Unknown Mortal Orchestra's Ruban Nielson on the family-inspired new album 'V'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Music of the psychedelic rock band Unknown Mortal Orchestra has evolved over their decade-plus of making music and touring, but they have kept their signature low-fi sound. In their latest double album, "V," the Roman numeral for five, the group reflects on family.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GARDEN")
UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA: (Singing) Hold on tight 'cause it's violent after dark in the garden.
SIMON: Unknown Mortal Orchestra's frontman and guitar player, Ruban Nielson, joins us now from Portland, Ore. Thanks so much for being with us.
RUBAN NIELSON: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
SIMON: Roman numeral V, "V," your fifth record - what influenced the sound on this one? 'Cause you've done psychedelic rock. You've done punk, even disco. What was the reason behind this sound?
NIELSON: I was interested in the really epic pop-rock songs from, like, '70's and '80's bands like Toto and Journey. So I kind of started from there. You know, after a few years, my family became much more important than the band, and I hadn't been on the road for a long time. So I started to focus more on things that were happening in my family 'cause it was, like, a laundry-list of tragedies that kind of hit my family all at once. And so I had to kind of put music aside and stop thinking about it for a while. And I moved my mother back to Hawaii, back to the Big Island, where she was born. And I think it was quite a big deal for her to come back 'cause she was a big deal in the hula world. So it's what she lives for, you know? So much to really think about, and I think the feelings and everything that we experienced in Hawaii kind of ended up being the thread that kind of, like, tied all of the songs together and kind of made the record make sense.
SIMON: Sounds like you decided to put the album aside to make room for real life and then discovered that real life worked its way onto the album.
NIELSON: Yeah, that's exactly (laughter) - that's a good way of putting it. Yeah, it's exactly what happened, you know? And kind of realizing, like, oh, your music is actually not just my job. You know, it's sort of my coping mechanism.
SIMON: If I may, it's your hula dancing.
NIELSON: Yeah (laughter). Yes, you probably right, yeah. Yeah, it's - it is, yeah. I mean, it's another thing about mom - you know, like realizing that when she's dancing, that's her real self. And then everything that happens when she's not dancing is kind of like her waiting to dance again. And I think that we have that in common.
SIMON: Let's listen to your song, "That Life."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT LIFE")
UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA: (Singing) Mm, that life. Oh, that life. Yeah, that life. You're always gonna be about morbid beauty, the skull of the school, the apple of daddy's eye.
SIMON: What inspires this song?
NIELSON: I found a place in Palm Springs that's very different, you know? It's like, in some ways it, like, reminded me of my childhood because I spent a lot of time in hotels and motels, like, touring with my parents 'cause they were both performing in different bands - like, swimming pools and kind of palm trees and stuff like that because we never had any money, but we were always kind of shuttling around to these kinds of places. And Palm Springs has a lot of that feeling. So I think that's what attracted me to it. But I just feel like, you know, "That Life" was a way of trying to organize my impressions.
SIMON: Another song we'd like to hear. Let's hear a bit from your song "Layla."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAYLA")
UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA: (Singing) Lay low, Layla. Let's get outta this broken place. Lay low, Layla. Let's get outta this town.
SIMON: That phrase, let's get out of this broken place - what and where is that broken place?
NIELSON: You know, the more I listen to it, the more I kind of realize it's some kind of tribute to my mom. And, you know, I always used to wonder, like, why would you leave Hawaii, you know? And I think she felt this, like, feeling like she wanted to move. And, like, as I got older, I kind of realized that that feeling of wanting to keep moving is part of me. Like, I definitely feel that. I feel like we're in a broken place. Like, this (laughter) whole society is kind of, like, busted. The song is really just about an optimism, like, an idea that whatever's wrong, you can kind of move past it 'cause I just kind of feel like that feeling of not understanding where to go or what to do seems to, like, dominate a lot of people's lives and discourse.
NIELSON: And so I kind of, like, feel like the first thing is the belief or the optimism that something's possible, you know? Rather than kind of giving in to the idea that this is it. We're stuck in this situation.
SIMON: Let me ask you about another song, "I Killed Captain Cook."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KILLED CAPTAIN COOK")
UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA: (Singing) Along the shores of the pathway to the gods, I sent him along on his way. Bringer of death and disgrace to the ancestral place.
SIMON: A song in the Hawaiian tradition, right?
NIELSON: It's my approach to Hawaiian music. I wanted to interpret it like the music that I grew up with. My mom used to listen to her brother's music a lot, and they used to have a traditional Hawaiian group that they toured in. And I learned about the hapa haole tradition, which is basically Hawaiian music and sung in English. And that's also my, I suppose, racial identity - would be hapa haole, like, half - which means half white, I guess. I used to be in punk bands when I was a kid. And I just kind of suddenly thought like, "I Killed Captain Cook" sounded like a really good name for, like, a Hawaiian punk band to have made or something.
SIMON: It's great. Yeah, you're right.
NIELSON: And then when I was growing up, you know, in New Zealand, James Cook is a big figure in history. He's kind of like the Christopher Columbus of the Pacific...
NIELSON: ...You know? But my mom always talked about it with this pride. Like, you know, she would always have, like, a sparkle in her eye when she'd talk about it. Like, I think, my mom's really proud of the fact that the Hawaiians were people that killed him, you know? And so in some ways, it's like a tribute to my mom 'cause, I suppose, mom ended up kind of looming pretty large over this record.
SIMON: Sounds like your family's an important part of this album.
NIELSON: Yeah, I guess it just was unavoidable. It's like family just became this looming thing, you know? It's like - I suppose like a lot of people over the pandemic, everybody, I think, just came out of that experience really transformed. You know, life starts again. And you're kind of like, OK, well, all these things that I've learned from all this hardship or, like, those horrors that I've experienced - you know, who am I now? And hopefully, you come out, like, a stronger and more useful person to the people that you love, you know?
SIMON: I'm struck by that phrase you just used - stronger and more useful to the people I love. That's what life and art, for that matter, wind up becoming about, isn't it?
NIELSON: That's my ambition - is to be useful (laughter).
SIMON: Ruban Nielson is frontman for the band Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Their new album, "V," five - take your choice - is out now. Thanks so much for being with us.
NIELSON: Cool. Thanks, man. Thanks for speaking to me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEACH")
UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA: (Singing) Take me back to the beach. Take me back to the times out of reach. Take me back to the beach. Take me back to the times out of reach. Take me back to the beach.
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