With their third LP, Radiohead are in serious danger of becoming the best band on the planet. Harry Wylie talks to guitarist Ed O'Brien to find out how "five 20-somethings having a laugh" came up with the album of the year.
SINCE their 1995 album, The Bends, Radiohead have been just about the busiest band in the world. Touring endlessly, setting up their own recording space, and writing OK Computer, already being touted as the greatest album of recent years. Few could deny that this Oxford-based five piece have travelled far since their early days and the single that made them, "Creep".
Progressive rock - an ugly and confusing pitstop in the history of popular music; images of long-haired keyboardists in flares behind organs the size of cathedrals, extended drum workouts and guitarists talking about augmented intervals as if they actually know what they're on about. But it's the best the music press can come up with to describe the music of Radiohead.
And after the release of the seven-minute "Paranoid Android" single - the first taste the world had of OK Computer - who could blame them? It was no surprrise that the press ran screaming to their ever-convenient Encyclopedias Of Rock to look for suitable points of reference.
True, the guitars of earlier LPs, Pablo Honey and The Bends were still there - but this time their Marshall distortion was replaced by leaner amp overdrive and a vast bank of effects noises and studio manipulation, while the trademark Rickenbacker jangle sounded more reverbed and crystalline than ever.
But the biggest change was singer Thom Yorke's voice. Pablo Honey saw him hack his way in predictable indie rock fashion through tracks like "How Do You?", while The Bends saw what decent production (thank you John Leckie) and straight delivery could do for the best tonsils in pop. With OK Computer the band are bored with sounding that good. Try fuzzing up Thom's angelic voice, or doing the vocals through the speech synthesis software of an Apple Mac. Basically if you can sing "Fake Plastic Trees" or "The Tourist", you can't go wrong. The key to the game is experimentation. The band have proved themselves, now they're having fun.
As Jonny explains, "One of the things we did on OK Computer was try to make Thom's voice sound different for every song, because he was getting sick of the fact he could sing about garden furniture and still sound very passionate."
Second Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, younger brother to bassist Colin, more that any other Radiohead member epitomises the musical philosophy of the band. On stage, he skips between keyboards, Akai samplers (fattened on all-RAM diets), a cluttered FX board and his low-slung Fender Telecaster. Pushing the Sterling Morrison fringe away from his eyes as he stabs strings for chords, tremolos his way through pulse-quickening solos or simply plays two-note melodies with the detachment of a minor player in a two-bit orchestra. His (naturally ironic) claim to be in pursuit of the "ultimate atonal riff" more than establishes his credentials as the most theory-based musician in Radiohead.
Fellow guitarist Ed O'Brien, who has been playing guitar in the band since Jonny's early days playing harmonica and keyboards, is quick to acknowledge the younger Greenwood's role. "He's an amazing musician. He's from a totally musical background, not what I've come from at all - I'm completely self-taught. It probably shows in Jonny, he knows all the theory. But what's great about him is he's got that feel. I've never been interested in lead guitarists. He must be the only lead guitarist I like. I don't get Clapton. I don't get any of that stuff. But he's got an amazing feel, an amazing musicality." But Jonny is also far from the 'muso' that the music press often make him out to be.
Ed: "You would have thought that with me being self-taught and him coming from the other end that he would be like 'you can't play that.' But he's not at all. There are no rules."
Listen to the band play live - in fact, most of the album was recorded live in the studio - and you're struck by the power that using three guitars lends the sound. Ed agrees, "it's great to play with two other guitarists. A lot of people have said, 'How do you do that?' But just listen to Jonny playing those blistering solos... I've always been into sounds, layerings, melodies things to pick out, and Thom's always been this brilliant rhythm player."
Even though most bands struggle to use two six-stringers, Radiohead's grasp of the sonic potential of three electric guitars seems to be so much a part of their technique and surely the product of the 12 years the band have been playing together.
