It’s the nicest day Toronto has experienced all year, and the members of Radiohead are spending it in a stuffy suite at the Sheraton Centre Hotel with no air conditioning.
“We should be outside, really!” exclaims restless bassist Colin Greenwood as he fidgets impatiently in his recliner. “I want to go to Tower Records,” he moans to extremely subdued bandmates Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway, like a child tugging on his parents’ arms.
Radiohead is not avoiding the sunshine by choice – there’s the little matter of the six billion or so promo interviews the band has to knock off before boarding a plane en route to the Tibetan Freedom Concert in New York. But regardless of these particular circumstances, everything the Oxford band has done in its short lifespan has eschewed logic and rationale. After turning self-loathing into a national pastime (a full year before Beck, mind you) with its ’93 full-length debut Pablo Honey and smash single “Creep”, Radiohead was supposed to float off to the great Buzz Clip in the sky, resurfacing only to collect royalty checks from the inevitable K-Tel Post-Nevermind Angst Rock Hits Of The ‘90s appearances. But nooooo. Instead of taking up permanent residency in the “Where Are They Now And Why Should We Give A Toss” file, Radiohead had to answer back with The Bends, a mad, brilliant set of songs tighter than the cast of Friends’ tank tops. After a full year and a half of touring the record (including an opening slot on R.E.M.’s Monster tour), the transition from clubs to arenas was complete.
However, contrary to what you would expect, the band’s paparazzi quotient has failed to expand with the venue size. Thom Yorke, as charismatic a frontman as he is, is not the kind of person you’ll find snorting coke from a supermodel’s cleavage at a Brit Awards after-party. The best-looking guy in the band (CK underwear model-in-waiting O’Brien) is buried behind Yorke and Colin’s brother Jonny in the third guitarist slot. The band member with the biggest personal fan club is Selway, the drummer.
In fact, at a pre-interview photo shoot in Nathan Phillips Square, Radiohead resembles nothing more than five tourists from England dressed in worn T-shirts, sneakers and slacks. No one notices that a band who sold out The Opera House the previous night in 47 seconds is sitting by the fountain – not even a busload fun of 14-year-old girls on a field trip who have probably seen the video for “Just” 847 times.
Radiohead’s third record, the stellar OK Computer (Parlophone/EMI), continues with the band’s noggin-scratching tradition: at a time when it’s on the verge of filling stadiums, Radiohead has created an album for the bedroom. While far from being a commercial fuck off ala Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (or Nirvana’s In Utero. for that matter), OK Computer is nonetheless dark and crazed, like a raw, blistering soundcheck performed in the darkest reaches of outer space. The solid structures of The Bends have been broken down to their atomic molecules and morphed into something much uglier; the layered noise and feedback on songs like “‘Climbing Up The Walls” and the opening ‘“Airbag” will have you thinking that all of your electrical appliances have suddenly turned themselves on. And just to fuck with the record company, Radiohead has released a schizoid first single (“Paranoid Android”) that is six-and-a-half minutes long.
“There are sounds on the record that may have had their origins in soundchecks or whatever,” says the very mild-mannered O’Brien of the not-so-mild-mannered Computer, “but they’re placed within the context of the environment in which we recorded the album, which was our own rehearsal studio and a manor house outside of Bath – Jane Seymour’s house – where we recorded in this ballroom.”
“I think actually touring the material beforehand helped,” adds Selway. (In Beatle-speak, he would be “the quiet one.”) “When we went in [to record], we didn’t have to think about our performances or parts as such. We could actually think about what we were going to do with the sounds once we got in there, so it may have made it more experimental.”
OK Computer’s manic sprawl will no doubt prove to be a harder sell than the majestic Bends. But this is still the same Radiohead we’re dealing with. A band capable of writing so many anthems that it threatens to deplete the world’s supply of lighter fluid. At the risk of invoking U2 comparison #756448, I will say that “Let Down” – quite possibly the band’s finest moment to date and thus, in true Radiohead fashion, absent from The Opera House show’s setlist – is the arms-waving-in-the-air tear-jerker that Bono’s “Staring At The Sun” wishes it was. If the remaining songs on OK Computer fail to reach those lofty heights, Radiohead can still rest assured that it has bettered The Bends by broadening its horizons even further. The record takes-a step into Eastern exotica while keeping the other foot planted firmly in the chilling industrial landscapes of the West; at the same time, it grasps future-shock dissonance in one hand, while the other clings to a classic pop past. In other words, it’s one hell of a game of Twister, and perhaps best of all: this record contains absolutely no gratuitous jungle rhythms.
