An audience with Jonny Greenwood
The Radiohead guitarist and soundtrack composer takes questions on computer games, unusual instruments and raising chickens: "Lots of burials to do..."
WE'VE RECEIVED a record haul of questions for Jonny Greenwood. Hundreds, in fact, asking the Radiohead guitarist and soundtrack composer about everything from the welfare of his chickens to rather intense inquiries about the effects pedals he used on early Radiohead B-sides. Ostensibly here to discuss his latest soundtrack, for Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, The Master, Greenwood is also happy to reminisce about his teenage years as a viola player in the Thames Vale Youth Orchestra, tell us about his favourite current computer games and update us on the status of specific unreleased Radiohead tracks.
“We have a long history of writing songs and having them hang around unrecorded for years,” he explains.
Now, on with your questions
STAR QUESTION: How did you get into writing soundtracks? And how does it differ from writing pop songs? As you can guess, I'm jealous of your new calling...
Matt Bellamy, Muse
It's just a different way of collaborating with people - like being in a band with a director. And a bunch of images and stories instead of drummers and bass players. It’s fun! Don't be jealous. Plus, you and I would only ever get to see the most pampered side of the job. Composers who do it properly all the time aren't treated too well - on many films they're ranked way below, say, make-up in order of importance, and not given much freedom to try things out. I was just offered a ﬁlm because they had to “let go” of their current composer and I think that happens a lot - in fact. I probably came close during the scoring for The Master. I kept adding jazz ﬂute. Paul kept sending me pictures of Ron Burgundy.
How did you begin your collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson? What attracted you to his ﬁlms?
Shane Rubano, Ithaca. NY
He found some bootleg recordings of some of my orchestral stuff. And tried it on a few early scenes for There Will Be Blood - then he asked for more. He's enthusiastic about music, he came to the strings’ recording day in Abbey Road and we were both buzzing about being that close to an orchestra.
What was the first guitar you bought and which was the first song you learned?
Nicolas Gauna, Buenos Aires. Argentina
I bought a Fender acoustic for £40 from a “for sale” column in the Oxford Journal when l was about 14, then an electric one from my teacher when l was 16. I still have the acoustic, but the electric one was stolen in Leeds on the first Radiohead tour (at the Duchess Of York, I think... it was a cream Telecaster if anyone's seen it). I don't remember working out many songs by other bands - maybe “Psycho Killer" by Talking Heads. There was a tiny guitar room at school where teenagers hung out playing each other U2 songs - but I never had any U2 records.
Any Idea why the soundtrack for We Need to Talk about Kevin was never released? And will it eventually see the light of day?
Laura Taylor. Penge
It wasn't long enough. There were a few pretty steel-strung harp things but the rest of it was mostly laptop- generated stuff broadcast to, and recorded from an old LW radio... It's good in the film but not exactly Raiders Of The Lost Ark on its own.
STAR QUESTION: Do you write “rock” songs as well as modern classical meltdowns like There Will Be Blood?
I'm hamstrung by having no singing ability at all - so aside from a few guitar chord sequences I can't really write songs. As for classical stuff, I find it pretty pleasurable at the moment working on paper - it's a bit like ﬁlm photography. Because there's this long delay between having the idea and seeing if it comes out right. Weeks of work and it all comes down to one afternoon's performance which is the first time you get to know what it sounds like.
How are the chickens doing?
Matthew Windham. Missoula, Montana
They're OK — thanks for asking. Pretty good layers. Eggs taste great. Would you like a half-dozen? We get foxes every few years and it all goes a bit crime-scene when that happens - lots of burials to do. The foxes tend to take just one or two and just kill the rest.
The four new songs debuted on the current Radiohead tour are excellent. But can you tell us what plans there are for unreleased fan favourites like “The Present Tense”, “Burn The Witch”. “Open The Floodgates” and “Big Boots", please?
Nicolas Ormbrek. via email
We have a long history of writing songs and having them hang around unrecorded for years. "Nude" was a pretty old song - so was “The Daily Mail". Sometimes it just sounds right during rehearsals for a recording, and so we record it. Other times it sounds all wrong. I hope we'll get round to some of those - especially “Burn The Witch” and “Present Tense”, which could be great, if we get the arrangements sorted out.
What are your favourite computer games right now?
