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ATOMS
FOR
PEACE

Words by Erin Spens

Photography by Haarala Hamilton

Roughly 2182 words

8 - 10 minutes read

In one of his ancient essays, Michel de Montaigne wrote that, “he who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak.” This quote is interesting in the context of Atoms For Peace. Montaigne’s point might be proven by the very fact that some people reading this won’t know what Atoms For Peace even is, and if they do there’s a strong chance they’ve only recently learned. Though Thom Yorke, a household name, isn’t known to be shy in his work, the current state of the public’s awareness of Atoms For Peace, his latest music venture with his longtime friend and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers, drummer Joey Waronker of Beck and R.E.M., and Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco, could be the result of a few different things.

The seismic shifts in the music industry of the last 10 years, namely the process and rates at which people find out about, acquire, consume, and discard music, mean that there are no lasting headlines, interest or events but just a white water stream of noise, drowning arms grasping at and willing to do anything for a lifeline (headlines, downloads, ticket sales). There are few revolutionaries in the industry anymore who are actively transforming music and the way we engage with it simply by continuing to create it. If that statement has caused you to mentally list this generation’s success stories, it’s likely the ones you think of stick out only because they’ve partnered with a megabrand, had their music on a big advertisement, and let the public largely determine their image, sound, and personality. That’s how you make a living these days as a musician, it seems, and though some still resent taking that path, if you want to avoid waiting tables during the day in order to play music at night, you’ve got to court the suits, right?

The reason Atoms For Peace has largely slipped under the radar since forming in 2009 and releasing AMOK, their debut album, in February 2013 could have something to do with the fact that Yorke has never been one to ‘sell out’ as the saying goes. In fact, talking to him in Amsterdam after the second show of the Atoms For Peace tour, when the topic veers towards musicians being forced into brand partnerships to first make a name for themselves, and then to stay afloat financially, Yorke seems not just morally but physically averse to this path. It was a couple days later when Nigel Godrich, producer and on-stage keyboard/guitar player, announced on Twitter that the Atoms For Peace material along with Yorke and Godrich’s other side projects would not be available on Spotify. Cue media clanging and banging, an industry backlash and a cry in unison across the globe, “Wait, so you’re telling me I have to actually buy the album now if I want to listen to it?!” There must be a way for artists to create on their terms and keep the lights on - no guys in ivory towers, no last minute corporate deals, and no stingy royalty structures.

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Photograph taken by Tom Eagar

And yet it’s undeniable that Atoms For Peace, with their unfanfared approach has yet to reach critical mass. You could argue that since the Spotify media frenzy more people have caught on, just not necessarily because of their music. It’s more likely the majority of new ears picked up on the shouty ‘stick it to the man’ headlines that were run and which mostly missed the point the guys were trying to make anyway. But it’s Thom Yorke, right? And Flea and Nigel Godrich, and two of the most insane percussionists on the planet. Why not take matters into your own hands and force-feed us with your brilliant music? Maybe that’s the point. The group’s reason for being and the lack of need they have to shout about it possibly confirms its importance, at the very least its confidence. But if their under the radar position in the public eye feels a bit of a nod to the music industry of old, rest assured their music is not.

Atoms For Peace is more than a band. It’s the product of a few usually opposing fragments of the shattered music world melted down into something new. Using technology to make something that wouldn’t otherwise be possible and at the same time totally depending on the irreplaceable richness that comes from actual musicians using actual instruments to make real music, Atoms For Peace strikes a different kind of chord. Godrich told me he sat down and worked out that OK Computer could’ve been made in 1965 but that he couldn’t have made AMOK at any other time, it’s just too dependent on the technology of today.

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The whole thing started in a computer with Yorke’s solo album The Eraser, produced by Godrich. The original idea was to see if the two of them could pull a group of musicians together to physically play it, glitchy electronic bits and all. Matching musicians to the important elements of the album – Refosco to play the skittering computer generated stuff, Flea on the aggressive baselines, Waronker on drums – the five piled into a studio for a few days to jam.

“We generated a lot of crap,” Nigel says, “Thom and I went through everything and we created tracks out of bits of it and started restructuring things. Then by the time we took it back to the guys, they were like, ‘Um. Is this me playing right now?’ It’s a hybrid of electronic stuff and real stuff. So then the next stage is re-learning it as a band to play the stuff that maybe they came up with but it’s been taken apart in a computer and put back together again. It’s a mind blow for Joey, Mauro and Flea doing it this way around.” If your starting point for understanding Atoms For Peace is Radiohead, then it shouldn’t be surprising that Godrich and Yorke continue to pick holes in the conventions of rock music and technology and where the two intersect. These guys wrote the book.

