Ghost In The Machine
Q: What happens when “a bunch of stupidly self-critical pathological over-achievers” form a rock band?
A: They become Radiohead.
Thom Yorke talks candidly to Nick Kent about his bleepy new solo album, that “smug cunt” Tony Blair and Radiohead’s hush-hush, near fatal 2004 split. Do you want to know a secret? Read on…
A: They become Radiohead.
Thom Yorke talks candidly to Nick Kent about his bleepy new solo album, that “smug cunt” Tony Blair and Radiohead’s hush-hush, near fatal 2004 split. Do you want to know a secret? Read on…
IT IS JUNE 2003. RADIOHEAD step off-stage at Les Eurockennes in Belfort, France, to ecstatic applause. Hail To The Thief, their sixth 'studio' album, has this week rocketed straight to the Number 1 position in the French album charts - a feat repeated as far afield as the Billboard Hot' 100 in the USA. As a result, everyone in the group appears to be in radiant spirits, smiling and chatting amiably with anyone who manages to penetrate their tent-shaped backstage facilities.
Thom Yorke is in a particularly beatific mood. He tells me proudly that - just prior to taking the stage - he'd managed to meditate for one hour and a half. This is his new touring regime: he meditates until "all the crap has seeped out of my brain. Then I'm sorted." Without it, he quickly adds, there would be problems: "If I'm not in a good place mentally when I walk on that stage, I can very quickly go to pieces. And you don't want to do that in front of a large crowd."
Finally, it seems, Radiohead are back on an even keel after the long, dark, self- questioning period that began with the tumultuous success of 1997's OK Computer. Dispelling rumours of further conflict over Yorke's continuing preference for electronica in the group's MO, their immediate future looks bright and productive. The world's most important band are - this week at least - its biggest Best and, perhaps even more surprisingly, its happiest. What could possibly go wrong?
Only, it seems, the usual. Within the year, towards the end of their most sustained spell on the road since the sanity-threatening OK Computer trek of '97/98, the quintet were again in disarray, mired in a creative rut and resolving to disband, at least for the moment. Yorke - who bristles at being termed a workaholic but who admits that "basically I like to work all the time" - retreated to his home studio to tinker alone. The result - demoed on his laptop, then produced in earnest with longtime Radiohead aide Nigel Godrich - is a solo Thom Yorke album, entitled The Eraser.
Released this month in a one-off deal with XL, it's another radical-sounding, mostly computer-generated artefact. Occasionally, an acoustic piano weaves its way into the mix and Yorke contributes electric guitar on two selections, but otherwise it's made of `bleeps' and 'bloops', thin layers of synthesized sound enunciating an ongoing mood of global dread. Sometimes, the computerised beats sound like gravel being shovelled onto a coffin-lid. In short, it's compelling, uneasy listening - a mournful cry for help from a dying, dysfunctional planet.
SOLO ALBUMS ARE NOTORIOUS HARBINGERS OF A split, but to hear Colin Greenwood tell it, the rest of Radiohead are not unduly disturbed by this turn of events. In fact, Greenwood employs just one word to explain what the rest of Radiohead have been immersed in for the past two and a half years: "Parenthood". Moreover, since The Eraser's completion Yorke has reconvened the band for studio sessions, although these have not run smoothly. In March this year he posted an e-mail on the group's personal website that claimed the sessions were "so slow: enough to drive anyone loopy... I'm fucking tearing my hair out too much at once, furiously writing, working out parts, cracking up."
Two key problems have been causing internal grief and dissent. The first is that - now their contract with EMI has lapsed - Radiohead have neither an outlet nor a deadline. The second is that they have yet to locate a producer who can help them see the whole project through. Late last year, they began a series of studio sessions with Oasis/U2 producer Mark 'Spike' Stent, but nothing came of them. "He was great," claims Colin Greenwood diplomatically, "but the group just weren't functioning well at the time and it became frustrating for all of us."
For his part, Yorke makes no secret of wanting Godrich back, but the others are less convinced. "Nigel and the band know each other so well now," Greenwood says, "it's all got a little too safe." As a result, there are no finished tracks as yet. Indeed, the next Radiohead recordings won't be heard until at least 2007 and there's no guarantee they'll even appear on a conventional album-length CD.
In a concerted attempt to build up momentum, the group elected to tour Europe this spring, and on May 11 turned up for a show in Amsterdam only to discover that it had been cancelled. Drummer Phil Selway's mother had suffered a fatal stroke the night before and he'd rushed back to England to be with his family With some unexpected down-time in the Dutch capital, Thom Yorke invited me over the Dylan Hotel - where he and the rest of the group were staying- for a world exclusive summit about The Eraser, that troublesome new Radiohead project and a rare, revealing communique from the world of Thom Yorke.
