"Our Reference Was 'Saturday Night' by Whigfield!" Ultraísta Interviewed
Bounding out of Brixton tube station on my way to meet Ultraísta, Nigel Godrich’s side hustle, I glance at my Facebook feed and see something remarkable.
A long-running poll to decide the best album of all time has pitted 'OK Computer' – the first proper Nigel Godrich-produced Radiohead album – against Abbey-bloody-Road by the Beatles.
"Please tell me the fucking Beatles are winning," says Nigel Godrich when I show him my phone later.
Well, the Fabs are ahead, but only by 54% to 46%.
Point being, this geezer knows how to make a record. I’m at his studio – this is a week-and-a-half ago mind, we shook hands and everything, can you imagine – to talk about Ultraísta, the side-trio he’s put together with Atoms For Peace collaborator Joey Waronker on drums and the glossy vocal stylings of Laura Bettinson, also present.
And all of us are cheerfully unaware of the shitshow about to properly kick off in the wider world outside.
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You have form here, right – the last Ultraísta tour in 2012 was dogged by natural calatclysm right?
Nigel: Hurricane Sandy. We’ve been joking, sort of, about what could stop us this time. Frogs falling from the sky?
It’s going to be coronavirus. Trust me I’m from the future.
Laura: Well, we’re hoping to play some dates later in the year, once the virus has hopefully passed.
Cool. Anyway, your new album – 'Sister' – is fucking banging. Full of weirdness, but also super… hooky. Do you set out to be hooky?
Nigel: We were thinking about… great art, and I guess in a way really dumb pop music too. Our reference track, for a while, was Saturday Night by Whigfield. It’s a piece of art. Maybe I’ve being tongue in cheek, but there’s art in making things like that so perfect.
Laura: I grew up on pop music. I can never shake that off. We all bring different thing to the table, and from my side it’s four-bar melodies. For days. .
Why ‘Ultraísta’ anyway – OBVIOUSLY you’re named after the century-old Spanish and Argentinian art and poetry movement…
Nigel: We wanted to have a manifesto. All the great art movements had manifestos. It helps making music, especially with something that has a bit of surrealism or futurism about it. If you have a manifesto, then you can reject stuff. We rejected hundreds of ideas, because they didn’t live up to the manifesto.
You’re all, always busy doing other stuff, all over the world. What’s your method for collaborating? WhatsApp group?
Nigel: Various ways. [Lead single] 'Tin King' was a word game between us, an exercise in making a tune that’s all on one note.
Laura: We all chipped in random abstract words. I wrote them down, then sang the ones that stood out on the page for me. That, plus during session in LA, we luckily had some time off together and just mucked around with some musical ideas.
Joey: There’s something magical about being able to record everything you play in that kind of environment. So often those great improvised moments get lost. This way stuff doesn’t just disappear once you stop playing.
Nigel: Then I listen back to it and chop it around in the studio. Which, as you can imagine, takes awhile.
You’re renowned, Nigel, for your ‘cut and paste’ approach – what you’ve done with Radiohead, recording a whole day and then zeroing in on the best ten minutes, to build the track around that. Do you ever wonder what great composers from the past would do with that ability?
Nigel: Like who?
Gershwin? Beethoven? Bach?
Nigel: They’d vanish up their own arseholes.
JS Bach would vanish up his own arsehole?
Nigel: Absolutely. I mean, the way we make music now is not the same. Look at John Barrie, he used to sit at a piano and write a whole James bond movie score, just with a pencil and paper. That guy had it all in his head. That’s much better than what I do – it’s a better economy of time, for one thing. By investing in a computer you create a ton more possibility, and a lot more dead ends and so much wasted time. The idea that computers save time is a massive illusion.
Joey: Right now with drums though, and especially with this project, I can do stuff I’d never get away with otherwise. And these two guys egg me on all the way.
Nigel: Joey is a master of nailing broken beats shat out of a laptop.
What about the songs. There’s some gems on this record – 'Save It ’til Later' especially – who does the lyrics? Where’s the soul?
