NEW YORKE STORIES: ON THE TRAIL OF RADIOHEAD
What have Radiohead been up to since 'OK Computer'? We track down the band and bring you the inside story on the year's most eagerly anticipated album.
Prepare to be stunned. Nearly three years after "OK Computer" completely destroyed conventional wisdom about rock music, and two years since Radiohead removed their beautiful sonic shudder from our radar, the biggest band in the world (potentially) have shown they do have a sense of humour after all. We've heard one particular song - if that truly describes everything about severed minutes of music that sounds like The Smiths produced by DJ Shadow - that's a strong contender to feature on the follow-up to the most important album of the Nineties, whoever you are, wherever you live. The song's title? "How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found".
Maybe it's their idea of teasing us, but frankly we've had enough. We got to know Radiohead with that amazing LP and the end-of-an-era Glastonbury that really happened three years too early, and then Thom, Ed, Jonny, Colin and Phil went international. They became absent friends, and the odd arena gig to thrill us, but no longer just the band who made "The Bends" in our backyard. Today Radiohead are a cyberspace secret, operating on their terms, refusing to let the outside world affect their genius.
So the time has come to forget Oasis, give Ashcroft the elbow and even eject the adorable Embrace. We need to set out on a journey of re-discovery. If there's one band that promises to return rock to us, it's Radiohead. But, dozens of months down the line, what do we really know about the new album? Nothing we can treasure for the lonely months until its release, other than guitarist Ed O'Brien's muso-heavy website diary, which gradually blurs all the new songs into each other and - without including any of thieir incredible sounds - frustrates you like a pair of concrete pants in a brothel. During happy hour.
So The Maker, responding to endless enquiries from readers about the whereabouts of their favourite band, has decided the time has come to compile our secret Radiohead file. There's no invite, nor even a hint of an album title, but we're heading to Oxford to discover what's been happening to the most important album of the next decade.
Oxford is every inch a Radiohead city. Polite and easy-going like them, but with pockets of bohemian luxury and intellectual extremity. But where to look for the band who have decided to disappear and never be found, at least until further notice? Cowley Road, basically, the musical artery that the majority of Radiohead still live within walking distance of. Musically, Thom and the band might blow your eyelids away, but their presence on the Cowley Road doesn't cause locals' eye flaps to even tremor. Unless they're huge fans.
Chloe Horner from Oxford indie record label Shifty Disco explains: "Radiohead still live here, so they are very inspirational for aspiring musicians here. I would like to think they are still part of the Oxford scene. They don't come to many gigs, because people hassle them and they are not the sort of band that take well to hassle. They try their best, but when a band is as big as that, it's difficult."
Have they retreated a bit?
"I think so," says Chloe. "They don't have a very big presence because of all the hassle. You're actually more likely to see them on the Cowley Road, out at the cinema or a restaurant."
So Radiohead are around. And what stories the sightings throw up. Co-Co's, a typically trendy bar, is a favourite haunt of the band's and Thom Yorke's especially. Barman Andrew whispers: "Thom was in here a couple of weeks ago with Bjork."
Come off it. Was it definitely Bjork?
"You could hardly mistake her, could you?"
He's made a fair point, and it's convincing enough to persuade us to make a few enquiries. Sure enough, a few stunned conversations later, and we've learned that Thom isn't just sipping cappuccino with Bjork, he's bloody well singing with her in her new movie, "Dancer In The Dark", directed by Lars von Trier.
A source from the film told The Maker: "Bjork is finishing the soundtrack to the film and Thom's voice will be a big part. It's a real musical with songs and Thom will be singing over the voice of the male co-star in the film, who's not that well known an actor. Bjork goes into dance routienes, but it's actually quite a harrowing, dramatic film."
Very Radiohead, then. There's even a chance that Bjork returned the favour and guested on the album. But that's just speculation, although Bjork's most recent, uncompromising work is apparently a signpost for the new Radiohead album, along with a few sublime orchestral arrangements. Just don't expect the usual sodding strings, or "High and Dry' acoustic simplicity.
