Nielson heads into the unknown
Back in 2007 guitarist Ruban Nielson decamped from Auckland to Portland, Oregon, with his brother Kody Nielson and Paul Roper, all members of popular Kiwi indie punk band The Mint Chicks.
The move came after the band, founded in 2001, cleaned up at the New Zealand Music Awards that year, winning five categories including album of the year for Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No!. The album was produced by the Nielsons' father Chris Nielson, a Kiwi music veteran who played on the first two Hello Sailor albums.
It had already been a meteoric six years for The Mint Chicks. "We literally went from playing a room of mohawked punks in somebody's house and then all of a sudden we are on tour with The White Stripes," Nielson said at the time.
To outsiders, the decision to move was a surprise as it didn't fit the template for an ambitious Kiwi band. Move to Sydney, New York or London? Yes. Portland? No. It would also be without bassist Michael Logie, who instead moved to London.
Speaking from Portland, Nielson, founder of the Unknown Mortal Orchestra, explains that The Mint Chicks' decision to move to the city of 583,000 was well before shows like Portlandia, which pokes fun at Portland's popularity with hipsters.
The connection was family. Nielson's mother is from Hawaii and has family in Portland. "The first time I came here was to visit my uncle. I didn't really know anything about Portland and I enjoyed it here a lot. I kind of thought that I had discovered it. It was new and interesting and I just wanted to live here.
"After a while it got to the point that I didn't mind too much what I would be doing here. I could do any job here and enjoy it."
The Mint Chicks' third album, Screens, in 2009 was largely created while the band adapted to Portland. But it was to be the band's last. "I didn't feel like it was fresh any more," says Nielson. "We could have kept it going but it felt like it was past its peak. I didn't really want to keep going on something just for money or something like that.
"The artistic side is the most important thing for me. I can work really hard on something when I'm inspired, but if I'm not inspired I get anxious."
Post Mint Chicks, his brother Kody went on to front Opossom with Bic Runga and Logie, who also juggles Kiwi bands F in Math and Die! Die! Die!, while Roper joined Portland band Blouse.
Nielson's solution was to stay in Portland and form new band Unknown Mortal Orchestra with Americans Riley Geare and Jacob Portrait. Portrait's CV as a producer included The Dandy Warhols and he worked with The Mint Chicks on Screens.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra released its self-titled debut in 2011 and the band's rise was even faster than The Mint Chicks'. The album won the band New Zealand's Taite Music Prize in 2012 and Nielson best male artist at the New Zealand Music Awards. In the United States it was highly praised by influential music website Pitchfork. The second album, II, released last year, garnered even better reviews, including kudos from the finicky NME.
Nielson and the band's stature is such that this year alone he's been profiled by several US and British publications, including The Boston Globe in March, which described him as "an inventive songwriter ... You can hear Nielson reverse engineering the last two decades of alternative and indie-rock, devolving back to a more primal code: the simple roots of the fuzzed pop".
This year the band played on NBC talk show Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, watched by 1.5 million. Nielson estimates the band has performed 200 shows a year over the past three years.
Days before the interview, Unknown Mortal Orchestra had returned from playing the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, one of the largest music and culture festivals in Europe. The headline acts included Kraftwerk, Metallica, The National, Queens of the Stone Age, Rihanna and Sigur Ros and exposed Nielson's band to a much larger audience.
"It's pretty cool ... It's great to play in front of a lot of new people. They come and see you out of curiosity and it's been good for us doing that lately. We're now hitting our stride," says Nielson.
So could Unknown Mortal Orchestra have achieved the same level of success if Nielson had formed it in New Zealand?
"I don't know," he replies, then points out that Unknown Mortal Orchestra's initial success was via the internet. "The Mint Chicks were based in Portland but we couldn't get the same thing going. It's hard to say. What I could do [with Unknown Mortal Orchestra] was go straight on the road and we haven't really stopped touring since.
"Once I decided I was going to start a new band I suppose it would have been a lot more expensive to be based in New Zealand."
Unknown Mortal Orchestra play Bodega in Wellington tomorrow.
The Dominion Post