And You Shall Know Us By The Trail Of The 'Head
As Radiohead’s Colin ‘Coz’ Greenwood and I walk the lengthy fifth floor corridor of London’s salubrious Mayfair Hotel, we simultaneously realise that it’s eerily similar to the haunted hotel corridor in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining
“I actually taught my son to say ‘redrum’ in the same creepy way that kid in the movie says it,” the 38-year-old bassist confesses. Then he demonstrates with a Gollum-esque “Red-ruuuuuuuuuum.... Red-ruuummmmmmm.” He pauses momentarily to laugh. “It was probably quite immature of me, really”.
Shaven-headed percussionist Phil Selway (at 40, the oldest member of the band) opens the door of room 501 and welcomes us in with an exaggerated bow. “Step this way gentlemen, please.”
Roughly seven weeks after the historic ‘download only’ release of the band’s seventh studio album, In Rainbows, HotPress has been granted an audience with the Oxford alt-rockers’ rhythm and bass section. Guitarist Ed O’Brien is ensconced elsewhere in the hotel doing interviews, while Thom Yorke and Coz’s younger brother Jonny are apparently off doing TV stuff somewhere.
Despite having sold more than 15 million albums over the course of their career, they certainly don’t look like rock stars – though Coz bears a striking similarity to David Kitt. Both men are polite, conservatively dressed and softly spoken. They could as easily be secondary school teachers or university librarians.
While they’re more than happy to talk, they admit to being a little out of practise when it comes to interviews. Indeed, they’re so relaxed and laidback that there are a couple of moments when our encounter resembles a Fast Show sketch.
Of course, they hardly need to give it the hard sell anyway. As Radiohead albums go, In Rainbows probably isn’t their most musically innovative offering. Rather it sounds like they’re treading the warmest waters of their previous three long players. It’s a surprisingly mellow, jazzy, ambient affair, with lots of strange electronica, soaring instrumentals, scattered drums, the occasional blast of chunky guitars, all overlaid with Thom Yorke’s unique falsetto vocals.
The critical reception has mostly been highly positive. However, far more column inches have been devoted to their marketing strategy than their music. Having decided not to renew their contract with EMI, the band released In Rainbows as a digital download on October 10, allowing fans to decide what to pay for it themselves.
By the time you’re reading this, a special discbox will be available, but their ‘honesty box’ certainly got people talking. The commercial success of this historic approach to selling music is still unclear, but the album is almost certainly going to top the charts when it’s eventually released on conventional CD in early 2008. So with no time to waste, let’s tune in to hear what they have to say.
Seven weeks after launching In Rainbows as a digital download, are you now pleased with the way it all went?
PHIL: Well, we went into it not knowing what to expect at all. We hadn’t even decided on the approach to it – or at least finished the approach to it – until a week beforehand. So we sat there a couple of days beforehand, wondering if anybody was going to be interested. We also stood to lose quite a bit of money if nobody paid for it, because we have to pay per download as well. So you know, it felt quite risky going into it.
What was the average price paid per download?
PHIL: HHmmm... not too sure. Some people paid nothing for it, but lots of others paid a fair price. But I think it’s been a success in as much as it’s excited us about the process of releasing a record. It’s taken us out of the conventional process of delivering the record three months ahead of time, doing all your pre-press and everything, and worrying about whether it’s going to be leaked over the next three months and then coming out. So that’s been great.
But also, we’ve come into the conventional stage of it now with a proper CD coming out. So the knock-on effect of it all is that it makes that bit of it much more exciting as well.
Was it a ‘eureka’ moment in the studio where somebody sort of said “Hey, let’s let the fans decided the price themselves”?
COLIN: Do you mean how did the idea happen? That was it, really. Well, the managers came in and told us they had an idea about putting something out through download. Originally we thought about not having a CD as well – just doing a download. But that was really the start and the end of the idea. There wasn’t anything else to it than that.
Did you miss the physical object side of things? You know, finally holding the finished album in your hands?
