Nigel Godrich interview: Not just the guy who makes Radiohead albums
From Radiohead to Atoms For Peace and Ultraísta, ED SHARP PAUL speaks to Nigel Godrich about the many strings on his musical bow.
Nigel Godrich is a man with many strings to his bow. In addition to being one of the most sought-after producers in the world (don’t ask, he’s not interested) and Thom Yorke and Radiohead’s preferred collaborator, Godrich brought out a debut album with his new band Ultraísta last November – and it was damn good, too. He has also been busy producing Atoms For Peace’s debut album Amok, released last week in Australia. Back in December FL got the chance to chat with Godrich about all of his projects – from Radiohead to Atoms – and in his opaque-yet-charming way he opened up about his all-star collaborators and Ultraísta’s back-to-front creative process.
I was put onto Ultraísta by the whole “Radiohead producer starts a band route”. Are you hearing a lot of this, does it giving you the shits a bit?
Yeah, I mean a lot of that kind of stuff is the reason why you don’t do [different] stuff I guess. It’s enough to stop you from embarking on something like this, but I sort of said to myself that life is short and it’s not supposed to be some massive statement. It’s a hard thing to do something without it being [seen as] some career move or some defining change that was supposed to show you something true that you’ve never seen before, something very profound. It’s not that at all, but at the same time I don’t want to be paralysed by the fear of that happening. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to be a comparison of what everyone says. I had the intention to try to put it out without even mentioning my name. Of course they wouldn’t let you get away with that.
A record label would not be happy to have that opportunity squandered I take it?
Not even that, just anyone who works for you in any commercial capacity, they can’t not say that. My thought was that this is going to happen for a while and then maybe people will stop saying it at some point.
I suppose if the thing is good it starts to develop its own life at some point, if it sucks you’ll forever be tied …
The best it can ever be is, “Oh, that’s the guy that makes the album.” I think everybody has their opinion and their right to like it and not like it. I feel like if we continue through this record, and we will continue working on other stuff, and another record comes out then the next record’s reference might be the last record, rather than other things that I’ve done.
Then it’s a straightjacket of your own choosing I suppose.
Of my own making!
Have you been pleased with the reception?
The best parts have been when people don’t know who I am or don’t realise. People dig it: It’s very simple, it’s not too complex, it’s not supposed to be. I just enjoy making things generally anyway, be it music, or video, or whatever. To be able to just have the freedom in your life to be able to choose something and make it, and have the time to do it and then deciding that you really should release it in some form or another – it’s sort of stupid not to. And then for people to be able to see that and speak positively about it, it’s like a dream situation. I don’t expect too much from this, it’s just something that was a natural thing to do as a complement to other things that I do. We all thought similarly about it – we all do other things as well.
“I had the intention to try to put it out without even mentioning my name.”
It makes sense, you spend that much time in the studio, it’s probably a natural thing to want to initiate something.
Yeah, you just make music all the time. I mean that’s the thing if you’re friends. The interesting thing is that you tend to do something vaguely accessible but artistic, that’s the idea anyway. And that’s a very difficult thing to do. So forgive us our sins, that’s what we’re attempting.
Was it a conscious effort to keep the sonic palette limited?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s trying to find the formula, in a way. Certainly coherence is something. Certainly the simplicity of the music, the way that the keyboards work – there’s no guitars in it – for example. That’s a conscious decision obviously, just the way that simple music can work, that’s what we’re trying to do here. The syncopation in the rhythm.
Your idea of simple isn’t everyone’s idea of simple. I think there are some really interesting things happening in the rhythm. Listening, I found it hard to pick where Joey [Waronker, drummer] stopped and the programmed beats began. Were you trying to blend things in that way?
Absolutely, there’s electronic elements that he’s playing to and stuff that he’s playing [alone], and of course there’s lots of different combinations of things. That is the principal idea, machines can be repetitive and man can be repetitive too. When it’s a human being repetitive you have an imperceptible movement that makes it feel something that a machine can’t feel. So you’re trying to take the rules of a 15-minute Afrobeat track. It’s repetitive to the point of it being like robots, but there’s this feel and this movement in there, which is uniquely human.
It’s funny really, it all started with the advent of people wanting to scratch records and cut records together, and sampling beats and sampling breaks. And that has really changed the way that music is constructed now – people start to think like that; people use a bit of software called Ableton, but all it does is work in loops, everything’s in loops. It’s like the music is a loop and it’s just on a grid and everything becomes so contained in a square. At the same time there’s this interesting thing where hip-hop and dance music of the late ‘80s is made up of other music that has been chopped into little pieces.
