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The radical reinvention of Radiohead
With OK Computer, Radiohead recorded one of the landmark albums of the '90s. Three years later they return with Kid A - a chilling, minimal, electronic masterpiece that dumps the past and reinvents the band. In this exclusive interview, Mike Gee chats with guitarist Ed O'Brien about what is arguably one of the most dramatic shifts in the history of popular music.

Kid A. Who the hell is Kid A? And what's this ambient, electronic, neo-avant barely rock, oozing through speakers? Talk about dazed and confused. "God, what have Radiohead done?" pondered one headline lugubriously. "Why... why this?" asked another critic. A perfectly romantic answer would be something like the unbearable darkness of being.

Actually, it's got a lot more to do with challenge and change. Radiohead, you see, have just gone and proved that they don't give a damn about commercial music, about record company wants, about singles, radio and music television. They've just gone and spiked the lot.

Grammy, NME, Ivor Novello, Radio One, Q and Rolling Stone award winners for perhaps the most celebrated album - and/or its associated singles and videos - of the '90s, OK Computer (it's only real contender is Nirvana's Nevermind), Radiohead could have sat back and lapped up the kudos while watching the cash roll in.

Then, just as easily, they could have popped into the studio eased out a few more titanic guitar rock anthems and ballads in the mould of "Paranoid Android", "Karma Police", "No Surprises", and sold another eight or 10 million albums. Lead singer and songwriter, Thom Yorke, could also have ensured his ascension to saintliness by angelically singing self-analytical songs about the foibles of being human and dealing with those nasty emotions which he defined so perfectly on "Creep" - the ultimate '90s anthem of self-loathing - a millstone he's never escaped since.

It was never going to happen. Radiohead have no interest in preserving the status quo: OK Computer was such a smash precisely because it dared to be different. In the then world of 1997 with its boy and girl bands, Brit pop and second phase US bubblegum punk, Radiohead produced towering sonic landscapes through which Yorke - and that voice - weaved a strange maggic. "I saw God," declared an Australian critic after seeing them in concert. And it was easy to understand what he was talking about. OK Computer became a religious experience, a hymn to the burden of being human.

More than three years after OK Computer's release, Kid A presents a panorama few could have predicted. It's a brooding, heavily emotional, slightly-chilled, coruscating vision way beyond the threshold of the dream - and what is acceptable and what is not. Inspired loosely by the pulsating Krautrock of '70s legends Neu, Can and Faust, embracing the dictates of ambience defined by Brian Eno on his Music For Airports and touching on drum'n'bass, post-rock and even the Americana of Wilco, Sparklehorse and Grandaddy, Kid A is, for the most part, a darkly moving electronic masterpiece. A symphony for a new millennium caught in a struggle for dominance between man and machine.

Guitarist Ed O'Brien is in London: he hardly sounds like a man caught on the edge of an emotional abyss. In fact, he's about as down-to-earth as they come, nattering comfortably about the recent struggle between the record companies and Napster over the cans and can'ts of downloadable music, and a seven-day visit to Sydney in April to see his sister, during which he swam daily in the Globe pool and followed that up with a cappuccino on the quick sip strip.

He recalls with amusement hearing rock station Triple J serving up its greatest hits formula as he sat back and enjoyed his coffee and swears that on three days he heard "Creep", sandwiched between staples from the US and Australian big rock pit. It reminded him of what his band had escaped. "And I'm glad we did," he says.

O'Brien chuckles at the suggestion that Kid A will freak out a decent proportion of Radiohead's fans. He isn't concerned or apologetic.

"It's funny," he says. "Obviously, it was a very conscious decision not to go down the same route we'd travelled before. In retrospect I don't think OK Computer sounded that much different to The Bends but this one does - it's a lot more textural and unlike anything we've done before.

"What I think it comes down to is the methodology. Often the sound of your record is a by-product of the way you set it up and make it. What happened with The Bends and OK Computer was that we'd rehearse the new songs for a month and then, because we were touring a lot, we'd often play four or five new songs a night during the set or at soundcheck. By the time we got to the studio they were pretty well rehearsed and it was just a matter of getting the right performance.

"This one was completely different. "How To Disappear Completely" is the only song that harks back to OK Computer - a two week session we did for that album and we should have recorded it then. The rest of the tracks we conceived and developed in this very unstructured atmosphere. And we have, until now, been very structured people and very ordered with a certain way of doing things.

