Songs are coming easily, confidence has returned. After the paranoia and angst, Radiohead talk to Nick Kent about Amnesiac, love of music and a way out of the woods.
THE 43RD ANNUAL GRAMMYS CEREMONY - HELD IN FEBRUARY IN Los Angeles' gargantuan Staples Centre - once again lived up to its ritzy reputation as contemporary music's most glamorous and prestigious night of nights. Millions around the world watching the event via satellite television were left with inflamed retinas after staring too long at the fruity pink-and-green polka-dot ensemble Elton John chose to sport during his 'controversial' duet nith 'homophobic' rapper Eminem. The petite soul singer Toni Braxton started an international style scandal with her virtually non-existent dress, while hot R&B girl trio Destiny's Child caused widespread outbreaks of temporary blindness the world over nith their eye-poppingly erotic attire. Everyone in the audience had stepped out in their best, brightest togs and kept flashing toothy "we're all winners here" smiles whenever a camera would swoop down on them. However, there were three noticeable abstainers on the "be-of-good cheer" front: Phil, Colin and Ed of Radiohead, who sat immediately behind the greying domes of Donald Fagen and Waiter Becker of Steely Dan (who ended up going home with two statuettes). Like the song that first brought them fame says, the just didn't belong there. Every time their uncertain faces appeared on screen they looked so spectacularly out of place, it seemed as if they were expecting an usher to toss them out of the nearest exit.
"Did you see what happened to us" asks Jonny Greenwood a month after the event. The guitarist - like singer Thom Yorke - managed to blag his way out of actually having to attend and ended up watching his fellow members squirming under the spotlight on a television set at home. "Phil, Colin and Ed were asked to stand at the front of the stage for photographs [Radiohead won a Best Alternative Rock Grammy for Kid A] - and the three ofthem looked so awkward the audience all started laughing. All the other acts had done this big performance - "Thank you, America" and all that - but Radiohead were so visibly uncomfortable at just being there that everyone went into a state of complete hysterics."
"It felt like any minute we'd be ejected by the organisers screaming, "What are you doing there in the same room as all these Playboy bunnies?" remembers Colin Greenwood. "There was an entertainment area on the fourth floor - open-air for smokers - and you could look down on this Woody Alien Sleeperesque landscape of black and white stretch limes belonging to the rich and famous and the media moguls coming down from their mansions. It was such an antiseptic, controlled environment. They closed down all the liquor-serving facilities at five in the afternoon."
The absence of bevvy didn't unduly concern Ed O' Brien, however: "I actually took some mushrooms that night. It was the best thing to do; going around the parties afterwards - there were fires everywhere and swimming pools and 'the beautiful people' - it was like being on a film set."
Radiohead's self-conscious predicament was truly brought home to all members when they saw Bono and U2 sweep onto the stage to receive no less than three awards that night. The globe-straddling Irish quartet have seen off a lot of stiff competition over the years - Nirvana, the Stone Roses, Oasis - and Bono wasted no time in theatrically declaring, "We're re-applying for the job of greatest rock'n'roll band in the world" to tumultuous applause. "U2 walked out to collect their awards very, very slowly," recalls Jonny Greenwood. "They looked just like gunslingers, didn't they! Bono does that sort of thing so well."
Still, the three unlucky Radiohead members stuck in the Grammy audience staring at the back of Becker-and-Fagen's heads for five hours were less impressed by the speech and overall spectacle. "Bono's a very positive guy," reckons Ed, still piecing together the fractured images of his night at the awards. "And he recognises that to be in the arena that U2 are in, you have to put up with a lot of crap so that his music can get on the radio and spread a feeling of general well-being everywhere it's played. The thing about Thom - and this extends to all of us - is that we just don't think it's worth it. To get to that stage, you have to go through so much crap. And along the way, you're bound to fall prey to the system. They'll get you somehow. We kind of dipped into that situation with OK Computer and it was all too much. You come out at the end and you're half a person."
The year that OK Computer came out - 1997 - was the year that Radiohead officially got the nod that they'd become the most important rock band in the world. Most would have openly rejoiced at being spoken of so highly but such talk only made Radiohead feel queasy. "We just felt dwarfed by that title," reckons drummer Phil Selway. "It's an awful lot to live up to.." For Colin Greenwood, "It's like having an appointment at Savile Row to have a suit fitted. You don't turn up but still they end up cutting you this huge flamboyant outfit that Bono wore previously and which he passed on to Michael Stipe. And then you finally turn up and collect a pair of pyjamas instead." Selway is more down-to-earth in his evaluation of Radiohead's reticent essence. "We started off as a school band so there's always been a slight insecurity generated by that. Part of it is us saying over and over again to ourselves, 'Who are we trying to kid?"
