Delving into the mind of Ruban Neilson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Multi love you’ve got me on my knees, we were one but then became three.” When I first heard that line I imagined a relationship infiltration, some great man and this man’s wife, someone home wrecking. I imagined wrong. The story of Multi-Love is laid out in full via the album itself. A story of love in the most unconventional way. To put it briefly and catch up anyone who missed the amazing interview that inspired this one, by David Bevan over at Pitchfork, I’ll re-hash.

Ruban Neilson starts his day like any other touring musician; he wakes up in Tokyo on tour. He spends his night at a bar. He sees a woman, a woman who he doesn’t name for her own privacy, he signals at her as if she is an old friend of his. They had never met. But they did meet. Fast forward past some internet correspondence for a prolonged time and, a grown interest from Ruban’s wife and this new friend was now living with the Neilson family.

Ruban Nielson mutli-love

This amazing illustration of Ruban is by Savannah Bennell.

Following the release of the incredible Mutli-Love, we chat to frontman Ruban Neilson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra to learn of his influences, inspiration, and his unconventional love story.

Not just living, as a guest, but as a member; a third member of the relationship. Jenny had fallen for her and so had Ruban. It does sound like a situation that would be uncomfortable to say the least. It’s hard to swallow for anyone. Ruban himself states he never imagined this was possible, yet it had become his life.

I have been a fan of Unknown Mortal Orchestra for quite some time. My story of how I got talking with Ruban is much more innocent and believable. I added him on facebook, just like a true fan boy journalist would right? He showed me the accessibility of talking to an artist you love, I knew it existed and some people are more real than others.

He has a line on the album that says, “Abandon extreme wealth and casual cruelty and now I can see why everyone acts weird to me” To even get to talking I had to do both of those things, anyone does. Why am I talking about this to you the reader? Well merely to state in the musical journalistic world. I am a no one. And I’m talking to very much a someone, I don’t belong to some huge blog or magazine, I freelanced a chat with one of my favourite artists, I wanted to know things, I wanted to befriend someone who was writing their way into my head and my heart. I always want to do this. And I know I am not alone, we all love our favourite bands and all that, and I’m sure if you all could you would pick their brain or interview them too. Per say.

It took me months and months to come up with the right questions, and when Pitchfork released their incredibly eye opening and personal piece I knew I had to make this about music. It’s hard to make it just about music though, when his music is just about his personal life. I will say his music and his personal life are symbolic; one is the product of the other and they are inexplicably linked to one another. He is a man who loves tantalising dramas; he welcomes pain and suffering for his artistic health but would loathe the thought in the real world.

Ruban openly talks about how when things go wrong in his life or around him that he is mostly, then, more than ever in his best writing space. I guess that doesn’t sound so unfamiliar to most people. Writing happy is a fucking hard thing to do, trust me. When you write sad well fuck it’s like you get to vent to the screen or paper it’s like talking to yourself, and sometimes people have the best advice already inside of them. In this extreme case of self discovery, Ruban Nielson has penned a lyrically incredible album, simply mind blowing and honest whilst also being hauntingly scary; to imagine his world as his world, to believe it exists scares the shit out of me.

I’m not entirely sure why, it’s not like I want or think my world would ever be that way but I’m sure neither did he at one stage. I sound like a person who has never heard of an open relationship which isn’t true. What I haven’t heard of is a marriage, consisting of two children and two adults that are openly falling in love with a third person.

One of them who just might be one of the greatest musicians we have seen in a long long time. Who goes on to write about it on one of the greatest albums of 2015 and possibly the last 20 years? Ruban recently posted a bunch of pedals via the Unknown Mortal Orchestra Instagram, we got talking on a few of them.

I just built an octave fuzz based on the old Foxx Tone Machine. It’s a cool circuit and sounds really good. I replaced my Fulltone Octafuzz. I love the Octafuzz but I wanted to try and build one that was a bit more aggressive. I have a lot of Catalinbread pedals on there at the moment. Just got their Topanga reverb which is really fun. It’s kind of unpredictable and dynamic. It sounds compressed sometimes. I’m not even sure quite what it is I’m hearing it do sometimes. I have this weird envelope filter by Musicblox. It looks really strange but it sounds amazing.” From pedals to family in one swift motion Ruban makes his position clear on being asked about family and music and children.

It’s weird because people ask me that a lot and I always think about how most of Led Zeppelin had wives and kids in the middle of their wildest era. Bowie as well. A lot of musicians are married with kids. My parents are musicians. In the process of turning music into some kind of dream job we’ve forgotten that musicians are people with lives.”

