Music

From The Basement: An Interview With Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Bassist Jake Portrait of Unknown Mortal Orchestra has a unique take on this much-beloved band, and takes PopMatters through the band's love of music's past, UMO's future, and the challenge of covering Otis Redding.


Unknown Mortal Orchestra

II

Label: Jagjaguwar
US Release Date: 2013-02-05
UK Release Date: 2013-02-01
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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."

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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