SEATED IN THE HOTELS ELEGANTLY APPOINTED OPEN courtyard under a clear blue sky, Yorke looks much the same as when l last met him. His hair is still red and cropped close to his head. His face is still contoured by a tentative out-growth of stubble. He still carries himself with the introverted body language of a self-conscious adolescent. And he’s still the first to openly admit that ‘personal neurosis’ plays too great a role in the working process that bind him and Radiohead together.
But Yorke in person is not a particularly neurotic interview He laughs a lot - mostly at his own expense. And he's nothing if not candid. Still, it's hard not to become exasperated with him when he describes the tortuous gestation of the group's new material. It's enough to make any expectant Radiohead fan disgruntled.
On the matter of global politics, Yorke is less vocal - until the tape recorder is turned off. Then he lets rip. He recently turned down the offer to meet and confer with Tony Blair because "Blair is finished. The British people finally had enough after seeing him time and time again on the telly trying to explain away his dodgy politics and just coming across as a smug cunt. Which is all he is." Yorke's current take on George W Bush and his war-mongering Pentagon cronies is even more venomous. He's ecstatic about the fall of empire-building plutocrat Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and troubled by the rise of centre-right darling Nicolas Sarkozy in France. At the same time, he believes climate change is hurling the planet towards an imminent apocalypse.
To balance out his ever-more-pronounced pessimism, Yorke still meditates and has found increasing solace within the bosom of his growing family. There's a second child, a baby girl named Agnes - "a precious little angel" according to her father, who visibly glows when he speaks about her. Meanwhile, his first-born, Noah, is now six and attending school. Not long ago, Yorke took Noah to a Radiohead concert so that he could better comprehend what his mad dad actually did for a living. "He didn't seem very impressed by what he saw," Yorke adds ruefully.
Then again, why should a six-year-old "get" Radiohead, if the five thirtysomethings in the band seem so confused?
Nick Kent: What exactly has been going on with you and Radiohead over the past two and a half years?
Thom Yorke: We needed to stop- properly stop-for a number of reasons. I wanted to make this record [The Eraser]. It was something I just had to get stuck in. I needed to do something on my own for a bit. There were lots of 'imminent bursts' going on [within the band]. It all just ended on a really weird note. We did this last bout of touring [in April/May'04] that fucked our heads up really badly. We flew the wrong way round the world: we went from Japan to Australia to California and ended up so jet-lagged, we never actually slept. Basically it was three or four weeks of constant sleep deprivation and illness. It was just shite. That tour was our last obligation and... it had stopped being fun. After that, everybody just disappeared. I still saw Colin a lot but everyone else was off on their own, forgetting about it.
NK: You were all taking a holiday from music?
TY: To be honest, that was the unbearable bit. It was OK not to see each other (starts laughing) but it wasn't OK not working. It was bearable for a few months but then it felt weird and unhealthy. So that's what happened really. And it took us a long time to work out away back into it all.
NK: Are we talking here about a breakdown of friendships or a case of mutual musical fatigue?
TY: We were still friends but we'd just had enough of being this 'thing' called Radiohead. I guess it might sound ungrateful, but I don't think so. I was talking to a fan at the show yesterday who said she was glad we'd carried on. I think a lot of people assumed we weren't going to bother. It wasn't a case of, "Oh, shall we carry on? No, it's all over- oh, terrible, terrible!"; there just has to be a fuckin' good reason to continue - because there's just so much grief involved.
NK: In Bob Dylan's autobiography, he writes disgustedly about people asking him in the'60s, "What direction are you going to take popular music in now, Bob?" Do you sympathise with that burden?
TY: That's a false burden, really. I don't feel it anyway. The point is – none of us felt there was much of a challenge going on. When Hail To The Thief came out, the whole process was starting to get boring - recording, playing live on-stage, fucking everything. It felt like we stuck out like a sore thumb- but not in a good way. What we were doing felt awkward. So we had to stop. The Bob Dylan [comparison] is interesting, though. I saw that [Martin] Scorsese documentary and I loved it because it was the first time I'd seen Dylan be so self-effacing. Thank God for that! Because if you read all the stuff that's been written about him, you end up thinking "God, who's this fucking monster?" But he's actually managed to develop a distance from all that nonsense and I think that's greatly to be admired. That's why he's still a credible musician. There's still a reason for him to keep doing it.
NK: Radiohead have become so important in the contemporary music landscape because they continue to push the envelope creatively-speaking. You inhabit a unique position in the market-place you're deeply weird and experimental yet you still sell millions of records globally. You can now do almost anything you want and it will be accepted by a large percentage of the record-buying constituency. Your celebrity fanbase ranges from Scott Walker to Axl Rose...
