Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s genre-defying approach to music has allowed the band’s sound to shift and evolve with every new album. The group’s driving force, Ruban Nielson, is a psychedelic explorer with an experimental bent that was clear from the very first home-recorded Unknown Mortal Orchestra album, which combined his soaring guitar work with winsome melodies and trippy production. Working by himself and with collaborators who included his brother Kody, Nielson has taken the band on a journey through acoustic balladry, free jazz, hard rock, and, on 2015′s breakthrough album Multi-Love, freaky late-night R&B. Nielson’s dedication to exploration and expression made Unknown Mortal Orchestra one of the more interesting acts to come out of the 2010s neo-psych explosion as they evolved, jumping from ’70s soft rock-inspired pop to jumpy disco rhythms on 2023’s ambitious double album V.
After disbanding New Zealand’s the Mint Chicks, the oddball punk-pop band he had with Kody, Nielson planned to quit music and take a day job. For a hobby, he started making psychedelic demos in his basement using samples. Soon, music took over as his career again, and his fun brand of experimental pop ended up in the hands of Fat Possum Records, which released Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s self-titled debut in the early summer of 2011. As interest in the project grew, Nielson enlisted the help of a full band (which included his brother Kody on drums and bassist Jacob Portrait) for a promotional tour and then signed with Jagjaguwar for UMO’s sophomore album, II. During the tour, Nielson was often asked to pop in to radio stations and play a couple songs. Having just picked up acoustic guitar, he saw this as a chance to explore a different sound and style, which he documented on 2013′s EP Blue Record. Recorded to one mike in his basement, the record was made up of three songs from II and covers of Dirty Projectors and Beck.
Nielson spent much of 2014 working on the next Unknown Mortal Orchestra album, Multi-Love. Though Jagjaguwar gave him a budget large enough to record in a “real” studio, he retreated to his home studio and his homemade synthesizers and recording gear. With Kody helping out on drums, Portrait on occasional bass and production, and the Nielsons’ dad, Chris, on occasional horns, the music the band crafted turned away from the expansive psychedelic sound of the past toward something more focused, with soul and R&B influences mixed in. It also delved deeply into the period of romantic turmoil and exploration Nielson was experiencing as he recorded the album. Multi-Love was released in May 2015.
However, the next UMO record — which was partly recorded in Vietnam, Mexico, Korea, New Zealand, and Portland with Kody, Chris, and Portrait all contributing — shifted the focus on to the wider world, partly in reaction to increasing political upheaval. 2018′s Sex & Food included some of the group’s most rock-centric work to date. That same year, the band released IC-01 Hanoi, an electric jazz album in the mode of Miles Davis’ On the Corner. It was recorded in Vietnam and featured the two Nielson brothers, their dad on flügelhorn and sax, bassist Portrait, and Vietnamese musician Minh Nguyen on Sáo Trúc, Đàn Môi, and Vietnamese percussion.
After the touring cycle for Sex & Food ended, Neilson relocated to Palm Springs and stayed busy with remixes (Soccer Mommy’s “circle the drain,” Westerman’s “Drawbridge”) and collaborations with artists as diverse as Aminé, Gorillaz, Free Nationals, and India Shawn. All the while, he was working on his own music. Singles like the smooth, disco-inflected “Weekend Run” and the hazy radio pop reconfiguration of “That Life” were released throughout 2021, followed in 2022 by the single “I Killed Captain Cook.” These songs and many others were included as part of 2023′s ambitious double album V. Neilson toyed with different genres throughout V, sometimes changing gears mid-song and using multiple instrumental tracks to do his deepest genre exploring. ~ Jason Lymangrover