“Well, we did try several of the tracks with jungle beats behind them, didn’t we?” jokes Greenwood.
“Was that after I had gone to bed?” asks an oblivious Selway.
“Bowie’s drummer does all those jungle beats,” says O’Brien, staring directly into the drummer’s eyes. “He samples himself. He drums that fast,” the guitarist says, as if to tell Selway that he’s slacking off.
The drummer won’t get a chance to pick up the pace with OK Computer. If Selway is heeding anyone’s advice on how to play, it is Yorke’s: on the closing “The Tourist” he repeatedly admonishes. “Hey man, slow down,” as if to sum up the entire record in a single phrase.
“The thing about this album,” observes O’Brien, “what Thom says, is [that] The Bends is a very introverted, inward-looking album into himself, lyrically. And with this album, he started seeing things outside of him[self] and [finding] situations and beautiful things in the strangest of places.”
Strange indeed. Yorke’s lyrics for OK Computer read like a checklist of pre-millennium tensions. Exploring how technology changes our personal existence for the better (“an airbag saved my life”) but in the process, transforms the overall social system into just another machine. The urban malaise depicted in the opening verse of “Let Down” (“Transport! motorways and tramlines/starting and then stopping/the emptiest of feelings) underscores Yorke’s need to escape, be it through rural lifestyIe (“No Surprises”) or voluntary UFO abduction (“Subterranean Homesick Alien”). Then there’s the eerie Anthony Robbins-like monologue “Fitter, Happier,” which outlines steps to self-improvement (“not drinking too much... getting on better with your associate employee... no paranoia”) in a synthesized voice (which, contrary to rumours, is not Stephen Hawkings) that makes the proposed “ideal” existence sound as much fun as life in an Orwellian society. Factor in the album title’s blasé view of the infobahn and we just may have the world’s first neo-luddite-themed concept album. Or maybe not.
“THEME?” responds Greenwood incredulously. “Concept? NO!”
O’Brien is slightly more receptive to the idea, but counters that Yorke’s view of the future is not as bleak as it may seem.
“You know, you have those lifestyle magazines like GQ and they tell you how many times a week to workout. It would be great to run an advert with the lyrics to ‘Fitter. Happier’ under one of those articles and have a little box for each line in the song so that people could tick it.
“I wouldn’t say (the record)’s pessimistic. I think there’s a great deal of realism. I mean, let’s face it – it can get pretty grim out there.”
As a band that exists for the eyes as much as for the ears, Radiohead is always thinking big – concept or no concept. Just as the cubist and Russian constructionist avant-garde filmmakers of the 1920s attempted to create the cinematic equivalent of music, Radiohead strives for the musical equivalent of cinema.
“Well. Ed just bought a soundtrack CD to The Big Country today,” Greenwood asserts.
“Yeah, great film,” says O’Brien of the 1952 western. He then fires off the names of the cast like they were a group of his best friends: “Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Burllves, Chuck Conners – one of the greatest westerns of all time. I’ve been getting into westerns again recently, like The searchers, and Rio Bravo, and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. The John Ford trilogy is fantastic.”
It is this very passion for cinema that makes Radiohead one of the few bands to pay as much attention to the video representation of its music as it does to the audio version. Much of The Bends’ commercial success can be attributed to the fascinating videos for “Just,” “Street Spirit,” and “Fake Plastic Trees,” all of which challenge otherwise placid viewers with ambiguous imagery and narratives, while simultaneously serving the rudimentary purpose of moving units.
“We have no involvement with the (video) concepts,” says Greenwood of the creative process, “but we have total involvement in CHOICE of concepts.”
“We went through the whole thing of trying to stick our oar in, “ states O’Brien, referring to the band’s initial efforts at video-making. “The first album, all the videos on that were shite because we got involved with them and tried to tell the director how to make videos. And we don’t know how to do that. And consequently, the reason why the videos for The Bends were so good was because we stuck to our scripts.”
The merits of videos, however, are always up for debate. Bands ranging from Pearl Jam to Fugazi reject the very medium that Radiohead embraces, arguing (among other things) that videos limit the experiential effects of music. When dealing with music as mind-expanding as Radiohead’s, it may be dangerous to apply a single visual interpretation to a song that could support millions. O’Brien sees it merely as the cost of doing business.
