2000 January 25 | Les Inrockuptibles
Nigel the Nihilist by J-D Beauvallet
Many thanks to Xavier Borderie for the translation.
If you don't know him, you don't read enough (album booklets). Written on the back of some of the best albums from the 90's, Nigel Godrich's name is written with golden letters : Radiohead's "sixth member", producer for Beck, R.E.M., Pavement or Travis, this humble background worker became at 28 the privileged witness and the key-player of today's sound. Including the one, in the works, for the new album from Radiohead.
Q1: Last year, against all expectations, one of your productions became the biggest selling album of the year: Travis' The Man Who album. Everything you touch seems to change into a gold(en record).
A1: I don't understand. Every recording ends with a feeling of confusion, not knowing if I carried the project through. I'm happy for Travis, because they belong to a threatened species - guitars bands -, and the only fact that they beat, in such a context of hostility, bands such as Boyzone, is touching. But to me it's almost a curse to be that successful until now: afterwards, the only way is downside.
Q2: How did you become "the producer to get"?
A2: They often choose me for the wrong reason. Get a successful record and you'll be the producer in fashion. Nowadays everybody wants to sound like Radiohead or, on the other extreme, like Nathalie Imbruglia. And as I produced both albums, everybody wants me. But I can't create such talents, I turn down new contracts almost every day.
Q3: Do you think your contribution is always recognized at your worth?
A3: I've geen congratulated so much that I almost feel ashamed - so many people work harder than I do. I was lucky enough to get associated with innovative or fashionable bands. As a result, people focused on me. But I'm way less interesting than what people think.
Q4: You started recording the new Radiohead album almost a year ago. Where are you now ?
A4: We're starting to have a better idea. We spent all 1999 looking for a direction, experimenting, and, at the end of the year, we realized that finally had an great lead. I don't know if we'll get it to the end, but at least now we have a roadmap. During the recordings, we've been perturbed by external considerations. It's been four years since we met together in the studio and, in this hostile environement, we felt uncomfortable, in danger. At first, to relieve the stress, it was tempting to use that recipes we know work. Therefore, we had to unlearn, get out of the routine. The first step was to break the mould, find new working ways. Look at the Beatles: they reinvented themselves at each album - the only way to ensure longevity. An artist has the duty to always express new ideas, or else he stutters, drivels. Of course, sometimes, some explored ways were wrong: especially, we once thought about not using one guitar on this album, but that's was just a way to force ourselves out. Since they triumphed with a so-called complicated album as OK Computer they have an unbelievable freedom: they can try anything. But with so much room to manouvre, it has it's bad side: we'll have no excuses if we mess up. It's frightening and fascinating at the same time: our future is really in our hands, it's our only responsibilty.
Q5: Did you consider setting back to your stately house in the country?
A5: We lived some very intense experiences there, the walls would have kept us in the past while we wanted to go ahead. I would have felt too strong of emotions over there. And that would become like a studio: a now sterile place, where music has already been created. We started recording in Paris during January 99, then in Copenhagen - for reharsal, to clear the way, to recall our emotions -, prior to settle back in our house near Oxford. During the Paris sessions, Thom had already written many songs, some of them are still here, even is the went through many mutations. He writes a lot, many songs were created during these first sessions. He's able to write a breath-taking song within 10 minutes... This time the atmosphere is very relaxed: we went through the obligatory confrontations for such an long-awaited album, and since a few weeks now, we feel we came out of this unharmed and stronger.
Q6: It's been a year since you started works on this album: isn't it excessive?
A6: The excitment was very different when I recorded Mutations in a fortnight with Beck, I wasn't used to such a spontaneity. After a year, we end up wondering about things, questioning our own objectivity. We can't listen and listen to the same sounds for such a long time. It's hard enough when it's songs we love, so when you doubt... But if the record is as good as I hope, I won't regret a second.
Q7: Is your role different today?