PHIL: We always knew that we were planning to do the discbox with it. And a lot of care and thought went into putting that together. But I think each of us individually probably had different views on that, but there is something....it feels valid once you’ve got it there in your hands. And also there’s a sense that we wanted the music to reach as many people as possible – as were interested – and if you’re doing a download and just a discbox then you’re cutting out a whole section of people, really. Not everybody’s going to want to download.
COLIN: Not everybody has wasted their lives in front of computers like we’ve done. Not everybody wants to do that, I would say. Probably the good common-sense majority of people (smiles). I’ve got loads of friends who haven’t got it – either because they heard a bit of it and thought it was crap, or because they’re waiting for it to come out on CD. Probably for them not buy it then either.
PHIL: Actually, we should tie it in with Tescos and have the thing online next time, shouldn’t we?
COLIN: What? You mean like a delivery? You order your groceries online and you can get the record delivered? Hmmmm....why not/ Yeah, that could really work. Ha ha!
It took you three years to make this album. Why such a long delay?
COLIN: Well, it only took nine months to make, but it took two and a half years of planning and....preamble.
It was rumoured that the band came close to splitting up in that period...
COLIN: Well I think as close as anyone would come to questioning what it is they’re doing if it takes so long without any type of direction or focus. I would say, really. At least until we met Nigel one night.
Did he kick your asses into gear?
COLIN: No, he more sort of gently cosseted them.
You initially began the recording with Mark ‘Spike’ Stent producing, didn’t you?
PHIL: Yeah. There’s a process that started working with Spike. Up to that point, I think we’d been really insecure in what we were doing. We wouldn’t play anything to anybody. We’ve pretty good quality control between us, but you never really commit to stuff until you actually start playing it to other people. So the whole process of having Spike come into the studio with us, listening to some stuff and saying, “No, you’ve got something there – it’s just falling short a bit, and not good enough at the moment.” So last year was very much a case of actually raising our standards again and finding focus which had been lacking.
Is any of Spike’s production work actually on the finished album?
PHIL: No, but he was part of the process and it was great that he really moved us along. We eventually arrived at a fairly natural decision that Nigel was the best person to be working with here.
COLIN: We wound up waiting for Nigel to finish working with Beck and Charlotte Gainsbourg. As soon as he’d finished with them, he went to work with us. I think we realised how important he is to us, because he comes from the same sort of place we come from, and has the same sort of frustrations and ambitions. And he’s fantastic – the best.
I get the impression that a lot of discussion goes into your music. Do you have many days in the studio where nobody actually picks up an instrument.
PHIL: Yeah, you can go through these great periods without actually playing anything. I don’t know if a day in the studio would go by without somebody doing something but, yeah, you can get lost in endless conversations about it.
Thom Yorke has previously described the bands internal dynamics as operating like the UN – and he’s America. Has that changed?
PHIL: Well, there are democratic processes within Radiohead. I think for Thom it’s been an interesting process because in the months of preamble time, when we were working, he was doing The Eraser. So it was a very streamlined process, where initially he and Nigel were making all the decisions about it – and then you throw it open to a group of people, which actually can become a rather cumbersome process. And you know you’re in it for the long run when it goes to that process.
COLIN: Well, the analogy you cite is that it’s like America, but people would argue that perhaps America doesn’t realise that it’s in their interests to be involved in multilateral discussions in an organisation like the UN. So it doesn’t really mean anything.
Has there ever been a punch thrown in the studio?
COLIN: No there hasn’t , actually. Funny – a friend of mine works with U2, and when we were making this record I used to talk to him a lot. He said the big difference between Irish bands and English bands is that, with Irish bands – like U2 – if something happens it’ll come to a head and they’ll kill each other and then the dust settles and the air is cleared. Whereas with the English bands, there’s more of a sort of simmering resentment that lasts for about three months (laughs). So I would think probably the U2 model would be more productive long term – but short term a bit scary.
You previously described the band as ‘the E.M Forster of rock’
COLIN: No, I never said that! I’ve only read two books by him so I wouldn’t have said that.
