Make rock not war!
Radiohead are multi-platinum rich, but Thom Yorke still emanates the angst of a bedsit rocker. To celebrate the release of the band's seventh [sic], and most political, album Hail to the Thief, Will Self took Yorke walkabout in Oxford – to talk about George W Bush, suede loafers and 'being CEO of a major company'.
by Will Self


In the medieval trench that's Turl Street in Oxford, Thom Yorke, the city's most famously and aggressively diffident son, rocked back and forth in his blue-and-white basketball shoes, howling with derision. "Oh no!" he yelped, "I can't stand this stuff! I used to walk past this window and see if I could pick out just one thing - one thing I could wear." He moved from the dummies wearing waxed jackets, grey flannels and tweeds, to the shoe shop next door. "These aren't so bad," I said. "Couldn't you cope with at lie a pair of shoes?" He scrutinised the rows of Church's handmade books and brogues with some care, before conceding that if he had to, he'd be prepared to don "those up there". And what were they, the proverbial glass slippers that the Cinderella of rock would be bespoken for? Why, suede loafers of course.
Yorke had been looking both suede-coloured and a loafer when I'd found him in the coffee lounge of the Randolph Hotel an hour or so earlier. The Randolph is the kind of four-square hotel you'd expect to find in the centre of Oxford. It has an air of solid, 18th-century prosperity about it.
A few bewigged burghers wouldn't have looked out of place, stuffing their faces with boiled beef before climbing into their broughams for a drive around this immemorial seat of learning. Yorke was drinking black coffee from a half-plunged cafetiere and glancing at the headlines of that morning's Guardian. His state of modish dishabille: open-necked, blue-and-white striped shirt, flared jeans, and a curious round-necked nylon, zip-up waistcoat - combined with a couple of days' gingery stubble and mussed hair - gave him an anachronistic feel. He was a 21st-century bedsit boy cut-and-pasted on to the coaching house's sepia interior.
Yorke began talking politics without any preamble, and so our encounter was immediate and incontrovertibly datelined: 25.04.03. Baghdad had fallen only 16 days earlier, and its shattered brick and mortar was on his mind more than other kind of rock: Yorke has been drifting into more explicitly political waters for the past three years. Together with Bob Geldof and Bono, he took up cudgels on behalf of the Jubilee 2000 campaign to “drop the debt” of the developing world. And while he hasn’t taken the hypocritical step of embracing the anti-capitalist movement, he’s been making quite a few noises off about greed and rapaciousness. On the first Sunday of the Anglo-American attack on Iraq both of us had demonstrated the demonstration at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, the airbase from which the US B52 bombers set off with their bunker-busters, daisy-cutters, and all the other horrible, exploded euphemisms of warfare.
And now there's Hail To The Thief, Radiohead's sixth studio album, and surely its title alone a provocative tilt at the government of George W Bush? Certainly, Yorke was concerned to place his seriously bitter credentials on the coffee table. "Did you hear John Humphreys interviewing Geoff Hoon on the radio this morning?" he asked me. "He was pushing Hoon hard on the issue of weapons of mass destruction, and Hoon didn't have an answer for any of it; couldn't justify why they won't let the UN weapons inspectors back in."
I asked him if he was politicised when he was Exeter University and Yorke displayed his trademark diffidence. "On and off. I didn't like all the factionalism and the language you have to adopt. But I was involved a bit. We managed to ban some of the Young Conservatives from the student union, and I was proud of that." Yorke's time at university wasn't exactly formative for him. Instead I think it probably confirmed him as a stayer more than a goer. In previous interviews he's waxed disconsolately about his discombobulated childhood, the frequent changes of school, and the bullying at those schools because of his paralysed eye (a congenital defect that's left him with an oddly profound, monocular stare). But to me he seemed emotionally grounded and secure. He conceded - albeit uneasily - that his had been a happy, if profoundly unmusical, family. "My parents didn't even have a hi-fi until I got one, they had one of those radio-cassette things."
His father, a salesman for a company that made mass spectrometers and other equipment used in the nuclear industry, "spent the Sixties walking around with a test tube of plutonium in his hand." There was Thom and his younger brother, who ended up attending Oxford University. "He was at Bedford College. I hung around a bit with his friends; what I remember most was that however trashed the place got the night before, these people would come and clear it all up in the morning."

