Main Index >> Media Index >> OK Computer Media | USA Media | 1997 Interviews
Hammerstein Ballroom,
December 19, 1997

Back at the same venue they’d knocked New York silly at three months prior, in order to be broadcast on an MTV live program, this Oxford quintet were somehow even more triumphant.
Never mind the OK concert the music channel aired (as I saw later on a tape). The intrusion of TV cameras on real live concerts never seems to produce anything resembling an accurate document of the smell, look, feel or spirit in the air. Buoyed by the momentum OK Computer has generated, the group played with the resolve of an ambitious artist high on validation.
Think back to the careers of older greats in that junction when they suddenly seemed to explode, creatively, critically, and commercially at the same time. Such moments stick in the minds of fans forever, and Radiohead is at that moment, here, now.
30 years from today, it will come back, plain as a memory’s broadcast can manage, even without the TV playback. THOM YORKE has blossomed into the totally effective frontman from which the band’s conviction funnels. Head bobbing side to side, that high-arching voice hitting every note spot on, perfectly, beautifully, even when there’s little backing from the band, those bug-eyes seeming to stare at each audience member and recede into his own personal oblivion at the same time. JONNY GREENWOOD still plays music doctor, whip-scratching into his guitar like an irritated cheetah pawing its cub, then massaging some frail, vulnerable part out of a piano or organ. His brother COLIN still turns sideways towards PHIL SELWAY’s drums, pushing the band’s low-end rumble hard against the bass drum/snare patterns with the precision crash of a wrecking ball. In turn Selway leans into his tom toms and crash cymbals with the slow piston fury of a churning oil rig or freight car. And somehow occupying a big chunk of the stage with a more enthusiastic, good-natured presence, stay-at-home guitarist ED O’BRIEN, towering over his mates with his lanky frame, rips the basic chords off like battering a punching bag, then loping towards the mic to back Yorke on key supporting vocals.
Most of all, one will remember all this authority poured into material whose resonance can only be called extraordinary. Radiohead have the guts to play exactly ZERO cuts off the first of their three LPs, Pablo Honey-not even “Creep,” for the first time ever in New York! Instead they work in some of their more cutting-edge, accomplished b-side material to go along with two phenomenal LPs, The Bends and OK Computer. So, no sooner does one emotional blockbuster of the holiest or coldest, lightest or darkest, prettiest or angriest shade pass, that another one begins. It’s a set that has no lowpoints, no sagging, no songs worth skipping for a trip to the bathroom, nothing but the promise of still more important art set on fire fulfilled for nearly 2 hours.
Their shows now sell out in 20 minutes, all over the U.S, to people dying for another (or first) dose. Let’s just say I’m not telling any secrets here. More than a concert, Radiohead are a totally engaging night of high-drama, memorable luster, and the most enthralling, thoroughly modern music.
radiohead: the great rock hope
Who would have guessed in 1993, circa their ho-hum debut Pablo Honey, that as this decade creaks to an unremarkable close, Radiohead would be the band on the lips of anyone who cares about rock music?
Interview: Jack Rabid / Transcription by Paul Regelbrugge