A7: I'm as complicated as I was during OK Computer, because I'm always here, I know exactly where every song is. But at the same time, I grew up since this album, I worked with other people, I'm affirmative about what I like and what I don't. During OK Computer, we were like beginners who are given the keys. Today, we are four years older, our tastes are stronger, the rules have changed. I have more confidence on how to make things go one step further. But I'm probably too complicated to know exactly what part I must play. I'll be able to tell that when the album will be in stores, maybe this summer. for the moment, I don't know where I stand. All I know is that I find pleasure in doing this. The good thing about working with Radiohead is that they all have different personalities, they get a lot of support from each other, and when one of them feels bad, the others readjust, gather around him. When you work so closely with a songwriter, it could become a marriage: the others end up jealous, feeling left out, looking themselves for this intimacy. Feeling protected or courted is great. When I'm not working with them, I feel helpless: it's become a need to me.
Q8: Putting a lot of yourself into each project, aren't you afraid to wear yourself out?
A8: Last year, I effectively scared myself, working simultaneously on two albums, Travis' and Pavement's. You can't get that much involved in two records at the same time. Even though, I didn't realize it: I was so overwhelmed by the whole recording euphoria. You have to set chill-out zones or it gets unhealthy. Because sometimes, I feel things that are so powerful that it's exhausting. I often cried with Radiohead. I remember one time, during the recording of Fake Plastic Trees, Thom Yorke was singing with nothing else than his acoustic guitar, it was deeply moving. When he sings, he's as intense in an empty studio as he could be in front of a 20,000 people crowd. Then again, in everyday life, he's a very funny and adorable guy. But I've seen so many studio technicians getting completely washed out, unable to take on themselves everyday life. For instance, back home I don't have any recording devices: it's important to flee, to disconnect. There is a dictatorial side in studios: "You're here to record music, and that's it". This kind of place makes you crazy in the long run. Studios are vacuumed of any vibration: right here, at RAK, at least 500 bands have come and gone, yet there's no inspiration left in the air.
Q9: Contrary to other producers, you seem as though you got your responsibilites very early, without the learning process. How did you start so young?
A9: I've been working during 4 years in the anonymity of the Londonian studio RAK, until I got offered to produce Radiohead's OK Computer. It's was only the second album of my career, I was barely 24. I was the sound engineer on the previous one, The Bends, and they were already looking for an escape from rock, to go further. As for me, I wanted to leave my assistant job at RAK studios to set up in dance-music with my friends - which we are doing as Zero 7 (brilliant remixers to Terry Callier or Radiohead)... On The Bends, I gained their sympathy trying creative things, things I wouldn't have done if I wanted to quietly keep my job: but I had nothing the lose, thus they changed my name from Nigel to Nihilist. They already knew they wouldn't record OK Computer in a studio but in a big rented house in the country. They asked me if I could the take care of the logistic in buying the needed equipment for a mobile studio. They had enough ideas and creativity inside to do without the advice of a big name. The funny thing was the "We're all kids, there's no grown-up to keep order" side.
Q10: Where does the taste for background work comes from?
A10: Most producers are failed musicians. I myself have been a guitarist, but I quickly realized I couldn't be the one I wanted. Even in my school there were better guitar-players than I. With my band, we once went in studio and I fell in love with the place, which perfectly fit my technical and cartesian mind. My father himself worked as sound engineer one of BBC's big studios. I'd always bring equipment or professionnal magazines back home. So, I wanted to know more about sound, I've been to a school - not so much off the teaching that to have the possibility to play around with the things. After that school, I became tea-boy in a recording complex: with a beeper in my pocket, I'd wait next to the kettle, ready to deliver my hot beverages. I wasn't even allowed in the studios, but I hang there thinking "OK, it's only the first rung, but at least I'm on the ladder." Then I worked at RAK as messenger-boy - my job consisted in loading the tapes - and as I was boasting so much on the fact that I know all this equipment, that after three months I was given control, as assistant. It gave me a boost. Then producer John Leckie asked me to assist him on a recording of a Ride album, and kept me by his side when he worked with Radiohead on The Bends.
Q11: Looking at the console, were you dreaming you were in his position?
A11: I came to practice in the studio at night. I invited musician friends over, who I used as guinea-pigs. I was so into it that I could the whole night experimenting and the whole day working. I have a full shelf of unlistenable songs ...
Q12: Are you sometimes jealous of the people on the other side of the window?
