Nigel Godrich And Laura Bettinson Discuss Their New Project, Ultraísta
Given how many amazing records Nigel Godrich has produced (and how he’s now basically an honorary member of Radiohead), it’s easy to forget that he’s also a pretty amazing musician in his own right. Not only is Godrich a member of Atoms For Peace (alongside Thom Yorke and Flea), but he now adds Ultraísta to his resume. The band — which also consists of Joey Waronker and vocalist Laura Bettinson — released their glitchy self-titled debut earlier this month, and are currently in the midst of a not-so-massive three-date U.S. tour (they play NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge tonight). I had an early morning Skype session with Godrich and Bettinson to chat about how Ultraísta came to be and why, for Godrich, rock and roll is pretty much dead.
STEREOGUM: How did you meet? And how did this project really start?
GODRICH: Well essentially, Joey and I and another friend of ours made a bunch of music quite a long time ago actually — maybe like in 2008. But we decided that we were just gonna have some fun and get together and record a bunch of stuff. We’d been talking about how much we like Afrobeat and electronic stuff … and how great it is when things are played that sound mechanical and are supposed to be repetitive, but are actually performed, you know? So we got together and had this sort of slumber party/pillow fight musically, and did this thing — and this music sort of sat around, and we decided that we were not sure what to do with it. And then we decided that we’d look for a singer. We were like a bunch of idiots, thinking we would find some sort of, like, art student basically. That was the thing — I just didn’t want a musician. What we wanted was somebody very creative, someone who matches our aesthetic, somebody interesting, somebody unusual. So we posted in art schools in London and got a very interesting smorgasbord of responses — none of which actually led anywhere, but it was a very eye-opening life experience. Ultimately, it was almost as if God looked down on us with pity, and somebody in our management who knew someone who knew Laura said, “Oh you should check this girl out.” Laura was playing at a pub and she had her own show and she was kind of a bit like … when I dreamed of what this person would be, she was like that. So it was almost like fate was getting very irritated with us and just threw her out to us. We ended up trying to do a bunch of writing, which sort of worked, but that’s how we met.
STEREOGUM: So how was that for you, Laura? Was it this weird out-of-the-blue thing that happened?
BETTINSON: Yeah, kind of. I was obviously aware of who Joey and Nigel were, but I had no idea what they were looking for or what the experience would be like. When we finally got to hang out for a bit — I met Nigel first and met Joey a bit later — it was very easy. I think you usually know if you’re going to get on with someone within five minutes of speaking with them. It was just that easy.
GODRICH: Laura’s got this thing in her head, like this weird wiring flaw, where she’s just not phased by anything. It’s just really bizarre, like whatever you do, she never seems to have any adverse reaction. You know the way you get anxious about something? She’s just not fazed by large passing objects or anything. Any weird idea we might throw at her she’d just blink her eyes and be like, “OK.”
STEREOGUM: That’s a good skill to have. That’s a good way to be in this business.
GODRICH: I don’t know what drugs she’s taking or what cult she’s a member of. She made it very easy. As soon as you start making stuff together, that’s what you’re doing, rather than referring to anything else at all really, apart from the musical interests in common.
STEREOGUM: So the majority of the music that made it onto the record — were those tracks that you had made a long time ago or were a lot of those tracks new things that the three of you made together?
GODRICH: What happened was, the written tracks were from a long time ago, and bits of music were on the written tracks. Melodically, she sang to nothing. Sometimes she would sing to just rhythm. And then a lot of the music was added afterwards — but with the aesthetic and idea that it would be repetitive. It’s almost like that remix idea: When something is repetitive, it’s supposed to vibrate along with the groove. The way music works is you can change the wallpaper or change the furniture and see how it affects everything else. It’s like one thing moves and the other thing changes too in response. It’s a really fun way of working and a little trick that always works. So that’s how a lot of it came together. She may be singing to different chords or into thin air, or she may be singing along to a bass line that we had from the beginning or that eventually got taken out. It’s a combination of different things, but it’s not like we had this track and then she came in and whistled a melody over it. That’s really the art of working in the studio anyways. You’re trying harder than that, for the kind of music you want — it just wouldn’t be a satisfying thing if it were straightforward or simple. I don’t want a traditional singer-songwriter thing. That doesn’t really turn me on. I’m more into interesting cycles. We always talked about our stuff in that way. We all agreed about it early on — the songs are based on these evolving repetitions.
STEREOGUM: Well I would imagine from a production point of view, this band must be really fun. There’s sort of an unlimited amount of stuff that you could do to these tracks and add to them and then take away from them, especially when you are working in what is basically a purely digital medium. How long did the process take?
GODRICH: Well that’s it — I did it in waves. What happened was I fucked around and did that kind of thing for the better part of the year and didn’t really feel confident or that I’d figured out what was going on. And then it all happened in a space of three weeks. Things started happening in groups, and a sort of method evolved that seemed to tie it all together, and then we could just tie up those ideas. The art, really, is when to stop, and knowing what not to do. Your brain is not capable of infinite information — it just doesn’t work. What you have to do is trust what you smell: Learn to understand your own reactions to things and why you feel something. It’s all about feeling. Everything is about emotional response to something. It makes you excited or it makes you feel strangely reflective and you can’t work out why, but as a producer, that’s a thing I learned to trust and learned to understand about the bit of my brain that I don’t have any control over, and to follow it when I know it’s the right time to follow it, and stop following it when I know it’s going off and picking its nose.
