"Et rien ne s'est passé"
Rock&Folk: In Rainbows appeared suddenly. An announcement on the net, the release ten days later, then on a traditional label. What happened ?
Thom Yorke: The thing is, it’s exciting. We used to finish an album then wait for several months during which nothing happened. For In Rainbows, you just had to press a key on a computer and there it goes. And people could decide by themselves without paying anything.
Ed O'Brien: The difference is that we were freed from a lot of constraints. Usually, record companies decide wether an album would be successful or not, even before its release. Because it’s been budgeted. It is decided before the release that the album will be a ‘mass audience’ one or not. If the record company reckons that 3 millions copies would be sold, they plan a budget for the promotion to attain that figure. It’s terrible. Radiohead don’t have to meet these expectations anymore. It’s just the music, and people hear it directly, that’s all.
Rock&Folk: At EMI’s, though, you used to do what you liked, didn’t you ?
Ed O'Brien: yes and no. Of course, it wasn’t the old pressures, like to be told what to do in the studio. I was more pernicious, it was at the release time, or during the 3 or 4 months before it. We had to provide videoclips, that sort of things. To finish an album has always been exhausting for us, let alone problem of all sort with the record company just after that, then to immediately go on tour had become particularly hard.
Rock&Folk: Was it a problem not to have a dead line to finish the album ?
Thom Yorke: we had a break and it coincided with the end of our contract with EMI. It was in 2004, I think. We stopped. And nothing happened. Very weird (imitating the sound of the wind ). It took us ages to get going again. We thought everything was finished. It had been very difficult to get to play together again.
Rock&Folk: What did your solo album The Eraser change for the band ? Was it beneficial ?
Thom Yorke: probably not.
Ed O'Brien: I don’t agree. It’s very important that Thom can work alone or with other people. He needs it.
Thom Yorke: I wanted to know how it was. The weird thing was to work with Radiohead again, to work with 4 other people who might venture suggestions or propose ideas (laugh ) …
Rock&Folk: The functionning of Radiohead seems complicated. What has changed ?
Thom Yorke: I’ve learned two simple things with The Eraser. Things I had to understand just to be able to finish it. Nigel Godrich made me limit myself to 10 or 14 songs. Without that we would have spent 3 or 4 months on a computer, which is very boring. The second thing is that Nigel wanted to focus on the human voice amidst all these electronics elements. We did the same thing for the album. We concentrated on a limited number of songs. It used to be a mess, scraps of scattered, unfinished songs … For this album, everything had to fit with the voice. Very simple but it played a great part.
Rock&Folk: Are there a lot of unfinished songs left ?
Thom Yorke: all in all, everything’s there. The album and what didn’t fit in the album. Everything has been released. That’s all we have.
Rock&Folk: Nude is ten years old.
Thom Yorke: I had been forgetting its existence for years.
Rock&Folk: Are there any other songs ?
Thom Yorke: lots. One called « Big boots ». We never succeeded in recording properly « true love waits », that’s crazy. There’s also « follow me around », which is my favourite. Weird … The thing is to find the good way to make the song. For « Nude », Colin found a new bass line that kick-started the song, that brought a new pulse. I also found a new way to sing it, more natural for me.
Rock&Folk: But the album sounds very simple, low-key. Why did it take so much time ?
Ed O'Brien: We sometimes used scraps of different versions. For Arpeggi, for instance. There’s three versions spliced together.
Thom Yorke: We were deliberately doing a lot of copy-paste. As I did for The Eraser. I feared that it would make the music suffer from a lack of spontaneity, that it wouldn’t work with acoustic instruments. But when you re-work on live takes, you catch a lot from the atmosphere, the energy.
Rock&Folk: What was the role of Nigel Godrich ?
Thom Yorke: He’s the one who stops us when we get over enthusiastic. Very often we play, we look at each other, and we say : « bloody hell, it’s great ! » and usually, Nigel answers : « it’s all bullshit, stop it ! » On the other hand, the takes recorded just before the ones we thought to be good are often the ones we’ve chosen. Weird …
Rock&Folk: Why did you hesitate to work with Nigel Godrich again ?