In the wake of OK Computer, Radiohead's refusal to assume the mantle of gunslingers seemed at odds with the size of the following they'd attracted. Subsequently, Kid A was seen as a drastic attempt to downsize that following. Yet people's preconceptions about their behaviour blithely overlooked the fact that, as Selway points out, Radiohead had always been a geeky university band out of spin with the rest of the world. The quintet began in 1987 under the name of On A Friday playing around their home town of Oxford. Yorke, Colin Greenwood and Ed O'Brien soon all moved on to attend various English universities but the five members would still religiously relocate in Oxford once every three weeks to rehearse. "The important thing for me," maintains Colin Greenwood (who studied Raymond Carver, John Cheever and other writers "dealing with the tensions of post-war American society" at Cambridge's oldest college, Peterhouse, between 1988 and 1991) "apart from the friendship, was the quality of Thom's songs. I remember an acoustic version of Creep he sent me a cassette of from Exeter University in 1987. I listened to it and said, This is what I want to do. This is my destiny: to help disseminate this music and propel it directly into contemporary popular culture because it's so important."
For Greenwood's younger brother, who was accepted into the group when he was only 14, "at first it wasn't any big deal. I just thought, Oh Thom's doing songs that sound as good as Elvis Costello and R.E.M. That's why it held my interest. I don't remember thinking anything would come of it. It was just music that was really good to make."
Having graduated from university, all members recommitted to the group, connected with sympathetic managers, and by the end of 1991 had signed a lucrative deal with EMI who quickly persuaded the group to find a new name. They chose Radiohead partly because it had been a song-title of Talking Heads. (According to O'Brien, "We always felt this massive affinity with them because they were white folks grooving in a 'college geeky' way and still making records as good as Al Green.") Over a period of two-and-a-half to three weeks, they recorded their debut album, Pablo Honey. Only Colin still has good words to say about its contents. The album, of course, contained Creep, Yorke's plaintive hymn to low self-worth, and its sudden success in America in 1993 meant that the group were often besieged by hordes of "Whoa, dudes" types whenever they performed there. In Britain, though, they had problems connecting to any kind of sizeable demographic. According to Jonny Greenwood, "We kept missing out on all the so-called movements - like 'shoe-gazing', Britpop and all that. We were so annoyed; it was like we'd arrived too late for everything.
1995's The Bends is where all members of Radiohead are agreed that they started to create something uniquely their own. Recording Street Spirit is unanimously denoted as the key moment when the group first availed themselves of the potential to take their music into a truly magical dimension of sound and feeling. The combination of strangely alluring songs, inspired sonics and Them Yorke's "unhappy child watching a fireworks display" vocal style proved too potent for the world to ignore. Even though Radiohead were still viewed as 'outsiders' with regard to the burgeoning Britpop scene, their record sales began edging ever closer to those of Oasis and Blur - the media-ordained top dogs of the era. "When Oasis and Blur were having their battle, remembers Colin Greenwood, "it felt like Radiohead were on the sidelines, holding everyone's coat. Then when we released OK Computer, it was like we gave them their coats back, all patched up (laughs). I loved Blur's Parklife and Oasis's first two records were amazing but that battle they waged was depressing and belittling to both parties. Both groups were too naive; they were functioning at a primary-school level of media manipulation.
NO ONE COULD HAVE FORGOTTEN HOW THE RELEASE of Radiohead's third album OK Computer impacted on popular culture four years ago. Critics struggled to maintain the flood of giddy superlatives whenever they addressed the record, but more crucially it cast a complicated spell over millions, who found something deeply illuminating in the record's insinuated struggle to find a humane set ofvalues amid the numbing paraphernalia of the lap-top mind-set. However, the group - and particularly Thom Yorke - found all the acclaim unpleasantly disorientating. In one of the final scenes of Meeting People Is Easy, a gloomy documentary of the OK Computer promotional world tour released on video in 1998, Thom Yorke is seated at a dinner table, looking wild-eyed and hollow-cheeked - like a state prisoner on hunger strike - as he berates Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien who are facing him: "Jonny, last year we were the most hyped band. We were Number 1 in all the polls. And it's all bollocks! Everything's changed and it's just a complete mind-fuck... I'm really, really worried. We've been running too long on bravado."
IN ORDER TO REVITALISE THE GROUP MUSICALLY, YORKE stipulated that the sessions for OK Computer's successor take a more radical direction, incorporating the introduction of programmed music into Radiohead's creative arsenal. Jonny found the challenge exciting from the outset, "even though I find a lot of electronica really pretentious", but his brother was not without his misgivings. "I was principally a soul boy and didn't know much about programmed music at the time. A lot of the stuff I'd heard on Warp I didn't like at all. It was really cold. But that was exactly why Thom liked it: there was no emotional baggage attached to it."
Ed O'Brien was even more worried: "I honestly didn't feel I had a role to play. My suggestion for OK Computer's follow-up had been to say, Let's go back to the well-crafted three-and-a-half minute song. I came from idolising The Smiths in the '80s and I thought that would be the shocking thing to do. It was really difficult because, as a musician, I express myself more emotionally than cerebrally.
"The other problem was the lyrics. Whenever we'd done a record before, Thom's lyrics were evolving. He'd give you sheets and once you see the words to, say, No Surprises, you immediately think, Ah yes, we need a guitar for this that sounds like a child's musical box. This time, there were no lyrics and therefore no reference points. Phil, Colin and I went through some major dilemmas at various stages. How could we contribute to this new music? We all wondered if it wasn't better to just walk away. It was a very scary thing at first."
