“I’m surprised some people seem to miss how silly my music is,” says Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson. “It seems like I’m perceived as a serious guy, but I say so much ridiculous stuff online and in my music.”
The inability to pin down a project like Unknown Mortal Orchestra has made for some wide-ranging critical insights, to be sure. It’s true that UMO makes a case for being dubbed everything from neo-R&B, to fuzz-punk, to trash-pop. None of the tags stick, however, and with the impending release of his fourth album, Sex & Food, the lines in the proverbial sand have been dusted over once again. And at the risk of missing the point of such richly diverse music, it seems the greater UMO fan base could stand to home in more on just how fun Nielson’s sonic experimentations are.
“I just gave myself permission to let each song go where it needed to go,” explains Nielson of the songs comprising Sex & Food. “As an artist, it just seems more fun and creative to disregard overarching ideas of genre and just apply my sound to whatever I feel like.”
That creative liberation comes screeching out of the gate on Sex & Food with the trippy, lo-fi bombast of “Major League Chemicals,” a groovy psych-rock sendup drizzled with Nielson’s typically incendiary guitar prowess and bullhorn vocals. “Ministry of Alienation,” the very next track, arrives much less aggressively, even tentatively, ushering Nielson’s lusher atmospheric bents toward a candlelit panorama of ‘70s chill. The record often takes on the feel of a mixtape, vacillating from trippy Innervisions-inspired soul-pop on “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” and “Hunnybee” to something rawer and more unhinged on a track like the grungy “American Guilt.”
The cornucopia of styles heard on Sex & Food could be chalked up to geographic influence, given the fact that Nielson traveled all over the world to record the album. While his Portland basement studio served as de facto headquarters, he also took to Seoul, Hanoi, Reykjavík, Mexico City, and Auckland. Hanoi, specifically, was a highlight for Nielson, where important sections of “American Guilt” were brought to life. It was in Hanoi, too, that Nielson worked some overtime on a krautrock collaboration record with Vietnamese musician Minh Nguyen and Nielson’s father Chris (a Kiwi trumpeter who contributed saxophone to the project), which is poised to be released sometime later in 2018.
“I came from a very DIY scene in New Zealand and it’s taken me a while to acknowledge that I can actually do whatever I want now,” Nielson says. “It was fun to travel and collaborate more. No matter where I go or who I work with, I can always come back to my home studio and make it sound like Unknown Mortal Orchestra. That realization opened up the world to me—like a video game where you unlock the whole map.”
Despite Nielson’s obvious wanderlust, some old habits die hard.
“I still spent a lot of time in the basement,” Nielson says. “I still find it important to escape the world and go back down there.”