Thom Yorke: it’s nonsense, who said I had to spend my life working with this guy ? We had to try something else.
Ed O'Brien: Nigel himself asked that we tried someone else. That’s what we did and it didn’t work. We felt the need to reassess everything, but the problem wasn’t Nigel.
Thom Yorke: it was us !
Ed O'Brien: it made us realise that nothing can be taken for granted, but that we were a very good team.
Rock&Folk: Tell us about some recording sessions.
Ed O'Brien: we’ve been recording for 3 weeks in an old abandoned manor in Wiltshire. Then another 3 weeks in somerset, in a house dating from the Queen Anna era. Then a studio in Covent Garden called The Hospital, where Nigel worked quite a lot with Thom.
Thom Yorke: it was the best time for me. We spent so much time in strange, quirky places. Now, I want to work in city centres. I want to work in Paris.
Ed O'Brien: we already worked in Paris, at Bois de Boulogne, for Kid A. It was incredible. Apart from prostitutes and cafés, we felt as if it wasn’t Paris, it was great.
Rock&Folk: You’ve been writing music mostly on the piano for 10 years. How do you explain that ?
Thom Yorke: I’m still quite bored with guitars, hence my obsession with the piano. The thing is, I know only a couple of things at the piano, it’s beginning to show. Maybe I should take lessons. I’ve come back to the guitar, with a slightly different approach. I urge everybody to go to the website of Sonic Youth. Thurston Moore gives great advises and amazing ways to tune a guitar. It makes me have a good time.
Rock&Folk: In Rainbows is full of guitars. What did you try to do ?
Ed O'Brien: It would be terrifying to do always the same thing. I love Scott Matthews’ album, which piles up lots of acoustic guitars. Very clever.
Thom Yorke: That’s what we tried to do on « jigsaw falling into place ». we tried to get decent, neat guitar sounds, which is not easy. On « Weird fishes » for instance, it had been hell to get a very simple guitar sound.
Rock&Folk: Ten years ago, would you have released a song as simple as Last flowers ?
Thom Yorke: this one is weird. We did it during The Eraser sessions at a time when Nigel was bored with electonic sounds.
Ed O'Brien: we were rehearsing it in St Catherine’s Court, at the OK Computer era, at the same time as Karma Police. Everybody was saying that this song had to have a climax.
Thom Yorke: it wouldn’t have worked. The lyrics in the end are « too much, too bright, too powerful », we precisely had to avoid a « too much, too bright, too powerful » ending. It’s more satisfying to imagine it than to really hear it. We’ve decided not to fall for it again. The drum that’s arriving, people clapping in their hands, no, please !
Rock&Folk: Having created one hundred or so songs, how do you address the writing of a new one ?
Thom Yorke: It depends. I’ve just finished some stuff called « the north wind », a rave track, I’ve got a cool demo of it. I just want to finish it, put some words on it before I get bored. I don’t really think about it. As soon as a song is finished, it has nothing to do anymore with me. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it belongs to people, but I see them downloading it and from then on it’s not my stuff anymore. It’s almost impossible for me to listen to our old records. I had to play them for the last tour, only to remember bits of songs I has litterally forgotten.
Rock&Folk: Some of the best songs are not on the album. What did justify that choice ?
Thom Yorke: Big question. It was a real nightmare. No matter what order we were choosing, nothing was working. It was a big fight in my head. We dismissed from the album some songs we love. « Jigsaw » almost didn’t make it on the final CD. Then we ended up putting it just before the last track.
Ed O'Brien: whatever we tried, more than 10 songs put together was too much, too heavy.
Thom Yorke: But the songs exist all the same. It’s good to see « down is the new up » at the beginning of CD2. I’m very proud of it, especially of Phil’s beat.
Rock&Folk: You seem to be scared of a double album ?
Ed O'Brien: How many double albums are really good ? A single one is better. It’s the duration of one lesson. The brain can’t absorb more information.
Thom Yorke: I’ve always been fond of fairly short albums. Apart from my Autechre CDs, but I won‘t dwell on this.