TY: I once got pinned down by Steven Tyler, the Aerosmith guy... (laughs)
NK: But the point is - for anyone else, that level of respect and accomplishment would be empowering. For you guys it's the exact opposite. It only seems to weaken your resolve...
TY: Absolutely. I totally agree. I came out of this period just really angry, thinking, "What the hell is wrong with us?" And I think quite honestly the reason was - when we stopped, the momentum was gone. And if you intend to be creative, you've got to keep your momentum going. You need to be in this situation when things just fuckin' happen. When we started up again, it took us at least six months to get to a point where there was a momentum to what we were doing - and therefore a purpose.
But the reasons we stopped in the first place - I don't really understand them now. Looking back, it seems like a great lost opportunity. We're such a bunch of stupidly self-critical pathological over-achievers.
NK: And it continues to this day...
TY: Too bloody right! (laughs)
NK: The solo album - when did you actually begin it?
TY: There are bits of it that have been kicking around since 2000 when I got my first laptop and learnt how to make it function well enough to write anything on. The initial ideas were from laptops and tracks laying around in the studio that I cut up.
NK: It sounds like it was recorded in your home studio.
TY: A lot of it was, yeah - in the end. But some songs we recorded in Radiohead's studio and other places too. Nigel [Godrich] has a studio and it was just him and me. Nigel was very much involved in the making of this record. He produced it - with a big 'P'. It was one of those weird situations, where I basically burned a couple of CDs of what I thought was just 'random crap' that was on my laptop. Then I sat down with him and played them and he made me realise that there were some quite good musical ideas in there that deserved to blossom into actual songs. It went from being this little project that was being done for a laugh to becoming something more substantial. Suddenly I could sing on it. He was good at getting it all into shape.
NK: You'd decided from the outset that this would be a solo album and v not a collection of possible Radiohead demos?
TY: Absolutely. And everyone else knew what the situation was, too. .
NK: The first time we spoke - in 2001 - you told me you didn't have enough confidence to release solo projects. What changed?
TY: It has made me more confident, yeah. It's made me more confident with the band as well. When you work with the same people for years and years, you start believing in your own limitations. You end up thinking, "Well, that's all I can do. I shouldn't try anything else." But then you start thinking, "Well, maybe I can do what I want. That would be a nice idea." Not in an ego-maniacal, dictatorial way – but more in the sense of freeing yourself from a routine that’s becoming stifling. That was the big thing for me because I didn’t feel responsible.
NK: Listening to it, it sounds like Kid A Part 3: a further exploration of laptop songcraft. The Clock sounds closely related to I Might Be Wrong from Amnesiac, for example.
TY: I can see why it's got that Kid A feel to it, yeah. But The Clock was totally taken from this weird 'Arabian festival in the desert' record that Robert Plant did. There are a couple of tracks where these guitar players from Mali play these amazing riffs. So I copied their style and improvised for 10 minutes and then just randomly recorded bits until I captured something of what they were doing. It was all totally random. It was so wonderful discovering that the most fun I've ever had in the studio occurred when l was making no real effort whatsoever (laughs). It becomes a total laugh when you're not thinking about the process at all. Now I want to take that feeling back to us.
NK: The Eraser sounds almost exclusively computer-driven.
TY: Yeah, but we tried using acoustic instruments as well. Initially Nigel's big thing was, "Well we could make this very electronic and dense or we could do something that would be far more satisfying. Make it more organic and more exciting." He was very adamant about the vocals being more up-front and very direct.
NK: Your harmonies are getting very daring...
TY: Yeah, but that's down to the lack of instruments more than anything else (laughs).
NK: Will you be playing any of these songs live?
TY: The guys are talking about including some of the songs in the set. They seem well up for it. At the same time, we've got a lot of new songs of our own which we need to sort through first. I don't want to make it a big priority because it would be a lot of hard work to reinterpret stuff like that. It could become a major headache. But Jonny and I did a version of Cymbal Rush - that's my favourite - at a benefit show recently [May 1, at Koko in London]. It came out quite messy, but we'd only had two days to rehearse it.
NK: The world presented in The Eraser is full of paranoia and scary dysfunctional stuff.
TY: I bet you thought, "Oh, he's at it again" (laughs). It certainly gets very dark in the middle, yeah - with Skip Divided, which is about complete disconnection.
NK: That song sounds like someone having serious problems in their inter-personal relationships. Is it autobiographical? Or do these words just appear out of your mouth?
