THE 'HEAD BOYS
20 years on and one thing's for certain: the quality of music hasn't slipped. At least not where RADIOHEAD are concerned. Determinedly unconventional and utterly unwilling to play the game the industry's way, they have emerged as the finest new rock act of the 90s. Their record, The Bends, spent almost two years on the UK chart. Their current single is being played to death on every radio station in Europe despite being six-and-a-half minutes in length. And now they're about to unleash their new magnum opus OK Computer on an expectant solar system.
So why do people get so thrilled, obsessed and uplifted by Radiohead? The silently-spoken, well-behaved, faintly posh Oxford-born quintet that leaped into the limelight circa 1993 with the vicious, misanthropic, crunching guitar workout that was 'Creep', have quietly matured since then into one of the most musically ambitious and single- minded bands on the globe, and they've done it without the faintest of regards to commercial considerations - releasing singles that are way too lengthy for radio, avoiding the media if they can help it, and generally refusing to immerse themselves in the ridiculous rockstar rigmarole that seems to prove so attractive to most of those who experience the tiniest taste of success.
And yet, their legend has slowly and gradually spread lo gargantuan proportions. The figures speak for themselves: their second album, The Bends, is one of the most enduringly popular records of the decade, having now spent a staggering ninety-six weeks in the album charts. All this despite the fact that Radiohead's music isn't really pop-oriented in the slightest: as with U2 before them, the band's appeal seems to owe a lot more to the pure emotiveness of their sound. Music this dark, moody, evocative and intoxicating simply hasn't penetrated the pop main stream since the heyday of Nirvana.
Similarly despairing and uplifting, the band's new LP - the strangely-monikered OK Computer - finally gives full rein to their epic ambitions, dispensing almost entirely with conventional song formats in favour of vast, intricate arrangements typified by the latest single 'Paranoid Android', a six-and-a-half minute epic in three movements (if I may dip into classical speak).
Yep, it's that kind of record. Aurally gentler than The Bends, but without diluting the power one bit, OK Computer is a raging beast of a record - the epic, sprawling scope of which makes it a little confusing on initial exposure. Thom Yorke's fragile, aching voice is a weary, but haunting instrument, that fits the material like a glove and perfectly complements Jonny Greenwood's glistening lead guitar. It's not the kind of record you can consume in five-minute snatches, and it's miles too dense and lyrically oblique for the tastes of most radio programmers. Are the boys at all worried that the album might be slightly too weird for radio airplay?
With perfect synchronicity, Thom and Jonny shrug their shoulders.
"I don't care that much", intones Jonny, and the expression of supreme indifference on his face suggests he really doesn't. "I mean, we've never released singles with any real confidence that they're going to be played on the radio. And indeed, they never really have (laughs)."
Do you think some of your more pop-minded fans might find it a bit confusing?
"Well, maybe; if your favourite track off The Bends was 'High & Dry', then you might not be quite as into it as you would if you preferred 'Fake Plastic Trees'... but then, that's probably a good thing."
What's this I hear about you becoming a big prog-rock fan?
"Nooo!" protests Jonny, with vigour. "No, that's not true. Absolutely untrue. I was listening to loads of it there for a while, and it's all awful (erupts into laughter)."
But what was it that drove you to such a drastic course of action? Were you in search of some masochistic kick, or were you doing it with a view to broadening your musical palate?
"Oh. I just assumed that... that there must be one good record somewhere. But all I came away with was an appreciation of the Mellotron as an instrument. But nothing musical or melodic or harmonic or lyrical. All horrible. (Pause) You see, I got suspicious of being told how bad it was all my life. Y'know, that Punk came along and killed off this awful thing, and I kind of got curious about what was so awful about it, this evil thing that Sid and the boys saved us from. (Laughs) And it is awful, so fair enough."
What's your favourite track off the new record?
"'Airbag'", responds Thom instantly, "it's fantastic playing it live, 'cos nobody gets it, it's great. But they do, sort of... (struggles to explain)... it's not... it throws you first time you hear it. And it took an eternity to construct, it was recorded in three separate sections, and each section was extremely difficult to get right, so it was kind of a mammoth task... but we didn't want it to sound as if it had been..."
