"Death Is All Around"
....when you're Radiohead's Thom Yorke. Indeed, platinum platters and aged Americans crab dancing to your live show mean very little when Mr. G. Reaper lurks in every tourbus rearview. But, as the singer tells Laughing Phil Sutcliffe, "Pop stars tend not to say how great it is!"
Thom Yorke? Radiohead. Big in America. Little chap. Great singer. Used to have big hair. Wrote Creep, then found himself singing "I'm a creep" to thousands nightly for two years.
Could shop for England. The Bends, on everymag's 1995 Album Of The Year list. Droopy eyelid.
Temperamental artist. Steady pulsebeat of a band whose line-up has never changed since it formed 12 years ago.
Arrogant so-and-so. Touring America with an album so radically divergent from expectations that he's been scared stiff no-one will like it.
Or so they say. All of the above, that is. One thing's for sure, when it comes to contradictions Thom Yorke is a bag of ferrets.
But this is odd. Greenland to starboard, bound for Washington, gnawing a touch anxiously on the prospect of an interview with the supposedly prickly and inaccessible Yorke when - surprise! -here he is, freely available on in-flight entertainment channel 5, to talk us through the new album, OK Computer. Well, perhaps he'll clear up a few of those paradoxes and enigmas which so bedevil any analysis of Radiohead.
He opens with a few remarks about his lyrics: "It was like there's a secret camera in a room and it's watching the character who walks in - a different character for each song. The camera's not quite me. It's neutral, emotionless. But not emotionless at all. In fact, the very opposite."
Between tracks Yorke's light, accentless tones explain how the Radiohead had all bought (presumably OK) personal computers in a fit of "resigned panic". In connection with Climbing Up The Walls he describes their experience of early evening support spots in America, "screaming about domestic murder while the audience is eating popcorn. Nothing's happening. It's brilliant".
This airborne Yorke is oxymoronic. He may well be gnomic too. But not so hot on paradox eradication it turns out.
At lunchtime the following day Radiohead's tour bus pulls into Washington after an Ii-hour drive from their Atlanta gig. Officially, it's a day off, but while Ed O'Brien (guitar) and the Greenwood brothers, Colin (bass) and Jonny (guitar), take to their rooms and Phil Selway (drums) sits in the bar to mull over the possibility of doing his laundry, Thom Yorke freshens up to meet Q.
Contrary to a somewhat flounceful reputation for mediaphobic storms and walk-outs, he proves the soul of politeness. When the combined resources of Q and PR fail to meet the photographic studio's surprise demand for barrelhead cash instead of plastic, Yorke even gets his wallet out to avert a looming blank-front-page crisis.
This engaging fellow - an enthusiast who confesses he dreamt about his lyrical hero Elvis Costello for six months after their one brief meeting - must be the man who has kept a band of schoolfriends together and retained the same management team throughout his recording career (not to mention the same girlfriend, Rachel, for roughly the same period). To them Yorke's eccentricities may be unexplained but nonetheless accepted; one insider remarked sympathetically that although Yorke had become a lot calmer in recent years, sometimes he would still get suddenly "uptight" in seemingly mundane situations, such as a queuing in a bank or walking down a humdrum city street, and start insisting, "We've got to get out of here".
Back at the band's hotel, Yorke readies himself for the interview with strong coffee (he scorns decaf) and chooses a table in the natural light of the glass-roofed restaurant. He settles himself.
Under questioning, he spends much of the time with eyes cast down. Sometimes he flies along, impassioned, though always quietly so. More often, he talks slowly and pauses a lot. Concern and embarrassment about how much privacy he is about to give away, or whether an honest answer will look arrogant in print, hold him back and disperse into innumerable "I dunnos" and helpless gestures.
You always said you liked tour bus life. Is that still true?
I enjoy thinking I'm in a room until I open the blinds and the world's hurtling by. And anything's better than flying.
Flying scares you?
