I RATE MYSELF AND I WANT TO DIVE
Have RADIOHEAD, with their new album 'The Bends', finally cracked U2's market? After the post-traumatic stress and career crisis that came with the success of "Creep", the band now feel strong enough to take on the world of pop and beat it to a bloody pulp. But first they have to meet some Swedish journalists. And SIMON WILLIAMS.
(Presentation of the article in the NME Originals issue about Radiohead from 2003)
Ok, so it's harsh and cruel. It's like sniggering at some poor sod tripping over a loose paving stone. It's like guffawing at the haphazard passenger who drops their shopping on the bus, sending oranges rolling down the aisle. Intrinsically, it's the voyeur mocking the arse end of reality. Yup, it's a Scandinavian journalist in full interview mode and he's clutching a list of questions as long as the bar table, saying, "So, in a supermarket, where would I find Radiohead? Would I look in the coffee section? Or would I look in the canned food section?"
Guitarist Ed O'Brien radiates the haggard aura of a man who's answered this question a million times, not to mention drunk a thousand drinks. Singer Thom Yorke mutters quietly and carefully lowers his head onto the table. Our friendly, nay irrepressible young hack nods knowingly at the stock band response ("Uh, next to the skimmed milk"), metaphorically rubs his hands in inquisitive glee and prepares to launch his next rapier-like thrust at the very heart and soul of Radiohead…
"So what would you say is the area that the band has grown in most over the years?"
Silence. Mild bewilderment. Weary expressions.
Ah, the joys of Continental travel. Really! Today is Monday, which must mean Stockholm, because Sunday was Amsterdam, Tuesday is Cologne and Wednesday could bloody well be Mars as far as Radiohead are concerned.
The whereabouts of the other three-fifths of the band are rather vague: Jonny and Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil 'Mad Dog' Selway have their own promotional duties to fulfil elsewhere in Europe but, as the itinerary seems to be changing every five minutes, it would be a Lottery-winning fool who'd put money on which country they're in.
Certainly it doesn't help a guitarist's sense of geographical balance when he stumbles into AN Other hotel at the end of AN Other long day and finds Shane McGowan slumped over the bar. Especially when the barmaid is adamant that she's closing up in half an hour and the small part of your brain which is still functioning after spending a few hours too many in Dutch coffee shops insists on contemplating tomorrow's schedule of interview-acoustic TV session-interview-airport-flight to somewhere else for more of the same…
Like, SHUT UP!
At least there are a few clues: four quid for a packet of fags? And 25 of your finest English smackeroonies for a cosy round of beers? Why, this must be Sweden! So don't gripe — just gulp. Put the shutters back up that have protected you for so long from the cynics and the sneerers. Remember that your band thrives on existing outside of the allegedly fashionable run-of-the-mill. Tell yourself (again) that Radiohead's best attributes are friendship, the will to survive and your inherent weaknesses becoming strengths. And for Christ's sake keep that pin away from your bubble…
"I think the bubble is totally necessary," says Thom Yorke, by way of explanation. "We've been living with this suspension of disbelief since we were 15 or 16, when we came up with the whole thing.
"It's a way of isolating yourself enough to actually believe that you're in this wonderful band and you're going to change the world and make everything alright.
"There were so many things to justify at one point that don't have to be justified now because we're quite happy staying in our bubble, thank you very much. Back then, we thought that anything could burst it. And we thought that until we did something we were really proud of. Other than that, it was all about recording, going on tour and having a nice time".
Or a bad time.
"Or a bad time…"
The down side has been well documented, too.
Last autumn, Thom was caught still battling with the demons unleashed by the success of 'Creep', wincing at the memories of an American tour that should have capitalised on the 'freak anthem' but turned instead into a dysfunctional nightmare.
Initial recording sessions for the follow-up to 'Pablo Honey' had been equally catastrophic, with the band barely communicating and producer John Leckie — the man who finally abandoned The Stone Roses in the control room — adopting a hands-off approach which merely served to fuel Thom's 'fuck off' attitude.
It didn't help that the comeback single, 'My Iron Lung', was deemed "too heavy" for daytime radio play. Move back two spaces. It helped even less that their American record company was having cold feet about a second Radiohead album and refused to commit themselves until they'd heard some of the new tracks.
Cue one freaked band manager, on one hand desperately pretending that the recording was going swimmingly, and on the other, watching his pissed-off charges bang their collective head against wall after wall. And slide back down the snake.
Little wonder then that Thom should sit on the floor of a cramped hotel room at midnight in Scandinavia and talk so earnestly about Radiohead's will to survive. Because with 'The Bends' — only their second album in a bizarre ten-year career — Radiohead have taken all that self-torture, bitterness and anguish and turned it into the best rock album of the year so far.
