We speak to Ruban Nielson from Unknown Mortal Orchestra – live at Prince Charles on the 8th


Ruban says he is cautious in interviews. I caught up with him in December when his label had sent him on an interview tour of Europe and he professed it strange to be touring with no guitar and expected only to meet people and talk. How to not tell the same jokes, go for the same pat answers …Ruban takes me to an imbiss and we sit in the back with two bad coffees and while the radio plays Rihanna and Beyonce in the background and the patron makes kebabs for a slow stream of mute customers, Ruban tells me how it is.

Ruban grew up in New Zealand, his dad a jazz musician and his mum a dancer, and he experienced at first hand what it was like to survive from music – not the mythological rock star life but the truth of the matter – paying the bills by turning up on time and doing the job better than anyone else.

“In the 90s my family lived off my dad making music – I watched our fortunes go up and down when people started using sequenced stuff – he went through a period where he was making a lot of money doing sessions and then all of a sudden that disappeared. So that’s always been my experience of a musician’s life.”

You started out as a painter rather than a musician – how did it all come about?

When I was younger I gravitated more naturally to painting rather than music – but all of my family were musicians and people would always ask me, “So what do you play?” and it was weird to have to say, well, nothing…so it’s nice now that I play the guitar and I did become a musician after all….

My dad was very attuned to levels of musicianship and when I first started playing it was weird. He would laugh at my bands and stuff – he’s only just started calling me a guitarist.

So why did you get into punk music – was it a reaction to your dad being a jazz musician or…?

No, I never really reacted against my dad – I also listened to Miles Davis and was really into John Coltrane –  but I’d been listening to punk rock and at some point I realised that I’d been messing around with the guitar, I could play a few chords and I could write some songs – it was a really easy entry level into playing. It really freed me because I was at the point where I felt that it was too late to become a guitarist, but this I could do. I went out and played in front of people and found out that my skill level was okay, that I could do it. My dad would listen to our recordings and it was funny, as a jazz musician he’d have a very precise idea of time and would say, “it’s good, it’s got a nervous energy to it, but everyone’s playing on top of each other – the bass player should really drop back…”

What’s Portland like?

It’s nice – a small place by American standards. Friendly. It’s also cheap. It’s quite progressive – it feels quite progressive for a small town. And there’s a lot of cross-pollination. There’s a lot of electro stuff going on, but people would learn from each other and incorporate that into their sound – we played guitar and someone from an electro band would say, hey, it’s cool how you do that one thing – and then they’d be incorporating that into their sound, and vice versa….you go to the UK and everyone’s talking about what the trend is – they’d say, yeah, it’s interesting, we’re hearing more guitar stuff these days – but we have no idea about that, we just work in isolation somehow, just doing our thing. I play guitar. I’ve always played guitar. Simple as that.

 And what’s going on at the moment?

Things are quite exciting at the moment. We’ve got a new label and they invest a lot into their artists. Like sending me out here. It’s weird. Like, what am I worth without a guitar? But it’s nice, going from town to town and just chatting with people…I didn’t get that with the last label. Now we’re touring the US but not like before – with the last label, they just sent us out on the road non-stop, didn’t care that we were burning out – it was an experience. Learning where your limits are. One time we did 29 dates without stopping. Before that we thought, cool, we can do that, but after that we realised, it’s just too much. But at least I know that I can do, say 26 dates in a row if I have to…I was in another band in Australia, a punk band, a rougher kind of scene, but we would work – touring through Australia – it can get kind of heavy, two months straight. But you do it and it works. But it’s strange coming off tour, you think, I’m going to go mad if I don’t do something, so you end up hanging out at parties all the time and drinking…

How was the recording of the new album?

We wrote a lot on the road and when we came back it was easy to just throw everything down….I got back to Portland and put aside a month. I told the management company to bugger off and leave me alone for a while, because I knew that they would send me back out on the road again otherwise and then they’d say, where’s the new record? So I took a month, went down into the basement, laid stuff down. And got something out of it.

Noel Maurice interviewed Ruban Nielson