TY: It's always both - he said, being nice and evasive. You always take things from what's happening to you and whatever psychic garbage that's lodged in your head. The words to Cymbal Rush started out coming from a direct experience. But then I filtered out all the' direct experience' connotations until I was left with something else entirely.
NK: There's still a sense of impending doom pretty much throughout.
TY: Personally, I'm still prone to obsessing about things like that. There's a lot of impending doom about at the moment. There are endless scenarios. I must say I now feel a lot better for having completed these songs and having dealt with a lot of the issues raised in them. That's what I use music for - and always have. The things that I can't personally compute or map out correctly have to end up there. And when I find myself in a 'down' mood - as I'm prone to - I automatically tune into that frequency; it tends to manifest itself more. l become engulfed by all the mad scenarios that are out there. Like going to see Friends Of The Earth and reading this IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report about global warning: it had the most monumental effect on me, obviously.
NK: I was surprised Radiohead didn't play at Live8. After all, you stood with Bono and Bob Geldof to address the same issues five years earlier.
TY: Absolutely, yeah. (Pauses) How am I going to put this and get away with it? The basic problem was that we couldn't physically get it together because at that stage we weren't seeing enough of each other to be confident that we could pull it off. We weren't in a good space to stand in front of hundreds of thousands of people and deal with all the internal fallout -we just couldn't do it. It was at that exact time when we were deliberating whether to carry on or not. We couldn't even make it in to the rehearsal room. We were just meeting up from time to time and attempting to start work in the studio. But nothing was really happening.
And on top of that, I didn't fully agree with what [the organisers] were trying to achieve with the event and how they were doing it. I didn't think it was appropriate because it was blindingly obvious to me that the situation would be used for political expediency even with the best will in the world.
NK: Did you think the banner slogan - "Let's Make Poverty History" - was hopelessly unrealistic?
TY: Yes, I did. I ended up watching half of it on the telly and then had to switch off - I just couldn't take it anymore. It was too weird. Actually, the only reason I wished we'd gone is so that I could have sat on the couch next to Jonathan Ross and immediately gone into 'rant' mode until they physically dragged me off. But maybe that wouldn't have been appropriate either (laughs). Ultimately, it was just a media event-which is all very lovely- but the basic issues involved were specifically political and structural and you couldn't resolve them simply by mounting a rock concert. A riot maybe - but not a rock concert.
INTERRUPTING 'RANT' MODE, a Dylan Hotel waiter arrives with a pot of herbal tea and two cups which he noisily places on a table before us. I ask Yorke if he'd be content just to make music with his laptop from now on and never return to those loud distorted electric guitars that so defined his group's early output. His reply is immediate and rendered with an urgent passion: "Oh no - I need them both." This will surely come as good news to Radiohead's vintage fanbase and - one suspects - to the other group members, who have sometimes seemed to be slipping into a strange 'spare-prick-at-a-wedding'-type limbo status even within their own ranks. Reviews printed so far of Radiohead's on-going European tour all emphasise that the new songs they play mark "a return to guitar-driven rock". "I've been playing guitars an awful lot," stated Jonny Greenwood recently "I'm actually playing more guitar than I ever have."
There are plenty of new songs too - some with finished arrangements, others works-in-progress. The titles include Bangers 'N' Mash, Arpeggi, Bodysnatchers, 15 Steps, Nude, Videotape, Down Is The New Up, Burning and House Of Cards. But you won't be hearing any of them outside of a concert hall or a live bootleg download because the group are currently without a record deal and are still unsure about who should be releasing their next recordings.
Interestingly enough, at the same moment that Yorke and I are conversing, just two tables away Radiohead's manager is deep in discussion with one of EMI's most prestigious UK representatives, Keith Wozencroft. Wozencroft has a long history with Radiohead - Colin Greenwood handed him the band's demo tape in an Oxford Our Price when he was a mere sales rep - and is now a CEO of the company. The official word here today is that he's come to Amsterdam simply to socialise with the group and take in a show, but it's hard not to suspect that he's here to do business as well...
NK: Radiohead's contract with EMI has expired. Meanwhile your solo album is being released on XL...
TY: Yeah, but that's just a one-off deal.
NK: So what label is the next Radiohead album going to on?
TY: I don't know. Got any offers? It might not even be an album straight off. We wanted to get away from that. It could be an album but it could also end up as a bunch of singles. We're in a position now where we really don't have to give a shit. It's not really of any significance who puts it out.
NK: Well, yes and no. If you re-sign to a major label, you and the group are liable to receive a significantly large advance.
TY: Yeah, but when you receive a mighty advance you automatically get a mighty lack of control over what then will occur...
NK: Given your track record, no label is going to suddenly strong-arm Radiohead into making more commercial music...
