Nightshift's Ronan Munro talks to Radiohead's Colin Greenwood about difficult music, celebtriy status and having fun in the park.
THE first time I ever spoke to Colin Greenwood was just over ten years ago. He'd just taken my old job at Our Price in the Westgate Centre. I used to pop in every month with the music magazine I'd just started. Colin was always enthusiastic and friendly and he occasionally mentioned he was in a local band. Throughout On A Friday's and later Radiohead's formative years Colin gained a well-deserved reputation as “the nicest bloke in Oxford music”. Ten years and several million record sales later it's good to know some things haven't changed.
In fact mega-stardom hasn't really affected any of Radiohead. All five of the band still live either permanently or part-time in Oxford, still drink in local bars, attend local gigs when their own work schedule allows and generally act as unlike rock stars as is humanly possible. For all the world tours, chart-topping albums and critical acclaim, one thing Radiohead aren't is celebrities. Which kind makes the almost hysterical anticipation about the band leading up to Kid A and ever since all the more remarkable. Unusually for any band nowadays most of the subject matter of reviews and interviews has been about - whisper it - the music. Kid A and Amnesiac have become talking points in themselves. When even the debate over who should govern the country has been whittled down to personality profiles, be-suited beauty pageants and who wears the grooviest underwear, that two collections of music should provide such fuel for debate is nothing short of remarkable.
MEETING up with Colin on the eve of Radiohead's 40,000-capacity homecoming gig in South Park the subject of celebrity status, and more particularly the modern cult of celebrity is a subject that crops up often and it's an obvious source of frustration for him.
"The important thing is that the music press has become much more lifestyle and celebrity based recently and it's harder for journalists to talk to people about music rather than, say, splitting up with Kylie or coming out of the Priory. You should get publicity for doing something rather than for being a celebrity in its own sake. But I think it's indicative of the British press rather than the American or German music papers."
With all the acres of print dedicated to the band over the last couple of years it's odd to think that around the time of Pablo Honey few in the national press were prepared to be so generous about the fledgling Radiohead. The then features editor of NME, John Mulvey, even went as far as to say that Radiohead would be on the front cover over his dead body.
"Well John Mulvey's gone now! Hurray!"
Did the hysteria surrounding Kid A and Amnesiac - Radiohead's two most recent albums, recorded in the same period - put any extra pressure on the band or did the success of OK Computer before them make it easier to record whatever you wanted?
"Personally I don't think about the press when making a record. The interesting thing is that the expectation was that Kid was going to be a more commercial album than OK Computer. I think people were a bit bemused by it, but it was a very necessary step after all the nonsense around OK Computer, and it's good to release an album that people have got to get into and catch up on rather than like immediately. With Kid A though we didn't give anyone a copy beforehand, we controlled it completely which was stupid because we didn't give anyone a chance to get their heads around it, while with Amnesiac we've given everybody time to live with it."
Which of course brings us to the crux of the matter. Both Kid A and Amnesiac have found Radiohead accused of being deliberately awkward, of playing games with their fans. Was this ever the point and how did things change within the group to create such esoteric music?
"When you're writing music you look for things that inspire you and we found it hard to be enthused by guitar music at the time. Everyone in the band has different influences - from Warp Records to Curtis Mayfield, Alice Coltrane, Humphrey Littleton, Kristin Hersh, Dr Dre, Kraftwerk, Low…"
SUCH enthusiasm for such diverse influences should be embraced but Radiohead often found themselves criticized simply for venturing beyond the well-trodden path of classic influences. Rather than anything contrived such varied sources have been a long-standing part of the Radiohead make up. Colin has friends who run a small indie label in Manchester who supply him with a regular pile of exciting, left-field sounds from around the world. He plays me a selection of unfamiliar European electronic acts with names like Piega and Laki Puna; his enthusiasm is infectious and it becomes clearer how why Kid A and Amnesiac had to be made. But what of the reported conflicts between band members in the studio?
"We don't argue a lot because when we see something that's good we tend to recognize it together. We have the patience to see each other's view and learn what's good. That's something we've learned over the years, which of course gives us the room to be incredibly indulgent and write the sort of music that can only be performed on ice!"
Going back to the hysteria that surrounded the band over the last couple of years, how do Radiohead, being very private people compared to your average rock star, cope with journalists door-stepping them and, as happened last Summer when Jonny's address was printed in a local paper, over-enthusiastic fans turning up?
"Well, if I was in America with my wife's family I'd have a shotgun next to the front door. But it doesn't happen that much - you just have to send out the right signals really obviously. Thom's quite good at sending out those - the please leave me alone signals. Some people turned up on Jonny's door and demanded to see him because they'd bought the album so they thought it was their right. His wife was like, `Okay here's your £13.99 back now fuck off!'."
Thom's often been portrayed as the cantankerous one in the band while you and Ed are the ‘friendly public face' of Radiohead. How much of that is true?
"I think we are all friendly. Thom's usually too busy to be out doing lots of interviews. No, he's done loads of press recently. Everyone's chilled out as they've got older. I'm a bit worried about the South Park gig though - that Thom's going to give out my address and announce that there's an after-show party at my house."