“I don’t think [Radiohead] had access to tech that other people didn’t have access to – it’s just about the way you think about it.” Nigel says. “You live in the time you live in and it’s about how you think about art as a medium. Not just music but visuals and all the ideas behind what we’re making. You can see the demise of the CD and the old way of doing things, records and distribution, it’s like, ‘Well what really are we making?’ We don't know we just do what we like!”

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Atoms For Peace, it seems, still has that question to answer. What actually is it? “Real Radiohead fans will always know what we’re up to and they’ll get it but generally people don’t know what it is. I don’t even know what it is – it’s so hard to explain. I could take a whole interview just trying to explain what we are and how we do what we do. It’s pretty complicated, actually. And it’s been hard to get that across to people,” Thom says.

Put simply, Atoms For Peace is an electronic album, played and jammed on in a studio by incredible musicians with real instruments, the results of which, deconstructed, stretched out of shape and put back together in a computer, were then mastered (again) by the same musicians who dared to try playing it in the first place. Nigel said he watched Flea the second time around almost take it as a challenge to prove he’s better than a computer: “It was almost like he put two fingers up to the computer like, ‘Ha! Ha! I can play that! Watch me!’” And they did it. They totally got it. But now what? As an album it’s great, although better for knowing the process through which it was made, the real achievement came through the physical act of playing it so naturally it feels like the live show is the culmination of the whole thing, the answer to Nigel’s quandary about art as a medium and what the final product even is.

Now halfway through their first tour, Atoms For Peace walk on stage at London’s Roundhouse for their three-night residency to a crowd of people not entirely sure what to expect. Just seconds into the first track, “Before Your Very Eyes”, the crowd is already moving and the five parts of Atoms For Peace appear ready for lift-off. Thom, in perpetual motion from the start, offers the crowd everything from unyielding guitar playing and his wiry, liminal voice to bracing piano. Flea, ducking and dodging around the stage, seems shoved around by his bass, hunkered down to keep his balance, head lolling at times as if the driving basslines are playing him and not the other way around. Waronker on drums and Refosco hidden behind an incredible arrangement of percussion instruments provide complex, fidgety layers of sound, a throbbing assault of pounding beats and everything in between, filling any gap they can squeeze themselves into. Nigel on guitar, keyboards, and programming seems a master controller behind the operation, which at once feels unhinged and meticulously precise.

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The music is undeniably bent towards dance - the relentless tempo and afrobeat-inspired rhythms light the edges of the crowd like a piece of paper, fire crawling across the floor until the whole place is surrendered. If the crowd arrived with any confused expectations, they’ve evaporated a few minutes in; it’s pretty instant with Atoms For Peace live – move, dance, let go. The electronic elements of the music are jumpy and persistent, pummeling the band members’ rock roots with glancing blow after blow, a tug-of-war that adds a rich density to the electronic side and an ethereal, cobwebby texture to the rock side. The crowd doesn’t care, though. Fifteen minutes in, they are a singular billowing thing, stuck together by sweat and abandon.

And yet, for all the dancing and energy there is substance in equal measure. The music the crowd has let loose to are heavy-hearted songs. “Harrowdown Hill” about the death of Dr. David Kelly, weapons inspector in Iraq, is at its core a sorrowful and bitter exposed nerve of a song. Yorke’s lithe voice and effortless piano on an elegiac “Ingenue” is a tonic in an otherwise frenetic night: Move through the moment/ though it betrays/ Transformations, jackals and flames/ If I knew now what I knew then/ just give me more time…

Considering the songs, the incredible skill and diverse backgrounds of the members of the group, the energy that never seems to deplete, and an incredible dedication to what they stand for, it’s a wonder that Atoms For Peace is still explaining itself. It’s true the digital age doesn’t bend or accommodate for anyone but it’s not quiet out there. People are still making noise and if they’re not talking about Atoms For Peace and their music, then what are they talking about? If Montaigne was right, then it’s probably not important.

Understanding the state of the music industry and the screaming it requires to get your music out there, Atoms For Peace has taken the longer, two-lane back road instead of the Autobahn (because Thom Yorke can always take the Autobahn) and that says more than that they simply enjoy the scenery or the challenge. They’re saying everything that isn’t said – that their music can stand on its own, that there’s more than one path for artists and that good, innovative, from-the-gut music really can exist without corporations, advertisements, and, just maybe, even Spotify.

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Watch and download two of the Atoms For Peace Roundhouse shows in high-quality audio and video MP4 from soundhalo.com.

Erin Spens

Erin Spens is an American writer and the editor of both Middle 8 and Boat Magazine, an independent travel magazine she started in 2010.

Photographs by Liz & Max Haarala Hamilton, a photography duo based in London.

Atoms For Peace

Atoms For Peace continue their AMOK tour throughout the US, Mexico, and Japan in September, October, and November.