'I Don't Want To Be In A Rock Band Any More'
In his most in-depth interview ever, Thom Yorke answers the two questions everyone's asking: what the hell was ‘Kid A’ all about? And what will Radiohead do next?
Thom Yorke has admitted to many things since Radiohead first went public with their new, electronically enhanced incarnation. He has admitted to having a nervous breakdown after ‘OK Computer’. He has admitted to suffering from writer's block. He has admitted to wishing away his band's illustrious legacy. He has admitted to developing a difficult relationship with electric guitars. He has suggested that “melodies became an embarrassment to me”.
What he hasn't managed to do, until now, is reveal just what was going through his head when he put together ‘Kid A’, the first stirrings of the radically reinvented Radiohead and one of the bravest records in recent years. Certainly a work which doesn't give its secrets up easily, it will long continue to be argued over by everyone from hardcore fans to casual admirers.
Sitting in a Tokyo photo studio, calmly unruffled in smart short-sleeved shirt and stubbly beard, Thom Yorke claims to be bemused by the reactions to his band's return. In fact, he seems to view the creative freedom Radiohead have now achieved with something close to relish.
Chatty, engaged, frequently laughing, this is clearly a man who, in his own words, doesn’t hate himself quite as much as he used to.
The first surprise about ‘Kid A’ was its lack of basic rock songs...
“It seems music has got to a point where everybody has the right to go any place they like. And it shouldn't be over your career or one record. It can be over a song or half a song, or even ten seconds. There's ten seconds of hip-hop on the LP, y'know. To me, that's how I listen to music now. I don't want to be in a rock band any more, anyway.“
Do you think electronic music is more capable of capturing the essence of your world?
“Umm, yeah. On ‘OK Computer’ we were dipping our toes in with that stuff. This time, it's just become a part of the furniture, what we use now. Every time I picked up my guitar, I just put it down again. It didn't mean anything to me at all. I played more keyboards and piano than anything.
A lot of the songwriting now isn't really about songwriting at all, it's about editing, building up a lot of material, then piecing it together like a painter. But it's weird approaching that with vocals, because all the stuff I've been listening to, almost none of it has vocals. That was one of the things that I was most interested in; that I was so in love with this music, yet there wasn't much vocal interpretation. Apart from Björk, y'know. When I did the session with Björk [for Selma Songs track ‘I've Seen It All’], she had all the same records. It was great, actually. But coming from being in a rock band, I had no confidence in exploring that stuff. I felt I knew nothing about it so I didn't have the right to go into it. There was all this baggage. You know, rock bands going into making electronic music have a fairly bad history [laughs]. Neil Young being an obvious example.“
Was the recording process different this time? Was that necessary in order to progress?
“There was no sense of 'We must progress". It was more like, "We have no connection with what we've done before" [laughs]. What we're hearing in our heads is much more like this disjointed, fragmented thing, very much a landscape. Well, the artwork is very much a landscape - for fear of sounding prog-rocky. It wasn't about people as such, not really about observing characters. It was very much about objects that you have no emotional attachment to at all. I consider the album to be incredibly unemotional. It's not in any way trying to pull you in. The vocals are like a grammar of noises.“
It's interesting you felt no connection to earlier material. This record sounds like Radiohead starting another...
“...phase? I was contemplating changing the name of the band. I'm absolutely serious! I didn't want to be answerable to what we'd done before. Emotionally, I'd had enough. It felt good to put a full stop on it. But then, in a way, that's kind of running away, a bit lazy. What I worry about is people saying, "It's a big transformation, a big leap forward." To me, it's not really about that, it's about simply representing what you're hearing: what you hear when you go to sleep at night, what you wake up with, what you hear when you're driving, what you hear when you're walking. Then it's just a long, incredibly infuriating, frustrating battle to try and get it down to give to other people to hear.
What I'm saying is it's about starting again. It's not about having to live up to any myth about who or what you are. That's why I'm finding it extremely difficult to do interviews at the moment... I've only done two, and I've decided this is the last. [Adopts smarmy American accent] "You're so hostile, why are you still angry?" It's totally fucking irrelevant!”
‘Kid A’ seems more concerned with confronting people than giving them a melodic catharsis...
“The music scene at the moment is dominated with that terrible teenage stuff. But then other people are just getting on with it, because there's no longer that pressure to fulfil this obligation to be a rock band... Maybe that's all rubbish.“
‘Kid A’ suggests you think no one musical vision can entirely grasp the world...
