OK, no computers
Until three years ago, Radiohead reigned as the biggest British band in the world. Then they confounded the critics by releasing two dark, impenetrable albums and refusing to give many interviews. Now they have chilled out, returning to the mainstream with a happier, laidback album.
If you go down to the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise. For there you'll find Radiohead's Thom Yorke – often cast as prime grump in this generation's most angst-ridden rock band – making a pop video. He's enjoying himself, too. It's a scorching spring afternoon in 50 Acre Wood outside Bristol. Not a creature is stirring, save a small chap striding along a forest trail with exaggerated, deathly stealthy steps. He's keeping time with a slowed-down version of Radiohead's new single, the pounding There There, the first from their sixth album Hail to the Thief. Five foot six and dressed in a murmur of browns and greens, toting a satchel, hair unkempt, face unshaven, Yorke’s head juts forward, funny left eye flickering, nose twitching with mousey inquisitiveness. He's like a hobbit, or a lost boy in a fairy tale.
“Bugger,” he says good-naturedly as he reaches the end of the marked-off section of trail. He looked up at the wrong moment. “Do it again?” he asks video director Chris Hopewell. “Yep, do it again.” He's been doing this for three days, and there's another one to go. Then Hopewell and his team will spend two weeks integrating the footage of Yorke with flickering, stop-motion animation. “Thom gave me a brief saying it should be a bit Brothers Grimm, a bit [Czech animation legend Jan] Svankmajer,” says Hopewell. “It's Fifties East European genre animation, overlaboured and naive.” “It's Bagpuss,” says Yorke.
Radiohead are a changed band. The guitarist Ed O'Brien says they now have a “swagger”, they can “groove”. The pacy, focused Hail to the Thief bears that out. It's the sound of a band who are lighter, more relaxed, less paranoid, happy to be doing what they do. You might think this would be a given with humungously successful, millionaire thirtysomething rockers. But Radiohead aren't like other bands. At all.
Radiohead became famous as the middling English indie band who captured the zeitgeist with Creep in 1993. “I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo,” wailed Yorke over a monster guitar riff. “You're so f***ing special, I wish I was special.” Like Beck's Loser, it became an anthem for the disaffected, directionless, dropout kids of Generation X. Yorke, with his unconventional rock star looks – he is small, with a paralysed left eye and a history of bad haircuts – became the unlikely posterboy for any kid with a fondness for slamming their bedroom door.
With their second album, The Bends, in 1995, Radiohead turned the pressures of early acclaim into a fist of powerful, excoriating rock songs. While parochial Britpop raged all around, Radiohead, a band consistently apart from any other scene or musical fashion, went off to America to tour with REM, and became the biggest British band in the world.
I interviewed Yorke in Dallas in September 1995. In blistering Texan sunshine, as REM soundchecked onstage, Yorke sat cross-legged, huddled in a big coat, rubbing his head, avoiding my gaze and generally being a bit miserable. Blimey, I thought, is this what success does to the musician who never wanted the spotlight? Had he been taking lessons in fame-avoidance from new soulmate Michael Stipe?
With OK Computer, two years later, things got silly. The album's first single, Paranoid Android, was a titanic guitar opera in three movements and six and a half minutes. Breaking with hegemonic Beatles tradition, the readers of the music monthly Q voted it the best album of all time. It sold six million copies.
But as documented in a contemporary tour video, Meeting People Is Easy, the media adulation and public obsessiveness drove Radiohead nuts. They would respond by ripping it up and starting again. They had never been the kind of band who were photographed falling out of pubs or beating up paparazzi. “Rock'n'roll” was a pantomime that other bands did. They weren't being sour-faced, but you can see why it might have looked that way.
Their next album didn't help in this regard. Its genesis was marked by near-terminal arguments within the band – Yorke and the guitarist Jonny Greenwood thought Radiohead should visit shock-and-awe destruction on anything and everything they had done before; bass player Colin Greenwood, O'Brien and drummer Phil Selway were less sure. After 18 months of seclusion, drifting around studios in France, Denmark and England, Radiohead re-emerged in October 2000 with Kid A. This wasn't rock, this was startling techno-jazz. Guitars? What guitars? And there was more where that came from – eight months later, the band released the similarly mental Amnesiac.
