It would be great to have stayed up and caught Radiohead on the "Tonight Show". They were all smiles while having a word or two with Mr. Leno--both parties riding high on their respective charts. This is a band that grinds out some of the saddest, loneliest, make-your-dog-weep songs since Randy Newman's "I just Want You to Hurt like I do" or Richard Thompson's "Man in Need". Radiohead's latest album, The Bends, starts gloomily and goes straight downhill, true to its form with their latest outing, which shook Britain with the song "Creep". Ironic, isn't it, the catharsis obtained from plumbing the depths? This band--Thom Yorke Jon and Colin Greenwood, Ed O'Brien, and drummer Phil Selway--produce extremely well-crafted songs depicting modern anxiety and dissatisfaction.
This is Phil Selway's first professional band. Born in Oxford , England just shy of thirty years ago, he has known his bandmates since high school, where he was their senior. He had already graduated when the rest of the band formed. They had been playing to a drum machine. "It was of those Dr. Rhythm things," Phil says, "Which always stalls after around ten bars. Of course, you get a drummer and he stalls after eleven bars." Selway approached the others with a more substantial guarantee. Bang! A decade later, there's a Phil Selway Fan Club in Osaka! Okay, so it's got only fifteen card-carrying members--thing is, he and his band are doing well.
It's all too much for a soft spoken man who gets little press. "I think it would be a bit worrying if I did; it would mean that the focus of the band had shifted too much. My approach is to try to do what's right for the song musically rather then just stamp my ego all over it." What Phil brought to Radiohead was a reverence for Stewart Copeland's imagination and taste, combined with the flare of British New Wave drummers of the late 70's. He had some of the formal training regimen. "For some people it's like a sport," Phil says. "I try to work on technique in order to open my powers of expression." All fair and good but Phil's relaxed, conservative movements tell the tale of a good deal of woodshedding: "It's just being scared of making mistakes; it's concentrating!"
Phil's convictions are fostered by a stable environment. "We've been very tolerant in recognizing good ideas in each other," Phil says of his bandmates. "The whole leap in terms of conception to actually performing makes it slightly laborious; we've cut each other lots of slack that way. The intuitive side has benefited very much from ten years of playing together." This sort of latitude enables parts to flow naturally--like the Latin-brushes on "Bullet Proof." "The song had a texture to it with Thom sitting down to play acoustic," Phil says. "Naturally you don't want to blare away with four-on-the-floor, with big tree trunks of sticks. I suppose I draw my drum parts mainly from Thom; he's got a very good sense of rhythm."
On the dreamy "High and Dry", the sound of the bass drum is integral. Phil was asked to remove all muffling from a one-headed bass drum. He found the feel of the head took some getting used to, but went along with the effect of the song. Once the room's mic's were added the result was a very Bonham-ish--and musically appropriate. As for equipment, Phil uses Premier "Signia" drums and Zildjian cymbals.)
Most Radiohead songs are performed more or less live in the studio, with some overdubbing. However, for The Bends, producer John Leckie (Pink Floyd, Stone Roses) had them experimenting with various methods of building up tracks. On "Fake PLastic Trees," Phil chased Thom's vocal and guitar part. "We had to work to that," he says. "I wasn't working to a click but to his performance; part of the beauty was the way it would actually slip in ann \d out, but trying to follow it was a nightmare." The only loop on the album is on "Planet Telex." "It can be an exiting and fast way of working," Phil states. "Just throw a load of your drumming on tape and spice it up. I suppose some people would think that I was bit of a cheat, but what's a cheat if you can respond emotionally and it's good music?"
Phil Selway has taken each studio experience to heart. "For me, the problem with recording came when I suddenly became conscious of all the things that could go wrong. I stopped listening to my musical voice and I froze up. The studio can be a nightmarish situation for any drummer. The session can't go ahead until you've got your drum part down."
Rigorous touring has put Phil in good shape for live and studio playing, and the fine-honing of his musicianship has become apparent from album to album. But touring can magnify and little physical problem-in his case, his knees. Touring drains the mental faculties as well. "This year we're mixing touring with recording. For us, that's a really good blend. Each side seeps into the other, and you can always keep a good check on your progress as you go along."
All things equal, future Radiohead songs should sound a little different. Phil is pleased to be "going back to the approach of the old jazz records of basically having two microphones for the kit and capturing it with that. This whole thing, the science of the studio, is very much an 80's phenomenon, where everything had to close-miked. But that's not how you hear a drum kit as a complete instrument itself. In the 80's they tried to conjure up some mystique about working in the studio; but the mystique is not about what you do in the studio. It's in your performance."
Radiohead has its work cut out for it, what with the pressure to match early gains in the U.K., like the success of "Creep". "It's just been a case of going back and playing live," he says, "and hopefully impressing people by what we do--something that you feel control of and can take at your own pace."
With The Bends, Radiohead has garnered a scrap book of good reviews: "I think we've brought ourselves and enormous amount of goodwill with this album--also and enormous amount of musical freedom." All of which places things pretty much in prospective for Phil Selway. His agenda is one of hard work and persistence: "My advice is that if you're in a band and you feel is good, stick with it and work at it, because basically what we've done is kept a school band together for years with nothing happening--until recently."