So angst is an energy? Obviously, judging by the way in which 'The Bends' takes the irascible spirit of 'Pablo Honey', smoothes out the awkward angles, sews up the patchier moments and surges with a self-belief that even Thom and Ed occasionally seem surprised to have discovered in themselves.
Most importantly, beneath the axe-wrenching bluster and sonic assaults, there lurks a none-too-subtle sense of fragility, a feeling of physical fatalism encapsulated in the likes of 'Bones', 'My Iron Lung' and the title track, and supported by Thom's frank admissions about the band's state of health. Even the alarmingly dapper Ed has apparently fallen victim, slipping a disc three years ago and, uh, developing a stoop by living in a cottage where the dimensions weren't exactly compatible with his lanky frame. Still, always look on the blighted side of life, right?
"We used to be completely vulnerable," shudders Thom, poncing another mouthful of beer. "We thought that everything we did was basically open to abuse and it was almost as if we were willing it to happen — we just expected it. But I think that changed last year.
"Now we kind of expect abuse, but once we started encountering other bands that actually quite liked what we did, and started coming to the close of making the album, there suddenly wasn't this need to, y'know, cower in the corner any more.
"Someone recently said that we'd come back with all this energy from nowhere. And it was simply because we finally had something on tape that justified our existence. It was like, 'Hmmm, cool. Right! Now we can start!'"
It's the small things that count in the long run. The tide started turning at last year's NME Brat Awards, when Radiohead were accosted by Donna and Annie from Elastica who actually said they LIKED THE BAND! Good grief! Small potatoes in global terms, but not if you're Radiohead, a band who pathologically hated playing in London because they always expected everyone to hate them.
Now, after the praise and the fruitful recordings, Thom and Ed are full of symbolic wonderment, wistfully frothing about "clouds being lifted", "mountains being moved" and suchlike. Hell, if they could bottle the essence of their vitality they could retire tomorrow.
"We never associated being in the studio with fun," says Ed. "Touring was fun, but recording was always supposed to be hard work. Or so we thought".
"The thing John Leckie used to say all the time was, 'Do what the fuck you like'," nods Thom. "And nobody had ever said it before in that way. It was like being at art college: in the first year they said, 'You can do whatever you want'. Sol spent a year wandering around saying, 'I don't want to do any of this, actually'. Then by the second year I'd got into computers. I just needed something to start me off, and I was alright after that because I'd found a medium in which to work — and it was the same with recording".
Odd band, Radiohead. There's Thom, on tonight's performance a mind-boggling blend of cynicism, open-hearted charm and petulance: when the ever-efficient barmaid tells him to take his (shoeless) feet off a chair, the singer stares at her with a fierceness that would impress Paddington Bear. And for five eminently sensible people — this is, after all, the band who postponed global domination to go to college - their mistrust of the media is irrational, if not bewilderingly naive. Even now, Thom and Ed scratch their scalps when informed that, well, no, NME doesn't actually hate Radiohead. Maybe this is what comes of a group whose debut single was called 'Prove Yourself. So you think of the bubble and you wonder if Radiohead have always considered themselves outsiders.
"Yeah, but I don't think it's something we go out looking for," frowns Thom. "It's not even something we deliberately set ourselves up to be. It just comes down to the five of us. We all seem to have come from really isolated backgrounds in a weird way.
"When I was at college, the only art I ever really loved was something with this dodgy broad term of Outsider Art, which was by completely untrained people who'd never been to art college or who were mentally unstable. One of my favourite artists was this, uh, paedophile bloke who did these scribbles which most people would say were like the doodles you do on the telephone.
"But there was something underneath it… and I'd much rather study stuff like that than all the endless fucking Saatchi art, y'know, here's the New Artist For The '90s and aren't they wonderful? I'd much rather go off and explore stuff that didn't come out of that context at all, because that context is self-referential and boring. The same is true of the music industry in a lot of ways.
"My main problem with the whole Outsider Art thing was that there was a really nasty element to it in the sense that it was a freak show; there were a lot of people who were murderers or emotionally unstable. It wasn't normal housewives, most of them were pretty fucked up one way or another. And so if you read articles it would be about the personalities and not about the work.
"That's why I'm very reluctant to agree that we thrive on being outsiders. Because that smacks of being a freak show which, um, I don't think we are.
"If I ran around saying, 'Oh, we're outsiders, we're tortured artists,' I'd be lying, anyway. It's just that we don't have the self-referential context, we don't have the reference points that make it easy to write about us".