No, it's the way people queue up to get on planes like lambs to the slaughter, the way everyone's jammed in like this (mimes shrinking in, shoulders hunched). Then there's the X-ray machines, and the chemical smell on board. It's not real air, you know, it's moisture broken up. In first-class you're fine because the air hasn't been through other people's bodies yet, but by the time you get to the back of the plane it's been through everyone's lungs and it's disgusting.
You're sure about this: the air on planes is graded according to class?
Absolutely. Virgin Upper Class. You've got to admire that. It's a shame they don't call the other sections Middle Class and Lower Class. I've got sick of planes and what they do to my body. I'm sure it shrinks your brain (laughs).
But the bus is survivable?
Yes. Although, every time it judders it reminds me you're asleep in a sort of coffin. Last night I was having visions of how you could be asleep and drive off a cliff and not even wake up.
Is Airbag off OK Computer about that kind of feeling?
Mmm, Airbag is more about the idea that whenever you go out on the road you could be killed. Every age has its crazy idiosyncracies, crazy double-think. To me, for our era it's cars. I always get told off for being obsessed about it, but every time I get in my car I have to say to myself that I might never get out again. Or I might get out but I won't be able to walk.
That's a very, uh, acute awareness.
I suppose it just comes from being a worrier. But Airbag is also about how, the way I've been brought up and most of us are brought up, we are never given time to think about our own death.
In fact everything you do stems from trying to offset that fear with the idea of immortality. Especially doing what I do. If you're a pop star, all you're trying to do is search for immortality. Or that's the cliche at least. Yet you're constantly a knife-edge away from being killed in a car accident. (Smiles) It's great!
But all the time you spent in hospital as a kid must have introduced you to the possibility of your own death very early on.
No, I didn't think that way. Actually I don't believe I've encountered death enough. No one close to me has died. Death is very obvious, it's all around us all the time, but I'm aware of how cloud-cuckoo my particular experience is. I'm 28 and I've never even seen a dead person. So I wonder what a dead person would feel like, that sort of thing. But not in a morbid way.
I suppose all this comes from reading the Tibetan Book Of Living And Dying just over a year ago. There was a lot of stuff in it which was a shock to me and it was compounded by skimming all this stuff on situationism - because I was trying to figure out what the Manics were on about. But the whole basis of it was that Western civilisation doesn't deal with death until it's too late. A lot of the things I write are triggered by books.
Legend has it that the five eye operations you had by the age of six and your hatred of the headmaster at your public school are the direct sources of the fears and anger in your songs. Were there other formative experiences that have never come up?
My mother has always said that I was a very quiet, happy kid who just worked all the time. Using my hands. Building stuff out of Lego, taking care of my bike - I was obsessed with my bike - designing and drawing cars. Then when I discovered rock'n'roll it was designing and drawing guitars.
I never got bored as a kid. Never ever. I wanted to build bridges. I had this wicked Ladybird book of bridges. My mum was very creative and I'm sure I got that from her and my hyperactiveness from my father. It's fairly flat. I didn't get kicked around as a kid. Sorry to disappoint.
You once said your hometown Oxford was "weird and very important to my writing".
Oxford is a place where you have a plan and then you go out and you never ever achieve it. You just walk around in circles. I've always been able to walk round and round Oxford for days and watch people and be perfectly happy. I used to have favourite places to sit and watch. I still do.
There's a transitory population of tourists and students. Very polluted. Too many people, not enough space. It's very oppressive because the university owns ninety per cent of the land and the public haven't got access to most of it.
The historic, beautiful buildings don't register in your view of the town.
No, because most of those historic, beautiful buildings are surrounded by barbed wire and spiked walls.
Town and gown.
And I'm totally town.
Although you were gown when you went to Exeter University.
But I was embarrassed to be a student because of the what the little fuckers got up to. Walking down the street to be confronted by puke and shopping trolleys and police bollards. Fucking hell. I used to think, no wonder they hate us.
So presumably you were a well-behaved student, if only out of embarrassment?
