Photo by Juan Ortiz-Arenas

Into the Unknown

Unknown Mortal Orchestra plays Eugene to promote new double album, ‘V’

Unknown Mortal Orchestra started out, well, unknown. 

New Zealand artist Ruban Nielson had just quit his band The Mint Chicks and moved to Portland to be closer to family. The guitarist and singer says at that moment he had given up music as a career but was still doing it on the side as a hobby. He was posting music anonymously on Bandcamp, and one of his songs “Ffunny Ffriends” got picked up by a music blog and went viral, ending up on the hip music publication Pitchfork.

That’s when Nielson decided to start a band. He asked his friend Jake Portrait to play bass and his friend Julian Ehrlich to play drums, and the three of them went out on the road. “It just went from one random decision to the next,” he says. 

That random decision means that UMO plays Eugene’s McDonald Theatre on March 21.

Nielson says UMO’s sound is influenced by ’70s psychedelic rock, disco and soul, and that he often draws from artists such as Frank Zappa, Miles Davis and Steely Dan. He also says UMO is often talked about as sounding like Jimi Hendrix. 

“It’s a mixture of a lot of things, but it’s really focused around a certain period of time,” Nielson says, referring to his ’70s influences. “Because those are the records that I love the most.” 

While the band feels mostly like a classic rock band, he says there are also aspects to the group that is very modern — like its internet success. 

On March 17, UMO released their latest album — and first double album — V. “I like the idea of doing a double album, something a bit more ambitious,” Nielson tells Eugene Weekly

Most of UMO’s previous music was created and inspired by Portland and the Pacific Northwest, where he lives and recorded it. But for V, Nielson wanted a new location. Most of the album was recorded in Palm Springs, California, and Hilo, Hawaii. “I was hoping it would make it [the album] sound slightly different or make it feel slightly different,” he says.

Nielson explains that his uncle, who lives in Hilo, is sick and that Nielson’s mother, who had been living in New Zealand for the past 40 years, moved back to her hometown of Hilo to be with him.

“She’s there with her brothers, and they’re all back together again for the first time since they were children,” he says. “That was quite influential on the album, and I incorporated a lot of Hawaiian influence into what I was doing.” 

Now with the album out, Nielson is excited to get back on the road and share the new music with people. “Everybody in the band, everybody in our crew, including, like, sound guys and techs, we haven’t all been together on the bus, even in a room together for four years,” because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nielson says. “I just missed everybody in the crew and in the band and I miss hanging out.”

The band’s second show of the tour is in Eugene  March 21 at the McDonald Theatre. Doors open at 7 pm and the show starts at 8 pm. Tickets can be found at the McDonald Theatre’s website, $29.50 for GA Floor and $40 for 21+ lower balcony reserved. Unless sold out tickets will also be available at the door.

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