We're diving deep into the gear behind Ruban Nielson of Unknown Mortal Orchestra's lush, ultra-listenable sound.
The brand new Unknown Mortal Orchestra album, V, released on March 17, 2023, was conceived in Palm Springs, California between the dry freeways and the lush coastline of Hilo, Hawaii. On this record, Hawaiian-New Zealand musician and frontman Ruban Nielson draws from the deep traditions of West Coast AOR, classic hits, weirdo pop and Hawaiian Hapa-haole music.
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V evokes blue skies, mid century cocktail bars, hotel pools and the darkness that simmers below perfect, pristine surfaces. The desert resort city’s palm tree-lined streets reminded Ruban of a childhood spent playing by hotel swimming pools with his siblings while their entertainer parents performed in show bands across the Pacific and East Asia; he became aware of the glamorised hedonism he’d internalised since childhood and the darker side of his parents’ lifestyle while they were working as entertainers.
“In Hawaii, everything shifted off of me and my music,” Nielson said.
“Suddenly, I was spending more time figuring out what others need and what my role is within my family. I also learned that things I thought were true of myself are bigger than I thought. My way of making mischief – that’s not just me – that’s my whole Polynesian side. I thought I was walking away from music to focus on family, but the two ended up connecting.”
In celebration of Nielson’s lush and evocative new LP, we’re revisiting the gear that started it all for UMO – who have been a fixture of low-fi indie rock for the better part of the past decade.
With the inception of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Nielson made a shift towards Fender’s smaller scale guitars from yesteryear, with the shorter scale allowing him to pull off jazzy chords and fingerpicked textures with ease. Speaking to Noisey in 2013, Nielson mentioned his affinity for the Fender Jag-Stang, the 24″ offset curio commissioned for Kurt Cobain in the ’90s.
“I really like them; they change the way that I play. I used to play a regular scale Telecaster in a punk band I was in [The Mint Chicks], but when I changed to the Jag-Stang, I could play much more intricate stuff. It’s a really subtle difference, but it makes a big difference.”
Since acquiring his first Jag-Stang, Nielson has made some notable modifications to his original red model, adding multiple custom switches and removing the original pickups in favour of two Fender Mustang-style single-coils.
In the earlier days of UMO, Nielson also used to employ a Fender Mustang for live duties, which you can spot during this live performance of their breakout single ‘Ffunny Ffrends.’ If you look closely, you can also spot Julien Ehrlich, who now drums and sings with Whitney, on the kit – although for some reason he looks terrified.
Rogue Electric Sitar
It’s no secret that Nielson’s a big fan of ’60s psychedelia, and nothing quite reflects this like his use of the Rogue Electric Sitar, a custom voiced electric guitar with sympathetic strings designed to emulate the sounds of the Indian folk instrument which enchanted the likes of George Harrison and Jimmy Page in the 1960s. Nielson most prominently uses the Rogue Electric Sitar in ‘Multi-Love’, the title track of his thematic 2015 album exploring themes of polygamy and romance in the digital age.
Fender Jaguar Johnny Marr Signature
While not being a regular horse in Nielson’s live stable, the UMO frontman was spotted performing on Johnny Marr’s impeccably designed signature Jaguar at Coachella in 2016.
As a member of New Zealand art-punk band The Mint Chicks, Nielson played a battered old Fender Telecaster, which you can spot in the front of the rack in this picture snapped from his home studio in Portland.
When tracking guitars for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Nielson tends to alternate between the sheer brunt of his Orange AD30 head and a smaller Fender Blues Jr. III, particularly using the Orange for heavy distorted drive on crunching riffs like ‘American Guilt.’
However, for live shows, Nielson uses a Fender Hot Rod DeVille.
Oh boy… where to begin? Trying to navigate Nielson’s ever-evolving pedalboard is a momentous task that few would attempt, particularly due to his penchant for home-made and custom effects pedals and changing his signal flow while on the road, but we’re going to give it a crack anyway.
Prior to the release of UMO’s third album Multi-Love in 2015, Nielson’s board included an EHX Small Stone Phaser, an EHX Freeze Sound Retainer, a Soundblox Guitar Envelope Filter, an Analog Man Bi-Compressor, an EHX Memory Toy Analog Delay, a Catalinbread Pareidolia Univibe, a TC Electronic Ditto Looper, a Catalinbread Belle Epoch Tape Echo and a Boss TU-3 alongside two mystery boxes.
However, Nielson changed his board drastically last year, adding a Danelctro Back Talk Reverse Delay, a Chase Bliss Audio Warped Vinyl II Chorus/Vibrato, an MXR 10 band EQ, a Caroline Guitar Company Lo-Fi Meteore Reverb, a Jam Pedals Waterfall chorus and three mystery boxes.
In the above Instagram post, Nielson shows off his recent setup for UMO’s world tour in support of album number four, Sex & Food, featuring an intricate switching rig and even more mystery effects pedals alongside an Ernie Ball VP. JR. Volume Pedal and a Gamechanger Audio Plus Pedal, replicating the sustain pedal of a piano to achieve key-like sustain onstage. What a rig.
Listen to Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s new album V here.