"The Mainstream Music Business is Such a Bunch of Fucking Retards..."
Which is why Radiohead's Thom Yorke disappeared, ditched his record label and came face to face with "the horrors".
You’ll have seen him plastered over the global media, bullying George Bush, snubbing Tony Blair and demonstrating for Friends of The Earth and CND. You’ll have heard his deranged voice ripping through the speakers, challenging – and delighting – his fans in a way no other band this huge would ever dare attempt. Thom Yorke, you might think, is the world’s most fearless musician. One thing you might not have known, though, is that throughout the last couple of years Thom Yorke has been bricking it – freaking out about the pressure that comes with being in Radiohead. And at various points, he and most of his band have wanted out.
Before we get into all that though, a quick recap. Because underneath the noise of frantic Arctic Monkeys hyping, you’d be forgiven for forgetting just how Radiohead became – along with Oasis – the most influential band of a generation: making their mark with “Creep”, following it in style with “The Bends” and then going through the stratosphere when “OK Computer” re-moulded guitar music into something utterly alien. Around 1997 Radiohead became the kind of band you call up when you need a Glastonbury or NEC stage filling, and the band have spent the last decade trying to deal with it. Their last three records – from Kid A to 2003’s “Hail to the Thief” – have seen Thom Yorke flirt with everything from politics to paranoid electronica. And for all this wilful experimentation, their fans simply love them more. Want proof? Just ask Kele and Russell from Bloc Party. Or Chris Martin. Or Matt Bellamy. Or Mystery Jets. Or Liam Gallagher. OK, so maybe not Liam Gallagher, but you get the picture.
Their albums (particularly “OK Computer”) consistently top Best OF All Time lists, and when next month’s European tour was announced, it sparked a ticket rush not seen since Glastonbury.
So why would Radiohead have had enough? NME headed to Oxford to sit down with Thom Yorke and Colin Greenwood (their first Radiohead interview in two years) to find out. But when we meet up with them at a private member’s club in Oxford, they don’t seem jaded at all. Rather, Thom is more animate than NME’s ever seen him. It’s almost as if he can’t wait to talk about their seventh LP. Clearly, a lot’s gone on with Radiohead since we last spoke.
NME: There were a few questions over the band’s future after you played California’s Coachella festival in May 2004. Were you reaching burnout?
Thom: "I personally wanted to get out of the whole thing for a while, but you discover fairly quickly that you get the horrors. Because you're sitting there going "OK, errr, well I could go and get a normal job or I could go back and do that." It's not a difficult choice. You realise very quickly that you're in a very privileged position. Sitting there on your hands is a foolish thing to do."
Did everyone feel that way?
Colin: "If you're doing anything that's important or confronting, you're going to get the fear. Ed was the same, he felt that Radiohead was just baggage that he didn't need."
Is it always like this when you've had a break?
Thom: "Sometimes I just get shit-scared, which is stupid really, because the whole point of starting up again like this is to get away from that. Normally by this point in recording we should have stopped. But we chose not to stop because the point about us is the hanging out together and sharing ideas."
There was a reason Radiohead might have felt the pressure more keenly than on previous records. They’re currently without a label for the first time in a decade after their contract with EMI expired post-„Hail to the Thief“. Which makes them the biggest unsigned band in Britain. Really, we should do a Radar on them. The experience was liberating and frustrating for them in equal measure. Here was a band who could do what they liked, when they liked – yet didn’t know what all that freedom actually meant. It led them to question why they were still doing it all.
"Personally, one of the things I find hardest is being part of the whole Radiohead thing" admits Thom, "and I'm not really interested in that anymore. I'm trying to work out what exactly it is that keeps me wanting to do it. None of us really want to be part of that band, like that anymore, just because it's a particular monster. And you don't want to be in this situation where you're just feeding the monster. It should be the other way around, whatever that means!"
Things finally turned at the start of this year, when they brought in new producer Mark „Spike“ Stent (Madonna, Oasis, Björk). He used one of the finest recording techniques in the trade to help them come through the darkness: he have them a firm kick up the arse.
It’s worked – and as things stand, the one thing there’s no shortage of in the Radiohead camp is songs. The tracks they’re working on are a bizarre mix of completely new material, and tracks so old they could have been on any album since 1995’s breakthrough "The Bends". There are newies like "Bodysnatchers", the experimental "Arpeggi" and the band favourite "15 Step", which makes Colin "foam at the mouth" every time they work on it. But then there’s the lost classic "Nude" – a massive-sounding epic in the "Karma Police" mould – which they played at gigs and worked at on and off for a decade. They accidentally got it right for this album when Colin was messing about and came up with a missing part. The band added a string quartet and now it’s a banker to be either on the new record, or released as part of a special download single on the internet this summer.
The web has always been central to the band’s existence. They post on their official messageboard, don’t mind fans downloading their music for nothing and keep an online diary (example post: “s’all wrong, s’all right, s’all wrong, s’all right. Today, myself, I was struggling, feels like we been trapped for a long time, in la la land. Very frustratin. And under pressure now its so slow. Enough to drive anyone loopy. im supposed to be positive smiling faces for the outside. Well im tearing my hair out”). The size and devotion of their online community dwarves even the Arctic Monkeys’.
And because of this, Thom doesn’t really understand the fuss of over Myspace.com
“To me, the whole Arctic Monkeys phenomenon was kind of funny, because it was really just the mainstream waking up to the fact that the internet exists.” He says. “A good thing for the new music would more of the mainstream loosening up a bit and letting stuff through. Radio 1 won’t play anything fucking decent. You need to sort the radio out. The fact that poor Arctic Monkeys are getting so much attention is purely based on the fact that the mainstream music business is such a bunch of fucking retards as far as I’m concerned. [Good music is] out there, all these people are playing it late at night. They should just flip it around – the entire music industry in this country would blow up. It’d be amazing – there’s all this amazing shit out there.”