Yorke was a musical prodigy of sorts, and by age 13 he was strumming a guitar and composing lyrics. A half-generation too young for punk, his early influences - he confessed with a wry smile - included naff Japan, " I loved David Sylvian's voice", and the predictable REM . His earliest musical forays were deconstructive. "You always have that 'I can do better than that' impulse and, more specifically, you want to find out a way of doing it." But pretty soon he was gigging at weekends, with the support of his parents. "They heard the music all the time, coming from above their TV, because that's where my room was. But they were pretty good - they could've been a lot worse. They bought me amps and shit."
I asked him if he got a major buzz out of that early gigging, but he seemed nonplussed. "It's difficult to remember what it was like before we made records, but I do remember being surprised that people liked it. When you're on stage you feel you've got something, but you're not sure that it will last. I get much higher off it, now that I 'm better at it."
"My Struggle" wouldn't be a good title for Thom Yorke's autobiography. Far from being forced to hump their equipment around the small club circuit, Yorke and his boyhood jamming friends - then tentatively named On A Friday - had a record deal within months of going at it full time. These were the very same geezers who kept returning to Oxford at regular intervals throughout their various college careers to rehearse. I n fact, the reason why I think Yorke is so grounded is that he's always stayed so decisively put, either geographically in Oxford or irrationally within the same cliques of friends and colleagues. Twelve years on, he's still playing with the same band of brothers, and he's still with the partner he met at college in Exeter. Rachel was one of the group of friends Yorke met at the art college where he did the fine art half of his degree. Another friend from this era does the artwork for Radiohead's albums, and he told me that he was still in touch with the rest of the art students he hung out with at that time.
Long-lasting relationships with friends and his lover, regular contact with his parents - particularly now that Yorke has given them a grandson, Noah - and a hookedness in Oxford reminiscent of his friend REM singer Michael Stipe's commitment to Athens, Georgia. None of this speaks of a particularly tortured soul and while I don't doubt that his breakdown after the worldwide success of OK Computer was traumatic, Yorke seems to have come through the psychic proving ground of rock stardom with his head screwed on both tight and right.
Still, there was a hint of paranoia as we walked out into the slightly gloomy noontime in the rain-splattered heart of England. Reaching the junction of Broad Street the Cornmarket and George Street - the very commercial hub of the city - Yorke pointed to a row of bars and said, "That's where they herd everyone on a Saturday night now. The police post patrols at both ends of the street and if it all goes off, they shut the place down. Oxford can be pretty heavy on a Saturday night." Next off it was the surveillance cameras, mocked up to resemble old-fashioned street lamps, which claimed his attention. Later during our ramble, Yorke talked about aggro on the train up from London (a case of KO commuter?). And when I call his attention to how preoccupied he appeared by random acts of senseless violence, he admitted he was involved in a fight as recently as two years ago. "This guy said something as I went by - he obviously recognised me. Stupidly, I followed after him and asked him to repeat it. Next thing I know, he's swinging on me, kicking me, and all these people are just walking past, totally ignoring it."
A slight, 5' 7" man, it's easy to see why Yorke's boyhood sense of vulnerability has been carried forward into adulthood, preserved in the aspic of fame and emolument. Yorke obviously hated the notoriety that went with the massive commercial success of OK Computer, and to me he said "I don't want to do that stadium rock thing".
He said that he was no longer recognised in a the street, and that Stipe had taught him how to make himself "invisible", just by assuming the correct and confident mental attitude as he walks down a street. I daresay I must've been queering Yorke's incognito - with our disparity in heights and our obviously purposeless trawl about the teeming streets we must've appeared an odd couple - but during the three hours I spent with him he was recognised four times and asked for autographs. By the time we walked back across the centre of town he suggested that we avoid the busiest streets, fed up with being spotted.
Earlier, propped on the high wall of one of the college gardens, we looked down on the immaculate lawns surrounding the Radcliffe Camera, one of those domed Renaissance Oxford buildings that give the city an almost oriental air. Yorke pointed to one of the alcoves let into the Camera and said "That's where we did a lot of drinking when we were teenagers," a remark that led us inevitably on to the subject of drugs and intoxication in general. "I was always advised not to do acid," Yorke said. " My friends thought that, what with everything that was going on in my head already, it wouldn't be a good idea." I observed that I'd never read or heard him make any comment on intoxication, whether in connection with his own creativity or simple hedonism. "I've never wanted it to colour the music, " he said, "that's why I leave it open."
