Unknown Mortal Orchestra
On Nietzsche, Neo-Nazi's & Classical Music

It's been a rocky journey for Ruban Nielson, the lead architect behind the American/New Zealand outfit Unknown Mortal Orchestra. From the highs of being one of New Zealand's most popular bands The Mint Chicks to their complicated demise that led to an empty hole in his life.

Almost out of nowhere UMO became one of the most critically revered bands on the alternative circuit, selling out shows across the world and writing with artists like the celebrated recluse Frank Ocean & Toro Y Moi. But it was 2015 when it all fell into place, releasing the watershed single Multi-Love which brought his trademark brand of psychedelic funk/disco and rock onto center stage.
None of this was part of a larger thought out plan but Ruban is taking it day by day playing the game the only way he knows how with that charming Kiwi honesty. Now at almost 40, distancing himself from a former life of narcotics through a bi-polar music industry, Ruban increasingly values a life outside of music, his love of philosophy is clear which is how this offbeat discussion spirals into a candid exchange around Nietzche, neo-Nazi’s & brotherly tensions.

Images by Neil Krug

Maybe a good place to start is your Kiwi upbringing. I know you live in Portland now but how does New Zealand fit into your world?

Both of my parents were musicians and I grew up poor I guess. It’s probably not as bad to be super poor in New Zealand as it would be here, just because of health care and stuff like that.  I grew up around a lot of musicians but I didn’t really make music myself. I went to art school at a place called Elam. It’s kind of famous in New Zealand. Then I started a band with my brother. It was a punk band and we started playing at people’s houses and punk parties and stuff like that, and eventually, we got signed to Flying Nun which was our only ambition really. At that time it was my whole list of musical ambitions.  

My Dad was more of a Jazz musician and when he was young he used to hang out with people who went to Elam. So when I went to Elam I was already pretty deep in that art school thing. My Dad had told me about how he used to go and hang out with people from Elam and make bonfires. He said the students were so poor they’d be roasting rats and taking acid. It sounds pretty gnarly but I thought that was really cool. By the time I got to Elam people weren’t roasting rats but it was still pretty fun.

Anyway, we put our record out on Flying Nun and we did that for seven years. I grew up around those people like Shayne Carter, Chris Knox and the Gordons, all these people I loved. The members of those bands – I would put them on the same level as Iggy Pop.

Flying Nun had such a strong bond with Australia and also England. It still today has such a significance.

Yeah it’s so inspiring. It’s one of those stories of a situation where nobody handed any of those people a music career, they were all working or middle-class people whose parents had probably envisaged a career for them as a mailman or something. Then they thought, “I don’t want to do that, I’m going to go and make music.” They had no training and no business knowledge. 

The last record you did seems like it was a bit of a struggle for you. You were touring endlessly and then you poured your heart out on an interview that you wish you probably never did. Are you ready to open your heart again or is this an example of a lesson learned kind of thing?

Open my heart in what way?

You talked about this polyamorous relationship you had and it seems like it traumatised you. You also opened your heart a lot about the kind of problems you were going through on the record and that was reflected lyrically. So how do you feel now? 

No, it’s not traumatic. It’s funny, I think that article presents this really heavy picture of the whole thing. Going into this album I wanted to present all of the heaviness and weight of life in general, the things that happen to people. But I also wanted show that as a duality . . . because that year of touring was a lot of fun. Most of it was very joyful. It wasn’t a whole year of really heavy, torturous emotions. I suppose I was a little gloomy at the time I gave that interview but I didn’t like the album being presented as a sad album because I don’t think it is a sad album. The stuff that I write about is often about extremes and I do gravitate lyrically to darker ideas. That probably ends up sounding angsty.

"I do enjoy philosophy a lot but I often have to hide that when I’m talking to music press."

Yeah, that’s certainly the way that the press has portrayed you. But I’ve become very disillusioned about music press. And to be totally honest with you I don’t always find musicians as interesting as their music.