“I think it's true. That's why it was such a nightmare putting it together. I didn't really know what any of it meant until we went and argued about what was going on it. We had massive rows. It's always been quite easy before, but this was just a nightmare.”
The sound of this album is like the sound of nothingness, what's left after everything else has disappeared. It's like a load of colours mixed together, but you end up with white...
“It's like walking for a long time, eventually your brain empties...“
It's a record to live in.
“Yeah, exactly. That's the best I heard it described.”
‘Kid A’ seems to try and capture the essence of the world as you see it, but suggests that you can't capture it, you can only be engulfed by it. Perversely, that's a pleasurable experience.
“Yeah, I was having a semi-argument with someone a couple of days ago. He didn't get the track ‘Idioteque’. I ended up saying I thought it was the most joyful thing we've ever written. He just didn't get it, he was saying, ‘But you're singing about the Ice Age coming.’ Well, yeah, that's because it is [laughs]. But that's not the point, the point is the joy of watching everything working. When we finished it I remembered how I always wanted to do a dance tune, something you hear when you go to a club. I used to go to a club when I was at university that played hip hop, James Brown and stuff. The speakers were really bad and blown up. I remembered that, because I always used to think, ‘Wouldn't it be amazing to try and get that feeling, but have all the things that freak you out, the most worrying images you could have, and rattle them off in the middle of the rhythm?’ “
With lines like "see you in the next life" or "I am not here", the album doesn't seem to have much sense of self.
Yeah, I know what you mean. It's very fragmented. Like, if you walk into a town one day and you pick up bits of people's lives, but only for seconds, and you don't really get any further. It's not really pursued, it's sort of just there, really. It's not a big deal, it's just happening.
That's a very human experience as well, though, isn't it?
“Yeah. That's more realistic than devoting a whole song to one particular emotional thing for me now. By the time you say it, you're already feeling something else. I think that's the way people operate. When we first stopped, I was writing down everything that was happening to me all the time, and I had these bits of paper in the cupboard. And then, I started throwing it all away. I was completely blocked, because I couldn't sustain anything through a whole song to make it convincing, and I couldn't sustain a thought to the end of a sentence, and I couldn't sustain playing the guitar over four chords without thinking it was shit. And then eventually when the confidence came back, it came back in the form of not having a problem with that, actually using that. Saying, ‘OK, this is just fragments.’ There's much more confidence there than on ‘OK Computer’.“
By the way, why's it called ‘Kid A’?
“I've got no idea.”
Who's responsible for the title?
“Actually my sequencer is responsible. That's what my sequencer called the opening melodies of that song. I have no recollection of writing it at all. Then I found it, and it was called ‘Kiddae’. In a way, that illustrates the way we were working. We had one of those horrible white boards you have in offices. At one point, we were working on 50 different things, which used to drive the others crazy, but it made me really happy. Depending on how I felt when I walked in one morning, I had 50 different things to choose from, and it's brilliant! And I had another 100 different things on the sequencer. Totally swimming at the tide, you don't know what's going to happen. Rather than [Straight voice] ‘Well, OK, we'll set up in a room, play these three chords and I'm gonna sing about this thing here.’ It was very liberating and it's also just nonsense as well. It comes from different areas of your head.”
It was really hard to imagine what the album would be like from hearing the songs played live...
“I'm enjoying the fact that everybody decided what the album's like from the live shows, and it's just not relevant at all, hahaha.”
Why are guitars still the main instruments live?
“It still sounds exciting, in a way. When we started recording we were thinking that, whatever we do, we have to rewrite it in order to be able to play it. So, in a way, we went into the touring not knowing what we were doing really. We had to just guess, which is why we had to use guitars.”
And now there's talk of another album...
“A lot of the other songs we're extremely attached to and we really like, they come from a totally different space, like sonically, which is weird. They went two very different ways and you had to make choices. So we're reserving judgment on it now. I'm not sure if it'll be a complete album.”
You've already played some of the other songs live: ‘Knives Out’, ‘Egyptian Song’...
“Yeah, even though they're really great songs, and I'm really proud of them, they just didn't fit, which is quite a weird feeling, because you think an album should be just basically the best songs. That's not necessarily true. You can put all the best songs in the world on a record and they'll ruin each other. On the later Beatles albums, when they got really, really good at putting things next to each other, like on The White Album, it's just amazing. How in the hell can you have three different versions of ‘Revolution’ on the same record [sic] and get away with it? I thought about that sort of thing.”
