Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s fourth full-length, Sex & Food is both reflection and rumination on our times. Simultaneously grandiose and deeply contemplative, the record swirls with disparate sounds and themes – unified by a pessimism and fear of where we’re headed and how we got there. We reached the band’s leader, Ruban Nielson, by phone while he made coffee at home. Nielson opened up about his own self-doubt in the creative process, how pop music is one of the greatest currents in his life, and the unlikely role Salvador Dali played in one of the records key moments.
Aquarium Drunkard: Sex & Food has been out now for nearly a month – has there been a pleasant or surprising element of the reaction to it that you’ve seen? Is there something that really sticks out to you in the way people are perceiving it?
Ruban Nielson: The first thing that comes to mind is when we recorded the base tracks for a song called “Hunnybee,” it was Jake Portrait, the bass player in the band, my brother Kody, who plays drums, and I. We were at my brother’s place and I showed them the song and we were just playing through it. We kind of had this idea that it would maybe be the song of the album – the biggest or best song. We’d only been recording for half an hour and we thought, “let’s move on to something else cause I think we just made something good.” And every time we worked on that song we always thought, “don’t screw it up, don’t screw up what we got on that first day.” It’s not a single on the record or anything, yet, but it already seems to be the one that people are reacting to the most. It’s kind of interesting when people respond the way that your own instincts tell you.
AD: What was it about the songs you’ve selected as singles so far, starting with “American Guilt,” that made you want those to be the first that people would hear?
Ruban Nielson: Well, the way the singles are chosen, I’m not sure how everyone else on my label is, but we have a lot of fun with that stuff. We had a lot of debates and conversations about how to introduce people to the record. I think the main tension is that the record is not built to endear itself to the listener on the first listen – which makes for a scary round of reviews. We know that it doesn’t really open up until the third listen or so. And it’s kind of something that I’m always dealing with; that when I’m making the record I’m actually purposefully moving away from things that will make the music immediately appealing. So when we’re choosing the singles, I think “American Guilt” was chosen first [because] they thought the song was strong, but I think the reason to put it out first was almost to confuse people and start a conversation, because it seemed to be the only real… it was kind of for fun, really. But it is a strategy – I just didn’t want to put out the song that would be the most appealing. And actually, on the last record, Multi-Love, the single [of the same name], when we put that song out we chose it because we thought it would be a shock and we didn’t really know what was going to be the biggest song on the record. We kind of thought it was going to be too weird, ultimately. So after that, having gone with the song that we thought would be the most exciting on that album, we thought, maybe we should exaggerate, put the two most confusing songs out as singles first [for this one]. I don’t think there ever really was going to be one song that could represent the record, so maybe we could just confuse everyone until the record came out.
AD: Would you be willing to expand on something you said there, where you like to move away from something that might be appealing? What drives you to be a little more opaque?
Ruban Nielson: It’s not like I’m purposely trying to make it difficult or anything. In all of the stages of this band, including the very beginning, or probably from the second record on, I just found there are a lot of crossroads I’d come to, where I have to make specific decisions about the way something was mixed or something, and it will always be a decision between making the records more immediately appealing, or making them the way that I really think they should be. It always seems to be an either/or thing. Ultimately I would love everyone to like the music immediately and also like it later, but I often feel like the choice seems to be between those two things: appealing now, or making what I really wanna do. A certain type of person will listen halfway through the song to be like, “Oh, I get this” and skip to somebody else’s music. So I find myself having to actually make that sacrifice when I’m making my music. But it works out, and over time, I realized, I was kind of making the choice that I’d hoped I was making, which was that the music lasts longer, the way that I make it. And in this era, we even have the streaming data that backs up the arguments [laughs] I’ve been making for years: it’ll be fine, it’ll take time for the songs to get a hold, and then once they’re there, there’ll always be an audience for it. So that’s what I hope I’m doing.
AD: These crossroad moments, where you have to make choices about a song you’re working on – did the success of, in particular, the song “Multi-Love” and being able to make a quote, “hit,” change your creative process, or how you approach it?
