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Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Ruban Nielson
Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban NielsonPhotography Neil Krug

Unknown Mortal Orchestra & Taika Waititi on New Zealand culture

Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Ruban Nielson and filmmaker Taika Waititi talk #PolynesianExcellence and how their Kiwi roots help them keep it real

Ruban Nielson and Taika Waititi are two of New Zealand’s hottest cultural exports. Waititi, a man whose colourful dress sense famously set Jeff Goldblum’s brain on fire, is the indie auteur-turned-blockbuster director behind Boy, What We Do in the Shadows and Thor Ragnarok. And Nielson is the brains behind beloved indie-rock crew Unknown Mortal Orchestra, who perfect their home-brewed psychedelic soul and funk on fourth album Sex & Food, released this week. A quick glance at their respective CVs reveals striking parallels: both enjoyed international acclaim after leaving their home country to live in the US. Both grew up half-Polynesian in New Zealand during the 1980s: Nielson in Auckland, Waititi on a farm in the eastern cape region of the country. And both were big childhood fans of Michael Jackson, whom Waititi believed at the time was from North Island (Bob Marley, the director adds, was from down the road in Ruatoria). Now, having “been in love with each other from afar for a while”, Nielson and Waititi come together over Skype to talk #PolynesianExcellence, and how their Kiwi roots help them to keep it real.

Hi guys! Taika, I know Ruban said he enjoyed all the jokes aimed at Kiwi/Polynesian audiences in Thor Ragnarok. Could you tell us about that?

Taika Waititi: Thor was definitely very Kiwi, there’s almost a rural flavour to the humour in it. There’s some dumb shit in there (laughs), but we Polynesians are real self-deprecating, we love to laugh at each other. So there’s a lot of stuff where we get to poke fun at the franchise and how ridiculous superheroes are.

Ruban Nielson: In (Taika’s 2016 film) Hunt for the Wilderpeople there were lots of bits that might have flown under the radar for (non-New Zealanders). But for a Kiwi of a certain generation, those references hit hard. I didn’t expect that with Thor, but it was really the same! (laughs) Watching it in Portland (where I now live) I found myself laughing at all the bits where everyone else was silent. And they happen so quickly, too – like the bit with the ‘booze hag’ (New Zealand slang for an alcoholic). Or the bit where Thor says that ‘the hammer pulls me off’. I was like, ‘How did he get these things in there?’

Taika Waititi: Yeah, yeah! I think we only say the name of one spaceship in the film, the Commodore. (Ruban laughs) But actually all the spaceships were named after (cars popular in New Zealand in the 1980s) – we had an Escort, a Kingswood, a Statesman...

How did you first become aware of each others’ work?

Taika Waititi: All cards on the table, Ruban is one of my favourite artists ever. I knew (Ruban’s old band) The Mint Chicks and your brother (Kody)’s stuff, so we’d always known about each other and we just got to chatting online. I asked Ruban to give me some demos when we were prepping Thor, because a lot of studio movies can be very straight down the middle lane when it comes to music. I was trying to shake shit up and I was like, ‘This guy’s gonna give me some good shit!’ So I think we’ve been in love with each other from afar for a while.

Ruban Nielson: Boy (Taika’s second full-length feature, released in 2010) is my favourite movie.

“New Zealanders are, like, experts in cynicism. We’re good observers, because we come from a place where basically nothing happens” – Taika Waititi

Taika Waititi: Really? It’s still my favourite of all the films I’ve done, too.

Ruban Nielson: It’s the closest thing to my childhood that I’ve ever seen (on screen) by far. I knew I was going to like it before I even saw it, and then when I saw it I was like, ‘Man, this is almost too close to the bone.’

Taika Waititi: (laughs) That’s why it’s got a special place for me, because it was shot in the house I grew up in. We shot stuff with my dad; we shot stuff in the farm that I worked in when I was a kid. It was more like a weird documentary, in a way.

Ruban Nielson: It’s a beautiful film, man. I can’t watch the whole thing very often, because it’s a bit heavy. Like, all the nostalgia, all that stuff about Michael Jackson is a big deal, because we were obsessed with Michael Jackson when we were kids. I remember my brother, Kody, hiding behind the couch (for the ‘Thriller’ video) ’cos he was terrified. But he wouldn’t leave the room, he kept trying to peek for the cool bits.

Taika Waititi: It was scary, man, it was scary. We also used to think Bob Marley and Michael Jackson were Maori. I thought that Bob Marley was from Ruatoria and I heard that Michael Jackson was a local!

Ruban Nielson: Speaking of nostalgia, is it too early to talk about Akira? (Waititi is developing a live-action remake of the classic manga series.)

Taika Waititi: I haven’t really started to get my head around it yet. What I wanted to do was an adaptation of the books, ’cos a lot of people are like, ‘Don’t touch that film!’ and I’m like, ‘I’m not remaking the film, I want to go back to the book.’ A lot of the people freaking out haven’t even read the books, and there are six gigantic books to go through. It’s so rich. But (the anime) Akira is one of my favourite films; my mum took me to see it when I was 13 and it changed my life.

Ruban Nielson: So when’s the next movie coming out?

