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Studio Session: Unknown Mortal Orchestra

After beginning Unknown Mortal Orchestra in a Portland basement a few years back, it was a surprise to Ruban Nielson that anyone heard the music at all, let alone that they wanted to hear an entire album’s worth. He had returned to Portland from his native New Zealand intent on turning away from music following the dissolution of The Mint Chicks, the punk band he and his brother Kody fronted for nine years.

“I just like living here. I thought, ‘I could be a mailman [in Portland] and enjoy it more than being in a rock band in New Zealand.’ There is something about the lifestyle here and the pace of everything that seemed to fit me.”

But that’s not quite how things worked out.

“I came back here and I started making music as a hobby,” he told opbmusic. “I thought, ‘Oh, nobody’s gonna care,’ you know? I can just make it and I won’t have to tell anyone I’m doing it.” Nielson anonymously posted a lone track, “Pfunny Pfriends,” on the website bandcamp in the spring of 2010. Once the blogosphere got a hold of it, there were suddenly a lot more ears listening than he ever intended.

Skip to now and the release of UMO’s sophomore effort, II. It’s one thing to make a record in anonymity and another to create and deliver while fans eagerly await your work. Nielson, for his part, doesn’t seem to have felt too much pressure related to that shift, likening the process to cooking. “If you cook a meal for yourself, you’ll enjoy it because you know what you like, but then if you’re making food for your family … then you’re always gonna put more effort into it so it’s gonna be a little bit better.” 

Nielson says he tried to build on the debut album’s groovy, bluesy, lo-fi vibe, adding a subtle touch of R&B and soul and a bit more nuance to the arrangements.

“I’ve been trying to call the sound ‘psych R&B,’ ” he explained, referring to a genre of music that grew out of the psychedelic rock and folk music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, “just because it separates us a little bit from the other psych rock bands that are in our genre. I think there aren’t a lot of people doing what we’re doing at the moment, so I kind of want people to notice that.”

UMO returns Portland for a hometown date April 5th at the Aladdin Theater.

Watch and listen to the full opbmusic session.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

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