completely possible for me to do that because I used to think maybe I just didn’t have it in me to work like that, to find the ideas that I think are the good ones in an environment where I was rushed. You just have to go there. You know when you see in movies when people go into like a fuge state or something and change their brain, like that. In my brain it’s like there’s two different sections, there’s a spiritual mode where my ego disconnects and I can come up with the stuff I need to. Being able to access that part of your mind or whatever on demand when there are a lot of people around and it was kind of scary to me but I’ve actually been finding it fun to try and learn how to do things quickly.
I’ve been hearing more and more about people like yourself going into collaborative environments that you might not expect, and it’s almost like an evolution of the idea of a hip-hop producer. People can bring in somebody like yourself to work on a track and the whole notion of ‘featuring’ an artist will becomes a bit more worthwhile, rather than purely as gimmickry.
I think that’s true. It’s started to move in that direction and you’d hope it’ll be more like that where people in the pop sphere will be able to bring people into improve the music and it won’t have to be a marketing exercise at all. There isn’t really an ‘indie rock’ world anymore, subcultures have all been kind of reduced to a level playing field. I see it in people around me now, so many think that there’s nothing more interesting than to work as if people are going to play your song in a club, after a Beyoncé song. Rather than get scared that the world is changing and being stupid about it, it’s better to see it as another creative challenge.
I really love the independent record label world. I prefer being on the label I’m on rather than trying to work with a major label which is a completely different beast. But, as far as indie rock world goes, I just think it’s kind of boring and it’s just not the time for the idea that these indie labels will be putting out a particular kind of sound. Like the guy from Dirty Projectors *[Dave Longstreth, who was one of the team of writers and producers on the Kanye, Rihanna and Paul McCartney collaboration FourFiveSeconds]* is working with Kanye and friends of mine are pitching Rihanna songs… if these people start having more of an influence in the pop world it could be really interesting. We’ve gone through a little bit of a lull. Like, the beginning of the 2000s was such an exciting time for pop music and then there was a bit of a dip but there are reasons to believe it’s starting to get pretty cool again.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra play Whelans on Saturday 26th September. Tickets are €16.50.
Words: Danny Wilson
Photos: Dusdin Condren