I have been getting into Atoms for Peace in a big way lately. This includes the song on Thom Yorke’s solo record, also named ‘Atoms for Peace’, which was used as a jump-off point for this side project which includes some of the most formidable names in the business. My fascination with this internationally comprised five-piece, which began when I heard ‘Default’ last year, was stoked by my recent discovery off NPR’s ‘All Songs Considered’ podcast. I have been anti-podcasts for years, always maintaining that they took away valuable time with which I could be listening to music being replaced by some idiot talking. but slowly, as I gravitate towards the idea that perhaps Dave and I could be said idiots mouthing off and that people might actually be interested, I’ve realised that listening to good music criticism and interviewing is almost as melodious as listening to good music itself. Atoms for Peace have featured twice in the past month on NPR, first on an interstate group chat with host Bob Boelin about the intricacies of their craft and later on as a feature whereby some of their newer tracks were premiered on the show for the first time. Ultimately, if you’re an aficionado, you’re going to follow Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich down any rabbit hole they choose to scurry into. Getting that 360 perspective on the creation of the music you’re hearing, something that we set out to do here anyway, is very special indeed. Primarily because many of the people in this bands are experts in avoiding the laborious task of talking to people.
People I knew who play in Atoms For Peace include Yorke, Godrich, and Flea, the genre-jumping, hyperactive slap-bassist of Red Hot Chili Peppers fame. The ones I didn’t include drummer Joey Waronker and percussionist Mauro Refosco, both of whom are given massive props throughout any discussion the band has. Waronker, who has his own extra project with Godrich called Ultraista that I’ll be writing about soon as well, is particularly important. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he’s one of, if not the most vital session drummers of the ’90s. He played with R.E.M, The Vines, Elliott Smith (on XO) Beck (on practically every album he’s ever made) and so many others that it boggles the mind. When Thom says during an interview that he’s been gunning to work with Waronker since the mid-90s, you can totally see why. It’s his solid rhythmic foundation, alongside the aggressive lead bass of Balzary – that’s what’s on Flea’s driver’s license, for those of you playing at home – that really drives ‘Deafult’ home, even if it is the peculiar keyboard and vocal treatment which makes it instantly recognisible. If ever there’s been a case for buying a decent set of headphones, it’s this song. Every layer is performed by someone who can play every other instrument and is an undisputed expert at their own. It tickles parts of your brain that have been dormant for so long that it’s possible they never even existed. And no, it really doesn’t sound a lot like Radiohead at all.
Atoms for Peace take their cues from free-form jazz, Afrobeat and techno. They told Boelin that many of the eventual songs on their record, Amok, which comes out in a fortnight, happened as a result of extended jams where certain ideas were picked up by Godrich and revisited later in further recording sessions. It’s highly likely that the creeping, chromatic synth line which sounds a bit like an original Gameboy falling off a cliff was the first seed of the idea for ‘Default’, but it’s also highly likely that it originated in Flea’s bass. There’s so many shades of colour in this recording, both in the treatment of the instruments and the way the harmonic parts lock into each other, that it’s impossible to tell who is in charge or where it’s going until the majestic horn section rises up out of the mirth and you know for a fact that there’s a chorus of sorts here. Even those layers of rhythm, from the pinging bounces of percussion pads through to the snarling machines that open the piece are not afterthoughts, rather the result of Refosco experimenting with every possible sound source in reach. Godrich’s riff writhes and shifts with every repeat, and soon it’s barely recognisible. For a song that barely raises above a whisper in terms of dynamics, there’s a propulsive groove to this that seems to insist that it’s played louder and louder every time. Seems like all those late nights listening to Fela Kuti worked wonders for Yorke and his new group. Even though he’s been dancing since ‘Lotus Flower’, he’s never been quite as loose as this.
Top shelf stuff. Like we expected anything else.
Atoms For Peace – ‘Default’