WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Having thrown us a curveball with the ear-twisting Kid A last year, RADIOHEAD are on the verge of releasing a second album, Amnesiac, from their mammoth l8-month recording session. Drummer Phil Selway explains the whys and wherefores, and how they managed to get through it all...
The interview starts like this: “Hi. I’m so sorry to keep you waiting. My taxi was 15 minutes late picking me up this morning.” So Rhythm is greeted by Phil Selway, drummer with Radiohead and officially one of rock’s good eggs. He apologises as he picks his way between puddles outside the band’s secret Oxfordshire rehearsal studio and shakes hands before ushering us (over a rapidly expanding mini-lake at the front door) inside. He is beautifully dressed, has come with a change of clothes (a suit. naturally) for the photos, and offers us coffee before helping himself to a Coke from the studio fridge. We make ourselves at home in the building’s slightly down-at-heel but cosy rehearsal room, and chat in the company of an array of Radiohead guitar amplification and a sparkling Premier Signia set-up. It’s all slightly surreal, and perfectly in keeping with the air of mystique that surrounds one of the UK’s most important bands ever. Over the course of the next hour or so Phil proves to be softly spoken and measure, but more than happy to chat about music, drumming, his offspring and Charlie Watts. He helps move some weighty screens around for the photoshoot, risking his wonderful suit in the process, and refuses to pose with drumsticks for one shot. He’s endlessly charming and accommodating.
And, happily, quite normal. He might have contributed to some of the most exciting, challenging, beautiful and disturbing music of the last ten years, but Phil Selway is not a man given to egotism. Instead, he describes feeling frustrated with his drumming, thrilled at the prospect of an imminent trip to New Zealand, and chuffed at how well he’s looked after by his drum company. And all this from someone who helped create the gobsmacking album release that was Kid A. Told you it was going to be a tad surreal in here...
Rhythm: Although it hasn’t been out that long, Kid A’s position as Radiohead’s latest is about to be usurped by Amnesiac. What’s the story there?
Phil Selway: “We wanted to give people a fuller impression of what we were doing for the 18 months we were recording these songs When we got to the end of that period, we had to decide whether we should put out a double album, which would have been a very efficient deck-clearing exercise, or release separate albums.
“Ultimately, we wanted to break things down into digestible chunks, rather than sticking everything out at once and not giving the songs room to breathe. So we put two albums together, each of which has its own personality and flavour. Kid A was the first to emerge, and Amnesiac will be along shortly.”
Will there be singles from Amnesiac? By the way. Kid A didn’t yield any singles, did it?
“Yes, we’ll be taking singles from this album. Kid A didn’t lend itself to releasing singles – the album just worked as a whole. In the past, I think we tried to get albums to do too much and cover too many bases, but with Kid A. we were happy to be quite selective about what went on there. It’s more cohesive as a result, although it’s not an immediately accessible album.”
Jonny Greenwood has already said that Amnesiac is the first Radiohead album he’s been able to listen to once recording has finished. Do you need some space between completing a CD and being able to enjoy listening to it?
“I’ve found with all of our previous albums that you need six months before you can listen to it objectively. And because we were working on these songs for a long time, and Kid A has already been out a while, there is that distance from the recording of Amnesiac. I do need some space after an album’s finished before I can listen to it – a lot of the ghosts from the recording sessions are laid to rest by then.”
That sounds a bit heavy. Is the studio hard work for Radiohead, then?
“Well, this time around, we were writing as we were going along, we had nothing really when we went into the studio to start with. And we were trying to move away from simply recording band performances as well – although there are elements of that in Kid A and the new album. We were just trying to rebuild things, really. We had ideas of how we wanted to work as a band and how we used to work, and it was difficult to try and find how to make sense of it all. It was quite demoralising at times. We were left wondering whether we had what it took to carry on as a band a little bit – quite a lot of self-examination went on at various stages. But that’s a good process to go through. The moment you become complacent about what you’re doing, your music lacks any excitement or energy, so you have to go through that, or at least we’ve had to. But it makes for quite an arduous process.”
So you didn’t enjoy recording, then?
“Erm, I enjoyed bits of it. But you have to keep reminding yourself what a jammy situation you’re in. Which is sometimes hard when you’re knee deep in it, but it has to be done.”
There’s a definite lack of straightforward ‘band playing in a room together’ recording on Kid A. can you describe how things came about in the studio?
“‘National Anthem’ is a good example of how protracted the process can be. We started recording that song at the end of the UK tour that we did for OK Computer in 1997. The rhythm track came out of a jam I had with Thom at the time. We recorded about five minutes of what we were doing and then took long sections and looped them, so the feel of the track throughout isn’t just of a two-bar loop going around and around. There are probably about three or four loops on there, all of which are 16 bars long or so.
