There were rumours that Radiohead nearly broke up at the beginning of this year. You’d have had to excuse their demise if it had happened. After all they’ve been together since starting as a school band 15 years ago. They had grown to become one of the best – arguably the best – bands in the world. The lengthy period spent ensconced in various studio sessions seemingly sent them screwy but resulted in the fiendish Kid A, and now, from the same recording sessions, the new album, Amnesiac, the most challenging (both for the listener and the band) Radiohead releases to date.
It’s no surprise then that guitarist Ed O’Brien and drummer Phil Selway are looking relaxed lounging in a luxury suite at Auckland’s Metropolis high-rise hotel. The last time Radiohead were in New Zealand at the end of the OK Computer tour, they enjoyed the sun and swam to their hearts’ contents. This was in stark contrast to the rest of what was a tumultuous world tour. This time round, the softly spoken Selway says playing concerts with Neil Finn and his famous friends Eddie Vedder (from Pearl Jam) and Johnny Marr (from The Smiths) hasn’t exactly been a holiday. “But it’s been a holiday from Radiohead,” he laughs sitting coyly on a sofa looking out the window to the hazy harbor view.
Selway confesses that being part of the ‘Finn & Friends’ extravaganza is “probably the thing that’s had the biggest emotional impact on me in the past two years”. A surprising admission, considering Radiohead produced Kid A and Amnesiac in that time. Comments from listeners and international music media share the opinion that Kid A was an album they had to get out of their system. Kid A was an album where Ed O’Brien found himself playing a switch rather than a guitar and Selway asked himself more than a few times what he was actually doing during recording.
Their new album – Amnesiac – might have more actual song structures than Kid A (which was really more like one continuous musical suite), but it’s just as bent. Thom Yorke’s obsessive fingerprints are smeared all over it. Amnesiac writhes with an eerie humaneness. It connects with the listener, albeit in a very disconcerting way, and a strange sense of human frailty permeates the album.
“Radiohead is very challenging,” offers Selway. “You’re working with the same people you’ve been working with since school. Not that we’ve become set in our ways... but it can be a little difficult to see other ways at points.”
Ed O’Brien philosophizes: “You’ve got to carry on trying things that you get scared of doing. As you get older, especially when you’re in a relatively successful band, there is a temptation to start doing things really, really safe.”
Radiohead isn’t the sort of band to panic if they don’t sell truckloads of Amnesiac. The album is not an obvious return to the trademark Radiohead guitar licks of the Bends or OK Computer, and there is the potential for some to shun Amnesiac last year’s much anticipated and undeniably brilliant Kid A album.
“Our trademark was coming up to its expiry date,” says Selway adamantly. “If we tried to carry on in that OK Computer vein, I don’t think we would have found the impetus to continue as a band. Kid A and Amnesiac were something we needed to get out of our system. Also, doing it you recapture some of the enthusiasm in what one used to do as well. Having been together as a band for 15 years I think if we’d have actually tried to carry on in the vein of OK Computer or the Bends it would have been pointless. That’s never been what Radiohead is about really. It shifts. We’re always changing the goal posts.”
Change the goal posts they did when it came to recording and promoting the Kid A and Amnesiac albums. For Kid A, the marketing was almost non-existent except for a selection of “video i-blips” that ranged in length from between five and thirty seconds. There were no singles or videos, and only a handful of interviews. “We never had some masterplan,” says O’Brien. “It was more like ‘what do we want to do this time?’ We didn’t want to do singles or videos.
“The singles didn’t exactly jump out at you", adds Selway. “If you look at the singles market in the UK at the moment it’s just pop. It’s good, but it’s just not where we would want to be.”
When Radiohead hit the big time with “Creep” in 1992, they managed to avoid the ‘next big thing’ tag that has plagued many British bands. Although the public turned “Creep” into a classic loser’s anthem, the media were too busy touting the likes of Suede and the Verve. “In a way the spotlight was off us and we were able to develop at a more natural rate. It doesn’t do a band any favors having that hype at an early stage,” Selway believes. Good news considering both the Verve, and Suede to a lesser extent, did self-destruct.