Cited in most “Top 10” lists for 1997, from fans, critics, and musicians, OK Computer is a remarkably brilliant follow-up to an already acknowledged second LP, The Bends. A stubborn masterpiece that makes no commercial concessions and was our #1 pick last issue, it embodies a wealth of feeling, evoking claustrophobia and alienation, and the emptiness and numbness of a modern existence caught up in technological advances. It’s also quiet helplessness and gentle, fragile beauty. Or wild, rollercoaster fury and showers of sparks.
More importantly, they’re the only group selling a substantial quantity of records that comes to mind to contradict that perennial poo that “rock (or the guitar) is dead, it’s all been done” – especially now that “alternative” is a withering, commercial bust, when the rock world is thrashing about wildly and producing too little of great worth.
It’s been 75 years since Bessie Smith sold millions of records with a blues style that foreshadowed contemporary rock. It’s been 49 since Fats Domino issued his debut slice of piano-stomping R&B, “The Fat Man,” and 44 since Elvis Presley walked into Sun Records to make a record for his mama. Les Paul (and late wife Mary Ford) last had a hit in 1961 with their sweet countrified-pop, but the Gibson guitar that bears his name still sells millions every year (even if no one plays it as well as he still does every Monday in New York).
Yet every decade when rock hits a lull, some critic or hipster fouls the air and bores the day with smug pronouncements that the genre is done, and (fill in the blank) is the future. (1998: Electronica). OK Computer is “up yours” to such crapola. And in giving us an alternative to Oasis-style obnoxious celebrityhood (particularly now that Oasis, who were merely a supremely good pop band, have been swallowed whole by their own egos, judging from the blatantly overblown and endless Be Here Now), Radiohead earn the admiration of those who cling to substance over style. Saviors, no. Badly needed, you betcha!
Other artists made 1997 great. But most operated far from the mainstream media and average fans’ gaze, and/or suffered from indifferent record labels: Eric Matthews, Tobin Sprout, Mark Eitzel, Guided By Voices, Catherine Wheel, Gene, For Against, and Belle and Sebastian. As an artistic and popular success, OK Computer thus is a godsend, charged with artistic ambition, alive sound, raw power, and unique vision that new artists can take heart from. Believe the hype.
And there’s been a lot. Radiohead have been featured in every magazine, every entertainment show, even most underground bibles. Yet they’ve often fought their record company’s desire for massive hit singles in the vein of “Creep,” and disdain self-promotion.
And since they’ve now been written up a million times, it seems as if the media is no longer interested in the music itself, barely touching on its content or how it was created, preferring instead to feed the artists into the same star-making machinery that turns them – not to mention their artistic output – into mere commodities (a point independent of the phenomenon of the once-great David Bowie actually selling stock in his future royalties as David Bowie, Inc.). Hopefully, our own insistence to talk about OK Computer and the events that surrounded its making will serve those who wish to return to Radiohead the band, not the media-overexposed heroes of the moment, though for once that distinction is richly earned. Of course, since it affects them so much, meeting up with singer/guitarist THOM YORKE and lead guitarist/keyboardist JONNY GREENWOOD in the conference room of their label Capitol Records, we can ask them a little as well about the intense pressure of becoming such a plaything for the industry, and what they do to resist it (after so many years in the limelight since “Creep” hit big, they’ve well grown accustomed to handling it). Or to delve into how well they do in fact remain as they ever were, five individuals who collectively have made two stunning LPs in a row, some of the most artistic rock of the decade, and who further have flowered into one of the best experiences on the live circuit as well, momentous show after momentous show.
Lastly, for those who like this interview, our earlier one with Yorke and Jonny’s bass-playing, bookworm brother COLIN GREENWOOD in issue 38 was even longer and probed more deeply into their history prior to the release of the new LP. For information, see the back issues page.
Not present: guitarist ED O’BRIEN and drummer PHIL SELWAY. Thanks to DARALYN ADAMS for the interview, and to PAUL REGELBRUGGE for the transcription!

JR: A really interesting thing about the new LP is how slowly but surely it unfolds. The first few times I listened to it I didn’t get it at all, yet I was intrigued. There was something I couldn’t put my finger on, kind of beckoning silently, subversively.

THOM: Yeah, you talk to someone on listen number three and they’re still going: “Uhhhh....” Number four, you start to hear they like it more.

JR: I give you guys a lot of credit. You haven’t made the same record twice, that’s obvious. And you certainly don’t make throw-away pop kind of records that I can digest in two listens and say: “Yeah, I know all what’s happening here.”

THOM: Well that’s good.

JR: In fact it seems that with each record you make, you go even farther and farther away from that pole.

JONNY: Sort of, but it still feels like pop to me.

THOM: When I listen to it now, it feels like pop. I think after you’ve got used to it, it will feel like pop. There’s nothing really all that unusual about it. I mean, it’s not like atonal or anything. The songs themselves are pretty simple – well, okay, some of them aren’t…

JR: The single (“Paranoid Android”) sure as hell isn’t!

THOM: No, that’s true. (laughs)

JR: In fact the first time I heard “Paranoid Android,” I was thinking of some of those suites on DAVID BOWIE’s Hunky Dory and the second half of Diamond Dogs, that sort of go in and out of wholly different parts, and yet somehow it all not only hangs together casually, it gains momentum.

THOM: Cool! Excellent! That’s right. Well, it wasn’t quite casual, was it? We did the different sections, but we didn’t actually believe they actually WOULD hang together. We were AMAZED when they did.

