|Thom Yorke: Atom for Peace
RA's Angus Finlayson spends time with the Radiohead and Atoms for Peace frontman.
Thom Yorke and Radiohead have long been inextricable names, twin behemoths looming large over much of the past two decades in experimental popular music. Recent years, though, have seen the frontman follow his own muse. Amok is, to all intents and purposes, Yorke's second solo album after 2006's The Eraser. But where that album's simple piano- and guitar-led arrangements and crisp digital percussion gave it an air of laptop solipsism, its successor is a more expansive affair.
That's largely down to the involvement of a full band, operating under the name Atoms for Peace. Yorke initially enlisted Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist Flea, percussionists Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco and Radiohead producer and serial collaborator Nigel Godrich (contributing guitar, keyboard and synths) to play material from The Eraser live in 2010. That led to an intensive three-day recording session in LA, the material from which Yorke and Godrich have reworked into a nine-track album which remains inimitably Yorke.
Amok's genesis is central to its sound, a rich melange of the electronic and the acoustic, whose subtlety often belies its complexity. Ever-present dense polyrhythms recall parts of Radiohead's 2011 The King of Limbs—the tumbledown percussive lattices of "Little By Little" or "Feral"'s skittery 2-step approximations. But with his bandmates absent, Yorke distils these rhythms, boiling off their knottier aspects, leaving detailed but hypnotic beat-loops behind. Amok is by no means a dance album, but in its thoughtful repetitions and rhythmic poise it seems to look to that world for inspiration.
Yorke, of course, is no stranger to electronic music. His love affair with the cerebral fringes of the dance floor is considered to be part of what makes him, and Radiohead, such an anomaly in the rock world. Electronic music has repeatedly functioned as a source of renewal for the band, from their radical break with the guitar-drums paradigm with 2000's Kid A, through to their championing of burgeoning dance music talent on 2011 remix album TKOL RMX 1234567 .
I sat down in the West London offices of XL, the label who are releasing Amok, to talk about the process behind the album and his long-term love affair with electronic music. First, though, he was keen to discuss his current project: a live-DJing setup he and Godrich are working on for use in the not too distant future.
You've been DJing in a more conventional way on and off for a few years now, right?
Yeah, I've been doing that for a while, I guess a couple of years. [The new project] is a little bit more involved, trying to break down tunes [from the album] and rework them as it's going along, and sing over the top.
I always think the challenge with those kind of sets is how to keep it spontaneous—having it come out in a way that presents the ideas well, without it being basically the same every time.
Well, this is it. We spent all last week breaking [the album] down into the constituent parts and then throwing other random shit at it. But also slaving other machines off it as well so we can rewrite it, change things. But it's a lot of work. It's like a massive crash course in certain software, trying to do all that and remember how the tune goes. I mean, I can't even remember how the words go sometimes.
Are you a technical musician? Do you like getting to grips with new kit?
Oh yeah, yeah. There's nothing more exciting than getting a new piece of hardware or whatever and trying to figure it out. Both software and hardware. I'm not as technical as Nigel—he can sit and figure something out, all the ins and outs. I'll just go at it and get something I like out of it. It's sort of too much; I can get too sucked into it.
I'm interested in that working relationship between you and Nigel. From an electronic music perspective, these days at least, the producer is usually expected to be in control of every stage of the creative process.
Yeah, well I guess it's quite an old school way of doing things between me and him. But I find it totally necessary. I can work on my own, but I drive myself round the fucking twist. Well, it depends: if I come to something and a clear idea happens quickly... if I'm in a certain frame of mind I can do things on my own. And I have done in the past—ever since Kid A, really. But generally I have to have someone to bounce things off. Otherwise the only way I can do it is to generate material and then put it on a shelf or in a playlist or wherever, and come back to it when I've completely forgotten that I've even done it. Then I can move forwards. I do that a lot—but you see that can result in starting loads of stuff and none of it meaning anything, because I never come back to it.
So with me and Nigel, because we've known each other so long, it immediately speeds everything up. It means you can dismiss ideas quickly. Which helps me a lot, otherwise I'll spend another 12 hours on something I really shouldn't have even started. For me, you can't have both hats on—you can't have the one that's generating the ideas and the one that's putting them together. I find that impossible. The editing becomes so much a part of the writing process. I mean, it did with this [album].
I wanted to ask how the process differed from The Eraser. You recorded material with the band and then worked on it after the fact, right?
