“Hi, sorry, you’ll have to speak up a bit, I’m a little deaf”. Phil Selway, drummer with multi-platinum selling, genre-hopping, conscientious stadium behemoths Radiohead, doesn’t quite hear when I say hello. Human after all. Radiohead’s profile was perhaps higher than ever in 2007, due largely to their announcement in October of the release of their seventh studio album, In Rainbows. It’s not so much the music that got people talking though. The little blank boxes on the In Rainbows download page sparked more discussion, debate and parody than anything else in the musical sphere. Even Pitchfork, notorious for specific ratings, left their review score up to us.
There were whispers of a great social experiment, that Radiohead were testing their fanbase and the world to see how much value was placed on their music. If file-sharing democratised music for the masses, then Radiohead were the great established band trying to legitimise that once and for all. Pay as much or as little as you like. It’s up to you.
Nothing is as simple as it seems, however, and reports started to trickle out that Radiohead had made more money with their download than they would have from an ordinary CD release. The only way to own a physical copy of In Rainbows initially was to pay fifty-five euro for the admittedly well-presented discbox release containing the album, a bonus disc, the album again on double vinyl and a book of artwork. Then they signed regular record deals to release the album conventionally too. They were setting a precedent that common or garden indie bands couldn’t follow. They announced a European tour and sparked a backlash due to high ticket prices. The New York Times called it revolution in the music industry, but Forbes called it one of the 101 Dumbest Business Moments of 2007 . Was it revolution? Was it just more capitalism in a different shape? Does it matter? More on the politics later. First and foremost, the music:
In Rainbows took nearly four years to come out, why was that?
Well, we took... [thinking sounds] 2003 to 2007... 2003 was the year Hail To The Thief came out I think, wasn’t it?
Yeah, so we toured for a year, then took about half a year off after that, away from the band. The actual process of making this record has been about... watch my maths now, but I think it’s been about two years. Two and a half years, actually. A year and a half of what was, with hindsight, preparation really, trying out different approaches to how we would record, just trying to find something that excited us in how we were going to present the material, how we were going to play the material. And then we went in with Nigel Godrich last September . It’s been quite a painstaking process making the record. Especially when, you know, you start the process and you hope it’ll be fast, but it just isn’t. And when it doesn’t happen spontaneously initially, you kind of know that you’re in for the long run, really, till you get to the point where those moments of spontaneity are there. Not that you construct spontaneity, but you put the right situation together for it to happen. I hope that comes through in the performances. It was a very painstaking process. But we completed it, which is fantastic.
The album sounds very carefully constructed, very complete as a whole. It sounds different to Hail To The Thief, was the process of writing the songs different in any way?
Well, there are similarities. Apart from Kid A, we’ve always started with a collection of songs, and us in a rehearsal studio. And at some point we will have played those songs live as well. So a very similar process from that point of view. We spent a lot more time in the studio this time, so hopefully we got to the point where we felt more comfortable with being there. The biggest difference really was the length of time it has taken. Hail To Thief was a relatively quick record to make, and this one has taken a lot longer. I think with any of our records, a part of what drives it along is a bit of a reaction to the record that’s gone before. With hindsight, I mean, there’s a lot of good things about Hail To The Thief, from our point of view, but there are also elements that we’ve come away thinking “wish we’d done that differently”, or spent a bit more time on that. So you act on those impulses on the next record you make.
You’ve put out an extra disc in the discbox version of In Rainbows. Was it difficult to decide which songs to put on the actual album proper, which to put on the bonus disc, and which to leave off altogether?
I think the difficulty came in realising that we’re not going to get everything onto the record. We kind of felt like we put everything on Hail To The Thief, and we didn’t want to do that again. So I think once we got to the point where we’d decided that we want to make a ten-track record, then you actually select the ten tracks that sit well together. So it kind of then decides itself. It was probably a good three or four days of trying out different tracklistings and different combinations of songs on there until we got to the point where it became sort of self-evident which songs sat well together. And oddly enough actually, the second CD sits well together as a collection of songs.
So you’d consider the second CD to be a complete...
Oh! You’ll have to wait a moment! My youngest son is just about to burst into the room... hold on... [sound of a small child] “Hi Dad!” [Phil, aside, amidst shuffling] Hi Patty! Hold on, I’ll just go somewhere else... Sorry about that.
I think we were pretty much done with that one. Everyone’s been talking about you giving away the album for free, or letting people choose what they want to pay, which in practice means giving it away in a lot of cases. What was the thinking behind doing that?
Well, one of the initial things was actually getting the music out there as quickly as possible. Generally, you get into this... you finish your album, you deliver it to your record company and three months later, after all the marketing processes, the record comes out, having run the risk of being leaked in the meantime. I think for us it was kind of almost leaking our own material, if you like, just at that point being in control of that process. Also, it was having that immediacy of getting the music out there very quickly. It was under a week between the final mastered version of the record getting to us and it going up as a download. That was something we’ve always wanted to, work a bit faster, especially when you’ve been working on a record for two and a half years. You’re just absolutely desperate to get it out there, really. So then you think, okay it’s going out as a download, how do we put it out there? Do we put a price on it? I think the important thing was to get the music around to as many people as were interested, but then at the same time there was scope in there for almost like an experiment, saying, well, what value do people place on the music? We could give people an opportunity to think about that. It seemed a very fair way, and a transparent way of putting the music out.
Certainly novel, as well. Do you feel that releasing the album as a download was equal to a CD release? Do you not think there would be some disappointment for people who weren’t able to go out on the morning and buy a physical copy of the new Radiohead album?