If I was going to throw up I did it in the privacy of my own room. It was the same in Oxford seeing these fuckers walking around in their ball gowns, throwing up on the streets, being obnoxious to the population. The little guys in the bowler hats will clear up their puke and make their beds for them every night. They don't know they're born and they're going to run the country. It's scary. Of all the towns in the country it's one of the most obvious examples of a class divide.
You've stayed there, though.
Inertia more than anything else. The point used to be that it's not London. But Oxford's very polluted, it makes me unwell and it makes my girlfriend very unwell. I want to get somewhere else.
The country beckons?
Big country house with a barbed wire fence, Range Rover. (Laughs)
But no class prejudice on your estate, eh?
This Range Rover's second-hand, all right?
Now that you've become a big star do you find yourself larging it?
Throwing a wobbly? But I always did that. You don't need to be famous to do that. In fact, I smashed a guitar last night. I'd never done that before. Unfortunately, it was an acoustic so it wasn't really rock'n'roll.
What bad behaviour do you go in for off stage then?
Oh... (thinks of something, evidently decides not to tell). Sometimes I get to sit in front of television and get drunk.
THOM YORKE WROTE HIS FIRST SONG when he was 11 and playing guitar in a duo whose other member's duties included mis-wiring TVs so that they exploded ("We'd make a lot of noise then go and drive Morris Miners round his garden"). The ditty was entitled Mushroom Cloud, a rumination on the atomic bomb, though "more about how it looked than how terrible it was".
Since then, his songsmithery has evolved in response to stern criticism, sheer accident and an unresolved inner conflict between lairy self-expression and sober objectivity.
You once mentioned a girl listening to one of your early demos (when Radiohead were called On A Friday) and saying, "Your lyrics are crap. They're too honest, too personal, too direct and there's nothing left to the imagination". How did you react?
She was right. When I first started I wasn't really interested in writing lyrics. Which is strange in a way because if I didn't like the words on a record, if it wasn't saying anything, I would never bother with it again. But at 16 your own songs are half-formed and you don't really expect anyone to hear them, so you don't care what the words are. A big step for me was starting to work with Jonny and the others. And that would be a month after my friend said what she said.
It was quite significant then?
I suppose it was. I suddenly discovered that if I did concentrate on the lyrics I'd get much more out of writing and it would be easier to put a song together. Now we find that if we haven't got the lyrics to a song, we can't finish it because they dictate where we take the music.
Which was the first of your own lyrics that pleased you?
(Lengthy pause. 32 seconds, in fact.) Fake Plastic Trees (from The Bends, 1995). When we did demos, words would be made up on the spot. You throw it away or it sticks because it sounds amazing. You find the significance in it when you read it afterwards.
It's the same with a lot of the vocals on OK Computer - they're first takes because after that I'd start to think about it and it would sound lame. I really like the vocal on "The Tourist" and I don't remember doing it. It was something we left on the shelf for months. When I listened to it again it had obviously been, Go out and sing a rough vocal so we can work on it. There's no emotional involvement in it. I mean, I'm not emoting, I'm just, Yeah, yeah, sing the song and walk off.
What actually starts you off writing a song?
The melody. Or a sound. For Lucky it was the sound Ed makes on his guitar at the beginning. This (sings it, squeaky mouselike little voice), ninganinganinga. Like nothing we'd ever heard before. What it boils down to is, whenever you go looking for something you never find it. So it's better to respond to things when they happen.
To live a life like that is quite weird. Very privileged. Pop stars tend not to say how great that is.
Colin Greenwood said that your musical heroes - Costello, R.E.M., Lennon, Tom Waits - are an inspiration to aim for, but that you fall short somewhere else interesting.
That's the good bit for me. Subterranean Homesick Alien was born out of listening to (Miles Davis's) Bitches Brew endlessly every time I drove my car. I completely missed it... but there again I didn't.
What got to you about Bitches Brew?