Meanwhile, Yorke had become involved with Jubilee 2000’s campaign to drop Third World debt. The fiercely intellectual band were fans of Naomi Klein's anti-globalisation bible, No Logo. They used their fanclub and website, Waste, to disseminate all manner of political messages. More than any other band they seized on the potential of the internet. They used it to bypass the media, offering a question-and-answer service called “Spin with a Grin”, and to empower their fans, they policed the sale of concert tickets to ensure they weren't snapped up by touts. When they toured in support of Kid A, they initially did so in their own tent, free of corporate branding of any sort.
Somewhat unfairly, Radiohead came to be seen as a grim-faced, pretentious bunch of middle-class, obscuro-muso boffins. There were none more worthy. They refused to release any singles from Kid A. In line with this fundamentalist withdrawal from what they felt was the circus of promoting their records, they imposed a near-total media blackout. In particular, the silence was not kind to Yorke. Sure, he collaborated to winning effect with Björk (on Selmasongs) and PJ Harvey (on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea). But he acquired an image comprising all the colours of the uptight rainbow: grumpy-grey, agit-politico-white, artsy-none-more-black, shit-brown and cynical-ginger. No matter – Kid A went to number one in Ameica and Britain. Even when acting like the Awkward Squad, Radiohead couldn't help but be loved. Sadly, they didn't seem to love themselves.
And now? On a sunny day in the cottontail loveliness of 50 Acre Wood, Thom Yorke is making a pop video for a pop song. How? Why?
“Because otherwise I'd be doing interviews,” he grins, indicating that he's still less than comfortable with the PR process. “Oh dear, who's got it rough? I'm staying at [a nice hotel in Bath], the rest of the band are [in Europe] flying to two places a day talking rubbish and being asked about the war. So I think I'm doing all right!”
Really, though, all this effort and acting the goat – why? The singer smiles blithely. “I was into it. I just like the idea of doing videos.” Are Radiohead willing to promote – sell – themselves again? “F*** yeah! I'm trying to persuade the record company to shell out on lots of singles. This is a pop record, it's really direct. I'd love to know that it was on the radio.”
The week before Bristol, I met Thom Yorke in Oxford. No, not in a wholefood canteen staffed by angry beatniks, but in a branch of Café Rouge. I meet the four other members of Radiohead in London. They’re holed up in different rooms in a Victoriana-themed hotel in Kensington, undergoing trial by international media. One of the many unusual tings about Radiohead is that all five members are articulate and interesting.
Radiohead formed in 1985 while all five members were still at Abingdon, the boys’ public school outside Oxford. Yorke has said that, partly on account of the problems with his eye, he was bullied and was “sort of a leper at the time”. Ever feisty, Yorke fought back. Abingdon's head music teacher “was the only one who was nice to me”.
“School was bearable for me because the music department was separate from the rest of the school,” Yorke said in 2001. “It had pianos in tiny booths, and I used to spend a lot of time hanging there after school, waiting for my dad [a supplier of scientific equipment] to come home from work.”
“They were all of them talented boys,” the music teacher, Terence Gilmore-James, recalls, “in the sense that they had more than average abilities to think for themselves… They were delightful to be around, always getting carried away by their latest discoveries.”
The members of the band wend off to different universities around the country; Yorke studied English and art at Exeter. On graduation they all returned to Oxford. At this point, they were still known as On a Friday, a name chosen because that was the day they rehearsed.
As far back as October 1991, just prior to being signed by EMI, Yorke was demonstrating his singular lyrical vision. In the band’s first interview with a local magazine, Yorke described how an early song, Nothing Touches Me, was “based on an artist who was imprisoned for abusing children and spent the rest of his life in a cell, painting. But the song is about isolating yourself so much that one day you realise you haven’t got any friends any more and no one talks to you.” When it was pointed out that was pretty miserable material for a song, Yorke replied, “Yeah, I’m just aggressive and sick.”
Today, 12 years on, Yorke is in good form, smiling, relaxed and easygoing. He was never as puritanical and moany as he was painted anyway, but he’s certainly taken a chill pill. Age, fatherhood, time at home and/or a brace of buzzing new songs have mellowed him. He still lives in Oxfordshire, with his girlfriend and two-year-old son Noah (they also have a hose “on the coast”). Colin Greenwood, his brother Jonny (a new dad) and Phil Selway (a father of three children under the age of four) also still live in the area. Ed O’Brien lives in Islington, north London.