Last September, the first fruits of Yorke and Radiohead's long, protracted struggle against following a formula were made available to the general public. Entitled Kid A, the record managed to make Radiohead deeply cool with the 'experimental dance' set but turned off a number of their older guitar-loving listeners, who felt the group were selling themselves short by immersing themselves too readily in computerised sonic doodles. Now comes the release of Amnesiac, Radiohead's fifth album and Kid A's sister: all the tracks to both albums were begun and finished during the same sessions. The word is already out that it's more 'accessible' than its predecessor but that's not strictly true. Lyrics are still hard to grasp. Melodies keep taking unexpected turns. Packt Like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box, the opening track, is more Underworld than OK Computer. Dollars & Cents has a creepy 'driving-through-inner city-slums at three in the morning' vibe going for it, further heightened by eerie samples of Alice Coltrane that Colin urged be mixed onto the track. Hunting Bears, a Thom Yorke solo guitar instrumental, sounds like a gentler, less abrasive Trout Mask Replica outtake. And Life In A Glasshouse, the album's finale, can be very hard going indeed, at least to begin with. Imagine Thom Yorke singing at a New Orleans funeral serenaded by Humphrey Lyttelton and a similarly grizzled-looking horn-playing chum of his who - according to Jonny Greenwood - had been let out of hospital, after undergoing open-heart surgery, the day before the session. Once your ears get used to the provocative blend of Yorke's plaintive caterwauling and the melancholy honking of Humph and co, it all starts to make sense, but before that you tend to endure it with a heavy heart thinking, Oh shit! The Acker Bilk revival is just around the corner.
But Amnesiac also contains many examples of Radiohead's best work to date. Pyramid Song is a shimmeringly beautiful dreamscape of a piece based on Charlie Mingus' Freedom, featuring a truly spine-tingling string arrangement from Jonny and probably the most transcendent vocal performance Yorke has ever delivered in a studio. Knives Out is a haunting group performance with jangly guitars that pays homage to Radiohead's teenage infatuation with The Smiths. You And Whose Army is a fascinating song based around melancholy jazz chords with Yorke spouting invective at Tony Blair in the voice of a sleep-walking drunk. The song then opens up into a churning OK Computer-like extended bridge. But best of all is I Might Be Wrong: basically just a Thom Yorke home demo with a drum machine that Jonny Greenwood personally built and an exquisitely serpentine bass line from his brother who "had it in mind that I was Bernard Edwards that night". Over an eerie, trance-like metallic beat and a venomous-sounding guitar riff, Yorke sings in a chillingly sweet falsetto as though his voice is a soprano saxophone.
ON APRIL 12, 2001 YORKE FINALLY SAT DOWN WITH ME to discuss the struggles and successes of the past years. He'd only recently become a father for the first time (his girlfriend Rachel had given birth to a son, Noah, late last year) and wasn't getting much sleep as a result, but nonetheless looked exhilarated by his new responsibilities. Small, with cropped red hair and a vague beard, he always chose his words carefully but nonetheless addressed every topic thrown at him with admirable candour. He has no problem referring to himself as a deeply messed-up individual - he just doesn't like other people doing it, that's all.
Are you happy with this record?
Thom: I don't know. I'm really not the person to ask. When we were on tour with Kid A we had the tapes with us and we were trying to work out a running order and what was to go on and what wasn't, so I was listening to it a lot then. And it was kind of nice, because it was "the secret record". It felt like it was our secret weapon against all the weirdness going on - the fact that we had another one that nobody else had (smirks). But now I've heard it too much and I really don't know any more. It was all finished at the some time as Kid A. That's why it was quite hard. We had like a board of sketches, a list of about 60 sketches - some of which were songs, others just sequences or ideas for sounds. Then it got narrowed down and narrowed down until we had a block of stuff which felt like it fitted together. And then Kid A pulled itself together very easily and really obviously. But Amnesiac didn't.
What's the essential difference between the two records for you personally?
Thom: What were we looking for! Fuck knows! (Pause) Kid A was kind of like on electric shock. Amnesiac is more about being in the woods (laughs), in the countryside. I think the artwork is the best way of explaining it. The artwork to Kid A was all in the distance. The fires were all going on on the other side of the hill. With Amnesiac, you're actually in the forest while the fire's happening. With Kid A when you sequenced certain tracks together, this play started appearing. Amnesiac was much more difficult to put together, but that could equally be because we concentrated so much on the first one.
Pyramid Song and Everything In Its Right Place seem close?
Thom: They were both written in the some week - the week I bought a piano (laughs). The chords I'm playing involve lots of black notes. You think you're being really clever playing them but they're really simple. For Everything I programmed my piano playing into a lap-top but Pyramid sounded better untreated. Pyramid Song is me being totally obsessed by a Charlie Mingus song called Freedom and I was just trying to duplicate that, really. Our first version of Pyramid even had all the claps that you hear on Freedom. Unfortunately, our claps sounded really naff, so I quickly erased them.
The words this time around: you don't hear so many of them.
Thom: Oh really! Fuck! I thought I was being really clear.
Certain lines are clear, others aren't. It gives the music an added mystery.
