Before Unknown Mortal Orchestra, There Was The Mint Chicks

Ruban Nielson remembers how his old, unruly punk band nearly tore him and his brother apart.

In a 2013 edition of his old Freak Scene column, Sam Hockley-Smith wrote several hundred words about a poorly recorded MP3 of The Mint Chicks' song "Stolen Hill" that he had listened to 89 times. He's probably played it a few more since then, but the point is: that's the kind of impassioned response the New Zealand band incited in fans of weirdo rock music. In 2010, after several records and 9 years of lawless shows, the band's guitarist Ruban Nielson left to release R&B-informed psych as Unknown Mortal Orchestra. UMO's third full-length, the ambitiously tripped-out Multi-Love, was released last week on Jagjaguwar. In honor of the milestone, Nielson looks back at his near-decade playing with The Mint Chicks: the highs, the lows, and how it almost ripped him and his brother completely apart. — Patrick D. McDermott

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Ruban Nielson: Before starting The Mint Chicks, my brother Kody and I always used to do stuff. I bought a video camera and we started making horror films when I was a teen. I wasn't really into music back then, though—I was busy making comic books. We used to listen to a lot of music, but not play it. I grew up around my dad playing a lot of jazz. Everyone in my family was a musician. I was the one guy that didn't play music.

My dad was a drug user when I was a kid, and he cleaned up pretty much when I left home. He was doing 12 steps, and one of the things he did to make amends was to buy me a guitar. That became my hobby. I was going to art school and painting and stuff, and then I’d go home and fool around with the guitar for fun. I was listening to a lot of punk music: the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, the Misfits. One day my brother said, "Oh I've written these songs, do you want to play guitar?” and I was like "Yeah, but why don't we play them 10 times as fast?" We were always messing around with punk music because it was easy to play. We were listening to lots different kinds of music but not actually attempting to play them yet.

So we started a punk band. I guess it was 2001? I was in high school. I knew some people that were in the kind of in a hardcore scene and other punk scenes and I was like, "We can get shows with them for sure.” Our big ambition was to get a record on Flying Nun one day; that was as far as we thought it through. Then we started playing shows, like, four time a week around town. One time we played three shows in one night, just driving around town, playing a show, playing another show, another show. Everyone was like, "There's this band that is playing ALL the time. What's going on?" We weren't getting paid anything at all. One day, someone from Flying Nun called me up—I don't know how they got my number, but they said, "Hi, we want to sign your band." We were like, "Oh, cool, that's what we wanted." We didn't try to see if anyone else wanted to sign us, we had decided. I guess it was 2002 when they contacted me, but we didn't put our first EP out until 2003.

“My brother said, ‘I’ve written these songs, do you want to play guitar?’ and I was like ‘Yeah, but why don’t we play them 10 times as fast?’” — Ruban Neilson

After we got signed, we kept playing. We didn't really change what we were doing at all. That's kind of what the problem was: we never really figured out how to take the band seriously. We started the band like, "Fuck it, lets just do this," and then no matter how popular we got we just barely took it seriously enough to do the next thing. We got to the point where we had no manager and no structure around us—we were just amusing ourselves. We did a couple of EPs, and then we did that first album and then... Fuck, I can hardly remember. It was so long ago. I think I've battered my brain. A lot of drinking between then and now.

Nick Roughan from [New Zealand post-punk band] The Skeptics was always our sound guy. My dad always had a big issue with that guy: “He just makes you guys so loud that it hurts. You're hurting everybody,” he’d say. We were like, "That's so awesome!" One time, we were playing in this old theater opening for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and we played so loud that the plaster from the ceiling started falling on the audience. A couple of people got pretty badly hurt. One kid got a massive block of plaster to the head. I don't know if you could do that in the States, you would get sued or somebody would get sued. But we were okay. We went and visited the kid. It was fine.

Another time we played Big Day Out festival and they had this really annoying advertising banner. We were like, "If we play that fucking venue again we’re going to chop that banner down." The night before we played there again, we were like, “We need to grab an axe,” and then someone was like, "Oh my dad's got a chainsaw!" We were figuring out how we were going to get a chain saw on stage, and I was like, "I think once somebody starts a chainsaw, and you walk on stage, no security guard is going to try to stop you."

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I wanted to leave the band because of a lot of things—the same shit that make everyone want to leave bands. I had to argue for every fucking idea. I was getting to the point where I would say to Kody, "You should sing it like this," when I was starting to get more involved with soul and R&B. The other guys were like, "What do you mean 'sing it like Whitney Houston?’ What the fuck! We're a punk band!" That's what was so nice about starting Unknown Mortal Orchestra; I got to do exactly what I wanted to do. The other thing was that I wanted to go back to having a peaceful relationship with my brother. We didn't get along after a while, and I wanted to. We just used to hang out all the time, and then all of a sudden we were at each others throats. That's the reason I quit the band in the end.

We played our last show in 2010, but we didn't know it was going to be our last show. I had already told the guys that I was leaving the band, but that wasn't supposed to be our last show. It was obviously going through Kody's mind, and he just flipped out and said "Start your own fucking band." I went back home, got on my computer, pulled the website down, and just put "START YOUR OWN FUCKING BAND" in the middle of the page, which made everybody think it was planned. But it wasn’t. Shit happens.

Before Unknown Mortal Orchestra, There Was The Mint Chicks