Ruban Nielson has, on the bottom of his neck, a tattoo of an eye. Emblazoned right above his vocal chords, or "communication chakra", depending on your preference for biological or spiritual body geography, this mark embodies the emotional project of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the collective misnomer given to the creative outpourings of the psych wizardry being borne in Nielson's basement. Reportedly, the eye was conceived to mark an epiphanic realisation; a marker of Nielson's shift from a reclusive quest towards personal enlightenment, to a celebration of the energy possible in external connection.

With the demise of the Mint Chicks, the destructive whirlwind of noise and chainsaws that tore through the noughties, Nielson, and his relationship with bandmate and brother Kody, Unknown Mortal Orchestra provided a telegram connection between one Syd Barrett enthusiast, the sepia tinge of his psychedelic era plunderings, and the modern world. With the thick dark glasses that obscure the saturated colours of Nielson's true eyes, in the recent press shots spreading before the release of second album, II, comes an accentuation of the route this connection has always depended on - the music. Around its anonymous centre circles a story-storm of drugs, yurts, and contracts on napkins, but the strength of Nielson's time-warped, tie-dyed sonic melting pot has consistently been the first port of call. Perhaps surprisingly, considering their atmosphere's evocation of a sepia tinged artifact, Unknown Mortal Orchestra flourished through a thoroughly modern medium. The uploading of a demo of 'Ffunny Frends' in 2010 set the blogosphere reeling into an investigation to root out the source of its off-kilter charm, until labels and major website coverage came calling. Via the aforementioned deal with Fat Possum and the success of their self-titled debut, Unknown Mortal Orchestra currently find themselves on a world tour in support of their upcoming sophomore. We caught up with Nielson to unpack the layers that surround his enigmatic icon.

He seems free of any tension that might be projected on this clash between records made initially under anonymous privacy, and then dragged into the spotlight by the viral spread of modern media. "I think the modern world suits me," elucidates Nielson. "I like being able to make albums in my basement and communicate with people online. I'm not a throwback dude really, I just think Sly and the Family Stone is rad, and Lady Gaga is lame. My music just reflects that." He does acknowledge the "weird situation" that anonymity is thrown into in the age of the internet, and the pressures is might have on a conception of a "band" in traditional terms.

"I did feel pressure to be a traditional band. Like the Monkees or something. It would be nice to release music anonymously and have people project their needs on the music, but unless you want to be Daft Punk and wear helmets everywhere that's almost impossible. Things like photo shoots are a massive drag though. I hate having to worry about the way I look when that has no bearing on the way my music sounds."

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I ask if he ever feels like he's consciously anti-commercial. "Not particularly. I feel like I'm fairly respectful of the process of commerce, as far as I understand that people have to feed their kids and pay their rent, and that's why we sell things. Whether I agree with the fact that our society is structured that way at all is another matter I suppose."

The visual aesthetic of Unknown Mortal Orchestra does have a place for Nielson, however. The first record's cover was taken up by the metallic sheen of an intergalactic looking Spomenik, built in Yugoslavia as monuments to the strength of communism, and Nielson has spoken before how its place as his desktop background when making the first album helped to act as a visual channel through which to filter the record. He tells us how "the album cover is a chance to bring in another element. You can focus all of the different things going on in the record into a single, simple image. I like that." Though the one-time illustrator emphasises that "at the end of the day it's the songs that seem to be the most important thing. It's pretty important to keep the things around the music simple."

II comes with the image of British purveyor of occultism and witchcraft, priestess Janet Farrar. Although fans worried Nielson's raiding might have spilled too far over into 70s concept prog can rest easy, it does represent the differing state of mind, and conceptual inspiration behind the personal influences on the album in comparison to the first. Nielson expands on this shift:

"Well – the first album changed my life almost over night […] all of this crazy stuff started happening. I'm used to it now but it took about a year and a half to adjust. The album is about that time. I worked really hard, and partied really hard, and I started to notice it was taking its inevitable toll. My health and personal relationships started taking a dive. […] My life was sort of collapsing, and it was happening super quickly."

This surfaces pretty immediately. Opener 'From the Sun' betrays the beauty of the woozy strum of its introduction and Magical Mystery Tour vibe with its first lyric – "Isolation can put a gun in your hand." The album repeats its tropes of loneliness, the mind, and the night to create its haunting sense of introversion. Despite the early addition of Jake Portrait, Nielson has remained largely a one-man orchestra, and admits that "making the new album was a pretty solitary affair." We talk about the inspiration behind 'Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)', the first taste emerging from II, since virtually hallmarked by Courtney Love and repeatedly spun by his recovering addict father. Was it just this period of touring that the track's basic desperate search for escape was penned to?

"I enjoy touring. The feeling of constant movement, and playing music in front of people every night is an amazing thing. The feeling of escape goes much deeper. I've always felt this way. I'm certain other people do too. That's the comfort of the song I think. In some ways it's about the comfort of death. Without being overly morbid, there is some comfort that at the end of this crazy, intense life we all get to rest."

Thankfully Nielson qualifies his current state of mind as more positive, and that "things are back on track now." But is a negative state of mind more artistically productive? I ask. "I think that's the power of creativity. It can transform negative or destructive energy into positive, healing energy. For those of us who are a bit more haunted than others, creativity is our spiritual hygiene."

Part of this haunting is the influence of drugs on Nielson's life. One drug-fuelled bender stands out in Nielson's published history as particularly dramatic, in which a pretty spectacular cocktail sent him off-piste onto a track involving main roads, the police, and culminating with a hospital visit and a drip.

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"Drugs have been this persistent presence in my life. There's addiction in my family, and I'm always having to deal with my own issues. But like I said, creativity has a way of transforming that situation into something that has made my life really amazing. If you knew my life you'd know it was inevitable that my music would talk about, or be influenced by, drugs in some way." A man of his word – Nielson penned 'Nerve Damage' as a consequence of the above incident – an ode to the three month long nerve problems sustained from the attempt of police to restrain him whilst under the influence of his "special remedy". The track does bridge this idea of art carrying the potential to positively reinterpret negative experience, mostly by virtue of sounding nuts. The punky riot makes nerve damage sound fucking brilliant. I may not know what he means by "[trying] to keep the rattlesnakes from fucking it up," but it sounds worth a whirl.

IImight be a tentative step in a different direction. Nielson describes the moment of inspiration that best sums up its intent. "I was hanging out with friends in a hotel room all night after a really good show in New York. I remember stumbling out into the street and it was getting light outside, and there was that stinging feeling in my eyes that you get when you've been in the dark all night. Looking around me, people were having their morning jog before work or heading to breakfast with newspapers under their arm. Healthy, normal stuff. The exchanges of looks with these people and a mutual feeling of envy and disdain. I feel like people might be able to relate to that moment. That moment, in the process of a hedonistic night, when you have this surprising existential clarity about what you want, and who you want to be."

Nielson's slog in the limelight has been a relatively lengthy one, and he jokes when asked how much he has changed since those early days, with 'Not enough!'. Whether he is any closer to achieving his personal state of clarity remains to be seen. However, it appears the external communication represented by his inked eye remains the best way to uncover it. You can even enter yourself into this chakra community, with the temporary eye tattoos packaged as part of pre-orders of II. And for everyone else, there's the record – a playful maze of endless intrigue that provides an insight into the artifacts of Nielson's unraveling junk shop psychedelia, and the chilling honesty of the rampant hedonism it concerns.


Unknown Mortal Orchestra released their new album II this week. Read our review here.