They may have named their new album Hail To The Thief
but that doesn’t mean the members of Radiohead were pleased to
find an unmixed version of the record posted online ten weeks prior
to its June release.
Says drummer Phil Selway: “We were disappointed that that stuff went up at that point because we don’t play new material to people until we’re completely happy with it.”
As of this writing, the band has initiated an investigation to discover the culprit but has no suspects thus far. For his part, Selway is reluctant to point fingers. “We’re just trying to figure out between the five of us whether one of us has been absentminded and left the album up there on the ‘Net! We have a tendency to do that, you know.”
The Oxford quintet’s online relationship with its audience is well documented, with band members regularly posting messages on their own website (www.radiohead.com) and frequenting chat rooms on fan sites like www.ateaseweb.com. “Especially during Kid A it was such a boon having that daily contact with people and actually being able to discuss how things were going. That was great.”
Does fan reaction influence the music?
“I think it has an impact on our headspace as we’re making it,” confirms Selway. “As I say, during Kid A and Amnesiac, we were much more apparent on chatrooms. I’d say it had a very beneficial effect on our headspace and that feeds back into what we’re doing musically.”
Ah yes. Kid A and Amnesiac. Those two records, released in 2000 and 2001 respectively, divided fans and critics. Having graduated to stadium status with the success of 1997’s OK Computer, Radiohead was exhausted — physically, emotionally, creatively, spiritually. Frontman Thom Yorke was especially loathe to keep making music the way they always had. A change was in order.
“By the end of touring OK Computer, we felt as though we’d actually reached the end of a particular phase of the band,” Selway says. “There was a certain fatigue about the way that we were playing, the ideas that we were generating between the five of us in the set-up as it was. So yes, there was a sense of going into the studio and knowing that we actually wanted to kind of rewrite the way the band worked together at that point but having absolutely no idea what form that would take.”
Direction came from Yorke, who was heavily into electronic artists like Momus and Autechre and experimental acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sigur Ros. It was a trying time as the band members were forced to reevaluate everything that they thought Radiohead was.
“Personally, I found it a very difficult period,” the drummer admits. “I found it hard to generate ideas at the time because, for me, so much of what I do comes as a response to playing with the others. It was a difficult time and I think this experience of making Hail To The Thief was kind of the other end of the spectrum for us.”
So the self-imposed rethink benefited the new record?
“Oh definitely,” Selway confirms. “That is there in the sound of the performances; I think they’re quite self-assured, really, very relaxed. You can’t fake that kind of thing. I think we cleared the decks of a lot of things once we were through recording Kid A and Amnesiac, both emotionally and in terms of wanting to work in particular ways as well. And we learnt so much off those albums so we understand each other’s needs in the studio in a much better way now.”
Writing for what would become Thief commenced shortly after the Amnesiac tour, with the band road testing the new material last summer in Spain and Portugal. Again, fan reaction was critical in shaping the new songs. “Playing it in front of an audience shows us aspects of an arrangement that don’t work at that point. The first single is ‘There There’ and I think it was telling that that was one of the best received songs. It’s like having a bizarre focus group.”
At longtime producer Nigel Godrich’s behest, the band kickstarted recording sessions with two weeks at Los Angeles’s Ocean Way studio. “It’s like recording in a theme park, and it was great for it. We really enjoyed the process, and when we were playing together at the end of it, it sounded quite unlike anything that had gone before, really. Then bringing it back home for five weeks, back into an English autumn and early winter, I think it took on the chillier aspects that you might associate with Radiohead.”
As to the album title, Selway insists that Hail To The Thief is not a political comment. (The phrase was adopted by protesters in the wake of the controversial election of American president George W. Bush in 2000.)
“It reflects for us the times that that record was made in, in terms of the writing period and the recording; quite dark forces at work and a sense of foreboding. And for us the title keyed into that, really. It’s not a specific title. It’s not a single issue title, let’s put it that way.”