"We started at the beginning of '99 with a two-week session in Paris, then Copenhagen for another couple of weeks in March. then in April we went to the Gloucestershire countryside; you know, big country house, same as we did for OK Computer. But by the end of the year when we went into our own studio - which had finally been finished - we had about 120 reels of two-inch tape. On each reel is about 15 minutes worth of music and nothing was complete. We've never ever worked that way. It's like that spinning plates routine where you start with one and all of a sudden there a lots of them spinning.

"For the human mind to take that all in is nearly impossible and for us, desperately trying to seek some order in the chaos, it was... " He can't find a word for it. "Songs would evolve over a year. They'd be started one year and finished a year later. Because there were so many songs it would be like 'Oh we haven't looked at that for five months, put that on' and we'd have to get back into that song's headspace.

"We also spent a lot of time just throwing stuff at tracks. Stream of consciousness stuff and whatever idea we had. You see, with the technology nowadays and the ProTools program, you can edit this stuff much quicker than ever before. In terms of recording, ProTools is absolutely revolutionary in terms of what it can do. That in itself was another reason it took so long to do the album: we were learning about recording and how to use the program and technology."

The record is all the better for it. The sound at times is epic. So vast that is impossible to take in all that is happening in one listening. Yet this time, there is a depth rather than a density which adds a clarity that is almost overwhelming. It is very easy to get lost in the depths of Kid A. Space really is the final frontier. Again, part of Kid A's challenge to the listener is not only the change in style but also the way the sound is structured. Gone are the formal notions of verse and chorus; gone are the upfront guitars, big riffs and slowly building introductions. On Kid A, the guitars and keyboards flit and swim, curling and uncurling, evolving, changing and disappearing. Rarely, does the six-string dominate.

"That has something to do with letting the song come first," O'Brien says. "It's not imposing your ego on the song. You know when you've got something very good and you have to say to yourself, 'Okay, I don't mind the back blocks'. The difficult thing is for a young band when they go in to mix an album and it's 'Oh, can you stick me louder'. And they all want to be louder. One of the great things we do is anti-attention seeking. That's what we were trying to do on OK Computer. We even tried to do it on The Bends although it might not sound like it. With us the little things are what we spend the most time over and get most excited about.

"We also thought a lot about the use of guitar. On OK Computer, because a lot of songs began with a guitar, you immediately found yourself down a cul-de-sac. What happens is that in terms of adding tones and colours to a song, if you sample a guitar you can only go a certain way. I've yet to hear a great guitar record with great programming on it. OK Computer was a guitar record. On this one, a lot of songs started off as programmed - you know, drum machines. If you do that the permutations are bigger. You can add loads more samples. We always wanted to have a lot of keyboards but they never seemed to fit. This time, everything starts off in a different area and sure there are bits of guitar but they don't necessarily sound like guitar.

"What's the trademark of OK Computer? The lead guitar from Jonny [Greenwood]. There's no lead guitar from Jonny on Kid A."

And they make that clear from the opening notes on "Everything In Its Right Place". Whether it's an intentional statement O'Brien doesn't say but as most of what Radiohead does is considered then the implication is obvious. What it and the following two tracks have in common though is Yorke's electronically altered voice. Despite that, "Everything In Its Right Place" opens the album on a semi-religious note. It's almost hymnal, certainly hypnotic, intensely atmospheric and mood-based. Yorke's voice slips'n'slides as you pick out fragments: "There are colours in my head... "; "What was that you tried to say?" It's guaranteed to destroy any preconceptions about Radiohead anybody may have left.

If it doesn't, the title track "Kid A" will: opening on a piano and rolling into a gentle mood rhythm that wouldn't be out of place on a Kid Loco album, the feel is turned on its ear by Yorke's distorted vocals. Now it's creepy, clown-like, a sideshow for freaks and emotional obsessives that becomes even more so as beats pitter patter through the gentle ambience that ebbs and flows. And those vocals. Contrarily, a major drum beat enters - to end the song.

"It was the only way to begin the album," O'Brien says. "'Everything is dark' and moody and atmospheric and shows our intent. It states that this band has changed. 'Kid A' then follows that up perfectly: it hasn't got a defined structure. In fact, it doesn't have any verse or chorus. It evens sounds weird to my ears.

