We're used to seeing Philip Selway behind a range of drums and cymbals as the unswerving and inventive back beat to Radiohead. But on his forthcoming solo album, Familial, Selway steps away from the kit, singing and playing acoustic guitar on 10 hushed folk songs in the shadowy tradition of Nick Drake. The album is quiet, but there's an unnerving sense of dread that connects the material to his main gig; it's music for a foreboding twilight. Guests including Wilco's Glenn Kotche and Pat Sansone, and veteran singer-songwriter Lisa Germano. (The album's out on August 31 in the UK via Bella Union and a day later in the U.S. through Nonesuch.)
We recently met up with Selway at a posh downtown Manhattan hotel. Floor-to-ceiling windows offered a view of some rare NYC greenery outside. Inside, the drummer/singer/songwriter was thoughtfully polite and casual in a fuschia t-shirt and brightly striped socks that could've been on loan from a pre-teen's dresser. He talked about what it feels like to be the guy answering all the questions for once:
Pitchfork: How long have you wanted to do your own record?
Philip Selway: I've been playing guitar and writing songs since I was 15 but I started really thinking about making an album around four years ago. But I didn't know I'd sing on it; I didn't feel I had a convincing voice at that point. It took four years of trial and error to find out the stretches I could make. It's a bit of a leap of faith. The first time I actually heard my voice coming back in the studio was when I thought, "OK, maybe I can do this." Even so, you do feel very vulnerable. When you're singing, it sounds a particular way in your mind-- like how you think your speaking voice sounds like James Earl Jones in your head but it's really more like Mickey Mouse. [laughs]
Pitchfork: Do you feel like listening to Thom Yorke live and in the studio made it easier or harder for you to feel comfortable singing?
PS: Both. It's a very high bar to have hanging over you. But, over the years, everybody has very much developed their own voice in what we do.
Pitchfork: Another surprising thing about your album is how little drumming is on it.
PS: And the drumming that is on there is mostly by [Wilco's] Glenn Kotche. He's fantastic. He took drum parts and mixed in all these delicate layers which throw things off kilter. For me, if Jonny [Greenwood] played drums, he'd be Glenn. They work in very similar ways. It was a revelation working with Glenn on the material because, in my mind, I hadn't heard any drum parts on these songs at all. If you're working on more of a muted, delicate level, it's very easy to end up sounding too tasteful, so finding somebody who could scuff up these really rich sounds was great. I just sat there with my notebook.
Pitchfork: What really drew me into the album were the disquieting, atmospheric touches you're talking about, which make the record more than a singer-songwriter-type thing. I also feel like that slight creepiness offers a continuity with your work with Radiohead. How much did you think about that off kilter element?
PS: Quite a lot, actually. Because I knew if I over-prettified the songs it'd be really precious or saccharine. And, lyrically, that's not what's going on.
Pitchfork: Yeah, like "The Ties That Bind" seems to be about hoping your son doesn't make the same mistakes you did. Do you feel you've made a lot of mistakes that way?
PS: Every family has their eccentricities, and you pass them on down through the generations. When you see the potential for the less functional side of yourself coming out in your kids, it's unnerving. There's a sense that you have to actually resolve something within yourself.
Pitchfork: Were you a troublesome kid yourself?
PS: Not at all. I was quite self content in lots of ways, so it would be very easy to look at me and think everything was all going along swimmingly. But show me a teenager where that's the case. [laughs] It just doesn't happen like that, does it?
Pitchfork: What were some of your more angst-y traits as a teenager?
PS: I have this bizarre see-saw thing with confidence. I was perfectly happy to get up and play drums for the first time during my first gig, but then there would just be this distinct lack of confidence in other areas. As a teenager, I was kind of prone to my periods of gridlock where it was very difficult to access what was really going on. I had very strong instincts about stuff, but couldn't verbalize the thought processes behind them. As a grown up, I've been picking away at that and actually trying to make connections a lot more.
Pitchfork: Do you remember what opened you up to the dark line that runs through this album? A lot of it reminds me of Nick Drake.
PS: Oh, I love Nick Drake. Five Leaves Left has been a constant companion over the years. But I think also working in Radiohead does all of that, too. It has its own very lovable dark side to it. You get carried along in the push and pull.
Pitchfork: It's funny because the common perception of Radiohead is how Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood are these weird geniuses, and you, Colin Greenwood, and Ed O'Brien are more normal and down-to-earth. But then your album has this strange side. And I'm sure Thom has his moments of sentimentality, too.
PS: [laughs] I think he's probably always been combating against that one. As you go on in a band you do have the caricatures which people apply to you. It always feels a bit more complicated when you're in the middle of it. [laughs]
Pitchfork: I'd imagine so. Was part of the inspiration behind this album to flesh out that caricature?
PS: Possibly. I suppose part of it is trying to paint a fuller picture. I am one of the more shadowy figures in Radiohead-- which is a great place to be. As a drummer in a five-piece, you can easily get bound up in this rather distasteful shout for attention but, in some ways, a drummer is there to do a job and doesn't really need to speak. Inevitably, you are going to be the bottom of people's list for things like interviews. You can try and kick against it, but that's just not me.
Pitchfork: How do you feel about doing all the talking in interviews about this album?
PS: It's a different kind of talking. When you're talking in a Radiohead interview you're always talking on behalf of everybody else. But now I'm just talking about myself, really. [laughs] There's a part of me that shudders at the thought. It's not how I was brought up. But I think it fills in some of the blanks on my record so I'm happy to do it. I listen to the record and feel that it's actually a genuine representation of me. That sounds horrendously egotistical; it probably is.
Pitchfork: I'm pretty sure I know what the answer to this last question is, but I'd probably be fired if I didn't ask it...
PS: [The new Radiohead album] is not finished yet. [laughs] So you didn't even have to ask it.
Pitchfork: I appreciate that.
PS: We're still writing-- slap dab in the middle of it.