Up to this point. Thom has been keeping his trap resolutely shut. His distaste for interviews is well known, and true to form, his general demeanour during the early exchanges is markedly subdued, displaying all the eagerness and enthusiasm of a man awaiting open-heart surgery without an anaesthetic.
There appears (at first) to be a vaguely paranoid air about him; he tends to cover his face with his hands during conversation, and he has a disconcerting habit of terminating his sentences at mid-point before adding the phrase "blah, blah, blah" as if he were sick of listening to himself. When he speaks, it tends to be slowly, thoughtfully and with much deliberation. He's unflinchingly honest, though, and the intensity with which he means what he says is palpable.
Given Radiohead's increasing use of sonic trickery and studio experimentation, would the band be inclined to spend more time in the studio in future?
"No, less. Definitely, definitely, definitely less," exclaims Thom, suddenly becoming animated. From this point on, he begins to burst into life. "One thing that we observed when we were working on (the album) is that you can usually only stand about three weeks, and then there's just no point. Something disappears, you just got bored. The environment gets increasingly boring. You know, you can only walk around a space a certain amount of times before you feel like a caged rat."
The opening track on side two, 'Electioneering' takes a swipe at the utter emptiness and blanket lack of idealism that infects the modern-day political landscape. Would you say you were cynical about politicians in general?
"It's not really about politics; it's about the fact that their policies are totally irrelevant. Politicians are just servants of the economy, really," he observes, accurately enough. "It's the economy that's at fault. Everything's fucked up. Everything's geared towards... OK, in the hotel here they've got this channel called European Business News, and all day long they just interview successful businesspeople, and all they talk about is how they can make more money for their shareholders (he raises his eyebrows and screws up his face to express utter bewilderment). Money! It's the reason for everything. It's the reason that everyone talks to China, and lets them get on with whatever it is they're up to. It's the reason the IMF blah, b1ah, blah (trails off as if it's all too depressing to contemplate). It's just sort of; months ago, when we were in America and I was reading these books and I was watching TV, and I felt that, to some degree, we were doing it as well, like we were serving shareholders or something. It felt like that," he says sadly.
Are there things that make you really angry?
"Yeah," he replies, nodding effusively, "Oh yeah. I'm one of these people that shouts at the TV."
Did you take any pleasure in the spectacular votive blitzkrieg the British public recently launched on the Tory Party?
"Was that May the 1st? We were working. The good thing about it was that the day afterwards, everyone was smiling," he grins ruefully. "People being nice. Everybody was in a good mood, yeah, that was nice. Only lasted a day, though."
By all accounts, you were a very promising artist when you were younger. What was it that persuaded you to follow a musical path instead?
"I think I knew it when... I left school, and went and sold suits in a department store, and I had an inkling it wasn't really my vocation in life. Then I got called into the assistant manager's office, and he looked at me really viciously and said 'You're not selling enough suits'. The look on his face (laughs), this sad fucking individual... it was just the look on the guy's face, like this was a matter of life and death. I just thought 'Right, that's it'."
Could anything like that ever induce you to say 'enough is enough' and dissolve the band?
"No. It's a way of life kinda thing. For better or worse, really? That's how it feels."
"It's funny," counters Jonny, "when we were starting out, I can't quite remember why we kept going, in a way, 'cos we didn't play concerts, and we wouldn't play anybody the tapes that we'd made, but we were still rehearsing three times a week, sometimes more, so I suppose there was a goal, but..."
"The goal was to have the tapes," concludes Thom.
Did you know you were onto something special even then?
"Not really," ventures Jonny, "we used to listen obsessively to the stuff we'd done, over and over again, we'd just play it to ourselves, but never to anyone else."
You were in it entirely for personal pleasure, then?
"Yeah, pretty much. I hope that doesn't sound completely egotistical; it was a very private thing."
Thom expounds: "I think it's because you don't... there's a certain enjoyment in sort of owning it yourselves, and not having to give it over. It gives you this feeling that you can do absolutely whatever you want at any time, and ... (longish pause)..."
You didn't really care if anybody else heard it, once you could listen to the tapes at home?
