Everything In Its Right Place

The productions of Nigel Godrich.

There's a playlist on my iTunes, compiled for the benefit of this piece, containing 133 song files. Most of its contents — written and performed by Radiohead, Pavement, Paul McCartney, Beck and others — are melody-driven, multi-layered excursions to planet rock. Burbles of electronic élan clatter their edges; machine noises await repeat listenings to tease them out. Some songs start and finish with swooshing, airy transitions, so one track bleeds into the next.

All this music was produced or co-produced by Nigel Godrich, the U.K. studio wizard who is becoming this generation's George Martin/Phil Spector/recording savant of choice. His latest project, Radiohead singer Thom Yorke's solo debut, The Eraser, is a nominee for 2006's Mercury Prize (for British or Irish album of the year). London bookmakers have ranked it among the favourites to win.

Godrich, born in 1972, is the son of a BBC studio engineer. His first love was playing guitar, but he quit upon realizing that he'd never become as good as he wanted to be. Instead he followed his father's path, pursuing a fascination with recording equipment. Godrich studied at London's School of Audio Engineering, and broke into the music industry in 1990 with a job at RAK Recording Studios. Years later, he described the experience to French magazine Les Inrockuptibles:

"After [graduating from SAE], 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 [would] hang there thinking, "OK, it's only the first rung, but at least I'm on the ladder."

The second rung was becoming RAK’s messenger, a position Godrich held for three months. He yammered on about recording gear well enough to win another promotion, and became a studio assistant. That job lasted about four years. Godrich took to staying late (sometimes through dawn), inviting musician friends to come and jam while he practised recording them using every technique he could imagine.

Music producers are like film directors. They supervise the recording process, and are responsible for its final result. (In genres like hip hop and dance, producers build and/or sample their songs' beats themselves.) Engineers prepare and operate recording equipment — microphones, cables, mixing boards, etc. — during studio sessions. Mixers work with musicians, producers and engineers to fine tune the raw takes; they balance volume levels, vocal tracks and umpteen other things to create finished masters.

Godrich caught his break in 1994, when John Leckie, veteran producer of Abbey Road fame, hired him to engineer Ride's album Carnival of Light. Leckie used Godrich again to engineer two songs on Radiohead's My Iron Lung EP (’94), and then to mix their album The Bends (’95). The band renamed Godrich from Nigel to Nihilist, for his persistent attempts to steer their sound towards uncharted territory. (They approved.) When Leckie took a break from recording to attend a social commitment, Radiohead stayed in studio to knock out several b-sides with Godrich at the helm. They enjoyed one of these songs, Black Star, well enough to include it on The Bends. And so began the most adventurous band-producer partnership in modern rock.

In the annals of popular music, there are myriad stories of producers behaving like bigger (i.e., worse) rock stars than the artists they have recorded. Spector, for one, was known to pack — and sometimes brandish — a gun during recording sessions; in 1973, he hijacked his master tapes to John Lennon’s album Rock ’n’ Roll for several months. Godrich, though, is self-effacing and coy, always quick to downplay his role in the making of great music. “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,” he told Les Inrockuptibles.

After The Bends, Radiohead invited Godrich to co-produce their third album. He agreed, and joined them at a rented country home outside Bath. They recorded in its every nook and corner, with Godrich arranging microphones to take full advantage of the house's dimensions. For the song No Surprises, about the malaise of modern life, Radiohead wanted a tempo that was too slow to be played well on their instruments. Godrich solved the problem by borrowing a trick from George Martin's beloved production of the Beatles' Strawberry Fields Forever. He had the band play the song at a faster, more feasible pace, and then — odd pitch be damned — slowed playback to a crawl for Yorke to sing his vocals overtop. The sum is ethereal and haunting: the guitars sound like harps; each pound of Phil Selway's drums sticks in the ear a micro-second longer than expected.

A pattern developed. Godrich, the youngest man in the house, would work through the night with one band member, then crash in his bedroom, only to be woken a few hours later by another musician: hot tea in hand, big plans in mind. "It was like the kids being let loose in the lab. That's how it felt," Yorke commented in a recent NPR interview.

