FITTER, HAPPIER, MORE PRODUCTIVE
THEY MADE THE 'ALBUM OF THE DECADE' AND ARE HERALDED AS THE SAVIOURS OF MUSIC. IN A WORLD EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW LAUREN ZORIC DELVES INTO THE MIND OF RADIOHEAD'S SINGER, WRITER AND MISERABILIST, THOM YORKE, AND THE MAKING OF KID A.
No one in the latte belt of Cowley Street, Oxford, pays the slightest attention to Thom Yorke as he walks up the street from his house, army disposal canvas bag over one grey jumpered shoulder, and takes a seat in the cafe window. When he waves to friends who pass by, it's an easy gesture, unmarked by the usual self-consciousness of rock stars. He's smaller than you think - pale skinned, gingery facial hair making his features seem like a baby's. He rubs his face with his hands while he thinks, massaging thoughts into shape. My fear is that Thom Yorke - the most elusive man in rock - will be closed off and difficult. Instead, he is extremely generous. Yorke wants to talk; he's an articulate, fluid conversationalist, and there's much to ask.
..... By the end of his first interview in several years, we're chatting about Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (he hasn't seen it, but seemed intrigued that some of Radiohead's new songs made me think of it), his obsession over WWII history, the cover art of Kid A, inspired by accounts of the snow-capped Kosovo mountain range appearing to be on fire. Yorke speaks from a reserve of hard-won wisdom, leavened by moments of sheer glee when discussing the music that inspires him and darkened by glimpses of the turmoil that almost finished him.
..... It's been a rollercoaster rise on the back of the novelty hit, "Creep", the second album, The Bends (which had unanimous critical praise and earned them the envy and esteem of their fellow artists) to the breakthrough of OK Computer, which launched a legion of copycat bands. Now they, like the Rolling Stones or Nirvana or Guns N Roses before them, are the market leaders.
..... "If you spend your life being a creative person and expend energy on regretting stuff you've done before, you are so fucked," Yorke offers, like a warning. "Because it will cramp you up and you'll never be able to work again. Because I think I skirted around the edges of that for a while. Quite a while." A pause. The singer is discussing the ramifications of the world's most important guitar band using principally electronic instruments on their new album. It's a dilemma that has made his life a misery of late.
..... Were you honestly that unhappy? He laughs, embarrassed (possibly for me) and squirms around. "That sounds like an MTV question."
..... What I want to say is, seriously, you're a worry.
..... "I was a complete fucking mess!" comes the unexpectedly straightfoward reply. "When OK Computer finished, yeah. I mean, really, really ill."
..... Do you know why?
..... "Just going a certain way for a long, long time, and not being able to stop or look back or consider where I was. For, like, 10 years. Not being able to connect with anything. Becoming completely unhinged, in the best sense of the word."
..... But you don't seem like that now.
..... "No," he half-smiles. "It took a while." A long pause. We'll get back to that.
Ever since Radiohead, five Oxford-based college friends - singer/guitarist Thom Yorke, guitarist/keyboardist Jonny Greenwood, his brother, bassist Colin, guitarist Ed O'Brien and drummer Phil Selway - hit the international stage with the overwhelming success of "Creep" from their debut album, Pablo Honey, in 1993, their success has threatened to engulf them.
..... The precedents were all there, Nirvana had imploded with gruesome poignancy, bigger bands like U2 or the Smashing Pumpkins threatened to drown in their own self-importance. But Radiohead responded in 1995 with The Bends, an album that people were still talking about 12 months after its release. With its powerful songs of self-disgust ("Just"), world-weary depression ("Fake Plastic Trees") and bruised, tender entreaties for love ("Street Spirit"), Greenwood's shimmering guitar-scapes and Yorke's sometimes almost supernatural wails were the bedroom soundtrack for loneliness and frustration in a world where disconnection has become the darkly ironic downside of unprecedented mass communication.
..... Two years later, OK Computer led by the sprawling, uncommercial seven-minute single "Paranoid Android" nevertheless sold upwards of 4.5 million copies. Lit at one end of the guitar spectrum by the affecting acoustic ballad "Karma Police" that would have entire stadiums singing along, and at the other by raucous maelstroms like the politically unflinching "Electioneering", OK Computer daringly flirted with a new palette of electronic sounds, prompting critics to crown it best album of the '90s. Radiohead became the most important and influential group on the planet. Meanwhile, the band were struggling internally: the documentary film, Meeting People Is Easy (which cameos Triple J's Richard Kingsmill interviewing Yorke in a Sydney hotel room), shows them having their music reduced to fodder for the PR machine, leaving them to hobble onwards as reluctant, unhappy, media-circus freaks. While this is an all too common complaint amongst the famous, Radiohead - and Yorke in particular - were hounded, because they displayed a human frailty that so many could relate to, as well as for the fact that they'd achieved the near impossible alchemy of untouchable critical favour and massive sales power. They'd done everything right. So why did it end up feeling so sickeningly wrong?
Radiohead's first London show in over two years at the annual Meltdown festival in July was surrounded by intense speculation. In the preceding weeks, gigs in Paris and Barcelona had made the cover of the still extremely powerful music weeklies, hyping the shows as events on a scale with Moses presenting the new commandments for rock bands in the 21st century. NME described Kid A as "the most anticipated comeback in living memory." Desperation for even a note of new music has made them one of Napster's most in-demand downloads, and recordings of the June European gigs were available just hours after the shows.
