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Interview: Unknown Mortal Orchestra – “Where does life end and music begin?”

7 Jul, 2015

UMO (1)


Written by Tommy Juto

So, have you just started working the album in Europe?

– This is the first tour, though I came over earlier in the year to do some press in different countries. But I think things started to pick up here enough for us to do a day here. So I came a day early before the rest of the band to stop here before we meet up in England.

The cover of your new album Multi-Love is a photo of your home studio, and I noticed that your two previous albums are framed on the wall. Was that for inspiration, or why?

– I think it was to remind me that I was making a third part of something, ‘cause I knew I was going to try and do things a bit different, but I didn’t want to change it so much that it would seem disorienting to people that liked the other albums. I didn’t listen to the albums a lot, but halfway through the making of the new one I was playing what I was making back to back with the other and kind of reminding myself of where I head. Because I think that it was something I did when I had no money and when I didn’t think that anybody cared about it. There was a purity and a feeling to it that something worked, and I was trying to not leave that behind. Like upgrading without losing anything. I think some artists, when they get a chance to move out of being lo-fi or making records with no money, sometimes they lose some of the spark that made their lo-fi or original home-made stuff great and I didn’t want to fall victim of that. Just make it as good as the other stuff without cleaning it up. Having the records there worked as a reminder that I’d already made two records.

Was the album going to be titled III at any point? That would have been the most logical, wouldn’t it?

– Yeah, originally it was gonna be called III, but for some reason way before I’d started the album I had this phrase pop into my head, Multi-Love. I don’t know, these things just appear out of nowhere and I’m getting better at recognizing when it’s something and I write it down. Then as soon as I’d written it down I wrote next to it “album title?”. So thought it maybe was the album title. I really wanted it to be called III, but the album had other plans, it wanted to be called Multi-Love! It just felt like that was it really should be called.

When you start recording an album, do you have a clear idea of what it’s going to sound like, or do the songs create that as you go along?

– For this, I had these two separate ideas. I wanted this more colourful, extroverted sound with lots of different textures and I wanted it to feel like a mixture of old and new. I was thinking about David Bowie’s Station To Station, but I was also thinking about Jesus(by Blu), channel ORANGE(by Frank Ocean), like a modern hip-hop/R&B-album, but I was also thinking about how I could make sense of that, the old and new music without making it feel wrong and instead like a logical step. I wanted to make me feel excited in a certain way and the songs just a separate thing. I had a folder in my computer that was just full of acoustic guitar, chords and melodies. I was just taking these and when I made songs they had to have all these elements and ideas behind them. Because songs can be any texture, you can record them in different ways. But I also had Multi-Love floating around, so I thought “there’s something important about this phrase!”. I asked myself why it was important, so I started with the words and figured out what it meant later on.

The album is not overly produced, yet it’s got a perhaps “poppier” sound to it than the previous one. Did you hold back just so it wouldn’t sound like a too big step into glossiness?

– The thing I think was the problem was that I didn’t set out in the beginning to make it “glossy”, but I think as I got into it I was getting different technique and better equipment. So there was always the danger that it could go that way ‘cause I had the possibility to. I didn’t have that option before because I didn’t have any nice equipment. That was not the problem. I was never gonna go too far, ‘cause it was always gonna sound cheaply made. It was what kind of cheap sound was it gonna be, a good cheap sound or a bad cheap sound, whereas with this one I bought this thing called the Chandler Minimixer, which is what Tony Maserati uses, you know the guy who mixes Beyoncé singles, so I had this serious pop equipment and I was suddenly faced with the potential to go in a certain direction. Things would become really glossy, so I had to figure out how to make it more aggressive, to make it feel right. It was like trying to dial in exactly where it was gonna go.

– Actually, Bob Ludwig mastering was a big part of it. I wanted to have the vinyl mastered by the team that did Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd. I had this idea that I would then have really nice vinyl. So I had the record and it was as far as I could take it, then I sent it to Bob and he really liked it which is awesome. The assistant said he had a great time mastering it, he did something to it as well because I think he heard it and what the last touch it needed was. Often mastering makes it sound nicer, but he took what I did and made it sound more blown out or aggressive, so when I got the master I was really excited.

– I wasn’t overly concerned about the album sounding slick, but I wanted it to sound less lo-fi and more punchy, have some more high-end to it. My other records didn’t have any top-end.

In the middle of “Stage Or Screen”, the song cuts abruptly into something completely different.

– Right, the Brian Eno thing?

How did that happen, was it by accident and you just left it there?

– Yeah, you can actually hear me hit stop on the tape and then it opens up to this whole other thing, and it was kind of a happy mistake. I’d been working on this ambient thing I’d done with my brother and it was kind of separate and it was on that same tape. So when I was recording, for some reason I felt “I’ll hit stop now” and it was on the tape straight after it. So I just recorded the tape as it was and it sounded like that. Sometimes I felt that the song didn’t end right, and that way it all just kinda fixed itself. A lot of that happens when I made the record. I didn’t have the answers for sections of it and then I made a mistake and that solved it for me. Leave problems to solve themselves.

– Often when stuff like that happens I just think it’s supposed to be. I have so much control of what I’m doing in the production and mixing, so I don’t want to turn my back on happy accidents like that. And it’s funny, ‘cause I think it’s something that Brian Eno would condone, like he’d say “no, it’s supposed to happen like that”. To me, it reminds me of him.

Your father plays saxophone on “Extreme Wealth And Casual Cruelty”. Is that an underrated instrument in popular music?   

