The Unknown Mortal Orchestra/Opossum muso on how partner Bic Runga feeds his creative drive. Plus, selected Big Day Out highlights.
Electric Hawaii, by Kody Nielson aka Opossum, was my favourite of the six albums nominated for New Zealand’s illustrious 2013 Taite Prize. Ahead of his Big Day Out set, I found the notoriously media-shy Nielson in a mellow mood. He gracefully opened up about his brother Ruban, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s third album, and partner Bic Runga’s influence on his creative philosophy. Illustration by Hikalu Clarke.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: You and your Unknown Mortal Orchestra brother Ruban are often described as having a dynamic/destructive relationship, but you have a good rapport now?
KODY NIELSON: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. We’re always all good. It’s just having been in a band with your brother for many years, it tends to be intense occasionally [philosophical pause]. We’ll always be best friends, really.
AB: Any kind of creative relationship—the long hours, nocturnal stuff—including for most people in bands, there are inevitably tensions at times, aren’t there?
KN: Yeah, I think so. It’s like with anyone when you spend that much time with someone. You start noticing annoying things about them or whatever. You start rubbing each other up the wrong way. It gets a bit annoying. But when you get a bit of space then you start to appreciate things.
AB: Ruban jamming with you and Bic on guitar inspired his lovely acoustic version of ‘So Good at Being in Trouble’:
Now that you’re gone
It’s been a long lonely time
It’s a long, sad lonely time…
She was so good at being in trouble
So good at being in trouble…
So bad at being in love.
What makes that song special for you?
KN: ‘So Good at Being in Trouble’? It’s really sad, and it’s got a good melody. It’s really hooky but also quite melancholy as well. So yeah, I really quite like that song.
AB: Unknown Mortal Orchestra are big. They’re probably the most popular New Zealand band in America at the moment, on a hectic worldwide touring schedule. Are you producing or performing on their third album?
KN: Probably both. Maybe on the writing, production; and possibly drumming again. Ruban’s back in January. They’re going to stay here for a few weeks. So I’ll do some work with him then.
AB: Exciting. A number of people, including myself and The Eversons’ Mark Turner, think you and Ruban are at your best working with each other. So Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s new album’s scheduled for release next year?
KN: I’m not sure when he’s planning on releasing it. But we’ll definitely start recording it after his shows and stuff. They’ll be playing a bunch of gigs in January and early February.
AB: I really enjoyed Electric Hawaii, my favourite of the 2013 Taite nominees, from the breezy rush of ‘Girl’. Mike Fab says it’s “extremely clever,” Any particular favourite songs?
KN: Probably ‘Fly’ or ‘Inhaler Song’, I think they’re probably my favourite ones. I was most proud of those songs I guess. I liked the progressions and the melody.
AB: You wanted an old-school, analogue feeling on the album?
KN: Yeah, I was recording a lot of stuff on some analogue equipment that I picked up here and there, just a few little things like a tape machine, and an old mixer from the seventies with spring reverb and stuff like that. I think that kind of stuff gave the recording a bit of character.
AB: Definitely. The Big Day Out are pitching you as doing a DJ set. The adjective they’ve used to describe you is “incendiary.” What are your thoughts on this description?
KN: I’ve never really DJ’d or anything before. I usually play with a full band. They asked if I would do a stripped back set. I suppose they said a DJ set, but I think I’m going to just play most of my album, Devils, kind of chopped up, and samples and stuff because I’ve got a sampler. A lot of how I made that record was actually on this sampler anyway. So I’ll be doing that live. And I’ll have some horns as well. It’s not so much DJing. I won’t be DJing other people’s music or anything. I want to use horns live because I had quite a lot of horns recorded on the Devils EP. I want to have that live. I think that’s the main thing—having the actual horns there.
AB: In terms of the horns, are there any particular influences?
KN: Yeah, seventies fusion music. It’s a lot of my favourite music, like Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. I’ve listened to their records since I was a teenager. They’ve been a pretty big influence. My dad, Chris Nielson, plays trumpet and saxophone. He turned me on to a lot of good music. He was always playing the horns, around. I wanted to be able to use his playing in my music as well.
