Jukebox Jury: Unknown Mortal Orchestra on Dad Sax and Competing With Tame Impala
The 'Multi-Love' singer-songwriter sounds off on Daft Punk, QT, the Stones, and more
The title of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s latest LP, Multi-Love, may be an explicit reference to the complicated three-person live-in relationship frontman Ruban Nielson spent a year exploring, but it could just as easily be a reference to the album’s lush, layered sound. Appropriate to its name, UMO’s third album is bursting with affection for a variety of musics, both past and present: disco, power pop, prog-rock, hip-hop, and soul all among them.
Nielson’s songwriting and production reflect a record collector’s reverence for the past and obsession with sonic detail. So prior to the release of Multi-Love, SPIN played him a variety of jams — older songs that we felt may have had bearing on his recent work, newer cuts we thought he’d be particularly qualified to offer insight on, and other trifles that may have related to his career in some way — to get his take on them. Read on about the New Zealand-via-Portland singer-songwriter’s thoughts on the downside of PC Music’s meta-pop and the friendly rivalry he feels with his psych-rock peers Down Under.
1) Daft Punk, “Give Life Back to the Music”
Daft Punk. Is this, uh… I don’t know what song this is though.
This is “Give Life Back to Music.”
It’s got the kind of fake-out intro.
Was Random Access Memories a big album for you?
It’s funny, I don’t know it very well, as you can tell. I don’t listen to it a lot. I’ve listened to it like, really closely, a couple of times when it first came out. It was a big influence in the sense that I read three reviews of it before I heard the actual record itself. I got really inspired by the idea of Daft Punk making a record with Nile Rodgers, using all that old equipment, working with tape, all that stuff. I’ve been feeling more of a connection to the music of the ’60s and ’70s, and I’ve felt disconnected from current music. This record connected [those influences in] my music to something more current. And it got me thinking about old-school hi-fi recordings.
So the methodology inspired you more than the actual music did?
Well, then I heard the record. What I imagined the record [would be], the real one didn’t really live up to it. But it’s a beautiful record, and sonically, it’s just unbelievable. I mean, they spent a million dollars on it. It’s kind of a high-water mark, sonically, for our time.
2) Tame Impala, “Let It Happen”
Is this the new Tame Impala? Yeah, I like this a lot. I listened to half of it the first time around, and I was just like, “Okay, this is Tame Impala, cool.” The second time, I liked the second half. It’s pretty mind-blowing. I like the skipping thing that happens at one point — it’s like it shifts, that song disappears and a new song kind of comes in. It’s cool.
Do you mind getting mentioned with Tame Impala? You guys get lumped together a lot.
Yeah, it’s nice in some ways because it’s good to get grouped in with them, I respect them a lot. But we’re in their shadow, a little bit. It always forces me to be aware, instead of just being some psychedelic band, I try to look at myself and think, “What is it about me that isn’t like any of these other bands?” Because a scene kind of developed, so a big part of this record is me thinking, “What makes us different than Tame or Temples or Foxygen?” Or any of these other bands that we’re friends with?
You’re friends with these guys?
Yeah, all of them. Foxygen, we know them really well. I don’t really know Temples, but our friends toured with them, I don’t know. All these bands, it does force you to ask, “What’s our identity?” because we’re all influenced by the same records. Pink Floyd records, Beatles records… but, yeah, this record is gonna be really exciting. This is gonna be a great year for music, because last year was quite disappointing… It’s been cool, because Black Messiah came out, the Kendrick [Lamar] record was really exciting. I wish this wasn’t such a pretentious word, but it’s kind of paradigm-changing, changing the rules. And Tobias [Jesso Jr.]’s record, too, I’m really excited about, just because I think he’s a really great songwriter.
3) The Chills, “Pink Frost”
Ah! Some Kiwi stuff.
Is this band kind of fundamental growing up in New Zealand?
Yeah, yeah… just trying to think exactly what the group is. Oh yeah, the Chills.
That’s interesting, you recognize that it’s from New Zealand before knowing the band?
