PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

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
Amazon
iTunes

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."

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.