AB: Seventies music has been a strong influence on everything you’ve done, hasn’t it?
KN: Yeah, it has pretty much. I think with Electric Hawaii I was mainly listening to a lot of sixties pop and stuff like that. I got a lot more back into instrumental fusion stuff after having made that album. I suppose I’m getting back more into seventies music. But I’ve always been into that kind of thing.
AB: So, Bic Runga was stylishly hitting the drums for Electric Hawaii, but she’s not going to be involved with this Big Day Out gig?
KN: No, she’s not actually playing on anything in Devils. But we’re still making music together. It’ll probably be in Opossom and in her own music. I might get her to sing on some of my new songs. (But we’ll see how it goes.) Just getting back into thinking about making a new record for Bic as well.
AB: So hopefully new albums out next year?
KN: I think we’ll probably both have new records out next year. I’ve already been recording some of my new one and Bic’s only just started writing for hers.
AB: How’s Bic influenced your creative instinct?
KN: I’m not sure. I suppose she’s just a really positive person and encouraging [emotional pause]. That’s probably the main thing. She makes sure that I try to stay positive.
AB: That’s important in any creativity, and in life generally.
KN: I tended to get a bit negative… a bit down on myself. But there’s already enough negativity in daily lives, and in everyday life, without having to add to it or feed into it.
AB: When Under the Radar asked about the name Opossom, you said that: “Because when I was making it I was staying up all night and I felt pretty nocturnal… In New Zealand they are considered such a pest that when anyone sees an Opossom they try to kill it immediately and I feel like I can relate to that.” Could you elaborate?
KN: [laughs gently] Well, I dunno, it just seems like a kind of creature that is attacked or something. I just felt like I could relate to that for some reason.
AB: When you were in the Mint Chicks, there was a lot pressure and expectation on you, being “the next Datsuns,” etc. Was that maybe part of it?
KN: Yeah, maybe. I mean, people started to expect certain things in the live show. A lot of the time in the crowd there would be [a sense of] conflict or whatever. It was such a long time ago I sort of moved on pretty far from that–
KN: Since then I seem to have learnt a lot about my own work ethic and just trying to be productive, for my own productivity. I seem to have grown up a bit.
Ruban Nielson performing for Unknown Moral Orchestra live, July 2013. Image by Daniel Rose.
AB: I think Opossom and Unknown Mortal Orchestra is the best music you and Ruban have done. I thought this quote from you on the Mint Chicks was perceptive: “It was pretty naive and that was what was cool about it. I guess we feel like we’re making better music now and that the music speaks for itself these days rather than using these antics and violence and destruction that just took over from the music in The Mint Chicks.” What have you learnt to tell younger musicians coming up?
KN: I guess just do what you love. You’ve got to be in it one hundred per cent and you need a passion for what you’re doing. And stay positive. Just be positive. Try not to compromise what you’re doing.
AB: How are you finding it balancing being a producer and a performer? I rate your production on Bic/Belle songs like ‘Devil On Tambourine’.
KN: Well, I guess I’ve done a few more albums and more people ask me to record their albums now. I’ve always recorded and produced music and written simultaneously. We did that in the Mint Chicks: we recorded our own music and produced it ourselves. So nothing’s really changed that much. I’m just working on more music, more of other people’s music as well.
AB: You’re more in demand as a producer. You’re still able to maintain energy and inspiration for your own production and your own live performance?
KN: Yeah. I think it sort of helps working on other people’s stuff because, for one, it puts you out of your normal ways of doing things. Also, working on other people’s stuff so long I start itching to make my own music. By the time I’ve finished a project I’m ready to do some of my music by then.
AB: You and Ruban are part Hawaiian, U.S. citizens. This must help at American airports, with all the travelling you do, save time on silly admin?
KN: Yeah. It’s pretty good for travelling to the States, you just go in and out of there easily. And to be able to work there without having to get visas and all that kind of thing is good.
AB: A lot of New Zealand musicians I’ve talked to say that all that makes America hard. (Mara TK was denied entry for CMJ this year.)
KN: Oh yeah, it totally is. It’s quite hard. It’s like really hard doing that thing while you’re overseas as well. Because they’ll be like: “You need to this document. You need to print this out.” And it might be some school document from New Zealand and you just can’t get it. So it ends up being a pain in the ass.