Take the intro to "Airbag" - the first track on OK Computer; Jonny churns out a Floyd-worthy distorted bass string riff, Thom strums the chords on his Jazzmaster, and Ed plays a crystalline 14th fret melody on his Rickenbacker - and not until everything is well underway does Colin enter with his spine-tingling, ultra-minimal bass line. It may look highly calculated, but Ed insists the band come up with their parts individually; "It's not like we actually all sit down and work it out. Thom plays essentially rhythm so he'll come with some chords, he'll be strumming along. Probably for the first week when we're rehearsing Jonny and I have got our ears up to our amps until someone comes up with something they like, then they turn themselves up. And then you get off on what the other person's playing.
"There aren't any rules, but if someone's down at the bottom of the fretboard, you get up to the top. You try and find a space for what you do - you learn that. It can get very covered. It's tricky having three guitars to get them all to come out. That's why you have to sonically find a space for each one."
Things haven't always been so sussed out on planet Radiohead. Aside from the brutal on-off dynamics of early single "Creep", featuring Jonny's now-legendary bruising chord work, debut LP Pablo Honey lacked a totally coherent musical voice. Ed agrees:
"On Pablo Honey we did like eight-guitar overdubs of essentially the same chords, just to build up this wall of sound, this distortion thing. And it's just boring, boring. Playing like an open C chord... In musical terms, The Bends was the transition."
Still, even The Bends was slightly hampered by its obvious attempt to create another "Creep" - another big song to storm the charts, particularly in the US. Perhaps it was the chart success of "Street Spirit", the low-key, mournful track at the close of the album that prompted the band to strip things back down.
For OK Computer, the entire recording process was changed, with the band relying largely on a mobile recording facility, run by engineer (and virtual sixth Radiohead member) Nigel Godrich, and months and months of playing in Canned Applause, their newly-created rehearsal room. "That's what we needed to do, just try out loads of different stuff. That's why the mobile recording was so good on OK Computer, with five of us and Nigel co-producing. Five 20-somethings in the studio having a laugh," Ed remembers.
In spite of the light-hearted way O'Brien looks back on the recording process, Radiohead have a hard-work ethic that puts most bands to shame. "For OK Computer we did four months of rehearsals, and we worked a lot of stuff out. I do endless, endless tapes - I have a little Walkman and I tape the practice - the whole 3-4hrs, and then go back in the evening and listen to it, chew it over."
So the finely-crafted sound of OK Computer is just that - finely crafted. Or the product of hours of work on sounds - "yeah, we've got shitloads of pedals," Ed laughs - and straight rehearsing as a band.
This is a point that all the Radiohead members stress, and seeing them play live confirms the impression that they are a fantastically tight outfit. Ed: "The most important thing with our music is the way we play together. A lot of OK Computer is about the stage Radiohead got to last year. There's an understanding that goes on now; a lot of tracks were put down live, with very few overdubs. But it was that whole thing about a band at a certain time being really able to play. We realised that we were playing the best we had in 12 years. And we will get even better."
Playing tracks like the labyrinthine "Paranoid Android", with no less than three entirely different sections - ("a cross between DJ Shadow and Thhe Beatles," as bassist Colin puts it) - requires a band at the peak of its powers. So how does the Radiohead 'vibe' work? Ed: "You have a natural feel, you know what people are going to do, you know how far the drummer's going to push and pull it. It's weird; we veer around a certain speed - 80bpms is pure Radiohead. We gravitate around that speed. That's just the inertia or the beat within us."
Another obvious change in the OK Computer arsenal is the band's increasing power as songsmiths - you can't imagine them writing an obvious tune anymore - even the brilliant single "Just" from The Bends sounds basic next to tracks from OK Computer. "Yeah, it would be very easy for us to do straight-ahead songs. We certainly used to, and I don't think we do that anymore. We are striving to find different sounds. With OK Computer one of the biggest compliments someone said to us - a friend of ours - said it was like a Pet Sounds [seminal 1966 Beach Boys LP] for the '90s. And that is huge compliment to us. That album, its sounds, its layering..."