Ruban Nielson: I suppose that the way the band has commercially gone, it’s like when I made my first two records, it wasn’t really an argument. I mean the idea that I could produce one of those songs more commercially wasn’t an option because I didn’t have the money. “So Good At Being In Trouble” [from 2013’s II] couldn’t have been more hi-fi, I didn’t have the option. And in the last two records I guess I have, but I came to the realization that a lot of those things I did… I liked the way that I did those things – the things I did when I had no money.
It is a thing that keeps coming up, like if I would produce something a certain way, that I would have a bigger head or something, but I don’t ever really think about it in a different way other than, “it should sound like this.” When I’m making the record, I’m not trying to make it uncommercial, I’m just trying to make it, according to my taste, the best it can be. In my mind, I’m not thinking that it’s going to be less popular. All I think is maybe make it more idiosyncratic, but in my mind they’re all hits [laughs], in my mind it’s just, “this is what it should sound like.” And I guess I don’t really approach it any other way. I dunno, as time goes on I do start to correspond with producers and people who have made things that are commercially successful. I just think I’m willing to let the process be kind of organic, I don’t really feel any need to do things differently.
AD: Do you see each of your works, or just you how you go about writing your songs, as something that’s built on top of what you’ve done before? Or is it more of an individual snapshot of you at a given time and it could only have been created in that moment?
Ruban Nielson: I see it as a body of work, I suppose. I think when I made the first record, I literally thought that everyone would hate the music that I was making, so I was pretty cautious – like I was kind of embarrassed about it because I was like, “well this is what I like, but no one else is going to like it.” So, in a way, when there was an audience for it, it was like I’d accidentally discovered a format that I could work in, that would also work as as career. So it was just kind of like, I can keep making music like this and it seems like people like it, so that’s kind of the ultimate. But I kind of did that accidentally. So when I go back to make more records, I’m always trying to go back into that original mindset of trying to make what I want to make and what I think is good. And if I have this feeling like, “everyone’s going to laugh at this, it’s ridiculous there’s no audience for this music,” if I had those feelings in my head, I could just remind myself that I’ve always had that feeling: that nobody’s going to care about it. So that’s nice because it’s irrelevant – that thing being irrelevant alleviates a lot of my self-doubt.
AD: Several years ago you emailed me after I had reviewed Foxygen’s record, …And Star Power. You highlighted this quote from that piece, “it’s much more amusing to simply be at peace with the fact that Foxygen completely eschews our normal, boring 3-minutes-is-a-song world than to get ticked off for not getting a record full of ‘hits.'” You wrote that that line, “it’s much more amusing” was to you, “what it’s all about. It’s not like the band are doing anything more than trying to create some fun in the world for themselves and others. People seem to get so pissed at records that don’t simply knock it out of the park and instead try to do something a little more uncertain.” You just spoke to that in part, but I’m wondering, specific to this record, do you feel like it’s adding some fun to the world, or maybe just some fun for you? Is it the philosophy that you take with your own music and music in general, or was that more specific to them, that sound and that record?
Ruban Nielson: I think that’s something I like about them and I think it’s part of what we each do. When it comes to some of those comparisons to other artists, I feel sometimes that I’m lucky in that, when I’m left to my own devices to do whatever I want, I tend to land quite heavily in the world of pop, because I actually really think pop music is my center. It’s like an alternative universe where pop evolved into something else [laughs]. Radio-pop and stuff like that – I get really enthusiastic about certain things that come on the radio. But for the most part, a lot of it just seems like noise and then every now and again a gem will kind of pop out, and for some reason I’ll just love it, like something super modern, you know?
But in general I like hooks, and I like a slightly more conservative song structure. So when I do go mad, it usually ends up being kind of quite cohesive somehow. And that’s lucky for me. But I also like it when artists do their own version of it and it’s not just a bunch of pop, it’s something really confusing. There’s so such music being made, and I think there was a period where… I think it’s still the same, but there is an aspect of popticism, or just recent music criticism, that wants to not only elevate artists for creating pop music, but that wants to punish them for not doing it. Sometimes when artists make something, they make something that needs to be intimate and has to be obscure – there isn’t a pop format for every single feeling in the world. Sometimes, especially at that time when “…And Star Power” came out, it felt like there was this idea that if you turn away from that idea, of knocking it out of the park, or trying to make it big or whatever, that you were sort of doing it because you are some kind of hipster or something.That’s a pretty distorted view. I think often artists just do what their heart’s telling them to do. You know, it’s just not very poppy and yet it’s still great. There’s probably thousands of great records that prove that point.
