Originally, Ruban Nielson thought his fifth album under the Unknown Mortal Orchestra name would be a “really happy, really cheesy” one, an “Eye of the Tiger”-inspired break from the nocturnal, often introspective psych and funk for which he’s become known. “I was worried that the music that I made before the pandemic was so weird and reflective that the pandemic could push me too far,” he tells Apple Music. “I wanted to create something that wasn’t so much an expression of the time as it was an antidote for it—music that would help you escape.” But in navigating a series of family-related traumas—including a terminal diagnosis for his maternal uncle in his mother’s native Hawaii—Nielson was reminded that life is rarely that simple. In further connecting with his family heritage and history—and working alongside his brother and former Mint Chicks bandmate, Kody—he realized that everything he was writing couldn’t help but braid together elements both happy and sad. It resulted in his first double album, recorded, in large part, in a new home studio he built in Palm Springs. “The reality is that I was feeling extremely reflective about my family, thinking about the way we grew up,” he says. “Being ultra nostalgic and realizing that everything our family’s gone through has culminated in where we are now, which is a mixture of really tragic things and really beautiful things. I was just thinking that if I could make the record somehow feel that way, then that would be a good record.” Here, Nielson takes us inside a few of the album’s songs. “Meshuggah” “As I write more songs, there’s more and more territory that I haven’t explored, so I sometimes find myself in these little songwriting challenges. I think the original idea here was trying to think of a way to make a love song that used sugar as imagery, because after so many songs have been written, the history of pop music is so broad and so clichéd. So, I thought, what if the metaphor wasn’t sweetness? What if the metaphor was actually energy? Because sugar is a source of metabolic energy. I don’t think anyone’s written a love song that’s this cold, scientific assessment of the way that sugar—or love, or somebody’s love, or the way somebody is—somehow infuses you with power, and almost in a scary way.” “That Life” “‘That Life’ had a lot to do with the first six months or so of living and working in Palm Springs. It’s an interesting place because almost every day, it’s peaceful and sunny. But most of the Coachella Valley is really windy and noisy and spooky at night. So, it’s quite creepy—it feels kind of haunted, and I think that’s the thing that makes me like it so much, that it’s a mix between something really pleasant and something that seems to be hiding something dark. ‘That Life’ was taking impressions of all kinds of things that were going on around me—or things that I imagined were going on—and piecing them together in a kind of panorama. I was thinking about Palm Springs as Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. There’s all these kinds of hideous stories all around.” “Layla” “’Layla’ is me imagining the mindset of my mother when she was young, and my uncle when he was a young boy—thinking about how they both wanted to escape. I’ve always felt kind of weird about how one of my uncles came to Portland, and my mom went to New Zealand. I just was always like, ‘Why would you want to leave paradise?’ But for Hawaiians, Hawaii isn’t paradise—it’s just home. And sometimes, home is heavy. At the beginning, the idea was almost like, let’s write a reggae song, like one that my uncle would have written. But it’s not a reggae song—there’s not really that many reggae elements to it. You can just hear that somebody had reggae in mind when they were writing it.” “Weekend Run” “My family never had any money, and a lot of my family, they just do regular jobs—anything from working for a moving company, being a house painter or builder, or scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. I think ‘Weekend Run’ is just an ode to the weekend, to the idea that the weekend is really special, and it didn’t just appear out of nature. The weekend was won by the labor movement, and a lot of people take something like that for granted. People actually came up with it and made it happen, and people could still come up with ideas like that. People could still fight for things like that.” “Nadja” “I think it’s a bit of a collage, of a few specific experiences that I feel like, because I’ve experienced them multiple times, it just can’t be a coincidence. There is this part in the song where I sing about being in a bed where someone you love has been sleeping. You miss them so much, and then you find one of their hairs, a strand of hair on the pillow, and then you just feel so dysfunctionally kind of obsessed with the person, just not knowing what to do with the hair. You can’t throw it away, or do you just leave it there? I remember finding a strand of hair from someone that I was in love with, and I tied the string around my finger, coiled it up and then just ate it, just thinking where else is it going to go? I have to put this hair inside me because I don't know what else to do. It’s something strangely, slightly creepy. But also, I don’t know—it’s true.” “Keaukaha” “Keaukaha is almost like an emotional landscape. We got back from Hawaii, me and my brother, and during the time when we were mixing the record, we did a bunch of jamming and recording. Keaukaha is part of Hilo. It’s the place where my mom grew up as a little kid. This is really exactly the way I felt coming back that time, so we called it Keaukaha because that's where we’d been spending time, and that’s where Mom took us to show us where she grew up, in the house she was in. It’s a heavy place for me because there’s just so many things that happened there. I wouldn’t say bittersweet, but it’s just that some things are just so heavy that it’s impossible to enjoy them 100 percent. There’s just so much weight and history.” “I Killed Captain Cook” “I suppose I was in some way looking for approval from my mom because my mom loves that story so much. Over the pandemic, I had some time on my hands, and I was teaching myself photography. So, I went to Hawaii and took my daughter, and then I asked my mom if she would want to dance to the song, and I would try and film it on this camera I’d bought, and maybe that could be a little project. I kind of started to see how all these things all fit together into one project. I just had to kind of look at it through the lens of where I was now, not where I originally thought the album was going to end up. It’s a Hawaiian song to me, my interpretation of slack-key and hapa haole music.” “Drag” “Kody and I were working in Palm Springs with [bassist] Jake [Portrait], and we kind of just started riffing. It was a really nice day, and we captured the way the afternoon felt. Before we start making music, one of my favorite things to do is to try to cultivate a mood. Try to find something special, try to have a day that feels special, and then right in the middle of experiencing that day, try and make some music. Hopefully, that translates and captures the moment, so you can revisit it whenever you want. That’s ‘Drag.’”

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