..... To put it mildly, Meltdown was a spectacular triumph. To everyone's astonishment, the five previously wracked, sullen musicians cracked jokes onstage and Yorke even laughed when "My Iron Lung" suddenly fell apart halfway through. The new songs fluctuated between the aggressive rhythms of "Optimistic" and "Knives Out", monumental constructions that would hurtle into chaotic, urgent cacophonies of wailing guitars, like aeroplanes breaking up in mid-flight, and other songs like the undulating waves of melody and rhythm of "In Limbo" and "Everything In Its Right Place" where Greenwood sampled Yorke's live voice into staccato glitches. Again, Radiohead's midas touch was in joyful abundance.
The hardest thing in the music world is to juggle the magic, qualities of integrity in one had and popular accessibility in the other. Moby nearly did it, but the overkill of having every song from Play licensed to commercials - even though it allows Mute Records to nobly release Add N To (X) records - has meant that the songs have been stripped of their own worth. You can't hear "Porcelain" without thinking of a car ad.
..... And while the end may justify the means, it's still prostitution. It's taken Radiohead more than three years since the release of OK Computer to find ways of making music that still excites them, and to figure out how to exist in the global economy on their own terms. "It's nothing to do with left and right now," Yorke says of the corporatisation of the world political agenda. "I think resistance is quite a good way of putting it. If nothing happened at all, then we would all just bow down to a global economy and willingly watch millions of people die for no fucking good reason." It's extreme, but who isn't aware of the fact that every time you buy an item someone, somewhere has been exploited? When you look around for models and methods to aspire towards, it's pretty slim pickings.
..... Radiohead are doing it like this: the release of Kid A will not be accompanied by any singles, or any videos. Their promotional duties are selective and restrictive (Yorke now harbours a pathological loathing of hotel-room interviews and would have done today's interview in a nearby park had it not rained) and anyway, their website and various 'unofficial but sanctioned' sites already contain just about everything you need to know.
..... Instead, the band have been working on 'blip-verts' which you can download from sites like followmearound.com, 10-40 second videos with sound bites from album tracks, later to be released to media like MTV.
..... "They're just cheap TV ads, they always were cheap TV ads," Yorke describes even his band's own music clips. "I mean, in the context of MTV, although we owe them a lot, the whole MTV thing and what it did to music, it just got way out of hand.
..... "The thing that really did my head in was going home and turning on the TV and the ads for fucking banks and cars being more like MTV videos than the MTV videos, and it seemed like there was nowhere to go. Whatever the new aesthetic was would be in a fucking car advert a week later. Especially Colin, he got obsessed over not making videos and making adverts. Because the ads were more like the videos, so we might as well go straight to the source. You're lying if you're pretending that it's not a product, that you're not trying to sell something. It wasn't like we sat down and said, 'How do we do things differently?' Necessity meant that we had to."
Necessity, as the saying goes, is the mother of invention. When Radiohead started recording songs (of which there are at least another 16, besides the Kid A tracks, a process mentioned in Ed O'Brien's radiohead.com recording diary), they found nothing worked anymore. Their old methods - standing in a room and playing - produced nothing.
..... "You just hear a sound and it doesn't matter what you do, you're not going to respond to it, even though that's what you think you should be doing," says Yorke, still clearly frustrated by the memory of those months.
..... "So when you get to that point, it feels like the ground is being pulled from beneath you and you're just falling through space, and it's a fucking nightmare. I got that early on and they got it afterwards, later, as we were making the record.
..... "It was a nightmare, and it took years, literally, because you feel like you've got nowhere to go and every day you think, 'Well, maybe we should just stop? Maybe there's no point to this,' because all the sounds you made, that made you happy, have been sucked of everything they meant. And it's a total headfuck. And you've got no one to blame."
..... There were fraught jam sessions in Paris and Copenhagen. Then they abandoned their own instruments and learned to use electronic equipment, as a means of rewiring their minds. "You can't just sit in a room together and play like that for the rest of your fucking lives and expect it to be wonderful. It's just not going to happen," says Yorke, philosophically.
..... Jonny Greenwood spent two weeks on his own scoring strings to "How To Disappear Completely", the completion of a circle for him that had been broken when he dropped plans to study classical music at college and joined the band. Yorke hunkered down over the computer to piece together "Kid A", created entirely from digital fragments. Their space gradually developed a dynamic where they could work together, and separately.
..... "We discovered that there are certain tasks that you have to do on your own, but basically, the best stuff comes out of collaboration with other people," says Yorke says. "It's all happening at the same time. In our studio we have everything set up in different areas of the same space, so when things are going on that I'm not interested in I go upstairs with Stanley [Donwood, Yorke's college friend who contributes images, ideas and web ideas to Radiohead] and do stuff.
..... "I end up in our studio collaborating all the time," says Yorke. "Walking into a situation cold and walking out again, that's my role. It makes me really happy because I have such a short attention span, but one of the things I'm good at is being able to spark people off."
Charles Mingus, the great bebop jazz bassist, shone the light that led Thom Yorke out of his wilderness. Specifically The Complete Town Hall Concert. "It was the most formative record of the whole time that I was 'away'," he says, bursting with excitement. He later writes a list of Mingus albums for me to follow up. "I got absolutely obsessed with this record. Our sound guy went out and bought a load of Mingus and when I heard the Town Hall record, I started seeing things, it was really freaky. It's not happened to me very often, but it was immediate. I couldn't even see where I was, barely. It was fucking weird."
..... For "The National Anthem", a track on Kid A shot through with chaotic, pulsating energy, the band set up eight brass musicians in the same way as they appear on the Mingus album.