TY: But when people give you money, they do expect something in return. (Pause) Maybe we'll get some 'wedge' then.
NK: Isn't one of the reasons for this ongoing delay in new Radiohead product down to the fact that there's currently no outlet for its eventual release?
TY: Yes. I know it's been particularly hard for Jonny not having an end in sight for this project. That's why this tour is so necessary. We spent five or six weeks in our rehearsal space, just working on our new material day after day - writing and then recording everything. That's what we needed to do.
But Jonny was right: the lack of a firm deadline has been one of our main problems, even though, for me, it seemed like a luxury at least to begin with.
NK: Radiohead's long-in-gestation new album- how many songs have so far been written for it?
TY: There are quite a few but we're still at the starting block, really. We're now in the position where we know we have at least three or four things that we're really proud of and think they're as good as anything else we've ever achieved.
NK: So there are actually three or four finished tracks?
TY: Yeah, but they're not properly recorded yet - which is annoying.
NK: These new songs - were they written by you exclusively?
TY: Oh no - by all of us. It's interesting: having just done something on my own, it's suddenly easy to delineate how the band works as opposed to just me going off and doing my own thing. A Radiohead session is basically about the five of us sitting in a room and working a song out together. And though I thoroughly enjoyed making The Eraser, I can still totally understand now why I've finished with that particular process of recording.
Because it got to the point where I was sitting in a room across from Nigel and he'd be asking me, "So how do we achieve this drum part you want?" And I frankly didn't have a clue (laughs). Nigel was very involved in the arrangements but he wasn't coming up with chord progressions or anything like that.
NK: So who's currently producing the ongoing Radiohead sessions?
TY: I don't know yet. We tried Spike and it was kind of cool but we were in the position at that point where we were still scratching our heads and scrabbling around. We're not like that now. I think this tour has kicked us up the arse to the point where finally we're functioning properly again. To be honest, we haven't properly sat down and discussed [who should be the producer]. So anything I say here could end up getting me in deep shit.
NK: Conceivably you could produce this record yourselves?
TY: No -that's the one thing we have discovered (bursts out laughing). That ain't gonna happen - except perhaps by accident. It would be impossible. When we're recording in the studio, we can't hear what's coming out of the speakers. We need someone else at the other end of the room saying, "Sorry, boys - that sounds like shit."
NK: Is there any producer you'd personally like to work with? Phil Spector's still got a few months free before his murder trial begins.
TY: (Bursts out laughing) No, I don't think so. I'm not going to give you any names. We haven't really discussed it properly yet. It's such a big thing. (Pauses) This is me being diplomatic (smiles).
NK: Tell me about the songs themselves.
TY: There's one called Bodysnatchers - it's a little bit like Neu! meets dodgy hippy rock. It sounds like that new Australian band Wolfmother - I really like them actually. They're totally unashamed about what they're doing. They just don't give a fuck - and I really love that. There's a track called 15 Steps which was born out of a mad rhythm experiment that we did last year. At first we thought, "How the fuck can we pull this off live?" But then we were listening to Fuck The Pain Away by Peaches a lot and that indirectly inspired us to turn it into something different. It's got a bass line like Airbag and it's in 5/4 time with this 'clapping' groove throughout. I really like the lyrics. "You used to be alright / W hat happened? / Et cetera et cetera / Friends forever! 15 steps -then a sheer drop."
Then there's 4-Minute Warning which begins with the lines, "This is just a nightmare/ Soon I'm going to wake up." It's a song that's been kicking around forages but I really, really like it. It's very, very simple. Almost too simple. In fact, it might ultimately get thrown away for being too simple.
We've developed this cool version of Nude, which is another song that's been around for ages. Don't Get Any Big Ideas it used to be called. There is an actual recording of that - but whether it's finished or not is something we're going to have to argue amongst ourselves about (laughs). It's fucking tortuous being us - nobody else on the planet would operate like this.
NK: Is Radiohead an incessantly conflicted five-way democracy in the studio?
TY: That's the situation when we try to produce ourselves, yeah. It gets into feedback and everyone goes round in their own circles. We're all terribly polite to each other but nothing fucking happens. Whereas if you have someone to argue with everything moves much faster. But a lot of our recent problems, like the absence of finished tracks, have arisen from the protracted mood of us gearing up to do something and not finding the momentum to sustain anything. Even if something we'd recorded had been musical gold dust, we still wouldn't have known it at the time. There's another song called House Of Cards - that's my personal favourite. It reminds me a lot of that tune by Fleetwood Mac - Albatross, which I absolutely love. House Of Cards sounds satisfying, really mellow and summery...