When I pressed him, he said, "Obviously it's important not to stay like this" - he swept a hand over his sober mien - "all the time. You get it with music, but alcohol is grotesquely inappropriate for making the required change."
And what would be better? I pressed him again.
"Oh, I dunno, something prescribed I s'pose."
what, Prozac? I quipped. But this was as far as Yorke would go on the matter.
He doesn't go much further down the road to rock excess in any other direction, either.
A long-time vegetarian, "I gave up meat in the early Nineties, touring was playing havoc with my digestion." Smoking roll-ups also had to go.
"It was destroying my voice. I'd make it halfway through a gig and then it'd crack." But Yorke was happy to confess to getting badly snake-bitten in the past. "The first time, I had to go to the doctor the next day because I was still seeing double, and he told me I had alcoholic poisoning." But he conceded that this kind of heavy drinking had also been jettisoned. Yorke seems to have entered the detached house of common sense through practising this kind of restraint, rather than pressing on to the illusory palace of wisdom offered by Class As. Achingly sensible chap.
As we walked down the passageway between Merton and Corpus Christi colleges, and out on to the green expanse of Christ Church Meadow, I began to feel a little like the decadent Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
Yorke was coming on so cuddly and sexless that he could've been Flyte's teddy-bear, Aloysius.
What about groupies? I wheedled. Wasn't it part of your idea of rock stardom when you were plonking away on your guitar in your bedroom? Yorke laughed raucously. "Ha ha, yeah man, it never happened. I'm just too bloody-minded. If I see other people doing it, then I just don't want to do it. It's as simple as that. I remember being at the Brits one time and Oasis were doing their Oasis thing, and it was all very amusing. It made me want to do the exact fucking opposite. That's just me."
This English reticence extended into Yorke's money talk. Presumably, I pointed out, he had cartloads of wonga? "Probably not as much as you'd think. But, yeah, it's all right."
But do you live an expensive lifestyle, or what? "I consider it to be slightly too expensive, yeah.
But that's mostly wrapped up in the two houses that I've bought."
You're not into larging it are you? You're not that kind of person? “I'm almost pathologically the opposite. I ring up my bank manager to ask him if it's all right for me to buy a Mini."
And does he laugh?
"Yeah."
Do you give it away?
"What?"
The money.
"What, charity?" Yorke affected a twee tone.
Yeah. Will you be divvying it up for Iraq?
"Well I keep cutting out those Red Cross ads, so I guess I'll do that. But fucking hell, the Americans should be forking out for that!" This was a rare flash of contentiousness and when the two of us sat down for lunch at a Thai restaurant just off the High Street, Yorke's remarks about the very meat of Hail To The Thief were as vegetarian as his Pak Krua noodles.
"I'm not quite sure how we arrived at that title, we had lots and lots of ideas kicking around.
I don't think it's highly antagonistic, because out of this week's current context it sounds to me something from a fairytale."
"I think the reason the others were into it was because it fitted the way the record sounded.
The political stuff s only there because of the lyrics, and the lyrics are only written that way because that's the way they came out. It wasn't like I sat down to write something political, but my mindset is more immersed in that than it was four or five years ago. A lot of it comes from listening to the radio compulsively because it coincides with my son's eating times."
But the political climate in the US had definitely been hardening to opponents of the war, and so I was interested in whether Yorke thought the album's title would affect its reception there. Will Radiohead be touring? "Oh yeah - well, hopefully. I've only done one American interview, but the interesting thing is that it really isn't as bad as you might assume.
"Obviously this is something we've been talking to our press people over there about, and they say, 'Don't worry about it, it doesn't mean shit'. This debate is throughout the whole country, it's not like you see it from the other side of the river. The whole thing is kicking off so badly in America, even in the New York Times every day of the week now. I brought it up four times with the band and said, 'Look, this may kick off'. But they were confident that it wouldn't happen, and that it wasn't the main point."
