Life & Culture

How Unknown Mortal Orchestra Turned the Psych-Rock Revival Upside Down

The band’s frontman Ruban Nielson opens up to Alex Denney about their globe-trotting new album Sex & Food

Frank Ocean is on the radio, and Ruban Nielson can’t resist breaking off mid-sentence to let his pleasure be known. “This is the best part of the record!” he enthuses, as the pitched-up squeal that closes out Ivy cuts through the hubbub of a London cafe.

Nielson worked with Ocean on the sessions for Blonde, the R&B wunderkind’s second album, though his music never made it on to the record. (The pair have reportedly been back in the studio since then.) “I think the main difference is I will spend 30 hours in a studio getting a hi-hat to sound *just* right,” says Nielson when asked about the differences in their approach, adding that Ocean is much more a curator of ideas in the mould of a Kanye.

This perfectionism is evident throughout the work of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Nielson’s going concern for the best part of a decade now. A virtuoso talent with fans in Thor Ragnarok director Taika Waititi and Another Man cover star  Sky Ferreira as well as Ocean, the New Zealand native started the band in 2010 as an anonymous wheeze, after moving his family out to Portland, Oregon. He was unmasked after an early track, Ffunny Friends, blew up on the ‘blogosphere’, and two albums of wonderfully frazzled, psychedelic pop followed, 2010’s self-titled debut and the more melancholy II (2013).

Bringing funk and soul back to a genre whose deepest roots always lay in African-American music, these were hard-edged, profoundly eccentric records that nodded to pioneering figures of black psychedelia like Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone and Roy Ayers. It’s this soulfulness, along with Nielson’s richly textured production style, that puts the band head and shoulders above their psych-rock contemporaries – and makes listening to their music like rummaging through the basement of Nielson’s brain.

They added disco to the mix with stellar third opus Multi-Love (2015), a bracingly frank confessional about a ménage a trois that turned Nielson’s family life upside-down. It was their biggest record to date, but its success proved bittersweet, exacting a heavy personal toll which left Nielson unsure about “what I’m supposed to keep private now”.

Sex & Food sees the weight of the world pressing in at his window in a different way. Plugging into the paranoid-industrial complex powering news cycles right now, the record takes aim at “fake democracies” (Ministry of Alienation) and the surveillance state (the “tape over the camera” of American Guilt). But there’s a sly humour at work in songs like Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays and This Doomsday (“Lord, don’t let me get bored on Sunday”) that undercuts the end-times fervour.

Recording the album across all four corners of the planet made for an intense experience. Iceland was like an “upside-down New Zealand”, says Nielson, while South Korea was intriguing for the way its people were unfazed by the threat posed by its communist neighbours to the north – in marked contrast to the scaremongering regularly peddled in the States. “I needed that, because with all the madness that’s going on right now I felt like I needed a gear-change,” he says.

In Vietnam, Nielson watched a local band carted offstage by the police after they performed songs decrying the brutalities of the country’s communist regime, an incident referenced on Chronos Feasts on his Children. And in Mexico, a catastrophic earthquake led to a surreal moment in a public park, where an aid worker carrying provisions rallied locals with a cry of “Viva La Mexico!”. “The park just lit up,” says Nielson, who used the line for riff-laden first single American Guilt. “It was encouraging because in that moment, I think in America people would just fear chaos – like that movie The Purge, you know? But people really banded together.”

Ultimately, says the musician, the point of all this globe-trotting was not to assemble some ragtag collection of gap-year musings. (Nielson spoke recently of his exhaustion with the “opinions” rampant on social media.) “It all contributed to this idea that there was no answer to this situation we’re in, no opinion I can form about anything,” he says. “It’s just a bunch of things floating in the air right now; that was the mood of the record. Trying to describe the confusion of this time that we live in.”

Perhaps that’s why it’s some of Sex & Food’s more reflective moments that end up cutting deepest. Hunnybee, a twinkly disco number Nielson penned for his daughter, is all gorgeous hazy uplift. And on bleary-eyed ballad If You’re Going to Break Yourself, Nielson reaches out to a friend over their drug-fuelled lifestyle. (Something of a veteran on that front himself, Nielson says he’s learned to rein things in a little now: “Opiates in the United States are a plague, I watched what they do to people. I grew up with the same shit every person in a band grew up with, about people like Lou Reed, but that’s not the way it plays out.”)

It’s not hard to imagine Hunnybee, in particular, being a crossover pop smash in the right producer’s hands. But for Nielson, it’s unimportant. “It’s been something that’s followed me around from my first album – like, ‘If I produced this in a certain way it could be on the radio,’” he says. “But I’ve always felt that the songs sound like I want them to sound. And with this one, I’m closer to the sound I hear in my head than ever.”

Sex & Food is out now