From The Basement: An Interview With Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Jake Portrait has found himself in the middle of everything.

The Portland native has recently moved to the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, and he finds himself surprised at his new home’s place in the indie music world: the offices of Jagjaguwar Records and Captured Tracks are on his block, and musician Brad Oberhofer (of Oberhofer) is a neighbor. It’s a surprising situation for Portrait to be in, but not an unfortunate one: the musician/producer/engineer is currently having a pretty good year so far as the bassist of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the solo project-turned-band of Portrait’s friend Ruban Neilson whose new set II has become one of the most talked-about indie rock albums this year.

Portrait was arguably around for the beginning of UMO as it came through the collapse of Neilson’s first band the Mint Chicks. “I was producing them on their album Screens, and then Ruban and his brother had a falling out”, Portrait says. “Then Ruban put out [UMO’s first single] ‘Ffunny Ffriends’, which got way more attention than he expected, and he called me because he needed to put a band together.” Portrait’s role in the live version of UMO was one that was a little unfamiliar for him: “I had never played bass before. I could play guitar and drums, and I figured that a bass was close enough to a guitar to be able to play. Now, of course, I know that’s not true at all.”

The shift from solo recordings to a full band created a whole new set of expectations for Unknown Mortal Orchestra around the time their album II was written and recorded. “It’s a different feeling, to go from making an album that no one’s going to hear to making an album that a lot more people are going to hear”, Portrait says. Working as a full band made II a different experience than UMO’s debut in a positive way, though. “Playing on tour made us a better band, and it gave us a deeper, richer sound”, Portrait says, “Touring also helped Ruban with his songwriting; his songs are deeper, richer, and more rewarding now.”

The sound that UMO have crafted is one that puts a distinctly modern spin on distinctly classic sounds, so it’s not entirely surprising that the band chose to cover Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” for live shows. Still, Portrait says the band didn’t set out deliberately to reinterpret Redding’s most famous song: “Ruban just started playing it, and I started playing it on bass from memory, and Riley [Geare, UMO’s drummer] started playing it from memory, too”, Portrait says “It wasn’t something that we had consciously rehearsed before, so I didn’t see it as a daunting task.” The unrehearsed take was so good that the BBC asked them to play it on the air as a live session. “It wasn’t until we played it on the air that we got that sense of, ‘Holy shit, we just covered Otis Redding’s most famous song'”, Portrait says, looking back on the session. “The Redding Estate posted the cover on their website after we did it, so I’m happy we didn’t butcher it.”

One would think that the increased amount of attention would cause UMO to change their recording approach for II, but Portrait claims that that wasn’t the case. In describing the process of making II, Portrait claims that not a whole lot has changed between albums: “Everything we did on this record is more or less what we did on the first record. We used the same recording equipment as the last time, except we were in a professional studio instead of Ruban’s basement studio.” Portrait even cites a lot of the same influences — Sly Stone, Syd Barrett, and Wu-Tang Clan — that were talked about by critics and the band themselves when the first UMO album came out.

Some key things have changed about the band’s process, though: “What’s changed is the songwriting, and that came about from listening to a lot of old music and talking to each other about what they did.” Fans who have listened to II have been quick to slap the “retro” tag onto UMO, and it’s likely that their take on Otis will invite even more comparisons. While Portrait isn’t exactly thrilled with the moniker, he doesn’t mind the comparisons to the greats of the past.

The experience of recording their second album strengthened the band’s gift for songwriting and arrangement, such as on the single “Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark)”, which Portrait calls “a classic lyric, a classic arrangement; everything about that song is done in a very classic way, which probably appeals to older fans who remember music from that time.” It’s enough that even Portrait gets a little nostalgic: “It was just a different time. I mean, I love what’s going on in music now, but there was something about how things were done in the ’60s and ’70s that was different. You had all these great musicians who were all touring and banging out albums every year; I don’t know if we’ll ever see anything like that again.”

Unknown Mortal Orchestra remain focused on the present, though: the band are headed on a marathon of a tour that stretches into November and spans two continents. Portrait has been keeping busy, as well: he was most recently behind the boards for Wampire’s new album Curiosity. Jake’s work as a producer and engineer is extensive (he’s worked on albums by Blouse, Gauntlet Hair, and he has done remixes of the Dandy Warhols), so that begs the question: could we see Portrait producing for UMO in the future? Right now, the answer is no. “To be honest, I’ve never asked to produce for UMO; Ruban and I talk about recording endlessly, but he records a lot by himself”, Portrait says, “Honestly, when he brings in songs, they’re pretty much finished. There isn’t much I or another producer could bring to Ruban’s songs.” Besides, Portrait has another job to focus on: “I like being in a band, and I like being a musician. I’m trying to enjoy that right now.”