Nigel: Laura writes tags, I fill in the blanks normally. I labour over them. There’s a lot of trust, a lot of back and forth.
Laura: The lyrics come late on, we have melodies mapped out, then we’d come back and change it. Nigel would come with a whole set of lyrics, in this case.
Nigel: I know because I’ve worked with many songwriters, that meaning is always projected. The powerful thing to do, what the great writers do, is write ambiguous lyrics that people can pin their own meaning to.
Laura: I’m just out here, singing Nigel’s pain.
But it’s also very much an electronic feeling record – it’s nice that you can maintain the ‘soul’ among the blips and bloops.
Nigel: Music made on the computer can so easily be clinical and boring. But we’re human beings, look at us, we’re asymmetrical, and wonky, and we walk funny. The Beatles knew that. They varied the speed of everything to make it wobbly, like the pianos. They were off key. And they’re still your favourite bits.
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There’s no guitar on the LP it I notice.
Nigel: Adding guitar adds a different kind of smell. The minute you strum a chord, you’re opening up the door to a whole legacy of rock history.
Laura: I’m more about that electronic sensibility. Producing stuff in a certain way. Goes back to when I first came to London and got right into the looping scene. A lot better than carting instruments, especially my piano, all over town.
Joey: And it makes it harder to play live. Laura: There’s too much going on to do it all ourselves as it is.
Guitar’s dead anyway, amirite.
Nigel: Certain… versions of it are really miserable, the singer-songwriter thing that has emerged…
Who are we bitching about? Spill.
Nigel. No. But I love Nick Drake, and Joni Mitchell, they’re fucking incredible… it’s just what’s happened as a result…
People just aren’t writing in the same way are they?
Nigel: I think the old-fashioned, Lennon-and-McCartney-at-the-fireside method is over-mythologised. But at the end of the day, it has to end up a playable song. Thom [Yorke] will sit down and make some crazy, fractured cheese-grater-on-head mayhem on a computer, but at some point he always gets his guitar out to check he can actually play it.
If I didn’t know better a lot of the good stuff here – the sounds, the rhythms – I’d have attributed to the peerless genius of Thom Yorke. Maybe you’re the power behind the throne after all?
Nigel: Well, make of that what you will.
Hey, check out this online poll saying 'OK Computer' is basically up there with 'Abbey Road'...
Nigel: Please tell me the fucking Beatles are winning.
Just. Are the people who compare you with George Martin talking crap?
Nigel: He was great. And he was nice to me. He did a lot of things, and he did them first. His approach to technology was fantastic, using the studio as an instrument. And he was talented as an arranger. He made me think differently.
Something that really stands out, is his approach that one microphone is better than five, simple stuff like that. And I worked with McCartney, so I had a tiny sense of what that was like. McCartney is such a fantastic musician, with so much energy, such a way of attacking things. Even as an older guy. I can’t really imagine what it was like having four of them.
Have you played Thom and the lads this new Ultraísta record?
Nigel: No… we don’t really do that.
Be nice to have a boost from their socials though right?
Nigel: We’re not in this to make money. This costs us money. One of the good things I guess about the money vanishing from music is that you aren’t so contractually obliged. So we just make stuff because we like to. And collaborate with whoever we please.
Laura: We’d go insane otherwise.
Nigel: People right now are saying the music business is saved. It’s not. The very top tier are flying in helicopters again, but the people are the bottom are worse off than ever. When all this started happening years ago, I said you need to change it, or it’ll be too late – and now we’re there.
I suppose there’s fewer people driving Rolls Royces into swimming pools.
Nigel: Yeah, but where’s the fun in that? And anyway, I used to worry about the effect the internet was having on music, until I saw how badly it’s started fucking our politics. Now I’m like, the music thing doesn’t even matter. there’s something far bigger and much worse going on, and it’s manifesting itself right now…
You have literally no idea buddy.
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'Sister' is out now.
Words: Andy Hill
Photography: Alexander Elizarov
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