Unknown Mortal Orchestra's 'Sex & Food': Ruban Nielson on Avoiding Political Polemics for Band's Fourth Album

 Neil Krug
Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Let us count the ways in which singer-songwriter Ruban Nielson’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra has managed to stand out in an often-cluttered indie rock landscape over these past seven years. There’s the expert hop-scotching between past musical eras: the wobbly, psych fuzz of early singles “Ffunny Friends” and “Bicycle”; evocations of The Beatles and Sly Stone on an acclaimed second album, II; and a turn to '70s Prince and Stevie Wonder as muses on 2015’s danceable Multi-Love. Then there’s Nielson’s ability to marry irresistible hooks and melodies with trenchant observations about relationships, tech and our shared humanity, plus a refreshing frankness about sex and non-judgmental candor about drug use, good and bad. And there’s the quirky sensibility and newcomer’s perspective on the U.S. from an artist who grew up in New Zealand but who has now called America home for a decade.

All of those distinctive traits are in abundance once again on Sex & Food, UMO’s fourth and most boldly eclectic LP to date, one that careens from a noisy, raucous opener (“Major League Chemicals”) to a sweet, bouncing ode to Nielson’s young daughter (“Hunnybee”) to a bone-crunching heavy rock centerpiece (“American Guilt") and two druggy final tracks, the stuttering, soulful “Not In Love We’re Just High” and the revealing “If You’re Going to Break Yourself." And while there’s no getting away from the turbulent times we’re in if you’re an artist who in any way reflects the world around us (which Nielson certainly is), he's asserted in numerous interviews that he wanted this UMO album with its very primal title to be a “non-political” record.

But can it be, with song titles like “American Guilt," “This Doomsday” and “Everybody Acts Crazy Nowadays”? And with the album recorded in far-flung, politically charged places such as Hanoi, Mexico City and Seoul (the idea was to be as close as possible to the DMZ)? Well, yes, says Nielson—it’s non-political, at least in any deliberate way. The Kiwi-turned-Portlander, who’s got dual citizenship, resolved to avoid any of-the-moment polemic, and only allowed for socio-political observations that found their way onto the record “accidentally." Instead, he says he preferred the songs to focus on more “universal” themes that might have a shelf life well after the White House’s current occupant is gone.

In a conversation with Billboard before Sex & Food’s April 6 release, Nielson also delved into Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s ever-expanding musical palette, his old-school approach to songwriting, America’s weird optimistic nature, the importance of dialogue, and of not living in a constant state of panic.

We last spoke nearly three years ago, for Multi-Love. It seems like this one, Sex & Food, has taken longer, particularly with all the locations around the world that you worked in?

It did take longer, but I sort of set a deadline at the very beginning. I just kind of projected roughly a year and a half. At this point I can kind of judge how long something will take me, even factoring in the inspiration. But I spent a lot of time writing songs, because I think a lot of music at the moment is written in the computer, as it’s being produced. The process of writing a song and recording the song, building the beats and stuff like that, it’s all become one process. Which is nothing wrong with that, but it creates a very specific thing, and I think that there are pros and cons about it in the music that’s coming out today. So just to be different, what I wanted to do was write all the songs in a traditional way first, before I started the production phase. Just so that I would get back to the way that certain old songs that I’ve written—like there’s a song called “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” [from II in 2013] that was kind of complete and I could play it from beginning to end on an acoustic guitar before I even started recording it. There’s something about writing a song that that makes the whole process just more fun, and more of a joy. So I think in a lot of 2016 I was kind of only writing, and not recording at all.

You’ve said a number of places and a number of times already that you specifically did not want to make a “political” record. And I was looking back at the transcript the other day of the last time we spoke, when you said regarding Multi-Love, that all the songs were both in a sense political and relationship-oriented and that they kind of worked on these dual tracks. Assuming a lot of this writing and recording was happening during the rise of Trump and populist nationalism worldwide, were you actively resisting letting that weave itself into the songs? 

Yeah, in a way, because I feel like we’re all sulking in this political narrative. I was really no different from anyone else in that sense—it doesn’t really matter what your politics are, everybody is pretty aware and up to date with what it going on and feels kind of unable to escape the narrative. And so I knew the record was going to have political resonance because it’s not all about me. You know the thing that makes things political really, you’ve got to admit, is context. I was trying to look at songs that I thought were political but also great songs, and I kind of ended up at “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and I realized that it’s not really political, it’s about humanity. It’s about human things, things that have some grain of truth. It’s a personal worldview, written at a time that was very turbulent, so I just thought, “Well I still have to make the album in the same way as I always have, and just write about the things I’m seeing around me, and that’s the only way that it can be political.” I didn’t want my political engagement to rub off on the record in a way that wasn’t sort of accidental? I mean, anything accidental in a song is the good stuff to me. The things that are good, but I don’t know why—those are the things that my best songs are made up of, because I think those are the strongest things that I write.