A point has to be made here - and it's one I put to Ed: with a singer as brilliant as Thom, there are some tracks that don't even need a band behind them. Take "Fake Plastic Trees", the haunting "Exit Music", "High And Dry"... the list goes on.
Ed seems to agree for a second, before realising he might be talking them all out of a job here: "Yes, well... no. With a song like "Exit Music", there is a certain pressure that everything laid down has to take it somewhere else. The first thing after the vocal was the mellotron. Jonny put down the mellotron bit quietly in the chorus. And then I picked out the high guitar melody, then the drums, then the bass, and each time something was added it took it somewhere else.
"You have to be quite disciplined, you could probably put down an out-of-tune banjo over Thom's vocal and it would still sound good, but it wouldn't make the song that much better. Each bit has to push it all somewhere else. "Fake Plastic Trees" is an example of a song we could have done anything with - it was a stage of the band where we just had it there. With an acoustic and a voice it sounds incredibly powerful. It was the same with "Exit Music"."
For Ed, this melodic philosophy is one that comes naturally, citing as he does guitarists like Johnny Marr and The Edge as defining influences. So solos and lead guitar shenanigans are right out. "Often my favourite songs are no more than about five chords. And often they're chords that you know ¬ the important thing is the melodies picked out between them. The vocal melody. I'm a real believer that you can do amazing stuff on guitars but it's nothing next to a good vocal. We're so fortunate to have Thom as a singer.
"When we've worked really well, a song like "Exit Music" and "Fake Plastic Trees", there's something to work towards, you have a finished vocal. And it's really inspiring to do. When you've got a good vocal it becomes very... not easy, but easier."
One of the reasons for setting up the band's personal rehearsal space was the sheer quantity of equipment behind their sound, most of it (on the guitar side) old analogue pedals and valve amps. "It's got ridiculous, the amount of gear that we've got now," Ed laughs. But aside from using it for band rehearsals and early recordings, the space also allows them to work on their playing individually; "It's really good on days off to go in there and work on sounds. We all try to bring a lot of sounds to what we do. A lot of the times they don't work - I've got loads and loads that just doon't work within the scope of the band."
But ask for precise details of the effects the band use, and Ed becomes slightly cagey; "it's a bit difficult, because you learn tricks as you go along and you don't want to give them to everyone. Especially with us, because we've got so many boxes and noises and things, and with all the orders of pedals and stuff, all that makes such a difference to the sound."
So, no Radiohead trade secrets will be given away here, but the basic effects unit in Ed's rack is a Korg A2 multi-FX, although it's fallen out of favour for the more analogue sound of OK Computer.
"I used it a lot on The Bends, stuff like "Planet Telex" - almost all the guitar is through that, all very synthesised."
Next up is a Digitech Whammy pedal - "everyone seems to have one of thoose, but they're great." Then there's an old MXR phaser pedal, Jim Dunlop tremolo, a Companion Distortion pedal, Electro Harmonix Small Stone and Electric Mistress, plus Roland Space Echos and "all the usual" Boss pedals.
The thinking behind the use of so many standalone pedals is simple - it opens the doors to sonic experimentation big-time. "It's how you use them, in what order you put them," as Ed puts it. "Out in America we pick up loads of stuff from second-hand stores, funky old pedals. We've got a great fuzz pedal - the bass on "Exit Music", the distorted bass at the end was a 60's Japanese fuzz pedal that I picked up in LA. It's a great pedal. 60 bucks for this thing - you put it on a guitar and it sounds like Telstar.
"Or Jonny at the end of "Paranoid Android", the phased solo thing, that's through a Mutator - he did the part then fed it back through the box and played with the settings."
Another good example is the background sound in the verse and intro to "Lucky" - it sounds like a typical O'Brien creation. Ed: "I remember fiddling around in the soundcheck - we were in Japan - and putting together a different pedal order and actually hitting the strings above the nut on the headstock. The pedals that I did it with, and the delay that was going on. It was one of those moments - 'Yeah, this is pretty cool.'