Thom: That's funny because the mystery is not intended. On Life In A Glasshouse I'm desperate for people to understand all the words because they're really important. It began after I read this interview with the wife of a very famous actor who the tabloids completely hounded for three months like dogs from hell. She got the copies of the papers with her picture and she posted them up all over the house, over all the windows so that all the cameras that were outside on her lawn only had their own images to photograph. I thought that was brilliant, and that's where the song started from. It was just a really sad, awful story about her desperately trying to cope while he's off filming, and the only reason she was being hounded was becouse it was rumoured he was having an affair with his leading actress. I just thought, "Nobody deserves this." Especially when they're a completely innocent party. From there, it developed into a complete rant about tabloid journalism destroying people at will, tying people to the stake and watching them burn - an activity that seems to be particularly rife in this country. It's funny.... This is the longest we've actually spent in Britain since we were all about 21. For the past three years, we've been here most of the time. To be honest, it's all been a bit of a shock (bursts out laughing).
Do you still feel tied to British culture? You've all chosen to remain here, after all.
Thom: Yeah, but that's due to inertia as much as anything else. Staying around here is just us saying, "Well, we can't all move." If we all moved too for away, we'd just end up never doing anything together. I'm in no way proud to be British ot all, really. I'm just not interested in the place. When Blair first came to power I got heavily involved in reading all about what was going on, about his 'third way' and how he was going to develop a relationship with business which was going to be of benefit to this country. That obviously was never going to work. And it didn't. Politics was quite a big issue with me when we were doing this record.
You And Whose Army is about Blair, isn't it?
Thom: Originally, it was about the voices in my head that were driving me round the bend - to be honest (bursts out laughing). And then, once I came up with that You And Whose Army phrase, I was able to stick other ideas on there and Blair emerged as the song's real subject matter. The song's ultimately about someone who is elected into power by people and who then blatantly betrays them - just like Blair did. At the same time, I think he couldn't help betraying this country. I think the man's a fool. He's just a product of his time, like any important public figure. I've become slightly more charitable towards him of late. Anyone who's put into that position just immediately becomes like all the people surrounding him. He can't help it - that's just who he is. So it's never been a personal thing. When we put that image of Blair in the Kid A booklet, it was just us saying, "He's just a public figure. He's fallen from grace and he's useless like everybody else." The problem with Blair is that he's surrounded by all this other stuff that will end up destroying anything worthwhile he as a human being might want to achieve. That's why I call him "a fool", because a fool is just someone who plays to the court; he's a court jester, in other words, and that's all he is. But that's basically the same with most presidents these days. I'm not saying things here that most people don't already recognise themselves, I'm sure.
Don't you feel that Rupert Murdoch is even more to blame for the way Britain has become such a diminished cultural power?
Thom: Oh, absolutely. Murdoch has achieved this mind control trick by getting his papers to work in a spectrum where it's very easy to dismiss any art that skirts towards Planet Politics. Because clearly he feels that's not where artists should be. So his papers instantly negate anything you do, and make you look ridiculous when you try to go anywhere beyond Geri Halliwell-land.
Were you surprised by the media reaction that greeted the release of Kid A?
Thom: I actually went into quite a deep state of shock when Kid A came out. I was really, really amazed at how badly it was being viewed. People were calling it "commercial suicide", blah-blah-blah, and saying that we were being "intentionally difficult". That just blew me away because the music's not that hard to grasp. We're not trying to be difficult.. We're actually trying to communicate but somewhere along the line, we just seemed to piss off a lot of people.
I think the people you pissed off are mostly the older generation who aren't comfortable listening to electronica and dance influenced music...
Thom: But surely they remember Kraftwerk! (Laughs) What we're doing isn't that radical. While we were cooped up for three years recording and driving ourselves potty - as usual - [managers] Chris [Hufford] and Bryce [Edge] would come in occasionally to have meetings and see where everybody was at and they used to say, "Y'know, things are changing. The music's all getting fuckin' weird and we're not sure what's going to happen." They were really pretty worried because they just didn't know what the hell would happen when we did finally release something. And we didn't make things any easier because we didn't do any videos. We did these commercials because we felt videos were just commerciaIs anyway - why lie about it! But then, of course, they didn't get played as commercials because we couldn't afford to get them on TV because we didn't have a product to sell that was ultimately worth that much (smirks). We weren't playing the magazine game properly. We just felt at the time, "We've earned a licence to do this. Let's just do it. But the media responded by suddenly thinking, "Oh, so they're not going to play ball. We're going to go after them." I just felt, "What the hell's going on'" We're only making music here. Come on.
Bono's become a friend of yours. How do you react when he tells you you're too talented to recede into the margins, that Radiohead need to embrace the mainstream more?
Thom: I would have to reply that it's not my fucking fault.We just can't play the gome any more. By the end of OK Computer - personally - I had so many ghosts in my closet that I couldn't even go in my closet! (Laughs) I certainly couldn't fuckin' talk to anybody else about how I felt about anything. Every time I decide to release a new record, it's an incredibly nightmarish, stressful scenario for me because I have to deal with all this stuff that's in the closet.
U2 used Passengers as their experimental alter-ego. You don't.
Thom: We did talk at one time about doing certain things under our name and certain things under a different name, because it seemed to make things easier. But I've always been massively 'anti' that because what you're doing then is just a bunch of compartmentalising bollocks. It's just putting music into pointless little boxes and pretending it should be viewed in different ways. Why not put it all out under the same name? I was really, really surprised at the criticism, though. Maybe I'm just being a bit naive but I really didn't expect that to happen. But as I didn't specifically reed what people wrote, maybe I'm just projecting as much as anything else. It was very much something that was happening in Britain anyway.
