Unknown Mortal Orchestra

A Multi-Faceted Journey

Jun 05, 2015 Issue #53 - April/May 2015 - Tame Impala
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New Zealand bands, in indie circles, will forever be synonymous with Flying Nun Records. For Jagjaguwar's Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the brainchild of singer/guitarist Ruban Nielson (whose members also include bassist Jake Portrait and drummer Riley Geare), there are undeniable ties to the label, as Nielson's first band, The Mint Chicks, were on Flying Nun, emulating the pop/punk culture of the label. Yet the third Unknown Mortal Orchestra album, Multi-Love, couldn't be further removed from The Mint Chicks' roughshod sonic ethos. It's taut art-pop rife with swagger, with as much in common with Bowie's Berlin trilogy as Sly and the Family Stone's unrestrained enthusiasm.

"We had the money to make a better record this time," explains Nielson. "I wanted to keep things as concise as possible. I think the songwriting's similar to my other Unknown Mortal Orchestra recordsit's just better produced."

Nielson concedes that Unknown Mortal Orchestra were impossible without the label, if not sonically, at very least spiritually with their steadfast DIY approach. "Flying Nun had a huge influence back in the day, especially hanging with Chris Knox, and listening to The Clean," he says. "These people, they'd do everything themselves, and I try to do that as much as possible. But I always thought it would be too obvious for me to make Kiwi pop, as much as I like the stuff."

Multi-Love commands repeated listens, bristling with an infectiousness that also rewards attention lyrically, due in no small part to Nielson's fascination with the intersection of straightforward themes of love and modern politics. He's fascinated with how The Beatles started out as a hippie movement and became political as they progressed, and sees parallels in his own music. "It's an upbeat record with downbeat themes," he laughs.

Yet the issues tackled are often grave. "[The album's] about political classes in the West, and the one percent, and how everyone in America is essentially in a one percent situation relative to much of the world. In America, you have to be successful all the time. It's a cage, but a comfortable cage. That's what the record's getting at." Tracks such as "Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty" delve into these topics, avoiding ham-fistedness while matter-of-factly addressing the aforementioned topics so endemic to life in the '10s. And they do so with a joyful catharsis, never wallowing in self-pity. It's pragmatism, a feeling Nielson's in acute touch with.

A 2012 support slot for kindred spirits Grizzly Bear provided Nielson with the confidence that he could get away with a left-of-center record and still connect with people. "Grizzly Bear were brilliantkind of weirdand yet they played to five or six thousand every night. It made me feel good. I couldn't believe it at times, and it was inspiring me, that maybe I could get there someday."

Nielson feels as though this is far and away his best album, which he awkwardly confesses. "I always feel funny feeling proud of what I did, but I got close to getting where I wanted to get, mainly because I had time. I always worried that people would wonder, 'where is he going with this?'" he says, citing the skronky sax solo on "Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty," while the sinewy "Necessary Evil" intimates the lullaby-esque jangle of mid-period Velvet Underground. The ambitions are clashing, but somehow suit the numbers like a well-fitted shirt. "But it's gone over as well as anything I've done so far...which is validation for me. I really went out on a different limb sonically, and people are into it. It's political and playful. That feels good."

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar's April/May 2015 print issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]

www.unknownmortalorchestra.com



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