Published Feb 27, 2013When Ruban Neilson posted the first Unknown Mortal Orchestra songs online anonymously, including the infectiously catchy "Ffunny Friends," he had no idea that there would be such a positive reaction. The former frontman of New Zealand's the Mint Chicks rounded up a band, including bassist Jake Portrait and drummer Riley Geare, and signed to U.S. label Fat Possum. While not straying too far from the hook-filled psychedelic rock that earned their 2011 debut album rave reviews from the likes of Pitchfork and received the Taite Music Prize (awarded to New Zealand's best album), their simply-titled sophomore effort II expands on UMO's sound and shows off Neilson's strengths as a songwriter. A few days before flying to Japan and Europe to play a few shows, before heading out on a North American tour, the frontman took the time to answer some questions about the new record from his home in Portland.
When did you first start realizing that Unknown Mortal Orchestra might be a long-time project?
At the very beginning when I started getting contacted by labels and Pitchfork started posting the songs, my plan was already to do something else. Start a new career and play music as a hobby, while I was making money doing something else, and I tried to do that. This thing just seemed like too much of what I really wanted to do and the labels that were contacting me were my favourite labels.
Why did you decide to leave Fat Possum and release the second album on Jagjaguwar?
I liked Fat Possum, but when I finished the record, I wanted to see what other people might be interested. Fat Possum were cool but Jagjaguwar had bigger infrastructure and was more organized. I basically had finished the record by the time I started shopping it around.
Tell me about the influences on this record.
It's basically the same as the first record, Sly & the Family Stone, Syd Barrett, Mothers Of Invention, and stuff like that. Maybe there were a few things that didn't show up on the first record, like King Crimson and more prog.
I also noticed there seems to be more of a R&B influence, especially on a song like "So Good At Being In Trouble." Was this a conscious effort on your part?
Not really. I knew that people were going to hear the record and so for the second record I wanted to lean a little bit more to what makes this band unique. I feel like in the genre of modern psychedelic music, the thing that makes us stand out is the slight influences we've put in like hip-hop, you've got R&B and soul.
I've read some early reviews and many of them say that it feels more upbeat. Do you agree with this description?
I'm not really sure. I think I wanted the album to feel a bit darker than the first one. I think musically it might be more upbeat. It's funny because I've heard people say they think it feels darker and sadder, then some people say it feels lighter and more happy, but it feels heavier to me.
When did you find the time to make this album?
I wrote most of the stuff on the road in 2011, and that's kind of what the album's capturing, what it was like to be in the band during that time. I didn't see any of this stuff coming, it was all kind of sudden, and it turned my life completely upside down. In the span of three months my whole life was different. So I was on the road for about a year and a half with that album without really getting a break, so that took its toll and I had a lot to express.
You're playing a handful of shows in Japan and Europe before you go on a North American tour with Foxygen. Can we expect to see Unknown Mortal Orchestra at any festivals this year?
We're playing SXSW. Just the high-profile shows that pay well though.