JR: It’s what everyone seems to like about (The Bends’) “My Iron Lung” as well. But more interestingly, this time, you actually produced this new record yourselves, didn’t you? It was all on your shoulders.

THOM: Sort of. We did it with NIGEL GODRICH, who did stuff on The Bends. We got on with him really well during those sessions, because he’s sort of our age and he’s up and about and keeps us going. And he works very fast, which is important for the way we want to record. And, he’s very passionate about the album; he was really obsessed with it while we were making it.

JR: Ahh! That’s the best kind of engineer. I’ve heard so many stories of bands going to bed, and waking up the next morning to find their producer still sitting at the board, staring intently.

THOM: Yeah, I think it took him (Godrich) about three months to finally come down! Intense.

JR: Still, it’s different having an engineer like Godrich than an actual producer. (Both agree) It’s one less ear, if nothing else. Some LPs have suffered over the years from bands going it alone this way. You’re so involved making the record, you’re too close to it.

JONNY: That’s right, but Nigel hasn’t got the weight of 30 or 40 other classic records that he’s done already resting on his shoulders, as can happen when you use a traditional producer.

JR: Now wait a minute. I didn’t hear any hints of (producer) JOHN LECKIE’s older records on The Bends. That record sounds NOTHING like THE FALL, or THE STONE ROSES, etc., etc.

JONNY: No, that’s true.

JR: God knows I searched for them! We talked about this a little in the last interview. I agree, there are a few producers like that, but there are a couple who don’t try to impose their stamp....

THOM: Yeah, John doesn’t actually impose his stamp on you at all. But then you’re forgetting, a lot of that was up to SEAN (SLADE) and PAUL (KOLDERIE), who mixed The Bends. They’ve done lots and lots of stuff. They’re based in Boston out of Fort Apache. Whereas this one (OK Computer) was mixed by poor old Nigel, and we locked him in the studio for three weeks going: “Yes... No... Don’t know... No...” Oh dear, poor chap...!

JR: I never liked hanging around mixing sessions. The differences or distinctions between the various mixes and the parts they emphasize can seem so minute you can’t tell them apart. And that’s after two hours of work just making one.

THOM: No, but see, we have to, you see. We have to be there.

JR: If you’re producing yourselves, you do. That’s true.

THOM: You kind of have to, really. You can’t just leave it.

JR: Yes, you want to say the record is the way you want it to be, you have to have your say. Most interesting to me is this quote on the top of your new bio that says that the record company told you that you could just as well do what you please. That’s rare in this business.

THOM: Yeah! How do you like that.

JR: I kept thinking: “God, now THAT is a change from the last record!” It seems as if they (Capitol) went from being so hands-on and monitoring your every move on The Bends, to the point where the band was in a minor state of crisis over it, to suddenly letting you work entirely untouched! This form of new trust on their part is quite amazing. I can think of very few record companies who do that with ANY bands. That must have been a real shot in the arm for you.

JONNY: Sort of. But it didn’t really come from NOWHERE. It came from us. I think we’d just been talking about it ever since we finished The Bends. I mean, OK, yeah, to be given complete license, and take as long as we want, etc., etc. does imply a RIDICULUS amount of trust. But also, they had already seen how we had reacted to anything else, any interference or influence, so we weren’t really giving them a choice!

JR: Good for you! Though most bands haven’t the clout to call the shots like that with major record companies.

THOM: Yeah, because we couldn’t have done, really. As five people, whenever external opinions are voiced before something is finished, we are sort of neurotic enough to actually listen to them and everything goes wrong! See, that was the problem with The Bends, when we first started work on it. So we have to be left alone to make the decisions ourselves, and sort of stay true to them and actually know what we’re doing. People were allowed to come to sessions, but only once we started getting happy with what we were doing. It’s kind of that fragile, really, and we just realized that. I think it’s mostly me, actually, but when we’re working like that I can’t really hear anything else except the other guys and Nigel.

JR: Well that sort of insularity can only breed something more unique, I would imagine. At least the results this time suggest as much.

THOM: Well, either that or you just kind of IMPLODE, you know? Because you live with it too much. But that’s not really the case with us.

