CENTRE OF THE SPOTLIGHT
A SUBLIME EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH RADIOHEAD
Few bands have achieved what Radiohead have achieved since the days when New Wave momentarily turned the pop charts into a playground of the avant-garde. They have consistently created innovative, even ‘difficult’ music far beyond the confines of easy listening, yet they are one of the most commercially successful groups of the past decade.
Even by their own standards, however, their latest album, the seventh, created an unusually intense degree of anticipation. Four and a half years had elapsed since their previous album, Hail to the Thief. Much had happened in the meantime. Thanks to The Libertines, Britain had rediscovered the concise pleasures of the two-minute song. The internet had become the most important medium for the dissemination of music. A catastrophic lack of vision had pushed the major record labels to the edge of ruin. Various Radioheads, meanwhile, had popped up at occasional demonstrations in support of such causes as fair trade and ecology, while drummer Phil Selway discreetly manned a telephone at the offices of the Samaritans. During 2006, the band introduced a few new songs during a number of festival performances. Then, all of a sudden, early in September, guitarist Jonny Greenwood posted a message on the band’s website announcing the completion of a new album, In Rainbows. This was followed shortly after by the news that the whole album could be downloaded, again from the band’s own website, almost three months before its anticipated release on CD. Not only that, the price for the download would be as much as the downloader wanted to pay. This was intriguing news indeed – news that brought the band a priceless amount of publicity. In one fell swoop, they had reclaimed the centre of the spotlight.
Sublime met singer Thom Yorke, and – separately – the guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, as well as bassist Colin Greenwood – a few weeks after the release of In Rainbows to discuss the fallout from this adventurous move.
JONNY GREENWOOD, ED O’BRIEN AND COLIN GREENWOOD
SUBLIME: YOU WROTE MOST OF THE SONGS FOR IN RAINBOWS DURING 2006. WERE YOU JUST LAZING ABOUT DURING 2007?
ED: (horrified) Not at all! We did a bunch of recordings with [producer] Nigel Godrich in the autumn last year. At Christmas everybody went away and reviewed it, and we all concluded it wasn’t very good, that it needed a lot of work. So we started again in January and finished recording in July. It was hard work.
S: THE BAND WASN’T CONTRACTED TO ANY RECORD COMPANY DURING THIS TIME. WHAT WAS IT LIKE RECORDING WITHOUT THE SPONSORTS PEERING OVER YOU SHOULDER?
ED: It was no different, because they haven’t been involved like that since OK Computer. That album gave us a lot of freedom. They never came down to the studio afterwards to say whether they liked it or not. We presented them the finished work, and that was it.
SUBLIME: YOU NEVER HAD AN ISSUE ABOUT QUALITY CONTROL? ISN’T THERE A DANGER THAT YOU FIND EVERYTHING YOU DO FANTASTIC?
ED: Our management are very good sounding boards. They carry out kind of what you’d call an old-fashioned A&R role. (To Jonny, grinning) Although you might disagree.
JONNY: (mock-sourish tone) Sometimes they are good. Well – we all have moments of talking rubbish in front of each other.
S: HOW HAVE THE VARIOUS OUTSIDE PROJECTS AFFECTED WORK WITH RADIOHEAD? (THOM YORKE LAST YEAR RELEASED A SUCCESSFUL SOLO ALBUM; JONNY GREENWOOD COMPILED A REGGAE ALBUM AND WORKED WITH THE LONDON SINFONIETTA)
JONNY: The only influence from THOM’s was – actually I don’t think there was one. He always goes everywhere with a laptop and headphones anyway, he has done for years, so I think he was just relieved to finally release a batch of that music. They were never going to be Radiohead songs. It just made him more proficient on laptops.
S: SO THERE WASN’T A BUNCH OF IDEAS HE CONSTANTLY TRIED AND FAILED TO FOIST ON YOU?
JONNY: He’s been foisting ideas on us since the 80s! That’s what he does. That’s nothing new.
S: WERE YOU SURPRISED AT THE HUGE FUSS THAT WAS MADE AT THE WAY YOU SOLD THE ALBUM OVER THE INTERNET?
JONNY: We assumed everyone would be interested and excited, but we were surprised by the extent of it, how quickly it built up. That was a surprise. A few days before the event we were saying, We don’t actually know that, do we? There could be no interest at all, or we could be too late.
COLIN: It was a step in the dark, wasn’t it? We didn’t have a clue. It was so exciting.
