The Lost Year

In 2011, Ruban Nielson created Unknown Mortal Orchestra. It almost killed him.

[Go here for Nielson's top 5 favorite psychedelic albums]


Not in the metaphorical sense, either: In his first year touring with Unknown Mortal Orchestra, his blog-approved psych-pop group, the 32-year-old New Zealander felt sure he'd be coming home to Portland in a body bag. Waking up from a literal lost weekend—with nothing to account for the last few days but an Instagram photo of a flower bouquet floating in a toilet—will do that to a person. A year earlier, Nielson had broken up his previous band, the Mint Chicks, because the machinations of the industry had practically crushed his desire to make music. Now, he was on the verge of living out the most pathetic rock-'n'-roll cliché of all and partying himself to death.

"We were pushing it really, really badly," says Nielson from a table at the Mexican restaurant around the corner from his house in Milwaukie. "At some point, health things were happening. Weird stuff was happening. We sat down and were like, 'Can you stop? Can we stop?'"

Nielson, thoughtful and soft-spoken, is hard to imagine ever being in danger of choking on his own vomit in a hotel room. But from his description, he spent 2011 trapped inside a Motley Crüe tour documentary—drinking too much, doing too many drugs, sleeping only when blacked out. By the time he got off the road and returned to his wife and two kids, he'd nearly broken down completely. At least he got a great record out of it: II, UMO's anticipated second album, is Nielson's attempt to process his year of living excessively, when his home recording project unexpectedly became a full-time job and overwhelmed him with the pressure to keep going. 

Ironically, the pressure of playing music for money is precisely what Nielson moved to Portland to escape. Following the breakup of the Mint Chicks—the noisy, big-in-New Zealand pop-punk group Nielson started with his brother—in 2010, the rest of the band, which had relocated to Portland three years earlier, went back to Auckland, while Nielson stayed behind. "I'd rather do anything in Portland than be a musician in New Zealand," he says. He took a job at a video-production company, and only started recording again because, after running out of classic psychedelic albums to listen to, he figured he should make one himself. He uploaded "Ffunny Ffriends," a catchy psych-guitar tune underpinned by a dusty drum sample, to his anonymous Bandcamp page in February 2011. Four days later, he heard the song coming out of a co-worker's computer, streaming on Pitchfork. At that point, Nielson had to make a decision. "I was going to go all in or all out," he says. "So I went all in."

The next 12 months for Nielson were, in more than one way, a blur: He signed to Fat Possum Records, completed Unknown Mortal Orchestra's self-titled debut, recruited a bassist and drummer and took the band on the road. In an effort not to repeat the mistakes that derailed the Mint Chicks, Nielson instituted a policy of having fun and never allowing things to get too serious. He overcompensated. In his substance-induced fugue state, Nielson started missing shows, while working with a manager he hadn't properly vetted. At the end of 2011, he practically crawled back to Portland, with little to show for his exhaustion.

II is Nielson's attempt to make that period count for something. It's there in the song titles—"Faded in the Morning," "So Good at Being in Trouble"—but also in the music. In contrast to the waterlogged funk of UMO's debut, the new album is lighter and hazier, reflecting the yearlong hangover in which it was written. "It's my way of mythologizing that experience," says Nielson, who again played most of the instruments himself, "and turning it into something to go on with."

But now that the band is a success, the threat of getting consumed by it looms even larger. UMO leaves for tour this week, and doesn't return to Portland until it plays the Aladdin Theater in April. Asked if he's prepared to walk away if he feels things getting out of hand, Nielson looks down at his wedding ring, and talks about his ongoing search for balance.

"You don't want to be a half-assed family guy, and you don't want to be a half-assed musician," he says. "I have to make both those things work."

HEAR IT: Unknown Mortal Orchestra's II is out Tuesday, Feb. 5, on Jagjaguwar. 

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.