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On the eve of the release of his fifth album as Unknown Mortal Orchestra, we caught up with Ruban Nielson to talk a little more about record shops.


Unknown Mortal Orchestra - V

Drift: What was your first memorable record shop experience?

Ruban Nielson: When I was a kid growing up in New Zealand I used to love going to a big shop called Real Groovy Records in Auckland. I saw a lot of local punk bands play there. I used to buy punk records. Melt banana 45s. Things like that.

D: Might seem like a funny question, but why did you buy that? What led you to making the choice of going to a record store for the first time?

RN: I would say friends and family. My dad had a pretty interesting record collection. I discovered Zappa by putting on a copy of Hot Rats and playing it over and over again like there was something wrong with me. I have a buddy that used to make me mixtapes of punk music in highschool and so I got put onto a lot of stuff that way. The local student radio BFM was also on in my room 24/7, so that also influenced me a lot. I found things like Portishead and Tricky and drum n bass artists on there. Also lots of east coast hip hop. It seemed natural to spend time at the record stores after all that.


Unknown Mortal Orchestra - V
Unknown Mortal Orchestra - V

Unknown Mortal Orchestra - V

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Artist: Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Label: Jagjaguwar
Catalogue: JAG422lp-C1
Barcode: 656605242231
Format: 2LP or CD
Release Date: 17th March 2023


Created between Palm Springs, California and Hilo, Hawai’i, V is the first double album from the Hawaiian-New Zealand singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Ruban Nielson’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra band. Designed to play as one continuous movement and road-tested on dry California freeways, V is the definitive Unknown Mortal Orchestra car record. It’s also the fifth full-length album Ruban has released in twelve years. Across fourteen sunbleached songs - written solo or with his brother Kody - Ruban draws from the rich traditions of West Coast AOR, yacht rock, weirdo pop and Hawaiian Hapa-haole music. Over a laidback blend of singalong anthems and cinematic instrumentals, he evokes blue skies, afternoons spent lounging by hotel swimming pools and the alluring darkness that lurks below perfect, pristine surfaces. It’s a duality expressed in the dilapidated sunset blues and the salt-corroded soul Ruban explores through tracks like ‘Layla’ and ‘Nadja. ’

During the pandemic’s early days, Ruban reunited with Kody at a cousin’s wedding in Hawai’i. With assistance from their father, Chris Nielson (saxophone/flute) and longstanding Unknown Mortal Orchestra member Jake Portrait, they brought everything Ruban had been thinking about together. The result was V, due for release on March 3, 2023, through Jagjaguwar. When they talked about records that moved them in that spine-shivering manner, Ruban started thinking about the 70s AM radio rock and 80s pop songs that had lurked on the edge of his subconscious mind for most of his life. He wanted to write his version of records like that, leading to the two glorious uptempo singles Unknown Mortal Orchestra released in 2021, ‘Weekend Run’ and ‘That Life’.

However, the golden good times never last forever. Not long after, health issues began to plague his extended family.Putting his recordings aside, he helped his mother and his uncle move home from New Zealand and Portland to Hawai’i, and began dividing his time between Hawai’i and Palm Springs. During this period he reconnected with his relatives, reassessed his past, and started to look at things with fresh eyes. Hawai’i brought back memories of the darker side of his parents’ lifestyle as entertainers. On those trips, he heard those classic AM radio rock records everywhere. They were inextricably intertwined with the palm trees, swimming pools, and glamorized hedonism he’d internalized from his childhood. There’s a type of music in Hawai’i called Hapa-haole (Half white). You can hear it expressed in signature Unknown Mortal Orchestra style through the humid guitar-led atmosphere of V’s penultimate song, ‘I Killed Captain Cook’. Although the songs are presented in a traditional Hawaiian manner, they’re mostly sung in English. Having been influenced by Hawaiian music since Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s first album, Ruban saw a space for himself within the tradition. When he reflected on his success, he realised he had the responsibility and platform to represent Hapa-haole music on the global stage.


1. The Garden
2. Guilty Pleasures
3. Meshuggah

4. The Widow
5. In the Rear View
6. That Life
7. Layla

8. Shin Ramyun
9. Weekend Run
10. The Beach

11. Nadja
12. Keaukaha
13. I Killed Captain Cook
14. Drag

Unknown Mortal Orchestra - V


Feature (cont.)

D: Did record shopping have a big influence on you? Which shops in particular?

RN: Real Groovy was kind of an epicenter but there was another tiny record shop called Beautiful Music that used to be built into the side of an art gallery called Artspace, which I think is still there, if it survived the pandemic. Beautiful Music closed down years ago, sadly. But it was a very limited, extremely curated kind of record store. It was the kind of place where you could go in and buy anything. Like a lucky dip. With faith it would be worth your time because the inventory was so well curated and so limited.

D: Across all genres?

RN: There were electronic records, so-called “world music” kinda records. Noise records. No pop. Very seldom did I see the name of something I recognised apart from the jazz section because I grew up with my dad listening to all the jazz greats.

D: How do you feel seeing The Mint Chicks or Unknown Mortal Orchestra releases in the racks at record shops?

"It’s a real picture that I took of a Jaguar as it made an attempt to eat a small child."

RN: I see it every now and then. It’s nice when the record store has a umo section. Mint Chicks vinyl is harder to come by, even though we repressed 10th anniversary records. I actually am pretty surprised how often record stores don’t stock umo records.

D: Idiots…

RM (laughing) Do they not know how well it sells?

D: How big a part of releasing music - to you - is focused on the visual identity?

RN: I went to art school and really wanted to draw comics or be a painter. I got totally sidetracked by music again and again. I’m of two minds about visuals. They relate to music because on the one hand, visuals have a way of making a beautiful context for music and expanding your understanding of what the artist is trying to say. On the other hand, I wonder sometimes if people are actually listening to their pop idols or just looking at them.

D: Tell me about the V sleeve art. It’s such a striking image, how did this come about?

RN: It’s a real picture that I took of a jaguar as it made an attempt to eat a small child.

D: (laughing) I think it’s going to look amazing in the racks.

RN: Yes, with the gold foil and everything. I haven’t laid eyes on the finished product for the first time yet but I always love that moment. I’m sure every artist does.


ⓘ Photo: Juan Ortiz Arenas
ⓘ The full interview will feature in the upcoming issue 26 of Deluxe. Available through Drift and all other good record shops.

"An hour of music that gives the same satisfaction as reading an insightful book on a sun-kissed day."