Phil Selway (Radiohead)
It's hard to draw a professional line when you're supposed to be a journalist but the musicians you're writing about are your absolute favorite modern band. That's what writers don't tell you most of the time-they'd like to pretend they're on some sort of untouchable pedestal of Indifferent Objectivism whenever they speak to anyone, regardless of that anyone's level of talent or fame. I'm here to state, proudly, that's bollocks, and that I've been deeply touched by each and every artist I've ever interviewed. It just makes so much sense to me; otherwise, why put time and energy into trying to reach them? And after years of having some incredible discussions with truly amazing people, I reached my personal pinnacle by reaching Radiohead.
Getting to talk to Radiohead may be a fan's most elusive dream, if only because for the past few years the band hasn't talked much. After their grueling tour for OK Computer in 1997-98, Radiohead retreated home-away from stages, screaming fans and stubborn press people-to become human again and to remember perhaps what it was like to be artists rather than performing monkeys.
Yet vocalist Thom Yorke, guitarist Ed O'Brien, bassist Colin Greenwood, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, and drummer Phil Selway did not shut out the world. They communicated to fans (and anyone else who bothered to pay attention) via the Internet--a medium embraced by Radiohead early on, when the public at large was still unconvinced of its uses or future. Radiohead's official site has long been a bastion of news, historical info and direct communication, all carefully overseen by the band members themselves along with a core group of individuals entrusted with the delicate task of maintaining Radiohead's online presence as one of accessibility.
And here we are today, with Radiohead shining brilliantly upon stages around the world following intense recording sessions that produced Kid A and Amnesiac--soul mates of breathtaking innovation, daring and hope released within months of each other. And Radiohead are out facing the world again--albeit in a measured fashion, watching out for themselves and their sanity with the wisdom of hindsight to guide them. And while they aren't talking to everyone, they're happy to do so when you catch them.
Jitters of excitement are quelled by speaking to the soothing Phil Selway, whose stunningly polite manner might just get him mistaken for a saint one day if he's not careful. Undeniable talent and fame side, he's of a different breed of rock star--as is Radiohead in general, as every article written about them has pointed out--an individual for whom individuals matter, as opposed to stadium-fuls or millions of record buyers. Phil's voice and the things he says with it put me immediately at ease. I feel like I can ask him anything--and so I do.
"Will you guys ever do 'True Love Waits' again live, or put it out as a B-side or anything?" He gasps in disbelief. "That's bizarre--somebody else asked this question earlier on!"
This topic is something that a only veritable Radiohead freak would bring up; it refers to a song performed live by Radiohead only one time ever (Brussels, 1995, which doesn't count Thom's solo acoustic performance of it in Israel, 2000). The bootleg of it is so stunning that fans have been clamoring for it ever since.
I reply confidently, "You know, everyone loves this song so much--they just want to hear it!" Phil chuckles, then pauses before delivering a carefully thought-out response. He does this during our entire conversation--takes the time to think about things before they leave his mouth, and as a result is a charming and eloquent speaker.
"We've not been able to do justice to it yet as a band," he says earnestly. "When we've got a good version--a good band version--then we will no doubt make it into a record."
With that out of the way, I take him back to earlier in the year, which found Phil and Ed performing with Neil Finn around Europe and New Zealand to promote Finn's newest record. "Oh, that was amazing!" Phil exclaims like a little kid talking about his new bike. What is Radiohead's history with Neil Finn? "When he was still in Crowded House--this was quite some years ago now--we were both on the same bill at a festival in Germany;in fact, the same festival as we're playing this week-end," Phil explains. "We met him then and stayed in contact with him, and Ed was invited and Neil asked if I'd be interested as well, so we both we down and played!
"It was excellent. You know, for us it was the first time we'd actually played outside Radiohead in ten years." He laughs. "It was, uh, a very steep learning curve for us."
I ask whether that was very different from the way things work in Radiohead--if he felt he had to conform to what other people told him, rather than having the license to do what he wanted to.