S: SOME FIGURES HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED BY THE TRADE MAGAZINES, ACCORDING TO WHICH BETWEEN 40% AND 60% OF DOWNLOADERS PAID NOTHING.
ED: We have no figures at all yet.
S: THERE WERE HITCHES AND WHINGES, TOO. SOME PEOPLE COMPLAINED THAT BY PLAYING ON THE FANS’ CONSCIENCE YOU MADE THEM PAY FOR THE DOWNLOAD WHEN THEY WOULD LATER ON PAY AGAIN FOR THE PROPER CD
ED: When we made our initial announcement through our press people there was always a footnote at the bottom pointing out that a physical release would be available. Some ../../media/uk didn’t report that bit. My big problem with the way we released it is that the website is only in English. But, you know, we’re just doing it ourselves. We haven’t got a big record company behind us. And we wanted to do it quickly. So there are flaws. But we really have done it with the best intentions.
COLIN: The flaws are virtuous, aren’t they? That’s the thing. They’re virtuous because we’ve done it ourselves. It was like a performance. It was like doing a show, that’s what was so exciting about it. After spending two years closeted away making a record, it was like opening the door to the studio and there’s like a million people whom you’re going to give it to. That’s what’s cool about it. It’s not ../../media/ukted by music magazines. It’s not ../../media/ukted by the record shops. It’s not ../../media/ukted by the radio stations. It’s just us and a piece of wire in the computer and the internet.
S: YOU ALSO MADE IT DIFFICULT TO RESIST ORDERING THE BOX SET INSTEAD OF STICKING TO THE FREE DOWNLOAD. IT HAPPENED TO ME. YOU READ WHAT’S IN THE BOX – AN EXTRA CD WITH NEW SONGS, THE ALBUM IN VINYL, A BOOK WITH PICTURES AND THE LYRICS – AND YOU THINK, ‘HANG ON, IT’D BE STUPID NOT TO GO FOR THE BOX!’
ED: But presumably you like what we’ve done in the past.
S: VERY MUCH SO
ED: Most people aren’t gonna do what you did. But I agree with you. If I’m a real fan of a band – say if Kings of Leon had released this – I’d have been like, ‘I’ve got to get this, I want it all!’ I think that’s great. It allows people who have a passion for a band, a real passion, to dig deeper – trawling over the artwork, looking at the credits – all that stuff.
COLIN: Because you know it’s something we’ve made as a band. It’s all been put together by us. It’s not the record company. It’s most definitely not a marketing exercise.
ED: So much CARE, you know, went into this! So much – for want of a better word – LOVE.
S: HAVE YOUR EXPERIENCES FROM DOING IT LED YOU ALREADY TO NEW IDEAS ABOUT WHAT YOU MIGHT BE TRYING OUT NEXT?
COLIN: Yeah. We’ve just done this webcast, which we’ve done before. When you make or record something, whether it’s any good or not, you can pass that decision-making on to the fans. And it’s really liberating. We did a webcast – some of which was a bit dodgy and some of which was really great – and then people decide what they like and put it on their blogs, or they send it to other people, so there’s a sort of filtering. And it’s the sort of people you want it to be, the fans, not someone in an office at a record company. So it means you don’t have to think about any of that, you just think about doing what you do as an artist. And I think that’s really exciting.
S: HAVE YOU HAD LOADS Of BANDS CALLING YOU UP, SAYING ‘WELL DONE, FANTASTIC’ OR ‘YOU BASTARDS HAVE RUINED OUR BUSINESS’?
ED: Unfortunately, the way bands are in Britain, people don’t really talk. You know, they don’t say, ‘This is Liam from Oasis. Well done old chaps, this is the model for the future!’ Although I did go to the Q awards a couple of months ago, and had a couple of people coming up to me – Ian Brown, people like that – saying it’s really good. I think people like it.
S: AND THE CURTAINS OF THE INDUSTRY? HAVE YOU HAD HATE MAIL?
ED: No. What was really interesting was that we had to wait until after this download thing was released before doing our record deals. We couldn’t tell any of the record companies who were interested in signing us. We were expecting that once the download had come out several would pull out, thinking, What’s the point of getting involved? Actually the opposite happened. It seemed to stimulate their resolve. When they were making their pitch to our managers they seemed even hungrier to sign us. The music industry used to be a very creative business. In the 70s the marketing person in some cases was as creative as the artist! I think the record companies are looking for stuff; people working in the record companies since the mid 80s are bored. They want some of that anarchy back.
S: CONGRATULATIONS! I THINK IT’S A WONDERFUL ALBUM.
