In the morning and afternoon of may 22nd 2006, Craig McLean interviewed Thom in a hotel in Oxford. In between both sessions, Thom attended the funeral of Phil Selway's mother. McLean primarily held the interview for a feature in the Observer Music Monthly, published june 18th 2006. The interview was also filmed, probably at the suggestion of Thom's label XL, to produce an EPK (Electronic Press Kit) for The Eraser. The EPK only used material from the morning session. A section from the afternoon session was made available by Target as "exclusive bonus audio content" that came with their download of The Eraser. The print article used material from both sessions. In this page, the transcripts of the EPK and the Target mp3 are combined with sections from the print article (given in red), in order to reconstruct as much as possible from both interview sessions.
Craig McLean: "Okay."
Thom: "And we're here now."
Craig: "Here we are in Oxford on a Monday. Thom Yorke solo album. Why a solo album and why now?"
Thom: "(laughs) Umm... We stopped about two and a half years ago, the band I'm in called Radiohead."
After the completion of the year-long Hail to the Thief tour, they had flown the 'wrong way round the world', east to west. 'You're not built to do that. It just spun our heads out, man. I don't think anybody really slept for, like, three, four weeks. So that level of sleep deprivation and doing these big shows under lot of pressure... It was just messed up.'
"Why did we stop? It was getting boring. It just got a bit weird, this sort of self-perpetuating thing.
It felt like everyone was under obligation to do it rather than because we wanted to do it.
And one of the things I had wanted to do for ages was get stuck into a bunch of things I had been mucking around with which didn't fit into the Radiohead zone."
Craig: "You said the word solo album gave you the heebie jeebies. What is it about that you're uncomfortable with?"
Thom: "If it was a solo album, that would sort of... umm... it would demand that it, you know, that I'd walked away from the Radiohead thing, which it basically hadn't. And half the reason for doing it was because it was something I had wanted to do for ages. You know, when I talked to the others about it, they were like, 'oh yeah, please go and get on with it'. You could sort of call it a side project, that would make more sense, but a side project demands it was just a doodle, but it wasn't. I mean, I really went for it with Nigel. It was a proper thing. We were trying our best."
Craig: "I have this vision of you working away at home just in a little music room or in a shed on a laptop with your acoustic guitar and nothing else. Was it that minimal and that freeing?"
Thom: "Well, the initial ideas, like... the initial sort of sketches for things were kind of like that, yeah. I have a little tiny cupboard, basically, in my house, which you really couldn't call a studio, with all my stuff in, and I would just sort of go in there whenever... Or when we were on the road, I would be doing stuff on my laptop." He explained that The Eraser was 'an accumulation of really sketchy ideas that were going around since I learnt how to use the laptop properly. I was excited about the idea of just using beats and stuff and some of these sounds that I had. And writing to that rather than writing to good old-fashioned acoustic instruments [and the idea that] it's not a song unless it's got a fucking guitar in it or whatever nonsense. It was very, very deliberately just me and Nigel using computers a lot, just for their speed and a different sort of aesthetic."
Craig: "When and where did you record?"
Thom: "I recorded by the sea in the summertime, which was nice. And then I recorded in... Nigel has a studio in London with a cocktail bar right next to it, that was nice. And we recorded... we did a lot of work in the Radiohead studio as well."
Craig: "Was it initially a bit disorientating not having the four other four guys there?"
Thom: "It was... there was the initial sessions before Nigel got there, where I was just working out how to make the computers work. All I had was the technology and only half of it was working. So it was quite a... you know, there's definitely a few weeks of 'what am I doing?', you know. And then, once actally I sat down with Nigel and went through the basic ideas, it was, 'oh, hang on, there is something here', and it was actually really exciting, 'cause it went from being, you know, doodles to 'oh right', you know, a couple of accidents that make me think 'this is something that people might actually get'. (laughs)"
Craig: "Is there any sort of feeling that you were getting something out of your system?"
Thom: "Oh yeah. I mean, it was a real relief to have done it. One of the biggest problems, not just for me, but for everybody, is at the end of the Hail to the Thief thing we had completely lost all our confidence. I mean, it was a weird experience, a weird feeling, and deeply unpleasant... you know, basically, 'we'll go home and forget about everything we've done,' having lost all confidence in it. Only we could do that."
Craig: "Who or what is the Eraser?"