NK: All adjectives you don't normally associate with Radiohead.
TY: I know (laughs). We're more associated with terms like "electronic", "neurosis", "madness" and "fucked-up beats".
NK: The Eraser certainly fits into those categories. Did you ever feel like recording a song for it using just an acoustic guitar, say?
TY: Believe me, Nigel was trying (laughs). There are a few like that in the cupboard. But they didn't fit because the project quickly started congealing into one particular direction. This record got all that "sitting in my room with a laptop" approach out of my system for the time being. I hear the loud "hurrahs" in the distance (laughs).
NK: These new compositions - the lyrics would still be all you?
TY: Yeah, though I tend to get prompted by the others on occasion. They’ll tell me, “That’s good. Don’t lose it.”
NK: And the melodies would be all yours too, right?
TY: The vocal melodies, yeah. Most of the time.
NK: The chords?
TY: That could be anyone.
NK: And the grooves?
TY: That could be absolutely anybody. That's the bit I'm most interested in right now, to be honest with you. A lot of what we're doing at the moment is much more about 'rhythm' and not about 'chord progressions', at least initially. I find that approach really cool. When we stopped, I started listening really heavily to all that Fela Kuti stuff and that whole idea of just staying on one chord and letting the groove go really impressed me. Black Swan on The Eraser is like that. Also And It Rained All Night which really was a homage to the Talking Heads' Remain In Light and Byrne/Eno's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. The bass line is pure Bush Of Ghosts. I even use talking on the track.
NK: Ever considered Brian Eno as Radiohead's next producer?
TY: We've talked to him before but (pause) I don't think so...
NK: What exactly are you looking for from a producer, then?
TY: Someone's who's prepared to get shouted at (bursts out laughing).
NK: Yes, but one of your roadies could fulfil that function.
TY: I know. It's so blindingly obvious, really. Basically, I don't want to stop working with Nigel. We've talked about this a lot and I don't think the others want to, either. It's just that we're such a group of mates now - if we just hang together and don't branch out at all, it becomes too safe. We want to fuck about.
NK: Leaving Nigel out of the Radiohead recording process would be quite a radical step for you at this stage of your career...
TY: For me, it doesn't really make sense to do that. It just seems silly. But at the same time it can be fun working with other people. It's good for everyone to feel like they're getting a kick up the arse.
NK: Here's a suggestion. Record these new songs live and then release them all on an album like R.E.M. and Neil Young did. When you played the songs from Amnesiac live, for example, they became instantly far more vivid and powerful than the studio versions.
TY: See, that's what we're totally aware of at the moment. All these shows are being recorded and certainly parts could end upon the finished record. For us, the big thing about carrying on was that realisation. We tried to achieve that live sound on Hail To The Thief but it ended up as a more 'default' reaction. Because we did it so quickly, it became difficult to see through all the ideas that we wanted to properly instigate. It wasn't as experimental as we expected. Whereas, with Kid A and Amnesiac, the core musical ideas were all being written in the studio which is a very boring and tortuous process. But when we took them out and played them as a band, we created alive dynamic for those songs that everyone suddenly became excited about, that was truly mental and totally brand-new - especially to us. And that's what we're trying to do now. We've got some really cool songs happening but it's just the start, because that's what we're aiming for. So yes, it could well end up being alive recording. Whether it's live or in the studio, we're searching for that connection where we all click together as a single entity. There's no point in being in a band if the music you're doing is all programmed beats. There's no point in five people sitting in front of a computer to make that kind of music. At the same time, if you're doing that by yourself and then taking the results to the band and having them translate it into something new -then that's totally different. If you're a hip hop artist, ultimately you have to rely on whatever samples you've got. If you're an 'electronic' artist, there's no real 'live performance' element to what you're doing. But Radiohead have the luxury of being able to blend all those aspects together. We can sample stuff, we can program, but the main core for us is standing in a room together and making the noise. That's the reason to carry on.
NK: Well, that and the fact you can't let Coldplay takeover the world.
TY: (Bursts out laughing and then pauses) You're not going to get me to say anything nasty about Chris Martin.
NK: But you must admit that the contemporary music landscape is not exactly inspiring at the moment...
TY: Oh, I think there's some good stuff out there. The best record I've heard recently is the LCD Soundsystem. They're in a similar zone to us, mapping out their 'electronica' fetishes and trying to put them in a live band context. I thought their record was wicked. Apart from that, I can't really comment on the state of contemporary music. But then again, that's not my job, is it?
NK: Still, you've got to agree there's a big hole when Radiohead aren't around.
TY: Really? (Smiles) Hope I don't get run over then.
How Radiohead sound like Radiohead, and like none of their influences.
