“It’s not my wish to be a performer in life,” explains Nigel Godrich, “but this is an interesting challenge.” Best known for his work behind the scenes as the innovative producer of many classic Radiohead albums and studio guru for such major artists as Beck and Paul McCartney, Godrich steps out as a full band member on his latest project: the self-titled debut from Ultraísta, released in early October.
As befits Godrich’s status as Thom Yorke’s right-hand man, Ultraísta proves to be anything but a conventional rock group on their album. Instead, the trio (rounded out by multi-instrumentalist/co-producer Joey Waronker and vocalist Laura Bettinson) provides a beguiling experiment in hybrid theory, deconstructing syncopated African grooves, krautrock experimentalism and eccentric electronics via contemporary recording technology. Songs like “Bad Insect” whirr like a paranoid android driven by a human-heart motherboard, the Ronettes-meets-Laurie Anderson swirl of Bettinson’s disembodied vocals proving irresistible.
“Ultraísta is inspired by the extremism of futurist ideas,” Godrich tells Rolling Stone. “It’s all about the art of repetition – making loops that sound computer-generated, yet are played by humans – combined with the notion that pop doesn’t always have to be crass.”
Waronker – one of rock’s great drummers, who’s played alongside everyone from R.E.M. and Smashing Pumpkins to Norah Jones and Elliott Smith – first met Godrich when both worked on Beck’s 1998 masterwork Mutations. They also play together in Yorke’s Atoms for Peace electro-rock supergroup. The germ of Ultraísta, however, came together in 2008 during a whirlwind week in London. “Nigel and I were hanging out and talking shit, telling each other, ‘You should do your own thing,'” Waronker recalls. “Next thing I knew, Nigel says, ‘Why don’t we do something?'”
Two years later, after Godrich and Waronker had amassed a substantial bank of beats and blips, the search began for a vocalist. To fulfill Godrich’s “terrible wank-off fantasy” of finding a raw, undiscovered talent, he put up flyers in art schools around London “just to see what would happen,” he explains. “They said ‘Do you like Afrobeat and electronica and would you consider singing in a band?'” While Bettinson was in fact an art-school student – the 24-year-old had enrolled in the prestigious Goldsmith school’s popular-music course alongside the likes of James Blake and Katy B. – she “probably ignored” the flyers, she admits; at the time, she was creating fractured electro-pop under various aliases like Dimbleby and Capper and Femme. She also survived a few abortive attempts as a topline writer for wannabe pop-star mannequins. “It’s a vacuous world,” she says. “‘We need a track that’s like Nicki Minaj mixed with Jessie J’ is not how I think about making music.”
After an introduction via Godrich’s manager, Bettinson clicked with her future bandmates over their shared, unorthodox creative methods. “It’s almost like remixing,” Godrich says. “Sometimes Laura would sing melodies to thin air, and we’d add the music later.” Bettinson notes that some of Ultraísta’s flickering, edgy videos were even shot “before we’d refined what the final lyrics were.”
That iconoclastic approach lines up with the Ultraists, the revolutionary early-20thCentury Spanish literary movement that inspired the band’s moniker, epitomized by the writing of famed “magical realist” Jorge Luis Borges. “I first saw the word ‘Ultraísta’ in a biography of Borges,” Godrich recalls. “My mom gave me a book of his short stories, and I fucking loved it: they were surreal but direct and meaningful. With Joey and Laura, I wanted to take that kind of colorful, intense, full-on vibration, put it in a ball, and project it out into the universe.”