JONNY: I mean we went into The Bends with a plan from the record company to record all the singles first, so we could release them first. But we didn’t even know what songs we were going to record, let alone what was going to be the crossover single! It’s not a great way to record 50 minutes of music.

JR: Yeah, I’m sure they were just looking for “Creep, part two.”

THOM: They were. Fair enough. It’s kind of their job. But we weren’t.

JR: There was something I was saying to a friend of mine yesterday when I was trying to explain this unusual hands-off approach from your record company leaving you alone: When I told him, he said, “Well maybe it’s because they have a track record of sales now.” And I said, “No, strangely, it usually works the other way around.” The more a band sells, the more a label viciously tries to protect its commodity, much as the media does, and push it even further into a “this is a proven seller”-mode; they are even far less likely to let a band do as they please. In the end, no matter how great your LP is, it’s those massive hit singles that sell them. I have never met anyone in the world who preferred Pablo Honey, which we agreed was a badly flawed LP last interview, to The Bends, yet it outsold it by a wide margin, solely because “Creep” WAS such a gigantic hit. So your independence from them here making OK Computer just makes it harder for them to force you to comply with their directive to make more “Creeps.”

THOM: Yeah, that’s saying a lot. I suppose with us it’s kind of a weird combination of being aware of how the record company and the media operates anyway, of being quite heavily informed about it, and yet at the same time kind of really actively trying to distance ourselves from it. And it’s quite good, we’re succeeding. I suppose that me and Jonny are the ones who remain distant from it, and Colin, Ed and Phil are able to deal with it on a daily basis. I’m not explaining myself very well, but you have to understand it, what it is they want, and how they do things to get it, in order to get through it. You know, ‘cause you’re using phrases like commodity and stuff, I think we understand each other here.

JR: From the record company’s and the media’s perspective, you’re just another marketing device. You are product.

THOM: Yeah, and we are. We’re aware of it, but it’s like, luckily, us two don’t have to be too acutely aware of it.

JONNY: And it’s also a great joy to watch Ed and Colin being furiously patronized by record company people and having some local guy saying: “All right, so you want some beer and girls tonight?” and that sort of level of conversation.

JR: Boy do they have the wrong band for that!

JONNY: We’re on the phone the next day having them sacked. (All three laugh.)

JR: Put a guy right in the unemployment line, heartless. Anyway, given the chance to make the LP on your own terms, why not do the whole album in your little studio? The way it started out? Why did you shift locales so radically.

THOM: Ooh, because it’s horrible, our little rehearsal studio, and it has no toilet. And it’s really near a power station and in a field there are loads of cows waiting to be incinerated, and it’s not a great vibe....

JR: Whereas in an article I read that the cows were a sort of “peaceful” element. Journalistic bullshit?

THOM: They were, but there was this look in their eye. It was actually Nigel who realized that they were going out for slaughter. (Yikes!)

JONNY: While we were there they had this new plan of trying to get rid of the cows by burning them actually in the power station, and so every time we saw these cows near the power station we were afraid someone was going to pick them up and....

JR: Now there’s an opportunity to mic a sound you’ve never heard before.

THOM: Ughhh... (disgust, then mimics anticipated sound of frying cattle) “Oohuagh, oghhahhh....”

JR: I’m not actually suggesting you should....

THOM: Yes, there’s no toilet, and it’s a huge metal box, and it’s great to rehearse in but it’s a fucking nightmare! And also it’s really near to home, so we’d all sort of like clock off at nine halfway through doing something, so we had to kind of go away, go somewhere else entirely and live with it, really.

JONNY: ‘Cause we were sort of lazy bastards.

JR: Well, whatever gets you to work.

THOM: Absolutely, even if it is a 15th Century Manor House that costs a fortune.

JR: Yeah, I interviewed ROBERT SMITH (of THE CURE, in issue 40), who seemed to love it there.

THOM: He was there for a long time; six months, wasn’t he?

JR: That’s right. He said it was the best recording experience of all Cure records, ever, which is saying a lot. He liked it there so much.

THOM: Hmm... it was. Well, it sort of was for us, too. First month was; second month the House didn’t want us back, particularly.

JR: Really, it’s haunted?

THOM: Yeah, I don’t know what Robert Smith said; I think it is. (all laugh)

JR: In what manner is it haunted? The ghosts of former Cure members?

THOM: Umm, I don’t know, it was just... I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.