..... "On the day I said to them, 'You know when you've been in a traffic jam for four hours and if someone says the wrong thing to you, you'll just kill 'em, you'll fucking snap and probably throttle them? You're like this -" he holds a palm millimetres from his face - "with everybody and any tiny spark and you're going to go off, and you're in the midst of two or three hundred other people who are in exactly the same thing. I wanted them to play like that, like, this fucking close to going off, lynching or killing, it's like a mob just about to spark off. Jonny and I were conducting it, and we ran through it a few times and people started to get ideas, and it was such a great day!" he beams. "I broke my foot, actually, because I was jumping up and down so much.
..... "It was great! The bit at the end was my favourite bit, because they said. 'Well, what are we going to do at the end?' And I said, 'I'll go, 1-2-3-4 and you just hit whatever note's in your head as loud as you possibly can.' And that was just the best sound you've ever heard!"
Thom Yorke is trying to navigate a path through the modern world, keeping his sanity and soul intact. He's trying to make sense of his past, be comfortable with himself in the present (ie. Not be paralysed with neuroses), and deal with the demands of an art form that's rooted in a conveyor-belt mentality.
..... "But I wouldn't be involved with it if I wasn't aware that it was going to be a product," he says. "I always wanted whatever I did to end up in the high street, no matter what it was, because to me, there isn't anywhere else to go. It's pointless."
..... If the ambiguity of making highly unique pop music hasn't done his head in, there is always the state of the world. Over more than an hour of conversation, Yorke talks at length about the problems of late-period capitalism. He's not an anarchist, although he did attend the May Day march in London.
..... "I'm a champagne socialist, apparently," he grimaces. "Someone called me that last night; I got into a massive row with this guy. Personally, I was happy to get involved in Jubilee 2000, the Drop The Debt thing, because it's a mainstream, acceptable face of the resistance against the antics of the IMF and the World Bank. But equally, I'm interested in the unacceptable face of it, the disruptive elements, the anarchists, because I don't really care what methods are used to make the IMF and World Bank so incredibly unpopular that they dismantle it. I don't really care how it happens, as long as it happens. That's the point."
..... In the UK media, Thom Yorke has been cast as the miserablist, perpetually on the brink of self-destruction.
..... "By this time I'm supposed to have fucked myself up permanently, or be dead," he says with a smile. "I'm supposed to be so fucked up now that I can't work anymore. You can get precious about things. I just try to go with however I feel at the moment, otherwise I start writing agendas.
..... "Once we finished this record I started being easier on myself, because I understood a little bit better where I was supposed to be. All the way through making Kid A I was faced with the prospect of thinking, 'Maybe it'll never happen.' I managed to get sounds that I wanted out of my head and onto tape as much as we could, and that meant I could be a little bit happier about the place I was at."
..... Fear and being lost recur as big lyrical themes on Kid A. "Hmmm," he considers. "So are you asking me whether the new record is about that?" Well, fear in particular. He inhales deeply.
..... "It's a fear of dying, actually. It's a 30-thing. Most men hit 30 and think, 'Oh my God, I'm not immortal," he smiles bashfully. "Definitely fear of dying on Kid A. A lot of that going on.
..... "I have this house down by the sea and the landscape around it is really harsh, brutal. I used to just go off for the whole day, walking, and just feeling totally like nothing. Thinking I'll be back in the ground as soon as I know it. It's all just corny stuff, and when you sit down and talk about it, it all sounds like complete bollocks.
..... "Fear manifests itself in different ways. I had this thing for a while where I was falling through trapdoors all the time, into like, acid flashbacks. I'd be talking to someone and then I'd be falling through the earth, and it went on for months and months, and it was really weird. And that was all happening towards the end of OK Computer. And that was all linked in with death. Seeing people dead, like, as I'm talking to you… It's okay," he says reassuringly, looking at my shocked face. "I'm better now."
..... And being lost?
..... "I think there's a lot of not really trusting anybody in being lost. I didn't trust people at all, not even the people closest to me for ages and ages, and that means you really have nothing to hold onto. "Everything In Its Right Place' is about that. You're trying to fit into the right place and the right box so you can connect."
..... People dismiss the troubles of 'millionaire pop stars', as though their problems are cancelled out by their bank balance, or have no bearing on like you and me. However, the reason Radiohead are still the most important band on the planet today is that they wrested within the abyss of creative stalemate, personal futility and commercial constraints.
..... I tell Yorke that Radiohead's music makes me feel that being more vulnerable, facing change and not being afraid of chaos and uncertainty, are things I should do more often. That anything less is, well, weak.
..... "I think it's up to you," he replies, gently batting it back over the net. "But if it's encouraging you to be vulnerable, then that's fucking brilliant, isn't it?
A 'Juice' Interview
Radiohead don't much care for the promotional hoopla that goes with releasing a record. In an attempt to distance their music from the more commercial aspects of showbusiness there will be no video clips or singles from their new album, Kid A, for example. And main man Thom Yorke has agreed to only three interviews. Luckily for us, and you, one of those was with JUICE writer Lauren Zoric.
Lauren met with Thom in a busy, noisy (listen to the audio grabs!) cafe in his home town of Oxford to talk about the making of the album, the internet, globalisation, his fear of death and the band's dislike of promotion, among many topics. We've left the transcript pretty much untouched, resisting the remptation to clean up the quotes, because we know how many Radiohead fans will hang on every word.
Lauren Zoric: Webcast playlist -- Autechre, Cristian Vogel. Electronic music on the cutting edge.
Thom Yorke: Yeah, well, it depends where you're standing. There's some shops you go into and they're like, "Cristian Vogel? Fucking pop star!" It shocks me how few records those artists sell though, and how reluctant the pop media is to cover that kind of stuff.
