Ultraísta: Radiohead's Knob-Twister Takes Off

Detail of the cover art from Ultraísta, the debut album from Nigel Godrich's new trio.

Detail of the cover art from Ultraísta, the debut album from Nigel Godrich's new trio. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the artist

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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