Atoms For Peace: Amok

Thom Yorke’s laptop-generated super-group turns out have a human heart.

WHEN THE TIME finally comes for Radiohead to call it a day — and that’s going to have to happen one of these years — no one will be expecting them to add too much to the rich mythology of disputatious band aftermaths.

Never mind Neil Young cancelling a joint tour with Stephen Stills via the curt sign-off “Eat a peach, Neil”, Robert Plant calling time on the Led Zep reunion because he’d just won five Grammys, or Axl Rose threatening to sue Guitar Hero for using a playable avatar of Slash; it’s hard to imagine the soft-spoken Oxford quintet doing anything more spiteful than secretly cutting off each other’s subscriptions to New Internationalist. Or perhaps deliberately leaving one of their old bandmates’ vinyl-only Prefuse 73 singles in direct sunlight so it warps, and then laughing at him when he plays it without noticing.

Yet in the one area that really matters — which is the music — battle is already well and truly joined. Anyone who has seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s film The Master will have registered the huge leap forward in Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack work. Where his acclaimed score for Anderson’s earlier Oscar-winner, There Will Be Blood, felt like a slightly self-conscious smash-and-grab raid on modern classical sage Alex Ross of The New Yorker‘s Top 25 Most Played in iTunes, the Radiohead guitarist’s work on the later film showcases an aptly masterful grasp of his own expansively realised musical aesthetic. And Amok’s deliciously addictive first fruit from Thom Yorke’s laptop-generated super-group represents a similarly notable evolutionary advance from his 2006 Mercury-nominated solo album The Eraser.

Where that record ultimately added up to slightly less than the sum of some excellent parts — sometimes suggesting a computer simulation of what a Yorke solo project might sound like rather than the real thing — Amok achieves a seductive unity of purpose which is all the more impressive for stemming from the advent of additional personnel. Far from loosening the creative bond between Yorke and long-term production/programming helpmeet Nigel Godrich, the recruitment of erstwhile Beck drummer (and Walt Mink mainstay) Joey Waronker, alongside moonlighting Red Hot Chili Pepper bassist Flea and that band’s touring percussionist Mauro Refosco, seems to have given the two of them a new sense of collective momentum.

Advance PR about Atoms For Peace “getting stoned and listening to Fela Kuti all night” at Flea’s house conjured up nightmare visions of Thom Yorke and his new bass-playing compadre giggling their way back from the all-night garage with a big packet of Monster Munch and improvising vocals in a comedy Nigerian accent over half-arsed polyrhythms. Happily, the clear-skied Afrobeat skitter of opener ‘Before Your Very Eyes’ banishes the gruesome spectre of an Afrocentric rewrite of Beastie Boys stoner pseudo-dub anthem ‘Cookie Puss’.

As it turns out, this first song marks the high-water mark of any explicitly Kuti-esque tendencies, although the fluid mood that prevails throughout the album’s other eight tracks could be ascribed at least in part to Fela’s influence. Flea and he are, after all, anagrammatically related, even if the lusciously liquid bass line of ‘Stuck Together Pieces’ does project its fevered false memory of celebrated Lagos nightspot the Shrine through a filter of Can’s ‘Aspectacle’.

Atoms For Peace’s eerily purposeful live cover of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ probably gives a clearer idea of where Amok is really coming from, if there’s one historical juncture this well-matched quintet seem authentically keen to revisit, it’s the moment before the hybrid disco seeds planted deep within the icy tundra of Joy Division’s Closer were left with no other option but to bloom into New Order’s glorious rebirth.

The deliciously deracinated double-dip electro-wobble of last summer’s lead download single ‘Default’ showed just how much mileage there might be in Yorke’s vision of an album “Immersed in the area between electronics and live” by rebooting the alienated shimmy of the Mancunians’ ‘Isolation’ for an age of analogue nostalgia. And the rest of Amok delivers on that promise.