"Um...yeah, because we were playing a lot of Neil's songs. We were playing Pearl Jam songs as well; we were playing Smiths songs and Johnny Marr's new songs and Lisa Germano songs--it was a good discipline to actually adapt to all of those different styles. And it wasn't like doing like standard cover versions because you're actually there playing with the songwriters! Yeah, that stretched us."
Being that he's qualified this as the first time in a decade that they've performed with anyone other than their own band members, I'm wondering if there are any other musicians that might tempt Phil, Ed or any of the others away from Radiohead in this manner. "Oh...we've had no more invites, I'm afraid," Phil says sadly. That answer gets a big laugh out of me--"You mean that's all it would take to get you on your way, but no one ever invites you? You're like the popular girl that no one has the guts to ask out!" This, in turn, gets Phil laughing. "Still waiting for our date to the prom at the moment!"
Speaking about all of this live performing, I steer the conversation to Radiohead's attitude about the current Amnesiac tour, and ask Phil how it's different from the performances they gave last year for Kid A--for which they hit Europe pretty thoroughly but only teased North America with three shows. "We're playing more material from Amnesiac, of course, but in some ways it's a continuation of what we were doing last year, in the way that we set things up," Phil explains. "We wanted to not to have the sense that we were retracing our steps. We wanted to play in venues which we felt inspired by. So for instance, last night we were playing in this ancient amphitheater in the center of Verona--you can't help but be slightly over-awed by it."
"And also just relaxing the pace of touring as well. We've got a bit more to bring to the performances because we found that, you know, towards the end of OK Computer, I think we were kind of working on auto-pilot, really." Phil is ever the diplomat--anyone who's seen Meeting People is Easy, Grant Gee's documentary of the OK Computer tour, tangibly felt the hell that the band was going through at that time.
Still, I'm diplomatic in response--"Yes, you guys were pretty stressed out by that time." Phil picks up on the euphemistic tone and chuckles. "Right!" He pauses for a moment and adds, "Touring should be the best experience, really--that's what we're aiming to make it at the moment."
As previously mentioned, one of the unique aspects of Radiohead is their embrace of the Internet, which can have its drawbacks as well as positive qualities. I'm wondering how it felt for the band to have Amnesiac out and all over the 'net months prior to its release. "In effect, you know, some of it was up there last year because we were playing the dates live," Phil begins, a bit evasively. "But, um...it's good! It's really helped the shows along as well, because people have been able to come along and actually know the new material."
I'm also curious about the other side of things, whether the record company gave them any slack for that. What happens from a band perspective when stuff leaks out, and were EMI really concerned?
Phil laughs. "Not that we've heard. People don't seem to be unduly worried about it--not to our faces." There is a bit of a devilish snicker at the end of that which I enjoy immensely.
"I mean, it's as we've said about it in the past," he states. "There's not an awful lot of difference between downloading something off the 'net and the home taping that we did when we were kids. If you liked something, generally you would actually go out and buy it once you've taped it. They said at the time that home taping would kill music, and it didn't."
Radiohead's songwriting process has always been of interest, simply because the songs themselves are so interesting. I want to know about how songs come into being, and whether the fact that most were Thom's initially gave the other band members a sense of freedom to add new elements if that had the opposite effect, leading them to feel they couldn't contribute.
"It really changed from song to song--I mean, it always has done in the past, but even more so with these two records, because we were just trying to, you know, spread them out a bit more so we could try different approaches," Phil says. "In some ways, some of the ideas that Thom brought to the sessions were fairly complete, really. Songs like 'Everything In It's Right Place' or 'I Might Be Wrong'... very little needed to be added to them or changed in them."
I ramble, "When you say that very little that had to be done, who decides on that? Is it a democratic thing or do you sit there thinking, I would like some drums, and everyone else says, no, it's okay the way it is. How does that happen?" A convoluted question that Phil handles with finesse. "Now, I think we just try and be honest with each other. We're much more direct than we used to be and if you're like that with each other, I think you make the right decisions musically."
