Whatever you do, don’t call Atoms for Peace a supergroup in front of Thom Yorke. “If anyone ever says it to my face,” says the Radiohead singer, with a sharp grin, “I’m going to fucking knock their teeth out.” Yorke is sitting in a Manhattan hotel cafe with producer Nigel Godrich, his chief collaborator in the new band, whose groove-heavy debut album, Amok, arrived in February after three years of studio alchemy. He’s in a light, jesting mood this morning; Yorke and Godrich, close colleagues since the mid-Nineties, are very good at making each other laugh.
In July, the not-supergroup – whose other members are Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco and drummer Joey Waronker – will launch its first tour since 2010, set to hit U.S. arenas in September. Conflicting schedules often make it difficult for all five musicians to gather in one place, and as of mid-March, they had yet to figure out when they would start rehearsing. “We’re not quite sure what’s going to happen,” admits Yorke.
Then again, a little uncertainty just might be Atoms for Peace’s secret weapon. “That’s what happened last time,” recalls Godrich, thinking back to the exhilarating Los Angeles jam sessions that kicked off the recording process. “We really didn’t know what was going to happen until we actually stood in the room. It’s exciting.” Yorke nods and smiles. “Amok came out of the joy of discovering a new set of people,” he says. “I’m curious to know what happens now.”
Even with a major tour looming, Yorke is always working on new music in some form or another. “At the moment, I’m writing things which are more electronic again, really simple, really stripped down,” he says. “And I’m wondering how that’s going to work.”
Read on for an in-depth conversation with Yorke and Godrich about why performing with Atoms for Peace is so much fun, what they love (and hate) about dance music right now, what’s next for Radiohead and much more.
You’ve booked some big venues on this tour, like the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Is that exciting or a little scary?
YORKE: There are some. But nothing too big. The Roundhouse [in London, where Atoms will play in July] is quite small. That will be fun. I know it sounds stupid, but it’s a new band, you know? Even though we did go in at Number Two.
GODRICH: Bruno Mars had a special on Amazon. That’s why.
YORKE: Yeah, Bruno Mars. Who the fuck is Bruno Mars? Sorry. I’ll get slandered now.
GODRICH: It’s apparently Amazon’s decision.
YORKE: Amazon fucks with us every time. They undercut us.
GODRICH: They’re just trying to get people to their site. It’s modern marketing in the dotcom era.
YORKE: So really, it was Number One.
GODRICH: That’s what I tell my mum, anyway.
What do you enjoy most about playing with Atoms for Peace?
YORKE: They’re super-fast and technically just frighteningly good. It’s quite a lot of energy – I mean, obviously, Flea’s very energetic, but the others are, too, in their own particular ways. When we play, it’s quite in-your-face. And there’s a lot of looking to me for direction, which I’m not used to. Well, I am, sort of. [Both crack up laughing.]
GODRICH: I’ve known Joey for years – he’s an incredibly good diviner of what’s going on. He’s a guy that you hire to come play on your record ’cause he can make anything happen, you know? And he knows Mauro. The chemistry is really good. They’re also technically good enough to be able to do these incredibly complex things and then go beyond. It’s like a dream for those guys. And then I’m the guy that spent a year and a half looking at the ProTools session, and I know exactly how everything works and where it comes in and what’s going on.
YORKE: He knows all the arrangements, and I don’t, really. I zone out.
GODRICH: And then, you know, Thom and I are the British people in this. We come from this very different universe.
YORKE: Actually, that is quite an important bit of it. Setting up in L.A., rehearsing in L.A., it’s nice, it’s sunny. We’ve got loads of friends there. We hang out. No one’s, like, “Oh, really? Have I got to go to work?” It’s, like, “Yeah! Fucking wicked!” It’s a bit like a holiday. I hope it carries on like that. My fear is it suddenly becomes work, because that hasn’t happened yet.
GODRICH: When I first went to Los Angeles to work, coming from the U.K., it was a bit like the land of Oz. Suddenly everyone is just incredibly brilliant, technically proficient, and every bit of equipment you use is, like, the best one you’ve ever laid your hands on. It ends up being a bunch of people who are really like-minded and want to enjoy it, as well.
YORKE: I think we bring enough cynicism to any process. [Laughs.]
GODRICH: It takes two of us to counteract three of their smiley, bright outlooks.
Nigel, you’re primarily a producer who works in a studio. How do you like performing onstage with this band?
GODRICH: I decided pretty early on that I liked being behind closed doors and sort of in the laboratory in the middle of the night and able to fuck things up and try things. That’s me. And that still is what I love to do. I’m not a natural performer. But it is fun to go out and confront the people who listen to things that you do, you know? The biggest shock of your life is when you first make a record and go to a show and then people start singing the words. Because it occurs to you that they’ve listened to it!