Blown away by the news that's speeping out, we head back down to London to take stock. Then, bizarrely, the world-renowned Orchestra Of St. John's gets explosive on The Maker's ass. The 32-year-old orchestra will soon be claiming its place in rock history, after helping to create three songs on the next Radiohead album.
Concerts director Alison Atkinson, still woozy from the afternoon which took place six weeks ago, explains: "We recorded with Radiohead in Dorchester Abbey, near Oxford, and it was fantastic. It came about because we do an annual festival there in September - Jonny Greenwood came along last year and was really enthusiastic. They were extremely excited about having our string section. It was an experimental evening, wiht Jonny full of ideas. Our conductor, John Lubbock, worked with Jonny, talked about his ideas and told him what would work and what wouldn't. It was all about trying different things out. It was fantastic, much more experimental than usual, all about extracting different sounds. There were lots of harmonics, not just strings.
"There are 20 people in our orchestra," Alison continues, "and Jonny got them to play, which was recorded. Radiohead were all there listening to the three tracks. It was an exciting first move for us as an orchestra. A lot of individual members have done big tours with bands like the Spice Girls. It was a lovely, fantastic place with so much character and gorgeous acoustics. It was quite cold, so we brought in extra heaters. Everyone was wearing big jumpers."
How did their new songs sound?
"I don't know exactly how to describe them, I don't know what they'll do with those tracks, they wanted to go and work on them, so the end result will be exciting to hear. It was a three-hour session, enough time to work well. They were all very involved in the session. Thom was very clear about what he wanted."
At the session, Thom was heard to say, "I really want the colour of the sounds being played to fit in with the mood of each track."
Meanwhile, multi-instrumentalist Jonny told the players:"I want you all to swing!"
Alison explains: "The bass players were playing what was written and the band were not completely happy. They really wanted them to swing, which is feeling the rhythm, rather than just playing what's written. It's how a jazz musician would play, and the orchestra did it, no problem."
But are these new songs as amazing as we're hoping?
"Thom was singing on the pre-recorded tracks, and it sounded fantastic," she says. "He had an amazing voice. It was recognisably Radiohead. Sometimes our orchestra is asked to play really basic stuff, but the session was about inventive musical ideas which really added to the tracks. Jonny is a really talented composer and I'm sure everyone came away as fans of the band. I'm sure we'd love to tour with Radiohead if we were asked."
It's definitely time to talk to this band. But they haven't really been in the mood for talking for a long while now. The infamous on-the-road film, "Meeting People Is Easy", just missed out on a Grammy recently. It's a brilliant portrait of a multi-million-selling band having the life hoovered out of them on the road. There are even clips of a couple of new songs, including "Big Ideas (Don't Get Any)", "Big Boots/Man-O-War" and "Follow Me Around". But Thom looks distressed in the film, and there's no reason to suggest he's cheered up.
Indeed, Thom complained on the Radiohead website a few weeks ago: "I got beaten up in the middle of Oxford last week by someone who recognised me and saw me as an easy target. Only bruises, so OK didn't go to police. I tried that once before and was accused of willing it on myself. Lots of weird things happening around me which I am trying not to be concerned about. Also much love. Am in need of protection."
Dilly Gent has been creative director for the band's videos since "Creep" and says their reputation as moody gits is undeserved. "We really down-playd the film in the UK because the band were scared of a backlash. They are always scared of that. They do keep moving forward, obviously, but they are always terrified of being ripped to shreds."
They're not as down as the film suggests, though?
"I've just hooked up with them again," says Dilly. "They're in really good spirits, very chilled and just happy to be making really good music. They are the happiest I've ever seen them. If you documented every band that goes on a huge world tour like that, they would all look jaded. Do that for a year and I defy anyone to be cheery and bouncy. It's not that Thom's moody or weird, he's just a human being. Probably the one day he was moody, we happened to film him.
Radiohead make stunning videos, like the much-talked-about "Just" promo, the psycho-cartoon for "Paranoid Android" or the terrifying "No Surprises", where Thom appears to drown. Are there any ideas for the new songs?
"They have really good taste and they always take risks," explains Dilly. "I was like, 'Oh my God' during the 'No Surprises' video. But Thom would just sit there and hold his breath for two minutes. I couldn't sit there and watch it.
