After a breakthrough album that exposed his personal life, Ruban Nielson is back with his best work yet – and some hard-won life lessons to go with it.
In the dimly lit basement of an East London hotel, Ruban Nielson is hunched over a bowl of granola, stirring it with the weariness of someone who’s not really hungry but knows a long day lies ahead.
As the vision behind Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the 38-year-old is midway through a trip that started in New Zealand (where he’s from), ends in America (where he lives) and covers six countries in between – all to promote his brilliant new album Sex & Food. But the last time he had a project to talk about, life got a bit uncomfortable.
Three years ago, following the release of breakthrough third album Multi-Love, the music became somewhat overshadowed by its backstory: a polyamorous relationship between Ruban, his wife Jenny and a woman he met on tour.
Eventually it became all anybody wanted to talk to him about. But for someone who sees himself as a vessel for creativity, a medium for some external force beyond his control, that level of distraction threw up some unexpected challenges.
For a start, Unknown Mortal Orchestra has never relied on autobiography. The musician has a gift for intricate, unpredictable songwriting that veers between upbeat and introspective – a sound that has all the energy of psychedelic funk-rock but stems from a much more intimate space.
But the nature of that space is not always clear, even to Ruban. His melodies often shadow the guitar lines as if to purposely hang back, couched in distortion, so that they never fully reveal themselves.
In person, it’s natural to think he’ll follow a similar tact. When he looks up from his breakfast – dressed all in black with a third-eye tattoo on his throat – it’s tempting to see the gentle handshake and soft-spoken manner as a sign of reticence: that he’ll overcompensate for the Multi-Love experience by shying away from anything of substance. Instead it’s just the opposite.
You normally don’t plan songs; instead you try to shut your mind down and almost go into a meditative state. But when an idea strikes, what do you think is happening? Where do you think that comes from?
I think it could be coming from anywhere but an ego. It could be the subconscious or some part of your mind that’s much more suited to creativity. I suppose the point is that I don’t know and don’t need to.
But at some point you become reverent to it because it’s paying your bills, keeping you alive and giving you an identity. It’s sort of like my religion, in a way. I feel like if I’m serving that then I’ll keep getting the good stuff.
I was talking to our new keyboard player about it in terms of electricity. To design an electrical circuit and make a light work, you don’t really have to understand the nature of electricity or where it comes from, you just have to know how to harness it.
Have you figured out the optimal conditions for it, though? Like what impact does sobriety or intoxication have?
I mess with that all the time. I’ve done all kinds of things to put myself in harm’s way and see if I can keep writing songs. [laughs] I know people who smoke meth and go completely off the rails just to try to keep themselves in the space where they can write music, but it’s the law of diminishing returns a lot of the time.
Being a self-destructive person might seem like a good idea if you get some good songs out of it in the short term. It’s just that dedicating yourself to that can ruin people’s lives. There’s a trick to surviving and feeling like you’re writing real stuff. It’s not obvious or straightforward at all.
Do you think you need a bit of struggle or conflict going on in your life to make worthwhile art?
I think so, but it has to be an authentic struggle. You don’t want to create fake drama or anything like that – it doesn’t work; it’s overrated. I’ve realised now that I don’t want to be the kind of person who puts themselves into certain social situations just to get a song out of it.
Progressing through life and trying to get my act together is often as interesting as doing something self-destructive. Every time you reach a certain level, you realise there’s another way you can grow. It could be just as inspiring to do something healthy as unhealthy, as long as it puts you in a state outside of your comfort zone.
After the last album you said you weren’t sure of what to keep private, on the one hand, and what your responsibility is to listeners on the other. Where did you get with figuring that out?
I think I’m willing to write about everything that I feel… I just need to be careful about how much I reveal about situations in my personal life. I’m amazingly lucky to have this opportunity of connecting with people through music, so sometimes I feel like I owe the job everything. But when somebody listens to a song… it’s supposed to be about them, not me. If I talk too much about it, providing too much backstory, then I think it steals the song back away from them.
I get what you’re saying. I remember asking Stephin Merritt from the Magnetic Fields about this because his songs are so specific. But he thinks that no matter what he says, listeners will find a way to apply it to themselves. I mean there are famous songs inspired by a particular incident – Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven’ being a random example – and people will still mould that to their own listening experience anyway.
Yeah, I suppose so. One of the songs on this record, ‘Break Yourself’, is really specific for me. I’m talking to two or three people in a general group of friends I went to university with – friends I gradually got ostracised from for not living the same kind of lifestyle as them.
I can now look back at that time and miss those people – not that lifestyle, just them as individuals. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to being the person that I was then, but I wish that they had come forward [in life] more. Some of them are now where I am with their lives – stumbling through the act of getting older: having kids, trying to get better at their job and so on. But then some of them are doing the same stuff.
One friend from art school used to get drunk and paint all day. He’d have different girlfriends but it was the same girl over and over again. Now he’s in his thirties living the exact same lifestyle. That’s cool and he’s still a friend of mine. But in some ways it makes it harder for us to talk about things because you have less in common as you get older. A lot has happened to me between university and now. It makes me wish he’d have something new happen so we could compare stuff.
I was talking to somebody yesterday who had the exact same feeling; they totally understood what that song was about. So I feel like the more honest I am, the more relatable it is. But the more I talk about the specifics, somehow it just feels wrong.
Did you deliberately make the lyrics more opaque on this album?
I don’t know… I was thinking about the story surrounding the last record. When I did a press trip for Multi-Love, I actually didn’t mention [polyamory] at all through the whole thing. Then I did the article for Pitchfork where a journalist spent four days with me.