Thom: "Who or what... oh God, I don't know. I mean, to be honest, I ended up choosing that name because of what Stanley was doing with the artwork. We were looking at all the old German expressionist stuff - as you do - and he just started doing all this wave malarkey. To me there's a certain element that runs through the record of... a lot of trying to forget about things, trying to put it out of your mind, and not being able to. So, that was the extent of it, really."
Craig: "Is there an environmental theme to the record?"
Thom: "Yeah, I couldn't help that. (laughs) I mean, I didn't want to, like, hammer it over the head, but, you know.
One of the initial experiences as we started making the record was [Stanley] and I ended up being involved in this mad natural instant which had a big effect on us.' It seems that Yorke and Donwood happened to be in the West Country on the day of the Boscastle flood.
"One of the other formative things that was happening at the time was I was getting more heavily involved with Friends of the Earth, and the initial IPCC Report came out - which is the International Panel of Climate Change - and it had all these graphs, that all just go like that (gestures upwards), with the global temperatures, and so on and so on, and I was looking at that. Or trying not to look at it, actually. And that had a huge effect on me, obviously."
Craig: "So when does the earliest song on The Eraser date from?"
Thom: "You could argue that the earliest song on The Eraser is the first song on The Eraser. I mean, the piano part in that - the crunchy sort of chords - was me secretly taping, well, was it secret or not? I don't know if he remembers me actually putting the dictaphone on top of the piano while he did it. He said, 'I've got these chords, I don't know what to do with them.'"
Craig: "That's Jonny?"
Thom: "Yeah. He says, 'well'... ummm... I mean he had kind of an idea of what to do with them, (laughs) but I chose to do something completely differently with them, and not tell him, not own up for about a year. 'Jonny... oh, I have these chords...'"
Craig: "Should we talk about some of the individual songs now maybe?"
Thom: "If you want."
Craig: "Put them on... Let's continue the environmental theme. What's maybe the most explicit song - to your mind - about those concerns?"
Thom: "Erm, I would say 'The Clock', actually, which is the third one."
Craig: "'The Clock'? Okay. Yeah, (plays the song) 'Time is running out for us, coins in the wishing well, you make believe you're still in charge'..."
Thom: "Yes. I mean, it's sort of a disco tune, but I can't really actually hear what I'm saying, could you turn it down a bit? I mean, that was born out of the anger of watching heads of state around the globe saying, 'yes, we really must do something about this.' Meanwhile... 'here the latest growth figures.' And no one actually grappling with the wider questions. Everyone just sort of shuffling little bits of paper around on the table going, 'yeah, we really need to do something about this.' Just change the time and no one will know what's happening. The most frightening thing I found about what's going on at the moment is that no one is really engaging with the fact that we can't have endless growth. We can't endlessly consume as human beings. This is no longer, like, you know, smelly hippies talking. Anybody who's got time to think about it should be thinking to themselves, 'well, hang on a minute, there's something fundamentally flawed in the way that we're proceeding.' Most of us are still laboring under the illusion that this is all gonna happen in a couple of hundred years. And it's not, we're talking about 50 years."
[Excpert from 'And it Rained All Night' played]
Thom: "The most sort of fundamental bit of that tune for me is the idea of 'a million engines in neutral'. You know, if you sit in a Tokyo traffic jam, you can't help thinking that perhaps this isn't the best way to proceed... (laughs) And it was written... the initial musical ideas were written in a sleepless night in New York where it absolutely chunked down rain the size of tennis balls all night long. And just listening to that sound all night long with my laptop and not being able to sleep... it sort of came from that..."
Craig: "'Atoms For Peace', I love that song. I like the line, 'I want to eat your artichoke heart'. Can you tell us where that song and where that image came from?"
Thom: "That was like one of those 10-minute, written-in-a-hurry things that just sort of came out, really...
'Quite a personal song, really,' Yorke sniffed. 'Trying to correlate my life with choosing to do this, and choosing to get over the fear which is a constant thing I have.
Being a rock star or pop star, whatever, you're supposed to have super-über-confidence all the time, and I don't. It was my missus telling me to get it together, basically."
Craig: "'Shit here, look, Thom, you sold 20 million albums. People do like you, honestly.'"
Thom: "(laughs) 'Get out... go on, get on with it.'"
Craig: "The timing of the album and I guess even the announcement of the album seems quite purposeful, you wait 'til the..."
