NPR | Published March 18, 20238:01 AM ET | By Scott Simon & Michael Radcliffe
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s sound is something of a mystery. While it’s bathed in a lo-fi aesthetic, it has managed to evolve and grow through genres such a psychedelic, punk and even disco through the band’s decade-plus making music. UMO is back now with its latest album, V, bathing this time in the pools of Palm Springs and oceans of Hawaii with a fully developed edge of ’70s and ’80s album-oriented rock.
The following interview has been condensed and edited. To listen to the audio version, click the link above.
On the origins of this album
I was interested in the really epic, pop rock songs from ’70s and ’80s bands like Toto and Journey. After a few years my family became much more important than the band, and I hadn’t been on the road for a long time, so I started to focus more on things that were happening in my family. Because there’s like a laundry list of tragedies that hit my family all at once. So I had to put music aside and stop thinking about it for a while.
I moved my mother back to Hawaii, back to the big island where she was born. I think it was quite a big deal for her to come back because she was a big deal in the hula world. It’s what she lives for, you know? I think the feelings and everything that we experienced in Hawaii kind of ended up being the thread that kind of like tied all of the songs together and made the record make sense. Another thing about [my] mom, [she has realized] that when she’s dancing, that’s her real self. Then, everything that happens when she’s not dancing is kind of like her waiting to dance again. I think that that we have that in common.
On the song “Layla”
The more I listen to it, the more I realize it’s some kind of tribute to my mom. I always used to wonder: Why would you leave Hawaii? I think she felt this feeling like she wanted to move. As I got older, I kind of realized that feeling of wanting to keep moving is part of me. I feel like we’re in a broken place. The whole society is kind of busted. The song is really just about an optimism, or the idea that whatever’s wrong, you can kind of move past it. I feel like that feeling of not understanding where to go, what to do, seems to dominate a lot of people’s lives and discourse. I feel like the first thing is the belief or the optimism that something’s possible, rather than kind of giving in to the idea that this is it, we’re stuck in this situation.
On the song “I Killed Captain Cook”
It’s my approach to Hawaiian music. I wanted to interpret it like the music that I grew up with. My mom used to listen to her brother’s music a lot and they used to have a traditional Hawaiian group that they toured in. And I learned about the hapa haole tradition, which is basically Hawaiian music sung in English. That’s also my, I suppose, racial identity would be hapa haole, which means half white.
I used to be in punk bands when I was a kid and I just kind of suddenly thought, “I killed Captain Cook” sounded like a really good name for a Hawaiian punk band to have made. And then when I was growing up in New Zealand, James Cook is a big figure in history — he’s kind of like the Christopher Columbus of the Pacific. But my mom always talked about it with this pride. She would always have like a sparkle in her eye when she would talk about it. I think my mom’s really proud of the fact that the Hawaiians were the people that killed him. And so in some ways, it’s like a tribute to my mom, because I suppose mom ended up kind of looming pretty large over this record.
On refocusing on family for this album
It just was unavoidable. It’s like family just became this looming thing. Like a lot of people over the pandemic, everybody just came out of that experience really transformed. Life starts again and you’re kind of like, okay, well, all these things that I’ve learned from this hardship or these horrors that I’ve experienced, you know, who am I now? Hopefully you come out a stronger and more useful person to the people that you love. That’s my ambition, is to be useful.