The last two Unknown Mortal Orchestra albums were largely the product of the same process. Ruban Nielson, the band’s creative force, hunkering down inside of the basement of his home in Portland, tinkering around with ideas, melodies, pieces of equipment until something fuzzy, thought-provoking, and glorious came out. For the latest UMO project, however, Nielson wanted to break free of that cycle. He packed his bags and spent the last year and a half in a variety of different locales like Mexico and Vietnam, trying desperately to draw inspiration from the exotic environments which he found himself.
The endeavor was largely a success. The latest UMO album, Sex & Food, is a sonically expansive, endlessly funky, and, of course, psychedelic project, that touches on a wide range of different ideas and themes like capitalism, drugs, fatherhood, and God himself. “I feel like it’s a lot of pressure to have big opinions about the way the world should be,” he told me. “The problem with that, personally, is that I don’t really feel like I have the answers and I haven’t actually seen a wealth of people that do. So, to me, it makes me want to focus back on the things that are important and that make me feel human.”
Recently, I had the chance to talk to Ruban about Sex & Food, his travels around the globe, and why he doesn’t want you to think about him when you hear his new music.
It sounds like the process of creating Sex & Food was a bit of a nomadic experience.
I spent the last two albums in my basement basically, making everything there. I kind of knew that if I was to spend a year and a half on a record, I wasn’t gonna be able to spend the whole time in the basement. Because I work at night, I just felt like I was gonna need to get out of the house a bit. I would do work until I thought a little bit like I needed a break and then I would just book a flight and go somewhere. It’s just an intuitive thing of just wondering what, having an idea of the place that I might find inspiring, ya know?
How much does environment impact the way an album comes out? Obviously, I don’t hear Vietnam necessarily in the record, but how much did the act of being in Vietnam directed how the music came out?
I think the thing with Vietnam was that the environment was so heavy with atmosphere that it really did affect the record. ‘Cause it has a quite a soulful environment, but it’s also quite hard to record there because of the humidity and things like that, which I think is good. I kind of like that stuff. I like to have some aspect of it to be challenging. I like to be overwhelmed, because when I’m overwhelmed I tend to be more vulnerable and then I think I make better music.
What was the setup like there?
It was more like the Vietnam that I had in my imagination. The way I imagined it would be than I actually anticipated it to be. I thought that it might be more modernized and that it might not look like the way that Vietnam appears in movies and things like that, but it was a lot more like that than I anticipated, which was good. It was a good thing.
I hesitate to call this a political record, but there do seem to be a few political ideologies that shine through like on “How Many Zeros” for instance. I guess what I’m trying to ask is, how do you feel about capitalism?
I suppose part of what I’m hoping within that is just a question. It’s not like whether I have an answer for your question, but that’s one of the questions that goes through my mind. You know like, “How do I feel about capitalism?” or “Am I built by that? Am I actually always inside capitalism or am I a capitalist subject?” Do I even have the option of imagining a world where things are different? It’s all part of it, I guess. I don’t think of it as political, in the sense that I wasn’t sitting down to try to say anything specific.
I think of politics as being quite small compared to music. Music’s way more important to me so I don’t really like the idea that politics would make an impact on my music. I suppose I think I really need music and music’s really important to me and politics seemed like an annoying, necessary evil that I would rather not have to deal with. You know?
Oh, yeah, absolutely! To go off that a little bit more though, there’s a song on the record called “American Guilt,” where you sing, “Land of the expensive / Even Nazis are crying / History’s private property / Viva la Mexico.” What were you trying to say with that last bit in particular?
Well, actually, the “Viva la Mexico” line wasn’t in the song when I first wrote it. It was a space in the song I didn’t have a line for, like a missing lyric, you know? The song itself is not in response to, say, Donald Trump, or the current situation really. The phrase “American Guilt,” and phrases like “Land of the expensive,” all of those things are things that have occurred to me over a period of years that I’ve been saving up and I suppose it just seems like now would be a time that people would be receptive to a song that had lyrics in it like that.
