Main Index >> Media Index >> In Rainbows Media | Australian Media | 2007 Interviews
Radiohead rebooted
Radiohead changed all the rules when it released its new album online for whatever price fans wanted to pay. In our exclusive interview, Stephanie Bunbury meets Thom Yorke, the melancholic frontman of the most daring band of our times.

Some people hit their computers at dawn on October 10. That was the day In Rainbows, the new and passionately awaited Radiohead album, was released online.
Anyone could have it, for whatever they chose to pay - even nothing - with a simple click.
"I can't remember the last time I woke up voluntarily at 6am," wrote a reviewer on music site Pitchfork a few days later. "But like hundreds of thousands of other people around the world, there I was, sat at my computer, headphones on, groggy but awake and hitting play."
For everyone else, it was a news story. Quite a big news story, as it happened. Radiohead, probably the most significant, innovative and plain thrilling band of their generation, were writing a new rulebook.
As their contract with EMI had expired, the boys had set out their stall and were selling their own stuff with the website equivalent of an honesty box.
For friend and foe alike, it was as if they had sounded the trumpet that would bring forth the apocalypse. This, surely, spelt the end of the music industry as we all knew it.
Two months later, however, the music industry is still tottering along, getting its Christmas best-ofs into the shops, while the five members of Radiohead are doing the usual rounds of interviews to promote the physical version of the album due out at the end of December.
Capitalism, at least for the moment, is safe. When I meet up with Thom Yorke and Phil Selway, they seem bemused by their new identities as newsmakers "We don't normally get that," says Yorke, with the air of an innocent bystander. "I think it's the only time we'll get that."
Oxford band Radiohead bestrides the narrow British indie scene like a colossus.
For something like 14 years, it has pushed the idea of what a pop song can be further and further into unknown musical territory, embedding catchy melodies and thrilling rolls of orchestration in a mesh of experimental sounds.
Like Pink Floyd in the past, Radiohead is relentlessly ambitious while remaining popular - its legion of fans have stayed with it from the more-or-less straight guitar grunge of Pablo Honey (1994), through the wind-blown electronica of Kid A and Amnesia, to this year's surprise gift, In Rainbows.
A lot of people have paid for that gift, although there is now a running spat about how many and how much.
An internet monitoring company called comScore said 62% of downloaders paid nothing and the average drop in the box was a mere US$2.26 ($A2.57).
"Those figures are wrong. Those figures are made up," says Yorke contemptuously. "It was about 50% last time we looked, wasn't it, Phil?"
The idea of a free download emerged during recording, which was as painful, draining and protracted - "the same old same old," sighs Yorke - as every other Radiohead album has been.
Its last four predecessors and Yorke's solo album, Eraser, had all been leaked by somebody.
"Not necessarily in the proper form," he adds, "which is sort of mildly irritating-stroke-very irritating if it was someone in the record company or, indeed, someone breaking into the record studio while you're working, which is what happened on Hail to the Thief. All these things were a real pisser. So it was nice to keep it really in-house."
The skulduggery level was high; all working CDs were destroyed once heard and no copies were handed out.
"And it became this really exciting thing, because we had something that was starting to come together but we kept it among ourselves and sort of kept hold of the whole procedure. And then suddenly, boom, there it is. If you want it. It just felt beautifully simple and I don't think we thought far beyond that, to be honest. I was just excited about doing what I wanted to do, which was have our own leak date: why let some snotty little bugger do it for us?"
This is, according to reputation, Thom Yorke at his most relaxed. Radiohead's keening, lowing singer and melancholic sprite has had a frequently adversarial relationship with the press, despite being a darling of the critics.
The snide tone of the British music weeklies, especially NME, so upset him in the early days - even when readers voted OK Computer the fourth-greatest record of all time, typical of the cascade of adulation that irked him in a different, but equally powerful way - that he gave up doing interviews for much of the '90s.
"You just get bored," he told Uncut magazine in 2001.
"I can't see the point in answering pointless questions. For a while I had a constant f---ing monologue going on, a constant interview dialogue - I was asking myself questions and answering them constantly because I'd talked so much shit."
By the late '90s he was mired in depression, which he countered by walking along the cliff-tops of southern England in all weathers, preferably extreme. "It kind of reflects what's going on inside."
Some might say this rawness is the price of genius, although other members of the band tend to put more emphasis on the price of hard work.
Yorke's relationship to the wider world - especially sabre-rattling presidents and prime ministers - similarly prickles with anger and anxiety, while one need only listen to the songs to wonder at what torments might lie in the disaffected lad's relationship with himself.
The lyrics are always abstruse to the point of impenetrability, but those sharp, isolated phrases almost always suggest alienation, as if they were themselves stalking forlornly alone across those marshes of minor chords.