A12: I don't envy them. I've seen, with Radiohead, what it's like to be a star. For 7 years, they haven't stopped a second. I'm only here to record the album, I don't have to do the after-sales service, while they have to promote, tour, they don't have a second for themselves. At this time I'm already working on something else. Sometimes I miss the whole "gang" thing, on the other hand, I'm glad I have my freedom. During the recording, I become an honorary member of the gang, and I'm still loyal afterwards... With Radiohead, I really feel like I'm part of a family: guitarist Ed O'Brien even said once during an interview that I was the 6th invisible member - the best compliment one could ever make.
Q13: You look very reasonable, very cartesian. Is it a blessing or a curse in rock?
A13: I often wonder about that. Indeed I am reasonable, but it's necessary to work closely with artists who, by definition, ignore cautiouness. Contrary to many other producers, I don't have dictatorship instinct. Delivering my teas and coffees, I saw many producers giving orders, forcing their visions, which is the worst way to get the best from each musician. I let everyone express themselves, taking care not to hurt whoever's ego. I only lost temper with one band: Ultrasound. I just came back from Los Angeles where I recorded an album in a fortnight with Beck, Mutations, in a complete laid-back attitude. He'd come in studio and say "So, what do you want me to do now?" I'd give him suggestions and he did it. On one hand, the most impressive artist on Earth ask for advices, on the other hand, beginners refusing to listen. That was annoying.
Q14: How did you think you could influence a universe as strong as Beck's?
A14: Before I joined him in studio, I gave another listen to Odelay and it gave me complexes: "What the hell could I bring him" ? He used to work at home, he showed me the place where he recorded Odelay: a storage room. And he didn't know what to do in a real studio, with a real band. He didn't know about my work with Radiohead, but knew that I could manage a band. I was only here for that at first, even if I quickly took on myself intervene in ways he couldn't imagine at the beginning. For instance, we don't use any computers, even though he only worked using Pro Tools. I messed around with the tapes, cutting and pasting. With material such as his songs, it was heaven. We can do anything with such a voice and such a songwriter. Even on the phone does he sound great ...
Q15: Were you first in love with songs or with sound?
A15: I got offered Police's Reggata de Blanc, of which I proofread the booklet notes. I read the producer was Nigel Gray: it was the first time I'd "meet" someone with the same first name as I and I was "If this Nigel can do it, then I can." Afterwards, all my life, I kooked for a compromise between my passion for music and my father's agreement. I wanted him to be proud of me. And when I'd visit him at the BBS, I'd see me fascinated and tell "I don't want you to do the same thing than I do, there is more to life than this." So I almost became a professional photographer. Yet another job half-way from the artistical and the technical: I need that equilibrium. I need both the muse and concrete, like tapes of rolls.
Q16: Does your job require psychologic talents?
A16: Nothing is harder than explaining to someone, with not rushing him, his own abstract ideas. How to explain a sound? When I hear a sound, I visualize a form or a color. In the first studio I worked in, we produced many radio ads, and the ad-guys said inane stuffs like "Not bad, this sound, but could you make it more chocolatey?" I pitied the poor lad at the mixing console... While bands, they speak my language. And if we don't understand, I try to fill in the blanks, whether it's arrangments, effects... The psychological aspect is more important to my work than the technical one. I do everything to gain the bands' trust. Even if so I have to play Scrabble with them all night long. Likewise, I don't hesitate showing them my own vulnerability, they realize I'm as doubtful as they are, as involved. Because I can't do this as if it was only some other job. I grew up with records that left a mark on me: I will not neglect a little piece of plastic that could have so much significance. If money was my only motive, I'd already have produced three of the main american bands - who already contacted me. But I can't forget the effect on me, 15, that had an album such as The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead. I want to work on records able to wave such emotions.
Q17: When you started, was there a producer you dreamt of following the footsteps of?