AD: Pop music in album form, in general, tends to create a lack of cohesion of sounds and content. But we’re seeing more and more artists who, as pop stars, are actually able to control the lyrical content and the elements of production, and as a result, you see greater cohesion and album-length themes. It’s something that can feel like is missing from a lot of older pop music. You know, I love Michael Jackson or Britney Spears, I thought that was great when it came out, but the stars and their sound is something different now. Artists are creating genres around themselves, particularly in hip-hop, and in more particular, around female hip-hop artists like, say, Cardi B.
Ruban Nielson: Pop music has become more personal now, and I’m not sure exactly why that is. Maybe everybody’s just become much more reflective, maybe our society is more reflective, and so we’re kind of looking for a little more perspective from pop rather than just a jamboree or something [laughs].
AD: Like when The Beatles came out, the information you had on the Beatles was what was on the record and what their people put out. Now, you’re a musician, but you’re also a public figure, and so there’s all these other sources of information about you that can color how people perceive you. It’s no longer just the content of your work. And that is to the detriment of many artists, and maybe to others a good thing. But that’s certainly a shift that’s continuing.
Ruban Nielson: It’s not like my group has been a central part of any kind of cultural goings-on, but I do feel like this era feels more natural, even with streaming and stuff like that, because I think in pop music, there are extremes where the artists aren’t really publicly shared, it’s more of an intimate, one-on-one relationship.
You know, it’s just like, if somebody has 2-million people that want to have this kind of one-on-one relationship, and feel like they’re the only person in the whole world that likes that artist, it doesn’t really stop the debt from occurring, a lot of times, if that make sense? And then it’s not like you have to tell everybody who you’re listening to, you just listen to it on your phone, and what would be the point unless you thought somebody else would enjoy it? So I’ve noticed that with, like, XXXTentacion, where publicly he’s already been denounced as a communal figure, but he still has a number one record because, individually, people have decided that they are going to choose to listen to his music on their own terms. And I think that means that an artist like me, and I don’t want to compare myself to him, but it’s like, people used to think, “this guy makes emo, bummer music” and stuff like that. But if you’re just listening by yourself , it’s like, who cares, if that’s what you want to listen to?
AD: Yeah, we live in a time where the biggest song in the world today could have been recorded last weekend, and that’s only recently possible. That’s an intimacy and an immediacy we still don’t know how to deal with, where we react as listeners first and ask questions later.
Off this tangent, the narrative around Multi-Love got co-opted very suddenly, and it colored how people began talking about the record. Now, looking at how critics are currently responding to this record, I was surprised by the amount of time that people spent on that co-opting, and the discussion that ensued around it. I’m wondering if going through that experience, where something that wasn’t necessarily on the document became part of what you had to deal with, influenced how you wanted this record to be perceived or if you wanted to be more opaque, or perhaps more clear?
Ruban Nielson: I really think that this record is just as opaque as Multi-Love, or just as revealing. I think that the difference was that there was one piece where I felt obligated to clarify what the interviewer felt that they were reading into the album. I mean, at some point my life got quite a bit more dramatic [laughs].
So if I talk to people about what my is life is like, and then they look at my music, there will be a story or whatever. And this record’s no different than the last record, I just think that the problem is that it’s… like, artistically that would be fine. You know, I do feel, a little bit, like I owe the culture something, something of myself or whatever. It just kind of runs rampant on my personal life. If I tell anybody what’s happening, it’s going to potentially ruin whole relationships and whole aspects of my life. So in the music, I’m revealing the same amount. But in interviews and stuff like that, I’m not going to spell out what happened to me over the last two years. It just doesn’t make that much sense. I can’t just let whatever details of my life that sound juicy in a link be eaten up by the cycle of Twitter or whatever.