Speaking of how the band's grown, I ask if this is anything like what Phil imagined being in a band would be like when the guys were starting Radiohead fifteen years ago. There is an uncharacteristically long pause before he answers. "Whew...I'm not sure if I expected to still be in a band at thirty-four, to be quite honest. But it's very difficult to project what kind of people you'll be at that stage. No, it probably isn't that much...but when you have your teenage fantasies of being in a band, it probably doesn't completely match those. Then again, it's the same people in the band, so there are very strong parallels between the band now and when it first started."
On a more personal level, I inquire whether Phil gets more satisfaction out of creating the music or out of performing what the band has created. "Woah.... That question used to be easier to answer a few years ago, because it was definitely live, actually. We found being in the studio very stressful, I think." Was it OK Computer that changed things for them? Phil answers carefully. "Kid A and Amnesiac were both quite stressful to make as well. But you savor the moment when something does actually work on tape, you know, and you know you get a big kick out of that. In a way there's a different excitement, because there's something very new that's coming through."
Phil continues, growing more eager as he goes on. "And in that way, you're stretching yourself, so it has this different level of excitement. This time around--because we've been having to re-write the songs, re-arrange them to actually be able to play them live--that's been exciting in itself!"
Speaking of which, I want to know if there's ever been a song that the band has been dying to play live but just couldn't get it together to pull off. Phil giggles, and begins to say something but stops himself before what I assume might be giving away a shrouded band secret. Instead, he offers, "We're getting close to being able to play 'Kid A' now. It's very close. It's almost out from under the covers at the moment. It might be debuted soon." That satisfies my curiosity and we move on in our discussion of Radiohead's songwriting process.
"When do you get that feeling that a song is finished--or do you ever? Are you always thinking, shoot, we should've done this or we could've made that better?" He considers this gravely. "We do need to set ourselves some cut-off points--or you would just go on obsessively meddling with what's down on tape. It's not healthy!"
I ask him what his favorite Radiohead song is, the one that he's proudest of and believe demonstrates a true sense of the band. "Taking quite a wide range of what we can do would probably be 'Paranoid Android'," he decides. "That covers a lot of ground." I agree -- "that's like the epic of Radiohead right there." He laughs.
"We were able to just focus on the music for, you know, one and a half years--'til the record was finished, really. I mean, we were left to our own devices without much input from anybody else. So yes, that was good--but it took us a while to get to that position because we had to have The Bends and OK computer to get us there."
"Actually, our own label at this stage...I mean, we're trying to do so many other things I think that'd probably be taking on that extra little bit too much. We're still contractually tied in as well, and it is actually a good relationship! So, you know, it's one of those classic things: if it isn't broke, don't fix it." That much appears true--Radiohead have always seemed to have a positive symbiotic relationship with EMI/Parlophone.
I dive in with another personal inquiry: "Do you feel that you are able to contribute to the music without being distracted by ambitions, and have your ambitions been realized in this band?" Momentarily stumped, Phil utters, "Ooph!" then chuckles, "That was a good question!"
"I think that with all of us the chief ambition is now to become better musicians. It might sound a bit worldly saying that, but I think I can honestly say that is the one now. The way we work does tend to stretch us quite a lot...so yeah--I think that way the way we work and our ambitions are fairly well in tune. Possibly there are things which for all of us...don't quite go as we would like in Radiohead, but you know, five people working together is always a compromise! But if the albums are that compromise, then it's probably not such a bad thing."
Historically, it has come off that most people listen to what Thom says--give more weight to his words, as is the public's tendency with the lead singer of any band. But Phil has characterized Radiohead as a democracy, despite the media and the public's perception that Thom speaks for Radiohead and the other four members just reiterate what he says. Does each member of Radiohead truly feel that they speak for the band in turn?
