With the release of ‘In Rainbows’, Radiohead have changed the music industry. Now its makers tell us how it was made, what it means for them and whether they’ll ever make another record
Endless yards of dusty books line the walls, a roaring open fire warms each room and everywhere not-too-tasteful stuffed fish are pinned into glass cabinets. Rumour has it The Old Parsonage Hotel in Oxford is where Oscar Wilde used to stay when he was visiting the town. It’s pretty easy to believe – the place is a shameless feast of antique chintz. So fervently traditional and backward-looking, it’s perhaps an odd venue for the first interview Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood have given since October 10 of this year. That was the day they sent shockwaves through the music world by announcing that their seventh studio album, ‘In Rainbows’, was finished and would be available for fans to download in 10 days’ time. Oh, and that each person could decide how much they wanted to pay for it.
Thom is the first to arrive, by foot. He orders a coffee and small-talk immediately shifts to his record collection. He’s excited about the new albums from !!!, Modeselektor and Robert Wyatt but, surprisingly, hasn’t heard the new PJ Harvey record yet. He’s just been listening to a bunch of remixes of tracks from his solo debut ‘The Eraser’ that he hopes to put online before the end of the year. Greenwood arrives 20 minutes late, looking flustered. Compared to Thom he’s shy, but get him on the right subject – the BBC archive, the lost genius of Clive James or computer programming – and he practically glows. Together, they are the heart and brains of a guitar band who, more than any other, has moved at the cutting edge of music in the last decade.
The duo are quick to reveal that the original idea to give ‘In Rainbows’ away as a free download actually dates back to 2004 and ‘Hail To The Thief’. That album leaked online extremely early, as did Yorke’s 2006 solo album. The embryonic plan this time was to have an official “leak” date so the group themselves could control how it was put on to the net. When ‘In Rainbows’ was completed this summer the band were without a record contract, their six album-deal with Parlophone having expired with ‘Hail To The Thief’. They knew it would take at least until the new year to negotiate a new deal and get the album released if they went down the traditional route. Egged on by their management, they decided to take complete control and release it themselves.
It was the best-kept secret of the year: ‘In Rainbows’ would be available to download only a few weeks after it was finished. You could pay what you liked, and if you were dead-set on having a version you could hold in your hands, there was a special collectors’ edition discbox with eight extra tracks that, if you ordered it, will be dropping through your letterbox later this week. At first it sounded like bankruptcy-inducing madness, but on closer inspection it made sound financial sense. Under a normal record company deal, the band would make just over a pound per album sold, whereas with an honesty-box style approach to their music, the few people paying a tenner or more would balance out those downloading it for nothing. Radiohead’s revolutionary step was widely regarded as an industry-shaking stroke of genius, remoulding the distribution of music as defiantly as they had reimagined music itself. Daring? Inventive? Revolutionary? From these modest maestros we expected no less. But did it feel as though they were messing with the music industry’s DNA?
“We didn’t really invite that many people into the circle of trust,” says Jonny. “I bought NME and there was something on the cover about a new Oasis single out in a few weeks’ time. I remember thinking, ‘We’ve got a new album coming in 10 days and nobody knows!’ I stayed up until midnight to announce it and just watched people on messageboards claiming that the website had been hacked. I think they thought it was a joke. That seemed to be the first reaction. It was going to be two weeks originally because we thought it might take two weeks for people to actually find out about it. Our manager had said, ‘There’s a chance that people are less interested than we’re assuming.”’
Radiohead weren’t done with the shock announcements. On October 31, just under three weeks after the ‘In Rainbows’ had been released digitally, the band declared they had signed a conventional deal with independent XL, and that a normal CD version of the album would be available in shops on December 31, 2007. It’s time for NME to get to the bottom of this unconventional revolution...
After the bold way ‘In Rainbows’ came out, isn’t putting out a normal CD a bit regressive?
Thom: “I don’t think people should assume that everyone is internet savvy. The internet is not the fucking universe. Lots of people seem to have a problem with the fact that we are putting out a real CD at all. That assumes that all we do is worry about the internet and we don’t. I’m not into MySpace, it’s not my thing. And Facebook... I don’t know, it’s just not my thing. I’m too old.”
Could you not have done the physical release yourselves? Why sign to XL?
Thom: “It’s not a record deal in the sense of a traditional record deal. That’s very important – it’s just the distribution. There’s none of the normal dynamics of a record deal where they have artist development and that sort of thing. I had a good relationship with XL doing ‘The Eraser’ and it felt like the right thing to do.”
