GET THE DETAILS
It was just a simple question. I was sitting under a tent on the patio roof of the Claris Hotel in Barcelona with Radiohead's guitarist Ed O'Brien, bassist Colin Greenwood, and drummer Phil Selway on a warm May afternoon, and I was wondering which member of the band played the intricate guitar line in 5/4 time that begins "Let Down," a song from their new album OK Computer. "That's Jonny," O'Brien said. Jonny Greenwood, Colin's younger brother, is the Oxford, England-based quintet's resident multi-instrumental prodigy. He's also Radiohead's closest approximation of a traditional rock lead guitarist--though you only need to listen to his playing for a moment or two to realize that his approach is anything but traditional. Okay, so Jonny's playing the 5/4 line at the beginning. How does the rest of the band know when to come in? Everyone besides Jonny is playing in 4/4, but on the album version, the song starts at a seemingly random point. Where's Phil going to start the count-in when they play the song live?
In response, Selway took a deep breath. The corners of his mouth curled up in a bemused smile. Slowly, he spoke. "Well, that's the whole mystery of it, isn't it?" The smile became a wide grin, and the sentence ended with a loud laugh. "Actually," he revealed, "there's an acoustic guitar at the beginning that was mixed out for the album."
And that's where the argument started.
"We should try to have Thom play the acoustic guitar again at the beginning," said O'Brien, with a touch of heat in his voice. "I really think so." Thom Yorke is Radiohead's frontman, the one with the spiky hair and the voice that can travel from Johnny Rotten-ish bite to Bono-esque passion to choirboy purity in a matter of seconds.
"It sounds good without the acoustic on the album, though," Colin piped up.
"Yeah, but we didn't ever start the song like that before," Ed replied. "Doing it live, we need to establish that tempo."
"Otherwise, the drums might not lock on," Phil warned.
"Exactly--it's so dodgy. With the acoustic, we'd know when to come in." Ed was pushing the point hard. It was obvious this wasn't the first time this debate had raged, and it probably wouldn't be the last. For a few seconds, all three members were talking loudly at each other. Then, just as quickly as it had started, the conversation ended. Everyone stopped. Selway looked around at the other two, turned to me, and said with a smile, "So there's your answer."
This brief exchange reveals a lot about Radiohead. First, it demonstrates how sensitive they are to each other, even while arguing. No throwing chairs, no kicking over tables, no yelling, just sensible making of points, and then a spontaneous end to the conflict as soon as the volume got too high, as smooth as if it had been pre-orchestrated.
Second, this three-way argument shows just how important the little details are to Radiohead. Guitar parts, drum grooves, slight manipulation of an arrangement--it's all cause for constant discussion, and all five members are involved. When it comes to playing or talking music, their enthusiasm is rarely dampened.
That enthusiasm, that attention to detail, and that intra-band sensitivity, along with a large amount of imagination, talent, and skill, have helped bring Radiohead to an enviable point. After two albums that have sold in the millions worldwide (the second of which, 1995's The Bends, also garnered critical raves by the truckload), they've become an Important Band in the eyes of their record company, EMI (Capitol in the U.S.). And so, for the followup to The Bends, they were granted the freedom to record wherever and however they liked, and take as long as they liked to do it. The band returned the favor with OK Computer, a self-produced collection of twelve songs that takes the daring sonic and structural experimentation of The Bends at least five steps further. It's a thrill to listen to, but it doesn't exactly sound like it's going to knock the Spice Girls out of the Top Ten. Regardless, EMI welcomed it with open arms--or so we've been led to believe.
Which brings us to Barcelona. The dark, mysterious medieval streets and grand tree-lined boulevards of the Catalan city have long made it a favorite band destination, and so they chose to play a couple of warmup shows here, debuting some of the OK Computer songs onstage. "We didn't want to start in the U.K.," Yorke explains, "because we had a lot of obligations in Europe. But now because we're a big band, you see"--he breaks into a grin--"we can say to people, 'Actually, we're not going to play all around Europe for a month going through airport X-ray machines and getting sterile, so we'll choose a city.' And that was Barcelona."