A17: My idol was Trevor Horn, I bought all the albums he got involved with. The 80's must have been a great time for producers. Because, for the first time, technology took over music - with awful results. When you listen to these records now, songs are completely neglected, missing, replaced by digital effects that just got discovered. While Trevor Horn used these same digital effects in an incredibly musical way, always merging writing and technology: records like those from Art Of Noise, Grace Jones or Frankie Goes To Hollywood have a sound richer and more sophisticated than the vast majority of most of today's productions. Among the older producers, I was lucky enough to meet Phil Spector at an awards ceremony. He set about a speech, the first for the last 20 years, where he kept giving the most used jokes ever: "Hi, I come from Los Angeles, a great city if you're not an orange"... At the end, his daughter came to meet Radiohead, she was a fan. "Err, may I make a picture of you and me?" "Only if you bring your father in!" Phil Spector's greatest idea was to create a whole mystery around himself, in which artists would sink. He was more an businessman than a producer, never touching the controls, leaving the engineers do that dirty work. We don't do the same job, I work in communion with the bands, without a gun.
Q18: Contrary to him, you don't seem much attracted to conflict.
A18: I don't have much ego, and I hate conflicts anyway. Moreover after I worked with Beck, for whom a studio is a party place, a village hall. I know confrontations can be good for inspiration. But I also noticed that it can lead to chaos, without anything ahead. I wanna be in the same team than the bands, not against them. And it's not necessarily easy to get along with musicians when you only meet them at the first day in studio, first day of recording. It happened with Pavement or Jason Falkner: I only spoke to them twice on the phone, I didn't even know what they looked like. Beck was sudden too: I was in LA, he took me home for a tea, and a few days later we went in the studio. Same for R.E.M.: without even tinking about it I was already mixing up. These are weird and stressful encounters. Right before I start working with them, I always ask the same two questions: "What do you think I can contribute to you? What do you expect from me?" I remember asking Pavement on the phone: "Do you want me to make you sell a lot of records? Because it doesn't look like your aim!" And I was suprised to hear them say: "Sure, we wanna sell records." "Oh good, 'cos I thought you only want to piss people off by messing up your songs!" Stephen Malkmus is a fabulous songwriter, but until then, I had the impression he was ashamed of this. And now, he wanted to change, but this change could only happen with an outside person. For their fans, I may be a traitor, the one who cleaned it all up. I wanted him to sing properly, his melodies to be well-done. Let him express his pop side.
Q19: Is there a "Godrich sound"?
A19: I do hear it, and it's not necessarily a quality: it's got a "recipe" side. With even realizing it, I grew certain habits, magic tricks that I can use anytime at will. My technique is to set the environment to make creative accidents easier. And then all I have to do is pick the right whim of fate. One of my magic trick is a box of mine: if nothing happens in the studio, I plug it in, and thanks to it, I suddenly hear new sounds. Some will remain noises, others incredible pieces, waking up my inspiration. I could only keep a few seconds from hours of noises, but it's enough to revive the song. We worked a lot this way with Beck: on one of the songs, he was goofing with his guitar, like he played using mittens, and kept only this little crazy moment on tape. But one day, I realized with horror that I was starting to do things methodically. I flew to New-York to question myself and came back with this deconstruction idea: the thing with music today is that every song goes through same processor, same mixing-table, same mike, same computer tools... On OK Computer, voluntarily, we got lost, we didn't know where we were, where we were going. We rolled tons of tapes, I installed mikes in rooms, in corridors, I even had to set up a filing system to be sure not to lose any tape. They were coming and going, but I was the only one always there, the only one to to know how the recording was really going. It was exhausting. I could finish a recording session with one of them at 4am, and at 8am another one would wake full of ideas and come knocking on my door with a cup of tea in the hand. "Err, come quick, I've got an idea for the bass". Technologically, it's not an impressive record, but it's intended this way, we didn't want to get swallowed by the machines. I sometimes on this record prove a total lack of professionalism, voluntarily plugging instruments any old how. The courage, it's Radiohead: a band that will never get out of fashion, because they make the fashion. And when the others follow, they are already somewhere else, far away.
Q20: Do you dream of producing specific artists?
A20: No, I really don't see what I could do for the ones I admired during my youth, like Sting, Pink Floyd or Morrissey. All I can hope for is that new bands like these emerge. I should wake up and check: maybe they already exist ... There's of course Björk, but who am I to bring anything to such an interesting girl?