JONNY: The housekeeper there said it was great, because The Cure would arrive in black cars with black windshields, and we were like: “Wow, let’s do that next. Very cool...”

JR: That would be very contrary to your image.

JONNY: Old ghosts looking out the window....

JR: When I think of Radiohead I think of five people who can walk down the street and not be recognized. A luxury, I am sure you’ll agree.

JONNY: It’s about right.

THOM: Yep, that’s kind of true, actually.

JR: That’s so damn lucky!

THOM: Yeah, it’s pretty good. Like The Floyd, man (i.e., PINK FLOYD). But in their case, that’s ‘cause they’re all ugly bastards! (uproarious laughter)

JR: It’s funny how everybody, by the time they’re 12 or 13, decides that they want to be BRILLIANTLY famous, and it seems like a pretty common ambition for young people, obviously. And yet the older I get the more I realize that could have been the worst thing that could happened to me or anyone else, to become accidentally famous for any particular reason. I try and look at some of the people – obviously you’ve met some over the past few years as you’ve ascended the pop world – and wonder how the hell that they ever maintained any sense of who they are or what they do.

THOM: Yeah, fuckin’ right.

JR: I think I’d probably wind up like (HENRY DAVID) THOREAU or something and just head for the woods if it happened to me.

THOM: Yeah, we’ve met a lot of people like that at the end of The Bends thing, and it was very upsetting, really.

JR: Aren’t you just glad that it hasn’t happened to you?

THOM: Uhh, well it SORT of did. But not as bad as others. Yeah, it’s the reasons for being famous that must be very weird... to be famous for what, for wearing jeans in an advert? Or for because of something that happened in the papers or something, it must be really weird.

JR: Some people seem to make a career out of doing nothing but being famous.

THOM: Yeah! Endless talk shows where people voice vaguely ill-informed opinions on actually quite interesting topics... (more laughter).

JR: Whereas you’re the rock band that fly kites.

JONNY: A kite.

JR: Just you, huh? I thought that was a cute little story for no other reason than that the pressure of making an album is something few people have ever experienced, and I’ve always wondered what people go through to try to find some sort of release from tensions. I knew one guy who used to bang his head against a wall (laughs), and he would just go and bang away, and then come back and say, “OK, I feel better now. What are we working on?”

THOM: How did you relieve the stress with kites, Jon?

JONNY: It didn’t relieve the stress. There was no way out; I just lived with it really.

JR: It seems to me that the records you make in particular are fraught with these rollercoaster emotions, and that even just putting them together can sort of transport you into some weird emotional state, I would imagine.

JONNY: Well actually, I think I noticed it this time because of what it did to Nigel (laughs), ‘cause we worked on it for a YEAR and he was a completely different person from when we met him by the end of it!

THOM: He was a nervous wreck! He wouldn’t speak unless spoken to. And he really was like that.

JONNY: Losing hair and everything.

JR: In this country that happened most famously to a baseball player, ROGER MARIS. His hair was falling out in clumps while he was chasing BABE RUTH’s home run record in 1961.

THOM: Yeah, literally, his hair was falling out, and he was sleeping all through the day.

JONNY: Whereas before he was an optimistic Cockney!...

THOM: Yeah, we put about 10 years on him. (laughs)

JONNY: But he’s happy now.

THOM: Nigel’s happy now; met a nice girl and everything.

JR: And he’ll never work with you lot again! (all laugh)

JONNY: He did have that look in his eye for a day or so.

THOM: I felt really wildly responsible.

JONNY: He was telling us in the beginning what a relief it was to be working with a band that weren’t basically extremely dull coke-fiends all day, every day, but uh... we wore him down in other ways. (Thom laughs) Poor man....

JR: It is kind of a great vicarious pleasure of mine to sit around with engineers and other studio personnel, the tape ops and go-fers, and get them to tell me every anecdote they have of every misbehavior they’ve seen in the well known bands that have been their clients.

THOM: Yeah, that’s right, this is the thing; this is what should be printed in magazines. If you want to know about records; say a SMITHS record, fucking go and ask the engineers. They can tell you what really happened. Don’t ask The Smiths; THEY’RE not going to tell you! (more laughter) Part of the point of doing the record ourselves, there would be days – I think the longest stretch was about three days – where NOTHING was done at all. The problem was that we couldn’t go home because there we were, we were living with it. But some days I wish we would have actually said: “I’m not feeling very good today; let’s go home.” Some days I wish we did; I wish we’d chilled out, really.