"Yeah. Yeah. And that was sort of... we were talking about that a lot while we were working on this. OK Computer was just us basically cleaning the slate, saying, right, we're going to do what the fuck we want, with no regard at all to what's expected. But not out of any sense of bravado or anything, but just because it's the logical thing. For us to exist and keep going, and not go mad or become part of the Disneyworld of the music business, that's what we have to do. You know, we have to have complete and utter freedom, and most bands never get that. And when they do, they become amazing, I think."
What particularly pisses you off about the Disneyworld of the music business?
"Ah. Let's see. (grins) Things that piss me off about the music business. (Pause) I get very, very depressed when things get planned six months in advance. It makes me extremely depressed 'cos I just think... you know, you might just want to walk away, or you might not be able to do anything... how the fuck can you know? People are booking all this stuff in and it's just like, Fuck off, don't tell me about it, just fuck off."
Jonny: "To be honest, I don't think it's that bad outside America. It's only in America that it starts to grate."
What did you make of America?
"I love the place," states Jonny without a moment's hesitation, "it's great. I hate it when bands slag off America, and Americans, all the time, and then they go and play there and say how much they love it..."
Was there any city you were especially taken with?
"Yeah, I think we were all fond of San Francisco. And New York. Boston. Portland. Portland is great. It's where all the left-wing nutter activists end up, it's where they all gravitate when they can't really hack it living anywhere else."
"Texas is great," observes Thom, noting that while its inhabitants are a remarkably open, generous and fun-loving bunch of people, at the same time, you'll walk down some really cool street and someone'll be packing a fucking pistol. It's nuts."
Did you not become heartily sick of 'Creep' as soon as it became a staple on American radio, and a bonehead anthem for all those slackers...?
"Oh, that was ages ago. I'm over it now. We still play it live, and that. I think it's a great song. But yeah, the radio stations were really overdoing it."
Do the band get back to Oxford much these days?
"Not any more, we won't," comes Thom's rueful reply. "We've got, what, one day in the next three months."
Do you still feel a special connection with the place?
"Oh, yeah. We fly our friends out all over the place, otherwise we'd just go mad. I mean, as a place, I'm not really wild about it or anything; it's just like a suburb of London now, unfortunately, but then vast stretches of the south of England are the same. It's just very, very polluted, and... we still live there, 'cos we live there, and we can always get it together to get out whenever we like. But I don't think we subscribe anymore to this thing of 'We love Oxford!!!' I think we've all seen too much. I've seen too many students that don't know they're born, and I've seen too many yupples move in (shudders with horror). Ahhh, it's just... like, you'll be in the centre of town, you see all these little babies being wheeled around. And you'll see these buses starting up, and there's these huge clouds of big poisonous smoke everywhere, and then you see the baby being wheeled through this smoke, inhaling it. It's crazy. It's not right. It's fucking sick. Oxford's just a mini-microcosm of London, in that regard, the pollution is horrendous."
You're fairly lukewarm about London, obviously...
"We worked there a lot, but we couldn't wait to get out, really, just get on a train and go home. Dunno why, it just sucks you in. It's where everybody is, really, and that's quite terrifying, if you go to a gig, all these people are there. You just wish you were in disguise."
Was that the motivation in dying your hair black?
"It was, yeah," he states flatly, "It worked, as well. For ages."
When asked how he chooses to relax when he's off duty, Thom Yorke raises his eyebrows like a man who simply doesn't know the meaning of the word.
"If I had spare time now, what I'd like to do is start working again. I never stop collecting ideas; I just never switch off, really. I wouldn't want to; I wouldn't know what the fuck to do. I went on holiday for two weeks, and that was great, but... that's it for this year, thanks very much."
Do you find holidays inherently boring, or something?
"Nah, not even that. It was cool, 'cos I knew I couldn't do anything, y'know? It balances all the other shit out. It always has done for us. 'Cos if we can carry on working and writing, everything else is cool. But if you just go on the trail, and that's it, that's all you do, then you just become an idiot. And then you can't get back to working."
Jonny's favoured relaxation technique sounds a shade more pleasant: "Listening very, very closely to music, with your eyes closed, that's really good. There's something quite complex about it, something dense. Something like Bitches Brew, with a really dirty atmosphere."
