Ruban Nielson missed my first phone call. It wasn’t his fault; the band’s touring vehicle was traveling inside a mountain, somewhere in Washington state, legging out another stretch of a never-ending tour. In February, Nielson’s band, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, released their second album, II, to much acclaim, despite playing close to 200 shows in 2012 (Nielson hasn’t really counted). When we spoke, Nielson talked about UMO’s tour schedule — one that might impress Bob Dylan — as though they’ve slowed down lately, sort of. “Actually, we’re touring a little bit less than we used to, although this year we might end up playing a little more than last year,” Nielson said. “We’ve been touring for about two-and-a-half, three years, and last year was really, really crazy. But we’re getting better at scheduling stuff.”
Nielson also talked to the Advocate about having a musical family, his future recording plans and the pros and cons of being on Twitter. You can go hear UMO — guitarist/singer Nielson, bassist Jake Portrait and drummer Riley Geare — at The Space in Hamden on June 29. (Tickets are available here.)
[This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity].
Q: Did you study any formal music growing up or did you find an appropriate model out there for the way you wanted to write songs?
A: My family are all musicians. My dad is a jazz musician, a multi-instrumentalist. I grew up around jazz, and his family were mostly classical musicians. I grew up around a lot of music, but it’s more in my ear than my mind, if that makes sense. When I’m writing, I don’t know technically everything that I’m doing. I feel like my dad respects my writing and thinks that it’s sophisticated, but he also knows I don’t know a lot of the theory behind what I’m doing. So, I don’t know. I just think it’s intuitive.
Q: Were there certain songwriters who appealed to you when you were learning the craft?
A: I think the songwriters who got me interested — there were things like the Ramones and the Buzzcocks, punk bands. That was the music that made me realize I could write, because I was really a music fan. I would listen to a lot of music but I never thought it was something that was accessible to me. I started writing songs in that way, and it went from there. I was really influenced by the Zombies, and then Arthur Lee, Syd Barrett and people like that. Those are the writers who are really my favorites now and who I look up to the most.
Q: I read on Twitter a few days ago that you were working on some new songs at home. Are these songs that might end up on an Unknown Mortal Orchestra album?
A: I bought a few new pieces of equipment. My setup is really basic, and I was doing some stuff with an acoustic guitar and recording some songs from II on acoustic. I recorded a few other songs that I like. I recorded a song by Beck called “Puttin It Down” [from 1994’s Stereophonic Soulmanure], kind of an old song of his, pre-Odelay era. I recorded a Dirty Projectors song, just solo, me with a guitar. I think we’ll end up putting those recordings out with an album that will come at the end of the year, like a 12” vinyl or something.
Q: Is there a difference in sound quality when you record at home?
A: I do it all at home, really. I like the idea of working in a studio for some of the next album, but up until recently I didn’t really like the idea of running my ideas past other people. I prefer doing things by myself.
Q: Is that shifting now? Are you getting to the point where you might want an engineer to bounce ideas off of?
A: Yeah. We were touring London, and we went into the studio with Mark Ronson, the producer. We recorded a few songs at his studio, and that was cool. We got to hang out with him a bit and talk about records. I think doing a little bit of collaboration on the next record sounds exciting to me, because I get to travel around and see some different things. For the next record I have more time and more money to put toward it, so I think I’ll travel around and work with some different producers.
Q: Do you ever feel limited by the trio format when you play live? Is there ever a sense that you can’t quite cover everything you want to?
A: I don’t feel limited by it. It comes with advantages as well. Having a smaller group makes it a lot easier to do everything, because you only have two other people to organize. The bigger the band, the more the problems expand as well. And also it makes improvising really agile, I guess you’d say. Someone can change the direction of what the band’s doing really easily. The more musicians you add, the more difficult that gets. I think three people — I feel like it’s more of a freedom than a limitation. There are textures to the album that if we had another person, we could make use of them pretty well. Right now, I’m happy with the trio. The issue is that if you only have three people, they all have to be really good. There’s no room for a weak link. Everybody has to carry their equal weight.
Q: On Twitter recently, you got into something with another band. Do these kinds of things ever play out in some in real life?
A: It depends on who it is. But I think if I met the Titus Andronicus dude, I’d probably have a discussion with him other than have a conflict. They had an album about the Civil War, and they were in the south, and some kid — there’s not really any definitive information out there [about what happened] — brought a Confederate flag. He happened to be black, but he wasn’t acknowledging that the kid was black. He was treating it like somebody brought a Confederate flag to their show as an insult, or something. I think it more of a troll or a joke, some kind of provocation that was more humorous than anything else. Anyway, he went on this rant, this anti-Southern rant, and it wasn’t really fair. I have a lot of friends from the south, and it’s a lot more complicated than he was making it out to be... There was something he said [quoted on a blog] about slavery being the fault of the south, and all these other gross oversimplifications. It wasn’t really fair. I was just trying to tell him how he’s coming across and that he shouldn’t be surprised that there were so many angry people. But I don’t really know him. I just got carried away with stuff. I felt like he blew it into a really big subject, then I said to myself, “Well, now I’m doing it.” As soon as you start talking about those claims he’s made then you start talking about the subject that he’s bringing up, and maybe that’s really healthy, maybe ultimately. Maybe it’s something that should be talked about.
Q: Do people show up at shows and talk about things you’ve said on Twitter?
A: They do. I’ve never gotten into anything that I thought was trouble. I’ve never wanted to take back something I’ve Tweeted. I think everybody’s who’s on Twitter has entered into some sort of unspoken contract about, you know, how much a Tweet is worth. And I think at this stage, they’re not worth very much. Sometimes people just say things. But I’m sure I’ll run into Titus Andronicus at some stage in my travels but I doubt it’ll be anything negative. It’ll probably end up being some kind of interesting conversation rather than any kind of conflict.
Q: Is there any moment or two over the past few years that stands out as really great in your mind?
A: When you say that, I think that every day. I’m glad this happens every day. I feel really lucky. But I have a million things. I accidentally wandered into a jazz jam session in Amsterdam because I happened to have some time off. I was wandering down the street and just randomly wandered into a building and found it. That comes to mind. It was like, “If I wasn’t in a band, and I hadn’t come here and had this particular time off and wasn’t wandering down this particular street, I wouldn’t have seen this.” Things like that happen to me every day. And I’ve been to so many places. It seems like the more popular the band gets, the more places I get to visit. There’s something that happens every day. I find it hard to whittle it down to one thing.
firstname.lastname@example.org Follow me on Twitter @MikeHamad.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra, w/Bass Drum of Death, June 29, 8 p.m., $12-$14, The Space, 295 Treadwell St., Hamden, thespace.tk, manicproductions.org