AD: This record is really interesting to me because it feels like you’re pulled in a couple of different directions. You seem to face the problems Americans, citizens of the world, and you personally, are up against in our lives now. Is there a cohesion, below the surface, either musically or lyrically, where there’s something that informs each of the songs, even if their individual content seems juxtaposed or diametrically different?
Ruban Nielson: Well I suppose the overall theme, and I feel this is kind of obvious – it’s something like confusion, but it’s not really confusion, it’s just the state of looking at the world and not knowing quite what’s real and what things are the truth, what ideologies are morally correct. All of these kinds of things that to me are kind of floating in the air right now. And there’s this weird thing that seems to happen every time somebody holds a position that you think, “Oh, that’s a pretty righteous way of looking at things.” There’s always some other piece of information that kind of disqualifies that or something. Personally, ideologically, I have very few anchors right now. And so I think that’s why I called the album Sex & Food, because it’s like a retreat into trying to build things up from the bottom, you know, what would our commonalities be? And we have to go all the way back down to our organic matter. We are all physically the same. We do actually need the same things.
Sex & Food is just a stand-in for this idea that all these ideological disagreements and all this madness is sort of manufactured. It’s like, if we didn’t have a cerebral cortex, we wouldn’t have the same issues – a lot of it is smoke and mirrors. I suppose that’s my main thing, it encompasses a lot of different things in my life. On Multi-Love, my politics just kind of came in subconsciously while I was talking about sex and relationships, and then on this record it was like the opposite, maybe? It was like politics was just forcing its way into me, when I was trying to just talk about simple things. The story, though, is partly me trying to keep people from latching onto the story long enough that they’ll get bored of looking and move onto the next set of records.
AD: How do you find the wherewithal to pause and stop and focus on a single song for extended time, and not get so antsy that you psych yourself out of thinking that a song could be recordable? How do you just breathe some air, and give yourself space to actually continue to create?
Ruban Nielson: I’m always so surprised that any of the stuff has done as well as it’s done and it’s funny because I find myself having conversations, or interviews, asking “why aren’t you more successful?” or “why don’t you allow yourself to be more successful?” – and I just keep thinking about the fact that I only ever really wanted to tour in a van. The venue that I really thought maybe one day I’ll play was Shepards Bush Empire in London. And we sold that out four years ago or something. Everything that’s been happening since about halfway through the Multi-Love cycle has been beyond what I thought was going happen. So I’m always in this constant state of surprise that things are doing as well as they are. I kind of just feel grateful and I’m really not concerned about being more popular, or whether my music does well. It’s like that thing I was talking about with “Hunnybee:” the album came out and people started listening to “Hunnybee” and it’s out-streaming a lot of other stuff. People are really just gravitating towards that song. That to me is just magic. Nobody told them to listen to that song, there have been other songs that have been promoted and written about. But for some reason people are gravitating to this particular song, and I think, in some ways, it’s the best song, so that process is where I want to be. I want to be in that place where I’m allowed to produce the music that I think is good. So, given that that’s where I’m lucky enough to find myself, it is possible to just sit down and another write song. All of the really cynical and brutal and cheap parts of the music industry are held at bay in my life, so I’m kinda free to do what I want to.
AD: Has that created a confidence, though? Or do you still wonder if something might be a dud, or if anyone will care?
Ruban Nielson: I suppose I’m just constantly thinking, like, this is all gonna fail, this is a joke. I mean the first few years felt like it was going to be Candid Camera, “people don’t actually like this music.” I’m kind of racked with self-doubt, but it’s just part of my process, to just kind go through a stage of thinking that what I’m doing is terrible. I don’t think of it in terms of whether people will like it or not, I’m mostly just trying to be honest with myself about assessing my own music. I’ve spent so long in music and I’ve seen so many different kinds of approaches, and been around so many different kinds of musicians and stuff that… I feel like I’m kind of an expert in some ways [laughs]. It’s a horrible word to use, but it’s like when I’m actually assessing my own music, there’s no review that could possibly come out that can touch the thousands of negative reviews I’ve given myself while making my own records. That process, it’s still fun. I’d still rather do that than another job and I think it’s still the thing that’s my best shot at having a career that’s worth anything. I’m not very good at very many other things. I still end up every time like, “well, I’m lucky, so I’m going to keep going.” Honestly, the other thing is, I’m brutal on myself, but I look at most other music and I think, “well this is all garbage.” And that’s enough to get me through a day, cause I’ll be thinking that what I’m working on is really bad, but then I’ll go to the supermarket and I’ll listen to the music that’s playing and think,”well, my music a lot better than this,” [laughs] and then I’ll just go home and get on it.