Yeah me neither. I totally agree and I feel like I’m saying that all the time. The thing that they’re focusing on is the least interesting aspect of it. Obviously, with most musicians, the most interesting thing is the sounds that they create. There is such a thing as an interesting musician but I think the friends that I made in the art world are often more interesting to have a conversation with because musicians spend a lot of time with technical things. They’re concentrating on making sounds, so when it comes to talking about something else a lot of the time musicians don’t have much to say. They haven’t been doing much except getting drunk and playing music.

Yeah and also the fact that we’ve heard the music so we understand what they’re saying. I don’t need to unpack the music. I don’t need to know how long you spent in what studio with what producer. I know you’re into philosophy so I’d rather just spend an hour talking about philosophy with you to be honest.

I do enjoy philosophy a lot but I often have to hide that when I’m talking to music press because. . . I’m forced to talk about it in a way that makes it seem like these are just ideas that bubble up from me sitting around smoking weed man.

The only way that these heavier, emotionally traumatic things can make sense as a piece of music to me is to be played up against something humorous or something upbeat. In philosophy you could just talk about that as a dialectic. But I’m not going to use the word dialectic in music press because they’ll just take that as me signaling that I read books or something. They’re not interested in talking about the actual idea itself.

Would you say that you’re quite a cerebral character?

I don’t think I’m cerebral. I think I’m really dumb.

Why do you say that?

I think it’s important that I’m aware of that. Or maybe I just beat myself down constantly.

When I listen to your music I think you’re emotionally intelligent and able to articulate your feelings through music.

Yeah I suppose I would agree with that. I’m emotionally aware. I do think that I can feel an emotion and translate it accurately into a sound, and that’s what I need to stay focused on. It always has to do with where I am at any particular moment.

What specific philosophical ideas influence your music?

I suppose at the moment I like the idea of ‘the dialectic.’ That’s something that makes a lot of intuitive sense to me.

Explain to me what ‘the dialectic’ is?

Well the way I see it is this idea that nothing is ever fixed. There’s no right or wrong, and no real place where you can ever arrive at where you have the truth. As soon as you get to a certain place the opposite argument is going to arise, and it’s going to be valid, and you’re going to have to do battle with that in order to get to the next place.

I suppose this is getting pretty abstract but I think about it a lot when I think about starting off in punk rock and then starting UMO. All of these things I’d thought were wrong like jazz-fusion, disco, prog-rock – all of the things punk rejects, they started to feel like where all the interesting ideas would be for me. That was really fruitful.

In the first phase of my career I was known as someone who was making punk and now I have probably earned my disco cred. It’s funny, these things are in constant play. That is something that really makes a lot of sense to me but seems to be missing from the natural discourse of culture. There is no such thing as correct politics, only this constant negotiation between someone making an assertion, then something happening, and another force arising. I find myself constantly looking for that in politics. I am always looking for the voices that are genuinely critiquing their own side.

"I don’t think I’m cerebral. I think I’m really dumb. I think it’s important that I’m aware of that. Or maybe I just beat myself down constantly."

You’re almost 40 now and you’re playing a young man’s game. The music industry has a lust for young blood. Do you feel comfortable out in music festivals at this age when many others are off the grid raising kids and stuff?

I have no problem with being on stage at a music festival at all, or being in the studio making music. I never feel like I’m trying to imagine what I would be doing if I was younger because in some ways I’m now making the music that I wished I always could make.

Is your brother jealous of you?

My brother? Is he jealous of me? [Laughing]

Yeah, because you played together in a well-known band and then you took off after that. That can definitely present some problems and feelings of tension.  

I think . . . yeah a little bit maybe. But I wouldn’t define the relationship as anything like that. The main thing that my brother expresses to me is admiration. It’s probably hard for him to be in New Zealand while I’m out here in the world. He has to deal with people constantly asking him what I’m up to and I think that part is hard, but I don’t think he and I have a rivalry because he knows that I know his worth.

In New Zealand, the trope is that there’s a rivalry. It’s an archetype and it’s an easy thing to go to but the thing that I realise as I get older is our family. . . Cody and I are the only people who really made it into the middle class, and the world is getting harder. So I’ve been trying to talk to Cody about how we need to get to work together and pull our resources. It seems like a luxury to live with this level of individuality where the world has to make room for this rivalry that we started when we were probably three-years-old or something.