The album is very coherent musically. Would you say that's also true of the lyrics?
“Much less than before, but I'm not in a particularly good position to judge. I have a different relationship with the lyrics this time around. To me, it's like looking at things on a shelf... no, that's not right. They're more like shattered bits of mirror than anything else, like pieces of something broken. I don't have any attachment to it other than... well, it made sense to me when it was there at the time, and when we play it, it makes sense. But it's not like I'm trying to get anything across.
You're not supposed to think about the words. That's the whole point all through the record. That's why I'm not printing the lyrics. Never. Maybe I'll give people clues, but it shouldn't be read like that. The lyrics are over before you have time to talk and worry about it. That's how it works out. With ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, when you actually read the lyrics, if I wrote them out, they're just really silly. "Yesterday, I woke up sucking a lemon". That's pretty silly [laughs]. But I thought it was funny when I sang it. When I listened to it afterwards, it meant something else.”
What about ‘How To Disappear Completely’? Wasn't it inspired by a dream?
“It's pretty straight, straightest thing on the record... except the music isn't. All the orchestration is extremely not straight, which is kind of why it works. It's in the middle of a really bad space. "I'm not here, it's not really happening" is supposed to be like a chant.”
‘Morning Bell’ seems very dramatic.
“Oh yeah, big stuff [laughs]. It's very, very violent. Extremely violent. The really weird thing about that was I wrote the song with all the words pretty much straight away, which is basically the only one I did that with. I recorded it onto MiniDisc and then there was a lightning storm, and it wiped the MiniDisc and I lost the song. I completely forgot it. Then five months later, I was on a plane, knackered for 24 hours, I was just falling asleep, and I remembered it. It was really weird, I never had that before. It's gone in and took a long time to come out again. The lyrics are really... they're not as dramatic as they sound, you know? Except "Cut the kids in half", which is dramatic no matter which way you read it.”
You talk about chopping heads, too...
“Oh yeah. That came out of top hats. I blame the top hats. I had all these fragments that I couldn't do anything with, which is why I cut them up and put them in a top hat, and pulled them out when I was desperate. That's pretty much true of all the album's lyrics, except maybe ‘How To Disappear’ which is about trying desperately to get to the place where you can't feel these things any more.”
Songs like ‘In Limbo’, ‘Optimistic’ and ‘Idioteque’ seem influenced by atrocious world events.
“If I was honest, that's why I had a block for two years: because I couldn't actually write about these things and do them justice.”
You've got more creative independence than ever...
“Yeah, that's true. It'd better bloody be true!”
Do you feel at ease with yourself?
“At ease? Oh yes, I don't hate myself quite as much as I used to, which I think is a bonus really. Because that can only last so long without it destroying you.”
When you were recording "Paranoid Android", you famously threw a tantrum, told everybody it wouldn't work, and disappeared. Next day you woke up with a massive hangover, and everybody else was doing this great track. You described that as a cathartic, liberating experience...
“I think I know what you're gonna ask me, but ask me anyway.”
Were there any of those moments this time?
“Yeah. Early on, we were sort of going back on history and we hadn't moved on and all that shit. That was the point when we thought that maybe this had run its course. But over a period of time we worked things out, had time to get away from the things we were supposed to be. We learned to be human beings again, rather than monsters. And that translated to how we worked. I mean, I'm probably never going to be the easiest person in the studio because I get frustrated. I can hear something in my head, and it's not happening. There's only so much patience you can have. This fragmented way has made that easier, because I'm not trying to sustain one grand emotion. And having a lack of attachment to what I'm writing doesn't make the work any less powerful. In fact, it's more powerful, because you're not trying to prove you're something that maybe you aren't really feeling at that particular moment.”
Do you think rock music is still stuck in an infantile stage?
“Hopefully, this'll be the last time rock musicians are allowed to behave like idiots and get away with it. For me, that's dull. They should all go home, and get a life and go and listen to something else. I don't think that's sour grapes because I'm over 30, heh heh heh. When the ‘OK Computer’ thing stopped I had no connection with that sort of emotional range any more. I didn't have any emotions at all for a long time. Probably the purest emotion I had was when I finished this record. That was like the strongest feeling I've had in three-and-a-half years. Elation, achievement, happiness, that was the most definite feeling I had. Because everything else had just been a mess, and it was like putting pieces back together [laughs].”
With that, Thom jumps up and makes his apologies. He has, finally, said enough.
Turn over for a rundown of the tracks destined for the next Radiohead album.