AD: I want to ask about a very particular moment on the record: the saxophone that comes in at the end of “Ministry of Alienation.” It comes in briefly and it’s this chaotic, free-jazz sax moment, a blip – the only horn on the record. What was the impetus for picking that sound at that moment and then cutting it so short?
Ruban Nielson: I think it was recorded in New Zealand originally, but I went to Vietnam late last year, flew my bandmates and my dad up, and worked on the record some more. It was monsoon season, and there was a big storm, just like the craziest rain I’ve ever seen. And we got stuck in the AirBnB, so I brought a mobile recording set-up over. My dad was there, and so I was just trying to explain to him what I wanted that part to be. It was very vague, it wasn’t that I was telling him any musical references. I was sort of talking about absurdities – my dad’s like, a cynical person, he’s the kind of guy that really likes George Carlin – and you know, as somebody of his generation, that has lived a lot longer than me, he sort of took our talk about the situation we find ourselves in, and I think he said something about Salvador Dali [laughs], I think Dali was the only creative reference really. So then he played this Salvador Dali saxaphone solo. I think it may have been the first take or something. So it was a conversation of about 20 minutes, and then he just played it. It was perfect. That part of the record is the absurdity of our time escaping for a second, but I just didn’t want to… there’s a lot more absurdity [in the world] floating around right now than is enjoyable for a record. I think it’s okay to reference it, but I didn’t want it to take over the whole record. At certain times I thought this was going to have to be a doom record or something, or a black metal record, to explain how evil our times really are. I didn’t want to create that kind of record, that’s a reflection of these times, I just wanted to make a record of how I feel about the world at this point. You know, my life is still reasonably similar to what it was a few years ago – I’m just a lot more worried [laughs].
AD: That seems to be the key difference between making a record, or any art or commentary, that’s a reflection of our times, versus your times. That line is very, very important; your times can include elements of our times, but you don’t have to make a statement that applies, or you think applies, to everyone.
Ruban Nielson: I can’t anyway, it would be nice to be able to do that, but I always find that the more particular I get, the more universal it is actually. I think that’s been the lesson of the music that I make in this band, that when I express what I think is my very specific experience, I can find myself connecting to people more. And then I’m forced to face the fact that I’m very similar to everyone else, which is, in that whole process, a good thing. It’s like I write this thing that’s very personal and I think will alienate people, and then I spend three years replying to direct messages from people who’re thanking me that I wrote this thing and that’s how I connect to people in a more honest way. It’s good for me.
AD: You’re at the point in an album cycle where you’ve probably done the bulk of the press. As you look back on the last couple of weeks and months, is there something that you feel people have missed or are not quite getting about Sex & Food?
Ruban Nielson: One thing that I’ve seen a little bit of is this idea that the darkness in the record is somehow unwelcome. My response to that is what world is somebody living in… I mean I suppose if people want pure escapism, that might make sense. But to me, that’s partly what my record is about. I’m not finding any relief in the denial. The world is in a terrible, terrible place. It’s obvious that our species is facing extinction. And probably the only way we can save ourselves is to put our heads together. Right now we’re just becoming so atomized. So the idea that the record being dark is a bummer is just very, very strange to me. I find myself very suspect of people who aren’t saddened or angry, or feeling like we’re up against it right now. That’s crazy. This record is really just supposed to make people feel good. I’m way too sensitive of a soul to exclude all elements of darkness from a record that comes out in 2018. It surprises me that pop music isn’t more dark. words / b kramer
Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which will allow readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond.