Unknown Mortal Orchestra's new album Sex & Food is prompting Melody Thomas to think about the apocalypse. She asks the band's founder and frontman, Ruban Nielson if that's what he intended.
Sad lyrics over happy music. Gloomy cover art on a joyous album. Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson is fond of things that seem contradictory, but actually serve to temper and balance an idea – so a sweet sentiment is not sickeningly so, a dark one actually kind of funny.
One look at the title of his fourth studio effort Sex & Food, then, tells you a bit about what to expect from its insides.
“I was trying to think of something really simple and inviting and dumb to call the album so that it wouldn't be advertising itself as something heavy,” says Ruban, “I wanted people to think it wasn’t going to tax them.”
Spoiler alert: it will. More or less so depending on how you’re feeling at the time.
Today the sun is shining and so too are the tracks that dance and shimmer.
A few days ago though, I listened to it as kids marched on Washington; the last northern white rhino died, and the sky got dark at 6pm. The effect of the ‘heavier’ moments was too much: they compounded my despair and brought back my increasingly frequent musings about the end of the world.
When I interviewed Ruban in the lead-up to the album’s release I asked if it was me conjuring apocalyptic visions or his music. He thanked me for understanding the difference between interpretation and intent.
“When people write about my music, they put all this heavy stuff on it… Anyway what would make you think about the apocalypse? Could you think of a line?”
I suggest the song ‘This Doomsday’. “Oh yeah,” he says.
The thing is, the ‘heavy’ stuff isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. Sure, he’s singing about the ‘feeling I won't live far beyond these years’, but the melody is impossible not to sing along to and it’s accompanied by an equally irresistible groove.
“Music is fun and healing and creates magic in an environment. It should relieve burden. People are definitely going to dance and laugh and have sex to this music, so it mustn’t be that serious. I don't see anyone … having sex and dancing to the BBC world service,” he says.
Where previous UMO recordings were conjured up in Ruban’s basement studio, Sex & Food was largely made on the road – in Reykjavík, Seoul, Auckland, Hanoi and Mexico, and traces of these places are present throughout.
The line ‘Viva la Mexico’ in ‘American Guilt’ was shouted in a park in the aftermath of the 2017 Central Mexico earthquake; a lyric about a girl paying off the police comes from witnessing that very thing at a bar in Vietnam.
The album also features a lot more live recordings from sessions with bassist Jake Portrait and Ruban’s brother Kody, who will join the band officially for the upcoming UMO tour.
For those concerned about a return to the Mint Chicks days of brotherly brawls and potential band implosion, Ruban assures me things have changed a lot since then: “There wasn’t much money going around, we wouldn't take days off and it was unhealthy... It's like a baby – when [it] hasn't had enough sleep or food they go mental ... It's taken me raising kids to figure that out about myself, like, ‘maybe I need some sleep. Maybe I should eat something as well’.”
Sex & Food might present some challenges for those who fell in love with UMO via Multi-Love – reaction to the first single ‘American Guilt’ has been mixed, though as Ruban points out, there’s ‘plenty of precedent’ for the grittier sound that song embraces.
In fact, the killer riff that repeats throughout ‘American Guilt’ dates back to The Mint Chicks days – it just never made it to a song ‘til now.
But Ruban doesn’t care if his songs are instant hits. In fact he might even prefer it if they weren’t: “If the lifetime of a song is 5 or 10 or 20 years or potentially forever… I really couldn't give a shit if someone skips it because it sounds a bit weird to them.”
He recorded his most popular song – ‘So Good at Being in Trouble’, by himself in a yurt with a laptop, one mic and a guitar: “I thought ‘well, this is going to sound cheaper than everyone else's song so I better put all my heartache in here’.”