Before my interview with Thom and Jonny, Jonny takes several photos of me; he explains they've been doing this with everyone they've met on the trip. And the whole shebang, including our interviews, is being filmed. No one knows exactly what'll be done with the footage, maybe a documentary sometime down the line. All they know is that this period of time has to be captured for posterity. "Nothing's been documented ever in out history," O'Brien explains, "and this week is something we wanted to document."
Why? "Don't you think it's unusual? We're in this beautiful city, and all these [press] people have flown in just to see us. It's a pretty bizarre time."
The buildup to this "pretty bizarre time" began back home in Oxford, when the members of Radiohead decided they didn't need a producer for their next album. Instead, they'd buy their own recording equipment, set up their own studio, and do the work themselves, with technical help from their engineer Nigel Godrich. "That came from us realizing we enjoyed recording B-sides [with Godrich in their Oxfordshire rehearsal space] more than the traditional recording," Jonny says. "Moreover--which is a word I've never used before--our B-sides were occasionally better than anything we'd done. So someone was trying to tell us something."
"And we listened," Thom adds. "Actually it was our manager who dropped this bombshell by saying, 'Look, you should buy your own gear.' We'd been talking about producing ourselves anyway, but this whole trip of getting your own gear, being responsible for it, putting it in cases, you take it where you want, it's your shit--that was the most exciting idea. We'd been listening to Can at one point, and they used to record that way, in big rooms with bits of blankets and beds and shit on the walls, and Holger Czukay would endlessly tape, tape, tape and then splice it together. It just sounded amazingly cool--basically, four-track gone badly wrong.
"The one thing we knew we wanted was a huge plate [reverb]--that was Jonny's idea. Other than that, we got whatever Nigel told us to get."
It should be noted that the gargantuan reverb on Thom's voice during "Exit Music (For A Film)" was not produced by a plate, but by the stone floor of a large hall in actress Jane Seymour's fifteenth-century mansion near Bath, where the band did some later tracking. "The initial recordings were done in our rehearsal space," Thom says, "and the problem with that was we could go home when we wanted. It was impossible to commit yourself to it when you knew you had to go home and do the washing up. So we had to find somewhere else, but we didn't want to be lab rats in a studio, and someone mentioned this house. It was in a valley stuck on its own, nothing anywhere, and it had the most enormous ballroom. I spent my whole time there terrified, because everything constantly reminded you of your own mortality."
The Bends was distinguished by sterling production from John Leckie, for whom the band's had nothing but good words. The relationship was clearly a pleasant one, so why not continue it? " We wanted a clean slate," Thom replies. "It would have been more meaningful if we'd chosen a different producer," Jonny says. "The fact that we chose none at all is no reflection on John Leckie. It's a reflection on producers generally, I suppose. But then we keep meeting them and they say, 'I'd love to produce you but you patently don't need me.' Scott Litt said this to us, which was a lovely compliment."
Would the band ever consider using a producer again? Ed: "Only if there was something a producer could do that we knew we couldn't do. If we needed a Teddy Riley-type sound, we'd hire him," he says, at least partly in jest.
Still, the band is humble about the achievement. "We didn't put the word 'produced' on the album," Thom says. "We put 'committed to tape,' because that's what it was.
Of the twelve songs on OK Computer, four may already be familiar to Radiohead fans. The bleak but melodic "Subterranean Homesick Alien" (featuring Ed on Rickenbacker 360 12-string and Jonny on Fender Rhodes), the gorgeous "Let Down," and the album's sole heavy rocker, "Electioneering" (written in double dropped-D tuning), were all tackled by the band live over the last year or so. The dramatic "Lucky" was first featured on the War Child charity album Help, released in 1995. The band hemmed and hawed about including it on their own record and even attempted to remix it, but eventually went with the original version. "The song deserved a bit better than what it had gotten," Jonny says. "It was indicative of what we wanted to do," Thom adds. "It was the first mark on the wall."
