Psychedelic rock band Unknown Mortal Orchestra is back with its fourth album, Sex & Food, out Friday. The title "was my attempt to make a name that was dumb and simple, and go past politics," says frontman Ruban Nielson. "It seems like a super-serious time, and I wanted something that would have a good association when people heard the name of the album."
Nielson, who hails from New Zealand and now lives in Portland, shares a playlist of songs that have influenced him through the years.
I Thought It Was You, Herbie Hancock
A lot of the music that I grew up around was very jazz-based. My dad had lots of tapes and vinyl, so there was this one tape of a Herbie Hancock album called Sunlight, which is basically a disco album. I think this album is one of the best uses of vocoder in its heyday, and I Thought It Was You is such a joy to me. It's rare to see those kinds of jazz-fusion musicians playing something that's a straightforward disco-pop song.
Flowers of Romance, Public Image Ltd.
Flowers of Romance is an album and title track. It's John Lydon from the Sex Pistols and Keith Levene, who's one of my early guitar heroes. I came out of art school and it was more of a conceptual approach to the guitar. Public Image Ltd. was the first English punk band I ever discovered, because one of my closest friends in high school said they were more punk than the Sex Pistols. I think that rings pretty true now.
Rapp Snitch Knishes (feat. Mr. Fantastik), MF DOOM
I just really love this song. It's based around this really great guitar loop (from David Matthews' cover of David Bowie's Space Oddity), and the subject of the song is people who rap about all of their criminal activities are being foolish. It's talking about how you're basically snitching on yourself, and how gentlemen should conduct their illegal activities in private.
Hung Up on a Dream, The Zombies
This is from The Zombies' record Odessey and Oracle, which definitely made a big impact on me because of the way all the chord changes twisted and turned. They're incredibly crafted songs, and it gave me this ambition that I'd like to do something a bit more than just three chords. I started to get a lot more into the craft of songwriting through that.
Black Satin, Miles Davis
If there was one thing that was played around my house the most, it would've been Miles Davis. My brother and I gravitated toward this album called On the Corner. Miles got to the point where he'd really established himself as this jazz giant, but started to feel bored with the audience. He started dating Betty Davis, who was a younger woman and very much part of the zeitgeist of the times: funk and psychedelia. She encouraged him to get involved in the counterculture, so he made On the Corner. (This song) was really distorted in the way it was recorded and still influences me today.
Do You Remember Walter?, The Kinks
(This song) was from The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. It's similar to Odessey and Oracle, in that the songwriting was such a high caliber. And I just like the story of it. It's about this kid who was much cooler in high school, but peaked there. I have quite a few friendships like this, where I feel like now I'm pursuing this dream of who I said I was going to be, but a lot of my friends didn't keep going.
For Love, George Duke
This is another record that I discovered from my dad's tape collection. I think he was surprised that my brother and I gravitated to all the weirdest stuff he had. George Duke, for some reason, really captured my imagination.
There was a friend of mine who got me into punk in high school, and gave me a copy of this record. It's inspired by Patty Hearst, and it's about a woman who's coming to get everybody with a machine gun. It was one of the first songs where I ever really thought, "Maybe I could write music." It was really mischievous. Like, "Imagine writing a song about a serial killer. That'd be something crazy or stupid to do."
Inca Roads, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention
(One Size Fits All) is not a great Frank Zappa album, but this song is a very proggy, bizarre, cartoonish track that has all these different phases in it. I always found it really fun — it just sounds like madness to me. And the guitar solo in it pretty much made me want to learn guitar better.
Beatnik, The Clean
Another big part of my musical origin story. The Clean were on an indie label called Flying Nun Records in New Zealand. They recorded songs on a four-track in their houses, and then they would get No. 1 hits and sell a lot of records. So I grew up around this legend of Flying Nun and The Clean, and Beatnik was actually in an ad that aired during every commercial break in the '90s, so it was pretty mainstream. It's just a good song and has that (DIY spirit).