There’s no question that Ultraísta is more than just “Nigel Godrich’s band.” Yes, the legendary Radiohead producer has a strong hold on the band’s art-pop sound, but those layered vocals leading the way belong to their enigmatic front woman, Laura Bettinson. To hear that Bettinson was chosen by Godrich and instrumentalist/producer Joey Waronker (of Beck, REM and Thom Yorke’s supergroup Atoms for Peace) to form Ultraísta sounds like the makings of an indie fairytale, but Bettinson has proved she fits right in among the music veterans. They’re currently touring Europe to promote their self-titled debut record, released last month, and we were able to catch up with Bettinson to talk about the genesis of Ultraísta, tequila’s role in the band’s creative process, and what inspires her to look so cool.
Can you describe how Nigel and Joey approached you to start Ultraísta? What did it feel like being approached by two musicians with such remarkable track records in the industry?
Nigel and Joey had been working on some music before I got involved and we were introduced through a mutual friend in the industry. The guys had been looking for an art-school type, fly-postering colleges and hoping to find someone a little left of centre, not just your run of the mill singer/songwriter. I think they met some interesting characters out of the process but nothing that really glued with the project. As it happens, when I met the guys I was going into my final year at Goldsmiths College so I think unknowingly I had ticked some of the boxes. It was exciting to be introduced to Nigel and Joey and start working with them but it never felt strange or intimidating to me. It kind of felt like we were meant to be there, that we would’ve all hooked up in the end somehow anyway despite the initial introduction.
Did the three of you hit it off immediately? What is the dynamic like?
We’re just three mates hanging out. Three different personalities but ultimately all with shared interests and influences. It’s fun. No real pressure. Just seeing what we can do, seeing what comes out.
How has this experience differed from your previous projects?
We’ve been working in Nigel’s amazing studio, that’s probably number one! I’m very used to working out of bedrooms and small production rooms so to have the luxury of space when making this project was pretty great. The first time I went to the studio it was honestly like walking into Dexter’s lab or something. So many toys, so many buttons. Awesome.
What is your songwriting process like?
Sometimes we work on ideas separately and other ideas we work together from start to finish. It was different for each song on the record. It usually starts with a few mumbled incoherent melodies and we go from there.
What influences your personal aesthetic?
Poodles. Art. London. How far you can stretch £10 down Deptford Market. What people in the past thought the future would look like. That’s got a lot of mileage in it.
You take your name from a group of surrealist writers, how does surrealism play into your music and aesthetic?
Some of the songs on the album were quite jigsawed together and we used a lot of cut-up technique to inspire the lyrics, so in some ways it made for quite abstract results. In terms of surrealism, I think we all like that movement in art, along with modernism and futurism. We basically just wanted to do something new. I think it’s important to reference the past occasionally but always maintain a forward looking momentum when creating and contributing something.
Your Facebook page says you’re inspired by tequila, care to elaborate on that?
Joey likes tequila. We follow suit. When we were doing late night recording sessions at the studio they thought a couple of shots would wake me up. It didn’t. It just made me drunk.
Your videos are extremely unique and artistic and there’s a clear sense of forethought in how appropriately they fit each track and your overall image. Can you briefly describe the genesis of an Ultraísta video? How much of it is your personal vision?
I’m glad they appear like that to you as there really was no real forward planning involved in them whatsoever. When we were about a week away from finishing the album Nigel and Joey suddenly upped and left to Oxford and returned with all of Nigel’s video equipment. We basically set up a little film studio in the live room and did the videos back to back for a few days straight. We knew we didn’t want to make narrative music videos, we wanted a visual to go with the music in the sense that after seeing the music and the video together when you hear the music in isolation, you’re reminded of that image. We wanted to create something simple but striking. I think they fit our overall image because they were all born out of a three-man crew… and a lot of time spent in Maplin’s.
The Four Tet remix of Smalltalk is incredible. Are there any other producers you would want to remix your work?
It’s quite overwhelming all the amazing producers we’ve already had work the tracks. I think between Four Tet, Matthew Herbert, Matthew Dear, David Lynch, Fault DL, Maribou State and all the others in between we can’t really ask for much more than that. Maybe a Burial or Caribou? That might be nice.
If you weren’t making music, what would you be doing?
Probably still studying. Or making collages.
What’s up next for you guys?
We’re on tour again as of next week. Europe and UK, starting in Paris on November 28th and ending in Dublin. After that we’re heading back to the US again in January for some shows and onto Japan in February. Then…. maybe some more music?
When you’re not making music, what do you do for fun?
Llama trekking and extreme knitting. You know, the usual stuff. Sometimes we see our friends too.