"The vocal parts are really interesting because it's the first album that we - as a band - haven't been aware of what Thom's singing about. He didn't talk about his lyrics. He's very conscious of moving on and evolving and felt that he had become pigeon-holed lyrically. He wanted to move away from the melancholic/uplifting style of singing and the kind of lyrics he can write so easily."

"The National Anthem" goes a step further to underscoring the band's determination to ignore convention by opening on a bass line which finds company from the drums that echo in a massive space. Quasi-ambient psychedelic rock, the heritage of Neu claws out of the rhythmic mist as Yorke's treated vocals postulate his loneliness; your, my, everybody's aloneness. What happens next is quite extraordinary as a sax barks in and the track assumes - completely unintentionally, O'Brien says, although he's rather happy it does - the sound of a Morphine free-for-all with the bass running that peculiar choppy, fat, Morphine rhythm and the sax so Dana Colley it's creepy. It ends with a burst of the national anthem.

"Can and Neu are a big influence," he admits. "For all of us bands like Can and, particularly, Neu were our most common ground. They were the one thing we could all agree on and say this is bloody brilliant and something special. We loved all those things Neu did like that effect of sound disappearing down a hole. I mean, they were serious tokers. We're actually doing Can's 'The Thief' as one of the two cover versions we're doing on tour." By the time you get to the perfect ambience of the Enoesque "Treepages", the gentle weirdness of "In Limbo" and the extraordinary "Idioteque", the band's coruscating take on drum'n'bass that mixes sampled sound and drones with syndrums (O'Brien says everybody hates it when they first hear the album but then grow to love it ), most listeners will be either contemplating when they'll have time to trade Kid A or erecting a shrine and kneeling in worship of the band. There will be much lathering and blathering to come.

Yorke's presence on Kid A is fascinating. Born with his right eye closed and paralysed - which must have had some effect on his psyche - it would be easy to make a case for his immediate placement in care, so low has he apparently sunk. On the harmonium-drenched and desperately moving album closer, "Motion Picture Soundtrack", he sings "Cheap sex and sad films help me get were I belong". And "I think he calls me. Maybe. I think he calls me crazy. Maybe." Elsewhere he echoes "I've lost my way", or on "How To Disappear Completely" runs the full gamut of "That there. That's not me/I'll go where I please"; "I'm not here, this isn't happening"; "In a little while I'll be gone".

However, there is a twist. O'Brien explains, "Interestingly, the lyrics for 'Motion Picture Soundtrack' were written six or seven years ago. John Leckie [producer] wanted us to record that song for The Bends: 'Can't we record that crazy song?' he would say. Lyrically, there's lot of stream of consciousness stuff that's gone on and that relates back to why the vocals were treated so heavily. Why Thom wanted to do that so much. The way he wrote and sang on The Bends - that purity of spirit, so angelic, he hates that now - and he will do anything but sing like that. In a way he knows that the thing most people love is when he sings like that. But that's not good enough for him. He wants to attain so much more.

"He just keeps moving and he's also an auto-didact. He takes an idea deals with it and then takes on another one. It'll be interesting to see what conclusions people draw from his lyrics because, as I said, we really don't know what he's singing about - we've all drawn our own conclusions aas well."

To ensure that the severance from the past is complete, Radiohead has decided that there will be no singles (and associated videos) lifted from Kid A. They will tour select venues in England and Europe with a Big Tent rather than play normal arenas and large halls.

"It's a great concept," O' Brien says with reservations. "It's going to be wonderful to play under but the peripheries are rather daunting. The cost,the number of crew we have to have, and wondering whether we are going to be hoist by our own petard.

"We're doing nothing at the moment that is vaguely safe or the way we've done things in the past. We've really turned everything on its head which is great and incredibly liberating but a little scary still. We're not releasing any singles because to do so would ruin this record. Besides, the climate with all these pop groups hasn't got anything to do with us - so why be part of it or even try to be part of it. We're trying to do our own thing. We feel so far removed from most of that stuff that goes on - it's more about marketing budgets than anything else and, of course, the record company trying to sell an album off the singles. This album would never sell off a single, and there isn't one on it anyway. It is an album and we want it to be treated as that.

"Hopefully, people will know by now that when they get an album by us it's not like three, four or five singles and a heap of fillers. Ironically, I think a lot of what we've done post-'Creep' has been a subconscious reaction to it, so our one and only real single and hit single is probably directly responsible for the music we've made ever since."

Frankly, it gave them the creeps - and thank heavens it did.