You told Q last year that you'd become tired of melody. On Amnesiac you stretch your songs aImost purposely so that they never fall into a conventional classic rock chord progression mode.
Thom: Yeah, there are no obvious "here comes the chorus" moments throughout the record. None of the music that I was listening to at the time had melodies like that going for them. So-called commercial melodies make me flinch. So often when I hear a song, the melody's iust trying too fuckin' hard to grasp my attention. It's like being besieged by a wasp: you just wont it to go away.
Knives Out and In Limbo have tricky little riffs and time signatures, strange chords. Are you trying to disorientate the listener!
Thom: In a way, yes.
But at the same time, the music for In Limbo is a perfect musical metaphor for the state of flux you're singing about.
Thom: The words themselves on Kid A are kind of empty because they're leaving room for the music. That's all to do with my reaction against OK Computer where the music bashed away behind the words. Whatever emotions I was going through, I just found it incredibly difficult to write down lyrically. I was listening to us playing and became obsessed with looking for accidents.. It was so much about finding accidents - waiting for them to happen. Because that spoke to me more than words. I just had this terrible trouble writing words.
Were you in effect suffering from a form of writer's block?
Thom: It wasn't really a writer's block because words were coming out like diarrhoea but they were all awful! And I couldn't tell the difference - which was much worse. But that was because, personally speaking, I'd lost all confidence.
When and how did it come back?
Thom: It came back when we recorded The National Anthem. I really, really love that track. Everything In Its Right Place I really, really love as well. And In Limbo I'm still proud of just for the disorientating, floaty feel we managed to capture. It comes from this really peculiar place. On the new one - even though I've heard it too much - Pyramid Song is still a really good one. In terms of trying to get somewhere new, I think Spinning Plates is the best of all the record for me. When I listen to it in my car, it makes the doors shake (laughs). Knives Out, though - for the longest time I really, really hated that song.
It took the longest time to record, apparently...
Thom: Yeah,'cos I hated it so much (laughs).
313 hours - is that accurate?
Thom: Possibly, I wasn't counting. A lot of time anyway. A lot of time.
How did [producer] Nigel Godrich adjust to your new direction?
Thom: It was a very strange push-and-pull thing going on between us. There were days when he was completely in charge of what was going on and then there were days when I would just go into a massive tirade and wouldn't let anybody else do anything except me. Then there were days when he was purely like the adjudicator at a trial.
Was there the feeling coming from other members that you were losing the plot?
Thom: (Ardently) Oh yeah! Big style. Massively. There were lots of depressingly frank exchanges of opinion late into the night. But the sad thing about it is that very few of our arguments were to do with music: it was just 'fall-out'. Really sad. Personally speaking, during that time I was just a total fuckin' mess. No one could say anything to me without me turning round and launching a vicious tirade at them. It got really, really bad.
It was your personal quest not to repeat OK Computer?
Thom: I don't think it was just me - it was everybody, really. What was happening was everyone was saying, "Well, we've got to start somewhere.." But I was standing, going "Yeah, but not here." Then they'd say, "So where, then?" And I'd reply, "I don't know." And the dialogue would just go round and round in circles like that. So we'd launch ideas off and about halfway through them I'd suddenly start screaming, "This is bollocks! Stop the tape." And I'd pull the tape off and start something else. Things seemed to be constantly faIling apart at that point. Then we'd go back and listen to them a few months later and suddenly we'd realise, "That's fucking amazing, why the hell did we stop working on that" That happened with loads of stuff like Morning Bell and Spinning Plates. Basically we'd lost all confidence in what we were trying to do; we didn't have the ability to see anything through. But gradually, as things got back to normal agoin, it became clear what was good and what wasn't.
Haven't Radiohead always approached recording with a lot of intense brow-beating and constant pulling of hair? You don't take things casually, do you?
Thom: Yeah (laughs). Nigel used to say to us a lot, "You're behaving like a bunch of fuckin' method actors. Get it together. It ain't that important." I think I'm as guilty as anyone for creating a climate of fear for too long. Actually I'm much more guilty. I was just so absolutely fucked-up.
You must be aware that a number of your early fans are saying, "This experimenting is all very well..."
Thom: ...it's all very well but they'll get back to the good stuff later (laughs).
But why isn't Jonny Greenwood - probably the most exciting electric guitar player currently alive - being allowed to play more of what he does best?
Thom: Electric guitar is great. I love it when Jonny plays guitar. But none of us really wanted to make a rock record. He's got all this mad shit that's got nothing to do with the electric guitar. He joined the band when he was 14 and he was already a multi-instrumentalist even then. He can play keyboards and write string arrangements. He can even read music. Actually they all can now, except for me. Bit scary, that. Everything he picks up he can make music on. It's totally logical that he should be trying other things.
In contrast to Britain, over in America they seem to embrace whatever you do with open arms.