But then the other side of it is that none of those artists want to know about the media at all. They make a conscious effort to keep away from it, which I think is extremely wise. It's not really about the personalities concerned with that kind of music, as long as you're not a singer. The trouble if you're a singer is that it's pretty difficult to hide away and pretend you haven't done it. It's your actual voice, you're not hiding behind a bunch of gear.
That faceless guy behind a bank of equipment can get a bit much though. There's this really wicked review I once read -- and they weren't any good, a shit outfit -- but the guy said it was like walking into a garage and watching two guys fix a car, you know what I mean? [Laughs] Which I thought was brilliant. I saw Autechre once and it was in pitch dark and they had just LEDs, they had their laptop and a mixer and they both had LEDs on their glasses, and the whole show for 45 minutes was just these LEDs moving around and the flickerng of the laptop. It was kind of good actually. They were saying, "We don't really matter," which is sort of all right. I think when people stand there, like those busting block beats ... what's the name of those? ... the Chemical Brothers, where they're trying to be pop stars, it doesn't fucking work I don't think. I saw Pan Sonic play at a festival in Finland and they had this big screen, with like an oscillator effect projected onto it, and that was quite mesmerising.
A phase monitor, yeah.
I thought we should start with a few industry-type questions, because the band are approaching this record in a unique way. And then we can talk about ideas and music. So, I've really just spent the last week looking around radiohead.com...
Oh right, ha ha, OK.
It's interesting! Every time I went in I'd find something I hadn't seen before. When did you figure out what you could do with a site of your own?
We had a website on OK Computer, and we used to go on Radiohead bulletin boards when we were working. We just couldn't get over that you could do that, and we were coming out with all this complete crap, you know, while we were working, putting it up on the site, because it's a really interesting thing to do. No idea whether anybody was going and looking at it or not, and I was into that -- it's kinda like a sketchbook. When we started recording this one, it was something important for us to do. For me it has been, ever since we started after OK Computer, it's been a way of getting back a little bit of our own space and not have it mediated by the press basically.
In a democratic way?
Oh no! Well, in a very disorganised way. Whatever anyone wants to do, or not. If people can't be arsed then that's fine, too. When we set it up it was really, not try and force it at all.
And did you go from thinking that music videos were an art form in themselves...
I never thought that, no. They were never an art form.
They were always a trial?
No. Oh, maybe they were briefly... They're just cheap TV ads, they always were cheap TV ads. I mean, in the context of MTV, although we owe them a lot, the whole MTV thing and what it did to music, it doesn't really have that influence now, it just got way out of hand. And the videos got shit. And the thing that really did my head in was going home and turning on the TV and the ads for fucking banks and cars being more like MTV videos than the MTV videos, and it seemed like there was nowhere to go. So whatever the new aesthetic was would be in a fucking car advert a week later. So I became very disillusioned with it and it seemed like everyone who was doing the videos went off and sold their tushes for millions of quid and a lot of stomach ulcers. So, I mean, I guess it will always go on, but I had enough of it, really.
Was there a point, or did everything lead up to it being obvious that you could say no to those things? Did you have fight for it?
We were talking about it ever since we, especially Colin, got obsessed over not making videos and making adverts. Because the ads were more like the videos, so we might as well go straight to the source. You're lying if you're pretending that it's not a product, that you're not trying to sell something.
So, your whole approach...
It wasn't like we sat down and said, "How do we do things differently?" Necessity meant that we had to. It was quite stressful. You'd start with a great plan and end up doing something very different from where you started out.
Did you get caught up in that conundrum where you are making art but everything, inevitably, is a product?
Yeah, but I wouldn't be involved in it if I wasn't aware that it was going to be a product. Otherwise it should be in a gallery and people should sip their wine and admire it and pay stupid amounts for it. I always wanted whatever I did to end up in the high street, no matter what it was, because to me, there isn't anywhere else to go. It's pointless. It's art, but then it's not. It's music! It's not even art, it's music. Good music doesn't demand an explanation, even if it is a bit scary.
Can we talk about your artwork? Is it your friend Stanley, or is it you?
Stanley really does most of it.
I found his website through yours.
Oh yeah. It's cute.
He seems like a funny fellow. So, is it his visual stuff?
It's just basically happening all at the same time. In our studio we have everything set up in different areas of the same space, so when things are going on that I'm not interested in with the recording then I go upstairs with him and do stuff. It normally ends up being something that we've come up with together, because either one of us... If he goes off on his own it doesn't really work and if I go off on my own it doesn't really work. So I end up in our studio collaborating all the time, walking into a situation cold and walking out again. That's my role, really. It makes me really happy because I have such a short attention span, but one of the things I'm good at is being able to spark people off.
It seems as though there's a lot of editing and refining going on...
Ha! Yeah, everything we ever fucking do is editing, this whole album was written ... I don't even think the songs were written, they were edited! You know what I mean? It's really weird. It suddenly dawned on me last night. I started thinking about it, the only writing involved was chucking out the crap, and that went on for... It even went for how the music was put together, which was really weird.
I've got the diary here, Ed's diary from the website, so I thought we could go through some of that, talk about particular songs, if that's okay?
It's Ed's diary, so it's his problem, but OK. I'll get him later.
There's loads of bits where he's saying, "How do we approach this and not fall into old habits?" It seems like you were aware of not wanting to go about music in ways that you had before.
Yeah, but that was borne out of every time we tried to do it the way we'd done before, it didn't float our boats.
It didn't go anywhere?