Except for Iceland, the places you recorded in—Vietnam, Mexico and South Korea—all have complicated relationships with this country, in the past or presently. I’ve read that Vietnam’s specific place in U.S. history had something to do with your decision to go there?

Yeah but even going to these places to me was an artistic decision. I mean I went to places that I thought had a feeling that they would inspire me. I didn’t have an agenda, or a statement in mind. But they just kind of felt like the right move, you know, which is really how I kind of do everything. To my mind, I was going to Vietnam because a lot of the music that I was introduced to for the first time, a lot of the music from the '60s that was on the TV when I was a kid—that’s where I heard it for the first time. I wasn’t introduced to it through music or music magazines or anything like that. It was all just watching TV shows like China Beach or movies about the Vietnam War. And to me, some of this music that I’m really influenced by is tied up in my mind with Vietnam. So I went based on that. But as time goes on, my choice to go to certain places becomes more pointed than they were when I went.

Like Korea? You went to Seoul specifically because you wanted to be close to the DMZ?

Yeah—well, it was because I loved this story of Bowie and Iggy going to Berlin to dry out. And I’ve been talking about it for years, because I was thinking, “Well, going to Berlin now isn’t exactly what I want to do. But what would be the modern equivalent of the Berlin Wall today?” and I thought, “Well, the DMZ.” So we tried to get this studio—the closest studio to the DMZ—and it was a K-Pop studio in Seoul. But when we went, nobody had discovered that Kim Jong-Un literally had a way of striking the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. But it’s like, I guess that’s just the way songwriting works. That’s why I’m kind of addicted to it.

When I first saw track names like “American Guilt,” “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” and “This Doomsday,” I thought you were kind of taking the piss out of those of us on the left who are running around with our hair on fire these past two years over what we see as pretty ominous times.

No, because politically I’d say I’m on the left too and I wouldn’t say people have been overreacting exactly. First of all, to me politics is small and music is big, just in my world. I know politics control what happens with music, but also at the same time, you know, kingdoms rise and fall and people still listen to Bach and Beethoven and Jimi Hendrix, and they will. I’ve been reading [Soviet Russian science fiction authors] the Strugatsky brothers and they’re really good! You know they were written in Soviet Russia in an ideology that’s in a way the complete opposite of ours, but the humanity rings true.  So I don’t think art really affects anything or changes anything, but I do think it outlasts politics. So I don’t really want politics to be too big of a deal when I’m making music, because this president can only be in power for a certain amount of time, and I would love for people to still want to listen to these songs, when the world is different, you know?

“Everyone Acts Crazy” makes me think about how cleaved down the middle this country—and maybe even the world—is. Look at what’s going on right now around guns. I’m not sure I see compromise happening, on many fronts.

Yeah but I think there’s some lack of understanding about how we hammer out the truth. We’re supposed to argue in a way that pans out some completely new way of thinking. That’s really the way we’re supposed to do this, I think. But that’s not part of our culture for some reason, even though Hegel [18th century German idealism proponent] was writing about this, what, two or three hundred years ago? We’re only gonna be able to figure this out by the messy process of actually engaging with each other’s ideas. But it’s like, if nobody allows that to happen and everybody has to choose their side and to stick to it, then all you’re gonna get is two bad sides that are in competition. Nothing is gonna be right or wrong, it’s just gonna be two opposing teams.

The last time we spoke, you had said you had now been living in the States long enough that you’d come to realize that for many, being American is a conflicted sort of experience. That you’ve got pride, but there are, at least for progressives, equal amounts of misgivings about this way that this country conducts itself. So my thought when I first heard “American Guilt” was that you felt like it was almost a cliché to feel guilty about being from this country.