Cody and I are extremely close. A lot of things I hear about twins remind me of me and my brother. We’re never alienated from each other. We do argue a lot but we don’t need to explain anything to each other. If we get into arguments it’s because we’re too close. He always seems to express that he’s ultimately really glad that I’m out there taking on the world and doing good work.

You’re not taking on the world, you’re taking on Lorde.

[Laughing] I don’t think Lorde is part of the problem. I’ve had this conversation a few times. I think the nature of her lyrics if you compare her content to most of what is in that arena, it’s a much healthier, higher quality version of pop music.

I think she’s a mystery. I’m totally intrigued by her.

I spent part of my teenage years in the same part of New Zealand that she grew up in. I think she grew up in the rich side of town but I can relate to her certain inability to escape talking about things in a dark way. It makes me think maybe this thing I do is a New Zealand thing. People think my music is depressing or angsty, but I think it’s just fun to talk about these things.

Hearing you talk about philosophy and knowing you live in Portland, have you seen that documentary series Wild Wild Country on Netflix?

Yeah, I’m watching it right now. I just watched the second to last episode last night. Chris Swanson from my label did the music for it.

What a story huh?

It’s amazing. I couldn’t believe it. After the third episode I thought, “Wow what a great story”, and then it was like – next episode starting. I thought, “There’s more?” I couldn’t believe there were three more episodes. The funny thing is that that place is like two and half hours from here.

Yeah in a place called Antelope. You must go out there and do a live concert. You’ve gotta do it.

That’s a good idea. I’ve even looked at property out there. My wife and I are watching the show so I think we’re going to go out there and check it out at some point.

It’s funny because of that whole thing with the homeless people. People are always asking me when they come to Portland, “why are there so many homeless people here?” And I’ve always thought, well they have lots of good shelters, but I could never figure out what the chicken or the egg was. The weather doesn’t explain it. The Native Americans who lived in this area wouldn’t stay in Portland because it was too damp and the air was too humid. So there’s a lot of reasons why homeless people wouldn’t settle here but I was wondering, if you go and talk to these big groups of homeless people who are always hanging around town, I wonder how many of them were there.

It’s actually not the first time I’ve heard this story. It was on a podcast last year but they left out a lot of details out and obviously the documentary filled them in. The bit with the homeless people where they’re drugging them . . I was speechless. This kind of segways nicely into talking about the track American Guilt. Watching the video for it I feel like it’s heavily indebted to politics. I think there’s some kind of correlation there but I’m not sure what it is.

Yeah politics was moving to the right all of a sudden. When you’re a kid in the punk scene there are all these fantasies of smashing the fascists. That’s a constant punk fantasy that you would find yourself in a street fight against neo-Nazis. I think it slowly disappeared to the point where it was just a memory, and then all of a sudden the right rose again and I was reminded of kids that I grew up with. You know, Kids in black hoodies with tattoos who want to go and get into fights with neo-Nazis. I found myself getting interested in the situation which is something I hadn’t done since I was. . . well more than 10 years ago.

Speaking of your younger years I know you used to take a lot of drugs. Do you still?

I mean, compared to before, no. I recreationally do things but for a while in my life drugs were a part of my worldview. I thought drugs were a part of what I should be. But now that everyone is taking Xanax I feel like it’s dangerous to blur my vision. A friend of mine said that they liked how people stopped calling my music psychedelic and started calling it hallucinatory.

This might not be something that you’ve heard before about your music but when I first listened to you, I think it was the track Swim and Sleep, I heard classical references in it. It sounded like a classical guitar in there. Are you a fan of classical music or am I totally dreaming this up?

The funny thing is I didn’t have any classical training but I grew up around that. A lot of my family on my dad’s side are musical. My dad was the guy who went pro but I have an aunt who teaches Suzuki violin to kids. So I grew up around this weird classical fetishism. My nana used to have this really funny clock, a little plastic thing that was made in China back when things that were made in China were really funny. It had a picture of a different composer on every hour so when the clock struck every hour this really bad, cheap beginning of a classical piece would play. My dad was the kid who they tried to make learn classical music but he went with jazz because he was kind of the black sheep of the family.