I would say so, for sure.
I suppose that I do know that adding “Viva la Mexico” into that song really kind of ties it to some specific things happening now. But what happened, I was actually in Mexico and was finishing the vocals for that song — I’d written most of that song in Vietnam — and we, me and the band, had recorded the main bit of the track and I was gonna go to Mexico and finish the vocals and that process was interrupted. There was a big earthquake in Mexico when we were there.
Because the buildings were collapsing, all kinds of weird stuff was going on, we spent about 12 hours in the park before we could get any food and water and then when there were enough supplies for them to start handing stuff out to us, one of the organizers screamed “Viva la Mexico” and the whole park lit up. It was a happy moment. So when I finally got back to finishing the song, it just fit. It’s a jarring thing, but I want to put it in there to remind me of that moment you know.
There’s a lot of vibes on this record. “Major League Chemicals” has like a Jimi Hendrix, Electric Ladyland feel and there’s some Prince vibes on “We’re Not In Love We’re Just High.” Can you talk about some of the aesthetics you were shooting for and how you achieved those sounds?
I played a lot of guitar on the last album, but the guitar wasn’t really the main focus of the record. I felt that I had brought in a lot of keyboards and synths and things like that, which was fun. On this one, I was thinking that, well I if I was a fan, that I would miss some of the guitar. The way I play guitar is an important part of the sound and so I wanted to bring that back and then I started to think about the guitar a lot more and so I started thinking about Jimi Hendrix. Some of the first things that got me into the guitar were really easy to return to. Jimi Hendrix is one of the biggest, of course. Prince too. Prince’s guitar playing is a big part of what I do. But with Jimi Hendrix, I kinda felt like it was this connection between that music of that time and movies that I’d grown up with about the Vietnam War and that stuff like that. So, part of the reason I went to Vietnam was because I felt that those things were connected in some way, in my head.
Oh, that’s interesting.
Probably the first time I ever heard Jimi Hendrix was on some kind of TV show or movie about the Vietnam War, and so being there kinda did something important. I did find it easy to access some of that feeling there rather than going to New York and recording at Electric Lady or going to London and recording in some place that he recorded.
I wanna ask you about the song “Honeybee,” which I believe you wrote for your daughter. Was that a challenging exercise or did it just kind of pour out of you?
I started writing that song a long time ago, but that’s kind of a difficult thing to write about because it’s a platonic love song. They’re quite difficult to write, especially for your daughter because it’s like I was thinking on the one hand it has to be platonic so you can’t fall back on a lot of the tropes of a love song for obvious reasons — it’s creepy — and probably the biggest danger is for it to become so platonic that it’s pointless. A father loves his daughter, it’s like but so what? The way that I ended up dealing with it was sort of imagining her in the future and thinking of it as this song is always going to be there and trying to encode some sort of fatherly advice for the future version of herself about the world and how she can be a formidable force in the world or something of that.
Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” is kind of the gold standard for that type of song.
Yeah, yeah. Obviously, I listened to that song anyway, a lot, but using that as a point of reference, I kinda realized I didn’t want to do that, because the angle that he takes is total, unabashed joy, you know? And I think it’s not really my personality to be that unironic. [Laughs].
As a whole, what do you hope people take away from this record?
I hope that when people listen to the record it becomes theirs. I don’t want them to really think about me when they’re listening to it. Hopefully, they can make it their own and in a way. Hopefully, if people can project their own ideas and stuff. What I really, always hoped that my music does is offer people some kind of relief.
The last record, so much of the narrative was tied into that whole backstory of you and your wife and everything, I can understand the urge to wanna just fade into the background this go-around.
Yeah, well, I think the thing that I regret on the last one was I feel like if I hadn’t told anybody what my life was like while I was making the record then it wouldn’t have been so tied up. It kind of steals the record away from people in a way when I tell them too much about the details of my life and stuff like that. So, yeah, I guess that’s where I’m at.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Sex & Food is out 4/6 via Jagjaguwar. Get it here.