The last time Radiohead set out to make an album, they ended up making two, and two that were obstinately different from everything the band had done before. So what did you want to do this time? “I wanted to...” the pixie-ish Yorke stops himself and gives a faint, slightly hard smile. He does this often, stopping and smiling, as if still processing the events, or sharing a joke with himself.
“When we finished Kid A and Amnesiac, we were thinking, ‘So, what kind of lurch in another direction are we gonna take now, you know, unexpectedly, ra ra ra?' “ He often does this, too, this mirthless lampooning of himself, this adopting of the snide theorising he sees as beloved of the media. “And, um, that was kind of doing my head in for a while. I took a long, six months off. Then my girlfriend, Rachel, said, 'Why don't you just do a record where you let it happen? No agenda, nothing.' And that sort of made things click.”
Thom Yorke recently accompanied a fellow Oxfordian, the environmental philosopher and pundit George Monbiot, to a peace rally outside RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, home of American B-52 bombers. Yorke made a short speech attacking the war in Iraq. “America,” he told the crowd of 2000, “is being run by a bunch of religious maniac bigots who stole their election and their only way of retaining power is to wage war.”
As recounted in Michael Moore's book Stupid White Men, the phrase “hail to the thief” was chanted by demonstrators at George Bush's inauguration, a reference to his having “stolen” the presidency from the numerically more popular Al Gore. Despite his comments at RAF Fairford, Yorke insists the album title is not directed at the US president. That would cheapen the record he says, not least because he hopes the album will be around a lot longer than Dubya.
The line “Hail to the thief” appears in the album's first song, 2+2=5. Yorke first heard it on Radio 4, during a discussion of a previous president, John Quincy Adams, “whose father stole him the election and who was known as the Thief throughout his presidency. It struck me as the most amazing, powerful phrase, regardless of the circumstances. It will annoy me if people say it's a direct protest because I feel really strongly that we didn't write a protest record, we didn't write a political record.
“The fact that the music was positive and has all this energy gave me licence to write the lyrics I wrote. It was only when I got to the end of it I realised how angry it was. All the way through the record there is this sense of trying to understand how one human can make a decision and affect thousands of lives. Our glorious leader [Tony Blair], for example – how he think, believes, that he’s not being presented with the facts or he’s choosing to ignore the consequences.”
Despite being weary of the mantle ‘Angry Art Rocker’, and despite his avowal that this is not a protest record, Yorke can't help but get fired up by talk of politics. Sitting opposite me, he’s now hunched over, scrunched into his sear, ranting at the wall. He is vituperative about the Daily Mail, New Labour, globalisation and dirty tricks. He has previously claimed that MI5 had a file on him, but now says – unconvincingly – that he was joking. Presumably, he wouldn't agree with Noel Gallagher's opinion that “protest is a waste of time”? A slight smile and a pause. “He needs to read some books.”
Ed O’Brien, 35: guitarist. Tall, almost hulking. Pilates aficionado. Neil Young nut. Favourite album of last year: the Streets’ Original Pirate Material. Currently on sabbatical from drink, but smoking more cigarettes as a result.
In five words, Hail to the Thief is: “Energetic. Brief. Direct. Slightly political.”
What did you want to do with this record? “Get it over quickly. Be direct. Most of all, I wanted energy. We haven’t had energy [like there is] on this record since The Bends.”
What do Radiohead stand for? “We do things the right way. [Long-term producer] Nigel [Godrich] said, ‘You’ve earned this record. Every single record you’ve made has been blood, sweat and tears. You’ve allowed yourself to make a record and enjoy it.’ So yeah, I think we’re cashing in the karma chips.”
Phil Selway, 38: drummer. Meditative, gentle. Volunteer with the Samaritans; ran the London Marathon last year to raise funds for the charity. Gets the irony of this, given that Radiohead are often lampooned as depressives’ favourite band.
Hail to the Thief is: “Diverse. Spiky. Energetic. Warm. And fun actually, I think. As fun as we get.”
Was making this album a happier process than the last time? “Yes. Yes. It had to be really. I don’t think we could have gone through another session like the ones for Kid A and Amnesiac. With Hail to the Thief, there was an enthusiasm about what we were doing. There was also a spontaneity which certainly hadn’t been there for quite a while.”