Kaspar Oja, Estonia
I'm among friends here, right? Well… we're touring so I'm limited to Mac laptop games. It isn't the best platform for gaming, as I'm sure you know. Or would know, if you were a nerdy gamer. l ﬁnished Portal 2 on the first American tour - which was perfect, because all those sports arenas are exactly like Portal test chambers: dark corridors, gigantic windowless concrete boxes: it was a confusing time going from Portal and back to reality. Good game, though! I'd gone off FPS games, but was missing the exploration side of those games - so the two Portals were just right for me. What else? Limbo's a good game. Ski Safari is very well written. So is Plants Vs Zombies. And I've just started to go through Braid for the second time… love the time-shifting idea. Really makes my how ache.
Other than the ondes Martenot, what unusual instruments are you fond of?
Amy Brown, via email
I'm mindful that some bands retreat into collecting musical gear as a way of avoiding any actual songwriting/ composing – endless discussions about weird old keyboards. It becomes about the sound of things rather than what is done with them: so I've just got to stop looking for new things to play. And instead learn to play the ondes Martenot properly. It deserves far more of my time than I give it.
What’s your opinion on the decision to decline you a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for There Will Be Blood just because you included some older compositions in it?
Allen Gallagher, Paisley
The bigger kick was just getting the job, and then that very happy day recording the strings in London – nothing was going to top that. Anyway, I have a Kermode Award, which I'm very proud of, even if it does look like a seven-year-old made it with plasticine and gold spray.
You recently said in an interview you thought the guitar was “old-fashioned”. Can you clarify? Technically, aren’t orchestras and the ondes Martenot more old-fashioned...?
Paul Miano, Portsmouth, VA
I know, I know – this is the contradiction going round in my head the whole time. So basically, you reject all of them as out-dated...or treat all of them as equals. I'll take the latter. I guess I was just pointing out how traditional it's become to form a guitar band - they're not quite Dixieland jazz bands, but it's getting that way. Look at covers of the Melody Maker from the’20s, the'60s and then NME today - it goes: banjos, guitar bands...guitar bands. Maybe there’s no other way of making exciting live music with a small group, and certainly the bones of it –playing a guitar in a room with a drummer-is utterly satisfying. But then I‘m happy to accept that a fucking ondes Martenot isn’t much of a step forward. So…still working on that one. Caribou are rather amazing—and are very much a band—so good new things can still be done with people hitting things.
STAR QUESTION: Does humour belong in music?
It’s funny to get this question after one from Malkmus. His lyrics prove it does, and are some of the only ones I can quote off by heart: “…tell me off in the hotel lobby, right in front of all the bell-boys, and the over-friendly concierge” – how it’s sung, how it’s phrased, the melody… perfect.
What do you remember of your teenage years as a viola player in the Thames Vale Youth Orchestra – and when was the last time you played one?
Nick Claiden, Whitby, N Yorks
It was the first time I heard a full orchestra play, so it was a special time for me. We used to practise at Larkmead School in Abingdon. I remember being impressed hearing this room full of strings all playing in tune (unlike school orchestras…). Mind you, I soon put a stop to that from the back of the violas. I only just managed to get in - it helped that I was playing the unloved viola. The director had us play lots of Sibelius, and I still listen to his music, the violin concerto being a pretty good way into classical stuff when you’re a kid. I stopped playing in orchestras when we signed to EMI and started touring.
How many effects pedals have you go, and what’s your favourite?
Antoine Charie, Lyons
Seven or eight? I like the ones that do a simple thing well, like shift pitch, or freeze audio. I’m not that interested in the fiddly stuff… different types of distortion pedals – all hat. During the Hail To The Thief sessions I went through a period of only using clean, un-effected guitar sounds - it was a bit self-defeating and hair-shirty, but I wanted to try and avoid relying too heavily on pedals, and see if I could come up with interesting things without them.
What is it about Penderecki that’s influenced you more than, say, Stockhausen and Cage?
Jared Nagle, San Francisco
Well... the interesting thing about Penderecki is that he learnt all about electronic music in the ‘60s – and then took that knowledge into orchestration, using it to get much stranger sounds and textures than anyone else could get with synths. An orchestra playing his abstract stuff is a weirder thing to sit in front of than most things you’ll hear out of a couple of speakers. Try and see a concert if you can. The first symphony is a good start.