Unknown Mortal Orchestra's Ruban Nielson on Nerve Damage, Howlin' Wolf and Flying Nun
Unknown Mortal Orchestra's 2011 Fat Possum debut is one of those albums that sort of blindsides: Every song is a different texture, soul, hip-hop, funk and psych layered for maximum gonzo appeal. The vocals on every song are different too, to the point that the album almost plays out like a Nuggets comp. Well, a Nuggets comp that's only 30 minutes long.
Nielson (center) and UMO
And it all came from the mind of former Mint Chicks guitarist and singer Ruban Nielson, who effectively quit music a few years ago, moved to Portland from New Zealand and got a day job. Eventually he got the itch again, started home-recording songs that would comprise the self-titled album, threw them up on the Internet and found fans almost immediately, namely Mississippi's Fat Possum label. So he put a band together and started touring.
I asked Nielson about the album's hopscotch feel and where he gets his nerve.
When I heard "Nerve Damage" for the first time, I couldn't even picture who might be singing the song. What were you listening to at the time you were writing those songs?
It was psych music, and I wanted to make a psych album that sounded like that classic era. I wanted it to sound like a lost album, but I couldn't make that much noise at my house, so I was using breakbeats and other things came into it. And the vocals, each song was different, almost like a different character.
What are some of your favorite psych albums?
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, that first Os Mutantes album, Odessey and Oracle.
Did "Nerve Damage" come from a character or from experience?
It's about an event ... about going to the hospital on my birthday. I blacked out and when I woke up my hand was numb. I had nerve damage. Apparently, the police had put plastic restraints on my wrists and they were tight and damaged the nerves in my wrists. It takes a bit of time for the feeling to come back, for the nerves to grow back, so I had no feeling in my left hand for two months. So yeah ... but the character was me trying to do Captain Beefheart in a Howlin' Wolf voice. And I was picturing something I might play on The Muppet Show or Sesame Street.
Accurate description. Were you a fan of the Flying Nun bands, growing up in New Zealand?
Yeah, it's not as obscure there as it is [in the states]. The first time I heard the Clean was in an ad for scratch-off lottery tickets and they were playing "Beatnik." My first band signed to Flying Nun. It's just a part of my DNA. It's a big part of my life. Those band were always trying to make [recordings] sound good with what they had, which is my attitude as well.
Does Fat Possum pretty much let you do what you want? They were originally blues-oriented and now they've done a 180.
A lot of those blues guys were performers [founder Matt Johnson] had become close with and he watched their careers take off and then they'd die.There were no Mississippi bluesmen left and it was too heartbreaking, and he thought about whether he should keep going. So he wanted young bands, if they were to continue the label, and it's something they were passionate about.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra open for Girls on Friday, March 9, at the Granada Theater.