PHIL: It was Howard’s End you were talking about, not Howard’s Way.
You’ve been in Radiohead for more than half your lives...
COLIN: I know, it’s scary!
PHIL: A lot’s happened but you do get that creeping feeling sometimes that (whispers) not that much has changed really. Ha ha! It’s kind of what we’re fighting against in the studio. In some ways, because we’ve known each other such a long time there’s a lot of baggage that goes along with that.
COLIN: Yeah, but the problem is that a lot of that baggage is what’s made you successful. And my problem is the increasing responsibilities you have outside the group. Speaking personally, when you’re working, you don’t think about anything other than the work. Historically, that’s been very successful. But when you start sort of thinking about what you’re doing and defining it by your life outside the music then everything starts to feel a lot more tenuous and hard to justify.
You’ve all got children now. Do you take your families on tour?
PHIL: Some do and some don’t. (shrugs)
COLIN: Yeah – it depends on who and when and where, really. It’s not like a commune. It’s not like it’s someone’s turn to cook the lentils and stuff for all the other families. And it’s not like a boys’ gang thing either.
PHIL: It’s funny because when the band’s been going for over 20 years, of course your life has moved through all these different phases and there’s always different elements to weigh up within that as well, but there’s always a fairly constant thread of commitment to what we do as a band.
Do you see yourself as celebrities?
PHIL: No, I don’t think so. I’m a member of Radiohead – just a musician, really.
Can you walk around without being recognised?
PHIL: Yeah. The fact that we haven’t been in videos for about 10 years now has probably helped.
COLIN: It was a terrible, terrible decision in terms of the band’s image that we haven’t been in videos. The offers would have been flooding in if we had.
Though you appeared briefly in the last Harry Potter movie, didn’t you, Phil?
PHIL: Yeah, I got to go to Hogworts (beams widely with childlike glee). I probably passed it off as something I did for my kids, but really it was for me. It was great fun.
COLIN: Yeah, didn’t you feature on the outtakes of the extras bit of the DVD or something?
PHIL: Oh go on, Greenwood, go on! Ruin it for me, why don’t you?
COLIN: No, seriously, I can’t remember. Are you actually in the film or are you just fleetingly in the DVD extras bit?
PHIL: So what have you done in the last few years, Greenwood? Eh?
[A brief slagging match ensues, at the end of which Colin turns to HotPress and says, “Now imagine this kind of dialogue over musical tastes. It can get pretty fucking ugly. U2 look out!”]
Do you still take calls for The Samaritans, Phil?
PHIL: I don’t, no. I stopped that about two or three years ago. I’d done it for about 17 years and it felt like a natural point to stop.
How long were the shifts?
PHIL: Usually three and a half hours for a day shift – and up to 10 hours at night. But I think anything like that when you’ve got a young family and you’ve got a demanding job as well, there’s only so much you can do.
You’ve spoken previously about the influence and support of your old music teacher at Abingdon School, Terence Gilmore-Jones. Has he heard the new album?
PHIL: I don’t think he has heard this one yet. I don’t think he’s got the download thing yet. I’m gonna send him a discbox when it comes out. But he’s very proud of what we do.
Is it true that your headmaster at Abingdon once sent you a bill for usin the school’s music rehersal rooms at the weekend?
COLIN: Yes, he did. Sixty quid! We used the upstairs music room on a Sunday for a rehearsal and he sent the bill to Terry. So Terry went to see the headmaster in high dudgeon and tore it up in front of him. What a stupid thing to do! Not ripping it up, but sending it in the first place.
But it’s so ridiculous, isn’t it? What was good for me about our old school was we did all the plays and after-school stuff, and you learnt how to work with other people in an organised way, and make things happen that weren’t on the curriculum, for yourself. I think that was really good for us as a group that we were able to carry on that energy and use it for ourselves.
There’s another parallel with U2 there, isn’t there? They also formed at school.
COLIN: Yeah. It’s one of those things that the older you get the more you realise how cool it was. To be the school band. And we were the school band.