Thom: That was what we call "smoke and mirrors". We only spent two weeks there but we really liked it. The press was really nice, which made a change. There's much less questioning in America. The highlight of the whole Kid A thing was our Saturday Night Live performance. I was so proud of that. I was walking on water for a week after that - I felt so good. That was a real achievement. SNL is notoriously intimidating. We heard all these terrible horror stories from Michael [Stipe] about it.
The rumoured Oscars duet with Biork: What happened?
Thom: I was briefly on the cards for being A-list - which was great. But only briefly. Because they messed her around quite a lot. In the end, it was probably good I didn't go over to join her there.
Was it your choice not to perform then?
Thom: No, it was her decision. Hopefully, we'll do it somewhere else - like a better place. Working with her was funny, though, because I went and did that session literally the day we'd finished putting Kid A together so I was going, "Yes! I'm out! I'm in someone else's studio and it's not my session and I'm not under any kind of pressure.
Your voices blend well together...
Thom: Yeah, but it took quite a while to find that blend (laughs). My whole tip at the time was, "Well, if this is a duet, then we really need to record this together." And stylistically we sing quite differently. I sing quite softly while she really belts it out. And the key was incredibly low for me. So we had to work at it but when our voices finally fitted together, it was just the best. Great fun. I haven't seen the film, though.
You sang on P.J. Harvey's last album. Did you contribute in anyway to Horses In My Dreams?
Thom: No, but I wish I had. Isn't that song amazing!
It sounds like Polly saying to Patti Smith, "Listen up, sister. You may have done this first but I'm doing it better."
Thom: Yeah, I guess. The Patti Smith thing was going on quite a lot during Polly's sessions. She was very aware of the likeness to the point where she was becoming worried about it. I just told her everything sounded great anyway so she had no need to worry about anything.
When you were first presented with the lyrics of your main duet This Mess We're In, were you ever concerned the media would jump on the words and start publicly speculating that you and Polly were "an item"?
Thom: No, no, no. Anyway if they had, I think it would have been kind of amusing. (He bursts out laughing.) That would have been great fun.
Have you sung live with her?
Thom: No, I was supposed to do a gig with her in London last year, and my girlfriend had just come out of hospital with our little boy Noah. I was halfway to London when I thought I'd better ring home. And she'd had a really bad 'turn'. Her complexion had suddenly turned yellow. It was really quite an emergency so I had to go back and take care of her. Actually, that morning there'd been water pouring through the ceiling in our kitchen. One of those days you never forget.
You're rehearsing now. Would you consider doing anything from Pablo Honey or is that too far in the past?
Thom: Maybe. I don't know. We can still do Creep. I don't care.
I listened to Pablo Honey a couple of days ago. It still stands up as a great first record.
Thom: Ooo-h! I don't know about that. (Pulls face and bursts out laughing.) When I hear the singing I just don't recognise myself at all.
Would you have preferred different producer?
Thom: Oh no, that was great. They [Sean Slade, Chris Hufford, Paul Kolderie] were rock'n'roll. They were brilliant.
The recording of The Bends - was that the first time you felt you'd actually hit upon Radiohead's ideal sound?
Thom: No, it was more the usual "No, I'm hitting a brick wall" scenario all the way through the recording (laughs).
But there must have been cathartic moments when all the struggles finally made sense?
Thom: Oh yes, definitely. I'II never forget the moment we captured Street Spirit. That stands out for me. The whole reason to be doing this is to arrive at those moments. It makes it worth all the scratching around for months on end in note-books and all the hundreds of thousands of ideas you compile on endless tapes. It's the sole reason you spend your entire life in your bedroom playing to yourself. If I ever forget why I started this as a career, than that's why I started. I do remember the magic moments from The Bends.. The Street Spirit moment I remember very, very well. We spent a day going round in circles until I was thinking, "This is never going to hoppen." Then suddenly something happened and I was transported to a place that I'd been willing myself to be in for months on end. I'd finally made the transition. Now you might only be in that place for three minutes and for ever more life'll never be quite as good. But that's fine by me.
You enjoyed a good relationship with The Bends' producer John Leckie?
Thom: Yeah, really good actually, even though I think he thought we were all stark raving mad. He was so cool - he was amazingly able to deal with all sorts of stuff. He was getting "concerned but polite" phone cells from the record company and had to deal with that. We wouldn't take calls from them but, because of his vast experience in the studio, he viewed everything with a lack of importance. And thank God he did! He's been doing it for so long he realised sometimes a producer is simply someone who just creates the right atmosphere for things to happen. In a way, he was like a caring uncle. He might see you as his little nephew who's in a right fucking mess - but he still lets you get on with it. If he hadn't been like that, I honestly think the records would never have been made because of the circumstances surrounding it.
The great OK Computer hoopla seemed to make you intensely jittery. Yet surely a part of you must have enjoyed being feted as "the most important band in the world" after so many years on the outside? Surely OK being voted the most important record of all time by a significant number of people stands as a great personal victory for you?
Thom: I was most proud of the fact we were able to get things slipped through [into the mainstream]. One of the proudest moments for me was getting Paranoid Android on Radio 1. The reaction it got was just fucking wicked. Just amazing. You couldn't listen to it a lot on Radio 1. Each time I'd hear it, I'd keep thinking about people doing intricate jobs in factories - working on industrial lathes - getting injured from the shock of being exposed to it (laughs). Otherwise, as regards that whole period... I think we just toured too long.
