Karaoke. Champagne. Shopping. The funk... Radiohead: how they took on 2001. And won
SOMEWHERE AROUND two in the morning, Ed O'Brien is standing on a tiny stage in a small room on the seventh floor of a towerblock in Tokyo's drinking neighbourhood of Roppongi, belting out a version of 'Copacabana'. Six hours earlier the guitarist was on stage at the Budokan Arena, all gyrating hips and flexing wrists as he worked a raspy shaker thing at the beginning of 'Paranoid Android'. Now he's doing his Barry Manilow bit and is making exactly the same slinky moves.
Drummer Phil Selway is next. He takes the karaoke mic for his song, Take That's 'Back For Good'. The assembled gathering, high on jugs of diluted lager and pokey tequila, applaud wildly. Selway can sing!
We are denied the opportunity to savour Colin Greenwood's predilection for karaoke Joy Division. Despite his reputation for being last out of the bar, any bar, the bass player has already returned to the hotel, annoyed at the dithering over where the party was going next. There's no Jonny Greenwood - karaoke 'is just not his thing', Selway will say of the guitarist.'Unless he could do it through his effects pedal,' O'Brien will chuckle. And there's no Thom Yorke either, so we must forgo the pleasure of the singer's rendition of Louis Armstrong's 'What A Wonderful World' - a performance that had many of the Japanese record company in tears last time Radiohead were in the country.
Earlier, Yorke had cheerfully joined the throng at the aftershow party in one of the conference rooms strung along the Budokan's circular perimeter. It was a gathering of he type made infamous by the bands-are-hell, touring-is-hellish film Meeting People Is Easy. But everyone was smiling, Radiohead seemingly happy to mill around, chat to old acquaintances and drink plastic cups of champagne purloined by their manager. After a couple of hours, everyone packed up, Yorke nonchalantly stuffing a bottle of vodka into one of his shopping bags.
Yorke loves shopping more than anyone else in Radiohead, Selway and O'Brien both confirm. Indeed, he is markedly chuffed with his new beige raincoat, and speaks approvingly of Gap-like Japanese store UNIQLO (a recent arrival in the UK).
'I've been getting stuff for Noah,' Yorke will later insist as he walks the lobby of the band's grand Tokyo hotel, laden with carrier bags. Noah is his ten-month-old son. He's just started to crawl.'I spoke to him on the phone last night. That was very weird...'
'Thom is a very big shopper,' grinned Mari Hagihara from japanese music magazine Snoozer at the Budokan aftershow. 'When he comes here, we have to do interviews between his shopping trips'.
This is where Radiohead have chosen to end their world tour. This week they set the seal on three albums and 18 revolutionary months. How was it for them?
'We understand more now what we're doing than when we were doing OK Computer. We understand more why we decided to carry on because we had to question everything. And,' Thom Yorke says with a champagne-loosened smile, 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger!'
THE NEXT NIGHT, in Tokyo satellite town Yokohama, after the tour's penultimate show, Thom Yorke and Jonny and Colin Greenwood sit in a minibus, swigging champagne. Jonny has the runs, but his brother and Yorke are perky and voluble (ie a bit pissed).
It's a year and a day since the release of Kid A .
Thom Yorke: Really? Jesus. It feels like about ten years to me.
Do you have any perspective on that period?
Colin Greenwood: Looking back on it now, I have this perverse desire to release singles off Kid A just so people could hear it. Not because we were being perverse at the time...
Yorke: It was like we set off a stink bomb.
You think people cowered away from Kid A?
Yorke: I don't know about cowered...
Yorke: They were pretty angry. They were in Britain anyway.
Colin: (Because Kid A) wasn't like OK Computer with bigger tuned and stadium potential.
Yorke: (bitter, mocking laugh) Here comes the chorus...
Were you disappointed by that response?
Yorke: Not really. Because everyone else in the band was like,' Well, this was gonna happen.' In a bizarre sort of way there's a sense of relief, because the pressure's off.
Did you think,'Shit, we've got another album of this stuff...'?
Yorke: No, not really. We'd burnt our bridges, basically. But we didn't do it, somebody else did it. But this was all happening in the UK. And elsewhere, it just fucking worked like a fucking dream!
Yorke: We've never understood the dialogue-stroke-monologue we're supposed to have with the UK press anyway. It's like they're speaking fucking Japanese.
Do you make a rod for your own back by 'daring' to be different?