No, you just hear a sound and it doesn't matter what you do, you're not going to respond to it, even though that's what you think you should be doing, even though that's what you've always done. So when you get to that point, it feels like the ground is being pulled from beneath you and you're just falling through space, and it's a fucking nightmare. I got that early on and they got it afterwards, later, as we were making the record. I was getting my head around it but the others were still floating through space for ages. And then gradually we all found our feet about what we were trying to do. But it was a nightmare, and it took years, literally, because it... Yeah, you feel like you've got nowhere to go and everyday you think, "Well, maybe we should just stop. Maybe there's no point to this, because all the sounds you made, that made you happy, have been sucked of everything they meant. And it's a total headfuck. And you've got no one to blame. So I guess that's what he means.
Okay, so the next bit he says, "We need a plan, something to aim for."
Ed always needs a plan. [Laughs]
So this is in August last year?
[Thinking] I'm trying to remember. That's when we first got the studio, when we first got in the main studio.
Because you did demo sessions earlier in Paris and Copenhagen...
Well, they weren't really demo sessions. One of the things that I wanted to try and do was record us trying to write it. Because a lot of the time in the past we'd go a certain way and then we'd get to a point where I was happy, but it wasn't complete. And then we'd go off in another direction and forget where we were headed and a way to break bad habits is monitor what you're doing as you're doing it. That's where we should be ending up, that's how it's supposed to sound. It means you've got no... Sometimes you get stuff in the studio that when you're playing it you think is completely fucking whack, but actually it's miles better than where you end up. Especially when you're a live musician, you think about the way you play a certain way, and you think the only stuff that will work is in the context of that. You're trying to grab people's attention all the time, which is very much what live music gives you. You're trying to mediate with someone else. Whereas in the studio it's not really like that. You're mediating with a tape or a computer, and they give you completely different things back. So that's what I was trying to get people to realise with that, but it didn't really work, it was a total fucking nightmare. The first track we did was "In Limboâ" and that was ... we finished it and we still thought it wasn't very good, for ages and ages. And then two years later we understood what we were trying to do. The other thing I wanted to do, in order to carry on recording, I wanted it to be an ongoing thing. If you're a programmer, you have lots of things on the shelf and if you get bored of something, you put it back on the shelf and then you can go back to it later. If you're in a band, you can't do that. It's like, "Oh, let's play this song." And everybody remembers it in a certain way and plays it a certain way, and that's good. But you can lose something along the way like that. Having a set of songs and having a set of recordings is a different thing.
I see what you're saying. I think.
It's kind of technical-boring really.
So there's this bit here where he says, "We've been forced to confront certain things, like 'what the fuck are we doing exactly?' [Thom snorts] and 'how do we set up the next bit of recording so that we don't start 20 songs and not finish one of them?'"
We started 40 instead!
[Continuing to read Ed's diary] "It's taken us seven years to get this sort of freedom and it's what we always wanted but it could be so easy to fuck it all up."
So that's the thing really, when you have all the freedom in the world...
You fuck it up.
You have no boundaries.
The other side of it is, actually, what you've had up to that point has been incredibly restrictive and frustrating. That's what I thought. As a creative method, the ways we'd recorded before had been instructed and incredibly stressful and a total nightmare and you'd be under time pressure or some pressure or other, so we had to, had to... Necessity meant we had to get a more even way of getting things done. But with the same sort of impact and all the elements that we love about the five of us making music together, but without it being that intense nightmare that recording is normally. I don't think we achieved that at all, but...
It sounds like you were just working constantly for months and months and months.
Not really. We'd do four, five weeks straight and then take a break. The difficult thing is the hours we tend to keep. We work a lot of the time through to four or five in the morning, and if you do that for a month you're just a mess at the end of it. Physically we had to take a break as much as anything. But it was a lot of recording for what is basically just [starts laughing] 50 minutes ... and most of it was fucking around. But if you were a painter you wouldn't worry about it at all. It wouldn't bother you at all. It's because we're in a commercial medium and you're supposed to be going out on tour shortly afterwards and promoting this thing. And that's what you're supposed to do.
Use your time efficiently.
And basically, what that means is, because you have to use your time efficiently you have to fall back on your bad habits in order to complete the task. Because you don't have time to question.
How does it work with the five of you, doing things together?
It depends on the track, entirely.
There's a bit in here where he [Ed] says you hadn't been in the same room together for a week.
That happened a lot. That's one of the difficult bits, because we're so used to setting up in a room together and that's how we sort everything out, and it's very effective. Like when we finished the record we had to start rehearsing and figuring out how to play them live. It was really nice to stand in a room with them. It's like, "Ah, I remember this!" After going all the way down this road and realising this is something we've still got. In actual fact, there is a lot of us sitting in a room together on the record. It doesn't happen very often that people will go off on their own, only when they've got very specific tasks that they want to complete. Like when Jonny did the strings on "How To Disappear," he disappeared for two weeks basically, into his room in the studio with scores or whatever and came out half way through and showed me it and I went, "How about a bit that goes w-o-o-o-o-o-p?" [makes upwards diagonal motion] and that was my entire contribution.
He went back for a week and finished it. And then I did the same sort of thing on "Kid A," where I had these completely random elements and I had to sit at the computer and write it like a song, what I thought would be a song. We just discovered that there are certain tasks that you have to do on your own. But basically, the best stuff comes out of collaboration with other people. It's a bit of a nightmare, because it's such a disparate thing, but once you've done it once, it's not going to be like that again. You can't just sit in a room together and play like that for the rest of your fucking lives and expect it to be wonderful. It's just not going to happen. It's good fun to do and there's good times to do it...