“Having done that, we then didn’t return to it for about 18 months. We were really pleased with the rhythm track, but we just didn’t know what to put on top of it for absolutely ages. Then it was a process of trying out things over the top of it and asking ourselves whether the idea actually had any merit at all, or whether we had just got caught up in the moment when we were actually playing it. But the track finally started to come together, we laid a few different things on top of the rhythm track, and we ended up putting horns on it. It was a million miles away from where the track actually started, but it suddenly made sense.
“There are some tracks that definitely need that amount of space to develop. Otherwise, you run the risk of putting things out that are half-baked and haven’t really had time to realise their full potential. And all that happens then is that you end up being frustrated because a germ of a good idea has been wasted.”
Was everything so long and drawn out in the process, though?
“No, there are other songs that came together much more quickly. Not that 1can actually think of any right now though. Oh yes, I can – ‘Knives Out” on Amnesiac happened quite fast, come to think of it. That came from when we were in Copenhagen – we did some stuff in Paris and Copenhagen – the song was there, and we spent some time trying out ideas for arrangements and things. Then we just tried it a bit quicker, and it fell into place. As far as the writing was concerned, anyway.
“Actually recording it and getting sounds together took a while. We do tend to disappear a lot down blind alleys when it comes to that stage, because we take a lot of interest in that whole area of making things sound interesting.”
How does the album-making approach of Radiohead today differ from that of Pablo Honey or The Bends? They sound a million miles away from each other...
“We used to rehearse quite heavily before we went into the studio, so we knew roughly what we were going to do. Doing things the other way around and writing in the studio is interesting, because it means that the songs take on a life of their own when you leave the studio, rather than having been developed to the nth degree in a rehearsal room before you record them. Part of doing Kid A and Amnesiac like that was caught up in ensuring that we didn’t come out with something that sounded like a parody of ourselves. Sometimes you have to go through that in order to rediscover what it is you liked about yourselves in the first place.
“At the end of OK Computer, I think we were frustrated with the feeling that we were still the same band that did Pablo Honey. And even Pablo was some way down the road, because we’d done a fair amount of recording when we were at school before then. Part of the difficulty of making OK Computer was in trying to throw off those old ways of working, which dated back to us being at school together.
“In many ways, after OK Computer, we were still just a sophisticated version of the school band that we were when we started. It would be a shame to lose all of that completely, because the five of us working together is essentially what’s good about us. But what seems great when you’re 16 or 17 doesn’t quite look the same when you’re in your early thirties.”
Does it feel like you’re in a different band now from the one that recorded Pablo?
“I think the sessions for Kid A and Amnesiac were unrecognisable from those for Pablo Honey. Back then, we went in and did quite a vigorous two weeks of pre-production and then three weeks of recording. And that seemed like a long time. But now we’re talking about a year and a half of sessions for these two albums.
“The priority with Pablo Honey was simply to capture decent band performances, which is something we’ve moved away from, and that was the case up until OK Computer, I suppose, But hopefully that will come back around again.
“We’re much better players now than we were in those days, and I really like what happens between us when we play together. There is something unique that happens between us that’s still really exciting to me.”
Do you see yourself as a drummer in the purest sense of the word, then? Or are you an element of this thing that is called Radiohead, and you simply happen to play the drums?
“I’d veer more towards the latter, I think. It’s a difficult thing to describe, but we’ve always approached everything very much as a band, rather than as a group of individual musicians, or session musicians at any rate. That’s not to put session players down at all – they do things that I can’t do. But it’s just how we operate.
“After OK Computer, I didn’t play a kit for about six months. I’d become a bit disenchanted with playing the drums. We’d always concentrated on playing as a band and on presenting what we do as a band, and that takes in so many other things other than pure musicianship. When you get signed and you go on tour, it’s very difficult for you to do anything other than become very good at playing your own songs live.
“And after a few years of doing that, I was very frustrated with my drumming in some ways, I knew it worked in the context of Radiohead, but I didn’t know if I could class myself as a drummer in the broader sense. And that was partly because I played with anyone else, outside of the band, for about a decade.”
But you’re playing drums again now. What happened that made you change?
“Part of my reaction to being frustrated was to not touch the drums for a while. But after a while, I came back to playing with a greater sense of enthusiasm, actually. What I worked out is that while I’m not a session musician-type player, what I have done is develop quite a distinctive style, which sounds like me. And I’m pleased with that. When I recognised that was as valid as having chops up your sleeve, I was quite happy. That’s not to say that I don’t want to work on that side of things too, though. In fact, I had some lessons last year with Bob Armstrong.”
Why did you opt for tuition?
“I wanted to put myself in a position of finding out what I could actually do. I had to acknowledge that I could go further and push myself further than I was. And I wanted to go and work on technique and get a better grasp of a lot of different styles.