Yorke: But they're standing up and saying that's what they're trying to find all the time! How does that work? I don't understand. I just don't get it.
At the same time, you were having proclamations of God-like genius dumped in your shoulders.
Yorke: Well again, that's the English dialogue. That isn't happening elsewhere. This is an English thing, it's a fucking roulette game. It's a fucking total bluff. We were just happy to fucking finish the record!
Oh dear. Thom Yorke might be getting fucking tipsy on fucking champagne now. And we've ended up talking about how much he fucking hates the fucking press. He's bitter, still. But maybe that's the booze talking.
Then, quietly, Jonny pipes up.
'No one was more surprised than us when it worked...'
YOU KNOW Radiohead. You've read about them.
Glum. polite. Contrary. Middle class. Avant-garde. Purist. Puritanical. English. Remote. Depressing. Straight. Fundamendalist. Important. Intellectual. Sincere. Awkward. Intense. Big in America. Boffin-like. Political. Po-faced. No logos but lotsa slogans. Artsy. Geeky. A bit narked. Uptight. Outasight.
They made the greatest British rock record of the Nineties (The Bends), then made the greatest album, like, ever (OK Computer). They had a terrible time touring the world, trying to catch up with OK Computer's success. Then they spent umpteen murderous months in a variety of studios and locations on the follow-up. Musical alchemists, having mastered rock they melted it down, recasting it as purest samplejazz computertronica with 'interesting' graphics - and not once, but twice!
Oh no! It wasn't just the baby that followed the bathwater, it was the plastic duck and the bath itself.
But Radiohead kept on being the most popular and beloved cult band in the world. They went on selling albums, past the 15 million mark. And, curiouser and curiouser, they began to enjoy it.
The week they were at Number One in America and Britain with Kid A, Yorke received many calls at his New York hotel.'Endless messages, all saying: 'You better fucking enjoy this! If you don't deal with this, you're the saddest!'
That same week, they played primetime TV show Saturday Night Live.
'That was my highlight of the (past) year,' says Yorke vigorously. 'Because we played really well. And the versions we did of 'Idioteque' and 'The National Anthem'... For me it was like being a child and somebody saying, "You have ten minutes of television in America, completely live, no gaps, and you can do whatever the fuck you like and there will be x millions of people watching!"
'And I was really, really excited about it. And then just at the last minute before we went on, Michael Stipe turned up, and he was really geeing me up. But he gave me all these terrible warnings about how horrific it was. But I was surprised that Saturday Night Live meant so much to me...'
Then - via this summer's thriumphant US tour, a concert for 44,000 in Oxford's South Park, some more European shows and the release of the mini-album I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings - Japan. It was nearly home time.
THE DAY after the Budokan show, Radiohead travel the hour or so to Yokohama by bus. Their final two gigs will be in the town's Arena.
Yorke's piano tuner has been and gone. Now, in an empty arena in the afternoon, Radiohead's sound man is testing the PA with a series of computer farts. Hrrrr bloop bleep fizz rrrt...
'Oh yeah, I've got that record,' deadpans Yorke, centre stage, into his microphone. More noises. 'On that Berlin label, isn't it?' Behind him, their backdrop glitters. It looks like long strips of tinsel, but it's actually a barcode. It says 'Fht 451', which is the temperature at which paper burns (and the title of a novel about burning books by science fiction author Ray Bradbury).
'We were obsessed about burning books,' says Yorke with no clarification.
Radiohead soundcheck with 'Knives Out' and a new tune with no name and mumbled words. It is a clanging, driving thing, a bit Doors-like, full of swampy blues riffs. In Seattle, they played another new song,'The Reckoner'. Yorke describes it as 'like a heavy metal tune. It will be absolutely brilliant. I've got this thing in my head, I know it's gonna be amazing, but it's absolutely miles away.'
After soundcheck, band and 25-strong crew gather together for an end-of-term group photo. Then Phil Selway and Ed O'Brien settle down in a quiet room off the catering area.
O'Brien: 'When we first did arenas on OK Computer, we had over 50 people in our crew. Part of you felt, hey, we deserve this (many)! but then you get embarassed. We are not worthy of this! We didn't feel comfortable doing Wembley. It's been really nice to have a lot of negative press - it's good for us!'
Selway: 'You just feel like a huge fraud.'
O'Brien: 'The nature of us then, we'd single out the flaws as opposed to the thing that might be good. With everything we played up to and round OK Computer, we were so tense. And The Bends, for instance, is a very tense, fraught record. That's the problem with playing old material: a song like 'Just', the way we're playing now - relaxed, swinging and grooving a lot more - doesn't necessarily suit that music.'
