The origins of Unknown Mortal Orchestra's latest LP, Sex & Food, lie in far-flung locales like Seoul, Hanoi, Reykjavik, Mexico City and Ruban Nielson's native Auckland—places where he and his Portland band would hole up to push themselves beyond their musical comfort zone into new territory.
A group with four very good records under their belts and international acclaim, UMO confidently lets their exotic locations and happenstance—an earthquake in Mexico City, recording in a K-pop studio near the DMZ, a Vietnamese rainstorm—inform the music and lyrics on Sex & Food. The resulting record stands as a musical travelogue that is the band's most sonically adventurous effort to date.
Nielson says that feeling of being untethered during the recording process was not only something he consciously sought, but that being unmoored is a feeling he's familiar with.
"I am a pretty mixed-up person," he says. "My parents were both from vastly different cultures. My mom grew up in Hawaii and was a hula dancer, and my dad was the son of a bookie in New Zealand. So they didn't have that many common culture points beyond music, and growing up, those two very different worlds were always pulling on me. Then I moved to Portland, and felt kind of fractured again because I didn't know anybody and I'm this guy who talks funny. The older I get, the less tied down I am to any culture, and musically, it's the same thing for me."
Coming on the heels of the highly personal Multi-Love, which chronicled Nielson and his wife's foray into polyamory, Sex & Food showcases the band's musical dexterity as it hops successfully from genre to genre in a way that touches on UMO's previous records while managing to stay fresh and exciting at each turn. "If You're Going to Break Yourself" and "Not in Love We're Just High" are heartfelt, sonically layered ruminations on the effects of drugs and addiction that many of us are familiar with given the current opioid epidemic. "American Guilt" is a raucous, foot-stomping rock song that's colored with a chaos partly inspired by the aforementioned Mexico City earthquake. "Everyone Acts Crazy Nowadays" touches on the madness of the modern world over dazzling disco and promises to become a live favorite.
This time around, Nielson's family makes an appearance in the form of "Hunnybee," an engagingly sweet track whose inspiration (and title) is taken from Nielson's young daughter: "Eras rot like nature/Age of paranoia/Don't be such a modern stranger," he sings on the psychedelic R&B number, one of the record's more enticing lines.
When I ask if he felt any trepidation in showcasing so many divergent musical forms on one record, Nielson says he's reached a point with UMO where he feels confident following whatever muse may appear.
"I think musically, no one expects a certain thing from me, but there's a certain sound that ties it all together in the way I produce and the way I sing," he says. "The way I do things, my sort of formula, has gotten to where I can take almost anything I record, and once I get it in my home studio, I can make it sound how I want."
Nielson says Sex & Food is a result of a philosophy of not overthinking—that you have to surrender to the flow and "be kinda dumb" when writing songs and not force it, because his best work often comes in the form of happy accidents.
"I'm of the belief that the song doesn't really come from a person, it's sort of floating around out there waiting for anyone of us to will it into existence," he says. "When a song is finished, I get excited about it—but I won't necessarily understand it right then. Sometimes it takes me a while to understand it. Quite often I'll be talking to a journalist or something and I'll think, 'Wow, their interpretation of that song is more correct than what I would say. That's mysterious to me and I don't know why that is—and that's what makes music truly magic to me. It comes from somewhere else."
SEE IT: Unknown Mortal Orchestra plays Roseland Theater, 8 NW 6th Ave., with Makeness, on Wednesday, May 9. 8 pm. $25. All ages.