Jonny: “The alternative was to sign a five-album deal with Universal or Warner and do a traditional, ‘90s-style record deal. Having done what we did in October it would have felt a bit weird.”
Thom: “XL had actually called up our manager the week before the download happened and said, ‘We’ve got this great idea. How about you just release it for free as a download?’ (Laughing) We were like, ‘That sounds like a good idea…’”
What will you do if no-one buys the CD because they’ve already downloaded it for free?
Thom: “I think we’re doing alright already.”
If the release of ‘In Rainbows’ was a rushed affair, the recording certainly wasn’t; sessions first began in the autumn of 2005 with producer Mark ‘Spike’ Stent, but after a year in the studio, still feeling like nothing productive had come from them, Radiohead abandoned them to tour the UK and North America. It was on these tours that they were able to roadtest around 20 new songs, experimenting with their structure and sound in front of a real-life audience. Reinvigorated, the band called in long-term ‘Head producer Nigel Godrich to Tottenham House in Wiltshire: a Grade-I listed building which dates back to the 1720s, and, in that sense, is a similar environment to the country-house studios some of their favourite moments from ‘OK Computer’ and ‘Kid A’ had been made in.
Tottenham House sounds pretty swanky – was it a palace?
Jonny: [Laughing] “They were waiting to go and demolish most of it. It was just a plumbing-free place full of buckets of rat poison. It was a bit grim.”
Thom: “There wasn’t even a functioning toilet. It was quite alarming – if the wind picked up you couldn’t really stand beneath the windows because the top windows kept blowing out. They were all broken.”
Jonny: “It had been a prep school up until the early ’80s and then it was a rehab place for recovering heroin addicts. The bathrooms were designed for small boys.”
How did the surroundings effect the recording sessions?
Thom: “Whenever you go somewhere you observe whatever the atmosphere is. The reason we went there at all is because it had this bizarre round chamber [a large space where the group could set up their equipment to get the best possible sound]. We used it on everything. We were there for about three weeks and I got very sick. I couldn’t swallow and it was all very horrible. I stayed in a caravan for two days thinking that I was going to get better and then it just got worse and worse and worse.”
Jonny: “We were staying in caravans. I thought it would be quite glamorous, like winnebagos!”
Thom: “But it wasn’t like that, and the cold set in and it was damp. It was kind of the wrong time of year. It was October and the weather was kicking in.”
What was the mood like during the recording?
Thom: “We could do what we wanted and it was great. You just get into this crazy headspace really fast. In a couple of days you lose track of time and where you are, as you’re just in music 24 hours a day.”
Jonny: “The house was so dilapidated. But we developed an idea about all the songs. There was a room with just a guitar and drumkit and amp. We were just playing bad blues rock at three in the morning for the sake of it.”
All this filth, rats and falling masonry might explain why ‘Bodysnatchers’ is perhaps the most aggressive-sounding Radiohead track to date...
Thom: “I have this thing – just before I get really sick I’ll have this 12-hour hyperactive mania, and that song was recorded during one of those. I felt genuinely out of it when we did that. The vocal is one take and we didn’t do anything to it afterwards. We tidied up my guitar because I was so out of it, my guitar-playing was rubbish. My best vocals are always the ones that happen there and then.”
After three weeks at Tottenham House the band returned to Oxford, craving home comforts. Pretty much all of the songs on ‘In Rainbows’ (both the download and discbox versions) had been worked on – though none actually finished as the band were ironically hobbled by an overload of ideas: they could think of a million different ways to record each song, some of which had been in their live sets and in demo form, in different guises, for upwards of 10 years. String sections were experimented with, a choir of schoolchildren was recruited for ‘15 Step’, and Jonny Greenwood would disappear for days at a time to write a computer program, which would finish up only making a couple of seconds of the record. The complexity of finishing these songs brought them dangerously close to an unproductive halt, as with ‘Kid A’ years before.
Thom: “We deliberately did this thing to get a sense of disembodiment when we were assembling tracks. So the vocal may be from one version or the drums may be from another. If there was something that you were particularly fond of you kept it from that take and forced it on to the other version. It was a really interesting experiment. For example, ‘All I Need’ was the outcome of four different versions of it. It was all the best bits put together.”