THOM: Thank you! You’re the first person who’s said that today.
S: DON’T YOU HEAR IT ALL THE TIME?
THOM: But it’s always pleasing to hear it.
S: WHAT SORT Of YEAR HAS IT BEEN FOR YOU SINCE THE SOLO ALBUM?
THOM: It’s been up and down for me. We weren’t sure whether we were really gonna get it together or not. Then we put the songs in order, and everything started kicking off, it got really good. It’s actually been a really nice last couple of months. It’s a relief, but there’s a sort of a sense of achievement as well. It’s a good thing to have. You’ve got to enjoy it if you’ve got that sense of achievement.
S: WAS THERE A KIND OF ‘THAT’S US!’ MOMENT?
THOM: Yeah! When we finally worked out what was going on, in what order and stuff, yeah. I had me (sic) moment! Sitting in the control room on my own, doing this (puts head in hands). It was great. Really good, actually. The times you think, oh man, it’s never gonna happen – that’s just the nature of it. Every time you get into that creative thing there’s a sort of period of everything feeling as if it’s breaking down. That’s part of the creative process, I guess.
S: YOUR DOWNLOAD RELEASE OF IN RAINBOWS BEGS ONE QUESTION: WHY BOTHER WITH A CONVENTIONAL CD AT ALL?
THOM: Because if we didn’t, it would have been like saying the entire universe is just the internet. Which it isn’t. Basically a lot of people would never get to hear it unless we also released a normal version. The condition for doing a download release, for me, was that we also did a normal CD. Otherwise it’s like you’re deliberately saying that whole groups of people aren’t good enough to hear it. I just thought that wasn’t right. That’s about as far as I went in my head, really. I was totally down with the download thing. To me it’s like a glorified leak date, you know. But, in the end, I like the idea of someone being able to buy it at Tesco’s.
S: CHANGE OF TOPIC. YOU TURNED DOWN THE OPPORTUNITY TO MEET TONY BLAIR. WOULD YOU LIKE TO MEET GORDON BROWN?
THOM: Yeah, maybe – if he doesn’t take us into another war like Iraq. Apparently he’s coming round to the environmental bill I’ve been trying to push with Friends of the Earth. If he actually does do that, maybe I should meet him and give him some credit. If he doesn’t, then I won’t. The thing with Tony Blair was in the context of Friends of the Earth as well. I wasn’t happy about the fact that there were all those conditions about what I could say afterwards and so on. I just thought that was weird, that it would affect Friends of the Earth’s access to the Prime Minister if I went around afterwards saying, Yeah, he’s full of shit.
S: IT WOULD HAVE TURNED YOU INTO A COG IN THE SPIN MACHINERY
THOM: Exactly! Which was wrong, man. But, more than that, in my heart of hearts I could not shake hands with the guy who took us into Iraq. I just couldn’t do it. Brown hasn’t done that yet. I’m sure he’ll think of something.
S: FOR A WHILE YOU WERE VERY PROMINENT IN THOSE SORTS OF ACTVITIES – SUPPORTING FRIENDS OF THE EARTH ACTIONS, AND JUSTICE IN TRADE…
THOM: I don’t do that much. I don’t do as much as I should. I’m lazy.
S: I WAS GOING TO ASK WHETHER YOU TOOK A LITTLE BIT OF A BACK SEAT BECAUSE YOU FEARED YOU MIGHT TURN INTO BONO?
THOM: I wasn’t worried about that at all! I just thought I wasn’t helping. A lot of the time, I think, they are doing perfectly well without me. And also, you know, you’re basically out of your depth. I don’t like being out of my depth, especially the political element of it. I’m really fascinated by all that, but it’s a weird world. I don’t understand it at all.
S: IN BRITAIN TEN YEARS AGO IF YOU TALKED ABOUT ECOLOGY YOU WERE CONSIDERED A CRANK. HOW DO YOU FEL ABOUT THE SPEED OF THE CHANGE INATTITUDE$ IN THE PAST FEW YEARS?
THOM: It’s fascinating how fast it has changed, how fast people have become conscious of it. But it does alarm me that it’s only a certain section of society. The rest of society is like, ‘Well, we’re screwed anyway’. I guess that’s the easier position to take. If you’re told an environmental catastrophe may be just round the corner, do you a) do something about it, or b) say, Oh well, we’re screwed anyway, and carry on as normal. Which is the more tempting? It’s the same in the political establishment. I don’t know what it’s like in the rest of Europe. Well, at least the EU seems to have got its act together... Vaguely. Maybe it’ll change.