When Unknown Moral Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson first visited Portland, Oregon from his native New Zealand, he stayed two weeks longer than the sing night he’d intended. He was touring with The Mint Chicks, a punk band he’d started with his brother and their friends. They destroyed festivals and won awards, and things “got to the point where there wasn’t anything else to do but sell out really badly or something.” So they moved to Portland, a scaled-back, cheap place that felt like home. Some years later, the band broke up when Nielson’s brother Kody punched him onstage. Nielson had already announced his plans to give up and get into something else, and soon after, he retired to the Pacific Northwest, alone, for good.
Nielson vowed to idle, and stayed away from bands by filling his first damp Portland winter with trips to junk shops. “I wasn’t thinking anything. I just wanted to be like a lizard,” he says. “You think about the human and a lizard—lizards don’t do any worse than humans.” He ended up recording anyway, meddling with psychedelic sounds and training his voice into a warped falsetto. Summer began and he shared a new song called “Ffunny Ffriends” on the internet, coining the project Unknown Mortal Orchestra in the few minutes it took for the file to upload.
“In three days, three labels had contacted me,” Nielson says. They wanted to know about a band he hadn’t formed yet. Ending his spell of solitude, Nielson convinced producer/bassist Jacob Portrait to ornament and edit some tracks, and together they recruited Julien Erhlich, a fearless kid whose dad sat him at a kit before he had learned to walk. “I dragged my feet the whole time,” Nielson says about his time with The Mint Chicks. “Now I want to work.” The trio’s been on tour since Valentine’s Day, after just a handful of rehearsals together.
Live, they exemplify how collaboration is ultimately more satisfying than any half-baked grab for individual greatness. Erhlich has a tripped out grin and looks like he’s eaten only pizza for a couple years, but behind the drums he’s a champ, his preternatural hand complementing Portrait and Nielson’s dueling guitars. Because it’s fun, everyone sings, and they often interrupt songs to jam. “I was talking to this girl and she was like, I don’t know about the jams, they’re self-indulgent,” Nielson recalls. “You know what, bitch? It helps to be excited, when there’s certain parts of the thing and you don’t know how they’re going to go.”
After a recent Brooklyn show, Nielson disappeared for a day, while Portrait and Erhlich wandered another way and stayed up all night. UMO missed their next date in Philadelphia. But later, rounded back up, cold sober and goading each other about plans for future time off—camping, family weddings and work on new songs—they sound genuinely bummed to spend time apart. “I think there’s a window of opportunity for bands when something’s clicking,” says Portrait. Nielson confirms, “We’re like, all in now. I got on this tour and was like, I can do this. It might have something to do with the company. I’m more comfortable around these guys. These guys are good dudes.”