Ruban Nielson plays his Fender Jag-Stang with his band Unknown Mortal Orchestra at the Tivoli music venue in Utrecht, Netherlands, circa November 2013. Photo by Justin de Nooijer.
Does it have a Mustang-style whammy on it?
It does, but I never really use it. I have it there because I used to do wobbly stuff. But one of my favorite guitarists is Bill Frisell, and I’ve always really loved the way that he would mess with the neck and bend it out of tune. I do that a lot. A big part of my chord playing is that wonky sound I lifted from him.
It looks like you replaced the humbucker with a single-coil in the bridge position.
The Jag-Stang was a little too noisy for me, so I put Lace Sensor Golds in the bridge and neck positions because they’re good at noise canceling. And they sound really awesome.
How do you go about getting good vocal sounds and recording drums?
I just experiment with it. I didn’t go to engineering school—all I have to go on is making records. I try to keep it simple. I usually use two mics. In fact, all drums on all my records never have more than two mics. I use one mic as the main sound—usually placed somewhere in the middle between the kick drum and the snare—and then use the second mic to get definition in the kick drum.
I discovered you can get much better drum sounds with less microphones. There are so many phase issues. Phase is such an important part of recording and if you have six microphones or more, it can be a phase nightmare. You have too many things. I find that with guitar, too. Sometimes I try to record the guitar with stereo mics, but I don’t think it’s worth it. Just throw a mic up and make sure the part is cool. That’s more fun for me.
So you just record it and then tweak it later?
Yeah. I’ll send it out to different outboard gear, like reamping. I have some compressors now that I use and I run things through pedals. I have no problem running a drum track through a Mu-Tron Phasor or whatever. I’ll put it through anything—a cheap piece of gear or something nice that I have. I try things out and I keep working on the sound until it’s awesome to me.
Do you keep a log in case you want to go back to something you had?
I try to keep to the philosophy that I have to move forward. I do keep insurance—I have all my files saved as I go. But I never find that I go back to things. It forces you to make the decision about what is cool. I think it is really important to make those decisions. You have to decide whether that guitar sound is cool and if you’re going to keep it forever or not. A problem with having options is that it gives you an excuse to not make stylistic choices. And that’s what it is all about—deciding what you think is cool and then going with it forever. All the great records were made like that.
Dig the righteous solo starting at 3:16 and how Nielson uses his index finger as a pick. Listen for the insane tones on the song’s fade out, too.
Did you develop your aesthetic sense through listening or by trial and error?
I was in a band with my brother earlier and we made our own recordings, so I learned a lot. But we were really opinionated music fans before we ever started making records. I had really strong ideas about what I thought was cool and what I thought was lame before I ever started thinking I could make records myself. I think that really helped—having conversations about that stuff already. Then it was just a case of, “Oh, I want to get that clapping sound like On the Corner.” Then it’s years of trying to figure out what it is that makes that sound so fat and so good. We started on Pro Tools, and I remember trying to record hand claps was such a big thing. You put a microphone up and record it, and you’re like, “Why doesn’t it sound like a real hand clap?” You don’t realize until later that you need a real fat preamp to get that sound. “What’s a preamp?” “Why does something sound a certain way?” “Oh, it’s because they recorded it to tape.” It’s that process of learning and thinking that is so much fun.