This large amount of older numbers doesn't mean the Radiohead songwriting well has run dry; it simply indicates that, as Thom puts it, the age of a composition "wasn't very relevant. What was more important was how we approached the song, how to find a way in. Nigel said all through the sessions, 'It doesn't matter how you get there as long as you get there.'"
OK Computer's newer songs are riskier structurally, loaded with odd numbers of measures, disorienting key jumps, and time-signature skips. ("We have gotten a big sick of the number four," Jonny comments. "Like the Pixies did. I mean, is repeating that riff a fourth time going to make your life any better?") The album's leadoff single, "Paranoid Android," is a six-and-a-half-minute, four movement epic that sounds like it owes something to Seventies prog rock. Jonny, who was responsible for writing a large chunk of it, downplays that influence: "I've been trying to find some good prog rock, but every last record is terrible, sadly, except for the use of Mellotron." Prog or not, the song was recorded in three sections at different times, and then grafted together later. "Our working model for it was 'Happiness is a Warm Gun,'" Thom reports. "I didn't honestly think it was going to work, so when we put it together it was a shock."
Although Thom remains the band's principal writer, Jonny's contributions have increased considerably. "It used to be hard to say, 'Listen to this,'" Jonny says. "You know, 'I can't sing a note, but what do you think?' But something like the 'rain down' section of 'Paranoid Android' was worth doing--it just need a context."
"I always get to a point in a song were I can't go any further," Thom says, "and I'm not the world's most interesting or interested guitar player; it always has been a totally functional thing for me. So to respond do something that someone else has put forward is far more exciting.
Creating the sounds to go along with the songs was apparently more than half the fun for Radiohead. The opening track, "Airbag," features a distorted drum track that sounds almost as if it were looped--if only there weren't so many variations. Yorke chuckles when asked about it. "It took two days to put that track together," he says. The band weren't happy with the drums as they were played live, so Yorke, Selway, and Godrich used a Mac and as Akai S3000 sampler to cut up, rearrange, and generally manipulate them. "We took inspiration from the way DJ Shadow cut up and reassembled rhythm tracks," Phil says. "I went in and drummed for a quarter of an hour, and we took the three seconds' worth of any value out of it, and then out it back together to form this angular track that you don't generally get from programming or loops."
"We were trying to imitate an old demo that we'd done when we were very young, with Jonny putting a drum track through his Moog, sampling it, and then fiddling with the EQ," Thom says. "I wanted something that sounded organic, so you'd never think it was a loop." As for the songs funky, lurching bassline, Colin swears it wasn't a product of the recording console's mute button; he really played it with all those gaps. "I was thinking originally I might put something else in those empty spots, but we never got 'round to it."
Another particularly noisy track, "Climbing Up The Walls," is distinguished by the use of several tape loops (Thom: "We had tape running around the room on that one"), as well as a bassline played by Colin on a Novation Bass Station synth. "There's no distortion on it; it just gets that squelchy analog sound naturally. Jonny told me the notes to play," Colin says dryly, "'cause I'd never seen a keyboard. Now for the gigs we've got colored dots on the keys so I don't get it wrong." "Karma Police" ends with an explosion of distorted guitar peppered with ugly dropouts, courtesy of a rackmount AMS digital delay. "That machine malfunctions wonderfully," Thom says. "Ed played the notes that started it, but basically it's the machine playing itself." Ed explains that the noise was made by turning up the delay's regeneration, then slowly turning the delay speed down.
That sonic burst leads directly into "Fitter, Happier," basically a bit of poetry written by Thom and intoned by the Macintosh, using it built-in SimpleText voice generator. "It came out like a shopping list," Thom says. "I write stuff like that all the time. I wouldn't normally use it, but I responded to the way the computer voice pronounced it. That voice seemed a logical extension of this list mentality."
Did anything in particular inspire the making of these trippy, disturbing soundscapes? "We've just been obsessed by [Miles Davis'] Bitches Brew," Thom says. "That is a record for the end of the world."
Jonny: "But it's the drumming and piano playing we get off most on, rather that the guitar and the trumpet."
Thom: "Well, [John] McLaughlin must have felt a bit fucking lost. Two drummers, two Fender Rhodes players, and all those bloody wind instruments. But the sound of the trumpet, the delays on it and stuff, is what Jonny's trying to do with guitar."