STEREOGUM: Laura, how did the songs evolve for you? Did you have certain things in mind for each track as far as the lyrics and vocals were concerned?
BETTINSON: Not particularly. I’ve always approached writing melodies more from the side of writing a character versus just figuring out what I want the person in the song to sound like, like the quality of the voice and things like that. And then sometimes when I was singing it I would be mumbling the odd word or two … but the process of writing songs is completely collaborative. We’d just figure out the little bits of things and work on them together as a group, really. And that was interesting for me because that was the first time I’d done that. I’m usually quite lazy with my lyrics. But we wanted keep them abstract, so we took a more cut-up approach to lyrics. That was a challenge, but rewarding really. I think it made the songs better overall. With the melody a lot of the time I’d sing it and we’d deconstruct which bits we liked and which bits we wanted to keep and work backwards.
GODRICH: Lyrics are a weird thing — it’s all imagery that feeds into the music, and the music feeds into the lyrics, and she says she might just mumble a few words, but it’s not coincidental, what she’s saying. When you go back and look at what it is, you’ll realize that something means something else with hindsight, you know? And a lot of the time, it’s about taking the time to step away and figure out, what are those noises? And things resonate and come into focus and mean different things to different people. It was fun. It was very cut and paste.
STEREOGUM: I think it’s interesting when lyrics are sort of at odds with how the music sounds. But I think it’s equally interesting and super effective whenever the lyrics and the sound of the voice are like a natural reflection of the rhythm of the music. It almost becomes a part of the music rather than even just a lyric. And I was listening to the record today really loudly as I was walking around my house, and the lyrics become, at least in my hearing of it today, kind of indiscernible. And I like the mantra-like quality of the record, too.
GODRICH: It goes back to the whole idea of Ultraísta that is actually an extension of a modernist movement, but sort of a Spanish/Argentinean arm of it, just how they approach words and poetry. It’s like sound collage. It’s very visual, basically. And it’s funny because the music is an analogy for something very visual, and the lyrics are an idea for something very visual. And they meet on another plane. But it’s not a traditional song structure, because with the repetition there aren’t really choruses, and there aren’t really verses. It’s all sort of just words and shapes that are rhythmic.
STEREOGUM: I would imagine — as someone who produces a lot of kinds of music and also deals with producing traditional rock and roll sounds as well — that something like this, by comparison, would be really fun. Not that producing a rock band isn’t fun, but the possibilities that you can do sound-wise with something like this ….
GODRICH: To be honest, I don’t feel like I really do a lot of rock bands anymore. I think as I’ve sort of gotten older, my tastes have become more sophisticated. You’ll notice one thing about this record is that there’s no guitar on it. I’m really bored of guitars. I sort of instantly pin it to something. If you can make a palette to work with without guitar, you sort of free yourself up. You can call Radiohead a rock band, but it was the sort of rock band that rebelled against its roots, so in that way, that’s the headspace I’ve always been in with them. I don’t really listen to rock and roll anymore. With the Here We Go Magic thing I produced, it’s interesting because it has got that space-folk thing. That’s Luke’s way in — he likes to play guitar. It’s kind of abstract. Their record doesn’t feel like a rock album to me. I don’t know what I mean. I don’t think I’ve ever really done a rock record.
STEREOGUM: I have to say that Here We Go Magic’s A Different Ship is one of my favorite records this year. It sounds so fucking good.
GODRICH: I love them, too. I love their personalities and I love Luke. I think he’s a genuine article, and you can feel it. And like you say, it sounds like it would be fun — well it was fun. But my day job is fun, too. Everything is fun. Or else I wouldn’t do it.
STEREOGUM: Well I would imagine this material would lend itself so nicely to all different kinds of a live presentation. What will happen?
GODRICH: We’re rehearsing at the moment.
BETTINSON: Right now.
GODRICH: In fact, we talked to you rather than rehearsing. We were all set up to rehearse. We are doing some shows. Honestly that’s not my natural … I’m not a performer, I sort of like to be behind closed doors and be in the lab, but these guys really wanted to play live, and I feel like it’s kind of fun because it’s really out of my comfort zone. It’s kind of like, “OK, this is a challenge.”
STEREOGUM: Well what will the set up be, then? How will it transfer to live scenario?
GODRICH: Laura, when I first saw her play, was doing this thing with a loop station. It was one other really cool thing about what she did. So of course now we’re getting into the live context. First of all, she’s experienced and does that. Second, Joey is experienced. Me, I’m the guy — I’m the monkey on holiday. Nobody else knows where the beginning of the bar is, I’m the only one who knows, so I really have my place there. In this one, I have to do something valuable. I play keyboards and Laura loops stuff and Joey plays percussion — he has pads and stuff. The idea is to keep it small. We do videos as well, and we’ll incorporate that into the show because that’s really part of the idea, to have this sort of bright, colorful, noisy, friendly experience ….
STEREOGUM: That sounds amazing. I’m interested to see how these songs will play in a live setting … and I’m sure it will sound good when play really loudly.
BETTINSON: I’m really interested to see how it’s gonna work as well. You have to sort of paraphrase things … it’s almost like you have to re-learn your own songs in order to play them live. We’re re-learning them right now.
Ultraísta’s self-titled debut is out now on Temporary Residence Ltd.