Music Interviews
3:02 pm
Sat October 6, 2012

Ultraísta: Radiohead's Knob-Twister Takes Off

Originally published on Tue October 9, 2012 5:58 pm

At the beginning of 1997, Nigel Godrich was a relatively unknown recording engineer. He'd been looking for a band that would trust his instincts as a producer, and he'd finally gotten his chance — with the band Radiohead. By the end of 1997, Godrich was one of the most talked-about names in music.

Radiohead's album OK Computer became the biggest critical hit of the year — of the decade, some say. It set a new course for progressive rock music, one that Nigel Godrich would continue to shift at will. Along with more groundbreaking works by Radiohead, he went on to twist the knobs for legends like Paul McCartney and Beck. Now, the super-producer is taking center stage. He's part of a new three-piece band called Ultraísta.

The name Ultraísta gives some indication of the band's approach and sound. It comes from the Spanish literary movement known as ultraísmo, from the early 20th century. The poets and writers who were part of it — including Jorge Luis Borges — were committed to writing spare but evocative works.

"My mother gave me a book by Louis Borges of his short stories," Godrich tells NPR's Guy Raz. "It had a big effect on me, just as a piece of literature. It's very surrealist, very abstract. Anyway, I was reading about him and it talked about the Ultraist movement. It suggested color and vibration and extreme. So it just seemed very fitting."

Godrich started the band with drummer Joey Waronker (known for his work with The Smashing Pumpkins, Elliott Smith, R.E.M. and others). But they needed a singer. They decided not to trade on their influence in the industry, in favor of finding someone unknown.

"We spent a good deal of energy making little posters that we stuck around art schools in London for random projects," Godrich says, noting that the posters did not mention his name. "The original intention — or my fantasy, anyway — was just that maybe we would find somebody that wasn't a musician, per se."

Though the flyer campaign failed, the two did end up finding themselves an art student, who happened to be getting some attention in London. Her name was Laura Bettinson.

"Joey and I went to see Laura play in a pub," Godrich says. "She had her own solo project which involved her performing by chopping up her voice into little loops."

Bettinson had no idea that a Grammy-award winning producer and a legendary session musician were in the audience that night — she'd only been told that their manager might show up, and says that wasn't enough to make her nervous.

"I didn't have anything to lose, so I didn't pretend to do anything that I wouldn't do normally," she says. "You know, if they don't like it, they don't like it."

But they did like it, and brought her to a studio to lay some of those cut-and-paste singing techniques over their own productions. The result was Ultraísta, the trio's full-length debut.

The album's lyrics are sometimes indecipherable, and when they aren't, they're still difficult to comprehend. Godrich says that's a nod to the Ultraists and the first rule of their manifesto: "Reduction of the lyric element to its primordial element: metaphor."

"That is the way the words were brought together in the cut-and-paste," he says. "We sat and played word games with each other and talked about how [the Ultraist philosophy] as relevant today — probably more — than it was then. It was about just throwing away stuff that's old and trying to make something new."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: At the beginning of 1997, Nigel Godrich was a relatively unknown recording engineer. He was looking for a band that would trust his instincts as a producer. He finally got his chance with the band Radiohead and the album "OK Computer." And by the end of 1997, Nigel Godrich would become one of the most talked about names in music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Radiohead's album became the biggest critical hit of that year - of the decade, some say. It set a new course for progressive rock music, one that Nigel Godrich would continue to shift at will. And soon enough, he became one of the most sought-after producers, working with the likes of Paul McCartney and Beck. Now, Nigel Godrich has taken another detour to center stage. He's formed a new three-piece band called Ultraista.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STATIC LIGHT")

ULTRAISTA: (Singing) There's a knife with a light in the corner. You're getting my attention by telling me (unintelligible)...

RAZ: Now, the name Ultraista gives some indication of the band's approach and its sound. The name comes from the Spanish literary movement known as Ultraismo of the early 20th century. But poets and writers who are part of it, including Jorge Luis Borges, were committed to writing spare but evocative works.

NIGEL GODRICH: My mother gave me a book by Luis Borges of his short stories. That had a big effect on me. It's very surrealist, very abstract. I was reading about him, and it talked about the ultraist movement. It suggested color and vibration and extreme.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STATIC LIGHT")

GODRICH: So it just seemed very fitting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STATIC LIGHT")

ULTRAISTA: (Singing) You are static light, is starting by It's in my eyes, reflecting...

RAZ: Nigel Godrich started the band with the well-known drummer Joey Waronker. But they needed a singer. They decided not to trade on their influence in the industry but rather to find someone unknown.

GODRICH: We spent a good deal of energy making little posters that we stuck around art schools in London for random projects...

RAZ: You were actually advertising this?

GODRICH: Well, no. We just said, you know, because the original intention - or my fantasy, anyway - was just that maybe we would find somebody who wasn't a musician per se.

RAZ: But it didn't have your name on it or anything.

GODRICH: No, no.

RAZ: Nobody knew it was you.

GODRICH: Signs of Puff Daddy.

RAZ: No luck with the posters, but they did find themselves an art student who happened to be attracting some attention of her own in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Her name was Laura Bettinson.

GODRICH: Joey and I went to see Laura play in a pub. And she had her own solo project which involved her performing by chopping up her voice into little loops.

RAZ: How many people were at the pub that night?

LAURA BETTINSON: Well, I don't know, 50, 70, maybe.

RAZ: Laura Bettinson had no idea that a Grammy Award-winning producer and a legendary session musician were in the audience scoping her out.

BETTINSON: I was aware that their manager was coming down, but I didn't have any idea that the guys were coming down.

RAZ: But were you nervous? Did you think, this is my shot?

BETTINSON: No. Not at all, really. Just because I didn't have anything to lose, so I didn't pretend to do anything that I wouldn't do normally. You know, if they don't like it, they don't like it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: But they did like it. And they brought her to a studio to lay down some of those cut-and-paste singing techniques over their own productions. And the result was this debut album, "Ultraista." The first single is called "Bad Insect."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Yeah. It's starts with this kind of high and low frequency percussion. And you get that - kind of the bass tones coming in. And then we hear snippets, just loop snippets of Laura's voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD INSECT")

RAZ: And then all of the sudden just, bam, we hear her sing that first line.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD INSECT")

ULTRAISTA: (Singing) Holding off she breaks down in blue...

GODRICH: Beautifully set, though.

BETTINSON: Yeah.

GODRICH: I was with you that day.

BETTINSON: Oh, yeah.

GODRICH: I was (unintelligible) up into the (unintelligible)...

BETTINSON: (Unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD INSECT")

ULTRAISTA: (Singing) Holding off she breaks down in blue. I'm gonna wait right here for what you wanna do baby the love hurts, don't...

RAZ: The lyrics are sometimes indecipherable. And when they aren't, they're still pretty hard to comprehend. To understand them, you have to reconsider the band's name, Ultraista. The ultraists had a manifesto. And its very first rule - reduction of the lyric element to its primordial element: metaphor.

GODRICH: That is the way that the, you know, the words were brought together in the cut and paste. You know, we sat and played word games with each other and talked about how it's as relevant today - probably more...

BETTINSON: Yeah.

GODRICH: ...than it was then. It was about, you know, just throwing away stuff that's old and trying to make something new.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD INSECT")

ULTRAISTA: (Singing) Not gonna sing unless my body's holding on.

RAZ: That's producer Nigel Godrich. His new band, Ultraista, just released its self-titled debut album. And this weekend only, you can stream every track for free at our website, nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD INSECT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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