On a weirdly balmy afternoon in September, Thom Yorke, the singer-guitarist of Radiohead, sat at a table in his New York hotel room, with an enviable view of lower Manhattan from the adjacent patio, and talked about the long-in-birth, finally completed debut album by his solo-project band, Atoms for Peace. Titled AMOK, the nine-song record is due out early next year on XL. Yorke recently issued “Default,” one of the tracks, as a digital-single teaser.
Yorke was on a break that day from his current year of live shows with Radiohead. His hair was pulled back in a tight but unruly ponytail, and he had a sandy-blond beard. An hour into our coffee and conversation, he was joined by two other members of Atoms for Peace: drummer Joey Waronker and Radiohead co-producer Nigel Godrich. The missing two, bassist Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and that band’s touring percussionist Mauro Refosco, were on the road in Europe.
The album they’ve all made together was born after Atoms for Peace played eight North American shows in the spring of 2010. The group, formed by Yorke to play live the songs from his laptop-driven 2006 solo album, The Eraser, was so good in rehearsal that Yorke arranged for three days of studio recording in Los Angeles, after the last concert. Beats and licks pulled from the jamming in those sessions were subsequently processed, edited and, over the next two years, meshed with other laptop composing and studio work by Yorke and Godrich. The result, Godrich says, “is something that hasn’t been done before, because of its origins. It was sort of a backward idea – and a step into the unknown.”
Yorke puts it this way: “One of the things we were most excited about was ending up with a record where you weren’t quite sure where the human starts and the machine ends.”
This is how they got there, according to Yorke.
You went into those tour rehearsals, at Electric Lady in New York, to learn how to play songs from The Eraser onstage. It must have sounded like much more than that, right away.
It was a nice dynamic between us – a good buzz. But there’s this funny thing where the music I do on my laptop is so angular. When you get people to play like that, it’s so peculiar. Most of it, technically speaking, they can play. But there were times when we used the electronic sounds, because it was more brittle, more exciting.
What did you have, material-wise, when you went into the studio in L.A.?
We had nothing.
What did you come out with?
A fucking mountain. [Laughs] It was a form of madness. We’d go in at midday and pretty much work through to 10. We were playing all the time. It was bonkers. We’d stop to change beat. Joey and Mauro would scribe the beat out, using whatever weird notation they have, and then go off on it for another hour.
What was your role, especially amid strong, technical players like Flea?
Definitely conducting. Nigel and I were like, “That’s good! That’s not good!” [Grins] It was about trying to get interesting grooves. When we first hung out, we were at Flea’s house. We got wasted, played pool and listened to Fela Kuti all night. It was that idea of trance-ing out. But there are still songs here.
How did you decide between live and programmed sounds in building those songs? Can you give an example?
“Default” started with a mistake on a sampler in my studio [makes telegraph-like drum-machine noise]. I hadn’t patched it in right. It was giving me a tone that, when I put it with a melody, I was like ‘That’s nice!” I had that when Nigel and I were doing The Eraser.
But then, at one point. Nigel said, “I need some more stuff. What have you got?” I thought, “I’ll try that.” We literally played it with the band. I asked Flea, “Can you scribe that out?” It was horribly complicated, everything in a weird length. And they could all physically play it. But actually, it didn’t sound as tight as the machine. It’s one of those things that if we ever get it right live, it will be fucking mental.
How much did the music determine your lyric direction in songs such as “Reverse Running” and “Judge, Jury and Executioner”?
“Judge, Jury and Executioner” was a funny one, because the rhythm is so odd on it. The phrase just spewed out when I was playing the song on guitar. It was like a key, opening a door into all this other stuff that was going on, that I was desperate to get out.
“Judge, Jury and Executioner” – that’s pretty angry. “Reverse Running” has this weird desperation in it. It’s a head-space thing, rather than a storytelling thing. I’d love to be a storyteller. But I can’t do it.
Are you going to tour again with Atoms for Peace, after the album comes out?
I hope so. We all want to.
Ironically, because of the blend of electronics and live playing, you’ll have to relearn all of the songs with the band.
Yes. [Laughs] It’s fucked up! I’m going, all the time, “Hmm, this is too human. Can we make this a little more mechanistic?” But as much as I try to resist the temptation, I really want to say, “This is the beginning of something.”
And this was after three days in that studio. God help us if we’d had a week.
Near the end of the conversation, after Godrich and Waronker sit down with their coffees, the topic turns back to the songwriting on the new album. “They are songs,” Godrich says of the nine tracks, which include the liquid-African dynamics of “Before Your Very Eyes,” the eerie, propulsive “Dropped” and the spaced-funk chant and jangle of “Stuck Together Pieces.”
“But you also have to give people something that moves,” Godrich goes on. “This is the eternal battle with Thom. He’s like ‘I really want to make a dance record. But I have to sing on it, or nobody’s going to fucking care.” Yorke, sitting across from Godrich, howls with laughter.
“This,” Godrich says of the Atoms for Peace record, “is his compromise.”
“But the best tunes I dance to always have at least one good vocal idea.” Yorke insists. “There’s no such thing, to me, as a good tune with no vocals.”