Unknown Mortal Orchestra on What Makes a Musician | Interview | Louisiana Channel

“Making albums, to me, is the rhythm of what makes a musician. It gives a musician’s life a bit of shape.” Ruban Nielson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra shares what has shaped him as a musician.

“I was always more of a music fan, so I didn’t have any instruments for a long time.” When Ruban Nielson was 19 years old, he got his first guitar. “My dad was doing the 12-step program, and one of the steps was to make amends. And to make amends to me, he bought me a guitar.” At the time, Nielson was attending art school, but playing music quickly became a more significant part of his life. “One thing about painting was that it was very meditative. I think, for my mental health, it’s really good. But the feedback doesn’t come until later. And it’s a lot less satisfying, I think,” Nielson explains. When playing a show, you get the audience’s response right away. “I think music seemed more democratic,” Ruban Nielson says and continues: “I found in the art world that I personally had a problem with how few people decided what went. I like the idea that you put your music out, and it attracts how many people it attracts.”

At one point, Ruban Nielson decided to put his music on band camp. The music blogs at the time quickly picked up on the music, and eventually, the renowned music media, Pitchfork, wrote about it. This is when the Unknown Mortal Orchestra was formed. “When I start recording music, my approach is usually something like sitting down with an acoustic guitar or sitting down at the piano and writing it like it’s a folk song.” But Ruban Nielson wouldn’t call Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s sound ‘folk’. “The genre that I would describe my music changes a lot. But I have a few I come back to,” he says and continues: “Sometimes I call it ‘depression funk’ or ‘dad wave’. I always come up with genres that are kind of like jokes. That’s the best way to describe it because I really don’t know what it is.”

“My attitude towards the album is that it’s one of the best things that came out of the music industry.” The album has always been essential to Ruban Nielson and has given him structure as a musician: “I still believe it’s important to have a cohesive album. Not everybody does that these days, and it’s not necessary. But it’s just how I enjoy music, and it’s how I understand it.”

Unknown Mortal Orchestra is a New Zealand band formed in Auckland. It consists primarily of Ruban Nielson, Jacob Portrait and Kody Nielson. The band was formed by Ruban Nielson in 2009. The band’s first album was released in 2011 on Fat Possum Records; four subsequent studio albums have been released on Jagjaguwar, the most recent being V (2023).

Ruban Nielson was interviewed by Malte Bruun Fals in June 2023. The interview was recorded in connection to Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s participation in Brodie Sessions, a non-profit YouTube platform of curated live music sessions. For more, visit https://www.youtube.com/brodiesessions

Camera: Simon Wehye
Concert footage: Brodie Sessions
Produced and edited by Roxanne Bagheshirin Lærkesen

Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2023
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