Unknown Mortal Orchestra is about as digital age as it gets. The Portland-based project, helmed by New Zealand export Ruban Nielson, has generated a substantial amount of buzz in less than three years of existence — largely because of a rigorous touring schedule in which the gasps for air are scant.
Yet the hype initially spawned from nothing more than one of a million other pages on Bandcamp, the website where independent musicians with visions of widespread exposure can upload a streaming catalog of music.
In spring 2010, Nielson released his first single, “Ffunny Ffriends,” which seduced enough bloggers’ ears to become one of the year’s most successful indie tracks. The project then expanded into a three-piece touring act, amassing a devoted fan base in a remarkably brief period of time.
“So much of this stuff is about timing and luck: shit you can’t control,” said Jake Portrait, UMO’s bassist. “It’s a pretty different scenario from when our parents grew up. A band can reach millions of people without having to go through major-label distribution, mainstream radio and all the other outlets that were popular from the ’40s on through the ’90s.”
Despite the widening avenue into the limelight, financial success — without the reach of a major record label — is less attainable, thanks to digital piracy. It’s a catch-22 for independent musicians who, like Unknown Mortal Orchestra, saw an increase in exposure through illegal file sharing.
Thus, touring has become monetarily vital for those who strive to make music for a living.
“The only way to earn money is to go earn it, which I think is good,” Portrait said. “This is actually a golden era of music, because the people who are doing it really want to do it.”
For the unsuspecting musician, however, extended travel can be a fracturing experience. Both Portrait and Nielson were lambasted by a potent dose of reality on their first national tour — one defined by emotional turbulence and hospital visits.
“We just kind of did it all,” said Portrait. “We were having so much fucking fun, but we just couldn’t say ‘no’ to anything. It’s pretty obvious what we were up to.”
Having endured such exhaustive psychological turmoil, there was no shortage of subject matter for the band’s new record, II. The album is rife with themes of paranoia and despair, often portrayed through a densely creative prism.
Yet each song, no matter how varied or disjointed, opts for pop sensibility without compromising an experimental disposition. It’s a sound that, like the project’s roots, hinges on the modern indie circuit’s pervading force: originality.
“I think Ruban likes really catchy songs,” Portrait said. “But he’s not sitting at home trying to write the biggest pop songs he can. He’s more of an experimental musician. I don’t think he’s trying to be challenging, though. He’s trying to be interesting.”