"Thom is more involved in the videos than the others, but they all approve them. I'm sure the album will be mind-blowing. They're excitred about the Royal Festival Hall gig (On July 1). It would be good to film that. I'm sure they'll do a full tour as well."
Radiohead drummer Phil Selways' reputations as one of the nicest blokes in rock is well deserved. I know this because I bump into him outside his flat off the Cowley Road and, even though he's in a hurry and clutching his new baby, he happily answers my questions.
Relaxed and untroubled, he doesn't look like a man whose band are mired in uncertainty and confusion, of which there have been hints in recent months.
"It's going brilliantly," he promises me. But when are we going to hear it?
"Ha! Ha! We don't even know when it's coming out ourselves. I would say the end of the year, though, hopefully."
Then he actually seems to get excited about the masterpiece in progress. "What can I tell you?" he teases. "Well, it's nothing like 'OK Computer'. I can promise you it's going to surprises everyone. Even we still don't know how the whole album is going to sound eactly. We are still busy recording it and we'll be back in the studio again later today."
Trying to get Phil to sum up hundreds of man-hours in the studio is a bit unfair, but he doesn't seem too put out.
"Nice to speak to you," he assures me. "Thanks a lot for your interest."
It comes as no surprise to hear that Phil still volunteers for the Samaritans nearby. Thrilled to discover that Radiohead are happy, we decide to try and find the rest of them and get them to share their news. We know Thom won't talk. He's famously withdrawn during the making of albums - one local describes how she tried to get Thom's autograph, but he simply kept walking, not even registering her.
So we try guitarist Ed O'Brien and bass player Colin Greenwood, who actually live two minutes apart in the same road. Radiohead obviously attract obsessive fans, because this is what Colin's girlfriend takes me for when she answers the door.
Reluctant to tell me her name, she asks: "How did you know where we live? Colin's with the band in the studio just outside of Oxford right now. I'm not telling you where it is, though, haha!"
OK, but do you know when the album's coming out?
"Yeah, hopefully it will be out by the end of the summer."
"Yeah, hooray! They have ben in there for a year and it was really hard for them at certain stages, but it's going really well now."
Later, we skip a few doors down to Ed's and wait for him to head off to the studio. But maybe he was warned, because the 6ft 5in guitarist is wearing his shades and jumps straight in his Volkswagen Polo and speeds off past us before we can ask him a thing. But his right-hand man, the mysteriously named Plank, does share a few insights about the album. Created on the "OK Computer" sleeve, Plank is a vital part of the Radiohead set-up.
"I'm their technician and they're right in the middle of recording the album," he explains. "Is it good? Oh yeah, it's very good. I'm reluctant to answer questions because I'm always getting approached by journalists. As to what's happening and when things are happening, I can't say. But soon. >From what I've heard, it is going to be brilliant. It's going to be an absolutely storming album."
We head out to the studio in the Oxfordshire countryside, the former apple shed they converted with their royalties. But, again, they're elusive and locals are protective towards them. There's no sign of the band, just Didcot Power Station's towers looming in the background. Radiohead have their own mobile studio, Canned Applause, which they can set up anywhere, so they could be holed up anywhere. There are even rumours that they might have returned to the stately home near Bath that actress Jane Seymour owns, or found an alternative, secret Oxfordshire location. Other locations mentioend include a Paris studio and the Medley studio in Copenhagen.
So, yes, we're excited. But we still haven't heard the songs, though we know a man who can help us with that. A shadowy trader has offered us a CD called "The Basement Tapes", a bootleg doing the rounds on the Oxford scene. "Radiohead probably wouldn't be too happy if they knew about this," admits our new best friend. Amazingly, it's not the usual sub-standard noise, but a preview of the new songs, culled from the end of the last tour in the USA. "How To Disappear..." is on there and is clearly the result of recent interest by the band in The Smiths. "Jonny is obsessed by 'Hatful Of Hollow' at the moment," Thom said of the B-sides album recently.