The first time I heard it I thought it was the most nauseating chaos. I felt sick listening to it. Then gradually something incredibly brutal about it and incredibly beautiful... you're never quite sure where you are in it, it seems to be swimming around you. It has that sound of a huge empty space, like a cathedral. It wasn't jazz and it didn't sound like rock'n'roll. It was building something up and watching it fall apart, that's the beauty of it. It was at the core of what we were trying to do with OK Computer.
Miles Davis never repeated himself.
A friend sent me a copy of these flash cards that Eno uses when he's recording. One of them says something like, "Whatever worked last time, never do it again". It's incredibly depressing, but it's true. Whatever method you have at this particular moment will never work again.
Who else inspired you?
If you listen to the rhythm at the beginning of Exit Music, it starts off like a Johnny Cash song from Prison Tapes. Amazing. I hate live albums but I get spine tingles every time I play that. You can hear the audience willing him on. And you can hear he's ill, he can't hit the notes, and yet the songs are so powerful in that environment with the prisoners there, whooping and laughing.
And then there's Elvis Costello. It's not any particular song, but I love the way he hammers it all together. He can be very emotional without being personal. That's his art.
Which brings us back to that key criticism when you were 16. You said you took on board the comments on self-centered writing, but your lyrics on Pablo Honey and The Bends were very much about yourself.
(Sighs) I couldn't write about anything else. That was the bottom line. I couldn't look externally.
In "Let Down" on OK Computer it says, "Don't get sentimental, it always ends up drivel". Is that you admonishing yourself?
Completely. Sentimentality is being emotional for the sake of it. We're bombarded with sentiment, people emoting. That's the Let Down. Feeling every emotion is fake. Or rather every emotion is on the same plane whether it's a car advert or a pop song.
As a writer, do you have a problem about keeping your emotion honest?
I don't because I've learnt not to worry about honesty. Whether I'm being honest is irrelevant if it works. So that question wasn't relevant and it was rude of you to ask. (Smiles graciously at this small victory for aesthetic logic.)
You've been talking about emotion as if only the softer ones exist, but on OK Computer you're saying plenty of angry things like, "We hope you choke" (Exit Music) and "Arrest this man" (Karma Police).
Mmm. It's responding to incredibly hostile moments. Responding in kind. Which I am wont to do. But I ain't feeling sorry for myself.
You've been known in the past as a champion grudge-bearer.
Not any more. It's bad for you.
But can you get a grip on grudge-bearing? It's such an ingrained part of a person's character if you're that way inclined.
I have a lot of other day-to-day things to deal with so I can't add that to the list. I get stressed pretty easily and having people looking at you in that certain way (acts out curly-lipped malice, laughs), I can't handle it any more. That's what a lot of the album was about. That's what Karma Police was about. Though it's a joke as well, you know. "Karma police, arrest this man." That's not entirely serious, I hope people will realise that.
Still, that ironic, aggressive tone isn't quite what you'd expect from an admirer of the objective, reportage style of John Lennon's writing in A Day In The Life.
Writing as a witness. That was my ideal. A series of pictures, not even colouring them really.
But you made "We hope you choke" a sort of motto for the album by putting it in the artwork on the back of the sleeve.
I love that.
Why did you do it?
When the sleeve is being designed we're just grabbing at the phrases we're hearing at the time. But the most important bit of the artwork is the "Against demons" hex underneath the CD.
What does it mean?
It's a sign people used to put on their front doors. You do often see the demons in people's eyes. They're like fucking devils. Believe that or not.
That kind of thing can look a bit barmy in black and white. Can you give an example of what you mean?
The "kicking squealing Gucci little piggy" in Paranoid Android was inhuman. There was a look in this woman's eyes that I'd never seen before anywhere. Whether that was down to me being exhausted and hallucinating... no, I know what I saw in her face. I couldn't sleep that night because of it.
I was in a bar. Someone spilt a drink over her and she turned into this fiend. I mean, everyone was out of their minds on coke and I'm sure it was that. But it seems to be happening to me a lot. Seeing a look in someone's eye and, Fucking hell, what was that? Getting me right (reaching his hands up behind him, evidently feeling his spine) ...like someone walking on your grave.
