A New Career in a New Town: Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich open Pandora’s Box and run AMOK as Atoms for Peace
February 25 will see Atoms for Peace – a collaboration between Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and the band’s producer Nigel Godrich – release their debut album AMOK.
Enlisting musicians Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Mars Volta), Joey Waronker (drummer for Beck and later REM) and Mauro Refosco (percussionist for David Byrne and others), Atoms for Peace formed as an attempt to recreate music from Yorke’s 2006 solo album The Eraser in a live setting, but swiftly morphed into something different. In some senses a tribute to dance music, in others a celebration of the energy of live instrumentation, AMOK is an album that deliberately muddies lines – between electronic and acoustic instruments, between songs and sketches, and more. Its lasting impression is of one of Britain’s most distinctive musicians working with a new-found freedom, and although the current climate doesn’t quite allow for a game-changer in the vein of Radiohead’s Warp-influenced Kid A, it’s a record that feels brimming with possibility.
FACT’s Tom Lea chatted to Yorke and Godrich over soy cappuccinos (what else?) at XL’s West London studios about the influence of dance music on AMOK, the virtues of approaching dance music from a singer’s mindset, and more.
The obvious place to start would be Atoms for Peace’s formation – it was a good four years ago you first started doing live shows.
Thom Yorke: “Well it was born out of trying to play The Eraser live.”
Nigel Godrich: “Thom called me out of blue, a couple of years after The Eraser, and said that he’d become obsessed with the idea of playing it live, but with Latin percussion to try and make the electronic elements real.”
TY: “Not using any sequencers or nuffinck. We talked about it, and I went home and went through the people I wanted to be in it, which were Joey [Waronker], you [Nigel], Flea and a percussionist. I emailed Joey and Flea, and I got a response within an hour, so it was on, really. And then we found Mauro [Refosco].”
It’s always been a tricky thing to perform an electronically-inclined album like The Eraser live. Was there an element of wanting to take that challenge on?
TY: “There was an element of… well, you can always do some sort of translation into a live format. It might not be exactly how you envision it, but you can always do it. Part of me wanted to play with some other people, part of me was curious to know what would happen with the beats – that was a big part of it – and I was also initially just feeling the songs. I’d done this one thing on my own, I’d agreed to do a solo gig at Latitude or something [in 2009], and I was racking my brains as to how to play Eraser on the piano or the bass, and I realised that it is possible. So it didn’t really start just from the aesthetic of electronics vs. live, but as soon as we got together it was quite a shock to have that thing [sequenced electronics] inform how people play live. It was striking how Afrobeat it became, without that intention at all.”
It’s quite hard to pin down, on AMOK, how much of the percussion is organic and how much is electronic. It’s a very percussive record, and the drums are usually quite high in the mix, but it’s hard to figure out what’s what.
TY: “We deliberately made it hard to know where the drums start and finish, and how they come together, so that you still retain the energy of that live thing but it’s electronically informed. You know, we’re not just jamming or whatever, the whole spirit of it comes from the fact it’s informed by electronics.”
NG: “That became really obvious when we first started playing with Joey and Mauro. Some of the rhythms on The Eraser are really complicated, so watching someone work those out on instruments – it was very unique. The basis of the new tracks were when we did the first Atoms for Peace gigs, and we realised we didn’t have enough material to play…”
TY: “Like ‘what have you got?’ ‘Fuck all!’ [laughs]”
NG: “That was the beginning of the album, per say. But then we had to take it to the band, and see how they interpret it, because some things worked [when performed that way], others were better kept electronic. It’s a half-way house between those two things – like you say, sometimes you can’t tell which is which.”
TY: “It sort of felt like a big release of these big possibilities that hadn’t occurred to me when we first got together, but when it came to playing this new material – with new musicians, but it’s stuff that I’d written on my own, and the two feed off each other… there was a nice energy within the band. It was quite a unique, weird position to be in, and a weird thing to do. It’s like opening a big Pandora’s Box, and I don’t know what direction it’s going to go in. We’ve got these bonkers rhythms made by machines, and musicians who can keep up with them – no problem – and the two can bounce off each other. It’s quite something.”
If you have opened an entire Pandora’s Box worth of possibilities, how do you then condense that into an album? AMOK‘s quite a short, concise record, as well.
TY: “Well this was very much our first response to the situation. We did the three days of endless jamming thing, and it sort of formed into something. We didn’t think about it too much, it was just… there were a few gems of ideas that came together, it was an excuse to all hang out, and an excuse to work.”
NG: “When you talk about this Pandora’s Box idea, it generates a lot of ideas that you can then sit in front of you and pick and choose from. We’re saying Pandora’s Box, but it was fun. It was more like a chocolate box really.”
A Bento Box?
NG: “If you will. Ultimately, there’s a lot of possibilities but we agree on what we like, and it’s really really fun. That’s the bottom line. It’s really fun to play that stuff, and it’s really fun having these musicians who can keep up with it.”
TY: “Finishing it off was the tricky bit – writing the words, as usual.”
When did it reach the point where it had gone beyond a means of making live material, and you realised there was an album in it?
NG: “I think we knew that straight off. The last three days of the tour, that was mostly dedicated to making new material.”
TY: “Then we said ‘see you later chaps’, and went off and made it into an album.”
NG: “We didn’t quite know what was going to come out of those three days, but we knew that we were trying to make a record. We’d seen the potential, and saw what it could turn into. Given that it was a retrospective project – taking [The Eraser‘s] material and reinterpreting it and replaying it – it was nice to then write some new material together that was inclusive.”
I thought it was interesting that AMOK references track titles from both The Eraser ['Atoms for Peace'] and Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief ['Judge, Jury and Executioner'].
TY: “Does it?”
Yeah, ‘Myxomatosis’ had the ‘Judge, Jury and Executioner’ subtitle.
TY: “[laughs] That was a mistake. I forgot I’d already used that! I’ve only got a limited wardrobe.”
So that wasn’t deliberate?
TY: “No, I’d genuinely forgotten that. You know, my lyric book’s only so thick.”
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