The Bath sessions yielded OK Computer (’97) — Spin magazine's best album of 1985-2005, and British fans' fourth-favourite album ever. Radiohead's music remained recognizable as rock, but a fresh, robotic chill lurked below the surface. It was the sound of evolution. (Or maybe just Pro Tools, the computer software that has revolutionized audio recording.) In the album's wake, Godrich became known as Radiohead's unofficial sixth member, much like Martin was once considered the fifth Beatle. Nigel the Nihilist was 24 years old at the time.

Godrich's success with OK Computer, coupled with his mixing work on Natalie Imbruglia's mega-selling 1998 debut, Left of the Middle, placed his services in heavy demand. He lent his production skills to albums including Beck’s Mutations (’98) and Sea Change (’02), Travis's The Man Who (’99) and The Invisible Band (’01) and Pavement’s Terror Twilight(’99).

It's been Godrich's continued work with Radiohead, though, that has defined his career. He has shared production credits with the band on every major release since OK Computer. Godrich guided their transition away from traditional rock instrumentation and towards the left field of electronica on 2000’s heart-stopping Kid A, its 2001 sequel, Amnesiac, and then Hail to the Thief, the 2003 album that attempted to meld their futuristic sound with their best parts of their past. The troika has polarized the band’s fan base: many blame Godrich for distancing Yorke et al from the perceived perfection of OK Computer; others never believed in the group until Kid A, and now clamour for more, not less, experimentation.

George Martin retired from recording a decade ago due to hearing loss. In 2003, an old friend, Paul McCartney, approached him for advice on producing a planned solo album. “If I can’t have you,” the ex-Beatle asked, “who’s the man?”

Martin’s answer was Godrich. The sessions that followed are the subject of minor infamy. Godrich dismissed McCartney’s touring band at his first chance, insisting that Macca must play most of the album’s instruments himself (because he had no true peers). They bickered over tone: Godrich forbade the treacly content that has overwhelmed so much of McCartney’s post-Beatles output. The producer functioned as an editor, rejecting several of his artist’s suggested songs. The artist considered firing his producer on more than one occasion.

McCartney and Godrich persevered, though, and delivered Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (’05) — since hailed as Sir Paul’s finest solo work in decades, perhaps ever. The album was nominated for three Grammy awards, including album of the year and producer of the year, non-classical. Godrich already had three producer nominations for his work with Radiohead, and shared wins for best alternative music album (Kid A) and best-engineered album, non-classical (Hail to the Thief).

Not everything Godrich has touched has turned to gold. As a recovering Pavement addict, I remain bothered by his replacing the band’s trademark shambolism with laser-cut pop melodies for Terror Twilight. And the Strokes dismissed him in 2002, when their recording sessions together proved, in the band’s word, “soulless.” (The Strokes, however, then committed hipster hari-kari by making the lacklustre Room On Fire without him.) Most interesting of all, Godrich and Radiohead have parted company for the recording of the band’s upcoming album, so far known only as LP7. (Fear not, Godrich has found a soft landing. He’s working with Beck again, on what has been promised to be a hip-hop album.) He has been replaced by Mark “Spike” Stent, whose CV includes work with Bjork, Madonna, Oasis and Massive Attack.

If this is goodbye, it’s hard to imagine a better send-off than The Eraser. The album’s nine songs are built from fragments of sound that Yorke and his bandmates created in foreign hotel rooms and stored on his laptop computer. Yorke, who does much of Radiohead’s electronic programming, delivered the files to Godrich. The producer sifted through their entirety to find passages that could become songs, then shaped and returned them to the singer.

Since Kid A, Yorke has treated his voice like a wind instrument, emoting Radiohead’s lyrics through veils of reverb and computer effects. Godrich stripped all that away. Yorke now sounds as naked as he’s ever been. Where Radiohead’s recent albums have felt intense and brooding, The Eraser instead seems exposed and vulnerable. The album is a seamless fit for random playback alongside Radiohead’s 21st-century recordings, and another notch in the belt of the best producer working in contemporary rock.

Thom Yorke’s The Eraser, produced by Nigel Godrich, is available now.

Matthew McKinnon writes about the arts for CBC.ca.