It's the dream of many home recordists, but for Ruban Nielson it actually happened. He recorded some songs at home for fun, posted them online, and a buzz started around them — leading to record labels, tours, and albums. Unknown Mortal Orchestra's recent third album, Multi-Love, is a groovy, psychedelic pop treat. If you look at the record's cover photo, you see the Portland-area basement where Ruban recorded Multi-Love, and that exact spot is where we met up to do this late night interview.
You started in New Zealand with anonymously posted music?
I was in Portland by that time. Before that I was in another band [The Mint Chicks] with my brother [Kody Nielson] and some friends from high school. We came to Portland eight years ago, visiting my uncle here for a couple of weeks. I fell in love with it. I went home and ultimately ended up leaving the band and packing up to come back. I'd gone to art school and had done painting, so I thought I was going to stop doing music, because the industry is bullshit. I loved music, but it seemed like I was spending less and less time working on music and more time worrying about other shit that I had no interest in. So I came to Portland and started interning at a film production company doing illustration. I was comfortable, and after things started to look good, I was like, "I might start doing music again." I had this idea of making an album by myself. I was getting obsessed with psychedelic music — I was trying to find all the lost gems; all the records that were my favorites but that I hadn't heard yet. It got to the point where there were getting to be less and less [new discoveries], so I decided to make one. I was doing that for about three months, kind of secretly. I uploaded a song to Bandcamp, and then a couple of days went by and I forgot about it. It ended up on a blog, and then another blog posted it, and within a couple of days it was on Pitchfork and they were like, "Nobody knows who it is!" I still had this idea that I'd given up music, but then all these labels started contacting me and asking me for more music. I sent it to them and went through the whole process of like, "Should I start a new band? Do I really want to do this?" I opted to go for it and then I went on tour. I asked Jake Portrait if he wanted to play bass in the band. He didn't play bass, but I was talking to him about music a lot, and I felt like he understood what a bass player was supposed to do. [Riley Geare joined on drums, too.]
Do you find it pretty amazing when you look at the path the project's taken?
Yeah, it's really interesting. It just goes; it happens from day to day. It really started from nothing. It is a cool ride to be on, I suppose.
Was this the same equipment you did your initial recordings on?
No, no way. I didn't have any of this. I did two records with a [Shure SM]58 and my Mbox Mini, a [Fender] Blues Junior, one guitar, and a bass. The record companies would have a bidding war, and I'd sell the album that I made. I didn't have any money when I made the [first Unknown Mortal Orchestra] record. I went on tour, and the manager ripped me off for all this money, so I was broke again when I made the second album. The same thing happened where I had to sell it to the company afterwards.
What other gear did you have?
I had these [points at Yamaha HS7 monitors]. I still have no desire to upgrade from them. I've heard that [Yamaha] NS-10s are really good workhorses, but I know these speakers so well now. I think that's the thing, getting used to gear. I don't get delusions of grandeur about the idea of how good I am, but I feel like if I know these speakers and they're reliable, then I know it will pop out of peoples' laptop speakers.
Reproduction gets dumbed down in a lot of scenarios.
All the good records still sound good coming out of an iPhone. I really like the mid-'70s [David] Bowie music. Those records sound good on the worst car speakers, an iPhone in a cup, or any other horrible situation.
What mics do you have here?
I got through two records with a [Shure SM]58. I like the idea of using Shure mics because they're such a workhorse company. I've been using this [KSM 44] for vocals. That suits my voice. There's a lot of equipment that I've never tried. I've never tried a [Neumann] U 47 before.
I've still never used a real vintage one!
Halfway through this record I had this delusion that I was getting good at mixing and recording. "I should try to make this record sound awesome." Then I realized, "What is good, really?" It's good if it works. I try to keep in mind that "effective" is the main thing. So often I'll try something, like when I first got these API 560 [EQ]s. I had no top-end in my first two records, so I finally went top-end crazy. I was putting 16 kHz on everything to make it sound really airy. Then I'd take those mixes and play them on something not ideal, and I'd realize that it gets in the way — it takes up energy and I don't need it. I try to keep it all midrange-heavy; keep everything in the middle.