“We’ve always been very uneasy with this rock band tag. I think there’s always been a bit more to us than a rock band. But, in the sense that we go out touring as a rock band I suppose we are. It’s one of the terms you can be uncomfortable with because it can be quite demeaning.”
Now, more than ever, Radiohead don’t really come off as a rock band. They’ve been happily making people queasy for 15 years, five albums and numerous concerts. Thom Yorke has been quoted as saying, “If you’re physically sick because of a Radiohead song then that’s ideal”.
So how can they still be so hugely popular despite their screwy, weird and warped sound? “I think we’ve been very lucky that people who are into Radiohead are willing to go with us on something,” says Selway. “If Kid A came out as a debut album we’d be going off into the nether regions of obscurity by now. People who are into Radiohead have faith in what we do.”
In 1997, OK Computer both youthful and cerebral, an album for the raging young rockers as well as the older music lover who prefer their music through headphones. So was Kid A, and is Amnesiac, a kind of two part Radiohead symphony more fit for a concert hall than a rock music venue (bear in mind that Radiohead did play in a circus tent on the European Kid A tour). Selway is relaxed in his defense of Kid A and Amnesiac. “It would be so easy to say Kid A was the experimental, dark, brooding album and we’re coming back with the proper one this time with all the recognizable hits. It’s probably best to take both albums together and think – ‘Right, this gives a full picture of what went on in those sessions’. Because there will be some pretty obtuse things on Amnesiac as well. We had all the recordings done for Amnesiac from the same sessions as Kid A. Initially we thought it might be a double album but we decided it might be a little bit unpalatable. It’s certainly not the leftovers, and in some ways Amnesiac has the stronger tracks.”
Selway is wary of declaring Radiohead’s fame. There’s a long, uncomfortable, pause when he’s asked whether Radiohead are one of the most influential bands from the last decade. “Um.... this week, when you’ve been on stage with Johnny Marr and Eddie Vedder it’s quite a humbling experience really. It is very bizarre. It’s like watching your record collection performing in front of you and then you’re behind it, actually part of it. You always feel as though you’re playing catch up with people like that.”
Selway isn’t surprised to hear that new Zealanders didn’t really appreciate how famous Neil Finn was, until he got members from three of the world’s most important bands from the last fifteen years to play concerts with him. He says Radiohead get a similar reaction in their hometown of Oxford. Apparently Thom Yorke can sit in a pub there and not even solicit a second glance much of the time. Both O’Brien and Selway will be taking a few new ideas back to Oxford after playing with Finn and friends. “Playing with Neil has been a real apprenticeship and an eye opener. We’re going home with lots of ideas to work on. It’s been a real lesson for us, coming out here.”
O’Brien chips in: “Neil is the most prolific writer of great songs.”
The pair had to move quickly to get up to speed with Finn since they only arrived in New Zealand the Thursday before the first Monday show. In that time the musicians learned 40 songs that they interchanged every night. The Thursday and Friday night shows proved to be three-hour extravaganzas of nearly all of the 40 songs.
“I went straight into rehearsals with about 40 songs to learn and a lot of people to get to know,” says O’Brien. “It’s been very challenging. At soundcheck, Neil comes in and says ‘I think we need to do another Pearl Jam song’. I made a complete hash of “Not For You” on the first night. An unbelievable hash of it.”
Surprisingly, Selway reveals it’s harder making the step back to playing Neil Finn’s deceptively simple tunes live than Radiohead’s at times complex material. “You just have to be so ‘on it’. You know, you think, we can play “Paranoid Android” but that took us a year and a half to learn. “So you sit down initially and think, ‘I should be able to get my head around these songs pretty quickly’. But, there’s all these little subtle pushes and pulls in there. You end up thinking, ‘What do you do to do these songs justice’. It’s actually a harder step to take.”
Just what Radiohead’s next step after Amnesiac will actually be remains to be seen, but you can be sure that whatever it might be, it will push the envelope marked ‘rock music’ just that bit further yet again.