From Unknown Mortal Orchestra's explosive beginnings — the band's first single, "Ffunny FFrends," went viral a mere six days after its posting — to its present-day musings on love's boundaries, the indie "dreamfunk" quartet is a band that continues to reinvent itself. The group's third album, Multi-Love, exposes a more giddy, honest side of UMO while also detailing its frontman's polyamorous relationship with his wife and another woman known only as "Laura."
It's hard to believe that at one point in his life, Ruban Nielson, 35, considered giving up music. His avant-garde noise rock band the Mint Chicks recently had broken up, and he was debating becoming a productive member of society but quietly decided to give music one more chance. "I put one song on Bandcamp," the singer and guitarist famously told Interview magazine in 2011. "Within the next month, four labels called."
Originally from New Zealand, now in Portland, Oregon, Unknown Mortal Orchestra soon captured the attention of indie blogs Pitchfork and Consequence of Sound. A self-titled full-length soon followed, which won New Zealand's Taite Music Prize, landed on Uncut magazine's "Top 50 Albums of 2011," and garnered for Nielson the title of Best Male Artist at the Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards.
The album cover featured a salmon-shaded photo of Croatia's Petrova Gora Monument. "It seemed to be a representation of a time when the left was optimistic and utopia seemed possible," Nielson says. "To me it seemed to be a kind of symbol of hope and resistance. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's what I thought."
UMO's second album, simply titled II, reflected less optimism and more loneliness. It also treaded some of the same psychedelic-tinged '60s rock references, with nods to Jefferson Airplane and the White Album sprinkled with Simon and Garfunkel. So, yeah, it sounds almost indecipherable from Tame Impala, except less Led Zeppelin.
"The Tame guys are cool and a great band," Nielson says. "I'm not really worried if the '60s sound is revived or not, but there are a lot of ideas from that time we could maybe revisit, I think."
You can't blame UMO — the formula is perfected, only Nielson has a modern grasp on it, complemented by his introspective lyrics. And in this case, the term "Multi-Love" is supposed to be taken literally. As detailed in a poignant Pitchfork piece, Nielson met a young woman and fell in love with her — then his wife also fell in love with her.
The three-way relationship did strain Nielson's marriage last year, but nothing was compared to the heartbreak when Laura's tourist visa expired and she was forced to leave Portland. To make matters worse, Laura stopped speaking to Nielson after the Pitchfork article was published in May. The article adds an important angle to the swipe-left dialogue surrounding monogamy as a tradition — is it outmoded? — especially following recent claims by hackers who seized user data from Ashley Madison, a online dating website marketed to people in committed relationships.
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The wrenching emotions are exposed on tracks like the Prince-influenced "Can't Keep Checking My Phone" and Stevie Wonder-ized "Like Acid Rain." In this way, the album acts as a Dadaist diary reflecting our weird, sci-fi future where "we eat crickets" and "need a new drug not invented by the CIA." But the pensiveness and raw introspection remains timeless.
"'Necessary Evil' is just me wandering through one day in my thoughts about love," Nielson tells us. "I was feeling a little cynical and reflective."
While the complexities of polyamory might not work for everyone, Nielson is still optimistic about the relationship model.
"I haven't sworn off it," Nielson says. "It's beautiful."