Unknown Mortal Orchestra is about as digital age as it gets. The Portland-based project, helmed by New Zealand export Ruban Nielson, has generated a substantial amount of buzz in less than three years of existence largely because of a rigorous touring schedule in which the gasps for air are scant.
Yet the hype initially spawned from nothing more than one of a million other pages on Bandcamp, the website where independent musicians with visions of widespread exposure can upload a streaming catalog of music.
In spring 2010, Nielson released his first single, Ffunny Ffriends, which seduced enough bloggers ears to become one of the years most successful indie tracks. The project then expanded into a three-piece touring act, amassing a devoted fan base in a remarkably brief period of time.
So much of this stuff is about timing and luck: shit you cant control, said Jake Portrait, UMOs bassist. Its a pretty different scenario from when our parents grew up. A band can reach millions of people without having to go through major-label distribution, mainstream radio and all the other outlets that were popular from the 40s on through the 90s.
Despite the widening avenue into the limelight, financial success without the reach of a major record label is less attainable, thanks to digital piracy. Its a catch-22 for independent musicians who, like Unknown Mortal Orchestra, saw an increase in exposure through illegal file sharing.
Thus, touring has become monetarily vital for those who strive to make music for a living.
The only way to earn money is to go earn it, which I think is good, Portrait said. This is actually a golden era of music, because the people who are doing it really want to do it.
For the unsuspecting musician, however, extended travel can be a fracturing experience. Both Portrait and Nielson were lambasted by a potent dose of reality on their first national tour one defined by emotional turbulence and hospital visits.
We just kind of did it all, said Portrait. We were having so much fucking fun, but we just couldnt say no to anything. Its pretty obvious what we were up to.
Having endured such exhaustive psychological turmoil, there was no shortage of subject matter for the bands new record, II. The album is rife with themes of paranoia and despair, often portrayed through a densely creative prism.
Yet each song, no matter how varied or disjointed, opts for pop sensibility without compromising an experimental disposition. Its a sound that, like the projects roots, hinges on the modern indie circuits pervading force: originality.
I think Ruban likes really catchy songs, Portrait said. But hes not sitting at home trying to write the biggest pop songs he can. Hes more of an experimental musician. I dont think hes trying to be challenging, though. Hes trying to be interesting.