Can you physically handle a lot of touring?
Thom: Yeah, anybody can. You can find a way through it. It's not the physical stuff that's the problem, it's the mental stuff. It's cool if you're 'sorted'. But if you're just someone who's actually been a mess for quite a while... To me, all I was since leaving college was in this band. That's all I did. And everything else was utterly irrelevant or else just a pain in the arse. To the point where I sort of lost connection with everything and ended up driving myself a bit round the bend. It iust went on too long.
If the other band members had refused to join you in your 'new direction', would you have made Kid A as a solo album?
Thom: No. Because I wouldn't have had the confidence.
When you were struggling with your writing, were there certain records from your past you referred back to for inspiration? Did you pull out your old Elvis Costello and Smiths records?
Thom: A little bit of the Smiths, yeah! I did stop listening to 'bands' almost completely, though. If I needed to feel better about music, I'd listen to Mingus. I also really liked the [Aphex Twin] Richard D. James album. There was a tape of Bud Powell, the jazz pianist - that I subsequently lost - that I played a lot for inspiration.
The music you're releasing now, both Kid A and Amnesiac: you must be aware that it's not going to sell Bon Jovi-like quantities of records. What you're doing isn't so different from what Bowie did when he released Low - it's a complete left-field "fuck you" to the mainstream.
Thom: I guess. But I'd argue that with Low there was not a conscious decision to say "fuck everybody". To me, Bowie was just saying, "I'm going off in this direction now. Come with me if you want." If it's just going to be a "fuck everybody" thing, then you'd know about it instantly. I just don't think you can even make music with that attitude, quite frankly. The whole point of making music is to get something across.. Unless you're Atari Teenage Riot (laughs).
What about something like Scott Walker's Tilt?
Thom: Oh God, I don't know what to make of that record (laughs). It's hardcore. Do you know Tilt was being made at the same time as The Bends in the same studio? We'd been in when he was out. Nigel was on both sessions. We finally met him at the Meltdown festival. He's a top geezer - a really nice bloke. We did that gig for him basically. I was on-stage the whole time thinking, "Scott Walker's in the audience. I don't give a shit who else is here."
Still, you've got to accept that parts of both Kid A and Amnesiac are extremely challenging when first confronted. I couldn't make any sense of Dollars & Cents, for example...
Thom: Well, that started out as a IO-minute piece of us mucking around, trying to do the Can thing. It just came out spontaneously. Lyrically, I like doing things like that - where whatever happens in the first take is what stays. When we did OK Computer all the vocals were first takes because (a) I couldn't do it again afterwards and (b) it was about being in the moment. The lyrics are gibberish but they come out of ideas I've been fighting with for ages about how people are basically just pixels on a screen, unknowingly serving this higher power which is manipulative and destructive, but we're powerless because we can't name it. At the time, the whole global marketplace thing was a major preoccupation of mine. I was reading a lot of stuff about it and it really become a massive part of my writer's block. It sounds daft now, but I couldn't see the point in writing about personal feelings when there were other, far more fundamentally important things to talk about.
It was strange seeing you last year campaigning to drop the Third World debt. You looked more than slightly uncomfortable next to Bono and Bob Geldof...
Thom: I don't think anybody was comfortable. I was sprawling on a pin, I'II tell you (laughs). Half the stuff that was going on, I was going, "l'm not so sure about this." It took a lot of effort just to understand what the issue was. Having to do interviews - the amount of information I'd have to swallow and then spit out was just nightmarish. A lot of what gets called politics now is just fuckin' cowboys and indians and doesn't amount to anything. The really important issues in politics are the Third World debt and the relationship between the First World and the Third World, and trade laws, and NAFTA and GATT and none of this stuff is ever discussed as a political issue. It's all in the realm of the economists and that is fucked up. Jubilee 2000 took a purely humanitarian angle on something that had always been considered out of the jurisdiction of the 'charity' arena. Yet it's interesting because, in order to get the Jubilee 2000 message across, we had to basically not get into any of the surrounding issues. I'd start going off onto my rants about pixels on a screen and being a powerless political pawn and they'd all stort getting really twitchy behind the cameras (laughs). But I'm really proud I got involved. It was an incredibly privileged place to be in - to go to Cologne and see the realities of political manoeuvring, and to see that basically what gets fed to the press has absolutely no relationship to what goes on behind the scenes.
You must be thrilled by George W. Bush's recent election?
Thom: I was chuffed to bits. I think it's actually great, to be honest, because it's going to radicalise people. People who've never been into politics are going to suddenly wake up and realise that they actually have to fuckin' do something about it.
Any thoughts on Oasis' current predicament and the inevitable cost of keeping up a rock'n'roll lifestyle?
Thom: Well, that's something you do in your early twenties. Then you're supposed to grow up. Either that or you just keep growing older and trying to screw 20-year-olds. Rock's fundamentally about on energy, isn't it. But it's on energy that anyone can connect with, irrespective of their lifestyle. Good music is like fucking. It's always been like fucking. Even if it's classical music. And it doesn't really matter what people are like: it's good sex or it isn't. And everybody's capable of having good sex. It's either good music or bad music, isn't it? There's the stuff that comes from the other side, and then there's the stuff that comes from someone's personal morketing campaign. And there isn't any in-betweens.
