After blowing up The Mint Chicks in spectacular fashion, the Nielson brothers are back together, with Kody recently joining Ruban’s acclaimed act Unknown Mortal Orchestra. “Brothers can have a volatile relationship,” he tells Hussein Moses, “but at the end of the day we’re still brothers.”
The first time Kody Nielson heard a mysterious new band called Unknown Mortal Orchestra, he had no idea that his older brother Ruban was behind it. “We kind of weren’t talking that much around then,” he recalls. The Mint Chicks, their art-punk band that won New Zealand Music Awards for Album of the Year and Best Group, had spectacularly broken up only two months before. At their last show together, in an old underground venue in Auckland called Bacco Room, the group met their demise with Kody destroying instruments and leaving one final message for his brother on his way out: “Start your own fucking band”.
It wasn’t just Kody who didn’t know his brother had been working on a new project. When the first Unknown Mortal Orchestra song ‘Ffunny Ffrends’ appeared in May 2010, there was the music and not much else. A friend of Kody’s had heard the track on bFM. “There’s this cool new band called Unknown Mortal Orchestra,” he told him. Kody searched them out on Bandcamp and found a psychedelic follow-up called ‘Thought Ballune’. Shit, he thought, this is cool.
“Then I started thinking hang on. Ruban plays these sixth chords and ninth chords and stuff like that, and then I started realising it was his voice. I was like, I’m pretty sure this is Ruban.” Kody sent him a message asking if it was. “Yeah,” he replied.
Eight years later, the Nielson brothers are officially back together, with Kody recently signing on as a permanent member of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. The brothers, with longtime bassist Jacob Portrait, met up in Auckland, Vietnam and Portland to record the frantic new Unknown Mortal Orchestra album, Sex and Food. This week, with Kody drumming, they began a world tour together that stretches way out until September, including a date at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
It’s the reunion fans have been waiting for – and one that, considering their history, some thought might never come to pass. “We kind of always played it up a little bit,” says Kody of that Mint Chicks era. “Brothers can have a volatile relationship, but at the end of the day, we’re still brothers. I could never cut any of my family out of my life. I find it weird when I find those stories like, I haven’t seen my dad for 15 years. I’d never do that. I could never have a relationship like that with any of my family.”
The Mint Chicks always had something of a reputation for being dysfunctional, and at the centre of it all were the Nielson brothers. “There was a lot of complicated tension between Ruban and Kody,” Mint Chicks drummer Paul Roper told The Pantograph Punch in 2014. “I remember going to a conflict resolution seminar to learn how to make things run smoother. It was a bit of a lost cause though, I think.”
It wasn’t just the tension or the chaos or the music that made The Mint Chicks a must-see band at the time: it was the antics. Take the provocative Rip It Up feature story, where the brothers were photographed kissing each other on the lips (!). This was 2005, around the release of their debut album Fuck The Golden Youth. For the story, they had ushered journalist Simon Pound into the back of a van, drove him out to a brothel half an hour away, and made him do the interview blindfolded. “We didn’t want to be in a cafe like everyone else,” they said at the time.
The Mint Chicks’ follow-up album Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No! channelled their explosiveness into masterful cohesion, and became the band’s breakthrough record in the process. The album went gold and led to critical acclaim, sold-out tours and a heap of New Zealand Music Awards. They dropped another record, Screens, and one last EP before Kody’s onstage outburst cut things short.
Their success together had never just been a fluke. After years of work, the band had left a void in the local music scene that the next wave of indie acts couldn’t quite fill. Kody made the move back to Auckland from Portland, where The Mint Chicks had recorded Screens, and got to work on a new guitar-pop project with Bic Runga called Opossom. Ruban opted to stay in Portland.
“We still had our ‘brother’ relationship,” says Kody. “The working relationship took a little bit longer, but it’s probably just because maybe he didn’t trust me anymore or something because I had been a bit too harsh in the Mint Chicks era. I was pretty raw back then. Pretty harsh to everyone.”
Not long after he started touring with Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Ruban sent an email to Kody, apologising for how he had treated him back when The Mint Chicks were together. “He didn’t realise what kind of different pressure you get put under from being the frontman of a band,” explains Kody. Then in December 2011, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Opossom went on a short run of New Zealand shows together, with Kody making a surprise appearance on drums for his brother’s band.
The two continued to rebuild their connection when they worked together on Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s trippy third record Multi-Love, an album inspired by a three-way relationship between Ruban, his wife and another woman who had gone to live with them and their two children in Portland. It won the brothers the APRA Silver Scroll Award and the Tui for Best Alternative Album at the 2015 New Zealand Music Awards.
They’ve had a healthy working relationship for years now, adds Ruban, but people still make assumptions based on how things used to be. “I think it’s easier for people to just apply the sibling rivalry archetype, but me and Kody are best friends and he’s one of the very few people I’ve ever met that shares my work ethic. Like me, Kody doesn’t do weekends. Like me, he doesn’t take vacations.
“We’ve had nothing but incredible drummers in UMO and yet most of the time I’m working on getting them to play like Kody played it on the record, and it’s no easy task. Kody’s energy and sound are unique, and he’s twice the drummer he was even two years ago. I think working and playing with Bic really refined his approach. I feel most comfortable playing the songs with Kody. He just gets it.”
Sitting at a near-empty beachside bar in Mission Bay, a short walk from the home he shares with Bic Runga and their children, refined seems like the right word to describe Kody’s career these days.
