30th Oct2012

The Birth of Cool: Ultraísta

by Todd

If only all music could sound like this. In a vacuum, without any knowledge of the lineage of Ultraísta, you would be mesmerized by their jazz-like approach to post-dubstep. Each member of the band creating a sound that engages and endears, individually. As a Spanish literary movement that began after World War I, Ultraísmo sought to eliminate rhyme, traditional metrics, and punctuation. It aimed to combine verbal and visual images by innovative typographical arrangements of poetry. Musically, Ultraísta embraces the aesthetic and eschews typical song structure and time signatures in a way that creates minimalist, anarchic beauty.

It only makes sense that the band is made up of Nigel Godrich (who’s production work with Radiohead created a similar deconstruction of music), Joey Waronker (who’s drummed with Beck, REM and produced Other Lives) and Laura Bettinson, who’s solo work had encompassed the use of manipulating rhythm while embracing pop melodies. Together the trio have made the first, great “jazz” record of the millennium.

Todd was fortunate enough to spend some time with Laura, discussing the process of making the new album, while mulling over their ability to churn out brilliant videos at an incredible pace.

TDOA: When you were first approached to be in the band, did they discuss the approach they wanted to take musically or was this something that evolved once you joined on?

LB: We didn’t really discuss it before hand as we didn’t really know what we were creating. At no point did we even really know we were creating a record. We were just making music for the love and luxury of being able to make it. We had a loose direction of making danceable music with organic sounds but other than that we were just exploring.

TDOA: I recognize that the premise is to embrace a minimalist approach to the music. While you certainly maintain that ethic, there are more layers of rhythm and music than what I hear with a traditional 4/4 rock band, obviously. This leads me to wonder about the songwriting process. Was there a consistent process through the writing of this record? What comes first: rhythm tracks, bass….

LB: The process was different for every song. The guys had rhythm and bass tracks before I joined the project, but a lot of this was torn apart and re-built later down the line. We would work on some ideas separately and others together from start to finish.

TDOA: At what point were lyrics and vocal melodies written for these songs? I know some artists have a notebook of lyrics, just waiting for music to attach them to. Did you write your lyrics and melodies before or after the instrumental tracks were written?

LB: During a lot of the time, and then we’d refine them afterwards. We used a lot of cut-up technique. Sometimes I would sing in fully formed verses and on others I wouldn’t have anything but a few mangled vowel sounds.

TDOA: The cut-up technique is such an interesting premise, rather than just having a single, straightforward vocal track. Did you record those “sampled” bits separately or did you just sing straight through and have it cut and pasted after the fact?

LB: When I met Nigel and Joey, I was doing a live show which revolved around a loopstation and electronic beats, which was something which grabbed their attention. So at the beginning of making the record, we actually plugged my machine in and experimented doing some loops like that, but then other times they would be edited little snippets separated and looped from a larger vocal composition.

TDOA: In one interview, it was mentioned that Nigel and Joey created some music on their own. Were those tracks the basic building blocks for the album? Was there a lot of other music left over that didn’t end up on the album, while going through this process?

LB: We’ve got stacks and stacks of left-over ideas and I think Nigel probably has hard drives full of Joey’s (ideas)! But yes, some of the rhythmic tracks they had worked up, laid the foundations for the rest of the album.

TDOA: You’ve already created three videos for the album. The visual aspect is obviously important for the ultraismo aethetic. Who did you enlist to storyboard and direct these videos and do you plan to make more?

LB: No, there was no storyboard and they were all made together, just us as a band using some video gear Nigel had and a very DIY approach to props/lighting and set. Once we were nearing the end of finishing the music we had the impulse to start exploring the video and visual side of things and just went at it full force.

TDOA: Seriously, this album is my favorite record of 2012. I mention this, not because I’m interested in sucking up (hey, we already got the interview, right?) but because I wonder: As you recorded this album, did you get a sense that you’d created something special?

LB: For me, it was going to be special whatever we made, because it was my first fully collaborative project and ‘band’ as such. But I’m not sure any of us really knew what we were making. We just made what felt right at the time. It’s essentially the meeting of three different personalities and three peoples sets of influences and experiences. This is what came out.

TDOA: Do any of you remember Laika? This reminds me of those brilliant Laika records on Too Pure. Anyone want to tell me if they hear it too or have I lost my mind?

LB: Afraid I don’t know who/what that is. But I’ll check it out now…

TDOA: I know you haven’t committed to what you’re going to do once the U.S. dates are done. Do you think that it’s possible that we’ll see more of Ultraista, depending on how you enjoy the live dates?

LB: We’re going on a little European tour for a couple of weeks end of November-beginning of December (dates here). Then we’re going to Japan in Feb and will probably swing by the US again on our way. And in between all that we might start working on some new ideas…who knows!

For more information about the band, follow them on Twitter and Facebook!

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