In March last year, NME’s Julian Marshall interviewed Thom Yorke and Colin Greenwood of Radiohead in Oxford for a piece published in the magazine.
NME: How far has the album progressed?
Thom Yorke: "We spent quite a while just mucking about. It's a weird situation to be in because there's mile and miles of stuff, but none of it is solid enough yet. We're just starting - hooking up together and then fucking about for a bit, just doing a lot of technical stuff.
"Jonny spent a year and a half reading manuals. So we're filling up lots of things and it's starting to get exciting, but it's really early stages yet.
"What tends to happen with us is you get a lot of middle ground where you're going over ground you've been over before and you have to move on. It takes a while to do that. The most obvious example of that is when we did 'The Bends'. We did the 'My Iron Lung' EP before that, and that was an interim thing where we were trying to find our feet. When we start a new project, there's a lot of that, and we're in the midst of that."
NME: Thom, with 'Hail To The Thief' you were writing and then presenting songs to the band. Is that something that you've been doing this time?
Thom Yorke: "I went through a period of not really writing much at all. A lot of the stuff we're working on at the moment is pretty much brand new."
Colin Greenwood: "When we get back together again we have to work out where we're all at before we can more forward collectively. We only started that about a month ago."
Thom Yorke: "From my point of view we're getting together during the day and then I'm going home in the evening having jammed stuff out and trying to piece it together in my head. Despite pages of ideas, it's much more fun to start with nothing. Not even to have a notebook in front of me. That feels really positive somehow."
NME: But at the same time you're working on songs that are 10 years old...
Thom Yorke: "There are some old ones. There's a version of 'Nude' that we've been working on that we're really excited about. We need to finish it. Jonny's been working on all his string stuff for it. We had a string quartet in and it was really good fun to have new people come in."
NME: Are any of the songs finished? Anything you're particularly proud of so far?
Thom Yorke: "All the titles are mentioned on the internet... '15th Step' is one we were talking about yesterday."
Colin Greenwood: "That's one of the ones I was foaming at the mouth about yesterday. I had a friend from (avant electro act) Four Tet in and I played him some of the new stuff and he was getting very excited about it.
It was one of those things, when someone you respect musically was into what you were trying to do, then I got very excited and I told everyone else, and everyone else got very...
Thom Yorke: "...unexcited and confused!"
Colin Greenwood: "We've all been apart for a while doing things other than Radiohead, doing family things and having kids and stuff, so it's getting back together and emptying everyone's bags on to the table and seeing where our heads are at."
NME: Have you found it difficult to find the inspiration to make a new record, given that you don't currently have a record label?
Thom Yorke: "It's really liberating not to feel part of the record company structures. It should be an extremely positive place to be in but I think at the moment it's like the cartoon bit when Roadrunner comes of the cliff and keeps running - then looks down.
"It's an extremely strange situation to be in, and 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.
"You have to wake up and think of the new bands who are trying hard while we spend a year mucking about not doing anything in particular. We have to get out of that frame of mind."
"I always wanted us to be in a situation like Tom Waits was when he stopped for a long time and came out and did 'Swordfishtrombones' and 'Raindogs'. He started again and was doing a lot of that from his own studio in his own time at his own pace and it seemed to be a world apart from anything else that was going on.
"I think that was just him finding his own space, and removing himself from the bits he hated about where he'd been before. And I think that's what we're in the process of doing."
NME: So this feels more like starting again, rather than a full stop?
Thom Yorke: "Yeah. And it's trying to work out how that works. That level of freedom is like being in mid air."
NME: How are the songs sounding?
Thom Yorke: "We're trying to strip things down to the bare minimum at the moment. Almost embarrassingly minimum."
Colin Greenwood: "I listen to a lot of hip-hop records, and The White Stripes record as well. It's dynamically 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 Yorke: "...which is our natural tendency."
Colin Greenwood: "But then we don't have to have all five of us playing on a track for it to be a Radiohead track. Being in Radiohead is a bit like a meeting house, it's where we get together and share ideas about what they're excited about and then bugger off."
NME: When you say you've stripped down, it's not a decision to only use certain instruments?
Thom Yorke: "No, that'd be the death of us immediately."
Colin Greenwood: "You can just pick something up now in our studio and just play something and it works, and then you can record it."
Thom Yorke: (Producer) Mark 'Spike' Stent has been amazing for that. We built our studio after 'OK Computer' and there's gear everywhere.
When he came into the studio for the first time he was like, 'You have no idea how amazing this studio is.' There's shit all over the place, broken bits of guitars and synthesisers. He was able to set it up so we can almost immediately do things rather than have an idea and three hours later still be trying to work out how to make it work."
NME: So has he brought a different element to the recording sessions?
Thom Yorke: "You have to have someone there going, 'So chaps, what you going to do then?' You have to be there and ready to think straight. He has amazing energy as well."
NME: What's he brought to the sound? Nigel Godrich had a very unique production...
Thom Yorke: "It's very different. We're still trying to work out whether it's right or not to be perfectly honest, because at the moment what we need is someone who is what I'd call a tutor - who is a guy you're answerable to."
Colin Greenwood: "We need an A&R man - for the first time in our career we don't have a record contract and we need an A&R man. We don't want a record deal, but we want their A&R."
NME: Are you planning on signing another record deal?
Thom Yorke: "What's cool about it is once we have something that makes sense we have the luxury of going to people and going, 'We've got this, do you want it?', and there being no additional baggage.
"Record deals should be like that anyway. The days of the development deal, like major record companies using tax avoidance schemes to invest in new bands then dropping them like a shot, it's not really necessary anymore."