I think on the second or third day, he hit me with his theory of what the album was about. He’d kind of decoded or figured it out to a certain degree, so I felt like, ‘Okay, if you’re going to write about this then I should explain it to you.’ The danger, to me, was that somebody else’s version of it could be really horrible and clickbait-y, so I thought my hand was forced a bit [to reveal the backstory].
But I don’t think this album has been made any differently. It’s quite hard for me to listen to the songs around other people because they reflect something so interior. It goes back to what we were saying before where there’s a part of your brain that receives or creates something much better than I’m [consciously] capable of. I think part of the deal is that you’re not allowed to filter it afterwards. All you’re really doing at that point is watering down the chance of it having any power.
That’s why I’ll often just let these things go on the page and worry about them later. A year and a half down the line, I’ll realise that I’ve confessed my whole life in a song. But [the consequences] have been okay so far.
I think novelists deal with it a lot more: falling out with friends and family over characters, where they’ve written about a horrible father and then their real father realises they hate them. But yeah, after Multi-Love I had to figure out, ‘Where is the line here? How do I write songs that I think are good and then not become a horrible human being?’
Well, maybe it’s not the telling of the story that’s distracting. In the case of Multi-Love, polyamory is interesting to a lot of people but not necessarily something they can relate to or even understand.
Yeah, it’s kind of a bizarre scenario. At that point, I wonder if that makes the whole thing… Is it just selling pieces of my life off? I feel like the process of making some piece of artwork and then figuring out a way to sell it or turn it into a living is already self-exploitation. [laughs] How much of it comes into my life, I have to be careful about.
But you didn’t start doing this as a means of income. You started Unknown Mortal Orchestra to express yourself.
Yeah, that’s the thing: you have to be careful that capitalism stays in its place. [laughs] I don’t really care about that stuff, although I do make a living off it and I’m happy with that. But explaining my life surrounding a song, while interesting to me, can easily be turned into marketing. So I think I have to be more cagey than I originally planned to because it’s the way the internet works: quickly turning something interesting into something salacious.
I think we all have to be somewhat protective of that in our lives. I go on Facebook sometimes and people are talking about personal tragedy or something they’re going through. On the one hand, it is the process of sharing something important with your peers. At the same time, it’s turning into something uglier. There’s no avoiding that.
Do you think there’s an expectation now that artists have to be perceived as nice people?
I don’t care if other people think I’m a good person. I’m not a particularly good person! [laughs] I’m more worried about my own assessment of myself. I want to be trying my best all the time; I want to be a good artist, a good dad, just like anyone else. But I think it is a bit ugly the way people are obsessed with making others think they’re a good person. Good morality is something that you hold inside you; it’s not the things you signal to others.
It’s kind of tempting to troll people and pretend to be worse than you are, in a way. I used to love watching interviews with Lou Reed because he’d say the most outrageous things. It can be a liberating feeling to say the wrong thing, even just to shake things up. If there was never anybody doing that, if everyone agreed on what’s good or what’s bad all the time, it would be boring – and kind of dangerous.
It seems like we’re at a point now where if someone fucks up in their personal life, they get written off as an artist…
Yeah, I think people attach art to artists too much. I don’t believe art comes from ego and personalities anyway, so it doesn’t ruin anyone’s work for me when I find out [something bad about them]. Whatever they’ve given society remains separate from them as a person.
Yesterday my brother and I were talking about how much we love Public Image Ltd and then started talking about how John Lydon seems to be pointlessly supporting Donald Trump. Maybe he doesn’t understand it all; maybe it’s not incompatible with what he’s always been about: pissing people off. But John Lydon supporting Trump doesn’t affect my love for Flowers of Romance. I know it’s a modern thing to write off the work of somebody who’s done something wrong but I firmly don’t believe in that.
I have a degree in art and have been obsessed with it my whole life. I think about creativity all the time. So I think I’m somewhat qualified to say it’s a misunderstanding of what aesthetics are and what art is about. Imagine if you had to be a perfect human being to make great art. You’d be left with nothing.
Artists are usually more flawed than other people. I think if you don’t like someone, you can pillage their work. [laughs] Like a pirate. If you’re a feminist filmmaker and hate Roman Polanski but can’t help thinking his films are cool, then pillage them. Enact some violence on the movies. That would be more way interesting than deciding that we’re going to ignore whole swathes of art every time someone does something wrong. Make it open season on pillaging! [laughs]
What advice would you have for another Ruban out there who’s just starting and will spend the next 20 years making music in different bands and in different countries?
Aw, man. Kids actually send me messages looking for advice all the time and they hardly ever listen to me. [laughs] I suppose the thing I’m really glad to have had, especially when I was younger, is the ability to just put my head down and work on what I like.
The real advice is that you can’t concern yourself with what other people like or what’s cool or what you think is a good idea commercially.
Being an artist is such a mistake. If you’ve already made the mistake of being an artist, you have to go all-in. You can’t dip your toes in the water of creativity and hope to negotiate some halfway point between what your parents think is respectable and what you really want to do.
You have to jump in, you have to risk becoming a laughing stock, you have to risk being penniless. We don’t need any more lukewarm art in the world. [laughs]
We might be in the twilight of civilisation, so I’d prefer if people just throw themselves at it with all they’ve got. If you’re 22 now, make the thing you really want to make and if it sounds preposterous, it’s probably good. If it seems like everyone will really hate it, it’s probably good.
That’s what happened with me and my stuff. I was like, ‘I can’t let anyone find out I’m making this music; they’ll laugh at me.’ That turned out to be a really good lesson.
Cian Traynor is Huck’s Deputy Editor. Follow him on Twitter.