ASKED about whether he still feels at home in Oxford, Colin bemoans the city's nebulous population, especially the lack of any central focus for the University students:
"I was always struck growing up here that there was an apparent lack of connection of the number of young people who live here and the lack of sense that there was a vibrant youth culture. The Oxford college system is just digesting students, preparing them for jobs in The City or wherever. Oxford has such a fragmented community. It is nice sometimes when you're in Oxford and you know Oxford is a cool place and you don't get any hassle when you're out because everyone thinks they're cool too because they're in Oxford."
As a former university student yourself and a veteran of both student political protest and more recent political action, how do you feel about the current political apathy in music? Radiohead are often thought of as a political band, particularly with Thom's high-profile involvement with Jubilee 2000 and the Mayday demonstrations, and ‘You and Whose Army?' with its digs at Tony Blair and New Labour.
"I don't think we are any more political as a band than anyone who went on the Poll Tax marches or student loans marches. I wouldn't like to be seen as any more political than any other individual. We're not a campaigning group, we're private individuals who do things individually. But if we are perceived as political then that's a really sad indictment of how lame and de-politicised people have become. All we're doing is expressing our concerns like anyone who's a member of Greenpeace or Amnesty. The only difference is that we get written about in the music press."
Any causes you'd be prepared to go out on the streets and die for?
"The right to vote, Habeas Corpus, the accountability of public bodies, especially the police... human rights generally."
OF more immediate attention though is Radiohead's mammoth South Park gig. The band's last Oxford appearance was at the Zodiac exactly five years ago. So go on, be honest, where do you feel most comfortable?
"With both! Because they're both in Oxford. I don't think of it as a scary big gig - it's brilliant, I've been pinning my whole summer round it - we've got a big guest list for all our mates. We want to make it like Fun In the Parks: crappy little PA and sticky toffee apples and a bouncy castle. So you can just come along and have a few drinks, the kids can get lost and you can just lie down in a big park and not have to listen to the music. And we've got some special t-shirts being made by the South Park team, Trey Parker and Matt Stone."
Ah, so Radiohead do like to hang out with the rich and famous after all! Is this the reality of global success? Is this what you really thought it'd be like when you were first starting out?
"Well that's one of the mad things about it - that you can be in LA and going to the Grammys to collect an award and you meet someone called Matt Stone who does South Park and he's a big Radiohead fan and you mention you're doing a big charity gig in a place called South Park and he's really excited and so he gets some shirt designs drawn up! That's cool isn't it?"
Whether Radiohead could ever have imagined it would all come to this when they were all living together in a shared house in Ridgefield Road and playing to audiences of fifty or so as On A Friday, one thing that struck me then about them and seems to have carried them through is their collective determination to succeed. Was this the key to their triumphant career so far?
"Peer group pressure has helped between the five of us - a group determination, but we're also lucky to work with such a great songwriter in Thom. When we started there was such a pressure to have a certain sound - at the time a Thames Valley sound or a Dinosaur Jr sound. When we met A&R men the problem we had was that we didn't have one sound, but that's gone on to be a good thing. With the music it's like 'take a picture and move on'".
What do you think about bands like Muse and Travis who came along in your wake?
"Oh look, isn't that apple blossom lovely!"
Colin isn't going to be drawn on the subject of Radiohead copyists. They simply don't interest or bother him: "I simply don't have an opinion. As I said before, I simply don't listen to that sort of music. You should listen to music that inspires you, that you want to emulate. It's not that I think they're shit - I just don't listen to it."
So, looking back on the last ten years, anything you'd change about it all?
"I'd probably have had piano lessons earlier."
And what about the local scene that spawned you, do you manage to keep up with things?
"I'm embarrassed to say I don't go to the Zodiac or the Point as much anymore. Not because I don't want to but because if you spend all of your time, like we do, playing gigs or going to clubs (Colin recently did a stint as guest DJ for current personal fave group Sparklehorse in London), when you're not doing that you want to stay in and have a cup of tea and be old and thirty or something."
Favourite local groups of all time then?
"Ride were really good. The Daisies were my favourite, and The Bigger The God, their early stuff. Talulah Gosh were brilliant, so were The Jennifers. I haven't seen any new Oxford bands in ages I'm afraid."
COLIN and the rest of the bands will doubtless have a good chance to do some catching up at the gig, with The Rock of Travolta and Hester Thrale the lucky local bands chosen to support them. Perhaps not surprisingly both are bands who have been inspired by Radiohead's forward-looking, broad-minded musical vision, rather than simply trying to copy their sound. So finally, does Colin have any advice for any budding Radioheads perhaps beavering away in a small record shop in the local shopping mall?
"Try and find some talented people you get on with and learn to enjoy spending hours rehearsing in village halls around Oxfordshire instead of having a social life. It worked for us!"
On the evening of Saturday the 7th of July 40,000 people will be able to see just how well it worked. Radiohead's rise to the very pinnacle of the global music stage was neither meteoric nor contrived. They are there simply because they care enough about music - all kinds of music - to want to make a difference. Oblique, difficult, perverse even - whatever your thoughts on Kid A, Amnesiac and the whole Radiohead way of doing things, you should be grateful they exist. See you by the bouncy castle…