What do Radiohead stand for? “Being musically as honest as we can be. And trying to base any decisions that we make on artistic principles rather than anything else.”
Jonny Greenwood, 31: guitarist. Shyest member of Radiohead. In the band’s six months off before beginning Hail to the Thief, he recorded a soundtrack to the art movie Body Songs, a series of images of the body, from sex and birth to death. No story, no dialogue, just music for 80 minutes. To Greenwood, a bliss.
Hail to the Thief is: “Immediate. Energetic. Dark. Vampiric. Magical.”
It took you 18 months in studios all over Europe to make the last two records. You recorded most of this album in two weeks in Los Angeles.
“None of us wanted to hang around Los Angeles longer than we had to. We were scared we’d end up playing some ex-punks in a dodgy bar. And Nigel was desperate to get us into the Ocean Way studio [where Godrich had made Travis’ The Invisible Band and Beck’s Mutations]. It’s a bit like Abbey Road: traditional. The Beach Boys and Nat “King” Cole recorded there. Musicians have been going into that building for so long for exactly the same thing. It felt good in there.”
Why have Radiohead endured? “Thom, and us together, are still writing good songs. Big bands eventually start writing pedestrian chords. The song [becomes] about nothing. It’s the equivalent [of] when you talk to someone and there’s a void behind their eyes. I don’t think we’ve got there yes, luckily.”
Colin Greenwood, 33: bass player. Fast, speeding brain, forever shooting off at tangents. Very well-read. Talks like he’s on drugs, but more accurately, is high on gushing enthusiasm for literature, architecture, art, music, etc.
Hail to the Thief is: “Colourful. Clear. Overt. Brash. Contrasty.”
You have worked with a long-term collaborator, the artist Stanley Donwood, on the sleeve. What’s the concept? “It’s comprised of the five colours used on American road signs, and black and white. These colours are incorporated [in the sleeve] so it’s all very present. Some of the stuff on Kid A and Amnesiac was more submerged, more withdrawn.”
Does this tie in with the sound of the album? “Well, Thom’s alternative title [for the album] is The Gloaming – a general creeping up of darkness. A dumbing down, or collective forgetting of important things. But it felt a bit proggy like [Tears for Fears’s] The Hurting. Also, the record is all fluorescent, opaque sounds, like road signs – clear, coming at you out of the darkness.”
What do Radiohead believe in? “Collective action that benefits as many people as possible. It’s like an art school ethic.”
In October 2001, I saw Radiohead in Japan, where their last world tour ended. As we sat in a minibus after the show, Yorke said, with an impish, champagne-lubricated grin, “My ambition in life is to make a record that's just… funky. Makes you want to have sex.”
The next time I saw them was last summer in Porto, Portugal. They played eight new songs, seven of which have made it on to Hail to the Thief. It may have been the holiday vibe but Radiohead seemed like a band back in love with songs, songwriting and performing. Yorke, who had developed a near pathological distaste for being a “frontman”, was once again happy to take centre-stage. “One of the formative things for me was, at the end of the Kid A and Amnesiac period, I worked with Björk,” he says of their collaboration on Selmasongs, the Icelandic singer's soundtrack to the film Dancer in the Dark. “It was amazing watching the way she sings. She's just her voice and that's it. I never felt good about my voice like that. And it was really inspiring.
“I used to see that with Michael Stipe as well. When we toured with REM I used to watch him from the side of the stage. The head space that he went into wasn't the guy I knew when he walked off. I'd forgotten that and the Björk thing reminded me of it. So when we went out on tour I was really up for it.”
Accordingly, unlike its predecessors, Hail to the Thief doesn't sound like the work of five school friends at the end of their tether after nearly two decades together.
In songs such as the burblingly ambient Backdrifts, the swinging A Punch Up at the Wedding, the vintage REM-like Go to Sleep, we hear a band not driven to distraction by the desire to reinvent the wheel (again). The opening 2+2=5 sees a return to the furniture-shifting rock of The Bends. But it's not all hulking riffology. Tracks such as Sit Down. Stand Up, which builds into a frantic techno fit, and We Suck Young Blood, seemingly the work of a drunk New Orleans jazz band at a funeral, offer evidence of Yorke and Jonny Greenwood's ongoing jihad against meat-and-potatoes rock. But, still, it's Radiohead, rocking out, kicking back and “slightly political”. It just might be the album the world needs right now.