With The Eraser, after a period of time having my laptop on the road, I'd built up a series of beats, chords, bits and bobs. I gave that to Nigel without any vocals, and as soon as I sat there listening to it with him I thought, "Actually, maybe there's something here." But with [Amok] there was so much material, and depending on how we chose to put it together it became something completely different. And I came to [Nigel] with less stuff done than beforehand, because I wasn't on the road as much, I wasn't using my laptop as much in that way. I'd also got bored of that sort of laptop mindset. Very insular. I wanted to be in a studio responding to the rhythms that we'd got from the band, and start from there, not come beforehand with [ideas]. But that meant I was generating a lot of material and then there was a process of editing—quite quickly because he's super quick at it. That became part of the writing process.
It's important to me, I think, for things to be moving just a little bit faster than I can remember quite how I'm getting there. If I know about every note as it's happening it can kind of grind to a halt. Which can be good, but it's a different way of doing things. That's very much how Radiohead is: very, very methodical. I'm much less methodical with [my solo work]. By nature I'm very sketchy. Apparently I'm a doodler [laughs]. And very occasionally the doodles will amount to something.
I think there's only a certain amount of time during which you can still be excited about an idea before the boredom sets in—even if it's a good idea.
Which is why you have to hand that idea over to somebody else, or have someone else respond to it—or you have to leave it, forget about it. One of my favourite things about what I'm doing at the moment [with the live DJ set] is having so many pieces that I can throw together. It's like suddenly having a room full of notebooks and just being able to open a page at random and pick a line out; pick another one, pick a line out. I mean, I know everybody does that, everybody throws everything together in [Ableton] Live. But you know, I'm an old bloke. I've been using Live for a while, and now Traktor. But for someone who's spent 20 years trying to remember your riffs, suddenly to have that taken away from you, going, "Fuck it I'll just pull something from this folder and this folder." I find it really exciting. But it's a bit of a black hole—you could just do that. I don't know if it's good or bad. It might be bad.
The new record sounds, to me, denser than your last solo album—subtler, in terms of the arrangements.
The last one was, yes, I guess, relatively simple. I'm quite worried about how the fuck it's going to work when we get to rehearsals with the band. Even though technically they've played it, it's not as simple as that. We'll figure out a way of doing it. But it is very dense, yeah, that's just how it came out. We tried not to analyse it too much, really.
Did you feel more proficient with the kind of techniques you were using compared to The Eraser?
[Laughs] No. Really it was quite old fashioned, the way we put it together. We could have been editing on tape, the way we did it. There was so much to go on, there were big sections you could choose from. They were pretty much ready to go, we didn't have to do much to them. So no, I don't think we're more proficient. I guess The Eraser, one of its charms was it was quite simple, almost naive in a way. This is maybe less naive, but at the same time it's still just responding to a good feeling coming out the speakers, really.
You've been known for being passionate about dance music over the years.
Yeah, well I'm not supposed to be, that's why [laughs].
When did you first get into it?
When I was at university I used to DJ at the Friday night student night. I got into it because the guy who was doing it was so shit. I thought, "OK, I can do better than that." So I started working with him and then he left and I got the job. It was really good fun, we'd get 1500 people in every Friday. I was obviously on the wrong list because other people were getting loads of free records and I wasn't. But at one point I remember getting a couple of the early Warp records through: [Sweet Exorcist's] "Per Clonk" and Nightmares On Wax. And they fucking completely blew my mind. The soundsystem we used to DJ on had these great Turbosound bass speakers, and all these E heads would sit on the fucking bass speakers [laughs], come up and ask for the same rave tunes again and again and again. It was a weird mixture of things. Although the things I had to play just to get people off my back sometimes was kind of annoying.
That's student nights for you...
Yeah, but you know what, sometimes it was great. And my absolute favourite stuff to play was that [Warp] stuff. Because it sounded way more exciting than anything else. Maybe it was something about that room, something about the 1200s, the mixer, these Turbosound speakers. But it was every bit as exciting as being ten years old, picking up an electric guitar and putting it through an amp for the first time. It was the same thing for me, I couldn't see the difference.
Were you going out to clubs or raves at the time?
