Secret Agents

How avoiding the spotlight actually helped Unknown Mortal Orchestra find it

This is the hyper-information age. Most questions can be answered in seconds by typing an Internet search into a mobile phone. We feel closer than ever to celebrities, musicians, and just about anyone else thanks to social media tools like Twitter and Facebook. You can even figure out the title and artist of almost any song by holding up your phone and using the Shazam app.

So when Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s first song “Ffunny Ffrends” hit the web in 2010 and set the indie blogosphere on fire, it was an exciting anomaly: everyone loved the song, but nobody knew who made it.

The track was lo-fi psychedelic rock at its best — teeming with a mix of washed-out garage rock aesthetics and a notable sense of pop melodicism. Despite praise from modern tastemakers like Pitchfork, the song’s creator stayed in the shadows.

And that’s just how Ruban Nielson wanted it. Nielson created Unknown Mortal Orchestra in his basement and released it without credit as a way of actively objecting to the interconnectivity of the modern music machine.

“The Internet cheapened the way bands promote themselves and damaged the mystique,” says Nielson. “Musicians were becoming their own marketing teams, and that was gross, and my refusal to do that ended up being what attracted people to it, I think. I felt the song was strong enough to stand on its own anyway.”

In Nielson’s opinion, the initial mystery surrounding “Ffunny Ffrends” offered something that seems alien in a world increasingly defined by complex interconnectivity: simplicity.

“To be honest, I think it was a kind of relief. This song came along and it was only giving you something. Not requiring you to give it anything more than a listen in return,” he says.

Nielson, a Portland resident and New Zealand native, acknowledges that his enigmatic status probably helped fuel the initial round of buzz surrounding Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Because technology puts everything a mere click away, that mystery became an actual commodity.

“The fact nobody knew about me was part of a bigger aspect of the music. I was literally making the whole album in secret. Not even my closest friends or family knew I was doing any music at all at the time,” he says. “My whole attitude at the very beginning was based around what I thought was a healthy reluctance.”

All the hype surrounding Unknown Mortal Orchestra would’ve been for naught if the story ended at “Ffunny Ffrends,” but Nielson continued to deliver more critically acclaimed psychedelic rock. Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s self-titled debut album arrived in 2011, and the follow-up II dropped this past February. While Unknown Mortal Orchestra now exists more in the land of the known, success hasn’t impacted Nielson’s detached process.

“I’m just like that anyway; kind of secretive. I made II in my basement by myself for the most part. Just pulling all-nighters, the way I did with the first album. People knowing what my name is and knowing what my face looks like didn’t change anything, because the point of being unknown was that I felt the songs and the sound had its own power that didn’t need any crutches or props,” he says. “That’s why the albums have no text on the covers and have such blank, functional names. Because I know they’re already worth people’s time.” 

Unknown Mortal Orchestra with Bass Drum of Death • Sun, June 16, at 7 pm • The Center • 6425 N. Lidgerwood St. • $12 • All-ages • • 433-7328 • Also on Mon, June 17, at 8 pm • The Belltower •125 SE Spring, Pullman • $10-12 • All-ages • • (509) 334-4195

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About The Author

Seth Sommerfeld

Seth Sommerfeld is a freelance contributor to The Inlander and an alumnus of Gonzaga University.