Relations within the band have, at times, come close to snapping point. Yorke, Selway, Colin and Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien have been playing together for more than two decades, since they were all at a minor public school in Abingdon, near Oxford.
Yorke, of course, hated it. Selway is now 40 and the others are just a year or two behind. The band's first album as Radiohead, Pablo Honey, came out in 1994. Since then, however, its survival has hung permanently in the balance.
After Hail to the Thief (2003), Radiohead had a long hiatus before beginning rehearsals for the new album about two years ago. Yorke released a solo album, Eraser, in the meantime.
Time was when he described himself as running the band as his own personal fiefdom, creating "a climate of fear, the same way that Stalin did". The balance is more realistic now, but that doesn't make it easier.
"If I'm honest, it was hard to get back to the dynamic of working with a band again," he says now. "If you're on your own, you make all the decisions. There's no participation; it may be good and it may not, but it just happens."
The glory of being part of Radiohead, he goes on to say, is that the combination of views and talents means that things happen that he doesn't expect, but he still finds it difficult to open up to surprise. "It's a limitation, but it's the reverse as well.
That's a lesson I should be ... well, someone should be hitting me over the head with a wet fish, constantly." Every time he drives through the studio gates, he adds later, he wonders why on earth he's there.
But here's the thing: he can't imagine living without that uncertainty. "You've got to have a reason to carry on, other than just blindly carrying on because that's what you do," he says.
"Trying to keep it genuine, not making music just for the sake of it, that's a difficult thing for anybody." He shrugs and looks vaguely into a corner of the room. "No complaints, you know. Could be worse. But obviously you've still got to be proud of what you're doing, and that involves a degree of dismantling every time you work. You have to dismantle where you're at and how you view your expectations."
It is the same sort of process, he says, as the ruthless but essential critical examination they make of what they do while they're doing it.
"You're not feeling that kick but you're fooling yourself it's there: it's easy to fall into the trap of fooling yourself it's good when it ain't. That's the big fight when you're making a record."
Radiohead is always zesty on stage, but the same songs on record can sound strangely morbid.
"It's different live, obviously: that's a one-off and you've got the energy of this tune and then the next one and you've got an audience. The sort of disconnection when you're in the studio is a difficult thing to tackle."
Some critics have suggested that the prevalence of straight guitar, singable songs and string washes on In Rainbows makes it a friendlier record after a decade of challenging listeners.
"If it's more user-friendly, well, one would never know why that was exactly," says Yorke.
"But I think we did want to do something that was really coherent." The band focused on a small number of songs it had been playing live, in a couple of cases for years, he says.
"There were so many discussions on this record about energy. It had to have a lot of energy and not - ah - sound old." He bursts into a slightly maniacal laugh.
They have no idea how the next record will work - if, of course, there is a next record. What In Rainbows has brought home, says Yorke, is that they can post tracks on the web whenever they finish them.
"If we're hanging round the studio before Christmas and finish something we like, we can put it straight up. That's nuts! No trying to schedule-it-in or promote-it-now."
They are only promoting-it-now at all because they wanted the album to be available to everybody. In future, muses Yorke, they could post songs on the web as they finish them.
Anything could happen; they are their own masters of the digital universe. "Now we have our own little tiny infrastructure," says Yorke. "It may be little and tiny, but we can do all this shit!"
THE GIFT OF GIVING
Radiohead isn't alone when it comes to giving away goods and services.
Hundreds of acts have offered their singles as free downloads over the past five years - from Bruce Springsteen, who just gave away a version of aptly titled new song Radio Nowhere, to Scottish popsters Travis to mouthy London girl Lily Allen to newly re-formed Britpop group The Verve to Aussie ARIA-hog Missy Higgins.
It's proved a swift way to buy buzz for a record while also providing a taster that will hopefully persuade fans to buy the entire album.
But some artists go further. The most prominent, of course, was Prince, who gave away his recent album, Planet Earth, free with Britain's Mail On Sunday. True, he was paid $US1 million for the deal, and it did buy him plenty of publicity for his residency at the O2 Arena in London.
In May, British band The Bees released an acoustic version of their new album, Octopus, as a download from their website, www.thebees.info.
Shoe-gazing American folk-rocker Sufjan Stevens has been sharing the love at Christmas time. He gave the fans three separate original Christmas albums as downloads, chiefly as an antidote to the greedy season.
In 2005, ethereal Canadian singer-songwriter Jane Siberry started offering all her music for download online with a "pay what you want policy".
Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne has been a champion of a new kind of licence that frees up copyright restrictions and encourages others to burn, rip and even alter the work of others.
And finally, Australia's own Paul Kelly plans to give away 100 live solo versions of his back catalogue next year at paulkelly.com.au.
The fun starts January 3 with songs that start with A.