Do you read much?
"I go through manic phases of reading loads, and then I won't pick up a book in weeks," explains Thom. "It's mainly non-fiction. The best book I've read in ages is The Age Of Extremes by a Marxist historian called Eric Hobsbawm, and it's basically just a short history of the 20th century..."
It's quite a terrifying age, really, in so many ways...
"Yeah, it is. Well, that's why the book's called Age Of Extremes, It's the most terrifying thing I've ever read in my life. The most frightening thing is, there's fuck-all difference between now and the Middle Ages, fuck-all essential difference. The way people are killed has changed. You know, people are killed en masse, or by lightweight weapons, weapons you just carry around in your bag. I mean, you don't have to really participate when you shoot somebody, or press a button that sets off a nuclear weapon, It's possible to be more detached about killing people in these ways. And civilians became part of it, it became a natural thing for civilians to get blown to fuck. Whereas that didn't happen before, not to the same degree."
In 1995, Radiohead were one of many high-profile contributors to the War Child Help album that sought to raise funds for the besieged denizens of Sarajevo. Were the band directly approached about this, or did they volunteer their services?
"We were approached, and it was like, well, how can you not do it?"
Was the Yugoslav conflict something you'd felt especially strongly about beforehand?
"Ah, yeah. Christ, yeah. I'd come home and turn on the telly, and I just couldn't believe my eyes. (Shakes head) Then you say to yourself, well, where'd they get the weapons?"
This manifest willingness to look behind the surface for the real causes of the slaughter, allied to earlier statements Thom made about the IMF's grip on the globe and the utter irrelevance of a 'New Labour' government, lead me to suspect that he's completely beyond the outer limits of the political spectrum as it's conventionally understood. He confirms this to be the case when he enthusiastically enters a discussion about Noam Chomsky and British Imperialism which, in the interests of readers' sanity, I have decided to withhold.
His political worldview, however, is most eloquently summed up by the following heartfelt bellyache: "Left, right, it's all irrelevant, it's all bullshit. They're lying to you. It's a brilliant, convenient way of making people think they have a choice. The right to choose, yeah? To choose between some fucker in a grey suit and some other fucker in a blue suit."
What about music, what do you listen to now?
"Ourselves," responds Thom, drily.
"I love the new Pavement album," asserts Jonny.
Did you have any especial guitar heroes when you were younger?
"Not really, no. Or not until fairly recently. I had guitar playing I liked, but I just associated it with bands."
"But you loved Dave Gilmour," alleges Thom, with a huge shit-eating leer on his face.
"His guitar playing? Not really. What, all those solos? No, not at all," Jonny refutes, visibly offended.
What was your staple musical diet, Thom?
"At ten years old, it was Queen," he confesses.
I won't breathe a word of this to anyone, I swear.
"No, you can tell the readers, I don't mind. Really."
Are you still a fan?
"Eh, wall, yeah, sort of. To an extent. You can't help admiring their... professionalism, or whatever it was. I got these amazing Freddie Mercury stories from someone who worked with him when ha was alive, and apparently he wouldn't talk to anyone, he never did interviews; and yet when he appeared on stage he was totally, totally focused, and completely rabid - but obviously he was the total opposite of that, totally sensitive and really, really shy. I just thought he was always really bewitching, because of that, he was like two different people.
"But then, I was a huge Brian May fan, as well. (Laughs) I just thought, I want that guitar. In fact, I met him, and I said 'you know, you're the reason I used to spend months and months on end in my garage trying to build a fucking guitar'. I didn't have any proper tools, I just had a fuckin' hacksaw, and brass thingies to smooth the edges...."
Has the Lord Jesus Christ played any part in your lives?
"Never met the man," Jonny insists.
Do you have a favourite drug?
"Uhh?" replies Jonny, eyes agog, with tangible alarm in his voice. "Alcohol's nice. (Pause) I think drugs are better at home than they are on tour, to be honest," he says softly. "'Cos you just sort of feel safer, and they last longer, and go further."
Thom: "And you don't have to sing the next day."
Radiohead play the RDS In Dublin on June 21st with support from Massive Attack and Teenage Fanclub.