The new record has fidelity, but it also has a great midrange. There's a feeling of a classic, older record in there too.
I think that focus is what I like. I A/B'd my mixes when I was about halfway through the record with my old equipment. I felt there was something really assertive about the old music. I think that because I was resigned to the records sounding shitty, and I was trying to make the best out of that shitty sound.
Do you have the feeling that you might end up buying too much recording gear?
I definitely have too much at the moment! I don't know what else I would get. I really want to get an SSL Stereo Bus Compressor but, apart from that, I'm happy. I'd like to get a [Chandler] Curve Bender, but that's a ways off.
I see the Fostex Model 80 tape deck here.
Sometimes I'll record to tape. It's pretty beaten up now, but I've had it for years. I have a spare one, because the prices started going up. I bought a 2-track version as well, because I thought I might mix to it. I'm not ready to make a leap to the next level of tape. I like how I can use tape and still be self-sufficient, to some degree.
Do you use it on the basic tracking? Are you processing after tracking?
I use it all kinds of ways. I do all the drums straight to it. I try to keep my track [counts] down. I only really want to work with maybe ten stems, at the most.
When you're mixing?
Yeah. If I have a bunch of guitar tracks, I'll bounce them all down, sum it all to the Chandler [mini Rack Mixer], and then back in. I'll print all the plug-ins and commit to it. It's fun that way, because I don't really like plug-ins that much. I don't like the sound.
You end up mixing all this yourself in the computer, but you're using external bussing, tape processing, and things like that?
Yeah. It's kind of the way I was doing it before, but it's getting more sophisticated. What I was doing before was that I never really liked the computer that much, apart from how easy it is to work with. I never really liked the sound. I had this idea, like, "What if I ran it out of the computer?" I didn't know anything about summing, but I had the idea that I could make it like I was recording with tape if I sent it out and then back in. The problem I'm having at the moment is that switching between mix mode and tracking mode is a hassle. I built this weird patchbay: I have all these RCAs, XLRs, two 1/4-inches, and then little plugs, so I can go XLR to RCA.
Because the Fostex deck is using RCA connectors?
I used to use a Tascam M-30 mixer. That was my mixer. That's all RCA. It was all cheap, you know?
It was a matter of making really cheap gear that I had play nicely with the modern ones that I got. I built that weird patchbay. It's funny to make it up as I go along.
Well you have to, don't you?
I guess so. A lot of times I'll think that I have come up with my own way of solving something, but Jake's worked in a lot of professional studios, and he'll say, "Oh yeah, that's the way it's done."
You moved over to the Apogee Symphony converter recently.
It was quite exciting to go from having almost nothing to having a lot of serious stuff. I bought it, plugged it in, and it was like, "Really? That's all?" I downloaded the driver and it was recording.
Did you notice a big shift in sound quality going through the converter?
Yeah. I have a lot of friends who know way more about this than me. I said, "I think I need a new converter." My friend said, "Of course you do!" I was thinking about getting an [Apogee] Quartet, but when I looked it up I figured I might as well spend the extra money to be able to do eight channels.
And you can add to it.
Right. It seemed like a smarter idea. I figured I'd probably have it for a long time. I think the thing I discovered is that transients hit harder. There's some kind of punchiness that I can get out of it. I don't have to sit around trying to make things sound good. I was dealing with that on the first two records, recording sounds that sounded terrible and then trying to make them sound as good as they could.
What's the typical process for you when you're recording a song?
I don't use very many mics on drums. I just use two mics. I have a kick drum mic. I can't remember what it's called.
Like a Beta 52?
I think it is a Shure PG[A52]. I use the [Shure] KSM137 a lot for my main drum mic. It sounds really good on drums. It's really crunchy.
For an overhead mic?
Pointing it at the snare and picking up whatever else. That ended up being the main thing I was using. That to tape, through the Ekadek — it adds a bit more mid- rangey punch to it. If you put seven microphones on the drum kit, a lot of drummers think it doesn't matter how they play, because the engineer will make it sound right later. Hit the toms at the right volume so that you don't have to balance it later. If you have a good drummer, fewer mics sound fine. I don't think I've gone to three mics yet, because I'm not ready!