Thom: "Excellent! (laughs)"
Craig: "...wait 'til the Radiohead tour had begun and it's come out just after you've done a month in America. Was that deliberate to stop people from thinking, 'Oh, Radiohead are all finished!'"
Thom: "Ummm... yeah, very, very deliberate. I mean, because like... no, the whole thing was done with their blessing anyway."
Craig: "You've gone with XL, who are maybe the biggest indie label in Britain now. Why them? Why not do it with EMI even though you're still..."
Thom: "I just didn't want to do it with EMI. It didn't feel right to do it with EMI. It was done with the doors shut, and it was done, sort of - how did Nigel put it - without anybody watching, basically. It was done in a different context and it felt like it should be put out in a different context as well. Which is not saying that we won't put things out through EMI or whatever. I just don't personally feel that we owe anybody anything. I think that's a mistake. Will we re-sign to EMI? I don't know. I don't think we'd sign to anybody. Give someone a record when it's done if we feel that they can do it justice. That's it."
Craig: "Did you or have you considered doing any solo shows?"
Thom: "Err... I may get my arm twisted, but I have no idea how I'm gonna do it yet. If I get the band to do it, that would be great. That would really mash your head up, wouldn't it? Umm... hang on a minute. (laughs)"
Craig: "Well just finally, then... You know you seem to have gone through a crisis of confidence..."
Thom: "Yet again."
Craig: "...albeit briefly, or otherwise. You know, given that there seems to be a wealth of new material coming out of you, both solo and with the band as well. How would you characterize your creative state, or emotional state right now, this summer?"
Thom: "Erm... better. (laughs) Better."
'Nude', a fabled song among Radiohead fans that the band have never managed to record. Yorke thought they'd finally nailed it, but then added that 'that's under debate as well...'
The purpose of these shows, he said, was partly to 'road test' the new material, as Radiohead had done on a pre-Hail to the Thief tour of Portugal and Spain in summer 2002.
Then he admitted that the tour was also about Radiohead getting back the confidence they'd lost during the Hail to the Thief 'zone', 'because what we were doing was becoming routine. It felt like we were doing it 'cause we didn't really know what else to do.' Undertaking the brief, between-album 2006 tour gave them 'something to focus on before we went back to recording'. Over the past year the band had 'spent too long in the studio with things not happening and it was getting frustrating.'
Yorke admitted he was frustrated at the length of time Radiohead were taking to record their seventh album. They haven't even settled on a producer yet. They'd started producing themselves, had done some sessions with Mark 'Spike' Stent, and had been speaking to Nigel Godrich and 'some other people'. They had played 11 new songs on the tour, plus their contribution to the latest War Child album 'I Want None of It'.
'It seems crazy to have this all [new material] sitting around... It's to varying degrees finished, [and] to just have to wait for another six months, eight months, seems nuts.'
But when you can, as Yorke can, happily 'noodle for England' it's easier to take your time.
Yorke, an 'ambassador' for FoE, had written to the leaders of the three major political parties, inviting them to the gig. 'Well, obviously I didn't write to Tony,' the 37-year-old singer said. 'I wrote to Gordon Brown instead.'
'Obviously' because Thom Yorke hates Tony Blair; because he thinks the PM has 'no environmental credentials';
Why miss the opportunity to lobby the chap on the political throne? Given his passionate espousal of these causes, isn't it Yorke's duty to at least engage in a conversation?
'Not when there were all sorts of conditions being put up.'
'[Blair's advisers] wanted pre-meetings. They wanted to know that I was onside. Also, I was being manoeuvred into a position where if I said the wrong thing post-the meeting, Friends of the Earth would lose their access. Which normally would be called blackmail.' Yorke flashed a humour-free smile.
So Yorke wrote to Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown instead, and Brown (says Yorke) said he would send Environment Secretary David Miliband. The singer's letter to David Cameron, meanwhile, elicited an eager response. The Tory leader wrote back, Jim'll Fix It-style, raving about Radiohead's 'Fake Plastic Trees'.
'I sent this rather sad letter saying I'd love to come to the concert, thank you for asking,' Cameron told Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs four weeks after The Big Ask Live. 'PS: please play this, my favourite song, and he did.'
Sadly for the rather starstruck Tory leader, Yorke's PR subsequently issued a statement denying this causal link. The choice of songs on the setlist had 'nothing to do with any special guests'.
After the Koko show, the VIP mingling. Yorke met the politicos. He found that both Miliband's and Cameron's wives were 'big Radiohead freaks, so that was quite interesting'.