JR: You mostly write before you get to the studio though, right? You have your songs at least pretty much past the skeletal stage? (Both agree) So what would account for that sort of “block,” so to speak?

THOM: Just um... (pauses, thinks) what’s so frustrating about recording; the way we do it, is that we’ll get 90% of the way there and really, really love it, but that last 10% just drives us absolutely fucking CRAZY. But, we did it for months and months and months. You know, we basically had all the recordings five months before we finished the record, and then we fucked around trying to finish it. A lot of that was sort of, “Oh god, what have we done?” You know, trying to make it something it wasn’t, and then doing the vocals and then mixing it and blah, blah, blah....

JONNY: Yeah we did go on a bit, didn’t we? We did loads of tinkering, and then went back to versions we started with, which is a truly annoying thing!

JR: Is it sort of the price of self-production? Isn’t that why bands hire producers, again, just because you’re so close to it you live and die so much with every minuscule decision?

THOM: That’s the thing; The first time you do it, you’re gonna do that. And Nigel kept on saying all the way through: “It doesn’t matter how we get there, as long as we get there… the clock’s not ticking.” So it was fine to do that. You have to do it once and then not do it again. (Jonny laughs) The whole reason for us producing ourselves was that I used to go around to Jonny’s house before we signed, and he was 15 or 16, and I was 18. And we just used to do it endlessly, like that, and it was never a problem, because the technology was pretty simple, pretty crude, and we understood it rather quickly. And then when we were working with John Leekie, he taught Jonny how to put the tape into the machine. He taught me how to use the mixing desk. He taught us how to use the effects and patch things in, and things like that. So he was teaching us these things, and it was great because our biggest fear was the gear itself, you know? So when we went to do this album, we used to be endlessly suggesting things, and what was great was that Nigel would go along with it. Because from a musician’s point of view, you can sort of almost understand how the gear works but not quite, and so you just sort of suggest things and Nigel would just tell us again: “Oooo-kay!” He was really patient. And then three days later you realize in fact you were completely wrong, but... (Jack laughs) I think the stuff that we weren’t aware of was actually taking responsibility then for having done this stuff... and THAT’S the hard bit.

JR: Of course it’s also more difficult trying to follow up a wildly successful – artistically, at least, judging from critical reaction – album like The Bends, compared to making recordings for your own benefit 10 years ago (both agree) with no outside pressure. What were you called back then, ON A GIVEN FRIDAY or something like that?

THOM: Yeah.

JONNY: We had a different name every week.

JR: On a given Tuesday you had a different name....

THOM: (laughs) Yeah, but it felt like we could go whatever direction we wanted and just amble off, really. So the difference wasn’t that profound. Back then, we could amble off down MILES DAVIS imitations, or amble off and do whatever we felt was appropriate, which is what we used to do on four-track. There was none of that: “We’re a guitar-band” stuff, like now.

JR: Actually some of the best stuff on the new record in my opinion is all that pretty piano, inserted around the middle of the album. Never mind the guitar.

JONNY: “Karma Police.”

THOM: Yeah! Definitely!

JONNY: That’s a great song... the piano was wildly out of tune though, sadly....

JR: It is? I didn’t notice. How come you didn’t fix it then?

THOM: We didn’t realize. (laughs)

JR: Well I didn’t either; what do you know?

THOM: Is that your favorite song on the album?

JR: I think that one and “Electioneering” are my two favorites. Though this week I’ve been caught up in “Exit Music For a Film.”

JONNY: Cool! This is encouraging, because everyone has different ones, that’s good.

JR: Wasn’t that true of The Bends too? (both agree) I think with The Bends, I went through a different one a month. OK Computer seems similar, in the sense that there is a set of whole different moods; depending on what your current fixation is, you can sort of latch on to one for a week.

THOM: That’s what we are going for.

JR: Again, that’s what we started off talking about. It is sort of hard to imagine many bands these days, who I can pigeonhole at least into these little compartments, having a song like “Exit Music (For A Film)” only three songs after “Airbag.”

JONNY: Well that’s great. Hopefully it will always be like that.