Rock&Folk: All of you have a family life, kids, estate cars. What has this changed ?
Thom Yorke: It’s more complicated. When we choose to go to work, we decide to take advantage of this limited time, to concentrate, without the possibility to relax. Our families don’t want to see us when we’re working on an album. We could do nothing for a long time and wait until there’s no money left, but we can’t. we took a year off, it was horrible. Well, not really, babies arrived from everywhere…
Ed O'Brien: six babies were born between the end of the last tour and now ! It required a goddamn adaptation. When we used to have no limited time at the studio, we finally finished albums rather quickly. There’s no reason we can’t do the same again now.
Rock&Folk: How did you get the idea to release the album on the net ?
Thom Yorke: There had been leaks on our last 4 albums. I don’t know if it was someone from the studio or the record company or the factory, but they ended up on the net. We thought : we might as well leak it ourselves and control the situation a little bit. Our management thought it would be better this way, they wanted to try. We were without a contract. First of all, they wanted us to be satisfied with the album. It wasn’t a way to show off and to be remembered just for that anecdote instead of the music. The music is a success but everything would have stopped, the band included, if it hadn’t been the case.
Rock&Folk: With your own tent in 2000, you made your own venue. Have you considered becoming your own record company ?
Thom Yorke: we spoke about that but honestly it was too much for us. Other people can do that very well.
Ed O'Brien: can you imagine us taking care of licenses for each country, of all the paperwork ?
Thom Yorke: We’ve succeeded in doing it in the UK for the discbox, though.
Ed O'Brien: we wanted to be easily heard and available. Personally speaking, I’m suspicious about bands who, over the years, spend more and more time doing business meetings…
Thom Yorke: I’m exhausted already by all the extra-musical work this album has needed, and it wasn’t that much. I don’t want to sound like a spoiled child, but it doesnt do any good for the music, or the desire to make music.
Rock&Folk: The release of the album on the net was a symbolic act, but it hasn’t changed anything for other bands, has it ?
Thom Yorke: It was a political act, but only for us. In the UK, we’ve read a lot of thing about us being against the whole music industry. Bullshit. But my piece of advice for all the artists that sign a contract : keep your digital rights. Whoever signs a contract with a record company nowadays gives away their digital rights, it’s nonsense.
Ed O'Brien: Nowadays, there are unbelievable, totally swindling contracts. I still think we’re living an exciting time, though. I don’t know much but i get the impression that on MySpace, if a band is really good, they can be noticed. When we started, in 1986-1987, it was much more arbitrary. How did one manage to get noticed at the time ? From time to time, a magazine would organize a ‘springboard’, would devote an article about local artists. Nothing much, actually. Nobody was coming to Oxford, there was only one accessible venue to play there. Now, it’s different. Well, Ok, there are a lot more bands, but the good ones succeed.
Thom Yorke: It’s important to work at your own pace. I worry that young bands stop developing themselves in studio. There are a lot of clubs, a lot of venues where to play, a lot of opportunities for gigs, which is very good but to be a good live band is not enough. Bands forget to record, to experiment …
Rock&Folk: When you were about to sign, did the people from XL know that the album would be released on the Net 3 months earlier ?
Thom Yorke: yes.
Ed O'Brien: But nobody knew we would release it that way. We signed just after that. The announcement of the release on the net had to be a shock for everybody.
Thom Yorke: some people who work with us had been informed only three days before the release. There had been almost no copy of the mastered CD. Nobody had a burned copy, not even my partner or my family or my friends. We spent a whole summer with this CD up our sleeve, without saying anything. It became a joke. My friends were trying to make me speak by buying me drinks at the pub. No way.
Rock&Folk: It was also sort of a joy to scoff at the big record companies, wasn’t it ?
Thom Yorke (hesitating ): a bit, maybe, yeah. But as far as I’m concerned, I think there’s enough negative energy in the air. I don’t want it to dictate my decisions. I advise young bands to stay away from big record companies. Maybe there are some exceptions but I doubt it. "flee, guys ! don’t go on board on this big sinking boat !"