"My ears get bored quickly," Jonny says. "Sometimes a guitar plugged into an amplifier isn't enough. I can't play trumpet, so it's not going to sounds that much like Bitches Brew. We don't have access to an orchestra, so it's not going much like Morricone, either. But you aim for these things."
"Aiming and missing is the whole premise really," Thom continues.
As we speak, the first finished copies of OK Computer, complete with final art, are being examined by the band's management in an adjoining hotel suite. Everyone's excited that MTV has agreed to play the animated video for "Paranoid Android," and that the single, despite its length, is being broadcast regularly on Britain's Radio One. Still, as Ed points out, this is a bizarre time for the band. "We've just finished the record," Colin says, "and we haven't got a clue what's going to happen."
"If a band has a successful album and then they start making records that don't sell," Ed says, "that's when the record company's really got you, because they've given you this taste of what it can be like, and they're like, 'Now you're not selling, we're going to tell you what to do.' It would be scary if that happened."
"We'd get put in prison," Colin says, "or be shot." He laugh as he says this, but the underlying uncertainty is real.
There's no detectable uncertainty in the band's performance later that night. Radiohead's first Barcelona warmup show takes place at a nightspot called the Zeleste, which is in the just about every respect exactly the same as any rock club you've been to, except that the stage is a little bigger. The computer-spoken words of "Fitter, Happier," on tape, greet the band as they come on; the Catalonian youth don't quite get it but cheer anyway.
Before the adoring crowd, Thom confesses, "This is the most fucking nervous we've been in about two years." Honest as this remark may be, it's in no way borne out by the playing. Though tonight the band don't always achieve the inspirational heights that they can attain in concert (a show I saw them play at New York's Mercury Lounge a couple of years ago ranks in my all-time top five), they're still better than 97 percent of what you'll see out there. It's a well-paced set, interspersing new songs with favorites from The Bends. The band's obviously pleased with at least some of the new material live; the break back into the heavy guitar riff toward the end of "Paranoid Android" gets everyone smiling.
It helps to have a solid frontman, and Thom Yorke is perhaps the most compelling in rock today. On older tracks like The Bends' "Bones," he still does his familiar writhing, gesticulating, Mr. Uncomfortable act; on newer ones, he's more subdued but no less engaging. With just a tiny wave of his hand or a subtle vocal inflection, Yorke conveys several acres' worth of emotion.
While Thom holds the audience's attention front and center, Ed and Jonny go about their work like old-fashioned alchemists. For "Lucky," which opens the set, Ed scrapes the strings above the nut of his Strat with a razor blade; during "Exit Music" he does a good job of approximating the background noise of the album version by methodically scratching his pick along the strings over the fretboard, from sixth string to first. On "Bones" Jonny bends over his tremolo pedal, turning the rate know manually; the act seems invested with magical significance, like an ancient ritual. Throughout the show, Jonny frequently jumps from guitar to keyboard and on to more unusual instruments--xylophone on "No Surprises," transistor radio on "Climbing Up The Walls." When he does step out on six-string, he snaps his picking arm back violently after every gutsy stroke; no wonder he's wearing an arm brace for repetitive stress disorder.
The bands gets called back for three encores. "The Tourist," the slow, spacious album closer, is a standout. It benefits, as so many Radiohead songs do, from a fine guitar arrangement. For the final part of the songs, Ed strums chords, Thom plays a melody line on the low end of the neck, and Jonny solos up top. The parts mesh beautifully; this is that rare three-guitar band that is always tasteful, never overbearing. Ed, Thom, and Jonny stay out of each other's way and each other's frequencies. Sounds easy. It's not.
One songs is conspicuous by its absence from the set list. And that is--you guessed it--"Let Down," the songs with the five-against-four line that Ed, Colin, and Phil were arguing about earlier. Evidently, the band still hasn't agreed how the songs should start. But knowing Radiohead, I imagine they'll get it sorted out soon enough. And there's little doubt that the song will be better for the effort.