Have you read any of the six biographies written about Radiohead?
COLIN: No way! The pictures are bad enough! So....no. Have you read any of them?
No – the pictures put me off! But do you own any of them?
COLIN: No, don’t think so. I’ve got a cardboard box in the loft with some old t-shirts in it, though, from about 1992. And Jonny’s got some old photographs that he took when we started, in the backs of vans. Thom with a roll-up, drinking cups of tea. But that’s about it.
You’re not really interested in the celebrity side of things, are you?
PHIL: It’s been interesting how....that side of it serves it’s purpose, doesn’t it? And having watched the response to the idea of a download and then seeing what’s being written about the music as well, after that, I think it’s great. But personally I don’t define myself by that. I would hope. I think you try and keep a healthy distance from that anyway. I think the points where we’ve probably been at the most unstable as a group of people has been when we were at the centre of that kind of thing.
PHIL: Like OK Computer. That is your life – it’s what you live and breathe. So inevitably you do have some funny values creeping in then. But I hope I’ve distanced myself a bit from that now.
When you first started out, the NME called you a ‘lily-livered excuse for a rock band’.
PHIL: And they were right!
COLIN: Oh, I don’t know about that! There were some good shows!
PHIL: Yeah, there were some good shows. But we were kind of aspirational, really.
COLIN: So people were putting us down for trying to be better than we were at the time? Fuckers! It was probably another bunch of public schoolboys writing it.
PHIL: It was Keith Cameron.
COLIN: Not that you remember!! Haha!
PHIL: Not that it doesn’t.....BURN DEEP!!!!
Does criticism bother you generally?
COLIN: I think Thom really responds well to adversity or something to kick against, really. He finds that quite defining – or has done in the past. I’m not quite so sure now. But I’d say initially. Possibly.
Thom has a reputation as a bit of a moody bastard. Is he easy to work with?
COLIN: Yeah. In some ways he’s totally easy, and in other ways he’s totally difficult.
PHIL: We all have our foibles.
COLIN: When we work on something and it sounds good or goes well, and he responds to something you’re making, then it’s very cool. But if it’s not happening then it certainly gets difficult. I dunno. It’s like anything, when you make something. A lot of the time you can’t tell at all until a period of time has passed whether it’s any good anyway.
Are you a hard partying band when you’re touring?
PHIL: Not really, no.
Are you marijuana smokers?
COLIN: No, we sort of tried doing that when we were doing OK Computer – a bit at the beginning of the sessions. You just end up really enjoying listening to Underworld tracks or Magical Mystery Tour or ‘I am the Walrus’ on the studio hi-fi. Then you start to work and it just doesn’t really work.
How about during the ‘90s? Did you try ecstasy or acid?
PHIL: Speaking personally, no.
COLIN: I want to try out mushrooms but there’s this film out called Shrooms. It’s put me off them.
Have you seen it?
COLIN: No, I saw the trailer on YouTube and I was like.....oooohhhh. So no, I’ve never done any of that.
Do any band members practise religion?
COLIN: Well we never talk about politics or religion......or the Queen....when we have dinner when we’re working.
PHIL: We stick to sports. Or food!
COLIN: What do we talk about? I dunno. The conversation used to be quite apocalyptic while we were doing OK Computer and Kid A and Amnesiac. But it’s not really like that anymore.
Well, that old lyric “Ice Age coming” seems to be contradicted now that there’s going to be no ice...
COLIN: Well, it’s still a possibility if the jet stream changes because of global warming. But what do we talk about now? Emmm...
[There publicist enters the room and announces that HotPress’ allotted time is up]
Just before I go, what’s been the most rock & roll moment of the band’s career?
COLIN: My favourite night was one of the HotPress’ Awards. That was a fucking brilliant night. With Tim from Ash. He came up and he asked us if we liked rock and roll music or something – and then he went to his room and vomited everywhere. It was really cool. That was my most rock and roll thing. It was really great. Oh, and one time Ed met this....
PHIL: ENOUGH, GREENWOOD! ENOUGH! (Laughs)