Ask Thom what he’s listening to right now and he’s excited by “post-drum’n’bass”. HE’s a fan of Dizzee Rascal and seeing Franz Ferdinand on TV pursuaded him that playing V Festival was a good idea. He wishes he could find someone who could actually explain to him what grime sounds like. But it’s unlikely Radiohead’s new album will sound like any of that. The band say their next LP is different to anything they’ve done before and you’ll get to hear the best songs on next month’s UK tour of clubs.
“We’re trying to strip things down to the bare minimum at the moment,” Thom says of the group’s new direction. “That’s about as far as I can explain it. Almost embarrassingly to a minimum. It’s always going to be melodic, though. It’d love it to be purely rhythmic and have no melody at all, and one of them’s close to that actually. But they tend to have melody. You just have to go and look for it sometimes.”
Colin: “I listen to a lot of hip-hop records, and The White Stripes’ record as well. It’s exciting - you can go quiet to loud with just a few instruments, a few things, and not just piling instruments on top of each other.”
Thom: “Which is our natural tendency. It’s a bizarre situation to be writing material that we’re going to go out and play in a few weeks. It’s much more fun to start with nothing. Not even have a notebook in front of me and just go, “OK”. That feels really positive
Of course, for Radiohead, there’s no such thing as a typical day in the studio. While the extent of Oasis’ studio experimentation involves drinking a couple of extra Stellas and adding some echo to the vocals, Radiohead almost fall over themselves trying to push things forward.
Example 1: As Colin and Thom chat to NME the rest of the band are locked away, sampling themselves and manipulating the sound for an unnamed new track.
Example 2: Guitarist and sound-boffin Jonny Greenwood has built so much equipment it needs its own room. The other four members affectionately refer to his gear as his “one man band”. It’s not that far from the truth: recently Jonny staged his own mind-blowing Arabian-orchestral classical concert side-project.
Later, Thom only half jokes that Jonny spent the last year and a half “reading manuals”, building the kind of otherworldly contraptions more likely to be seen in science fiction movies.
“He was taking the radio and using the dips and troughs in the conversation and putting it through a pulse so it was creating a rhythm,” Thom explains of Jonny’s latest efforts. “It was absolutely nuts, man. It was like a drum machine that’s improvising on the basis of what’s coming on the radio…
“It takes a lot of time to get confident. It may sound a bit silly, but in some ways that’s one of our strengths, because we’re so hyper-critical of what we’re doing. It just gets to the point sometimes when it’s just too much. That’s usually about the time Jonny goes, “Fuckin’ hell, I’ve had enough of this.””
After the Bush-baiting title of “Hail to the Thief”, and given that Thom has taken aim at Tony Blair via the pages of NME over the last couple of weeks, you might think this record would also be Radiohead’s most political effort to date. After all, when Yorke said he’d snubbed a meeting with Blair for Friends of the Earth because the thought of it made him feel physically ill, his remarks made headlines across the globe.
The following day reports in The Guardian and Independent were followed by BBC News. Across the pond, USA Today, Washington Post, Newsday, ABC News and even CNN picked up on the story.
“I came out of the whole period of that thinking I don’t want to get involved directly, it’s poison,” he said of being asked to meet Blair. “I’ll just shout my mouth off from the sidelines and not get involved. It’s a nasty business. It’s up to people with pure integrity who know what they’re talking about like Friends of the Earth.” So is this going to be Radiohead’s big war cry?
Thom shakes his head: “I got hold of this computer software where you can do town planning,” he explains. “You can do this thing where you can draw trees and you have nice little men on bicycles and landscapes and towns and you just build up a town like Sim City or something. That’s what I’m writing about. It’s like that “No Town” nightmare situation thing. We had this phrase kicking about for ages, “New suburbian”. It’s like a made-up word, but that really sums up what I’m writing about at the moment, I think. It’s about that anonymous fear thing, sitting in traffic, thinking, “I’m sure I’m supposed to be doing something else.” Interestingly enough, it’s similar to “OK Computer” in a way. It’s much more terrifying. But “OK Computer” was terrifying, too.
Terrifying, but definitely exciting. Thom likens not having a record deal to those old cartoons where roadrunner is being chased off a cliff, but doesn’t fall until he looks down. As long as Radiohead keep looking forward, everything will be OK. They do plan to sign a record deal eventually, but on their own terms, and not until the album is finished and they've got something to show for their efforts.
Thom: "I think it's a nutty situation to be in to have no definite release system. It's really liberating not to feel part of the record company structure. It should be an extremely positive place to be in but it's also an extremely strange situation to be in. One of the things you discover really quickly when you discover you're not committed to anything is that you need some level of commitment because otherwise you just start fucking about, which is what we did for ages."
It’s this freedom that makes it possible to do things like V Festival, an event that raised more than a few eyebrows among their No Logo-loving fanbase.
“We’re not plugging an album with a live show,” explains Colin. “We’re doing a live show because we want to get out there and do that. There won’t be cardboard cut-outs in HMV.”
Put simply, they’ve found the freedom to say yes. And in a Glastonbury-less summer, it’s hardly any more corporate than Carling Weekend: Reading And Leeds Festivals or O2 Wireless, or even Nokia Isle of Wight, is it?
Whatever the moral arguments for playing corporate festivals, one thing’s for sure – this UK tour and the six months leading up to V Festival will be critical for Radiohead. With moral high, the band are now looking to their fans for input. And if the band like the songs enough, you never know, they might just release them online for the fun of it. Just remember - whatever it is you think Radiohead will do next, they’ll be bound to out-weird your expectations.