Even if the US reaction is pricklier than Yorke expects, he's got his creative get-out formulated: "When something works, it works and you just have to leave it. With this, when I was typing up the lyrics at the end, it suddenly dawned on me that this was like - oh, shit! But I hadn't had that at all while making it. It was only at the end when it was too late to do anything about it. That's the point at which it's not yours anymore, anyway."
Can you let go of your work once it's finished? "This one was really fucking hard, we had massive arguments about how it was put together and mixed. Making it was a piece of piss. For the first time it was really good fun to make a record. But we finished it and nobody could let go of it. There was a long period during which we lived with it, but it wasn't completely finished; so you get attached to versions, and we had big rows about it."
Was it very emotionally draining? "For me it was the last straw."
But if this makes Yorke out to be po-faced about his own creative process, at other times in our conversation he was bizarrely reverent and self-deprecatory. Of OK Computer he said, "Even when we were making that record it was quite a weird thing for us, because we were thinking , they're going to fucking hate this'. Everything was one big wind-up, especially for the press, because we wanted to make what we thought was a really over-the-top record, and I remember feeling like we were taking the piss and they swallowed it whole. It was actually a good record, so that was fine, but it was a real shock.
'Paranoid Android', I just thought it was really funny, but everybody was talking about it, 'hm, like, serious song', and I was 'c'mon, it's a fucking joke!' Anyway..." And he lapsed into noodling.
There was also a certain mildly schizoid cast to Yorke's peregrinations. On the one hand he conceded to "becoming the CEO of a major company" every time Radiohead brought an album out, and having - especially with Kid A - taken a fanatical interest in the minutiae of sales and marketing. But at the same time he inveighed against the way the major record labels were vertically integrating production and distribution, with the end result that they "put out shit". He told me he was through with the big gigs, and yet he also admitted that he was doing a big-venue tour for the new album. He told me that he never ever read his own reviews, and yet, once the tape was off, he gave a trenchant and impassioned critique of how low pay in the music press meant that critics had to review albums on the first play. I suspect that I met Yorke in that feel-good zone before the public reception of Hail To The Thief got underway, and that were I to be allowed time with him after a blip in the steadily mounting acclaim his music bas received over the past decade, then I'd see a distinctly more paranoid android.
Still, why complain? Yorke proved a thoughtful and grounded companion for a saunter around the Dreaming Spires. With his literary references ranging from ee cummings to Philip Larkin to Dante, and his musical from Charlie Mingus to Thelonius Monk to Bruckner (as we'd dallied in a college chapel, he suggested we might thieve an antique spinet). He's cultured, but not oppressively so. Nor do I think his demitasse radicalism is anything but the truth as he sees it.
I asked him why, unlike Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack and Damon Albarn of Blur, he hadn't been a more vocal opponent of the Iraq War. "I totally bought it, I thought that this [the existence of weapons of mass destruction is true, then we obviously have to do something about it.
I was trying not to believe that our glorious leader is misguided in his political allegiance. But as time went on, the way the current American administration was behaving made it so fucking obvious that it was nothing to do with anything, except what they wanted."
Yorke emphatically rejected the role of being a Spokesman For A Generation. "It's fucking tits!" he spat when I tried the hat on him. But with his vague environmentalism and hazy, and-establishment pronouncements he seemed tailor-made for the job. Or, at any rate, he would be if he could just get it together to visit a decent tailor. He had conceded - as I'd forced him to contemplate the suiting and booting in Turl Street - that he'd recently bought a handmade pair of Chelsea boots from a shop in Jermyn Street. But then he spoilt even this excessive act by saying, "But you'd have to have a proper suit to wear with them, and I haven't, so they're just sitting in my cupboard."

Back outside the Randolph Hotel, Yorke and I parted and he shuffled off to rehearse with his band. He'd admitted that Oxford could sometimes seem a little on the small side and that while he couldn't face the sleeplessness that the metropolis engendered in him, he might like to live in a city where there was a bit more of a scene, like Bristol. But watching the back of his khaki jacket recede down Beaumont Street, it occurred to me that he'd be a fool to move anywhere but another university town. Because, despite his multi-platinum album sales, his 34 years and his alleged prickliness, Yorke faded into the afternoon throng with nary a ripple: just another student type, with a CND lapel badge to prove it.

Hail To The Thief is out now on Parlophone. Radiohead tour the UK in November. For info, visit: www.radiohead.com