I definitely recognize that before, it takes me a second to remember exactly what band that is. I mean, there’s definitely a lot of music from New Zealand that sounds like that kind of landscape, to me. This is the stuff I grew up on, they’re links that I remember, places I remember from my childhood, songs like this. I remember seeing this show when I was younger, it was called Radio With Pictures — it was a TV show in mono. It would be simulcast on the radio, so you could listen to the music in stereo. They would play the video a lot. It’s like a scarecrow hanging in a field singing this song. I remember being so scared of it — that’s one of my memories of this band. This is such a dark song.
Is it is exciting when someone from New Zealand, like Lorde, blows up Stateside?
Yeah, definitely. I haven’t been in New Zealand, it would be more exciting if I were in New Zealand. She’s amazing, just the way she carries herself and stuff, she’s wise beyond her years. I really like the production and songwriting on the record, the minimalism of it. [To have that] in the Top 40 is nice because one of the things that put me off pop music for a long time was how lot of the stuff is such a din, there’s no space in the music. One of the things that she has started, or maybe will start, is just more space. Just a more pleasurable experience of listening to pop music instead of this attack on the senses, multi-media, in your face, over-sexualized stuff. It’s not my vibe, you know?
4) QT, “Hey QT”
Is this PC Music? Yeah, this is one of those things where I haven’t had as many deep discussions about it as [I’m sure] I will at some point in the future. This’ll be the kind of thing that me and Jake [Portrait], the bass player in my band, will go into for a while. I don’t know, I’m kind of wondering about the idea that if something is drawing on a certain aesthetic, doesn’t it at some point just become that aesthetic? Does it just easily become what it’s parodying, and then it becomes less interesting like that? I like it, but I just think… how long will it be like it is, pure to what the intention is? So that’s probably why I’m waiting six months, see what it develops into next.
Are you familiar with the concept? The actual performers behind the songs aren’t the people necessarily making the music, so it’s playing with identity in music. I’m curious if that interested you at all.
Yeah, it does interest me a lot, but it’s already developed so much more in K-pop and J-pop. I have a 4-year-old daughter who’s obsessed with Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, in a very unironic way. I sit around with her and we watch her videos, and I’m just fascinated with how those things are constructed. I don’t bother with the idea that it’s fake or anything, I could see myself being someone who’s behind the scenes writing songs, constructing something in that way. Right now in my life, I don’t really need any intellectualization or avant garde-ification of that idea.
It makes me wonder why it has to come into the West through the art world, an art world lens. Like, why doesn’t our industry already work like that? Because my daughter, I haven’t gotten her into PC Music, but I’m sure she would like it. She would interface with it in the same way she would with Kyary. PC Music may might the beginning of that kind of stuff coming to the West. It’s not going to make pop music more fake, it’s going to make it more interesting.
5) The Rolling Stones, “Miss You”
Oh, the Stones. I’m a bit of a Brian Jones-era Stones fan, but this is cool.
I specifically chose this one because one of the songs on your album, “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone,” has that sort of disco feel to it. Even the bass line, when it bubbles up, it kind of sounds like…
That’s really funny, I thought of it as taking it from disco.
Well, this was them going disco.
But that’s funny, it’s really relevant, I think, because I am more familiar with the Stones than I am with disco. I was thinking about the going disco thing. I was aware, I’m not super-knowledgeable about disco yet, so there’s certain things that I’m more into than others, a couple records that I listen to a lot… but like, I didn’t listen to Chic, I didn’t listen to Donna Summer, because I thought that would take me too far into that world, and that make it less interesting. I tried to avoid the center of disco, but just like, keep the idea of disco.
Why did it worry you to go in too much of a disco direction?
It doesn’t worry me, it just wasn’t the time, I’m still working in psychedelic music, so I was thinking about the idea… the thing that was interesting with me was starting to lean towards it. It’s funny, the stuff I’ve been working on this week, at the moment, the stuff that’s really exciting me is disco. So I’ve been getting more into it. The next one might be even more like that.
6) Bachman Turner-Overdrive, “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”
Obviously, you get mentioned more in psych circles and places like that, but I do get a kind of ’70s MOR vibe from you sometimes, very tight songs and big hooks. I don’t think it’s been mentioned enough.
