"Nigel the nihilist." 4 pages.
(thanks to Xavier Borderie for translating and transcribing this article)
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If you don't know him, you
don't read enough (album booklets). Written on the back of some of the best
from the 90's, Nigel Godrich's name is written with golden letters: Radiohead's "sixth member", producer for
Beck, R.E.M., Pavement and 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
Travis' The Man Who album. Everything you touch seem to change into 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 Natalie 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 been 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 of 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 environment,
we felt uncomfortable and in danger.
At first to relieve the stress, it was tempting to use that recipes we know work.
Therefore, we had to unlearn and get out of the routine. The first step was to break the mould and 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 and drivels.
Of course, sometimes, some explored ways were wrong. 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 and they can try anything. But with so much room to maneuver
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 responsibility.
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 have 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 rehearsal, to clear the way and to recall
our emotions, prior to settling back in our house near Oxford. During the Paris sessions, Thom had already written
many songs, some of them are still hereand have went through many mutations.
He writes a lot, many songs where created during these first sessions. He's able to write a breathtaking 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 work on this album, isn't it excessive?
A6: The excitement 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 stuff, 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
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 and have 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 and the rules have changed. I have more confidence on how to make things go one step further.
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 and 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 by 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 in everyday life.
For instance, back home I don't have any recording device. 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 seemed to have gotten responsibilities very early, without the learning
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 sound engineer on the previous one, The Bends. 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 stuff, things I wouldn't have done if I wanted
to quietly keep my job But I had nothing the loose, 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 take care of the logistics 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 was. With my band, we once
went in to the studio and I fell in love with the place, which perfectly fitted my technical and cartesian
mind. My father himself worked as sound engineer in one of the BBC's big studios. I'd always bring
equipment or professional magazines back home. So, I wanted to know more about sound. I've been
to a school - not so much for the teaching but rather to have the possibility to play around with the stuff.
After that school, I became a 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 these types of 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 go the whole night experimenting and the whole day working. I have a full
shelf of unlistenable songs <laugher>...
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 and 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 became a 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 cautiousness.
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 advice, 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 there 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 computer, 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 <laugher>...
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 looked 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 BBC, I'd see him 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 halfway from the artistic and the technical. I need that equilibrium. I
need both the muse and concrete, like tapes o rolls.
Q16: Does your job require
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 stuff like "Not bad, this sound, but could you make it more
chocolaty ?" 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
arrangements, effects... The psychological aspect is more important to my work than the technical one.
I do everything to gain the bands' trust. Even if 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 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
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 and
I didn't even know what they looked like. Beck was sudden too. I was in LA and he took me home for a tea, and
a few days later we went in the studio. Same for R.E.M. Without even thinking 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 surprised 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
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 tricks 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, we voluntarily 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.
Sometimes on this record I prove a total lack of professionalism, voluntarily plugging instruments any old how.
The courage comes from 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
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 <laugher>... There's of course Björk, but who am I to bring anything to such an interesting
Interview by J-D Beauvallet,
from Les Inrockuptibles, 25/01/00
Nigel photo by Renaud Monfourny, Radiohead photo by Tom Sheehan.