Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson on Finding Clarity Through Music

We speak with the musician about the four years of work and life that have gone into the band’s sixth studio album

A lot has changed since 2019 when singer, songwriter and musician Ruban Nielson began working on Unknown Mortal Orchestra‘s sixth studio album, V. Initially named Guilty Pleasures, the project transformed and evolved over time. “It’s like four years of music,” Ruban (who is Hawaiian and Maori, grew up in New Zealand and is currently based in Palm Springs) tells us. “There were quite a few different eras that I was working through. A lot of it is just following emotions.” The album delves into everything from the tumult and malaise to the humor, hope and joy experienced personally and collectively during those years, but it’s not an album strictly of its time. (One track tells the story of Captain James Cook’s demise in 1779 from the perspective of the Hawaiian who killed him.) The stories, emotions and family ties embedded in the record are simultaneously personal and universal, brutal and playful, ephemeral and timeless—and all exude that familiar UMO tenderness.

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Courtesy of Juan Ortiz Arenas

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Courtesy of Juan Ortiz Arenas

Ruban began writing music for the record in Palm Springs with his brother, Kody. “I thought I was going to be influenced by all this stuff from rock radio from when I was a kid, and I was going to tackle the stuff that wasn’t really the kind of music that I would put on myself but more the kind of records you’d hear on the radio when you’re driving or in supermarkets: Toto records or a Journey song. I was thinking about that kind of music and how difficult it is to craft songs like that,” he says.

Then the pandemic hit, and his intention altered. “I really wanted to make it like the anti-pandemic record. I didn’t want to make it about being by myself and being sad, I wanted to make it more expansive and happy, but then a lot of things happened in my extended family… Kind of just a wave of tragedies. All these things happened, so it sent me into this completely different space.”

He moved his mother (who is a Kanaka Maoli and had lived in New Zealand for 40 years) back to Hilo, Hawaii in order to be with family while his uncle was unwell. Back and forth between California and Hilo, between families, responsibilities and anxieties, Ruban’s mind was off the album as he focused on his loved ones’ needs. But his natural inclination to make music from feelings is inevitable. “It’s sort of funny because it made me rediscover what music was actually there for in the first place, and it’s not just my job, it’s actually a coping mechanism,” he says. “Once I hit a certain point, with my internal world so filled up with stuff, I started to spontaneously think of things that turned into songs.”

After some time, Ruban and Kody had a plethora of songs, but needed to find the thread that connected them into an album. “I don’t really subscribe to the idea that albums aren’t important anymore,” Ruban says. The brothers started a process of pulling up recorded tracks, making playlists and listening to them while driving together. They were “driving around, driving up the mountains in Palm Springs, listening and talking, catching up and then making notes,” Ruban says. They found that one strong theme was their shared history. “The process of mixing the record and getting it together, in the end, was about taking all this heaviness that we’ve been carrying around and all these events and reflecting on where we come from. I feel like it was really clear what the mood of the record was going to be because we were feeling something really strong.”

As well as a coping mechanism, writing music has proved a way for Ruban to clarify, recontextualize and resolve things. He describes his childhood as “disruptive” and says his family—like all families—is complicated. “For me, it’s a way of creating a story or some cohesion to all of this chaos. It makes it kind of makes sense to me,” he says. “I think in some ways that’s part of why I find it so important to turn my family into what I’m doing. When I’m making records, it’s like I can make everything make sense, and I think my family makes no sense. It’s like a rolling disaster. So I found a way of creating a kind of myth—a way of making sense of things. In a way these chaotic stories do fit together, the way that I see it. It’s quite an epic, dramatic story—the story of my family—but nobody’s paying attention to that because it’s also the story of a bunch of people just kind of going from one disaster to the next.”

Despite always representing and celebrating his heritage, this sixth album is the first time Ruban has incorporated hapa haole. “I’ve always thought of Hawaii as being a strong part of the band and what’s influenced me and the sound. I was always thinking eventually somebody will point this out,” he says. Spending time in Hawaii and with family influenced the sound of the album, but also helped Ruban contextualize UMO musically—and perhaps on a self-identifying level too. “I was wondering where it fits into the canon of American music or how I fit into American music. I was just kind of like, ‘Oh, I’m a part of the Hawaiian tradition as well,’” he says.

“My manager was really the person who said, ‘You don’t have to, you know, hide the Hawaiian thing. It’s interesting and people are interested and it explains a lot about why you make the choices that you make,’” he continues. When thinking about that conversation, various musical influences, along with the fact that Ruban filmed his mother (who happens to have been Miss Aloha Hula 1973) dancing by the water for the “I Killed Captain Cook” video, once again things fell into place. “With all of that put together, it made sense to me,” he says. “Hawaii has helped me understand how all of these pieces fit together because a lot of these things are about my life and my family.”

Listening to the album now, with four years of work and life within it, Ruban says, “By the time we finished, I kind of felt relief that I finally got something that felt like a cohesive album. The judge of quality for me is just being lost in feeling when listening back to it. I try to be pragmatic; I don’t want to be too woo-woo about what I’m doing. You know, I don’t think about the music as a product when I’m making it. I try to separate from the idea that it’s going to be sold later on and that helps me make the best music I can.”

Hero image courtesy of Juan Ortiz Arenas

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