Taika Waititi: I’m actually going to Prague tomorrow, I’m gonna shoot the new film over there in June and July. It’s this World War II film...

I saw it described on Reddit as a ‘Nazi comedy’.

Taika Waititi: That’s a very simplistic way of describing my film! There’s elements of comedy, and elements of Nazism.

You’ve both lived in the US for a while now, have recent political developments ever made you think about leaving? 

Taika Waititi: I’ve thought about it a lot, especially raising daughters here. The treatment of women in this country is pretty shocking and part of me is like, ‘That’s not something I want to expose (my daughters) to.’ I mean, I really cherish the memories of how I grew up, (but) it was actually pretty shit, growing up poor in the country. I just don’t want (my kids) to feel entitled and there is a sense of entitlement in this country, especially in the city, you know? Everything is normalised – money, extravagance, excess. So definitely this country is messed up, but it’s also given me amazing opportunities. So I’m not really ready to leave.

Ruban, on your new album you seem to address the confusion many people feel about the political climate right now, especially in the US…

Ruban Nielson: When I’m writing, I feel like I just look round and see what’s going on and then write about what I find interesting. It might come across that I’m saying dark things, but with a New Zealand sense of humour the default is to go dark, (though) it might not seem that way to me. I’m not trying to make any judgment, I just want to write about the feeling of wandering around, looking at what’s going on in the world and making little statements about it without real opinions. I’m actually kinda sick of opinions now; we’ve been bombarded with them for a couple of years now and it’s sort of worthless, eh?

Taika Waititi: Yeah, and New Zealanders are, like, experts in cynicism. We’re good observers, because we come from a place where basically nothing happens. There’s definitely a mentality of ‘I’m stuck here and I’m not going to get out’ that informs the stuff we make, there’s kind of a cool darkness to it.

“When things are bad in America and people are still trying to be upbeat it gets really creepy, like everybody is smiling while the world is falling apart“ – Ruban Nielson, Unknown Mortal Orchestra

Ruban Nielson: Yeah. Everything is crazy to us, I think. And people don’t hold back because they really need it as well, they need to do what they are doing to survive.

Taika Waititi: We have a very strong metre around being too earnest or cheesy because we all grew up the same in New Zealand and you want to make sure your friends aren’t gonna mock you for doing stuff! (laughs) It’s like, ‘There’s got to be a cool way of saying something – I’m not going to scream out, “I love you!”’ You’ve got to do it in a cool, funny, sarcastic way. It’s the same with our art and cinema – we can afford to be bold and do outlandish shit because we all know what the alternative is, which is basically being in New Zealand.

Ruban Nielson: Americans are very optimistic in a weird way. They constantly talk about the end of the world, but the end of the world always sounds really exciting. There’s all this doom and gloom on the news but it’s sort of like (an) adrenaline (rush). When things are bad in America and people are still trying to be upbeat it gets really creepy, like everybody is smiling while the world is falling apart. I have to keep going back to New Zealand every now and then so I can ask my friends that I grew up with, ‘This is crazy, right?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘OK, sweet.’

Ruban, I read an interview where you said that growing up half-Polynesian in New Zealand was to be the kid a shop owner will follow around’. Does this chime with your own experiences, Taika?

Taika Waititi: Exactly the same. Growing up it was very normal to go into a store and they would say, ‘What do you want?’ And you’d be like, (muttering) ‘I’m just looking at chips, man.’ I remember getting a job at a dairy and they would never give me a job at the till, I was always at the back washing vegetables. And then one day one of the owners asked me if I sniffed glue – like, ‘Are you a glue-sniffer?’ (Ruban laughs) In my head I was like, ‘Motherfucker, you grew up with my mum!’ And I knew for sure that he didn’t ask other kids in the store if they were glue-sniffers.

I think I’ve got quite an idealised vision of New Zealand as like Australia without the racism and the blokeish sense of humour…

Taika Waititi: Nah, it’s racist as fuck. I mean, I think New Zealand is the best place on the planet, but it’s a racist place. People just flat-out refuse to pronounce Maori names properly. There’s still profiling when it comes to Polynesians. It’s not even a colour thing – like, ‘Oh, there’s a black person.’ It’s, ‘If you’re Poly then you’re getting profiled.’

Ruban Nielson: I didn’t even realise how light my skin was until I came (to the US). It was one of the things I liked when I moved here; it’s like nobody knows what you are so they give you the benefit of the doubt. And then I go back to New Zealand as a person who’s older and somewhat accomplished in their field and I still get treated worse! It’s like people want to remind you – ‘Yeah, but you’re still Polynesian, so…’

Taika Waititi: Totally. People in Auckland are very patronising. They’re like, ‘Oh, you’ve done so well, haven’t you? For how you grew up. For one of your people.’ (Ruban laughs

Ruban Nielson: I appreciate being Polynesian more than I did when I was there. When I go back now, I find myself being more aggressive when I’m pronouncing Maori names around people who refuse to do it. (laughs)

Taika Waititi: Yeah. Because because they don’t mispronounce French words, do they? They can say fucking ‘Camembert’ properly.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s new album Sex & Food is out April 6