WHAT BEGAN as a lark has gotten serious.
"When I first started, it was just something that seemed completely random," says Ruban Nielson, Unknown Mortal Orchestra's frontman and auteur. "I was just kind of like, 'Well, I'll just try it out.'"
That was 2010. After nearly a decade playing with his brother in the Mint Chicks, a punky garage group that achieved mainstream fame in their native New Zealand, Nielson settled in the Portland area. He had a kid, a job, and no intention of continuing to pursue music professionally. Ostensibly, he had quit. And he was fine with it.
Still, he tinkered with tape machines in his spare time, stitching together brightly coiled guitar riffs over crispy breakbeats and his own airy, wry falsetto. It was the music Nielson wanted to hear. He put a few songs online anonymously—hence the name—and they immediately caught fire. Records and world tours quickly followed.
"I made two albums just treating it like, 'I can't believe somebody wants to put my album out,'" Nielson says. "And now I've gotten to the point where I can't really do that anymore. I kind of had to face up to the fact that it's a real band, you know? It'd be kind of silly to keep acting like, 'Wow, little old me?'"
UMO's third record, Multi-Love, mirrors that sentiment. Playfully warped, upbeat, and funky, it is by many orders of magnitude a denser, richer, and more cerebral record than the first two.
"I felt like I was chasing something from the beginning," Nielson says. He decamped to his basement studio, recording at night and sleeping deep into the day. "I was really adamant that I wanted to make a record that felt like this moment rather than a lost gem, which is what those previous two albums were about," he says. His vision encompassed both substance and sound.
"I just wanted it to be this powerful, kind of vibrant record that was drawing on more of the '70s than the '60s," he says. As such, Multi-Love employs myriad synthesizers, and bits of R&B, funk, and disco snap alongside the pressing breakbeats. Then there are the words.
"I wanted the lyrics to be really dense," says Nielson. "I wanted the lyrics to be something that kids would have to look up on Rap Genius, because I wanted to reference a lot of real places and use a lot of private jokes and slang that only me and my friends use. I wanted to make something that would still be interesting after a certain amount of time.
"I just kind of got stuck in my head," he adds with a laugh. "I don't want to get pretentious about it. I don't expect people to take it as seriously as I did. But it's just fun for me to make it like that."
As was chronicled in great detail in a profile by Pitchfork, Nielson also wrote about a relationship he and his wife formed with another woman. But despite the title track's sentiment, Nielson rejects the idea that the whole of Multi-Love should be viewed through the prism of polyamory.
"This album is about our time," he says. "It's about the times that we live in, and it's about me. Being a student of the '60s, of the '70s, and being faced with that time and reconciling it and making it kind of relevant to this time." Songs like "Can't Keep Checking My Phone" and "The World Is Crowded" bear this out.
The record furthers UMO's dance with the zeitgeist. On Twitter, Nielson regularly ruminates, mocks, and wonders about the sociopolitical to his nearly 55,000 followers. And UMO are a natural on the festival circuit, with their sugary but slightly off-kilter sound, just weird enough but still able to effervescently ride the groove. They've garnered a truly international audience—UMO is bigger than the Mint Chicks ever were.
"It's weird," Nielson says, "I think New Zealand has embraced us the least, which is kind of funny. We're just kind of an American indie band that hasn't caught on there." Everywhere else, though, UMO continues to grow.
"Me and Jacob [Portrait, bass] were talking about it at the end of this last tour, that we actually made it to album three and things are still going and things are still on the up and up," Nielson says. "On one level we're like: 'How did we do this? How did we book the O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire in London? How did it get to this?' It's out of control.
"But we had to admit that we have been busting our ass for five years," Nielson continues. "So even though that it's felt really quick, there's no real mystery to it."
However it happened, Nielson's commitment and gratitude have evolved alongside the music. "I feel like I've just faced the fact that I sing for a living and play guitar for a living, and I've been taking my voice more seriously," he says. But the shifts go beyond technique. He's proud to provide for his family, doing a job that rarely feels like work.
"I'm 35 now," Nielson says. "So I'm kind of getting to the point where, you know, I'm not 25, so it's a real privilege to be making music for a living and still be accepted as a rock 'n' roll artist. So I guess I just take it more seriously now. I'm more dedicated to what I'm doing in a way that I didn't really realize I was going to. It's not as haphazard as it used to be, and I like it that way. It's enjoyable for me."