Atoms for Peace were done with their 16-song set at Oakland’s Fox Theater, but the crowd made it very clear they weren’t going anywhere. It was April 14th, 2010, and the newly named group – featuring Thom Yorke, Flea, Nigel Godrich, drummer Joey Waronker and percussionist Mauro Refosco – realized they had a problem. They’d already played every song on Yorke’s solo LP The Eraser along with a handful of B-sides and Radiohead tunes, but still the audience kept screaming, even 15 minutes after the band left the stage.
“We didn’t know what to do,” says Godrich. “So we simply came back and jammed. I mean, we improvised onstage. All those years of getting stoned and playing stupid music with my friends in my bedroom were not lost, because it all came out. It was manifested at that moment.”
This was a situation the 42-year-old Godrich never imagined he’d find himself in, especially since the age of 20, when he put down his guitar to work as a record engineer and producer. Engineering work on early 1990s albums by Big Country and Siouxsie and the Banshees led to a life-changing meeting with Radiohead in 1994. He co-produced their EP My Iron Lung that year, and the next year he was brought back to engineer The Bends. He’s produced all their albums since, and can fairly be called the group’s sixth member.
Godrich’s work with Radiohead led to countless opportunities, and in the past 15 years he’s produced albums for Beck, R.E.M. and Paul McCartney. By 2007 he was one of the most acclaimed producers on the planet, and returning to his stoned teenage years as a performer was the last thing on his mind.
“At that time, Beck was going on a South American stadium tour opening up for the Police,” says Godrich. “He didn’t have a keyboard player, and it was really getting down to the wire. He called and said, ‘You gotta do it.’ Beck is just the greatest sweetheart in the world, and I half-jokingly agreed. I was like, ‘Uh, really?’ And Beck was like, ‘Yeah, you’ll be fine.'”
Before he knew it, Godrich found himself in front of 70,000 screaming Police fans at soccer stadiums all across South America. It was a lot more fun than he imagined. “Once you do one of those things once, the spell is instantly broken,” he says. “You understand the dynamic, which is really just do enjoy yourself. It didn’t really freak me out at all.”
Still, the experience seemed like a surreal, one-shot deal, at least until 2009, when Thom Yorke decided to launch his first solo tour to support his LP The Eraser. “He called me up to tell me about the tour and my first reaction was actually, ‘Oooh, can I be on it?” says Godrich. “That record was really something we did together, very much the two of us. It was a fun experience, and it would be sad for that to go from something electronic and made inside of a computer to something real without me there. I would feel sad if I wasn’t involved. He said, ‘Yeah, of course.'”
It didn’t take long to flesh out the lineup. “Thom was focused on the percussion side of things,” says Godrich. “We had to translate this very, very electronic, very digital, clicky sound into a real performance, into an organic human experience. So basically we knew we needed a good percussion player. Joey Waronker is my best friend and my go-to drummer, so he was definitely on board.”
Finding a bassist was equally simple. “Flea had always been a very vocal supporter of The Eraser,” says Godrich. “Thom, quite rightly, predicted that since the bass lines were so aggressive that he would be the perfect guy to bring the thing to life. What you wind up with is this bizarre equation of constituent parts that seem very eclectic and maybe won’t necessarily work together.”
At first, the group was very much Thom Yorke’s backing band, even billing themselves as “Thom Yorke????” That’s how they were labeled on the 2010 Coachella poster, but by the time they arrived at the festival they were Atoms for Peace. They were also beginning to tinker with original material. “The first couple days of rehearsal were just incredibly positive,” says Godrich. “Just magical.”
There’s a mere nine songs on The Eraser, and even when they played B-sides Yorke was forced to perform Radiohead songs like “Everything in Its Right Place” on the piano to flesh out the set. The impromptu jam in Oakland impressed everybody, and it got Yorke and Godrich thinking the group needed to get into the studio and capture that magic.
“When the tour ended, we all went into a room and knocked around ideas,” says Godrich. “In that time, we recorded the skeleton of what became Amok. It wasn’t songs as such, but more tracks and bits of music and rhythm. Of course, the rhythm is the thing that everything starts with. Making electronic rhythms and translating them into real things in the air with people spinning their own angles was the beginning of the record.”
They could have probably finished the record there and then, but Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were both gearing up for new albums and mega world tours. They didn’t get a chance to finish the album until late 2012, and it finally hit in February of 2013. A supporting tour would have to wait for the Chilis to get off the road, and Yorke was more than ready for a break after Radiohead’s grueling global odyssey.
This time around, Atoms for Peace decided to leave the clubs behind in favor of arenas and festivals. They played Europe in June and July, and an American run begins September 24th in Philadelphia. “This time around we have two albums to draw from,” says Godrich. “There were a few factions in the band regarding how to create a set list. There was one school of thought where we’d play The Eraser from beginning to end and then play Amok from beginning to end. But it felt like in order to acknowledge the fact this really is a band and not just two separate projects, it would be nice to have a scale and a pace. We had a couple of dry runs, and since then have pretty much stuck with a set list that only changes a little.”
Godrich spends the majority of the show playing keyboards and guitar, carefully avoiding the spotlight. “My dream is to be anonymous, honestly,” he says. “I’m the guy behind the green curtain in Oz. Also, we have two great performers right in front of me and the most incredible, kinetic, watchable drummer to my left and a very interesting percussionist on the other side of the stage. So I don’t need to stand in front of a bunch of people and flaunt my wares. I just go out and do my part.
“I just played a tour with a little band with Joey called Ultraísta. It was just the three of us onstage, so I had to take on more responsibility. After that, this is easy. Also, this is a huge spectacle with huge lights. It’s enough energy to really fill a big space like an arena.”
Some fans might come to the shows hoping to hear Radiohead classics, but other than the super obscure 2004 B-side “Paperbag Writer,” they are going to be disappointed. “I can’t remember where, but there was one show where a guy was yelling all night for ‘Creep,'” says Godrich. “Thom went, ‘No, I’m not going to play fucking “Creep,” you bastards.'”
As of now, the tour wraps November 23rd after a series of shows in Japan. “We are talking about the logistics of doing some other things,” says Godrich. “But we have the slightly annoying issue where we’re five people doing five different things, so getting everybody free at the same time is a little hard. I know we want to carry on. It’s going to come down to what everyone’s year is looking like next year.”