Unknown Mortal Orchestra turn on and tune in Columbus
By Zach Rogers
The past two years have been nothing short of a whirlwind experience for Ruban Nielson and his band Unknown Mortal Orchestra. After a relentless wave of touring and receiving an abundance of critical acclaim, the Portland-based trio isn’t pressing down on the brakes just yet. On Friday, Oct. 18, Unknown Mortal Orchestra will hit the stage at Ace of Cups in Columbus, stopping through the Midwest as part of their North American fall tour.
Fresh on the heels of their excellent sophomore LP, II, the group is now celebrating the release their new acoustic EP, Blue Record, out October 29 on Jagjaguwar. It contains acoustic versions of three songs from II, plus two covers, and also sheds a different light on the band’s otherwise lo-fi psychedelic rock, with Nielson only recently picking up the acoustic guitar.
“Acoustic is just a totally different mode,” said Nielson. “It’s nice to be able to play the songs that way because that’s not how I originally wrote them.”
In addition to the EP, the band also announced plans to continue touring throughout parts of Europe for the remainder of the year, followed by dates set for Asia in early 2014 before wrapping things up in February at the Laneway Festival in New Zealand and Australia. It’ll be a fitting finish for the New Zealand-born Nielson, but chances are the band won’t be slowing down from there.
“After all the touring is done, I’ll probably take the rest of the year to work on the next album,” said Nielson. “When that’s finished, we’ll probably head back out on tour again. I like playing live, and the rest of the band is the same way.”
Unknown Mortal Orchestra started off by accident for Nielson – the group’s primary singer, guitarist and songwriter. After years on the musical circuit, Nielson was ready to call it quits for good. His old band, the Mint Chicks, was a wild bunch that played noisy punk-pop, but after relocating to Portland and quitting the group, Nielson decided to look elsewhere for an income. He found work at a film production studio, and in his spare time he quietly started making music again, if not for anyone but himself.
“At the time I felt like psychedelic music wasn’t really the most popular thing to do,” explained Nielson. “There was a lot of electronic stuff happening, and I didn’t think anybody would be interested in hearing me play all these weird guitar solos.”
It all lead to the song “Ffunny Ffrends,” which Nielson put up on a Bandcamp page in the spring of 2010. At this point, the group was non-existent, and Nielson recorded everything on his laptop in a friend’s basement. Released without a name or credit to be found, the song started making the rounds on the Internet, getting noticed by bloggers who praised the track’s upbeat psychedelic charm, much to Nielson’s surprise.
“I put it out and didn’t really think much of it, but pretty soon activity on the Bandcamp page just skyrocketed and the song was all over the place.”
Eventually Nielson claimed credit to the track, and when the calls and emails started coming in, he found himself in the unexpected position to start another band. It was the furthest thing from his mind, but Nielson ultimately found kindred spirits in bassist Jacob Portrait and drummer Riley Geare, and the group released Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s self-titled debut through Fat Possum Records in June 2011. It received rave reviews from places like Pitchfork, NME and Uncut, and went on to win the 2012 Taite Music Prize. Within two years, Unknown Mortal Orchestra was circling the globe, playing sold-out shows and receiving lots of critical praise in the process.
“When we were picked up, there seemed to be a lot of other bands getting picked up in the same way, through the Internet,” said Nielson. “It still happens today. Bands blow up out of nowhere and people go to see them play live and they suck. I didn’t want that to happen with my band. I wanted people to be surprised at how good the music sounded live. That was very important to me.”
With influences ranging from the psychedelic wit of Syd Barrett to the early home recordings of Ariel Pink, Unknown Mortal Orchestra is an ideal reaction to the EDM and dance-influenced pop music heard on the airwaves today. Along with bands like Tame Impala and Foxygen, the group is ushering in a kind of rock that hasn’t been executed this well since the late ’60s.
With all the sudden fame thrust in the group’s direction, you’d think the weight would buckle. Luckily, that hasn’t been the case.
“We’re just grateful that people enjoy the music as much as they do,” Nielson said. “In the beginning, I remember thinking this was definitely not something other people were going to like. It’s a good feeling to play music you love and have people appreciate and respond to it.”
Unknown Mortal Orchestra will perform on Friday, Oct. 18 at Ace of Cups, 2619 N. High St. in Columbus. Also on the bill is Wolf People. Show starts at 10 p.m. For more information, please visit unknownmortalorchestra.com.