RADIOHEAD’S COMMITMENT TO change – in mainstream terms matched only by David Bowie’s momentum through the ‘70s – isn’t simply a by-product of Thom Yorke’s innate fear of being branded, assimilated or enslaved to expectations. There is an equal drive among all five members to imbibe a cornucopia of sound. “If you really love music,” Yorke says, “you don’t want to repeat yourself. The things you love really inspire you and make you go off and do something else.”
And when their inspirations go through the Radiohead mangle, they emerge unrecognisable. Take debut album Pablo Honey (1993). “We were ripping off the Pixies when we started, or trying to and failing.” Yorke concedes, but nor did they sound like a Pixies-smitten grunge band, despite Come On Pilgrim engineers Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie producing the album. Magazine’s guitar-heavy textures and a dollop of U2 dynamism (clearest on Stop Whispering) were there too. Yet when their breakthrough arrived with Creep, it was the band’s attempt to emulate Scott Walker.
The Bends’ (1995) painful gestation became a feature of all Radiohead albums. Setting another trend, a confidence-shredded Yorke couldn’t see the way forward without looking elsewhere. At its most sluggish point, producer John Leckie (chosen for his work on Magazine’s Real Life) said, “Why don’t we go out.” That night they saw a transcendental Jeff Buckley playing solo at London’s The Garage, after which they returned to the studio, knocked out an acoustic version of Fake Plastic Trees, then the next night nailed the version you hear on the album, at which point Yorke burst into tears. “Jeff Buckley gave me the strength to sing falsetto,” he said.
Yorke was also enraptured by the similarly tremulous Mark Mulcahy, vocalist of R.E.M. contemporaries Miracle Legion. Thom: “It was a voice of someone who was only truly happy when he was singing. It changed the way I thought about songs and singing.”
With Britpop commodifying the spectacle of guitar rock, and with Tricky spearheading triphop’s pursuit of a more enthralling heart of darkness, OK Computer (1997) was always going to sympathise with the latter. Yorke admitted he’d become “really envious of good jungle or stuff on Warp or the Tricky album. I get the sense they were made in isolation and that there wasn’t this need to be in a bollocks rock band.”
Despite OK Computer’s force majeure density and ‘alienation’ brief, Radiohead were not the new Pink Floyd. Instead, the tone was hyperkinetic, fusion-heavy. Paranoid Android was “a combination of DJ Shadow and The Beatles”, Airbag was similarly constructed on cut-up rhythms. For heavy swirl effect, see modern classical (the heavy, sad gait of Penderecki and Góreckl), Ennio Morricone, jazz (the electric piano motif of Subterranean Homesick Alien is traceable to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew).
STILL GREATER GLOBAL SUCCESS DROVE Yorke further away from Radiohead’s core reputation, a rejection of “all the ugly male sleazy semen-smelling rock bullshit”. The first thing he did after a stress-inducing OK Computer tour was to buy the entire back catalogue of Sheffield’s techno label Warp (home of the Aphex Twin and Autechre), tune in to John Peel and order more techno off the internet. “It was refreshing because the music was all structures and had no human voices in it. But I felt just as emotional about it as I’d ever fell about guitar music.”
Said Jonny Greenwood, “[Thom] was getting very sick of the fact that he could sing about garden furniture and it would still sound very passionate.” Hence the (part-) rejection of voice and song in the deconstructed post-rock reach of Kid A and Amnesiac: a techno-jazz blueprint but still recognizably the work of a band rather than a computer.
The fact that How To Disappear Completely was intended as a collaboration with Canada’s instrumental minimalists Godspeed You Black Emperor! indicated Yorke’s mindset. Radiohead embraced the new century with a new methodology. All very Bowie/Eno Low/Heroes’, with swopped instruments, backwards effects and Krautrock mannerisms (Morning Bell and The National Anthem’s cyclical grooves are extremely Can-like). For Idioteque (which sampled ‘Six Fantasies On A Poem by’ computer musician Paul Lansky), look to Autechre. For Treefingers, Aphex Twin and Eno. For Pyramid Song, Freedom by Charles Mingus, whom Yorke would listen to “when I [wanted] to feel better about music” (Alice Coltrane and Bud Powell are other key Yorke favourites). Life In A Glasshouse featured Brit jazz giant Humphrey Lyttelton but, being Radiohead, it came out closer to Art Ensemble Of Chicago. Meanwhile, Jonny Greenwood advertised his esoteric classical interests when he used the primitive electronic keyboard, the Ondes Martenot, most closely associated with French composer Olivier Messiaen.