Thom Yorke, 34: singer. Film buff. Favourite film: Peter Seller’s Being There (a simpleton can become president). Key film during making of Hail to the Thief: Nosferatu (the proto-stop-frame animation has wonderful rhythm). What he thinks he looks like in photographs: “Like I’ve had the shit kicked out of me.” His mum’s more polite version: “You look like you’ve been in the wars.”
Hail to the Thief is: “Shiny. Gloaming. Whirlwing. Sexy. The future. Dark forces.”
The Gloaming is a throbbing, scratchy song. It features the lines “murderers, murderers, we're not the same as you” and “your alarm bells should be ringing”. Jonny says it's the most important song on the album for you. Why? “The time off we had was during the Afghan War, shortly after September 11, blah blah blah,” says Yorke. Again, he is pre-empting the mickey-taking, aware that people think he's always prattling on about September 11, new model imperialism, oil wars and how it's all the fault of Starbucks and Nike.
“I was totally hooked on Radio 4. And it coincided with Noah’s times to get up [for feeding]. We were staying in our house on the coast, and in the evening I used to go driving. I’d go into this weird dreamstate. There was something about the colours of the headlights, the twilight and the animals running into the bushes for cover. It had this ominous nature that stuck with me. It was all wrapped up with the fact that I found it incredibly difficult to come to terms with the fact that maybe we were leaving our children with no future at all. This imminent state of moving into the dark ages again. The rise of all this Right-wing bigotry, stupidity, fear and ignorance.”
Colin says The Gloaming was your original choice for the album's title. Why not stick with it? “Because the music itself was too joyful. If we'd called it The Gloaming it would have implied all these darker edges that really aren't there.”
I Will is pretty dark. “That's the angriest thing I've ever written. Almost inexpressible rage. Someone f**** with my family, I'm gonna kill them. That absolutely primal 'you can do anything you like, but if you do that I'm not responsible for my actions’.”
How has having a child affected your songwriting? “I'm not sure whether that was the reason we were trying to do things more simply this time. You can't dwell on things or suck it dry in your head. Because you realise how lucky you are to get the chance to do that in the first place.”
Don't children also make you realise how unimportant the work is? “Yeah, totally, you're last on the list. That's good, in a way. Bit of a shock initially. That's what I keep telling Jonny.”
And this is definitely not a political record? “Um, no. If it is, it's by osmosis. I guess if you listen to the Today programme enough, you end up being political. At the end of every week I used to have pockets full of bits of paper with things on the radio that had rung bells in my head. [Instead] I used the vehicle of children's stories. The fairytale things that are in the lyrics was a way of dealing with stuff that otherwise would feel political.”
Back in 50 Acre Wood, Yorke is still striding slowly up the path. In the video, his character is attracted to bright lights in the trees. Every time he reaches the source he sees another bigger, brighter light. He keeps going, consumed by greed, oblivious to the dark shadows gathering around him. In the end, he is running for his life, pursued by carrion crows. He is petrified, almost literally: the video ends with Yorke turning into a gnarly old tree, face frozen in a scream. Crumbs.
Given how the “darkness” has intensified since the band finished the album, does Yorke wish he'd written a more forceful, more political record? “No. Because I just think political records are shit. Billy Bragg managed it, the Clash did. But I can't write it, certainly not at the moment. I'm not that sort of person.”
What do Radiohead believe in? A pause. Long pause. Longest pause yet. “Sort of three-quarters of the time we believe in the music we're doing. Then the other quarter of the time we haven't got a clue why we're bothering.” Yorke pauses again. What's important to the band, he decides, is that people understand what Radiohead are trying to do. I don't think he means the media, who were, on the whole, sniffy about Kid A and Amnesiac. He means the fans, who are legion, infatuated and responsible for a possibly unparalleled proliferation of fan sites on the internet. As long as the fans get it. “And maybe when they don't, we'll sort of… it’ll unravel.”
Is it good fun being in Radiohead just now? “Temporarily, yeah. Ask me in six months when we're touring and I want to go home.” Yorke gives a hard, faint smile.
The single ‘There There’ (Parlophone) is released on May 26, the album ‘Hail to the Thief’ (Parlophone) is released June 9.