Yeah, to be honest, a lot of these things, the references come from this vague idea that I have, and then I get more knowledgeable and deeper into that music. Particularly at the beginning of making Multi-Love, one of the main ingredients that I thought might be more of a thing was radio rock, kind of AM radio rock. Maybe not AM radio rock, but stuff like… power-pop, but even more commercial.
I guess stuff like this, I don’t think I’d ever listen to Bachman-Turner Overdrive, but this kind of song. I’m trying to think of what would be the quintessential influence, I’m trying to think of what I was listening to at the beginning of the record that put me on. Maybe it was just like the idea of Supertramp, trying not to listen to Supertramp too much and working off the memory of it, or the way it made me feel when I was a kid when it came on the radio. Certain songs that you’d hear in the supermarket that you kind of think you’re not a fan of, but in that context, it makes you feel really good. That was kind of the thing, big hooks, stuff that’s really intricately arranged, a lot of it. I was thinking about… goddamn it! My brain doesn’t work, I’m just trying to think of the reference… [Imitates guitar riff.]
Oh, “More Than A Feeling.”
Boston, yeah, shit like that. I was just trying to think of how much pleasure can be wrung out of that kind of stuff. Thinking about, what’s wrong with that music? Why isn’t that music considered great, and how do you fix that? I was thinking like, a lot of it is, they’re going for the hook and there’s no soul behind it. The deeper aspects of song writing that people find important, are sometimes… it’s just like “Oh, let’s throw this together.” That’s why I avoided listening to Chic, I didn’t want to get overly stuck in just building up grooves and then end up just singing “Dance!” over the top of it. I wanted to take the songs that I was writing in a more reflective state and kind of turn them into dance songs later, after the fact.
7) Courtney Barnett, “Pedestrian At Best”
Oh this is Courtney Barnett, right?
Yeah, we were talking about the great albums that were released this year…
Yeah, I haven’t got around to this one. I only know this song, I listened to this a couple of times. I listened to it recently. There are a couple of fucking great lyrics in this.
I know you’re a Kurt Cobain acolyte. To me, Courtney Barnett is like the closest we’ve had to Kurt Cobain in the last twenty years. It’s a theory of mine.
Yeah, I think that she reminds me of a thing that was missing. I think she’s maybe funnier than Kurt Cobain…
Kurt Cobain was funny though. When he wanted to be.
Yeah, he was, that’s true. I think in Australia and New Zealand… [this kind of music] never died. In today’s culture moves like really, really radically and really quickly. In a lot of ways, other countries, especially Western countries can get stuck in the game of following things. Bu the idea of guitars being really loud and distorted, and people not giving a fuck, all that kind of punk thing… It kind of never became passe, there’s always a kind of undercurrent of that in the music scene in New Zealand that doesn’t go away. So yeah, it’s not surprising to me that a band like this [would come] out of Melbourne. But it is kind of surprising that people respond to her particularly. Her lyrics are just amazing.
Actually, one more thing about her is that my ideal for lyrics is like pain and humor, trying to combine pain and humor at the same time. It’s always what I come back to if I feel like, I don’t know what to write about, I remind myself of that. That’s what I like about her. Self-deprecation and all that stuff, I can hear what she’s trying to say. I guess a lot of people can.
8) Gerry Rafferty, “Baker Street”
I can’t place it straight away. Is this Steely Dan? Aw, who is this?
This is “Baker Street” By Gerry Rafferty. A song that not everybody can name by title but everybody knows that sax.
Yeah, totally. This is like shorthand, this melody is shorthand for… I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s when certain things happens where it’s the ultimate in, like, jazz dads. Because my dad is like a jazz guy and so and Riley’s dad is as well, a musician who is obsessed with jazz music. He’s one of those guy whose ultimate idea of a musician is John Coltrane. Everything is just attempting to be John Coltrane, you know? But if we were going to try and discount [his jazz opinions], we would sing this melody. You know, when we were trying to argue for the relevance for whatever.
