Poly High

Unknown Mortal Orchestra explores the concept of loving more than one on Multi-Love

Unknown Mortal Orchestra's latest album started with a phrase.

"Multi-Love" popped into the head of Ruban Nielson, the composer, producer, songwriter and mastermind behind UMO a couple years ago and right away, he toyed with the idea of using it as an album name, bucking the trend of a self-titled debut album and its follow up, "II."

"But what was it? What did it mean? Why did it seem important? That got me started," says Nielson via email. "My plan was to have very simple album titles, but it's more fun to scrap the plan sometimes, because then even I'm surprised."

The songs on "Multi-Love" deal, unsurprisingly, with love and relationships, longing and loss.

"The writing on this album was more abstract, riddles that slightly disrupt the flow," he writes. "A good lyric was something that didn't quite sit right. I don't want to be sad or nostalgic about these relationships. I want to be more celebratory. It's a feeling and desire that just came from time, being further away from it all. It was never going to be simple. I'm a bit wild, and was never going to just be normal."

After UMO's last album was released, Nielson experienced a much-publicized polyamorous relationship, echoes of which reverberate across "Multi-Love."

But aside from the lyrics, the new record expands on the elements of funk, soul and new-wave that color Nielson's psychedelic sound.

"I wanted to be the guy behind the scenes, to demonstrate multiple skills and make it transparent. I spent a lot more time on it and was given a budget by my label Jagjaguwar. It was similar but more involved," he writes. "I just wanted to make a happier album that was about the present rather than the past."

Also joining the Unknown Mortal Orchestra for the first time are Nielson's father, an accomplished horn player, and his brother Kody, who played with Ruban in The Mint Chicks, a punk band that originated in Auckland, New Zealand, where the brothers grew up. Aside from their musical contributions, they added a familial component to expand on the notion of "Multi-Love."

"It was cool. My brother's drums are a distinctive part of the record, and his piano playing appears as well. Dad's saxophone and trumpet really complete two of the songs. It was cool to be able to spend time with them and create something. As life moves on, it's hard to find time like that with family."

For a band that emerged as anonymously as possible—Nielson posted his first UMO song "Ffunny Ffrends" to Bandcamp in 2010, with no further identifying information – the project has come to embrace the idea of playing to a waiting audience. The change impacts the music, Nielson admits.

"A little bit. It makes me work harder on it. I'm really lucky to do what I love for a living and I want to make the best quality music possible," Nielson writes.

Though Nielson recorded Multi-Love in basement studio, adding banks of keyboards to the previously guitar-driven sound, Unknown Mortal Orchestra is no longer just his project. Live, bassist Jake Portrait, drummer Riley Geare and keyboardist Quincy McCrary add their own voices to Nielson's compositions.

"The guys in my band are all accomplished musicians in their own right, so I like to give them room to show people what they're capable of, so they're much more than a backing band. They contribute ideas and improvisations," he writes.

The record was a deeply personal one for Nielson but despite that, he's happy to share it. Searching and self-reflection, after all, like love, pain and joy, are common experiences, shared by all.

"I'm glad I had this opportunity, and if I made someone's life easier with the album, that's the closest reason that exists for making art that I've been able to find," he writes.

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