Nigel Godrich takes a new musical direction

Nigel Godrich tells us what inspired him to make the leap from producing to forming a band, Ultraista, and performing.
Nigel Godrich performs at Cite de la Musique in Paris last year. Samuel Dietz /WireImage
Nigel Godrich performs at Cite de la Musique in Paris last year. Samuel Dietz /WireImage

Looking back over the past half-century of pop music, the tiny number of record producers who achieved stardom in their own right is vanishingly rare. They include Berry Gordy, Phil Spector, Brian Eno and the “fifth Beatle” George Martin. In recent years, Nigel Godrich has emerged as Martin’s most obvious successor, working with dozens of superstar artists including Radiohead, Sir Paul McCartney, U2, Beck and REM.

Now, after two decades behind the mixing desk, the 41-year-old Londoner is making the leap from sonic alchemist to musician with his vivid, dreamy new electro-rock trio Ultraista. The band also features the former REM drummer Joey Waronker and the novice singer Laura Bettinson, whom Godrich recruited via the novel method of putting up posters in various London art schools.

Ultraista’s debut album, to be released next week, is a kaleidoscopic patchwork of contemporary art-pop. But why now? Godrich has always played music with friends for fun, he explains, but the impetus to launch his own band finally came after he joined the Radiohead singer Thom Yorke’s side project Atoms for Peace.

“Performing is not my thing,” Godrich says. “What I really enjoy is being a laboratory rat, trying weird stuff behind the green curtain without anybody watching. But this is a challenge and I am always looking for challenges. It’s definitely outside my comfort zone.”

Godrich has a long and diverse track record, but remains best known for his Radiohead collaborations. He produced every album by the Oxford avant-rockers since their epochal 1997 classic OK, Computer.

“When we met we were all about the same age, in our early twenties, and we have grown together,” he recalls. “Radiohead were absolutely brilliant because they were wholly in the belief of empowering everyone around them, including me. They got the best out of me, I got the best out of them, and that relationship has grown. It’s not comfortable, even now. It’s really hard making those records. But it should be, you know?”

However, Godrich accepts his Radiohead association can be both a blessing and a burden, to the point where he even considered removing his name from the Ultraista album. “It’s not much fun for Laura and Joey,” he says. “Whether people like the music or not, I just don’t want them to be evaluating it on the basis of my past. That’s not fair on anybody. Not fair on Radiohead, for a start.”

The job of producer, Godrich explains, requires diplomacy as well as technical skill. But the chemistry can misfire. In 2002, the New York rockers The Strokes fired him from sessions for their second album, deeming the recordings “soulless”. Three years later, Godrich found himself laying down the law to Sir Paul McCartney, banning the ex-Beatle from his usual sentimental whimsy and dismissing his regular band from the studio. The resulting album, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, sold more than a million copies and earned four Grammy nominations.

“A producer is a diplomatic dictator,” Godrich laughs. “The analogy I usually use is it’s like being a film director in as much as you are the guy responsible for presenting the thing in the end. If somebody is better off being told what to do, you tell them what to do. You have to be the judge of that on the spot.”

Godrich is currently cutting down his production work to concentrate on making music, first with Ultraista, then a new album and tour with Atoms for Peace early next year. With traditional record labels in meltdown, and home recording technology booming, the most famous studio boffin of his generation has finally liberated himself from the laboratory. And he is loving it.

“You asking me what a producer does is a moot point, because I’m asking myself the same question,” Godrich admits. “But you know what? I don’t care. Giving anything a label is limiting. Nowadays I feel much more energised just doing literally what I feel like doing today. That is the epitome of a creative, wonderful situation.”

Published: October 17, 2012 04:00 AM

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