What about the part where Ed is talking about you all trying to work all the electronic instruments? "No acoustic instruments, everything has to be electronically generated."
We weren't even allowed to use microphones. It's so funny. though it will all probably disappear into the bin. But that was the idea, none of it was supposed to be anything -- and it is absolute shit, most of it.
What was Nigel thinking through all of this?
You mean generally or in those two weeks?
I think he thought I'd lost my marbles. Because he didn't understand why, if we had such a strength in one thing, why the fuck we'd want to do something else.
So what did you say to him?
But at the same time he trusted me to have an idea of what I wanted, even though he didn't understand at the time what the bloody hell it was ... for ages. But basically, all it was was a frustration, not getting off on anything that we'd normally do. So it wasn't like I was even trying to prove anything. It was just, "Well, this isn't fucking working for me. We have to do something else." It was just drained of meaning. I just found it boring. It's kind of true. I listened to The Bends yesterday and it is kind of boring.
Especially after you've listened to things that have changed the way your ears work. It is hard to go back to straight, dynamic rock.
There's only so far you can do that before it gets boring.
Did you discover interesting electronic music, or how did that happen?
I've got some old Autechre, and I liked Aphex Twin. I've been listening to it a lot, during OK Computer as well, really. It's interesting because the other thing about something like The Bends is that if you've got a record that has meant something to you for a while, then there are periods of time where it just doesn't mean anything to you because you're somewhere else, and that's it. That's the end of it. But then maybe in three or four years you come back to it. That's how I feel a song's a song, or a track's a track. You might hate it for ages and then suddenly it dawns on you that they mean something. I could so easily find myself beating myself up about having played guitar music -- "Oh no, it's all completely fucking shit" -- but ultimately it's just not true. I sort of worry that people will think that within my neurosis about what we've done in the past that I've just gone off and said, "We must be electronic, all this is shit." Because that wasn't the point in what I was doing, but I'm sure certain people will see it like that. And I can't get into an argument about it but I can understand why.
I don't really think you should ever abandon your past.
I think it's really unhealthy to do it. It's really lame, it's like apologising.
At the same time, I don't listen to it or anything. But if you spend your life being a creative person and expend energy on regretting stuff you've done before, you are fucked, you are so fucked. Because it will cramp you up and you'll never be able to work again. Because I think I skirted around the edges of that for a while. Quite a while.
Were you really unhappy, at certain points?
[Laughs] That sounds like an MTV question.
I'm sorry, but I mean, I hope that you weren't, but, just generally unhappy?
I was a complete fucking mess! When OK Computer finished, yeah. I mean really, really ill.
Do you know why?
Just going a certain way for a long, long, long time, and not being able to stop or look back or consider where I was at all. For, like, 10 years, and not being able to really connect with anything. Basically just becoming unhinged, in the best sense of the word.
But you don't seem like that now.
No. It took a while. [Long pause]
Let's keep going. Jonny has some ideas for string arrangements that aren't your usual string arrangements and the players were open minded enough to try them. What was going on there?
We deliberately got the Orchestra of St Johns because they play pieces by Penderexia and Massien and all that lot. When you look at the scores they look like lines across like this [making diagonal slashes in the air]. No notes, and that was the sort of thing Jonny was scoring out! But they were great about it. The leader of the orchestra who conducted it, he was doing tutorials with Jonny, saying, "That's going to work. What do you mean by that?" And Jonny felt really good about it, because he'd been really frustrated. He was going to do music at Oxford, Brooks University here, and we pulled him out to start with the band, so it was really good for him to go back to all of that because he's got an amazing talent for it. He was quite lucky in that the orchestra were happy for someone quite naive to try and explain themselves. They were really good about it.
What about the jazz bit on "The National Anthem"?
That was much more random. There's this record by [jazz pianist Charles] Mingus called The Complete Town Hall Concert, it's on Blue Note. He did the whole record, and what Mingus was supposed to do was score out every part for an extremely large, almost double sized brass section -- it was almost an orchestra. But he didn't have time to write all the parts out, so he reverted back to what he often did with his normal band which was, 'play like the bluebirds flying,' because he didn't have time! When you listen to a lot of it, it's just fucking chaos, no one knows what's going on. But this is the only time he got to record it. His agent had booked the gig three weeks early without telling him and this audience didn't know what the fuck was going on -- they're clapping halfway through and it's pure chaos. Right at the end of the record the curtains get pulled across and the band refuse to stop playing. So they break into this impromptu thing, and half of them are playing one thing and half another and the audience are clapping and some of them are booing and Mingus has disappeared somewhere having a row, and it's all on the record.
There's this incredible tension and it was the most formative record of the whole time that I was 'away'. I got absolutely obsessed with this record. [Hits mini-disc recorder for emphasis]
That sounds intense. Mingus is one of those names that I've always wondered about but never known where to even start.
Oh, I can write you a list. I think it was our sound guy, he went out and bought a load of Mingus and we used to sit around listening to it. And when I heard the Town Hall record, I immediately started seeing things, it was really freaky. It's not happened to me very often, but it was immediate. I couldn't even see where I was, barely. It was fucking weird. And basically, [with] "The National Anthem" what I wanted to do with the horn thing... On the day I said to them, "You know when you've been in a traffic jam for four hours and if someone says the wrong thing to you, you'll just kill 'em, you'll fucking snap and probably throttle them. You're like this [holds palm up to his face] with everybody and any tiny spark and you're going to go off and you're in the midst of two or three hundred other people who are in exactly the same thing." I wanted them to basically play like that, like this fucking close to going off, lynching or killing -- it's like a mob just about to spark off. It's all we gave them other than we got the same instruments as The Town Hall Concert and arranged them in roughly the same way. And there was one melody -- "Oh, this is a melody that some of you can play, if you feel like it!" And Jonny and I were conducting it, and we ran through it a few times and people started to get ideas and it was such a great day. I broke my foot, actually, because I was jumping up and down so much.