I did do a few. It was down in the West Country. In Plymouth—one of the places where a lot of the drugs come in—there was a series of clubs down there. I went to a few raves, but it was a bit fucking lame, to be honest. That really didn't get to me. I wasn't into the queue for the toilets, for the water, and... it got too fast and annoying really quickly, for me [laughs]. To me the Sheffield thing, the Warp thing, wasn't anything to do with that at all. Although, there was good stuff in the rave scene, but you would spend hours wading through the generic ravey shit that was coming out then in order to find something.
But then I had this band as well, so... [laughs] I went and did that, and forgot about [dance music]. The other thing was, when I was at college—it wasn't very good, but I did play briefly with some guys where we'd use a sequencer on stage. And it was the most fucking unsatisfying experience, playing to a sequencer. I was having none of it. So when I left college with Radiohead, there was no way I was gonna get into that. There was no way we were going to use machines, it was boring. So then I lost... I was sucked into that for years, really.
I guess it was around Kid A and Amnesiac that electronics re-entered the picture?
That's when I taught myself how to use Pro Tools first, and Logic. Because we used it on OK Computer and I was watching Nigel, thinking, "I could do that..." I wouldn't dare touch a tape machine but with this I thought, "Well that's simple, it's like Photoshop."
That moment interests me—around Kid A—when electronics come in and suddenly not every member of the band is physically present in every track.
Yes, that was tough, for ages. It's fine now, but, you know, we were a live band, we stood in a room and worked out all our ideas and then went into [the studio] and recorded them. And then suddenly, straight after OK Computer, we went into the studio without having rehearsed, and I said I wanted to use drum machines and synthesisers. And it was like, "Well, what the fuck? What's that all about?" It was very tricky. But I didn't really feel like I had a choice but to say that. If you're turned off by the instrument you're using, you're turned off by it. You can't pretend you're not.
And it was actually a really exciting time, because straight after that Jonny and Colin [Greenwood] went and got all this Analogue Systems stuff from this guy down in Cornwall. So we had a fucking room full of knobs and leads. Both of them were amazing at it. They taught themselves how to use it from nothing. And Jonny had taught himself how to program using Max/MSP, from nothing. It just happened one day! It was pretty fucking wild. It was quite a strain, but at the same time, suddenly anything could be relevant to what we were doing, which ultimately was really inspiring. It was the most exciting thing that had happened to us up to that point.
I also got really sucked back into Warp, with Autechre and Aphex Twin. I remember walking into HMV and seeing Aphex's face on the cover [of the Richard D. James album] and thinking, "You wanker! I wanted to do that!" What they were both doing was incredible—and Squarepusher as well. That was around 1998, '99. But then, I don't know, I lost interest a bit again after that. I felt it became very cerebral after a while. And it was very, very satisfying, but...
To move forward a few years, the first time I heard about Burial was through you. You were on Radio 1 at some point and played a track from Untrue. Was dubstep a big revelation for you?
The dubstep thing, I don't really remember. Like everybody does, I flinch when people say something's dubstep now.
The name has been dragged through the mud.
Oh, man. I went out to dinner with M.I.A. once, and she said, "Dubstep is fucking finished, man, it's all over!" I felt very old... I mean, she was kind of right, but to me as soon as there was a name for it it was over anyway, you know. But I can't remember when I got into it. It wasn't just Burial, lots of things happened at once. I started downloading a lot of music again, it seemed to coincide with me going out to places and someone would know the DJ, and I'd end up DJing, or DJing with Nigel.
With the remix album for The King of Limbs in 2011, you ended up championing artists from that scene.
Well, I was really embarrassed to even ask people to do it. But our method of making that record was so peculiar that I felt like you could take any element of it and give it to someone else to look at in a different way. That's sort of how it was born anyway. So I was really chuffed when people wanted to do it. But I didn't think, [pompously] "I'm going to champion this scene." It was more just, "I'm fascinated to know what this person would do with this."
Do you still keep up with new releases from that world?
Yeah, when I have time. It goes in phases. My habit normally, on the Monday or Tuesday, I'll download all the new releases that sound interesting to me. That's when I'm on downtime. Where am I at the moment? I like Arca—that's weird as fuck, in a good way. Shabazz Palaces too, that's hip-hop I guess. But things are moving on as well, it's all changing again. I'm not into the stuff that's really hyped up, stuff that's really in your face. Well, it's the way they squash it, the compression. I'm not into that—but it's just me, my ears can't take it, I'm too old. But also it's like a drug thing, and I'm not really...
I guess your standard listening environment is at home?
Yeah, well my partner takes the piss out of me all the time because I'm listening to club music in the middle of the day.