YORKE: That’s what used to happen in the early days [with Radiohead]. When the record came out, we’d be off on tour and then Nigel would come to shows and be quite upset.
GODRICH: “Quite upset” is a little over the top. But the other thing is, I don’t really think of myself as a record producer anymore, because I don’t really think that job that I did exists anymore. The industry isn’t there. So now I would rather do things that I really love with people that I love working with, and to be able to extend that and go and play, it’s great. I feel very fortunate. I’m the rank amateur in this outfit. You know, Thom’s been onstage for 20 years.
YORKE: I’m a professional, mate. [Smiles.]
GODRICH: He is! I’ll tell you, I’ve seen him. But for me, it’s easier than you would realize, going on stage with all these people who are very, very good. I know that no one’s looking at me. I can just do my thing and get away with it in the background.
You’ve both done lots of DJing in the last few years. Has that influenced how you make music?
GODRICH: I have a friend in L.A. who’s a DJ, who showed me the Virtual Vinyl software, and that really blew my mind – because I realized that you could use that to make music. You can use any audio, any sound file, anything, and just virtually put it on a piece of vinyl and manipulate it with your hand.
YORKE: For years, we talked – especially with Jonny [Greenwood] – about cutting tracks to vinyl and putting them together like that. And we never did it, and then that software came up.
GODRICH: It’s really complicated to actually cut those things. I remember the engineer, when we were talking about doing a side of locked grooves, and he’s, like, “Mmm, I think I’m sick that day.” Just ’cause it’s so hard to do that shit!
YORKE: “The Gloaming” came from that idea of cutting locked grooves. But in the end we just used multitrack loops.
GODRICH: Anyway, DJing makes you think about music in a different way, and the way that music fits together with other pieces of music. It throws all these things up in the air. It’s also about reacting to a moment in time, which I think is fundamentally important to all of us and what we’re doing right now.
YORKE: It’s a really interesting, different way of responding to a group of people in a room but not playing.
GODRICH: Yeah, you’re having a conversation. But it’s up to you – like, you can make it fucking go off or you can put a wet blanket on it.
YORKE: I have to say, I don’t like a lot of the DJ culture that goes around it. I don’t like this sort of, get paid a lot of money and the DJ comes and he just fucking does his set. Which is fine, ’cause he knows it works and he’s worked hard at it – but sometimes, you’re like, “Really? What, really?” I mean, my favorite DJ, if you’re just talking about a performer, is Gaslamp Killer. I think he’s fucking amazing, because he’ll just switch styles and he just doesn’t care. When I was in Australia, Mark Pritchard was talking about how for a lot of DJs, it’s their main source of income, so they’ll do what works, ’cause otherwise they don’t get booked. So they don’t take risks. But he was talking about how, like, in the Panorama Bar in Berlin, for example, and in Plastic People when it first started in London, and in Low End Theory [in L.A.], people would come in and play what the fuck they wanted, and they would switch styles, and that’s the whole point!
GODRICH: Thom is much more up on what’s happening, who these people are.
YORKE: I like weeding through new stuff. So much of the time it’s hard work, but when you do find a new tune, it’s, like, “Yeah!”
What’s the best thing you’ve discovered lately?
YORKE: I’m really into Actress at the moment. That’s my current obsession. I like his aesthetic, that kind of low-fi element. Then I just found this interview with him online, and that really fascinated me, because he uses all the same gear as I do in my studio at home. But he’s using it in a way that’s making me go, “What the fuck?” I think that’s necessary to anyone who’s still writing music. Like, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to listen and then, after a while, go, “How the fuck did that happen?” That sense of curiosity keeps us going, really.
Like you said, DJ culture is big business now. Does that turn you off?
YORKE: I mean, it depends on how you look at it. If I’m brutally honest, 90 percent of that whole culture, I don’t get on with. I don’t understand it at all, and I find it really bonkers when, you know, like, a promoter in Ibiza is emailing us, saying, “Do you want to go?” And I’m like, “No!” At the same time, some of the most exciting things that have happened to me recently have been, like, when FlyLo dragged me to Low End Theory for the first time, kicking and screaming, ’cause I didn’t want to do it, ’cause I was jet lagged or whatever, and it was just mental. Fucking mental. And such a good camaraderie with the people at the club, because they all know each other. It was really different, not what I was used to. It wasn’t super-clubby – it was just fucking loud and fucking fun, you know? A lot of that scene, the music’s bonkers, man. The hip-hop thing, it’s really abstract, and it feels like an artform. When we played in Berlin, Anstam was on before us, and his set was truly a 40-minute piece of art. It was, like, people dancing and people getting down with it and the kick drums were super-loud – but listening to what he’s doing, it was, like, “This is seriously complicated.” It’s like prog-rock gone twisted.