So I have this familiarity with classical music but I never had any classical training. I can always hear Bach melodies in my head and a lot of that is in the music. They’re all in there and I think in Swim and Sleep it was a pseudo-Mozart idea.

You write a lot with other people. I want to know what happened with Frank Ocean because a UMO and Frank Ocean track would be fascinating to listen to. Do you have any other collaborations that we should know about?

Well, there are a few things. I’m still slowly getting used to how these things work. When I’m working with people and then I mention it because I’m excited, sometimes it makes those people disappear. In my world, I can talk about anything I want and it’s not going to create too much of a fervor but with someone like Frank. . . it’s hard for anyone to say something about a pop star and it not be picked up and go viral. So I try to shy away from saying too much because I don’t think it’s the done thing. But I think this year they’ll be some of those things.

We did a show with Tame Impala in Berkley and Kevin Parker, the main guy from Tame, said that he’d done something with Frank too and that his stuff had also been shelved. So I felt a little bit better.

"We did a show with Tame Impala in Berkley and he said he’d done something with Frank too and that his stuff had also been shelved. So I felt a little bit better."

I’d rather see you collaborate with Tame Impala, to be honest.

I used to think that would be pointless because there wouldn’t be enough friction there, but now I’m thinking at this point it’s kind of a no-brainer and a fun idea. I’m open to that. But I’m very busy. I don’t know how people find the time to do a ton of collaborating.

Also I like to use everything I make. I think the people that succeed in that world of pop, they throw a lot of shit at the wall and a small percentage of it sticks. But I’m the kind of person, if I sit down and work on a song, I want it to come out. I don’t care about how low-key it is. I just want everything I think is finished to go out into the world.

Who would be your number one person to write with in the world right now?

Oh man. . . I’ve been trying to get in touch with this band Divide and Dissolve. They’re a two-piece doom metal band from Australia. It’s two women, one of them is indigenous Australian and one of them is white. Their music is all about these heavy political statements but it’s all instrumental. It’s very beautiful and very dark. I don’t know if they’d be interested but I would love to work with them on some level.

Images by Neil Krug

I know you’re a big reader. What are favourite books at the moment? Maybe you can give us three books that represent your line of thinking right now about the world.

I’ve always really liked Island by Huxley, Aldous (2005) Paperback which I discovered when I was quite young. People talk about Brave New World a lot when you’re a kid so I thought I’d read that and then I read Island. I really loved how optimistic it is. It’s really influential in my worldview. I think it’s in my music.

I read a book that I really enjoyed called Anti-Nietzsche That book’s really cool. It’s re-examining Nietzsche in reverse as a way of deprogramming the Nietzsche fanboy kind of thing. Nietzsche’s style of writing is. . . well as far as philosophy goes he writes page-turners. He appeals to you because he’s talking about the ubermensch. He writes in a way that everyone who reads it thinks, “that’s me!” So Bull attacks all these things. He has this thing that’s called “reading Nietzsche like a loser”. You put yourself in the position of the lower people that he’s talking about. The anti-ubermensch. The Untermensch I suppose? Is that right? Anyway it’s really brilliant how he does it. It was really one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read.

I’ve also recently read A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. That’s really good. It’s sort of similar to the Nietzsche one in that you can always find out the history of the United States officially but it’s nice to read something that completely undermines that.

Oh and I should probably mention the Strugatsky brothers. They wrote Roadside Picnic. The reason I got into the Strugatskys is because of the documentary HyperNormalisation. They were mentioned in that. What’s that guy’s name?

Adam Curtis?

Yeah Adam Curtis mentioned them, and I started to get into their movies and then started reading the books when I ran out of Strugatsky brothers-based movies. The books are actually more fun.

I wrote this piece recently about the dark side of politics and referenced Victor Surkov.

Oh yeah Surkov is Putin’s propaganda guy right?


It was that whole section of HyperNormalisation that got me into that.

I guess we should wrap things up. Thanks, Ruban, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you.

Oh thanks. This has been my favourite interview of the cycle for sure. I liked the “is Cody jealous of you” question. That was a very disarming question.