You don't mean "demon" in the religious sense do you?
(Long pause) The "against demons" idea is not about believing in God or the Devil, it's just that act of drawing a hex on a door to protect yourself.
So that's the symbol. Do you take more practical steps?
Never be in a room with strangers on cocaine.
SO FAR, IT APPEARS, THE DEMONS have indeed been kept at arm's length. Radiohead played unsafe with OK Computer. They didn't follow up The Bends. Instead, they followed their instincts and, remarkably, set off selling more than ever before with a sustained Top 10 position at home, a new best ever high entry at 29 in America, and sundry other cheerful chartings around the world.
Does commercial success matter to you?
It matters. It's as much as you can ask for. The rest is bullshit.
Success is part of what you want when you start writing?
Jonny goes on and on about this. Anybody who claims they write for themselves is a liar. Everyone has an audience in mind. The only reason any artist would carry on is in the faith that one day somebody would see or hear their work.
How does that affect your relationship with live audiences?
I remember mixing "Airbag". Nigel (Godrich, engineer) played it back really loud and I thought, This is something we never dreamed we could get done. I was so happy I rang my girlfriend just to say, Wow, we've done something really great. That's the height of the experience.
Then it stops, you finish the record and you're sick of it and the only time I get to like our stuff again is when we go out and play it live. There are a lot of good reasons for not doing tours: it fucks you up, it takes too long, it costs shitloads of money. But... it's about looking people in the eye while you're playing your songs.
When we were doing the pictures, you mentioned your St Louis gig and you remembered the "old guy" in the front row doing a strange crab-like dance. When you're on stage do you focus on individuals and play to them?
Yeah. That's what was so terrifying about Glastonbury this year. The lighting system programs were wiped clean so these two white lights were pointing straight at me from the floor and I couldn't see a thing, not a face, until I screamed at the lighting guy to kick the lanterns round the wrong way so that they weren't in my eyes. Until then I hadn't seen the audience, it was a completely isolated experience. I'd played six songs to a pitch-black wall of nothingness.
You once said that, "confronted by a beautiful woman I will leave as soon as possible or hide until they leave. It's not just that I find them intimidating. It's the hideous way people flock around them... Beauty is all about unlearnt privilege and power".
I said it. But it's as arrogant as you can possibly get. Rude. Silly. I do have a genuine, normal awe of beauty, a feeling that it's completely unapproachable and intimidating and it's at its most extreme in women. I'm not Paul Weller, you know.
You mean he's a handsome chap?
He seems to be able to go out with whoever he wants. But it's not so much of an issue these days. Perhaps I'm starting to grow up.
Maybe success has made you beautiful in some sense. You've been in a fashion advertisement after all.
One. It was a big mistake.
The ethics of it. I'm not some fucking clothes horse. It must have appealed to my ego at that moment, but it was wrong. (Radiohead recently turned down £500,000 from Guinness for the use of a B-side.)
But you were photographed by Steve Meisel and it meant you were being appreciated for the way you look.
That can be extremely distracting and confusing. Still, my women friends have told me they think the feeling of walking down the street when you're famous is the same as a woman gets from wearing a short skirt. That was a breakthrough for me, a real leveller. But the good side of fame is that people forget you amazingly quickly. Six months ago people had completely forgotten what I look like. It's hilarious.
You weren't disappointed by that discovery?
It was great. Back to normal.
You're writing new songs already.
Probably all shit though. The energy of finishing something and having other people respond to it gives you hope. It's the best phase, actually.
SO SARTRE WAS WRONG AFTER ALL when he said, "Hell is other people". According to Thom Yorke it should read, "Hope is other people". Well, good.
Yorke says he's off to "wash his brain", before dining in Washington's Chinatown Thence, no doubt, to a good night's sleep, for once on a bed that's going nowhere - perhaps to dream of Elvis Costello rather than tour buses hurtling over cliffs.