Words by Steven Greenstreet, Photos by Steven Greenstreet and Emily Paup. DC BONUS: Atoms for Peace just announced a DC area show for September 30th @ Patriot Center. Tickets on sale March 23rd. We’ll keep you posted on the details.
In 1997, when asked to explain the title of Radiohead’s groundbreaking album OK Computer, Thom Yorke said: “it refers to embracing the future, it refers to being terrified of the future, of our future, of everyone else’s. It’s to do with standing in a room where all these appliances are going off and all these machines and computers and so on… and the sound it makes.”
16 years later, I found myself standing in such a room.
Black and blue wires flowed like blood vessels up to an organized mountain of complicated machines and programmed computers which emitted buzzes, hums, beeps and boops. A floor-to-ceiling LCD display flashed a blinding array of abstract shapes and images while faces around me glowed blue from smart phones and cameras.
And the man behind this electric curtain was none other than Thom Yorke.
Yorke once feared being in a room full of technology. Now, it seems, he’s OK with the Computer.
Yorke’s new side project, “Atoms For Peace”, just released their first studio album Amok and it is already topping charts. But instead of initially touring with the entire band, a group that includes Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea, Yorke has decided to bring a computer, or two. This should come as no surprise. Over the last few years, Yorke has been diving head first into becoming a “DJ”. He’s been spinning virtual discs all over the globe, and dancing up a gleeful storm. On Thursday night, Yorke was joined with long time producer and “Atoms” keyboardist Nigel Godrich as they DJed a 2 hour set covering tracks from both Atoms For Peace’s Amok and Yorke’s solo album Eraser.
“…and the sound it makes.”
Le Poisson Rouge, a relatively small and intimate venue, was packed like sardines in a crushed tin box by the time Atoms took the stage at 1am. Godrich opened a MacBook Pro and Yorke started turning dials and knobs while Amok track “Ingenue” began. It was hardly a remix. In fact, it was completely recognizable as the track itself, just minus the humans who originally created it. Yorke’s voice echoed off the walls as he sang, almost karaoke style. A fact that he himself admitted to Rolling Stone the day before: “It’s like fucking karaoke or something! But it’s not, because it’s all this other stuff as well, and I have my own machines…”
Then out of no where, a guitar appeared over Yorke’s shoulders as they performed “Black Swan”, a highlight from Yorke’s Eraser album. “This is fucked up. Fucked up,” he sang as a crowd of a few hundred barely moved. A few drunken heads slowly swayed up and down, but most just stood there, trying to get the best picture an iPhone can muster.
Over the next 2 hours, this crowd of a few hundred would just stand, perhaps in awe, of Thom Yorke and his computers. This wasn’t a dance party. This wasn’t a Ke$ha concert. No one jumped around with their hands in the air like they just didn’t care. This was something else. Radiohead fans, Brooklyn hipsters, and a swollen VIP section all seemed lucky to be there. Mesmerized faces stared at Thom Yorke groove and grind. If you were to imagine what someone looks like while they stare at their computer screen, casually browsing the internet, that’s what this crowd looked like for the first 90 minutes or so. Perhaps that’s because Yorke doesn’t necessarily make dance music. He isn’t Skrillex. The beat never seems to “drop”. His music often serves as background to melancholy, yet intellectual, lyrics about what could have been, or what shouldn’t be.
I made my way to the back of the venue to see if I could find the real hardcore dance freaks. I immediately saw some girl in a slinky dress and heels angrily throw her lavish fur coat at what appeared to be her boyfriend and storm off. The man, wearing suede buckle loafers, and no socks, seemed a bit confused by this, but quickly followed her. I then observed another couple, with their hands in the air, drunkenly dry humping and holding their Bud Lime’s high above their heads. This made me smile a bit until I noticed that the people around them seemed extremely uncomfortable and put off by this uninhibited display of lusty fun. A series of flashes then distracted me. A photobooth in a dark corner was in use.The curtain opened and out stumbled none other than REM front-man Michael Stipe and a friend. Stipe is a long time friend of Yorke’s and the two are often spotted at each others’ shows. Without thinking it through, I raised my hand up and said, “Hey, Michael. High five!” He stopped, looked at me, then begrudgingly grabbed my hand in a sort of high-shake. Stipe and his friend then stumbled back to the VIP section.
By this time, the show was coming to a close. I instantly recognized “Harrowdown Hill” as one of my favorite songs and felt lucky having never heard it live. And it sounded great. In fact, it sounded exactly like it does when I’m wearing my Beats by Dre. The crowd, having now maxed out their iPhones and cameras with blurry and pixelated photos of two men standing on a stage with their computers, were now dancing. Oh yes. Their were dozens of hands in the air and an organic ebb and flow of bodies made the room look alive. And Thom Yorke seemed to be having a ton of fun. Smiling and jumping, giddy as a school boy.
When the last song was over, Yorke leaned into the microphone and said, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” He then hit a button on his computer, and this phrase began to repeat in a loop, over and over again. The crowd laughed. He laughed. The computer kept performing as he walked off stage. And I think Thom Yorke was OK with that.