Ruban Nielson

When psychedelic rock group Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO) frontman and former Mint Chicks guitarist Ruban Nielson was told he was being inducted into the University’s inaugural 40 Under 40 he said he was “flattered.”

The former Elam graduate these days bases himself in Portland, Oregon but retains a strong connection to the place that was formative in his early music career.

“I met my wife there and the music I work on now is very much an extension of ideas I developed while I was at Elam.”

But getting into university was never a forgone conclusion and Ruban says it was the support that he received from his teachers at Orewa College that helped smooth his pathway to university.“I had things going on in my home life that made it hard to be a student until I left home to begin at university.

My application to Elam had with it testimonials from my high school teachers to emphasize this. Once I was out of my home environment and by myself I was able to be a much more diligent student.”

Completing his degree in Fine Arts at Elam in 2002, including collecting the James Wallace Prize, Ruban says his biggest influence has been his father Chris, also a graduate of Elam."

His stories of Elam when I was a kid really stoked my desire to be there. He helped me get into Elam and negotiate what was originally a kind of ‘probational situation’ with my acceptance. Being at Elam really fulfilled a childhood dream and people like Nuala Gregory, Peter Shand, Jim Speers, Leigh Martin, Judy Millar and Denys Watkins as well as many others all had a huge impact on the way I see the world and creativity.”

Beginning his music career playing punk house parties and low profile shows before being discovered by Flying Nun Records, the talented song writer and musician has been riding a wave of success in recent years following UMOs growing popularity telling Rolling Stone magazine in 2015 he was still getting used to his change of fortunes.

“It's kind of shocking. I mean, we played the Brick & Mortar in San Francisco and sold it out. Our first time there, four years ago, we only had two people in the audience. It shows you how crazy life can be. Every now and again, you just kind of step back and freak out a little bit."

Being introduced to philosophy and critical theory during his studies has also proven to be very beneficial but Ruban says there are certain things that you hear early on that stick with you and serve you well.“

I remember the tutors at Elam saying things like ‘it takes ten years to become an overnight success’ which is really important for young ambitious people to hear. Being in a place dedicated to the pursuit of art and ideas really was a kind of heaven for me.”

And if he hadn’t become a musician was there ever a Plan B?

“It would definitely have been something in the visual arts.”