What’s left to be said about the ‘Head? On the eve of their first Australian tour since 1998. Thom Yorke talks set-lists, stage parties and “the amazing sounds of orgy”.
Thom Yorke seems a bit lost amidst the Victorian gothic splendour of his suite at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford. Over a ‘shared’ bottle of champagne (which in reality means Yorke drank most of it) he talks about the set-list for the band’s upcoming concerts, about his musical abilities (or lack of them), drugs and why he is not using them, politics, and writing a shagging song. And finally about being a bit weird..
I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a set-list for your upcoming tour. This is what we want to hear...
[Sarcastically] Thanks sooooo much...
“There There, 2+2=5. How to Disappear Completely, Karma Police, Fake Plastic Trees”...
We’ll play all that... That’s good, man, are you psychic?
The others would have a problem with that one, although I’m still into it. We’ll probably do morning bell instead, or something really weird. And “Punchup at a Wedding”- we just rehearsed that today, it sounds great. On this tour, for the first time, we’ve pondered practical stuff, like taking into account the fact that I can only play certain songs sitting down. “In Limbo”... I really love that song- it’s probably my favourite. And you’ve got “How to Disappear Completely” as the last song of the set, how clever [grins]. Oh, and “Subterranean Homesick Alien”, yikes [pulls face]!
What’s wrong with that, it’s a gorgeous song...
It’s very tough to do live. And we’d have to take two Fender Rhodes pianos out on the road. You really want us to work hard, don’t you? “In Limbo” is hard work too. It’s a nightmare to play live. The cross rhythm is very hard to get right. And the fact that the guitars on the record are impossible to reproduce live. You can only hear two, but Jonny did loads of them, the mix is very subtle. Jonny hasn’t built a machine yet [to reproduce it]. In fact, Jonny has built something where everything goes through his laptop now before it hits his amp. Jonny studied programming at school, he’s so good at those things.
Have you deliberately ignored “A Wolf at the Door”? I played it on the train from England’s bath to Oxford, with the scenery drifting by...perfect.
Really?! Do you know how close that track was to not being on the record? It’s odd that you mention the train from Bath, because I wrote the lyrics on that very same train. I got on the train one night, and because of what I do... Well... if I want some peace and quite... I, eh...paid my full, eh, ticket, to get up the front...
Are you trying to say you travelled first class?
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s criminally expensive but I needed some time, some peace and quite. But what I got was a bunch of rowdy, posh city boys, obviously rich as hell, who were going to some fucking stag party. Thirty of them in first class... and me. These guys had two crates of Stella, a ghettoblaster, and the guy who was getting married was dressed as Elvis. And for three hours, I sat there while they “enjoyed” themselves. They were awful, aaaaaaahhhhh! And the whole lyric is just about my revenge on them [laughs]. But where is “Everything In It’s Right Place” on your set-list, and “Myxomatosis”, where’s bloody...?
Well, feel free to play a three hour set, like Paul McCartney, if you really want to...
He does that? Well, no, I’d loose my voice. He’s less frail than I am, I think.
Do you feel that accomplished musicianship sometimes gets in the way of composing?
Not with us [laughs]. Sorry, too good to resist.
I mean, what is a moment when you thought: A more accomplished player would never have approached this song this way?
I have Jonny [Greenwood] to do that. Jonny is so smart, so amazing technically. I’ve never met a musician like him: everything Jonny does is totally on intuition, but at the same time he’s so knowledgeable. To this day, I’m the only one in Radiohead who doesn’t read music. I went through this phase where I was trying to get him to teach me how to read music, and he just refused [laughs]. He said: “No way, man, you’re staying the ignorant one”. But I do believe, if that’s what you’re suggesting, the technically accomplished musicians would never come up with what we come up with. “Big Ideas” is a classic example.
“Big Ideas” has become the great lost Radiohead classic, hasn’t it? You’ve played it live a number of times, as long as four years ago, but it has yet to surface on record. Why is that?
Well, there are a number of bands we could give it to- for them to play it. I mean. Like, I would literally get down on my hands and knees and beg Elvis Costello & the Attractions to do it. Because I know they’d play it much better than us. But I don’t have the guts to ask them.
What is the oddest, most cryptic reference to developing a new song that you have made, and Colin (Greenwood) and Phil (Selway) and Jonny (Greenwood) and Ed (O’Brien) still knew what you meant?
I do that a lot. Cryptic references, yeah. I used to do it more still while we were recording Kid A and Amnesiac. I said things like, “This has to sound like what you hear in a forest at night after rainfall”, or something along those lines. And would go [serious expression] “Right!” and then take the piss behind my back [laughs]. I talked so much shit when we were doing those records.
One of the things I love about Radiohead is that you make beautiful, adventurous, mind-expanding music, without, as far as I know, taking mind expanding substances. Which proves you don’t need crutches of that kind to be truly creative.
Well, I’ve never taken acid, for instance. Chiefly because I was told that if I did, I’d never come back. I have often wondered what it would be like to really get out there. But I ... I don’t trust I’d ever come back. That’s been my thing, really. I have enough troubles with my dreams, so it would probably not be a good idea. Also I think anyone who, like me, is prone to depressions, should not go near drugs. Because drugs perpetuate whatever’s going on in your head, and I suffer from depression and that’s actually a pretty strong drug in itself.
When I first heard the line: “The amazing sounds of orgy, I thought, “What was he thinking?!”
[Laughs] Fuckin’ right. Did it make you think of sex when you first heard it? No? Well, that’s the thing: “orgy” can refer to a number of things. An orgy of sound, An orgy of light. An orgy of violence. An orgy of gluttony.
...An orgy of sobriety...
Fuck, now you’re messing with my head, you’re just trying to make fell guilty about drinking. Wait, I’m trying to remember what the lyric was. “Database collapse...” I kept writing that again and again... “The amazing sounds of the killing hordes...” So it was more of an orgy of violence. It was politics.. and it’s not politics.. I don’t know, man, that’s what goes on inside my head. And I won’t lose sleep about that anymore, because it obviously benefits the music. Thank God.
To me, your music is something pure and beautiful and emotional, and politics is something ugly, and when you mix the two, the ugliness tends to contaminate the purity...
Oh, I agree, absolutely. Absolutely! Man, you have no idea! I tried so hard.. This record to me, these new songs, they’re not so much songs about politics as me desperate struggling to keep politics out. If I could have written about anything else, I would have. I tried fucking hard. But how can any sensible person ignore what’s been going on all together? I couldn’t, I really couldn’t. Fuck, man, I would love to write a lyric free of politics! Send me on a retreat somewhere, where I can get it out of my system! But at the end of the day, anyone can enjoy any of the new songs without having a clue what they’re about. What matters is that gut reaction; that initial emotive response.
We’re in Oxford; I heard you used to crash parties in your student days. To me, gatecrashers always seemed to be people who didn’t fit it, and disturbing the peace or sabotaging other people’s pleasure seemed to be the only way they could partake in anything.
There’s some truth in that. I was a leper for a while, in my student days. But we didn’t organise anything major- it was just a bit of fun. We used to crash parties and raid the DJ booth and out on our Joy Division records or other fairly depressing stuff. It was brilliant. They weren’t great parties anyway- [that’s] my excuse [laughs].