Concert preview: Unknown Mortal Orchestra nearly crashes and burns, but lives to tell about it

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From the October 17, 2013 edition

After Unknown Mortal Orchestra released its self-titled 2011 debut, the band kicked off a brutal stretch of touring that pushed frontman Ruban Nielson to the edge of physical and emotional breakdown.

“I was thinking really dramatic things like, ‘If it kills me then that’s the way it’s supposed to go and it’s how I ‘m going to be a real artist,’” said Nielson, 33, in a recent phone interview. “Then I started to think that a lot of my favorite artists didn’t die after one year of touring … [and] if I keep doing this it’s not going to end well for me.”

These road-driven feelings of exhaustion, detachment and isolation bleed over into the crew’s psych-rock leaning sophomore album, II, Nielson singing: “I’m so tired but I can never lay down my head”; “I’m in a strange state of mind”; “I wish I could swim and sleep like a shark does.”

Part of the struggle, Nielson said, was learning how to say no — not just to booking agents and media requests, but to fans and hanger-ons who hoped to turn every tour stop into an after-hours rager.

“Boundaries are a big part of being in a touring band,” he said. “And I had to change a lot of things on that side because … I wanted to keep making music.”

Oddly enough, there was a time not too long ago when the New Zealand native, who previously played alongside his brother Kody in riotous punks The Mint Chicks, appeared ready to give up music altogether. After that band played its final show in March 2010, Nielson, tired of the endless sparring, decided to take up a career in visual art, saying, “I thought music was poisonous for me and I could do something else creative.”

The earliest UMO recordings actually started as a way for the musician to while away the time, and he initially envisioned the project existing solely as a hobby — a plan that changed dramatically after the first tracks he posted online anonymously quickly found a large audience. Nowadays things are going so well (“Everybody [in the band] is getting along and we have a lot more fun,” he said), Nielson has already started sketching out plans for a third full-length he envisions will be far more upbeat than past efforts.

“I want to make music that makes people feel good and gives them a break from stressful things that happen in their lives,” he said. “II was quite heavy in a way, and I think I’d like the next record to be a bit more uplifting.”