Full feature published on Il Mucchio Selvaggio n. 765 / April 2018 (print and digital)
GZ: I was listening back to Sex & Food on my way here, and once again I could not help but think that this is your most diverse record in terms of sound. Do you feel the same way?
Ruban Nielson: When I was halfway through making the record, I showed my manager some stuff and he pointed that out, that there was a lot of different stuff, and at first I was kind of worried about it, ‘cause it was like three different records at the same time, but then… this is kind of unrelated, but then I started reading about streaming audiences and how the playlists that are being made for younger audiences don’t follow genre lines a lot of the time. A lot of the time it’s more about the scenario that somebody’s listening in or a mood, or even the BPM, different things like that. The couple of articles that I read about this, they were sort of talking about it in a bad way. When I read that, I thought it sounded like it kind of gave me permission to do whatever I wanted to do. I thought: as long as I can tie it together with the production and the sound of my voice – which it feels like I’ve always done – then I thought it would have probably been a good thing rather than a bad thing. I just thought that older people, like people my age, would maybe feel like the album was very eclectic, but maybe there would be a whole younger group that wouldn’t even notice, you know? I think it is diverse, but at the same time I think the way that I recorded it ties things together and makes them feel cohesive.
GZ: When the first single American Guilt was released one of your tweets made me laugh. You said: “The disco heads are starting to get mad about American Guilt being all rock and shit. Dude it’s not the only song I made lol give it a second”. Do you think a lot about the expectations of your fans?
RN: I just think of the way that I enjoy music. I definitely think of myself more like a music fan than a musician: I identify more as a music fan or maybe a record collector. I think the way that I enjoy music is when an artist that I like brings something new out. I love the feeling of being shocked or maybe disappointed, even when [my impressions] turn out to be wrong later on. A lot of my favourite stuff I didn’t understand at first. The idea of putting American Guilt out first was definitely… something that I would enjoy a band that I liked doing. Part of my enjoyment of music, especially in this era when bands often put out a single first and then another single and then maybe three singles and then an album, is the conversation that happens around the order of those singles. That’s just the way that I use the internet, the way that I experience those sort of rollouts: I text my friends and we have arguments. I just thought that American Guilt would be the kind of song that would make me immediately text my bandmates and be like: “Did you hear the new…?” I just think it’s fun, I do it for fun. I always try to do what I think would be interesting and then I hope that translates somehow to somebody else. I never really second guess what everyone else is going to like, ‘because I feel like can’t do it, I can’t even bother!
GZ: There’s definitely more and more commentary about individual tracks happening. To try and make assumptions about a whole album becomes sort of risky.
RN: That’s what’s fun. People try to extrapolate from one song what the album is going to be like. With American Guilt, that song in particular would be the one on the album that would throw you off the most and I think it’s a good thing. I have friends who are into punk and metal, and I think a lot of them don’t really get what my band is about. So I imagine them hearing American Guilt and going like: “Oh, wait, this is cool, I like this”. But then other people that are really into the band and maybe expect something like Multi-Love would be kind of momentarily maybe panicking or think that they won’t get what they were waiting for. I think they will eventually. Maybe they’re thinking: “I kind of like the song, but I don’t want a hard rock album”. All that stuff is fun to me.
GZ: You were talking about yourself as a music fan a moment ago. The press release says you initially considered going post-punk for this album, but then eventually decided to go for something “dodgier”. If you had to explain it to, say, your younger audiences, in what sense do you consider post-punk to be “guilty pleasure-free” and quintessentially “cool”?
RN: Because I like working with a lot of stuff that I used to think of as a guilty pleasure. Growing up I’d listen to a lot of punk and hip-hop, so guilty pleasures were like 80s music, disco, prog rock, jazz fusion, Steely Dan, the stuff that my dad listened to, and I really like messing with those genres now. But when I was a kid I listened to a lot of punk rock and post-punk stuff and that was always like… I don’t know, I guess for me that’s easy music to like [Laughs]. I haven’t really abandoned it, I just think it influenced me in a different way. I was looking at the lyrics of Gang of Four a lot and I think it really influenced me on this record. I still think a lot of it is in there, but a lot of the things that I did that sounded more like post-punk didn’t end up on the record, it just didn’t feel like the right sound. It still influenced the tone of the record, I think, the post-apocalyptic… the kind of “The personal is political” point of view.