“We’ve done so much of what we wanted to do as a band, and now it just feels like it’s time for me to spend some time working on my playing a bit. It’s a bit of a cock-eyed way of doing it, because most people get that side of things sorted and then get a deal, but with us it’s sort of worked out the other way.
“I have to say, though, that I do think we’re all pretty good musicians anyway. It’s not as if we can barely play.”
So can you describe what you think it is that contributes to your own particular playing style?
“Because of the nature of Radiohead songs, we tend to try and take on a lot of different styles. But we don’t necessarily want to perfect them and copy them. Instead, there might tend to be a wash of sound that displays certain elements of each style. There might be bits of soul drumming and hip-hop and even lighter jazz things all swimming around within my drumming, which is the context of something that is, broadly, a rock band. But none of those styles is a carbon copy. Which is actually really good for giving a band a distinct overall sound.”
You’re off to New Zealand soon, to get involved in something that seems very far removed from your day job of being the drummer in Radiohead. What’s this new project all about?
“Ed (O’Brien – Radiohead guitarist) and myself are going to do five shows with Neil and Tim Finn. It’s all playing their songs, which I have to learn, and they’ve got Johnny Marr and Eddie Vedder in on it too, among others. It’s a great collection of musical talent.
“Neil approached Ed and he asked if I was interested in doing it, so I said yes, obviously. I just got a CD of 40 songs through last week, and it’s a whole new thing for me – learning someone else’s parts. The stuff I play, I generally write the parts for, and to have to sit and work out what another drummer has done and adapt that to how I play is very challenging.
“I’m trying to find a way into the songs so that I can add something to them, rather than just play them verbatim. It’s a very different discipline for me. Of course, I know some of the songs, but going through 40 songs in a fortnight is really hard.”
And you’ve only got one UK date of your own to look forward to this year?
“Um, yeah, the only firm thing is one live show later in the year. We did a lot of touring for OK Computer, and we do really enjoy playing live, but we haven’t got a year-long tour or anything in the pipeline. Playing live is very important to us, though. It generates a lot of energy, which can be channelled into recording and other areas of being in a band. And there’s still nothing quite like going out and presenting something you’ve done and getting people’s instant reaction to. And it will be interesting to see what sort of lives the songs from Kid A and Amnesiac take on once we take them onto the stage.”
5 FACTS1. Kid A is heavy on synths and bleepy noises, but things will be much more organic when played live. “There are no ‘real’ drums in ‘Idioteque’, for example,” Phil explains, “but I’ll play it live. In rehearsals, it’s become this whole new thing.”
2. Sounds are important to Phil. He describes himself as being “happiest when the sound coming back to me from the kit is inspiring. The sound of the drums has to be right for each song.”
3. Phil has been using Premier drums since the band had all their gear stolen in the mid-‘90s.
4. Although keen to develop his playing and all that he gleaned from his sessions with Bob Armstrong, Phil admits that this “has had to go on the backburner a bit recently. Babies have a habit of needing to come first.”
5. Happy to jump behind his kit for pictures, Phil regaled us with brief snippets of drum parts from some of the songs we’ve heard before. “All from some of your Radiohead favourites!” he smiled.
RADIOHEAD RECOMMENDED LISTENING1 ‘Creep’
From Pablo Honey
Obvious but worthy choice, thanks to Phil’s disciplined simplicity. Classic.
2 ‘My Iron Lung’
From The Bends
After one of the best guitar intros ever, Phil jumps in with some tasteful straight-ahead pumping with bass player Colin Greenwood.
From OK Computer
Dirty, cut-up DJ Shadow-esque loops provide the rhythmic track of album number three. Nothing could have better set the scene for the album’s angst.
4 ‘Paranoid Android’
From OK Computer
Well, it’s all utterly stunning, isn’t it? Not least Phil’s restrained cross-sticking for much of the first three minutes, after which a brisk run around the toms heralds everything going gonzoid...
...until the choir comes in and the cross-sticking returns. Then it wigs out again, breaking all the rules, transcending the expected. A rollercoaster of a track.
5 ‘The National Anthem’
From Kid A
Colin Greenwood kicks off a fuzzy bass riff, underpinned by a gloriously funky, lazy groove from Phil. The gritty, almost overdriven studio treatment of the kit is the perfect finishing touch.
Phil’s Gear“I don’t have my whole kit set up here today. I generally have 12”, 14” and 16” toms and a Noble & Cooley snare that I put on my left-hand side. I’d normally have drum triggers and a pad on the kit too, to the right of my 12” tom. The kick drum and both snares have triggers on – just for individual samples, because we don’t tend to use loops live.
“My acoustic drums are all premier Signia Marquis. They look after me really well and have done for six years – they sent me a Club kit recently, which I love. Cymbals are a mix of Zildjian Ks and As usually. I like quite dry cymbals – things that sound quite contained. It’s quite a simple set-up, really, and I don’t want for anything. Apart from snares. You can never have too many snares.”