GODRICH: Electronic music is really weird right now, because it is bleeding into the mainstream, but, at the same time, it’s fashion, you know? You have this sort of avant-garde end of it – the haut couture sort of thing he’s talking about, especially in smaller clubs and smaller scenes, like the scene in L.A. around Low End Theory. But what you end up with in the mainstream is horrible – this distillation of the DJ thing.
YORKE: [Scrubbing motions.] They wash the surface off and they’ve cleaned it up and Auto-Tuned it. It’s like, “Fuck you!”
GODRICH: I mean, love it or hate it, you’ve got your David Guettas with massive hits or, like, Calvin Harris – all that kind of shit, which is the Marks & Spencer of this.
YORKE: [Cackling with delight.]
GODRICH: It is! It’s the H&M. That’s how it works. You have some people being very, very dangerous and experimental, and then it trickles into, you know, making ridiculous hats that eventually get copied by your high-street stores. That’s how I see it.
YORKE: For me, personally, signing up to that whole thing doesn’t feel right. It’s not why we’re into this. I mean, it’s fun to DJ, but . . . I mean, the Daphni record, [Dan Snaith] did that because he had started DJing a lot more and he felt like there were tunes in his head that he wanted to play but didn’t have, so he had to make them. That’s a little bit of the reason we’re interested in this. It’s why I write music – because I can’t find it. I can hear it but I can’t find it anywhere.
GODRICH: The big, obvious elephant in the room is that Thom is a singer – and that’s a thing that, whether they want to or not, those people don’t have.
What do you think of social media? Thom, you don’t really do Twitter, do you?
GODRICH: Amazing! I actually didn’t know that, but now it pleases me.
YORKE: What’s his name, Bart’s dad. Homer Simpson. He was shouting right when I was coming up with the name. You know, you keep putting names into Tumblr, it’s like every fucking name is taken. And then Homer just said, “What have you done to my face?”
Have you seen any other good TV or movies lately?
YORKE: I watch a shitload of movies. Lincoln was all right. I saw Untouchable, the French movie – that’s really good, very funny. I didn’t really understand the one that won Best Picture, what was it?
YORKE: It was all right. Better things than that.
Tell me about the book you have with you today – it’s a biography of Michel de Montaigne?
YORKE: Oh, yeah, my partner’s got me into Montaigne. She says you’ve got to start with this. For some reason, I completely missed Montaigne, so now I’m catching up. I like how so much of it correlates to living in the moment and living in the present.
You mentioned that you’ve been writing some new music. Any more hints on what to expect?
YORKE: Ah . . .
GODRICH: Time for a country album, I think.
YORKE: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking, actually. What am I doing? I don’t know, really. More electronic crap. [Laughs.]
GODRICH: I know, from years of experience, that what he does is he just bats things around, and comes up with fragments of things. They usually find a context in time.
YORKE: Or I’ll do one really simple thing that ties something together. Like, “Black Swan,” back in the day, was a six-minute load of crap.
GODRICH: Nine minutes!
YORKE: Nine-minute load of bollocks. Except for this one juicy bit, and he goes past and goes, “That bit. Fuck the rest.” Usually it’s something like that.
GODRICH: You’re asking the wrong person.
YORKE: Yeah, I have fucking no idea, mate. I think I need a break at some point. I went straight from Radiohead into this. The break’s, like, three days. That’s kind of all I need.
GODRICH: The break will involve making some music to relax. [Laughs.]
Have you thought at all about when you might work on another record with Radiohead?
YORKE: No, I don’t know, really. We said a year, but I’m sure it’ll probably be slightly longer than that, ’cause I am actually going to have to have a break. For three days. [Laughs.] I really haven’t got a clue, which I quite like. We didn’t, like, say, “Fuck you, I’ll see you whenever.” But it was quite exciting to actually finally decide to take a proper, proper break. We’d never really done that, not by choice.
YORKE: Yeah. It was only a few hours in the studio. It was just because “Identikit” felt like it was in a really nice place, and I wanted to lay it down before we got bored of it, which is what normally happens. And there was one other tune, which might work. But “Identikit” was the main thing.
Did it feel like you finished the track or is it something you want to return to?
YORKE: It’s not finished, finished. No. That’s homework. Haven’t done it yet.
GODRICH: Save it for your day off.