Ultraísta invite fans behind the curtain with their new virtual reality concert

© Alexander Elizarov

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Later this month we’ll be hosting an exclusive 360º virtual reality performance from transatlantic trio Ultraísta. Recorded just before lockdown put a halt to most gigs, the performance captures the band in their rehearsal space running through tracks from their latest album Sister.

Ahead of the performance’s broadcast on 29 July, 50 Crack Magazine Supporters will have the chance to receive a free Crack Magazine x Ultraísta cardboard VR headset in order to experience the full scope of the virtual reality recording. If you’re not a Supporter, sign up now with the code ULTRAISTA to claim yours. If you are, keep an eye on your inbox for more details.

Their first record for eight years, Sister sees Ultraísta – made up of producer Nigel Godrich, Atoms For Peace’s Joey Waronker and singer Laura Bettinson (aka lau.ra) – expand their sound, moving away from the abstract songwriting that defined their debut in favour of more a personal approach from Godrich and Bettinson. Their VR performance reflects that intimacy, the 360º recording allowing viewers to explore the band’s space and get a glimpse of the preparation that goes into the group’s usually intensely immersive live shows. We spoke to Nigel Godrich and Laura Bettinson about the recording, cursed tours and how Ultraísta fits alongside their other work.

When did Ultraísta start?
Laura: Well, I met Nigel when I was in my third year at uni, so that was like 2009.

Nigel: Joey and I were making some music with another friend of ours on a busman’s holiday vibe, you know, what you do when you’re not working on a project? You just sort of keep going. We got a bit excited about some of the tracks and what we could do with them, and we thought it’d be really fun to start a thing.

I was pointed in the direction of Laura and went to go see her in a pub. She was [performing] as a solo artist, doing her self looping thing. That was really exciting. That’s basically when I thought, “Oh, yeah, this will work with what we’re doing”.

Laura: So, yeah, that’s like 11 years ago. We didn’t release our album until 2012 though. So, you know, there was a bit of getting to know each other.

In March you released your latest album Sister. How did it feel putting it out into the world with everything that was looming on the horizon at that time?
Nigel: Well, I don’t think it was really that obvious what was going to happen. We had set our dates for release and set our dates for doing our promo and stuff. It just seemed to coincide. The closer we got to release, when we were doing our showcase gigs and stuff like that, the more obvious it became that this was a lot more serious than we realised. We actually felt ourselves quite fortunate because we managed to do everything that we wanted to do and all the stuff that involved people coming to see us happened right before lockdown.

Whenever we do anything of any sort of magnitude, there is some sort of natural disaster. You know, we lived through Hurricane Sandy when we were doing our first US tour. On a more positive note, Joey’s baby arrived at the beginning of another leg [of the tour]. Something usually happens. So yeah, we weren’t that surprised.

Laura: We joked about it. We were doing an interview with Lauren Laverne on Radio 6 Music and she was saying “what’s gonna happen next” and we joked that we’d be “hopefully not coming to a city near you soon”. And yeah, like a month later, this happened. Sure enough, we will not be coming to any cities near anybody soon. So we felt lucky that we managed to get Joey over in time to be able to make a load of stuff. We made the VR performance that you guys will be hosting. It could have been a lot worse had we just been like two weeks later.

Do you have a contingency plan for next time?
Laura: I don’t think we should make another record.

Still from Ultraísta's 360º performance

Is that why there was such a gap between your debut and Sister?
Nigel: What’s nice about Ultraísta generally is that we’re not under a cosh to produce stuff. We’re just compelled to do it because it’s fun. It’s really sort of like jamming with your friends. We don’t have a label holding a gun to our head.

I think it’s very of now, though, in a way. In the old days, you literally had the album-tour cycle and that was the only way that you could really survive. Nowadays, it’s much better to just work with people you want and do what you want when you want. And it’s possible to do that. We’re lucky enough to be able to do that.

What brings you back to doing an Ultraísta project?
Nigel: There was a lot of material left over from the first record that started to come to fruition. Laura and I and Joey, we see each other socially too and we started working together on the [songs] again. You eventually reach a kind of tipping point where it’s like, “we’re going to see this through.”

Laura: Yeah, it’s kind of unfinished business as well, isn’t it? I think with all people that make music or art, you don’t really like having stuff that you feel you could finish if you just gave it the right focus. So I think there’s probably a little bit of guilt of having put some time and energy into it, but not enough to have seen it through. That certainly propelled us forward.

It seems like there was a change of approach on this album towards more ‘traditional’ songwriting compared to your debut…
Nigel: I think what happened, just because of the sort of natural osmosis of the process, is that it was me that was left a long time with the tracks that were unfinished. So a way that I would find to finish things would be to write songs over them, including lyrics sometimes. Usually, then what happens is this kind of to and fro with Laura; she brings in some things, I bring in things and we work together.

Laura: I think its definitely fair to say that there was more of a focus on songwriting and that we wanted to explore a bit more than we did on the first one.

Nigel: Yeah, we definitely were not about exploring that on the first one. It was more about riffs, you know?

© Alexander Elizarov

Let’s talk about the VR performance. What should people know ahead of watching it?
Laura: I think the performance is quite special in that it is us rehearsing. If it was a VR performance of a gig it would be quite a different experience. You know, our gigs have been notoriously dark and with lots of projections and lots of colour and it’s a very immersive experience. Whereas this is like kind of a peek behind the curtain. I’m certainly not dressed up, the dogs are running riot all over, so it is quite an intimate insight into how we prepare for the stuff that comes later.

Nigel: I think that’s something it has over going to a show. It’s like you’re invited into a personal space where you can see around the room and you can look at things – this is what’s great about the whole headset thing, you can look at the floor, you can look at that thing over there, you can look at what’s going on, you can see the dogs running around. I think [right now] people are happy to have things that are more intimate rather than putting someone on stage and being blasted with really loud noise and lights.

How do you feel offering a more intimate version of Ultraísta?
Laura: I think is what people deserve, really, because with a lot of our visuals and things like that there’s a detachment in them. They always look great, but you’re not getting that much insight into us personally. So I think it will be nice for fans to actually see a bit more personality in the people that are making the music. If we’d filmed a gig, I would say people would have to rack up a few tequila shots and get in the mood that way, but this is like a nice herbal cup of tea.

It doesn’t look likely that gigs will return this year, has that changed how you think about presenting your music at all?
Nigel: No, because in actual fact I’ve been ignoring what’s been going on with technology for quite some time and just carrying on as usual. You can’t think about “okay, well, this is going to be how this is going to work on a livestream,” because then you’d be making musical theatre.

Laura: I started off lockdown very productive, making loads and loads of music. And then in the middle when I didn’t see an end in sight, it was like, “Why are we doing this? When are we even gonna get to play this music to anybody? Will we?” So that certainly took the wind out of my sails for a bit, because it just seemed so long and never-ending. Now I feel like we’re coming out the other end of it and the landscape looks a little bit better. I don’t think anything is ever going to replace that human connection and that energy that gets exchanged between performer and a live audience though.

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