"True Love Waits" is another grand lullaby, driven by dream-like guitars, alien noises and a swirling hypno-rhythmic edge. Other album contenders on the CD include the sad, contained explosion of "Motion Picture Soundtrack", and a few old songs which the band have been re-working. But "Man-O-War/Big Boots", "Big Ideas (Don't Get Any)" and "Lift" will be shunted from a final tracklisting if they don't match the blueprint. From what we've gathered, Radiohead 2000 won't be making pop songs. It's going to be orchestrated rock messed around with computers, looped and spliced adventures in sound, art rock for the people with funky jazz influences and white noise. Expect long, drawn-out experiments and beautiful journeys, with Thom's voice more intense than ever.
Before we depart Oxford, we need to pick up some gossip. Nick Moorbath played keyboards for Ride and Hurricane#1 and he owns the city's biggest indie club, the Zodiac on the Cowley Road. Which, coincidentally, Radiohead also own shares in.
"This is just me and Phil chatting, but they said they would be touring properly at the end of the year," he says. "I see Ed and Phil quite a lot and they seem in good spirits. They seem to be a lot more vibey with it now. They have passed the hard stage and they seem pretty chirpy. I'm going to see Ed next week, so I might get to hear something. They just lock themselves away in their studio and they feel quite at home. But from just seeing them recently, I think they've got past the worst of it. I'm sure it's all great and they are just torturing themselves. Phil and Ed seem happy with the way it's going."
Another local musician confids: "Someone close to the band told me that they are going to be gigging at the end of the summer in their own big tents. A big top, that's what I've been told."
The official line, though, is wait and see, and check the internet. Bryce Edge, the band's manager, explains: "It's going very well. There's no release date on the record company's schedules, simply because it's not finished. We hope it'll be out this year, so the earliest would be September or October. It's being finished bit by bit. They've recorded all over the place.
"There will be bigger shows in the autumn. They are playing Meltdown - that's held every year and the band were approached by Scott Walker. It just took their fancy. I would be surprised if they didn't debut new songs. It would be strange for their first UK show in a couple of years if they didn't play any new songs. They've been beavering away, they've not been sitting around doing nothing. Depending on the type of track, some they finish quickly, some take a couple of years to work through the system."
We've worked that out for ourselves. Nevertheless, we depart Oxford with our faith restored: Radiohead aren't going to leave us high and dry. They're still on course to release a record which will guarantee their status as the most improtant band in the world. We just wish they'd get a bloody move on.
WILL THE NEXT ALBUM MAKE RADIOHEAD THE BIGGEST BAND IN THE WORLD?
Larry Flick, talent editor of American music industry mag Billboard: "Absolutely. They are considered a serious band in the USA. They're kind of dark-sounding. Some bands are just very important. Radiohead are so cool that peer pressure comes into play. The perception is that you can't miss out on a Radiohead album. People are waiting for it. They don't make obvious-sounding records. I'd predict at least a Top 10 album, if not a Number One, which is hard to do here. But they can do it. They've always been embraced in the USA because they have the respect to keep coming back."
Your guide to Radiohead's new songs
Radiohead have almost 40 new songs recorded with producer Nigel Godrich to consider for their new album. Ed has said more songs are now completed (bar mixing) than uncompleted. "Egyptian Song" (aka "Nothing To Fear") is one the band keep talking about It was debuted with Thom on piano at the Amnesty gig in Amsterdam last June, and he reckoned it was their best song yet. The opening lyric is: "I jumped in the river and what did I see?/Black-eyed angels swimming with me/A moon full of stars and astral cars/All the figures I used to see/All my lovers were there with me".
"Cuttooth" is another band favourite. About eight and a half minutes long, it's been a major distraction for the band, though Ed now reckons it's "f***ing great". A huge bass riff is the only certainty about this song, which they played on one of their unannounced webcasts. Brand new songs mentioned by Ed on the band's website this year include "Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses" and "Kinetic". "Dollars And Cents" is another that's often talked about, a track that "originated out of a jam from Copenhagen", according to Ed. Other songs include "Follow Me Around", "How To Disappear...", "Knives Out" ("Probably the most straight-ahead thing that we've done in years," said Ed after the 373 days it took to complete), "I Will", "Lost At Sea/In Limbo", "Morning Bell", "True Love Waits" and "You And Whose Army".