No one could have predicted what was about to happen when Ruban Nielson uploaded a single track – the fuzzy, undeniably catchy “Ffunny Ffriends” – to Bandcamp in late 2010. A mere 24 hours later, Pitchfork had seized upon “Ffunny Ffriends,” posted the song on its site, and bloggers were going nuts for the new project, Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
When Nielson recorded the track that launched a thousand blog posts, he’d essentially given up any serious pursuit of a musical career. The New Zealand native had resigned to a job as an illustrator in his adopted home of Portland, Ore., after ending a lengthy stint as guitarist in the semi-successful noise rock outfit the Mint Chicks.
Despite its mysterious lack of identity, live gig offers for Unknown Mortal Orchestra started pouring in. Neilson recruited veteran Portland producer Jacob Portrait to play bass, enlisted wunderkind Julian Ehrlich on drums, then took his pet project on the road. The band ran out of money during the early stages of touring, so Nielson succumbed to relentless courting by Fat Possum and handed his recordings over to the label. With its clear psychedelic influences, glimpses of early Motown soul, and tripped out basement beats, Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s self-titled debut is one of the most entrancing albums of 2011.
When I speak with Nielson, he’s laid out on a friend’s couch, throttled to exhaustion by the rigorous performing schedule of CMJ. “I just need to sleep for, like, four days," he says. Though he clearly needs it, sleeping for four days is beyond the bounds of possibility for Nielson. Unknown Mortal Orchestra is embarking on yet another national tour, this time bringing up-and-coming shout-pop duo Gauntlet Hair along for the ride. Unknown Mortal Orchestra has already hit up a bunch of local venues this year, and will return next week to play at the Rickshaw Stop on Nov. 3. “San Francisco is maybe our favorite place to play,” says Nielson. “We always go to Dolores Park for some reason and buy drugs and stuff. It seems kind of cheesy, [but] we always end up taking acid.”
Amidst the acid trips and endless touring itinerary, Nielson’s been steadily developing material for his next album. “I just write things down in the notepad on my phone and hum things into the recorder,” he says. The severely fatigued Nielson perks up a little when he tells me the writing of the album is almost complete.
He’s just purchased a house in Milwaukie (a suburb of Portland), and is setting up a recording studio in the basement. Much of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s debut was recorded in a similar location. “I didn’t have my own basement,” Nielson explains. “Some friends of mine went on tour and I would borrow their basement.”
“It’s just a nice place to get away from people,” he says. “I feel like I work better by myself.” With his crackly, witchy voice and a talent for arranging weirdly addicting instrumentals, a shadowy underground recording lair seems all too appropriate.
UNKNOWN MORTAL ORCHESTRA
With Gauntlet Hair and Popscene DJs
Nov. 3, 9 p.m., $12-14
155 Fell, SF
With Gauntlet Hair
Nov. 7, 9 p.m., $8-10
The New Parish
579 18th St., Oakland
Check it: "Ffunny Ffriends"