Fucking hell! It was great!
The bit at the end was my favourite bit, because they said, "Well, what are we going to do at the end?" And I said, "I'll go 1-2-3-4 and you just hit whatever note's in your head as loud as you possibly can." And that was just the best sound you've ever heard. It was amazing. That song reminds me of [The Beatles'] "A Day In The Life."
Really? It's got hardly any singing in it. Just the bit at the end, the crescendo.
Oh yeah, I can see that.
Do you want to go through the songs on the album and say anything about them?
No, not really.
I got this off the internet, these are the lyrics.
Let me have a look, I'll tell you what bits are wrong.
[Starts laughing] "Kid A" -- they're so stunningly wrong, it's brilliant! That's wrong, that's wrong, that's wrong. That's right, but then we posted them on the internet. That's wrong.
"Idioteque" -- I love that one. It sounds Aphex to me.
Really? That's not bad [for lyrical accuracy]. "Cut the kids in half," not "keys". The lyrics aren't going to be printed on the album, either.
What about all the other songs that aren't on the album?
Look, I've got a list of them all here!
You don't know? Or you're just not saying?
[Smiles and shrugs]
But you're playing them live?
Mmmm. I'm sure we'll do something with them at some point. They're in a vault.
A vault! So, where did you go from being in the studio to playing live? Because what you were saying before, about not wanting to be in a gallery, about wanting to be on the high street, that's kind of what playing live is about.
Yeah, yeah. "Idioteque" was a bit of a struggle, but we can do it now. We always said that if or when we go out on tour again, we'll just have to re-write it, because if it's any good you should be able to do something with it other than just play the DAT and sing over the top.
It amazes me how many people do that.
I know. When I was at college I used to be in a band that was all sequencers and that, and you'd have a little bit of live stuff over the top. But it was such a boring experience.
There's just no point. Although, New Order have got away with it in the past. New Order did "Blue Monday" on Top Of The Pops once and they were so slack, they weren't even trying. But it was great, for some reason. I guess because their instruments were not quite right and it wasn't perfect and they weren't actually playing, but I've always sort of hinged things on remembering watching them doing that when I was a kid. You can use machines onstage, there's just ways to do it and ways not to do it.
At the Meltdown show, is it "Everything In Its Right Place" where Jonny is sampling your vocal live? That was amazing, because you're sitting there and all of a sudden you realised that's what he's doing.
[Smiling] But the box he's using is the naffest, naffest DJ scratchbox thing. It's specifically made for DJs to make interesting noises over crap loops. He was kind of reluctant at first.
I've got some stuff that I want to ask you about. The way I feel about listening to your records, it's like you're encouraging people to try a bit harder. It surprises me, like we were saying before about pressing play on a DAT, it surprises me that people don't try a bit harder. Face change, be more vulnerable, let things happen, put yourself in vulnerable situations and figure it out.
I think that's up to you. I guess maybe that's what I feel like you're doing.
Yeah, but I don't sit down and intend to do that, it's just whatever I'm getting out of it tends to be like that, really. But it's normally in retrospect that it feels like that, not really even during. During it's usually a conflict of stuff. I'd be wary of thinking, "Oh, it's challenging. Because if it's challenging, then we're FUCKED. Because that's not it either really. Challenging is like that free jazz, that fucking terrible free jazz that came after Coltrane. It's all complete whack. Trying too hard ... some techno just tries so fucking hard. I know that's not what you mean, but it could end up being put across that way.
But if it's encouraging you to be vulnerable, then great. That's fucking brilliant, isn't it?
The other thing it makes me think, and because the website has all the links to other political things... I'm a champagne socialist, apparently. Yeah, someone called me that last night. I got into a massive row with this guy. But it's about being aware and a having certain kind of resistance to apathy. It's interesting that it [political activism, particularly against the global economy] has really taken off in America, and I think it's because of people like [Noam] Chomsky.
There's a lot of people who've read Chomsky now and people of his ilk and his e-magazine in America and in Europe. There's a bit of a tradition of it, but there hasn't really been anything coherent since Vietnam. And now there is. And it's nothing to do with left and right now, it's to do with stuff that's come out since the cold war, certain things dawning on people over a long time. The Berlin Wall fell more than 10 years ago, and yeah, I think resistance is quite a good way of putting it. If nothing happened at all, if so called anarchists just sat home and smoked dope and did fuck all, then we would all just bow down to a global economy and willingly watch millions of people die for no fucking good reason.
You were really supportive of the whole Drop The Debt campaign...
Yeah, I still am. But there is something that annoys me about the fact that you can just point and click from the comfort of your living room.