You track drums down to a couple tracks of tape?
Yeah. I'll record a whole reel of drums, and then I'll put it all into the computer to chop up.
How did sessions for Multi-Love start?
My brother came out for a month [from New Zealand], and I had all the songs ready. I'd play him the song on my computer; he'd throw a reference out, and then we'd go on YouTube and see what BPM it could be. Then I'd work up a beat, play it with the guitar and think about things, and then we'd work from there to go for what we'd been talking about.
Is that the first time you've had him come to play on something?
He played a little bit on the last record. I had one of those old cassette recorders with a built-in mic, and I'd put it in front of the drums and ask him to play a certain beat. He'd play half an hour of random drumbeats, and then I used them later. I'd have one beat and think, "Okay, I'm stuck with this now." I'd have to figure out which song and what beat went together. This time I flew him over here for a month, and we worked more on getting the right feel. Some songs didn't really work until I put them back into the tape machine and used the speed control to slow them down.
It sounds cool when you slow tape drums down too. Things get a little deeper and darker.
You can't really do that on the computer. It doesn't feel right to me. It's a lot simpler to slow down a tape.
Do you do other kinds of processing externally, besides sub-mixing and with tape? Do you run through stompboxes?
Yeah, I do a lot of that.
I saw your [Radial] ReAmp sitting over there.
I have a lot of pedals. I figure, "Who else is sending something out into one of the worst analog delays to get a slapback?" It's cool. I'll have all my pedals set up and try different things, like put drums through a flanger or something. It's either going to work, or not going to work. It makes it feel unique, in a way. It makes you think, "I've got my drum sound that I've worked on." That's really what I'm going for: getting excited, not being able to go to sleep, and coming back downstairs.
You're working in your home basement studio with your family upstairs.
I usually work at night anyway, just because that's the way I am. I've always been an insomniac. My wife [Jenny] and I have known each other for so long, and she's so used to me being awake at night that it's kind of comforting for her to hear a kick drum coming through the floor. She once told me that it's like someone's up and watching the house. We've been living like this for a while, and whether I was making music or not, I've always been working on projects at night, listening to music, or painting. I can't record a vocal during the day when everybody's running around. I did this acoustic EP when I first got my Pearlman mic. I had to record everything with dead silence. If a car drove by I could hear it and I'd have to start again. It was infuriating, but I liked the sound. Anything could ruin my take.
Have other people ever approached you about producing them?
A little bit, but I've been really busy. It would be cool to try it out, but I think I'm waiting for a good fit. It's a lot of energy, it seems. I have friends that do production at various levels. Whether the record is something that people will hear, or something that people won't hear, you still have to invest a huge amount of time into the people and the music. I wouldn't want to work on something that I wasn't really excited about. That would make it really hard work, I think.
It's hard work, regardless.
I have these kids that send me demos. There was this one band from Portland, and I asked, "Can you send me the tracks?" I wanted to mix it and see if I could make it sound better. I wonder if I would have more fun mixing, because it's a little bit more solitary, tweaking things around. I'm interested in the problem solving side. You get a bass track and it's really subby — like, "How can I move the energy of this bass higher up?" It's not like I'm very good at that yet, but it's still fun to think about.
Was there anyone who inspired you about home recording from the beginning?
Yeah. Chris Knox was probably the biggest influence. He probably formed my idea of what I wanted to do, and what circumstances I wanted to make records under. I used to listen to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, but I never really thought about the big studio environments. I used to think about Chris Knox making his own recordings. I was always really attracted to the amount of time that The Beatles seemed to have for making records. Since they were the biggest band in the world, they got all the time to hang out in the studio and make music. I think time is the thing that I was most inspired by; like the idea that you sit around, work a bit, write some lyrics, think about it, and all that. When I heard about Chris Knox and the way he recorded bands in his living room, I thought, "Wow, recording at home would mean that I could have a studio of my own."