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.”
Is writing lyrics for Atoms for Peace different to writing for Radiohead?
TY: “I don’t know. I genuinely haven’t thought about it.”
NG: “As an observer, I think the lyric writing process for this was more visceral. With Radiohead there tends to be ideas that knock around, and evolve over time. It’s a very long process, where as this was very much ‘this is now, let’s get this down.”
My initial thoughts on the vocals on AMOK were similar. It feels more spontaneous, more off-the-cuff. There seems to be less of a focus on hooks than in Radiohead.
TY: “Uh-oh – we’re fucked!”
What I’m saying is that with Radiohead, even on a quieter track like ‘There There’ – it’s not a big ‘Paranoid Android’-style epic but it’s got a catchy hook to it. On AMOK, the vocals seem more sketch-like. They almost form in real-time, in front of your eyes. They reminded me of some of Actress’s tracks, in a weird way.
TY: “I guess because of the way the project started, that it’s informed by what was already there, the vocals are more a means of responding to the rhythm of it; it’s more of a zoned out thing. Some people have already said that the vocals drift across the beats.”
They’re often quite submerged in all the electronics.
TY: “Yeah, they are. I guess the emotion of what’s going on is in the track itself, rather than in your face. Does that make sense?”
NG: “I think it’s very kinetic. There’s different types of emotion, and different ways that you can get moved by music. Even compared to The Eraser, which despite being very intimate is still song-based, these tracks are more about engaging with the rhythms, and the repetition, and connecting with them kinetically. It’s a different method – they’re still songs, but to fit songs into these kind of rhythms…”
TY: “It’s really hard.”
NG: “It’s very powerful though, when it works.”
When you realised that this had become an album project, did you have any specific goals – aside from the idea of these electronic rhythms being played by musicians – that you set out for the record?
TY: “It was a bit of an explosion, and we wanted to capture that. It was a good period. For me personally, God love ’em but I’ve been playing with the same band since I was 16, and to do this was quite a trip – it was coming from a very different point of view, aesthetically, but it was still playing with musicians in a room, which was still something I knew. It felt like we’d knocked a hole in a wall, and we should just fucking go through it.”
It’s a broad question, but how much of a role did dance music play in AMOK? You’ve been on both Boiler Room and Benji B’s Radio 1 show recently Thom, and you were playing footwork records – which to return to the idea of kinetics, is pretty much dance music distilled down to its most kinetic form.
TY: “It’s everything, you know? It’s everything going forward as well – as I said earlier, it was a box, and this is our first response to it but it’s something I want to go deeper into… DJing it, breaking it up even more, and when we next meet up with the band it’s an area where I want to bring more to the table. It’s definitely informed by the best bits – for me, anyway – of dance music. I’m not a wholesale believer in all of it, but the stuff that’s good to me right now… it’s the most interesting stuff that’s happening.”
Are there any specific ways that you can see the project interacting more with dance music, as it evolves?
TY: “It’s interesting… it depends whether we stick with the pure acoustic [instruments] or not. I don’t particularly want to be on stage with a laptop telling me which way to go, but anything short of that I’m open to – the whole point of doing the initial Atoms for Peace live shows was to be freed up from [The Eraser‘s] machines. But I don’t know… it’s a dialogue between the two. All I do know is that I feel like we’re just below the surface of it.
“It keeps reminding me of this record that I’m obsessed by, called Town Hall Concert by Charles Mingus. It’s a complete fucking disaster because they commissioned him to do this live record, and he wanted to do this big band thing and it was an extension of his workshop experiments. He wasn’t very well, mentally, and it kept coming up with these new scores and new ideas, endlessly throwing them out to these musicians who couldn’t keep up. When it came to the day of the performance, it just fell apart, I guess because all these ideas had just sent them over the edge.”
NG: “That’s what you’ve got to look forward to.”
TY: “Enjoy it now, before I go bonkers.”
NG: “It’s interesting you ask about dance music though. It is the most happening area of popular music right now, it’s forward-looking and it’s inspiring – even if you don’t like all of it. It’s a little universe all of its own. This is something that’s different in that there’s interaction between electronics and acoustics, and there’s vocals – it’s a very rare thing. For me, it’s exciting because I’m a fan of Thom’s voice, and I’m now getting to hear it on something that’s genuinely original – there’s not much else that sounds like this. The possibilities seem endless. A lot of electronic music seems cold, because it’s missing a voice.”
TY: “For me, whenever I’m building anything, whether it’s on a laptop or drum machine or whatever… there’s always a vocal going in the back of my head. It’s almost impossible for me to listen to a dance tune from beginning to end without picturing a voice. I’m a singer, I can’t help it. I’ll listen to Actress tunes and I’m hearing vocals – it’s just me.”
AMOK reminded me of [Flying Lotus’s] Until the Quiet Comes a little bit too – that album has some tracks with barely there, quite quiet [for dance music] percussion, and you can’t tell whether it’s electronic or acoustic. Then I remembered that you toured with him, quite early on in Atoms’ lifetime.
TY: “Well we were watching him most nights and vice versa, and there was a lot of ideas being bounced around.”
Can you see Atoms for Peace collaborating with other musicians?
NG: “Well of course there’s a lot of collaborations in electronic music, but with vocalists. And collaboration is very free these days; it’s very nice. But we already have Thom, so we wouldn’t need to get someone else to sing, for example.”
A final – and quite obvious – question: what’s the status of Radiohead, while you two focus on Atoms for Peace?
TY: “Well [Radiohead]’s on a break, and having some quality time to myself with all these unfinished ideas is really great. And there’s plenty of ’em. Ask him.”
NG: “Things go in cycles, and I think it’s important to have the opportunity to change and challenge yourself with something new. Just to keep things moving, and keep yourself fresh. Thom’s been into dance music for a long time, but now we have an opportunity to channel that in a completely different way.”