AB: I took in New York recently. I was talking to Liam Finn and he said, “Bad experiences can be great fuel for creativity.”
KN: Bad experiences can be. Depends how you take them, but they can change your life. They can make you a better person in general. It doesn’t have to be for music, but it could be for whatever you do. If you learn from your bad experiences then I suppose you will come out on the other side of it stronger.
AB: I suppose it ties back to what you’ve said earlier about your Bic-inspired positive approach to everything?
KN: That’s the thing. If you try to be positive about everything, you tend to be able to bounce back quicker and just get on with the things that are inspiring or the things that are good in life. It seems a bit of a waste of time concentrating too much on any negative shit. It’s a downer. It just ends up being a total bummer.
AB: Anything else to close?
KN: I haven’t got anything specific to say, really. Apart from sorry I haven’t been out to more gigs this year. I’ll make an effort next year to see more shows [laughs gently].
ILLUSTRATION © Hikalu Clarke 2014. All Rights Reserved.
INSET © Daniel Rose 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at danielrose.co.nz.
This conversation has been edited. Thanks to Ksenia Khor and Alix Campbell for transcription assistance on this article. Daniel Rose photographed Unknown Mortal Orchestra for The Lumière Reader in July.
Big Day Out 2014
Selected highlights from The Lumière Reader’s past coverage of artists playing at the forthcoming Big Day Out (Auckland, January 17).
Big Day Out 2008: In Review #2 (Matt Pickering, review, 2008)
“The contagious and unbridled energy of the group seems to be concentrated in keyboard crazyman William Butler, younger brother of Win. He lives up to his Wikipedia entry, spontaneously scaling the scaffolding aside the stage with drum in tow, whacking it with intense vigour, embracing the moment.” Read More
Cansei de Ser Sexy (CSS) w/ So So Modern (Brannavan Gnanalingam, review, 2007)
“I would have expected a six piece to sound louder, and it wasn’t until ‘Let’s Make Love’ that I felt drowned in music. But musical pedanticism aside, this was an outrageously fun gig. Lead vocalist Lovefoxxx was fantastic – her dancing and energy was infectious, with the highlight being the little choreographed dance move for the audience to follow.” Read More
Delaney Davidson Returns (Brannavan Gnanalingam, interview, 2007)
“A lot of the time you have that experience where you hear some music and you love it, and then you meet them and you think ‘oh what a jerk’, and suddenly you can’t hear the music anymore because it’s been soured for you.” Read More
The Return of the Kasimier (Alexander Bisley, Luke Buda interview, 2013)
“We don’t necessarily collapse on the ground and writhe about and kiss all the girls in the front row and do crazy sexual dance moves and blow things up on stage. We look at our pedals and play the music. “Yeah man, we let the music do the talking, y’know?” Read More
The Phoenix Foundation, Fandango (Andy Palmer, review, 2013)
“Sam Scott’s poetry, and to a certain extent that of Luke Buda, has long been one of the most important aspects of the Phoenix Foundation sound. Again they offer their unique take on the world, their deft touch with rhymes, the subtle humour, and domestic reality.” Read More
SJD on Elastic Wasteland (Martyn Pepperell, interview, 2013)
“Working an interzone between electronica, pop rock, soul, and folk, over fourteen years of recording and touring, he’s regularly traversed the scope between bedroom production and full flight studio work, and equally, one-man performances and full band shows.” Read More
SJD, Songs from a Dictaphone (Brannavan Gnanalingam, review, 2007)
“Even if his meditations on everyday life don’t grab you, there are the gorgeous melodies and instrumentation that surely must.This is a musician in full control of his craft, and is the type of intelligent pop music that continues to reward the listener with repeated listens.” Read More
SJD on Songs From a Dictaphone (Brannavan Gnanalingam, interview, 2007)
“…it’s the more elaborate, and complex stuff that really does attract Donnelly. “I do really love that stuff. I just really love very beautiful constructed music, harmony and melody. I like spontaneous, simple stuff too but I can’t really lose myself in that stuff. Ultimately I do think music is something to lose myself in.” Read More