GZ: For Multi-Love you came up with the title before you started to work on the music. Was it different for Sex & Food?
RN: The process of starting with a phrase and then building from there is quite dangerous! So I wanted to be careful with coming up with the title first. This time I contacted my friend Neil Krug and I started talking to him about putting the cover together. The idea was to have the cover and then work backwards, to start with the cover and to imagine what the music inside the cover would be. I had a working title at first, but I changed it to Sex & Food later because I thought in these times we’re living in a lot of the albums might be received as serious… political and stuff, so I wanted to fight against that a little bit.
GZ: I was going to ask you about that. Were you trying to minimize the political resonance of it all?
RN: I really didn’t want it to be political at all and personally I don’t consider it to be political at all. I just knew that if I focused the whole time on trying to write about my feelings and observing things around me… there was no way of avoiding politics coming into it, but I thought if the politics came into it by accident it would be better or more honest or more relevant. I often think about listening back to my records and what they might sound like to me in five years or even ten years, you know? I needed to not be caught up in this time, I wanted it to still be relevant to me, to be able to look back at it when I am older, I suppose, and not feel like it was dated.
GZ: Still, there are moments on the record that could be interpreted as allusions to the current state of affairs and a certain sense of disbelief on your part, like the song The Ministry of Alienation. To me, compared to Multi-Love, the lyrics of this record seem a bit more difficult to interpret, more cryptic, I suppose…
RN: It’s weird, I think to me it’s not more cryptic. I just think that on the last record there was a story to explain: I said too much in the press and then I kind of explained a lot of the lyrics. I think this one, to me at least, is very similar. At first when I’m writing things they seem very surreal and stuff, but then a year and a half later I start to understand that the lyrics are really straightforward. I think this record is really just like a list of all the things that I did and that I thought about, but it just takes a while for me to realize that’s all I’m doing. There was kind of a problem with the last record, I explained too much of what was happening in my life and I think that demystified the lyrics a lot, so I decided to explain the album less this time.
GZ: When we interviewed you for the magazine around the release of II, you opened up about addiction and how it influenced that album. The final track on Sex & Food, If You’re Going To Break Yourself, made me think about friendships waning because of changes in perspective and priorities, so to speak. Do you think that the overall positivity of this new record reflects a certain change of attitude towards drugs as well?
RN: Yeah, I’m definitely in a different place than I was then. My family are all musicians and there are always different stories and different struggles with that, drugs and alcohol and things like that – it’s always coming and going. I think I reached a certain point where I was trying to get my act together, I guess, and that was around the second album. I realised I had to decide whether I wanted to take myself out or keep going and I decided to keep going: I wanted to make music, I wanted my children to have a dad and stuff… so I got kind of gradually ostracized from some of my oldest, closest friends. And now I am far away from that situation enough to look back and make a song about missing those people and be sad about… how all it took it was a change of habit to break down what I thought were some of my closest friendships.
GZ: The record was made in different cities around the world. Considering how music can trigger specific memories of time and place, I was curious to know if when you listen to the record now it immediately takes you back to specific places and situations, depending on the song,
RN: I think I was trying to do that, to just find the perfect way to capture a certain mood and to get that mood in the record so that when you listen to it, it will take you exactly to that moment. It’s all on there. I think all my records are like that, but when I listen to [Sex & Food] I feel like I’m back in the mind space and the places where it was made. If you listen to this record you have a good idea of what my 2016 was like, it’s a way of travelling to other people’s lives and travelling back in time. I think it’s cool.
GZ: You already shared a very specific memory tied to American Guilt, how the line “Viva La Mexico!” ended up in the lyrics. Is there another particular memory you’d like to share?