The pause that follows isn't one of Phil's usual moments; in fact, it's almost uncomfortable in its length. But the answer comes out clearly and confidently. "Thom does have a very strong creative viewpoint, so that will come through very clearly in what we talk about, I think. But, you know, what we talk about is what we've all decided--they're the decisions that we've reached as the five of us, really. It does reflect the input of the five of us within that democratic set-up. None of deny that Thom has the biggest voice in that anyway, but I don't think any of us would be happy to actually feel that we were along for the ride."
I emphatically agree and move on to another one of those far-reaching, philosophical queries: "Do you feel that there's nowhere new to go in music, just ways of re-doing what's already been done?" This is met with another "Ooph!" but Phil recovers and takes the bait. "Just the fact that you can have different combinations with people musically, and if they come to it with an open mind, that always takes you somewhere new. There may not be any kind of radical shift, but having said that you think about how the dance scene has grown over the past decade. I don't think anybody could've predicted that really. So you can always be caught unawares."
And speaking of doing things in a new way, I want to know about the somewhat radical approach Radiohead had to handling publicity for Kid A last year--granting almost no interviews and having the limited live schedule. Were they ever nervous that they might have unintentionally shot themselves in the foot, or did it not really matter in the grand scheme of things?
"I think what we did was appropriate to how we felt at the time. We knew that we wanted to promote the record--or, we knew that we had to promote the record--and we knew that we wanted people to hear us, to hear the music, and to have not forgotten about us. But within that, we were thinking, well there must be other ways of doing it other than the standard approaches. I think it was kind of a reaction to what went on with OK Computer beforehand. So it seemed appropriate at the time to find different ways of promoting the record. And you know, it was necessary to do that to get everything fired up again, for us to find the motivation to do it, really." Phil laughs. "So, um, there you go."
There's been a lot of talk about how lyrics for Kid A and Amnesiac were not a focus this time around. Did that result in a desire among the non-Thom band members to contribute words?
"I think one of the great things about the songs that we put out is that there's a very identifiable voice in there--that being Thom's voice. In some ways it gives us freedom musically to shift everything around that." With amusement, he adds, "No, I don't think any of the rest of us has had aspirations to contribute lyrically to what goes on. Also, Thom does it exceptionally well."
In the aftermath of OK Computer and during the recording of new material that followed, Radiohead kept in touch with fans via their Web site's message board and through a series of online diary entries posted by Ed, giving the scoop on sessions and relations within the band. Now that they're about among the world again, I wonder how often Phil finds himself trawling the Web; specifically, his band's own site.
"I go through periods with it. I've not been to the message board for about a month and a half now, I'm afraid. I was there a lot when we were recording, and my appearances have been rather more sporadic since. The good thing about that message board is that it's just set itself up as a little community in it's own right." Chuckling, he says, "You know, I think in a way... the way we're going along now, we're kind of intruders in there."
He continues, "It's always great to go there because you get to know all the different people on there after a while. Then you're at a gig and you've got people coming up and saying, I'm such and such of the message board, and it's good to put a face to this little moniker on the board."
I hand over one last big, deep question: "Do you feel that one band can change music, just like there's that sentiment that one person can change the world? And is it a feeling like that that keeps you going even as people criticize you for trying new things?"
"Ooh...I don't think our aspirations are that large, actually." Ever-so-humble Phil. "They extend to the whole thing of maybe wanting to reinvent ourselves every so often, but to actually reinvent the whole music scene...Lord no, that would be too much responsibility! I mean, in any kind of new scene that comes along, there's always one identifiable band or designer or whatever who becomes the focus of it. But it is always more the community effort, isn't it? But you do need somebody who has a very strong vision in those things."
I take off from there, unable to help myself. "It's not necessarily that you have that ambition or that I'm even trying to say that you guys are the band that's changing the world. But it's typically those who aren't focused on that--who don't even realize what they're doing--who end up being the ones who are the innovators or the instigators of everything. Even though it is a big thing to say, I know I speak for a lot of people in my generation when I say that you guys really have meant a lot. You are what we're going to remember when we're trying to tell our kids about good music."
We both laugh, and after recovering he quips, "Well, that's good--I'm sure my kids'll be completely embarrassed about it."