Absolutely. But it's better than nothing at all ... but it is completely lame. People like to talk about it and think about it and the reality of what happens on the ground is usually very different. The protests themselves are pretty nasty affairs. I went on the Mayday on in London, and there were so-called undercover guys walking around in bulletproof jackets and long lens cameras with two bodyguards, armed, walking through the crowd taking photos of "troublemakers", basically everybody in the square digging up the turf -- anybody and everybody. And when the McDonalds got smashed up and all that stuff, it's like 20,000 people there and they've got nowhere to vent their anger at all. What are they going to do, just go home? No, I don't think so. The difference between that and the way it's mediated... I think there's a certain section of people on the net who just like to think about it and talk about it. And then you have the media who are like, "Omigod, there's going to be a riot and hundred of thousands of people" and they're not basing it on anything. But the people who are going to be there are using it as a really important resource. I don't know. Personally, I was really happy to get involved in Jubilee 2000, the Drop The Debt thing, because it is a mainstream ... a mainstream, acceptable face of resistance against the antics of the IMF and the World Bank. But equally, I am interested in the unacceptable face of it in terms of the media coverage, the disruptive elements, the anarchists, because I don't really care what methods are used to make the IMF and World Bank so incredibly unpopular that they dismantle it. I don't really care how it happens, as long as it happens. That's the point. The way the Seattle thing was covered and the actual reality of what was happening on the ground are very far apart, but people will dismiss any legitimate protests by the small section of people who come to cause trouble. If you think 50,000 people turned up to Seattle and all wanted a scrap, then you're a fucking idiot. If the WTO think they can just dismiss it that way, they are so out to lunch. But the IMF is so incredibly unpopular in the US, even in the Senate, they are a carbuncle on the side of US politics. But for the US they are incredible useful because they can take the blame for US-led policies that are crippling the poorest countries and meaning we can take their resources cheaply, milk them of all they're worth, insist that their populations stay starving and have no health care -- and use the IMF and World Bank as scapegoats. That's what I think.
At the Meltdown show, did you say something about [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair?
I expressed my disappointment about not being invited to Number 10!
Can we talk about artistic responsibility? Because you feel that about being an artist, and then the responsibility about, you have a position of power and you are doing something with that. So these things are important to you.
I think by this time I am supposed to have fucked myself up permanently, or be dead. So the fact that I haven't, and I'm just getting on with it, it means that I'm trying to prove something. I don't mean that. But I'm supposed to be so fucked up now that I can't work any more. But I'm not. And that meant that I had to take a bit of responsibility for what I'm doing. I'm not being "responsible". You can't be responsible in an "adult" way about it, either. You can get really precious about things. I just try to go with however I feel at the moment, otherwise I start writing agendas and ways to do things. Once we finished this record I started being a little bit easier on myself, because I understood a little bit better where I was supposed to be. All the way through making Kid A I was faced with the prospect of thinking, "Maybe it'll never happen." And the fact that it did happen and we produced something I was happy with -- I managed to get sounds that I wanted out of my head and onto tape as much as we could -- it meant that I could be a little bit happier about he place I was at.
It really sounds like you have been struggling with things that most people never even have to think about.
Yeah, yeah, but actually it's been really nice. After a few drinks I start laying all this stuff on my friends and they're really brilliant about it. Because they haven't got a fucking clue what it feels like, but they listen. And that's been a big thing for me. Because you've got someone who's prepared to tell you that you're full of shit, which I'm quite happy to do to myself, but it's good for someone else to do it. Or be positive when I might not be.
OK Computer was so "best record in the world ever." But where do you go from that? What is it supposed to mean?
Well it meant nothing. It doesn't mean a fucking thing. It means at that particular moment, the music we were making fit with something, it fit nicely. And a lot of people liked the record and liked the songs.
But what sycophants say to you doesn't give you anything to work with, it doesn't give you wisdom or ideas.
No, not really. That never really did my head in, because there was no way of relating to it.
A lot of your songs seem to talk about fear and being lost.
Hmmm. [Thinks about this] So are you asking me whether the new record is about that?
Well, fear in particular.
It's fear of dying, actually. It's a 30 thing. Most men hit 30 and think, "Omigod, I'm not actually immortal." [Smiles] Definitely fear of dying on Kid A. A lot of that going on. Oh yes! I have this house down by the sea and the landscape around it is really harsh, brutal landscape and I used to just go off for the whole day, walking, and just feel totally like nothing. I'd just be back in the ground as soon as I know it. It's all just corny stuff, and when you sit down and talk about it, it all sounds like complete bollocks.
I think a lot of artists have that fear.
Fear manifests itself in different ways. It's all obvious, but I had this thing for a while where I was falling through trapdoors all the time, into oblivion, like acid flashbacks. I'd be talking to someone and then I'd be falling through the earth. And it went on for months and months, and it was really weird. And that was all happening towards the end of OK Computer. The end of the "promotional period." And that was all linked in with death.
Seeing people dead, as I'm talking to you. It's okay. I'm better now! You really have it at one particular moment in your life and I really had it full-on for ages. Next!
And being lost?
I think there's a lot of not really trusting anybody in being lost. I didn't trust people at all, not even the people closest to me for ages and ages. And that means you really have nothing to hang onto. "Everything In Its Right Place" I think is about that. You're trying to fit into the right place and the right box so you can connect.
You sound like you were really a long way out there.
Yeah, everybody has their things that they deal with. Everybody has a path that they have to follow. And that's where I was at that particular moment.
Where was everyone else in the band? Did they have that?
Oh yeah. Not as bad as me possibly, but in different ways. It's not like anybody was really complaining about it, it was, "Well, gotta get on with this, just gotta sort it out."
What was happening, we'd lived a certain way for so long it meant that we weren't really functioning properly. There's nothing more boring than a rock & roll star, someone who's been on the road for 10 years, expects attention wherever he goes, drinks himself stupid, is obnoxious, incoherent, uncreative and has a massive ego. There's nothing more fucking pointless.
Surely you were never in any danger of being that?
Why not? Everybody else does it! I'm sure I'll be that again. Give me another couple of months on the road and I'm sure I'll be exactly the same. Maybe not.