“It’s alright for Pearl Jam [to not make videos]. They had an enormous first album. They did videos for that first one – maybe they don’t need the exposure now. We NEED the exposure that maybe MTV or whatever can give us. So you know, if you’ve got to do them, you might as well try to make [videos] as good as you can.”
For the OK Computer videos, Radiohead is determined to top itself. As we all know, every good musical epic deserves a visual counterpart, even though the results are often not worth seeing (I’m still recovering from that Sgt. Pepper flick with the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton). Radiohead plans to produce a video for each of OK Computer’s 12 tracks, thereby ensuring domination over MuchMusic airwaves and retail music video sales for the rest of the year. The abso-fucking-lutely bizarre Beavis and Butthead-meets-David lynch animated dip for “Paranoid Android” is probably playing on the Nation’s Music Station as you read this.
“Well we’ve done the video for ‘Paranoid Android,’ a cartoon,” explains O’Brien. “Thom’s just shot a video for ‘Karma Police’ with Jonathan Glaser who directed ‘Street Spirit...•
“And another one we did was for ‘Let Down.’” adds Greenwood, “which was done by a group in England called Straw Donkey which uses stop-motion and collage animation. It’s something we’re aiming for rather than set in stone,” he says of the video project. “It could be great...”
O’Brien completes the train of thought: “ ...Or it could be a pile of shite.”
Not bloody likely. At this point. It appears that Radiohead can do no wrong: the crowds keep getting bigger, the records keep getting better, and the band can walk the streets without being stalked. But one thing that tends to be overlooked is that Radiohead defies one of rock’s most sacred rules, the one that proclaims “All ye bands of British descent must sucketh whence performing live.” If the band’s preview show at The Opera House is any indication, the OK Computer tour promises to deliver noises to burst your eardrums and a light show that will fry your retinas. Even when flailing about the stage like an epileptic headless chicken, Yorke’s voice remains in pitch-perfect form (a fact made especially evident when the full house attempted to sing along – off-key – to “Fake Plastic Trees”). The rhythm section of Selway, O’Brien, and Colin Greenwood paves the way for the free-form excursions of Colin’s brother Jonny who, when not squeezing seamless notes from his guitar in a perpetual slouch, takes turns at xylophone and organ.
For all its studio wizardry, Radiohead is perhaps most at home when on the stage and happiest when on the road. Perhaps the only international superstar band that can maintain its anonymity hassle-free, Radiohead embraces the opportunity to play the role of tourists, especially given that, of the five, only O’Brien had traveled abroad (in Greenwood’s words) “before rock ‘n’ roll.”
“You’ve been to India,” says Greenwood to the guitarist, “to see your guru.”
“My guru?” O’Brien responds. “You mean my dad’s guru. My dad was really into Eastern religion. One week it was Buddhism, the next it was Hinduism. I kind of reacted against it. I was sort of wanting to get into KISS and [my parents] were trying to play me George Harrison.”
“What was your favourite mantra?” teases Greenwood. “Can you remember it? What was that spiritual name they gave you?”
“No, this is not for public consumption.” O’Brien replies.
“People would think you’re a wacky cult member,” Greenwood retorts.
Or perhaps worse, a member of Kula Shaker.
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking!” says Greenwood. “This is getting a bit Crispian.”
O’Brien expects Radiohead to tour OK Computer until at least the spring of 1998 (Sparklehorse, Massive Attack, and Teenage FancIub have all been hand-picked by the band to take turns in the opening slot). India is not on the schedule. Though O’Brien hopes to finally make it down to Argentina and Chile; Greenwood, meanwhile, wants to check out “Stompin’ Tom’s House in P.I.E. [sic],” though he may want to touch up on his Canadian geography on the way. But spending two years on the road at a time ultimately has its downside, even for a band blessed with Radiohead’s good fortune. With only so many hours in the day to produce musical masterpieces, disorienting videos and awe-inspiring live shows, the dream of a stable personal life expressed on OK Computer remains just that.
“How many split-up relationships have we had?” Greenwood asks his bandmates. “God – I have three I’ve counted.”
However, taking companions on the road is not in the cards.
“No, not yet,” says O’Brien. “Not until we get our own buses. R.E.M. took their families on the road, which is cool because they have families, they have kids and they have their own bus each. And the wives wanted to go, the girlfriends wanted to go. I think the last thing my girlfriend would want to do is spend six months going around America, on a bus. With an idiot.”
“It’s a male thing, rock ‘n’ roll.” Cracks Greenwood with more than a hint of sarcasm. “Strictly for the boys.”