Yeah, that’s what that song is about, exactly. It’s funny when you bring up the last time we talked, it’s sort of funny that a lot of these things, I kind of think “Oh this is a new album, I’ve hit on these new ideas.” But really it’s just the same ideas just kind of progressing…changing the landscape. But I guess that’s the song that seems to be one of the most political at first glance, but it’s just a feeling that I kind of feel entitled to say that I’m “American” in a way, because I’ve only been living here ten years. But the longer I am here the deeper my understanding of the culture is, and the more alarming it is—cause that’s the thing that you, it takes time to understand. But it is a sort of horror, you know? You’re paying your taxes towards a war machine—stuff like that. And I’m not making a judgment about it. It’s not me pointing a finger at anyone. I’m here too. And I don’t think it’s something that is really only about America, it’s just that America is the leader of the world, culturally and politically and economically, and so there are implications for everyone about what happens here.

And the other thing about that song is that I think some UMO fans have been quite taken aback at how heavy it is. Are you surprised that they’re surprised that you’re capable of rocking that hard?

I’m not surprised. It does make sense. But it’s one of the reasons we led with that song, was to cause some kind of debate about what a band is allowed to do or whatever. With Multi-Love I guess I leant a lot on the influence of Prince and Stevie Wonder, what I would call '70s black music. But I also wanted to kind of get into this idea of—I know how a rock song works; I know how a Black Sabbath or a Led Zeppelin song operates. I understand how to do that and I enjoy that, and so it all feels the same to me. But it was important to me to lead with something that would be shocking I suppose, in a way.

Is this UMO’s most eclectic record to date?

Yeah I think, for sure. I think in some ways it’s similar to the second record, which is also equally eclectic in a way. But I think with the way I produced things in the past, it was less pronounced, how much things were jumping around. You know and then now that the production is a little more widescreen, it makes the way that things jump-cut a bit more jarring or whatever. But I think actually, when I was making the record, all these different threads were kind of moving forward at the same time, and at one point I thought, “Maybe I’m making three different records here,” or, “Maybe this is going to have to be three discs with separate threads.” But I started reading about the way that people are interacting with music now—just think pieces about streaming and stuff, and the way that the new generation is kind of more playlist-based, rather than more radio or album-based. And all of these ideas that in some ways have been presented as negative, to me felt really liberating, because I care that the album really holds together as a work. Albums are important to me. It’s important that somebody put the actual vinyl on, and feel like the album isn’t so fractured that it doesn’t make sense. But at the same time, I also know that each of these songs will fly off in different directions anyway, so it gave me permission to do exactly what I wanted to do, which is kind of make a summary of everything that I’ve done.

I know you’ve said you didn’t want this to come off as a “sad” record, but these animated videos with animator Greg Sharp aren’t what you’d call jolly. “American Guilt” is this long tracking shot across the detritus of our consumerist lives and with “Not In Love We’re Just High,” my takeaway was kind of, “We party and then we die.”

[Chuckles] Yeah, well I mean—that might be one way of thinking of what’s gonna be written on my grave! But also I think that here it’s almost like the New Zealander in me is coming out, because you know, Americans are optimists. Even though in media people talk about doomsday all the time, everything is like “the end of the world” in America. But it’s very exciting, you know? It’s the end of the world, but you’re not gonna commit suicide, because you’ve got to be there to see what happens in this end of the world. You’ve got to stay up for it, like—“The End of the World, Tomorrow!” So, that’s very exciting. Whereas growing up in New Zealand, we don’t have that sort of hysteria. But then also, the thing about American optimism is that when times are bad, it starts to feel like a Fellini film. It starts to feel like depressingly upbeat and excited. Like when everybody’s kind of foaming at the mouth and things are going really badly, it can feel like a nightmare. And in the same way, what I hope is that seeing something dark can suddenly be kind of fun, you know? It’s like the doomsday depicted in certain kinds of films. I find myself listening to lot of dark music and watching a lot of dark films and feeling kind of relief from that, which it took a while for me to kind of figure out. Because you can only get so angry, you can only get so dejected, before you have to try and figure out where your energy is gonna come from. And so when you were saying that thing about “Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays” being like a piss-take, I don’t think that I’m saying that any of this is unwarranted. If anything, I think people are under-reacting to the state we’re in. But I think that the tone of everything can’t be just kind of running around in a panic all the time. It’s like with the South Koreans. One thing that was so cool about being in Seoul is that they live literally next door to Kim Jong-Un, and they are so cool about it. They’re just like “Ah, we’re not scared of him.” And their attitude is I think something that you have to develop. We have to kind of develop some bravado about these issues, because you’ve got to get on with life. Life is still like, Sex & Food, you know, no matter what’s going on. You still have to eat and you still have to sleep and you still have to kind of get on with your day, and you can’t just spend the whole day in a constant state of panic. That just doesn’t make any sense.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Sex & Food is out now. The band begins a North American tour April 22 in Northampton, MA.