What did he make of Cameron?
'He looked very nervous. As you would.'
A politician Yorke could do business with?
'Nnnooo,' said Yorke with pained emphasis. 'But then it's not my job to do that bit. I wouldn't do that with any of them.'
I had asked him why Radiohead weren't involved with Live8.
'Because that was the point where we couldn't work out whether we should be carrying on or not. Or... well... we couldn't really get it together. Also, I didn't agree with the idea.'
He weighs his words carefully. 'Because it was a form of distraction. A convenient political sideshow to what was probably the most important G8 meeting... Holding a big rock concert and reducing the issues to bare essential levels, I think, ultimately, was to the detriment of the [Make Poverty History] campaign.'
Did you share Damon Albarn of Blur's opinion that it was inappropriate that it was a nearly all-white bill?
'Absolutely. Damon was spot on. He's braver than I am.'
I read him the quote Albarn reportedly gave to the Sun last month. 'Radiohead - I'm not gonna get into anyone, but bands who care about certain things and then go on one-and-a-half year stadium tours are just total hypocrites... In one sense you've got this developing humanist thing... Then you're creating these massive impersonal events where you're set up as the subject of thousands of people's adoration. Where is the humanity in that? That's just idolatry.'
Yorke considers this. 'That's a bit confused, isn't it? OK, yeah, you're probably right, Damon, I should stop,' he says sarcastically.
Do you feel hypocritical playing big gigs?
He's never been one for ego or idolatry, so I ask him if it's because of an arena gig's environmental impact, its carbon footprint.
So how do you fix that?
'When I did the launch thing for [Friends Of The Earth's Big Ask campaign], after being up from seven in the morning doing interviews, I ended up in front of Jon Snow and he was like, "So what are you doing?" I'm like, "Not enough". And it was a painful silence in the [TV] studio! You're not supposed to say that. You're supposed to say, "I'm doing this and this and this. I'm planting trees, somewhere, probably." I'm not! I'm not doing enough! None of us are.'
Do you have sympathy for Chris Martin: very hand-on-his heart active in the Make Trade Fair campaign but necessarily lives a bit of a Hollywood lifestyle, and drives a big car?
'I don't drive a big car, I'll give you that. Um.' A pause. 'No one's going to come out of this dirt-free; I don't come out of it dirt-free. It's basically [about] having to make a decision whether to do nothing or try to engage with it in some way, knowing that it's flawed. It's convenient to project that back on to someone personally and say they're a hypocrite. It's a lot easier to do that than actually do anything else. And yeah, that stresses me out, because I am a hypocrite. As we all are.'
Do you have solar panels or a mini-wind turbine at home?
'I don't have a mini-wind turbine because as far as I can work out, they're trying to get the bill through the Commons to have or have not [sic] permission to put them up. They're trying to define them in the same zone as Sky dishes. And things like that. And no, I don't have solar panels yet because I've just moved house and I'm working out how best to do it.'
Is the song 'Harrowdown Hill' really about the suicide of weapons inspector and government scientist Dr David Kelly?
'It is,' says Yorke with some reluctance. 'But I've got this thing where I don't want to make a big deal out of that because I'm very sensitive to the idea of digging up anything that the Kelly family...'
As he often does, Yorke lets a sentence fizzle out just as another barges in.
'I don't really think it's appropriate for me to say, "Yes, it's about that",' he continues, 'because I'm sure they're still grieving over his death.'
But Harrowdown Hill is the name of the Oxfordshire woods where Kelly's body was found in July 2003. I remind Yorke of the lyrics: 'You will be dispensed with when you've become inconvenient... up on Harrowdown Hill... that's where I'm lying down... did I fall or was I pushed...'. That's quite direct stuff.
'It's the most angry song I've ever written in my life,' he nods grimly. 'I'm not gonna get into the background to it, the way I see it... And it's not for me or for any of us to dig any of this up. So it's a bit of an uncomfortable thing.'
I try another, less personal tack with regards to 'Harrowdown Hill'. Did the Kelly affair crystallise everything that was wrong and venal about the whole Iraq adventure for Yorke?
A pause. 'Um, I guess I didn't see it in terms of Iraq, but obviously, yes. What disturbed me the most about it was the way that the Ministry of Defence in this country is able to operate. I think it's a profound cancer at the centre of this society.'