NME: Would it feel right not to have a label at all? Is that something you'd consider?
Thom Yorke: "I don't think we'd have a deal in the old sense."
NME: Will the album be out this year?
Thom Yorke: “I’m sure something will be out, but it really depends on whether we start to feel confident about what we’re doing or not. The other big thing about us is that 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, ‘I’ve had enough of this.’”
NME: Have you reached that point yet with this album?
Thom Yorke: “No. I can see it on the horizon, though.”
NME: Yesterday’s session in particular seemed problematic...
Thom Yorke: “I had a bad one yesterday. It’s all about energy for me. If I get tired and stuff I get freaked out. To go from not doing anything for a while to then suddenly having to work like bastards. But we’ve got to do it. We’ve got to do it properly.
"Personally, one of the things I find the hardest is being part of the whole Radiohead thing and I’m not really interested in that any more. 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 any more, 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!”
NME: Do you mean that you feel consumed by the size of the band?
Thom Yorke: “Only on bad days. It’s just baggage really, from over the years. You can’t come out of it scot free, but it’s really just personal blockages in my head. It’s not a big deal, 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.”
Colin Greenwood: “If you’re doing anything that’s important or confronting, you’re going to get the fear. That validates it in a way. For me the big thing about having kids last year is that, as a parent, you’ve got to have something that you do that you’re happy about that defines yourself, because if you don’t have that you’re no good to anyone. In a good way it validates the passion you had for music.
"If Ed was here he’d be talking about that as well. Last couple of years he felt that Radiohead were just a bunch of baggage that he didn’t need in some ways, and then last year he came to terms with it and realised that’s part of who he is and what it is that defines himself. That’s what he needs to do, and that’s cool. Between all our records we tend to go away and come back. I think that’s really important.”
NME: What are the lyrical inspirations for this record?
Thom Yorke: “I got hold of this software where you can do town planning. 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’ which we ended up putting on a T-shirt. It’s 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.’”
NME: Are they themes that you can see you’ve worked on before?
Thom Yorke: “I’m sure yeah. Interestingly enough it’s similar to ‘OK Computer’ in a way. It’s much more terrifying. But ‘OK Computer’ was terrifying too, some of the lyrics were.”
NME: When you say that you were messing around on this record, is that time spent with family?
Thom Yorke: “It wasn’t strictly time off. I think I personally wanted to get out of the whole thing for a while, but you discover fairly quickly that you can’t do that - you get the horrors, because you’re sitting there going, ‘OK, erm, 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 you’re in a very privileged position, sitting there on your hands is a foolish thing to do. It took a long while for it to make sense.”
Colin Greenwood: “We started again about this time last year. One of the tracks we were working on, ‘Nude’, we recorded about a year ago this month but we didn’t really have an end point to what we were doing so we were keeping our hand in, I suppose. For me, it really started when we started work with Spike last month. Whatever we release next, whatever we will become as a band, it started this year.”
Thom Yorke: “Also, whatever we choose to put out, it’s like gearing up. What we’re trying to avoid is this big hoo-haw thing we used to have with EMI and the nature of working in the old way. All the fucking song and dance, we want to get away from that. It’s back to the sketchy thing. We’re into the idea of releasing singles at the moment.”
NME: There is talk of this download single... Is that going to happen?
Thom Yorke: “I don’t know, it depends. I hope so - it’s just finding something that makes sense. It’s not supposed to be a big deal but it’s difficult not to think like that because that’s how I’m used to thinking about things.”
Colin Greenwood: “It’s amazing how much conditioning you have from being in a six-album record deal. We were talking about the whole download idea because there’s something about it that’s deeply wrong because it’s something you worked on and you’re giving it away for free, but you want to do something that’s of the moment and immediate and share with people because that’s what you’re excited about now, not next year as part of a full-blown album release, and you want to do something that’s not part of iTunes or something, or corporatisation, turning the internet into a record company. Something that’s direct from us to you. It sounds cheesy.”
Thom Yorke: “It’s getting away from the preciousness of the whole thing. No fucking song and dance, it’s not a fucking big deal, it’s just a piece of music. We’re not part of this big empire. It’s trying to get away from that because it’s the death of anything creative. And you see it in every artist, it’s the same thing. At some point the monster takes over.”
NME: Which of the new songs would you like to put out as a download?
Colin Greenwood: “We had a big argument about this last week, so there’s a song we’ve been working on - ‘Arpeggi’ - that we really love, and ‘Nude’ we love, and there’s ‘15 Step’ and ‘Bodysnatchers’...”
Thom Yorke: “...Put ‘em all out!”
NME: Is the sound melodic, angry?
Thom Yorke: “It’s always going to be melodic. I’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.”
NME: What are you going to call this album?
Colin Greenwood: “That’s always something that happens right at the end.”
Thom Yorke: “I’ve got this thing about hyper-weather at the moment, which is something I heard on some wack American TV channel. Here’s a programme on Hyper-weather! This weather’s really hyper! Something like that maybe would be good. That’s about as far as I’ve got.”
NME: Is Jonny using a lot of samples this time?
Thom Yorke: “We’re sampling ourselves! We did this thing with [avant-garde ballet choreographer] Merce Cunningham, and Jonny was building all these bits of gear, and we’re now using them a lot - stuff like loop machines.”
NME: Are you finding this experience enjoyable?
Thom Yorke: “I will, but right now it’s that start up period where we’re not sure where it’s headed, so it’s really scary. Once you start moving it gets really exciting.”