His former band The Mint Chicks gave up their American dream, but guitarist Ruban Nielson is chasing it anew. He talks to Duncan Greive.
He knew things were getting desperate when his wife called to say they were running out of firewood, and there wasn’t any money to buy more. At the time, Ruban Nielson was in the early stages of his first tour with his new band Unknown Mortal Orchestra, a psychedelic sequel to his work with art-punks The Mint Chicks.
His wife Jenny was home in Portland, Oregon, caring for their two young children in a yurt. Even allowing for her pliant disposition and general acceptance of the trials of being married to a musician, running out of firewood in the middle of winter was surely beyond the pale. Nielson decided to finally call Fat Possum, the record company he’d been stubbornly refusing to commit to for weeks.
For Steven Bevilaqua, the A&R man charged with signing Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the dwindling fires at home accomplished what his aggressive courting had been unable to. Already a fan of The Mint Chicks, Bevilaqua had become obsessed with UMO, and determined to sign them. He flew to Portland to offer them a deal on the day of their first show.
Nielson had all but committed to joining another label. In desperation, Bevilaqua emailed a mutual friend who had been advising Nielson. It read: “Tell him he’s at an ATM.”
“It was one of those things you just don’t see every day,” recalls Bevilaqua, from the Fat Possum offices in Mississippi. “So we got real aggressive. We’ll go any route we need to get something we feel like we need as a label. That’s the truth.”
Nielson backed away from the other label, but didn’t get round to signing with Fat Possum either, until Jenny’s phone call forced him to get his priorities straight. Neither party wants to disclose the figure, but according to Nielson it was the biggest he’d seen in 10 years as a professional musician. “It’ll carry the band and my family through to the middle of next year, depending on how frugal I am,” he says from a Holiday Inn, a far cry from the “crack-den motels” and filthy floors he slept on during tours gone by. “It was a lot of money to me, having made the album in my basement.”
Nielson’s previous band, The Mint Chicks, made a career out of recording in their basement, but had somehow parlayed that punk ethic into critical acclaim and genuine popularity in New Zealand. They won five New Zealand music awards, following the release of their second album Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No!, which went gold.
They had emerged years earlier from house parties on the Hibiscus Coast, a strange mix of North Shore scumbag and art school intellectual, and ended up on pop radio. But at their peak, there were signs of discord. Nielson had a prickly, intense relationship with his younger brother Kody, one that devolved into fist fights on more than one occasion. The band flamed out after a final performance that ended prematurely, with Kody destroying much of the band’s equipment while Nielson looked on with an odd detachment.
“While I was on stage, I didn’t really have any opinion,” he says of the chaos at that gig. “I just kind of felt numb watching the whole thing happen. I felt like I was looking at it from the third person, and going, ‘Oh well, this is happening.’ It just bored me, really.”
While Kody has never revealed his reasons for the demolition job that night, it might have had something to do with news Nielson had delivered a couple of weeks prior.
“I’d already told Kody that I was going back to Portland, but I wasn’t going to keep doing The Mint Chicks,” he says. “And that was for a lot of reasons, but probably the main one was that I wanted us to be brothers again. I didn’t want to deal with all the weirdness that was going on between us in the band.”
Nielson’s belief in the wisdom of his decision was reinforced not only by that final show, but by events leading up to it too.
One of their last scheduled commitments was a show at Homegrown, the Wellington all-New Zealand music festival, which happened to coincide with Nielson’s 30th birthday. Following a well-received set he celebrated by taking “a bunch of things, in bad combinations and bad quantities” – drugs people had given him for his birthday. The night didn’t go well.
“I blacked out… I was trying to run into traffic, and screaming, and the police came and restrained me. I only found out about this the next day, when I woke up in hospital with a bunch of tubes coming out of me.”
Hospital staff told him he had OD-ed. But worse than the comedown was what he had experienced while blacked out. “While this wild, dissociative experience was happening, I had this dream. And the dream laid out a bunch of things I was doing wrong, all these things that were wrong with my life. After that, I realised I needed to stop being in a band, and I needed to get on with my life, and be productive, and look after my family, my wife and my son.”
Nielson flew back to Portland and not long after, Jenny gave birth to his second child, a girl named Iris, joining his son Moebius. He put together a CV of his illustrating work and got a job interning at a film company. He was done with music as a means of making a living.