There were two aberrations, or ‘trad’ throwbacks, on Amnesiac. You And Whose Army’s three-part harmonies were rooted in the Greenwoods’ love of 1950s doo woppers The Ink Spots, while Knives Out is a homage to Johnny Marr’s plangent Smiths constructions. The latter – and Yorke’s admission that he missed guitars contributed to Hail To The Thief sampling no one so much as Radiohead. The album begins with Jonny Greenwood plugging his guitar into an amp, then a percussion track from an early laptop, which dissolves into real-time drums and voices. Returning full circle to Pablo Honey’s Magazine fixation, on There There producer Nigel Godrich encouraged Jonny to play like John McGeoch while Where I End And You Begin was pure Talking Heads circa Remain In Light (the latter’s True Stories track Radio Head gave the band their name). Go To Sleep’s winding folk root is the only occasion where Radiohead could conceivably be said to sound like R.E.M.
Where next? Anywhere at all if Radiohead’s history is anything to go by.
Turn to p82 for a rundown on Radiohead’s new songs.
SO FUCKING SPECIAL
If the live versions of Radiohead’s new songs are anything to go by, their creative future is secure.
ON THE EUROPEAN AND UK LEGS of their current tour, Radiohead delivered 43 songs over nine shows. Only Pablo Honey (Creep included) was off-menu for the duration, though there were no outings for fan swoon High & Dry. Recent riff monsters The National Anthem (from Kid A) and 2+2=5 (Hail To The Thief) were almost ever-present, adding traditional muscle to offset the bleepy and fey, as were new songs Bodysnatchers and Bangers ‘N’ Mash. Between the first Copenhagen show on May 6 and Hammersmith on the 19th, only 15 Step, Idioteque, There There and Everything In Its Right Place made every setlist. But on with the newbies...
Mordant piano song that opened the first Hammersmith show on May 18. Sad, heavy chords lag elastically behind Phil Selway’s driving rim-clicks and Jonny Greenwood’s skeletal ska chanks. Builds and builds, while “you are my sinner” is a typical lyrical hook. Promises rock action on the Radiohead horizon,
Fun Dick Dale surf instrumental interlude with savage riffing. Think Pixies’ Manta Ray.
OPEN PICK **
Not mentioned by Yorke to MOJO, but the most familiar of the new songs, having the harmonic movement and moiling guitars of the latter stages of the underrated There There, without really superseding it.
HOUSE OF CARDS *****
Exquisitely simple, marvellously melodic, ‘70s singer-songwriter throwback with mantric John Martyn quality emphasised by ghostly howls from Jonny’s guitar. MOJO’s Martin Aston not the only one to note a family resemblance to Carole King’s Goin’ Back,
Drum-free, twinkling guitar arpeggios (of course!) build into Durutti Column-style embroidery, while Thom frets, “I get eaten by the worms”. Pretty, but not yet a ‘song’ as such. 2/5
15 STEP *****
Eye-popping combination of lowdown blues grooving (think Junior Kimbrough taking on I Might Be Wrong) and 5/4 drum’n’bass jitter, illustrated by Yorke’s crowd-pleasing jerky dance on-stage. Radiohead now breathing life into old-hat electronica, much as they spruced up tired old guitar rock in the ‘90s...
Massive trip-out with chiming guitars and Phil Selway’s snare motorikally on top of the beat. Masterly maintenance of lowering tension, but not the first time you hanker after the tension-releasing explosions and dynamism of their O KComputer tunes.
BANGERS ‘N’ MASH *****
Battering rocker with a Motown beat and a riff like Keith Richards eating shrapnel over intimations of political turmoil. Performed with Yorke spazzing on minikit at the front of the stage – a reminder of this band’s sly showmanship. A future showstopper.
4 MINUTE WARNING ****
Exquisite trad rock ballad riding a pinging piano and tishing tambourine, Some ragged performances and tentative J. Greenwood flangeing suggest early days for this song but the rare sunshine-breaking-through-clouds quality of the chord changes and measured optimism of the lyrics (“This is just a nightmare / But soon I’m going to wake up”) are new strings to the Radiohead bow. Deserves more work.
This one’s been around since ‘98 at least, introduced by Yorke at Hammersmith on May 18 as having languished “in the closet”. Featuring Yorke and J. Greenwood on keyboards, its shimmering, cobwebby quality can be lost in the larger venue, though the lyric – “You paint yourself white/ And fill up with noise/ But there’ll be something missing” – seems a characteristically jaundiced take on the rock’n’roll pantomime.
GO SLOWLY **
Ponderous, Pink Floyd-esque dirge, with piano flanked by distant, Morricone-style guitar skeins, as Thom sings something like “Oh Maria, come slowly to me”. Ends suddenly, having gone nowhere much.