– I don’t know. It became uncool in indie rock at some stage and I grew up thinking it was the coolest thing you could have, like John Coltrane. And Bowie’s records had sax on them because he plays it, so I always think of it as being cool. Sometimes I just do things because it’s uncool enough that I should do it just to see what happens. But yeah, I think it’s a little underrated, you don’t see it enough. It’s quite hard to play horns. You need to play every day in order to keep it up, whereas guitar you can put it down for a week and then pick it up again a week later and keep playing. So horns are more difficult.

I read the interview in Pitchfork where you mentioned this woman who came to live with you and your wife. Could you elaborate on that?

– I guess what happened was that it became a polyamorous-like, romantic relationship between three people. The problem is now I feel like people think that that’s what the song “Multi-Love” is about, but the weird part was that 80% of the song was written before any of that happened, so I feel like the song changed my life rather than my life changed the song. But as the year went on, I had different experiences to draw on, I had certain lines in the song that I hadn’t been able to finish and that certainly became a lot easier. It was very weird the way thing unfolded!

Do you even think that you perhaps subconsciously get drawn to a situation like that because you want to get food for songs?

– I think that’s what he was writing about in the article. I mean, I’ve been trying to figure it out, I re-read it last night to try and see if I could get anything else out of it. I’ve been really struggling with that idea, where does life end and music begin? I think sometimes I let situations happen knowing I can make sense of it and use in music. I think I’ve always been like that in a way, I’ve started wondering what the limits are of that. I was actually texting Bevan, the guy who wrote the article, last night: “What part of the human being makes the judgement, is it the aesthetic judgement or your ethical judgement? Is it better to write a good song that endangers the dignity of you or somebody you love, or is it better to write a bad song that saves your dignity?”. He was like “well, it’s better to write a good song, but unfortunately for you, you have to deal with whatever the outcome of that is”. But then I’m not worried about me, I’m worried about people around me.

But when writing songs, I assume you can’t sit there trying to foresee what implications a song will have?

– No, it’s impossible to do that. And also, it sounds monstrous if someone tried to, like “it’s my art that is most important, I don’t care who gets hurt in the process”. I don’t believe in that, I’ve been having some issues with how to go about the process of living and writing in the future, you know. Does that mean that every time I become friends with everybody I have to say “just a disclaimer before we begin our friendship, anything that happens to me with you around me might turn into music” or something? Once I get to this point I have to start thinking about these things, but sometimes it’s not easy to figure out what the best thing to do is. Because I want to make good work and sometimes that’s all I care about, and I’m not necessarily thinking about everything while I’m doing it. Nobody could.

“Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”. What’s your take on how smart phones hold us in a tight grip?

– It’s not really anti-technology or anything, it’s more about the personal experience of how hard it is to keep waiting for somebody to… It’s kind of cruel, you know, when you keep waiting for somebody to come back to you on your phone. The most extreme example, I guess, would be like a romantic experience, but it could be anything. If somebody you care about is sick, they’re in a hospital… It’s kind of maddening to keep waiting for news of any kind. I think it’s more about that feeling and being far away from people, having limited communication with somebody you care about. There’s no anti- or pro-phone message, it’s neutral, I think of the phone as just being there, it’s neither good nor bad.

Do you have any compulsive habits?

– (Laughs) What, do you mean on my phone?

Well, not necessarily. Anything. Constantly checking your phone is one example, it’s something myself and a lot of other people do.

– A little bit maybe. I always try to relate to people doing it like it’s a normal thing, not particularly something I do all the time. The idea is that I’m putting my phone away. ‘Cause there was a time when I was writing the song. What I did was I shut my phone off and put it away, not looking at it at all, because it was easier to do that than it was to have it next to me while I was working, or in my pocket waiting for the thing to go off, that was driving me crazy. It’s just a painful thing, but a very modern version of a feeling people have always had, I guess.

Tonight, you’re playing a acoustic solo set. A lot of artists are using prerecorded tapes when performing live. It would be just as easy for you to do that in order to play the songs from the record in their true form, wouldn’t it? Or is that a absolute no-no?

– Yeah, I could. But this is much more fun, I think. It’s something about going out there risking to make a fool out of yourself, there’s something good about that. It could go wrong, you know, but I like that I maybe forget the lyrics or something else goes wrong, or maybe I change my mind about how I want to play the song halfway through it. These days it’s hard to make a million dollars out of making music, so it’s not like I’m doing this for the money. I’m doing this for the feeling of having a job that’s unlike any other, and all of those things, click tracks and so on, I don’t know. I like the idea of being out there and just risking it, being on the edge of things. That’s what people do, they just perform. The thing with me is I’m not used to performing acoustic, so it’s always a little bit nerve-wrecking. It’s always a new thing, ‘cause I’m playing the songs as they began, as the started before I did the production on them. For me, as a music fan or anyone in the position of coming to see me, I’d rather have that than a bunch of technology. It’s funny, speaking of OCD, from art school I have this idea of the way things are conceptual. Sometimes when there’s a backing track, at some point I go “well, what if the conclusion is to put your CD on?”. Then it would all be perfect! When there’s tracks, well, what’s the point of having anything live? It’s like some art school part of my brain is asking “if you’re gonna go that far, why don’t you go all the way?”. I think that part of me sees it as much more interesting if I walked into a room and put a CD on, push play, sit down and watch everybody. A John Cage kind of idea. I don’t know if this is valid idea or a hang-up I have.

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