The inventive songwriter Ruban Nielson has said that he dug deep into the psychedelic records of the ’60s as a way to dive past punk toward the roots of counterculture. His music, manifested since 2010 as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, represents that dive in a straight-faced way. Within it you can hear Nielson reverse engineering the last two decades of alternative and indie-rock, devolving back to a more primal code: the simple roots of the fuzzed pop of the Flaming Lips; the ethereal, whispering voice of Elliott Smith; and even an ancestral bass line one iteration away from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge.” His songs are like earlier versions of our cultural software.
A less generous attitude toward Unknown Mortal Orchestra —
“I don’t have anything against technology,” he says while laid over in New York on tour (the band had played “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” the night before). “I spend all day on my phone and laptop just like anyone else.” But Nielson’s method is one that allows him to take a few steps back to get a little perspective. “Art should question big or little things people take for granted and make the constant undermining of those things a regular part of society.”
It’s this deconstructive approach toward the past that makes his band (completed onstage with drummer Riley Geare and bassist Jake Portrait) sound so contemporary. More than any time since the ’60s, bands are playing with textural friction — like St. Vincent laying cold synths under baked guitars, or Gotye putting squeaky clean Peter Gabriel vocals over a dusty rhythm section. Unknown Mortal Orchestra treat rock textures with a different kind of reverence, taking classic sounds and gladly playing with them on their terms.
“Everybody is expected to upgrade to the latest version of every single one of the latest devices,” says Nielson. “We live in this insane upgrade culture which has proven to be meaningless. I think some music being made today doesn’t just move in this one-directional, upgrading way. It goes forward and back. It picks up whatever was the most appealing thing from any point in time.”
Nielson is a 32-year-old New Zealander (he fronted the noise-punk band Mint Chicks for nearly a decade) who relocated to Portland, Ore., more than three years ago. In 2010, the band’s first single went up anonymously on Bandcamp.com and was soon being passed around as an obscure MP3 du jour between keen music bloggers. And for good reason — a blown-out drum beat of sample-ready funk drove the whole thing. But there was also an unreal mixture of Nielson’s sandy falsetto and a lighthouse beam guitar line that conjured the stark modernism of Grizzly Bear, which was a good touchstone. Rarely had the comfy roots of used-bin LPs been so deftly blended with contemporary home-recording playfulness.
This time around, Nielson’s approach is different. The new record dives deep into capable genre work — there is a dead ringer folk-prog track (“From the Sun”), sun-blasted Jefferson Airplane rock (“Faded in the Morning”), and hazy trips down drippy Funkadelic caverns (“Monki”). There’s not a lot of fiddling with these formulas — Nielson is often content to simply ride the momentum of his source material on this disc.
As such, the fact that “II” is a clear step away from the band’s debut LP from last year indicates that Nielson is more than a “glory days” purist. He’s an adventurer, an avid attic trunk raider. And he’s hit on a chord that resonates with scores of psych fans.
“I don't think it’s just about the ’60s,” says Nielson. “The desire to tap into the history of everything is represented in a lot of popular things, like Instagram, but it’s still such a clunky solution. . . . People don’t just want a ‘filter.’ They want to utilize the full spectrum of tools.”