‘Cause I’m happy to accept that John Coltrane is the ultimate musician but it’s also I’ve had many arguments with my dad about whether Nick Cave is a great artist or an imposter. My dad thinks he an imposter. He’s a great poet I think.It seems ridiculous to me.
I put this on there because there’s this one song on your album [“The World Is Crowded”] that has that kind of ’70s sax to it.
Oh yeah, but that’s my dad’s wheelhouse. I didn’t have to go like, “Can we do one of those solos…?”
Oh, so is that your dad playing on the song?
Yeah, it’s my dad. He came out to my house when I was staying here. And I was just like I really want a sax solo on this part. On this album Steely Dan was kind of a big influence. That was where [we] connected. This is like the first album I’ve ever done that I think my dad is genuinely impressed by.
9) Beck, “The Morning”
What is this?
This is Beck, from the new album.
Okay, cool. I haven’t got around to this yet. I think I will end up listening to this album a lot, because I’m a big Beck fan, but it just takes me a while to get into records sometimes.
You covered a song off his first album. This is almost as far from that as you can get. He was kind of a smartass slacker back in those days, and now, I don’t know if you watched the Grammys this year…
I didn’t watch it, but I heard what happened at the end.
Now he’s almost an establishment figure.
For sure, yeah. I think he was always… his history is deeply rooted in the Hollywood, kind of entertainment world, with his family. I dunno, I got really into Beck when I was in high school and when I was younger. I really liked Sea Change when it came out and I like Mutations particularly. I like him in this mode too, but I just haven’t gotten around to… you know, it’s not time for this record. I’d have to be going through this sort of time in my life, and at the moment I’m kind of listening to a lot of music that makes my blood boil and gives me energy. I’m not really in this reflective mode. But yeah it’s the kind of thing I might be into on tour.
10) Babe Ruth, “The Mexican”
Oh, “The Mexican”? Cool.
You’re part of the GZA cover of this?
Well, it’s kind of a weird story. I’ve been trying to work with GZA for years, from the early UMO days. He had a certain interest in what I was up to… there were just a few people who were keeping an eye on me to see “Oh, is he a real hip hop guy? What is this thing? It sounds like he listens to black music, but is it indie rock, or what?” It’s kind of funny, just recently me and my brother were working on some stuff for my album and I got this text about [GZA] doing “The Mexican,” so we recreated this whole thing on drums, keys, bass, and guitar, and we used synth as kind of a beat. Kind of this song on like a Wu-Tang vibe.
But there was this weird process of, they didn’t use the original thing, and there was a back and forth. By the end of it, I don’t even know what they did. But my name got on it, so I was really excited about that.
Were you a fan of this song already?
It’s a great song. It’s a crazy lick, though, it took a little while [to learn]. It’s just a weird thing, the hip-hop world is so different from the way that I work. My ideal working in the studio is Prince, he gets up in the morning, and he goes in and starts on the drums, then on bass, and everybody just kind of stays in the studio for hours and mixes it down at the end, and they get to go to sleep when they’re completely fried.
So the long distance back and forth isn’t…
It’s just hard for me. I’m just getting used to the modern world, and how people kind of go back and forth, or how there’s a lot of different people on the track. It’s all new to me.
Is that something you want to do? Not necessarily with GZA, but just to be someone on call for hip hop beats?
I mean would love to work in hip hop. But like most things I want to approach it from my center. I get out of my depth very quickly in modern hip hop. I have really limited knowledge of things like trap. That’s why something like the Kendrick Lamar album being rooted in funk and jazz and stuff like that… It’s just a wonderful album. I’m really excited about it. For him to enter into the mainstream and make something from that angle. It’s kind of like music that’s very rooted in the history of black music. I really think it’s positive.
It’s nothing new, you know. It’s not like Erykah Badu hasn’t been making records like that for ten years. But the further she went into that, the less popular she got. The idea that he’s kind of forcing like the Drake fans to kind of deal with this, with the fact that he’s doing like almost a poetry slam over jazz, free jazz. It’s cool. I love that stuff. It comes back to Kurt Cobain in a way. It’s the same thing. It’s not like Nirvana did anything new. It’s that they were forcing this kind of huge audience to deal with this stuff. That makes it a whole different game I think.