Um... sorry, I think I heard that, you’ll have to excuse me, the line was not quite there. But the whole thing behind it, with the release, it was like viewing as different formats. If you take it from the basis that we want the music to reach as many people as are interested, and if you put out something as a download only, you’re cutting out a lot of people who wouldn’t have access to that. But we’ve never wanted it to be exclusive, we’ve always wanted it to be a CD release at some point. So it is just different formats really. Hopefully there is something there for everyone who wants to listen to the music.
You’ve signed to XL to release the physical album...
Thom put out The Eraser on XL, was it because of his experience with the label that you chose to do that, or was there any other reason?
They seem to have a very good understanding of where we are as a band at the moment. And yes, Thom had a very good experience putting out The Eraser with them. When you’re in a position where you’re out of contract, you can view as who is the most appropriate place to release the record, who is the most appropriate label to be with. And XL definitely “ticked all the boxes” on that one.
And how is your relationship with EMI now?
Um... well... we still have a huge amount of respect for all the people we worked with at EMI and Parlophone. There were a lot of people there from when we released the earlier albums, from around The Bends era, and we had a very good working relationship with them. We just felt that ultimately, it wasn’t the right place for us to release In Rainbows.
They’ve put together their own boxset, I believe...
Yes, they have, all of the previous...
How does the band feel about that?
Um... well, it’s our music, you know... I think we’d prefer to concentrate on the release which we feel most connection to, which is In Rainbows. Um, you know, they’re all our records and of course we stand by them, but we’ve kind of moved on from that point...
Are you afraid that they might try to put out an unauthorised “greatest hits” or something like that in the future? Or is that a possibility?
It’s well within their rights to do it. [sigh]. So we’ll have to see. But as I say, for us the main thing is that we’re excited about the process of releasing In Rainbows and what we’re doing, around the touring, around the way we’re able to release it, and most importantly around the music itself.
About the touring, tickets for your gig in Dublin went on sale this morning... it’s very expensive, it costs €70.70, and there’s been some discussion about how you can justify releasing your album in such a fair way, as you say, and then charge that much for a tour gig?
Right... and what’s been the general response on that, that you see?
There’s been arguments that you might be pricing out some fans, people who may have bought the diskbox, or students who may not be able to pay that much money to be able to go to a gig.
Do you have any reaction to that?
Well, whenever we’ve looked at ticket prices and set them, we’ve wanted to make them as fair as possible. So I would hope that we’ve pitched it right on this one, made it as fair as possible on the price. We’ve never really set out to max, as they say, our tour revenue. So I think we’ve always put out reasonably priced tickets. That’s as much as I can say really.
It’s just something that’s come up in the last few days in Dublin.
The use of Dead Air Space [the band’s blog on radiohead.com] during the making of the album, what was the reasoning behind that? Did they the band enjoy doing it? Do they think it was a good idea?
It was just to have that kind of immediacy in what we were doing, really. It was somewhere that if any of the band members wanted to air their feelings about the recording, or put pictures up, if anyone was interested in seeing it then yeah, there was a place there for that to happen. It’s been a good space for us to have. We were able to put our announcement about the download out through there, and that kind of thing. It’s like with the release of the download, it’s a much more direct way of reaching people who are interested in the music. That’s very much the feeling with Dead Air Space. It’s a very honest representation of us, really,
Was there the same sort of thinking behind the Radiohead.tv broadcasts? That seemed like a lot of fun to do.
It was! It was very random, but it was also fantastic for that as well. It was great. Especially after having taken such a long time in the whole recording process, to do something that didn’t have that weight of scrutiny on it, to be in the studio and have loads of different thing going on, happening quite quickly, yeah, it was great! It was fantastic fun, it was a good response to how we’d been working for two and a half years.
You did a couple of covers, The Headmaster Ritual [by The Smiths] and Ceremony [by New Order] I think, how did you decide which to do?
Yeah, our Manchester section really, wasn’t it? It’s funny because when we were at school, we never really played covers. It’s something that we’ve not done an awful lot of either, at any point. We’ve always kind of worked on original material. So to come back at this point and just go in and work on these songs which we’ve all really loved at some point and seeing if we can pull them off... we enjoyed doing those versions of them.
So if those were the songs you were listening to in your youth, are you keeping up with music now?
I hope so! [laughs]
Is there anything in particular that you’ve been listening to recently?
Personally I’ve been listening to Juana Molina, Will Oldham, Adem, Fourtet, those kind of Domino artists... Tunng, that kind of thing. Between the five of us, we’ve got a very broad musical spectrum.
So you’d all consider that you’re staying sort of hip?
You all consider that you’re keeping up with what’s going on?
You’d get five different responses to that one, depending on who you speak to in the band. Where we are at the moment is just a great love of music, from wherever and whenever really.
With all the political causes Thom has been involved in, in the past couple of years, is there ever a feeling within the band that he’s becoming a bit of a Bono?
[laughs] Two very different characters though, aren’t they?
They are different, but do you never consider what he is doing naff?
No, because he does it from the heart. I don’t think it is naff at all. I think he speaks very effectively on the issues that are very close to his heart. You’re kind of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t with that one really. I think he uses the platform that he has effectively. He doesn’t, well in my opinion he doesn’t abuse it, he just uses it effectively.
But even in the general sense, it’s sometimes considered that a musician shouldn’t talk about politics. You don’t think that applies at all?
I think if you stop somebody talking about... well it’s the basics of principles here, you don’t want to impinge on anybodies’ free speech, do you? Different people are probably more effective at it, or less effective, but I think in Thom’s case he has a very strong interest, so he has a great grasp of what’s he’s talking about.