All members of Radiohead - apart from Jonny - are particularly sensitive to accusations that their music is a kind of new-fangled prog rock. But yet the golden age of progressive rock had as much to do with Can, Soft Machine and Captain Beefheart as it did with Yes and Gentle Giant. Being associated with that is not something to be ashamed of, surely?
Thom: No, I guess not. (Pause) But I don't really see us as "progressing". You walk down one particular path - that's what you choose to do. You're in the woods and you take a path and you just keep taking it. Sometimes you'll get lost and sometimes you won't. But if the music is in you, you're able to carry on down your path and not go mad. I think a lot of the times it's that people just get driven mad by it, or they get sent off or they get too involved in the peripheral lifestyle" aspects. The thing that's damaged rock'n'roll so much - it's choosing the idea that it's this lifestyle" and that's all it is. Everybody has problems. John Coltrane got addicted to heroin and hot chocolate (laughs). Everyone's got problems and people get pulled sideways. But if you really love music, you don't want to repeat yourself. That's all it is. And also, if you hear other people's music, you're influenced by it. The things you love really inspire you and make you go off and do something else. And if that's what "progressive" is - then yeah, that's us. But trying to be clever, trying to be difficult or bloody-minded is not what we're about at all.
Amnesiac is your fifth album for EMI. After your sixth, you're free. Are you planning for future internet distribution?
Thom: No. We still want an excuse to print all the packaging. For me, it's an integral part of what's going on with the record itself. I know this sounds wanky but it's true: if the music's not inspiring the pictures, then I'm not comfortable. Amnesiac is packaged like a closed book.
Could you be more precise?
Thom: No, that's it (bursts out laughing). We had this whole thing about Amnesiac being like getting into someone's attic, opening the chest and finding their notes from a journey that they'd been on. There's a story but no literal plot, so you have to keep picking out fragments. You know something really important has happened to this person that's ended up completely changing them but you're never told exactly what it is.
I Might Be Wrong really conveys that feeling well, Something life-changing is obviously going on but you don't tell us exactly what it is.
Thom: (Half-sings) "I used to think there was nothing left at all." It's a document of a complete crisis point, basically. I live on a beach and one night I went out on my own and looked back at the house and even though I knew there was nobody there, I could see a figure walking about inside. Then I went back to the house and recorded that track with this presence still there.
This was some sort of stalker?
Thom: No, it was all in my mind, as usual (laughs). The song really comes as much from what my long-term partner Rachel was saying to me, like she does all the time, "Be proud of what you've done. Don't look back and just carry on like nothing's happened. Just let the bad stuff go." When someone's constantly trying to help you out and you're trying to express something really awful, you're desperately trying to sort yourself out and you can't - you just can't. And then one day you finally hear them - you finally understand, after months and months of utter fucking torment: that's what that song is about.
Finally, fatherhood. How has it changed your life?
Thom: I'm not taking things so seriously any more - which has to be a good thing. And also when I get let out, it's big news. I want to get things done now because I have to be back in four hours. It's very good for me because if I'm left to my own devices, I'II just work all the time. If I was left in the house on my own, all I'd do is work; I'd never, never stop. So it's good that now I've got something for more beautiful to focus on.
SPRING HAS FINALLY SPRUNG AMONG THE FLORA AND fauna of sleepy Didcot, the quiet little town set between the dreaming spires of Oxford and the rolling hills of Wiltshire that serves as the location for Radiohead's management offices, rehearsal room and personal studio. The long winter of discontent is over - at least for the moment. Birds are a-singing. New-born babies are a-gurgling. And electric guitars have been taken out of flight-cases and plugged into large amplifiers festooned with effect pedals. "It's weird to be rehearsing now," reckons Thom Yorke with barely concealed enthusiasm. "We're supposed to be going over the parts of Amnesiac that we haven't learnt yet. But we're just using the time to write new stuff. It's great. The songs are coming easily. It's just really nice. We've all got our confidence back."
"We were rehearsing yesterday," adds Jonny Greenwood. "And Thom just stopped everybody and started complimenting us on what we were doing. He kept saying, This is really working again. It's fantastic what each of you is bringing to the piece."
But how do these new songs sound? "It's all loud and it's all guitars. It's exciting to make loud music again. It's sounding good and fresh. We're even doing a Neil Young song - Cinnamon Girl - for the first time ever, and those loud minor chords just sound wonderful; it's just got such a swagger to it. In two days of rehearsal, we've played it between 10 and 15 times. Loud minor chords. Distortion. Fantastic"
For old-school Radiohead fans, this all sounds probably too good to be true.. One still instinctively senses Yorke will have to go through some more championship-level bouts of self-questioning and inner torment before Radiohead's sixth album is in the racks. It might end up sounding like a conventional rock record, but it could just as easily end up sounding like Penderecki. Yorke and his cohorts are on a journey. "And if we choose to go off in a new direction and do something different, it's OK if you don't want to come along this time. But we'll probably be returning your way sometime anyway. We'll be getting our guitars out just when everyone else is doing German techno. So don't worry about us!".