Ruban Nielson, the driving force in Unknown Mortal Orchestra, came to Portland a few years ago thinking his music career was over. The guitarist grew up in New Zealand and played in a punk band, the Mint Chicks, with his brother for a number of years. When the band broke up, Nielson ended up in Portland with the intention of making a fresh start in a new career.
"I wasn't excited about the music industry at all," Nielson says. "It wasn't that I didn't want to make music, but I was sick of the inter-band squabbles and label politics. All that felt like such a waste of time — I was doing less and less music and focusing more on all these other things. For me, getting back into music was an accident."
After settling in Portland, Nielson started a film production company and dabbled in music in his basement as more of a hobby. "I got excited about music again because I didn't have to worry about sending demos to record companies or asking bandmates what they thought of what I was making. I was experimenting with tape, manipulating sounds — all the things that I wanted to do in the Mint Chicks, but the band couldn't be bothered to consider because it was too much hassle."
He shaped the experiments into quirky little pop songs, one of which he entitled "Ffunny Ffrends." He quietly released it in 2010 through the on-line music store Bandcamp without any identification. "I thought nobody would like it," he says with a laugh. "I didn't tell any of my friends or family that I did it. I thought they'd say, 'You gave up the Mint Chicks for this?' But I also thought that it was a catchy song and that it would help me meet other weird, nerdy people making psych records online. Then blogs started writing about it and people started posting and reposting it."
Eventually, Nielson was "outed" as the creator of the song, which he attributed to Unknown Mortal Orchestra. "All of a sudden I had people from labels calling me and asking when the band was playing its next show. It wasn't really a band — I was just screwing around. So I asked my friend Jake (Portrait) to play bass, even though he doesn't play bass. We got a drummer and after nine rehearsals, we went on the road. At first I thought we'd do three weeks, then another tour was added, and another. We kept on saying 'yes.' And now it's been three years."
In that time, the band has released two albums and evolved into a versatile and hard-charging live act, with the three musicians often reshaping the songs each night while retaining their melodic integrity. In 2012, the trio played the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park and displayed a breezy agility. This summer at Lollapalooza, the band sounded bolder and more daring, the bass-drums-guitar interplay sending the songs pinwheeling in new directions.
"When we started, it was an era when a lot of people were making records in basements and bedrooms and getting record deals," Nielson says. "I kept noticing these bands would come out and the record would be cool, but when they played live, people would complain on-line that the band was green, predictable. Sometimes when you make a cool record in your basement, stuff happens quickly, and you don't have time to put together a band. It becomes perceived as this quickly done, amateurish thing. When I started this band, I wanted to surprise people by really delivering live in a traditional sense, with old-school musicianship. My dad is a jazz musician and I grew up around guys who could play. I didn't want people to say about our band, 'Aw man, they can't even play their instruments.' I wanted solos."
Solos, but not indulgence. Usually Nielson, Portrait and drummer Riley Geare are challenging one another to keep up in concert.
"Part of it was our sense of humor," Nielson says. "Me and Jake had come out of the DIY scene. We weren't really into jam bands, or old-school styles. It was more punk rock for us. But it seemed exciting and funny at the same time to jam — we thought it was a more exciting idea to have our friends be confused (laughs). Now it's gotten to the point where we can have a noisy drum solo. When we were playing in Mint Chicks people would say, 'Isn't this everything that's wrong with music?' But it goes over pretty well. There are a lot of people in our audience who may be into punk rock but who also watched (Led Zeppelin's concert movie) 'The Song Remains the Same' in high school."
Another reason for changing up the show every night is to keep everyone in the band feeling sane and invested.
"The scenario was, there would be less of the crap that I had to deal with in my other bands if we could keep it fresh every night," the guitarist says. "That's partly why we improvise so much. On the road it can turn into a grind, so if we allow the people in the band to come up with ideas on the spot in the show and make left turns, it's healthy. It keeps people in the band excited about the shows, not really knowing how it's going to go. When you tour this much, bands can get torn apart. This way, morale is always good because everyone feels they're contributing."
In the studio, it's a different story. Nielson usually plays most of the instruments himself, including a new solo acoustic Unknown Mortal Orchestra EP, "Blue Record" (Jagjaguwar).
"I didn't play acoustic for the first two years of the band -- I never even owned an acoustic guitar because I had always played in punk bands," he says. "I got a new manager, and he was saying wouldn't it be cool if you could strip the songs back for some of these live radio appearances I was being asked to do. I was thinking about bands that I grew up with like Led Zeppelin and Yes, and songs that start acoustic and become loud, I thought that would be cool. Growing up in New Zealand, people played acoustic guitars around campfires -- everybody does it. I wasn't into it. But when I started playing some of my songs this way, people liked it. I'm not sure if I'm wandering down a weird path now. Are we turning into actual '70s musicians? Can punk rockers really play their instruments? It'll be interesting to see where the next album goes …"
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 21 Where: Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln Av., Tickets: $15; lincolnhallchicago.com
Greg co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays on WBEZ (FM-91.5).