He did continue to enjoy the process of writing, playing and recording, though. So, calling it a hobby, he began to write and record again. Aside from his wife, no one knew what he was up to. By day, he worked a nine-to-five, and in the evening, once the kids were in bed, he’d head down to the basement and work on these strange new songs.
The Mint Chicks was a punk band, defined by rigid rules. Now, Nielson was driven by a desire to explore areas previously off-limits. He’d been listening to ’60s psychedelic music for years – starting with The Zombies and Love, and working on down. He was struck by a nagging absence. “I never quite found what I was looking for,” he says. “I had this idea that if I couldn’t find this record, I could make it.”
After a month or so, he had a set of songs. But, unlike other projects, which were scrutinised and salivated over, this one was just hanging in the air. On a whim, without quite knowing why, he decided to see if his creations had legs, and might run. “I put this made-up name on it and sent out a couple of emails to some blogs I liked,” he recalls. “I went to sleep, went to work, and when I came home the next day I checked to see if people had listened to it.”
He was astonished by what he saw. The song, “xxxxx”, had been disseminated by some of the most influential bloggers, and played hundreds of times.
“I Google searched the band’s name and there were hundreds of links. Ryan Catbird had posted it, Matthew Perpetua had posted it, it had ended up on Pitchfork and then heaps of blogs had posted it.”
Part of what had attracted people was what wasn’t there: no bio, no stylised band photo, none of the information generally given out to convince people that a band mattered. There was just that enigmatic name – Unknown Mortal Orchestra – and a song. One commenter complained, “This song is great but this band has no online presence. It’s impossible to find out more about them.”
For Nielson, rather than some grand media-manipulation strategy, it proved the reality of his non-existent band. “I didn’t really understand what it would mean. At the beginning the mischief of it was really exciting. I think I underestimated it a little bit.”
Within days he was fielding emails from some of the world’s biggest independent labels, asking for more music, and offering slots on big upcoming tours. The woozy, distorted music he had made for his own amusement was suddenly coveted by the indie music world, and he was forced to make a quick decision: ignore the opportunities in favour of this new life he was starting to build, or take a shot at the beckoning US success that had always eluded the Mint Chicks.
It didn’t take long for him to choose the latter, which meant Unknown Mortal Orchestra would need to become a real band. He recruited Jake Portrait, a producer and key personality in the Portland scene, to play bass. Portrait introduced
him to Julien Ehrlich, a teenage drum prodigy Nielson scouted on YouTube. They began rehearsing towards the end of last year, scarcely nine months after the Mint Chicks’ final show, and Nielson began to prepare his family for a life in which, for at least a year, he would be more a flickering presence on a computer screen than a physical companion. Quixotically, that commenced with him relocating his family to a tent.
“Our midwife was looking for someone to move into the yurt – this Siberian tent – which was on her land. And the rent was really cheap. We went and checked it out. There was a cabin on the property too, where I could record. The yurt, it’s like a teepee. It’s got all the mod cons, but it’s basically a tent, a cheap, hippie-looking thing.”
With his family settled in, he hit the road. On tour, the Mint Chicks kept it punk, sleeping on floors and living so hard that Nielson got pleurisy. This time round they were staying in hotels he would pick from discount websites, chewing through the family savings while putting off signing to a label. That changed after Nielson received that slightly panicked phone call from his wife.
At the time, the band was in New York, as was Fat Possum label head Matt Johnson, who they tracked down at KGB bar, a former sanctuary of Ukrainian communists in the McCarthy era.
“We went up, and there was no one there,” recalls Nielson of the meeting. “It was just him, the bar staff, and the security staff. We were talking and drinking. And – it was like I was in a movie – he said to ‘give my heart to the devil, and do my beating with a hammer’. Then he wrote down the terms of the contract on a napkin at the bar and I just signed the napkin.”
It was a fittingly strange conclusion to a very unconventional year, one which began with an ending and ended with a beginning. Nielson is now poised to achieve what his former band had hungered for only after he gave up on it. America, a country The Mint Chicks fought for, which made them sick and crazy, has now become home. It might just allow him to live out their dream, one dashed not so long ago, but now very much redeemed. “I like it here. Here I could probably make a career out of making records in my bedroom.”
His brother Kody is experiencing a similar thrill-of-the-new in his partnership with Bic Runga (Kody & Bic), and it seems that the end of one great New Zealand music story has birthed two sequels, each as compelling in its own way as the one that has fallen.
- Sunday Magazine