RN: In Hanoi there was a musician that was hanging around the studio we were recording in. There’s like a group of musicians who record there, they do traditional Vietnamese music. They were all kind of older people, but there was one younger guy that we kept seeing, we started hanging out, we made friends with them and we started recording a little bit with them. He told me about this performance that he was doing, there was this singer-songwriter that he was performing with and so I went to the show to check it out. In between songs she was explaining her lyrics in English and they were mostly politically charged. They were protest songs, I guess, about the Communist regime, certain things in the history of their country, there was stuff about the reeducation camps. During the performance the police came to shut it down and after a while they let the audience go but they didn’t let the musicians go and I was trying to contact them to find out what happened. I had never seen anything like that, police showing up and literally shutting down a performance. Which is funny for me because I have been idealistic about things like Communism because of the stuff that’s going on in the States… it was kind of important for me to see that and realize that these things are on a spectrum.
RN: They did get away, the musicians were allowed to go, but not until.. they had a friend that had enough money to bribe the cops. So there is a song called Chronos Feasts On His Children talking about that, the lyrics relate to this, to the one week out of last year when I was in Hanoi, all the things that I just watched and saw happening.
GZ: I understand that local musicians from the places you visited played with you this time around. Were there instances where the presence of new collaborators made you go in a different direction sound-wise?
RN: Mostly I was working with my brother [Kody] and my bandmate Jake [Portrait]. For this record I would teach the other two the songs and we would set up and record live, and I think in a way it worked better than I thought it would, because it made everything so easy: we would get together and create the basis of the song within 10 minutes or something like that, which is a lot quicker than I usually work. That gave us the ability to go to other places like Hanoi or Auckland – in Auckland we did a lot of it – and almost finish a song in a couple of takes. I think it’s easier to capture the mood of the day when you’re recording live. That made quite a big difference, because I’m usually in my basement building up the tracks by myself, which is quite different to being in a place like Hanoi, in a studio, working with friends. That is what I really needed, because it didn’t really feel like I could spend a year and half in my basement again. That sounds too lonely and kind of boring too.
GZ: One of the things that I noticed about this record is how the production can sound pretty different from one song to the other. I was struck by the contrast between the This Doomsday/How Many Zeros sequence, for instance. Did you find yourself experimenting in new ways in terms of production?
RN: One of the things that I was doing when I was working on the record… I had this idea that I might build it up from fake samples, like making a piece of an old soul record and then sample it. I did a bunch of it and created all these things that I was calling ‘fragments’ and had them all in a folder. They were all just many clips that sounded like they were from old records. I built a library of that stuff, some of it made it into the record, some of it made it into the track that I put out at Christmas called SB-05. Some of it I still hasn’t used. I wanted the album to have a feeling of fragmentation, that it was put together almost like by several different bands. And I think it made me approach each song differently… there’s no similar texture from one song to the next.
GZ: One of my favourites is The Internet of Love. I like how every element is very distinct and clear-sounding, but the vocals remain sort of muffled throughout. In Major League Chemicals vocals are so distorted they’re difficult to grasp. Were there certain things you wanted to try out for the first time with vocals?
RN: Yes, I think on the last record I attempted to get away from that lo-fi sound a little bit and I tried to learn how to record technically better. I think what happened halfway through Multi-Love is that I started listening to the earlier stuff and decided that I really didn’t like the sound of those earlier ones. On this one I began with the idea that I like the way my records sound. That’s my idea of what a record should sound like. It’s probably less commercial, but I like distortion and stuff like that. I do try and write what I think is a pop song, but at the same time my idea of what a perfect record should sound like is really distorted. I started this new record without any kind of pretention to try and make it sound what other people think is good or hi-fi, I just decided that it was going to sound exactly the way I wanted it sound. The real reason anything sounds the way it does is because I thought it sounded cool, there was not any other reasoning beyond that. Often the vocals would get to the point where they would sound undiscernible or whatever, but I would be like: “That’s OK, that’s the way it should sound!”. I just followed that instinct all the way through and I let things be cleaner and brighter at times, when it worked better. I think this record is the most accurate version of what I think a record should sound like.