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...