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Q&A: Thom Yorke On The State of Dance Music

The longtime collaborators check in before launching Atoms for Peace’s big summer tour

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Thom Yorke of Atoms for Peace. Photo: Tom Sheehan

Thom Yorke of Atoms for Peace. Photo: Tom Sheehan

Whatever you do, don’t call Atoms for Peace a supergroup in front of Thom Yorke. “If anyone ever says it to my face,” says the Radiohead singer, with a sharp grin, “I’m going to fucking knock their teeth out.” Yorke is sitting in a Manhattan hotel cafe with producer Nigel Godrich, his chief collaborator in the new band, whose groove-heavy debut album, Amok, arrived in February after three years of studio alchemy. He’s in a light, jesting mood this morning; Yorke and Godrich, close colleagues since the mid-Nineties, are very good at making each other laugh.

In July, the not-supergroup ”“ whose other members are Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco and drummer Joey Waronker ”“ will launch its first tour since 2010, set to hit U.S. arenas in September. Conflicting schedules often make it difficult for all five musicians to gather in one place, and as of mid-March, they had yet to figure out when they would start rehearsing. “We’re not quite sure what’s going to happen,” admits Yorke.

Then again, a little uncertainty just might be Atoms for Peace’s secret weapon. “That’s what happened last time,” recalls Godrich, thinking back to the exhilarating Los Angeles jam sessions that kicked off the recording process. “We really didn’t know what was going to happen until we actually stood in the room. It’s exciting.” Yorke nods and smiles. “Amok came out of the joy of discovering a new set of people,” he says. “I’m curious to know what happens now.”

Even with a major tour looming, Yorke is always working on new music in some form or another. “At the moment, I’m writing things which are more electronic again, really simple, really stripped down,” he says. “And I’m wondering how that’s going to work.”

Read on for an in-depth conversation with Yorke and Godrich about why performing with Atoms for Peace is so much fun, what they love (and hate) about dance music right now, what’s next for Radiohead and much more.

You’ve booked some big venues on this tour, like the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Is that exciting or a little scary?

YORKE: There are some. But nothing too big. The Roundhouse [in London, where Atoms will play in July] is quite small. That will be fun. I know it sounds stupid, but it’s a new band, you know? Even though we did go in at Number Two.

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GODRICH: Bruno Mars had a special on Amazon. That’s why.

YORKE: Yeah, Bruno Mars. Who the fuck is Bruno Mars? Sorry. I’ll get slandered now.

GODRICH: It’s apparently Amazon’s decision.

YORKE: Amazon fucks with us every time. They undercut us.

GODRICH: They’re just trying to get people to their site. It’s modern marketing in the dotcom era.

YORKE: So really, it was Number One.

GODRICH: That’s what I tell my mum, anyway.

What do you enjoy most about playing with Atoms for Peace?

YORKE: They’re super-fast and technically just frighteningly good. It’s quite a lot of energy ”“ I mean, obviously, Flea’s very energetic, but the others are, too, in their own particular ways. When we play, it’s quite in-your-face. And there’s a lot of looking to me for direction, which I’m not used to. Well, I am, sort of. [Both crack up laughing.]

GODRICH: I’ve known Joey for years ”“ he’s an incredibly good diviner of what’s going on. He’s a guy that you hire to come play on your record ”˜cause he can make anything happen, you know? And he knows Mauro. The chemistry is really good. They’re also technically good enough to be able to do these incredibly complex things and then go beyond. It’s like a dream for those guys. And then I’m the guy that spent a year and a half looking at the ProTools session, and I know exactly how everything works and where it comes in and what’s going on.

YORKE: He knows all the arrangements, and I don’t, really. I zone out.

GODRICH: And then, you know, Thom and I are the British people in this. We come from this very different universe.

YORKE: Actually, that is quite an important bit of it. Setting up in L.A., rehearsing in L.A., it’s nice, it’s sunny. We’ve got loads of friends there. We hang out. No one’s, like, “Oh, really? Have I got to go to work?” It’s, like, “Yeah! Fucking wicked!” It’s a bit like a holiday. I hope it carries on like that. My fear is it suddenly becomes work, because that hasn’t happened yet.

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GODRICH: When I first went to Los Angeles to work, coming from the U.K., it was a bit like the land of Oz. Suddenly everyone is just incredibly brilliant, technically proficient, and every bit of equipment you use is, like, the best one you’ve ever laid your hands on. It ends up being a bunch of people who are really like-minded and want to enjoy it, as well.

YORKE: I think we bring enough cynicism to any process. [Laughs.]

GODRICH: It takes two of us to counteract three of their smiley, bright outlooks.

Nigel, you’re primarily a producer who works in a studio. How do you like performing onstage with this band?

GODRICH: I decided pretty early on that I liked being behind closed doors and sort of in the laboratory in the middle of the night and able to fuck things up and try things. That’s me. And that still is what I love to do. I’m not a natural performer. But it is fun to go out and confront the people who listen to things that you do, you know? The biggest shock of your life is when you first make a record and go to a show and then people start singing the words. Because it occurs to you that they’ve listened to it!

YORKE: That’s what used to happen in the early days [with Radiohead]. When the record came out, we’d be off on tour and then Nigel would come to shows and be quite upset.

GODRICH: “Quite upset” is a little over the top. But the other thing is, I don’t really think of myself as a record producer anymore, because I don’t really think that job that I did exists anymore. The industry isn’t there. So now I would rather do things that I really love with people that I love working with, and to be able to extend that and go and play, it’s great. I feel very fortunate. I’m the rank amateur in this outfit. You know, Thom’s been onstage for 20 years.

YORKE: I’m a professional, mate. [Smiles.]

GODRICH: He is! I’ll tell you, I’ve seen him. But for me, it’s easier than you would realize, going on stage with all these people who are very, very good. I know that no one’s looking at me. I can just do my thing and get away with it in the background.

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