He started primary school not far from where he lives now, but with his parents never staying in one place for long, he soon ended up at Finlayson Park School out in Manurewa. Instead of a lunch bell, students would ring in their afternoon break with the sound of a Tongan nafa drum, and one day someone asked if he wanted to be one of the drummers. Even now, he can still tap out some of the rhythms he had to learn.
He liked drumming so much he hit up his father, an accomplished musician himself, for a drumkit. You need to learn your rudiments first, his dad told him. He gave Kody some drumsticks and a piece of firewood. “I was practising the paradiddles on the firewood. It makes me sound like I’m from the 1800s,” he laughs. His dad never got him that drumkit either. “He just sort of set me on the way.”
Kody’s not known for talking all that much about his personal life, or his past. Unlike his brother, who is less guarded about what he says, and in spite of his rather legendary partner, Kody is notoriously private – the definition of an enigmatic artist.
“I try to keep my private life out of it as much as possible,” he says over a drink, “just because I don’t want my family and stuff like that getting involved when it’s not their choice.” In person, and when the eyes of an audience aren’t on him, he’s quiet and contemplative. The fun part about music for him is recording, writing and performing. He could talk about music gear for hours on end if you let him.
Without going quite as far as kidnapping journalists, Kody still deals with the media in his own way too. A few years ago, when asked to explain what each track from his solo album Devils was about, he wrote out dictionary definitions of all the song titles. “I guess you have to have a sense of humour about [the media],” he says, “otherwise you’ll get angry at the way you’re presented in this country.”
Lately, he’s been making headlines after it was revealed his name was listed on the 394-page document of people still owed money by The Weinstein Company, who recently filed for bankruptcy in the wake of its co-founder’s disgrace. The debt is for some outstanding royalties for work he did on a film soundtrack, the name of which he says is “not even worth mentioning”.
He’s always working on something new, writing every day for the past three years and surviving on four-to-six hours of sleep most nights. It was during this period that he co-produced Runga’s outstanding last record Close Your Eyes and won the prestigious Taite Music Prize for Personal Computer, an album he released under another new moniker Silicon. “If you don’t like this, I don’t like you,” Justin Timberlake said of the single ‘God Emoji’.
When it came to playing the Silicon songs live, you could usually find him in the audience. It wasn’t unusual for him to spend most of his set off stage like he used to do with The Mint Chicks. He’d venture out, then climb up lighting rigs and whatever else he could find.
In 2016, these escapades ended up getting him kicked off the bill for Laneway Festival after he kissed a cop’s gun during a show on the second leg of the tour in Adelaide. Once again, he had made his way into the audience when it happened. “There wasn’t much of a crowd. It almost seemed like the cops outnumbered the crowd in a way.” The police were huddled together. “I just sort of went up to them and started singing to them, and then I just ended up somehow kissing one of their guns. Then they just started all trying to grab me and handcuff me.”
He managed to slip away and finish the show, but afterwards, the police threatened to arrest him and ordered him to leave the festival. “I think it was because of that that the Laneway people were like ‘This is too much. We don’t want anything bad to happen from this. We don’t want any bad publicity’. That’s what Laneway had said: they just didn’t want a shitstorm.”
Kody was born in North Shore Hospital on May 9, 1982. Next month, on his 36th birthday, he’ll release his new solo album Birthday Suite. He’s been listening to a lot of classical music lately – composers like Bach, Debussy and Stravinsky – and the record comes off sounding like a distant relative to Wendy Carlos’ groundbreaking Switched-On Bach.
Birthday Suite is cleverly made up of songs that Kody’s been putting out on the actual birthdays of those close to him, like Bic and Ruban, since the beginning of the year. It’s also totally instrumental. He hasn’t been writing much in the way of lyrics or poetry lately. “I didn’t think that it helped make my music speak any louder,” he says. “I have more to say, but I think I just need to go through a period of just expressing feelings for a while.”
He actually finds playing the drums more fun now anyway. He’s been drumming at the few shows he’s previewed Birthday Suite at and toured with Runga last year for her 20th-anniversary tour of Drive. It was perhaps the most revealing glimpse of the pair one can get: an easy, uncontrived, near-wordless scene of collaboration, with Runga occasionally deferring to Kody to count her in and Kody sweetly obliging but more than happy to let his partner take the spotlight.
“I’m not real anxious or keen to be a frontman or anything. I’m not keen to be the singer. The way I ended up as the singer in The Mint Chicks wasn’t even that I wanted to be the singer. I was just drumming in the band and I’d written the songs, but it was almost like I had to be the singer because there was no one else to do it,” he says. “I’ve sort of tried to kind of humble myself. To take a backseat and help the music. I guess I’ve been trying to learn that and not let ego take over.”
Birthday Suite is being released under his own name, but he says there’s still life left in Opossom and Silicon. Maybe even in The Mint Chicks, too. “There are no hard feelings between us,” he explains. There’s been some talk about regrouping in the past, but Kody would prefer that if they were going to do it, they record some new material as well. “I’ve never really thought about putting the band back together and just playing the old songs for some reason. But I don’t know. Maybe.”
That could be a while away. Unknown Mortal Orchestra recorded a second album while in Vietnam, “which is more like a Krautrock or electric jazz record,” according to Ruban, and there’s talk of them releasing it this year as well.
“We can still use the same energy,” says Kody, “so whatever we’re going to be doing in UMO is going to be the next chapter to whatever people are nostalgic about with The Mint Chicks.”
It may have taken eight years to get here, but there seems to be little doubt it worked out for the best. Maybe “start your own fucking band” wasn’t such bad advice after all.
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