Thom Yorke exhales heavily. He notices the time. He's got to go. Phil's mum's funeral. He promises he'll come back afterwards and talk some more.
I worry that Thom Yorke might not return after the funeral. But he does. He's fairly upbeat, considering. He apologises for 'his brain not engaging' this morning. 'In some ways I feel I didn't answer properly,' he says, eating an asparagus risotto in the hotel dining room. 'That whole Damon thing,' he begins, then pops on his conspiracy theorist's hat - the Sun printing that quote is another example of 'the Murdoch papers" disdain for him and his lefty, anti-globalisation ways. (There was a savage piece in the Murdoch-owned New York Post once.)
Then he says: 'I'm not really bothered about what Damon thinks, but the whole thing about doing big shows does bother me. Do you just do the small shows and keep selling them out so everyone gets really, really cross [because they can't get tickets]? But at the same time the whole apparatus of big festivals is not cool. If we could go to them and say, you can only use paper cups, you can't use generators, you have to use solar panels... The trouble is you can't do a show at the moment with solar panels. You technically can't make it happen.'
Craig: "So we can pick up where we were and backtrack?"
Thom: "Yeah, we can do that again if you want just make sure you got it."
Craig: "Um, okay. Well, I'll kind of rephrase one of the questions maybe, slightly..."
Thom: "Yeah, go on."
Craig: "Umm... given the kind of famously, kind of convulsive creative times you've had..."
Thom: "Convulsive, yeah... Convulsive, I like that."
Craig: "...through Kid A and Amnesiac. Was there a sense that you doing this solo record out of the Radiohead zone - as you put it - would be better for everyone's health, if you like, the health of the band, your creative health?"
Thom: "I don't... maybe. The thing is that, you know, the general... the Kid A and Amnesiac thing was... because what was happening is we were going down a lot of sort of programming route. It's a very boring business, you know, being in the studio, if you're a band, looking at a computer screen. It doesn't really make sense. I mean it makes sense to a certain extent, but, you know, you're sucking the energy out of the proceedings, and that's something we were very conscious of when we were doing Hail to the Thief, of not going there. Erm... uhh... and yeah, part of me thinks it's a good idea to separate them, so you have to load this program stuff and it's a separate entity and blah blah blah, and then the band works as a band and it's like five people playing in real time. But I think the most exciting stuff that we've ever done has been when the two cross over. When we're forced to learn something that's been sequenced or we're using the computers to adapt something that we play live, and things like that. I think there'd be no point in Radiohead carrying on as if... if all we did was work in that sort of live performance sort of way. I mean - saying that - obviously with doing The Eraser on my own, it was very, very deliberately sort of just me and Nigel deliberately using computers a lot just for their speed and for a different sort of aesthetic, you know. You can spend too long dwelling on stuff that there's no point dwelling on, and I did that, personally. And it's really just... the whole thing for me is just hanging out with people and with Radiohead again, and having done my record... it's sort of... I feel there's a point to carry on working, so that's all I need, really. I mean for a long time I didn't feel there was a point, so I guess that's good. Yeah, better."
Craig: "I mean, it must be almost, possibly 14 years to the day since the Drill EP came out."
Thom: "God Almighty, is it?"
Craig: "I think it is."
Craig: "It's either this week or last week. Has it taken you fourteen years to realize all these things?"
Thom: "No, no! Just... umm... You know, you just... I just felt - well it wasn't just me - everybody felt like we were just painting ourselves into a corner, and it all went a bit wrong, you know. And that's bound to happen. That's what should happen. What would be more worrying is just carrying on without even realizing... erm, you know. That's the same with any art form, hopefully, is that you just have to stop for a bit and work out what the hell you're doing."
What Thom Yorke's doing, he concludes with a strange mixture of a grin and a frown, is 'satisfying a great big need that I have. To hang out with these people, to share ideas, and to make a fucking racket in Radiohead.'
Craig: "So you think that doing The Eraser has kind of energized you personally and energized Radiohead?"
Thom: "It's energized me personally. I think the Radiohead thing will happen of its own accord, really. Umm... with... with... if you're in a band, you need to have momentum and you need to... sort of like... Things have to just happen naturally of their own accord while you're sort of hanging out doing stuff, and that is now happening. Whereas for a long time it was like... we get to together and want something to happen and nothing was happening for ages, because then... you know... then we were sort of getting together for a bit and then going away and getting together for a bit. So, uhh... yeah, momentum is important."