Anyone hoping for a beat-heavy barrage of imaginary Armand Van Helden remixes is certainly going to get something much more organic and nuanced than they bargained for here, but Atoms For Peace can’t really be characterised as an alt-rock band either. West Coast trip-hop, LaptopKrautrock… whatever you want to call the woozy lullaby of ‘Ingenue’ or ‘Dropped”s virtual cowbell pulse, the power these songs have to pick up the listener and carry them along does not seem to be in the least bit limited by the suspicion that none of them are actually “about” anything.

The paint-by-numbers liberal outrage of ‘Judge Jury And Executioner’ is the closest Yorke’s lyrics seem to get to complaining about something specific, but even this — the album’s shortest and in some ways least well-realised track — has an infectious Jah-Wobble-meets-Aphrodite (the drum’n’bass don, not the Goddess) swagger to it. Elsewhere, it’s out with the solipsist caterwaul of the archetypal whinging Thom and in with melodious crooning over surprisingly humane click-tracks.

“No more talk about the old days, it’s time for something great,” Yorke asserted in the original ‘Atoms For Peace’ (the song on The Eraser from which this project’s name would be taken). Amok turns out to be that something, and on this sparkling evidence there’s no reason to have anything but the highest hopes for Radiohead’s diasporic phase. It appears that Thom Yorke is someone about whom no one’s mind (least of all his own) should be made up.

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Thom Yorke speaks to Ben Thompson.

Did the US live shows you did for The Eraser in 2009/10 lead to Atoms For Peace?

“Originally this was all just for kicks, really. It wasn’t supposed to be any major commitment. We only did a couple of shows to begin with — just to see how it felt — but then we did a few more dates across the US and it was obvious that we needed more material because the shows were pretty short. At the end of that, it made sense to go straight into the studio and carry on for a couple of days just to see what we could get out of it: there was a really cool momentum and a lot of excitement. We wanted to put down this intangible thing that was happening when we played, but initially it was just a free-form thing, sparked off by small beat ideas on my laptop — mostly just rhythms. Even when we first got together in the rehearsal space in Laurel Canyon, everyone was buzzing, and I found myself hoping it could be an ongoing thing. Turned out everyone did.”

Did the The Eraser and Radiohead’s The King Of Limbs remix projects have any impact on this album?

“The remixing of the songs from Eraser was fascinating for me — just to hear my voice thrown into other places at the hands of other younger artists I admired and was influenced by. So perhaps that got me thinking, but I don’t think it influenced the Atoms record much, other than to encourage me to step further away from a ‘These are the chords, this is the song, that’s it’ mentality. But really it had its own path and momentum. Nigel and I are experimenting now with remixing on the fly as a kind of performance thing — collaging musical ideas and taking them out of context. I’m finding that very exciting. It’s something I’ve watched Flying Lotus and FourTet do so well, among others.”

There are some deliciously wobbly keyboard sounds.

“Ha ha! Well, I can’t help reaching for them random LFOs [Low Frequency Oscillators]. There was one very queasy ’70s Korg keyboard I bought a few years ago that ended up all over the place. I think it may have been broken. Out of tune is much sexier than in tune.”

This ensemble balances people who have worked with Beck, and members of Red Hot Chili Peppers — did you consider yourself the fulcrum?

“Well, it!s not a normal band set-up, because the programming and laptop mentality plays an absolutely central role and informs what we play. It’s a strange Heath Robinson creation and Nigel and I are not sure how it operates. And it’s no longer a machine because now it’s got these amazing humans in who can move as fast as it, and throw more ideas back without blinking. So I guess I just sit and respond to a curious machine with a notebook and keyboard. [Maybe] I’m an operator?”

Would it be fair to see Amok as a more abstract record than The Eraser but perhaps more tightly targeted musically?

“I don’t know if Eraser was that specific. One song was, but to me in an abstracted way. But I have noticed when I was looking back at the words in the artwork to Amok how there is a weird detachment. I think it is something I see around me a lot right now. There is a lot of fear and panic out there and not much sense of a future, and these are not things easily expressed in lyrics. Perhaps it is to do with that. Or perhaps it is a response to the playfulness in the music — i.e. the exact opposite.”

© Ben ThompsonMOJO, March 2013

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