Jonny: “Thom will come and play a song like ‘Nude’ [which was originally written by Yorke in the mid ’90s] to you and obviously it’s good. You want to record it. But it’s been hanging around for 10 years and you find yourself thinking, ‘Why haven’t we recorded a good enough version of that song?’ The relief now is that it’s done and we didn’t mess it up – it’s worth it all.”
Thom: “We would have these days where there were big breakthroughs and then suddenly... no. Videotape, to me, was a big breakthrough, we tried everything with it. One day I came in and decided it was going to be like a fast pulse – like a four to the floor thing and everything was going to be built from that. We threw all this stuff at it. But then a couple of months later I went out and I came back and Jonny and Nigel Godrich had stripped it back. He had this bare bones thing, which was amazing.”
After such a painstaking recording process, are you happy with the album now? Are you ever?
Thom: “When it’s finished I am, otherwise it doesn’t get out. This one was hard because we had to jettison tunes that were as good as what’s on there but for some reason didn’t bounce off the other tunes right. They were to the detriment of them. That was a real headfuck for me. ‘Down Is The New Up’ for example, is one of the things I am most proud of us ever doing. It’s got the best drumming that Phil [Selway] has ever done on it. If you get it right, and we have done in the past, songs bounce off each other and they create something different.”
The clock ticking, Jonny Greenwood has made plans for a long weekend so makes his excuses and leaves. But Thom is in the mood to talk some more. Earlier, NME had pressed him on what some of the more obscure lyrics were about. He seemed evasive. Now, one-on-one and a glass of white wine later, he seems more willing to discuss them.
With many of the lyrics on ‘In Rainbows’ written in the first person, are we to take it this is a more personal record?
Thom: “With ‘Hail To The Thief’ I was using the language of the impersonal, but the fact I’m using a different language on this doesn’t necessarily mean I am personally reflecting it on me.”
What about the night out that you described in ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’? Did you experience that first-hand?
“I would never say it was personal because it’s always a set of observations. ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’ says much about the fact I used to live in the centre of Oxford and used to go out occasionally and witness the fucking chaos of a weekend around here. But it’s also about a lot of different experiences. Personally, I was really surprised that it’s going to be the single. The lyrics are quite caustic – the idea of “before you’re comatose” or whatever, drinking yourself into oblivion and getting fucked-up to forget. When you’re part of a group of people who are all trying to forget en masse it is partly this elation. But there s a much darker side.”
There’s also a lyric in ‘Jigsaw...’ about exchanging phone numbers, while ‘House Of Cards’ has a line: “I don’t want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover”. Is this Radiohead’s, um, sexy album?
“Oh yeah, most songs on the record are seduction songs. My version of it anyway. I guess it’s something that is not very often apparent, but it became apparent as time went on.”
Songs like ‘All I Need’ are about obsession, aren’t they?
“That’s why it’s called ‘In Rainbows’. That obsession thing, thinking beyond where you are at the time. It’s a phrase I had for a while, it kept coming up in my notebooks. And I don’t know why, because it’s kind of naff. But it seemed to work – it’s one of those weird things. It stuck and I don’t know why.”
Our drinks drained, it’s clear that the always self-conscious and reticent Thom feels he has talked enough about himself and his band for one day. But as he makes his move to leave, there is still one question – the same question that precedes every new Radiohead release – left to ask. Like night follows day and headache follows Gallows gig, a Radiohead album always comes trailing internet chatter that it will be their last, and ‘In Rainbows’ has been no exception.
So, Thom, will there be another one?
“(Long pause) Yeah, but I’m not sure we would go on tour beforehand and do all that bullshit. But we are actually really happy. I think with the download thing... somehow we’ve been released from things. Not just from EMI, but also creatively. The idea that you can just press return and people can hear it. It’s expanding everybody’s minds. You can sort of see it happening. Colin [Greenwood, bass] for example is really excited about all the possibilities. So I’m sure there will be, but it will be a manifestation of the freedom of things. There’s no need to now answer to the old history of the band.”
Finally, what advice would you give to a ‘Creep’-era Thom Yorke?
“Don’t go on tour for quite as long as you did during the ‘OK Computer’ period [Thom famously suffered from depression during the tour, as seen on the Meeting People Is Easy DVD]. And don’t assume that in any way this is yours. It’s everybody’s. Don’t be so fucking selfish.”
There he goes then, shuffling smartly out of the Old Parsonage’s dusty history into whatever bright future he envisions for us all: rock’s most downloadable Santa Claus and the least selfish man in showbusiness. Hail to the anti-thief.