True enough. It is journalistic desperation that leads to screams of "The surrogate U2!!!" from Apple Macs across the land. It is journalistic slackness that causes experienced hacks to witter on about 'Creep' being Radiohead's debut single (duh!). And the 'Head have proved themselves to be about as comfortable with cosy trends as Eric Cantona is with social graces. Tsk.
Look Thom — you're British! You're in a band! You're in the charts! The words 'happy' and 'bunny' should spring not unreasonably to mind!
"That's beyond my terms. It just so happens that, yeah, lyrically I write from my personality, but it seemed appropriate on this album, and on 'Pablo Honey' it's really extreme because I was deliberately projecting all these things personally onto me. It could be completely calculated, but it was just personal bits of me and I thought the best place to put it was in a song.
"And this album is a lot more circumspect. I'm not necessarily projecting quite so much onto me because I was so sick of the reactions I was getting. It was becoming really indulgent and boring. You can only do that now and again, and if the sum total of what we did was projecting my paranoias and fucking troubles onto the band then it's fucking dull. And I think we're more than that".
So did you start to bore yourself, then?
"Yeah! Fucking totally! But then that's the exciting bit as well because people have decided what you're going to do for evermore and you can come out with the exact opposite. So I look at it in a really positive way, because it gives me licence to do what the fuck I want.
"Before we signed, the songs weren't so personal. I was writing stuff that was really daft, really simple, a bit like Talking Heads. And the lyrics were the same. That's why I was really happy with 'Planet Telex', because the lyrics are gibberish, complete gibberish".
Yet 'Planet Telex' sounds so important: it's the first track on 'The Bends'; it's passionate, so it must have some kind of, like, deep significance, right?
"Exactly! But why do the words have to have that deep significance?" argues Thom.
Because you set yourself up for analysis.
"Yeah, but I think that's quite cool in a way because even though the words are gibberish, there are bits that I really like. It's almost as if I'm just joining the ranks of people listening, because I'm just letting it happen.
"I mean, it's no wonder that New Wave of New Wave thing happened, because music was so fucking BORING! It became a joke before it had even finished happening, but at the same time 'The Bends' is an album that came out of that in terms of the way we were thinking and what was going on in my head. A lot of these songs were written on the tourbus, trying to do something new and different.
"There's this really calculated element to what we do which isn't obvious, but it is to me. I could mean every word of it or I could mean none of it at all. Y'know, I could be lying through my teeth, but the music's still good so what the fuck? In one of the first interviews I did for this album I basically ended up saying, I didn't mean a fucking word of that. It was all lies, it's all bullshit just to make it seem much more important than it really is'. And it's a nice feeling, saying something like that. I don't see Eddie Vedder doing it".
Fundamentally, then, Radiohead are very, very happy. We find Thom and Ed wittering on about Scott Walker and Magazine, about Tricky, Massive Attack and PJ Harvey: the oddballs on the snooker table of pop and some of the few acts Radiohead feel to be worthy of their consideration. About how, fair enough, the success of 'Creep' did send the band spinning off to gig madness in Mexico and Thailand, so it wasn't all bad. About the freedom they've now managed to give themselves for their third album ("We could do anything"). And, in Ed's case, about discovering "bitchin' rock'n'roll" in American strip joints.
But there is one crucial point when, around 2am, Thom Yorke has finished off everyone else's beer and is thoughtfully considering his status within the great rock pantheon. And he's thinking about the Vedders and the Corgans of the world, about how his band once seriously considered moving lock, stock and double-barrelled riffs up to London but, thankfully, changed their minds before the lure of the bizness became too great.
And the singer sits and frowns and he says, instinctively and spectacularly, "I'd much rather be a miserable git than a mod".
"The weird thing is, I remember being 17 or 18," he says later, "and I'd pick up this stuff about 'How To Sell Yourself. And my teachers at school would always be like, 'You've got to sell yourself. And then you find yourself walking into a radio station in America and basically selling yourself. "We were on this fucking boat in America a week ago. It was John Wayne's boat, which the record company ha hired and plonked us on with some people who run independent record shops, and me and Jonny had to play to them. Now, if that isn't selling yourself then I don't know what the fuck is.
"So sometimes it's a battle. And sometimes you just give in. It's a bit crap to be honest. Mind you, PJ Harvey had done it the day before, so if she was doing it, it can'i be that bad. Or maybe she was even more pissed off that we were…"
It ends, as all the best things should do, by going full circle. Back in the bar, the local hack is persevering with a line of questioning involving cream buns, Northern Ireland and how Radiohead "never want to go through last year's shit again".
Another interview. Another one-line answer. Yet another question. Another pained, hungover pause.
"So tell me, how would you describe your climb to recognition?"
"Sheer bloody-mindedness", deadpans Thom.
Correct. Don't fear the 'Creep'-er.