"A lot of it is just when you're relaxed, just trying to do something different, you get loads of sounds. Some of them don't work, but you have to just keep on making them and see what happens. Lucky was certainly a sound I hadn't heard before. It was interesting because the song itself was there, but that sound just puts it in a different context, into a different space."
For guitars, Ed has three Rickenbacker 360s, a 12-string black model and two sunburst six-strings, a couple of Strats ("just for on the road; they're really solid for FX stuff"), and a hand-built guitar made by the band's guitar tech, Peter Clements (known affectionately as Plank). It's a hybrid of a Gibson neck with a Rickenbacker semi-acoustic body ("a beautiful, beautiful guitar," Ed adds).
The choice of Rickenbackers may seem unusual in such a modern-sounding band, but Ed is clearly a devotee; "they're great guitars, they're very cool and they sound... cool. That was the first guitar I bought when we got our advance - I just knew I had to get a Rickenbacker. Now it's really nice to be in this position, because we can call up the Rickenbacker factory and get a guided tour - it's like going to Mecca!" As for the rest, everyone plays Fenders - Colin plays a Precision bass, Jonny a Telecaster, there are Fender Twin amps everywhere. Thom uses a Fender Jazzmaster and a Telecaster Custom - one of the 1970's ones with two humbuckers and a Strat-style headstock. "Yeah, but he's just bought a Rick. He's wanted one for ages because I had one," Ed adds with a smirk.
On the amp side the band use mainly reissue valve models - "in the studio it's AC30s, Fender Twins and a Boogie Rectifier, the Tremoverb, which is really nice. They're all reissue ones, we haven't got any old amps ¬ we do so much touring they'd probably break down too much. So we got the reissue blue speaker Voxes. I'd love to hear a great old 1960's Vox, though, I've never heard one."
With such a logical progression between the three Radiohead albums - and after the sheer brilliance of OK Computer, the question on everybody's lips is where on earth can this band go next? Talk has been flying of them throwing all their instruments away and relying entirely on samplers - after all, singer Thom Yorke recently worked with US musician DJ Shadow, embarrassingly once dubbed the 'Jimmy Page of the sampler'. Ed: "Whichever way we go, we'll go to an extreme, either loads of samplers or we'll strip it back down. The next album will probably be a bit of both - we've never made albums full of the same-sounding songs - probably from one extreme to the otheer. There is some live recording we want to do, all set up together in a big studio. And maybe get some auxiliary musicians in, which should be really good fun. You reach a stage where you have the luxury of being able to try out different stuff. We get bored very, very easily. To keep our interest up we have to be learning all the time."
One live option Ed suggests is a surprising one - "I'd really love the idea of recording an old Stax or an old Motown track. Everyone in a room, including a string section and just doing versions of songs. We're at a stage as a band where we could play like that."
But before you think Radiohead are about to become the next Wet Wet Wet, Ed swiftly adds; "We're not interested in being retro at all. There'd have to be something different about it. But as the basis for a track, it would be very cool. At the end of the day it's all about performance when you put a track down."
What with all the new confidence in the band and this spirit of experimentation, recording the next album should be easy? A mistake, which Ed swiftly corrects: "No. It's not easy. Making an album is really not. We have a week that's good then we have three weeks that are really, really soul-searching, tearing ourselves to bits. We definitely put ourselves through it. The Bends was really difficult to make. If we're going to push ourselves it's got to be difficult - you're questioning things the whole ttime. Now we need to find the balance, hopefully do things a bit quicker."
For now, though, more touring looms - including imminent stadium dates in tthe UK - then more rehearsals, before Radiohead album number four appears - quite possibly the album that will take them to REM status across the globe. But such ideas seem far away as this interview is concluded backstage at the salubrious Gloucester Leisure Centre. Thom walks off with a smile, and the band head off to get some food before tonight's gig.
In a parting line, Ed sums up the ethic of Radiohead perfectly: "It's an understanding. We don't talk about it. There's no bullshit that goes on. We've been fortunate enough to play for 12 years and learn as a band, learn our instruments, and we've stuck and we've worked really hard at it." Simple as that.