Web hype moves at light speed these days, but Unknown Mortal Orchestra might be the only band on the planet that has experienced literal overnight success.
Last year, Ruban Nielson, a founding member of noisy New Zealand pop provocateurs the Mint Chicks, quit that band and settled in a yurt in Portland, Oregon. One night, he recorded a psych-pop song, posted it on Bandcamp, and sent it to a few of his favorite blogs. The next day, it was picked up and re-posted by several influential music outlets. Within a week, the record-label bidding wars were under way (Fat Possum won). UMO has been grinding ever since.
The band is at RecordBar this Sunday, and Nielson recently spoke with The Pitch from a tour stop at Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits in Richmond, Virginia.
The Pitch: What are your thoughts on all the hype?
Nielson: The speed that everything happens is ridiculous. The first band I was in, we played house shows for a year before anyone got in touch about a record. With this band, I had record labels making me offers before I had even put a live band together, when I only had, like, six songs.
You sent those songs to blogs. You must have chosen well.
I sent them to Ryan Catbird and Fluxblog. Those were really the two, but it was a bunch of blogs I liked. Fluxblog I'd always read. What I didn't know was that Matt Perpetua (of Fluxblog) wrote for Pitchfork, so that was how that ended up on Pitchfork. I remember thinking at the time, "I'm not gonna send this to Pitchfork" because I wanted to keep it on a certain level. I kind of freaked out when I saw it on Pitchfork. I was like, "Damn, this is out of control!" My nerves were really shot over that.
Your music has also been widely downloaded on secret torrent sites and blogs elsewhere on the Internet. Did you have that in mind when you were recording the album?
Yeah, I guess, but the thing with torrents is, you just don't know how many copies are out there. I wish you could somehow quantify how many times it was downloaded — how many copies of the album are out there. We have to go with how many have been bought. That's going to be a much lower number than the amount of copies that are actually out there. I still prefer people to have the cover and the artwork and buy it on vinyl. But, yeah, I knew that people were going to download it once it was out there because I do that myself.
Is there a difference between writing songs in your previous band and essentially being the band yourself?
Yeah. I mean, I started my first band in high school, and it was kind of a band of brothers. My brother was in the band. I had a bunch of ideas, but whether or not my ideas were heard was really up to the other guys in the band. When I didn't have to do that anymore, it felt good — actually being able to put an idea down without having to argue first. That was part of the thing that really wore me out. Like, when I had an idea, I'd think this is a really good idea, but then I'd have to fight tooth and nail to get it on a record. Everything took 10 times as much energy as it should have.
With the Mint Chicks, there was a lot of tension and friction in the music.
Yeah. I mean, that's what made it good in some ways, but it was getting to a point where it was more friction and less creativity.
Is UMO better in contrast to that?
It's different. I'm in a different country. I think the Mint Chicks were really important to New Zealand at the time.
How is Portland different?
One of the main things is getting away from everything I grew up with. Just being in the U.S. is important. Portland's an inspiring place. There are a lot of musicians and creative people. It's crazy — lots of artists doing what they want to do. It's kind of self-indulgent.
Are you being self-indulgent?
I don't know. I just like space — mental and physical space. I can find it here. [Recording the album], I would pace around the room for a couple hours, kind of forming the ideas in my head without putting them down. You know, waiting for the ideas to be real.
Not as rushed as the hype culture might make it seem.
I guess the speed of everything is working against all of that stuff. I try to justify being overhyped by being on the road. I think I'm just trying to do that for myself, to feel like I'm earning it. My other friends are in bands that just aren't out here working as hard, so no one can say that it's not deserved. At the end of the day, you need to be working. And the speed of the Internet doesn't have to dictate everything involved in the music.