Taking those ideas of a new way of constructing music, very much based around rhythm – the music is more like an afterthought. It’s like move first and find out where the beginning of your bar is and that’s where your musical play starts, not afterwards. It’s just sort of chucking around ideas like that really, and at the same time, trying to make them sound like something somebody would want to listen to.
I read that the recording process was just you and Joey compiling little sketches and that Laura came quite late in the process, is that right?
Yeah that’s true. We had started down our road of electronic, robotic, organic-fusion. That was the instigation of the idea – for making the music in the first place. We thought we’d just make these tracks [with another friend who plays bass], but I took all the music off and started again because it took it in a direction that was too solid when it needed to be fluid. Eventually it was just Joey’s and my stuff and then we sort of said, “I’m just going to turn this into a little arrangement, everything I have here” “So maybe your piece of music might be a minute-and-a-half long, then you choose to repeat it for one section, and then you choose to start it again from the beginning. Then what you’re left with is something that speaks musically because the rhythm changes.
We had a bunch of those [parts], basically, and we thought it would be interesting – we could see the potential of doing something more like pop music, ‘cause [what we had] was so cool, but [in that form] it would only ever be some weird experiment that musicians would listen to. [We wanted to] dovetail it with something a little bit more – not mainstream – but something that people would want to hear. [So we thought], “How about finding someone who isn’t really a musician, someone who can sing but never really thought about it, someone who just has a good aesthetic and would be willing to work with us.”
“We could see the potential of doing something more like pop music.”
So we followed that route a little bit and were trying to flyer-post in art schools: we got some very interesting, colourful replies, but nothing that was of any use to us. Eventually, just by chance, we got in touch with Laura [Bettinson] through a friend of a friend, and she thing we were looking for. She actually is this very visual person, very artistic. She’s a musician but she’s not a singer-songwriter. She’s not out there playing piano and singing.
It sounds like a hell of a process, are you daunted by the thought of having to go through all that again?
No because I got really good at it, so I can do it really quickly now.
Given your obvious dance/electronic leanings, I’m interested by how many guitar bands you’ve worked with in the past. How do you choose the people you work with as a producer?
Well I haven’t really done any for a while. The only record I’ve produced apart from Radiohead and Thom and this … I don’t know what the last one was before this one. I did Here We Go Magic last year. Here We Go’s a guitar band I suppose, but they’re definitely in the sort of alt-rock thing: They certainly push those buttons and understand very much about grooves. Before that I honestly couldn’t tell you … I don’t really do that anymore. My life is full of amazing, interesting people who I make music with. I spend a lot of time with Thom and we do an awful lot of different stuff. I mean music for the Atoms [For Peace] thing, then all the Radiohead stuff. It’s kind of a big, interesting, complicated machine, with so many people involved.
Are you kind of “on call” for those guys at the moment?
No, no, no. I don’t know if it seems like that, but it’s not. The thing is that Thom writes – he’s very prolific and he’s written a lot of songs, so many great songs that have not been released. For example, when we were in rehearsal to do the “Live From The Basement” performance, that’s when they worked up ‘Staircase’, which is a song that we recorded for King Of Limbs, but it just wasn’t quite down. It just came together. That was a very old song. Those things came out of nowhere, it came out when the recording was done on the TV show, [it was] actually recorded for that, [and then] was released as a single. A couple of years ago when he [Thom Yorke] did the ‘Harry Patch’ song – the only one that got through originally – that was something that was, not a sort of cast-off, but part of a recording session. There seemed to be a reason to put that record out. The guy [111-year-old World War I veteran Harry Patch], he had just died and … we were in the studio together doing something else. It came to fruition very quickly, when you make this music it’s very exciting, you actually just want it to go out right away, it’s frustrating.
This Atoms record, they’ve been sitting on it for a year … Radiohead are on tour so that’s the way that things work, it’s just what happens, happens when it happens. As for the future, all of them have just finished a tour so they’re all on holiday.
You’re going to be working on Atoms For Peace in the near future, is there any touring on the horizon with Ultraísta?
Absolutely, we’re working on promoting until next summer. There will be some Atoms thrown in, but this is Ultraísta what we’re doing right now. We’re going back to America in the New Year … and we are going to Japan.
Are you going to be able to sneak us in by any chance?
On that leg we’re not, but I think later in the year. I’ve never been to Australia so I really want to come.
Atoms For Peace Amok is out now through Remote Control.