I interject knowing full well it’s time once again to face the music. “Your guitar is a jagstang right? A kurt Cobain designed guitar. Are you influenced or a fan of Nirvana ? Or just like the instrument design?”

I’m a fan. My favorite album is In Utero.“

On that topic, what were your musical influences growing up? The Mint Chicks are a younger you, and sound completely different to UMO. What changed? And what are some bands you like today?

When I was a kid I grew up around a lot of jazz, Frank Zappa, Hendrix from my parents and Prince and Michael Jackson was on the radio and TV. When I was at high school I was surrounded by grunge, metal and hip hop. Later I got really into punk and post-punk and all these things kind of converged with UMO”.

Ruban is openly influenced and if you look close enough it is all through the way he does things, though it’s also in the way he does not do things too. I continue with my interview being influenced by influence. “You tune your guitar a half step down, just like Jimi Hendrix did. Do you have any other traits or rules in music you follow through the guidance or inspiration of influence?

I usually make practical decisions that become these traits that I get asked about. I wear my strap differently and people always ask about it but it’s just more free and easy to take the guitar off and on. Also I don’t use a pick but its just easier to lose the pick. Why rely on a dumb little piece of plastic that’s overpriced and always gets lost. I was spending hundreds of dollars on picks. I also have my amp on the side instead of behind me so it doesn’t blare into my vocal mic”.

“The latest thing is I’ve decided not to use any monitor at all. I’m constantly questioning whether I need all this stuff or need to do things like other people or whether it could be improved. People are telling me I’m much happier on stage now. Less brooding and shy I guess. The vibe of the new stuff is more inclusive. I think we’ll be in Australia around December”.

To the naked eye, the arrangement on stage will probably mean nothing, the impact on the artist though would unquestionably be exceptional. With the word impact in mind I find out what it is that impacts Ruban the most, what is he mostly writing about or who for.“I think things happening in my life have a big impact. Travelling, meeting people. Sometimes making mistakes. They show up in my songs. I meditate on the past and tend to dwell on things that are difficult to express”.

No surprises there, maybe it was a dumb question to ask a person who just wrote an album based purely around a love triangle. ‘What’s your tattoo with the open eye about?” “It’s just a tattoo. Just a dumb ideal I had. I like it.” Emotionally Multi-Love sounds much happier than II, the album that really drew international praise for Ruban and co, the song So Good at being in Trouble is a misplaced romantic anthem, how’d he  come from misplaced to in control, with another person flying in the cockpit. “I got my shit together a lot more after II. I was a bit off the rails and needed to focus and get some self control. Things were much better after two years of being more focused on what matters.”

Ruban’s brother and dad feature on the album. Being artistically creative with family members isn’t new to him. ”It’s pretty second nature. I’ve been making creative stuff with my brother since we were toddlers making drawings. It’s nice to share the success with them in some way too”.

Ruban is a collector, not of physical items though, I’ll let him explain what I mean -“I collect things. Lyrical lines or ideas or even just words. Melodic fragments. Groove ideas. I collect them all in a folder to be assembled later”. The stand out track lyrically and musically would be Necessary Evil, it is complete in my mind, it rolls in like a song that you can dance to at 2am but also entertain your better half too at 9 in the morning, it opens a door for a position that isn’t recognised, the good with the bad. It’s Ruban’s favourite song off of the album; “I like Necessary Evil. It has a kind of grown up vibe to it and I think some of the lyrics are some of my best. I like the line “You need a new drug not invented by the CIA“.

Picking a favourite song is a varying process for the best of people, it’s very hard and when it comes to it it’s near impossible, I posed the impossible question though and I was told the inevitable answer. “I don’t know, it’s always different. At the moment I’ve been really into Sly Stone again.” Ruban had said to me before that Morrissey is the pinnacle of lyrics for him, which I personally don’t disagree with, but I wanted to understand why he thought this and what songs resonated with him and why.

It’s less resonance and more just cleverness in his phrases. He has this Oscar Wilde sting. He combines pain and humor in a way that is perfect to me. That’s the ultimate. To use humor as a way of creating more headroom to delve deeper into pain. Pain and humor are truth to me. Not depressing first world problems music but the bittersweet beauty of life. His writing can be quite abstract too”.

I ran out of questions after that, not wanting to be greedy or get too personal. Unknown Mortal Orchestra are very much a ‘what can we expect next is anyone’s guess’ kind of band. For that I love them. I am excited for future music and future talks with the very kind and always interesting Ruban.