Did you overthink Kid A and Amnesiac?
O'Brien: 'We're all aware of this, but part of what we need to get back to is the ability to be throwaway. It just frees you up. But the more successful you become, the more people hang on Thom's every word. If you're throwaway, you can be a lot more daring.'
Those records are seen as as much experiments in sounds as records.
O'Brien: 'I think the criticism levelled at Kid A on an emotional level is absolutely fair enough. We were so inhibited, so scared of letting go in the studio, partly because of the 'rock' tag. Because what we associated with rock was letting go, and the emotional bleeeurgh, a real change.'
Radiohead are thrilled with being Radiohead in a manner unseen since the release of The Bends in 1995. In fact, reckons O'Brien,'we felt happiest before The Bends, when we didn't fit into a category, into that whole Britpop thing.' Kid A was about getting back to this time, about the need to 're-place ourselves.'
In this regard, Kid A, Amnesiac and I Might Be Wrong have done their job. Band manager Bryce Edge says he's never seen Radiohead this happy at this stage of a world tour before; normally, agree the band, they can't look each other in the eye by tour's end. The feeling within the band now is variously described as 'buoyant' (Selway), 'this is the best touring experience we've ever had' (O'Brien),'jetlagged' (Colin),'tight' (Yorke) and 'I'm trying to think of a nice word...' (Jonny). To these we might add - oh yes - 'chilled'.
Thom Yorke says,'That's been the weird thing about going out and playing live: remembering that the best thing about being in a band and making music is responding to the moment, and things growing of their own accord. The less you fuck with them sometimes, the better.' Then, as he must, he adds: 'I mean, sometimes you need to put a spanner in the works.'
Radiohead play two night s at Yokohama and then go their separate ways. The first of these shows, the one I see, is fantastic.'Idioteque' is a stand out. Thom Yorke throws himself into it, like an epileptic on spin cycle, a shit-eating grin splitting his face. As 1995's 'Talk Show Host' later emerged as an important transitional song, giving them a compass reading for the direction of Kid A, so 'Idioteque' is cited by the band as a way forward. Lean, dry and reliant on studio effects on record, they had to find a way to make it work in concert. Now, live, it's limber, propulsive, emotional, energetic. Techno-soul.
Radiohead plan to reconvene next summer for rehearsals. They will do three weeks of 'scaled down' shows in August to road-test new material.'To let,' says Jonny, 'people (in the band) get their shit together.'
Will they play Glastonbury?
'I'm not allowed to say (anything about) that!' fudges O'Brien.'The idea is that we don't want to do anything big. The idea is to be pretty self-indulgent - that means we'll play new material. And I don't think playing Glastonbury, or any festival, is conducive to that...'
Then they'll go into the studio to record their sixth album proper, with a view to an early 2003 release date.'We'll keep it fairly brief,' says O'Brien.'And not get too... too cerebral about the whole thing.'
Yorke has been handing out tapes of ideas for new songs to his bandmates. This is a good sign, says Bryce Edge. Last go round, for the first time in the band's history, he didn't do this. There's going to be a lot more tapes passed around too, Yorke says. He and Jonny are going back to what they did with OK Computer, working on turning half-formed ideas into more substantial ideas.
'We wanna do that thing like ABBA. Like Benny and the other bloke.'
'Am I Benny?' Jonny wonders.'You've got the beard.'
'Yeah yeah,' says Yorke eagerly.'With the beards, in the hut. They used to go in there every day and write...'
Can you describe the feel of the new songs?
'No, absolutely not. I really, really can't. Because there's four or five areas of different - well, it's like where we are, really. Where we are is, we're still very, very into what we're doing with the computers, even though we've been touring for ages, I think - especially you (Jonny) and me - we're still heavily into computer stuff. Jonny's heavily into his analogue wires and cables. But also, there's a really concerted effort to use the songwriting thing again.
'And also, my ambition in life is just to make a record that's just... funky. Makes you want to have sex.'
If he's serious, it's funny. It he's joking, that's funny. Either way, it's Thom Yorke, being funny.
Is Thom a nicer person to be around these days?
'Definitely,' says Jonny.'For personal reasons, he's spending time at home, and as a result when we do stuff together, it's more exciting...'
'It's more important,' says Colin,'for the right reasons.'
Has Noah helped you relax, Thom?
'Yeah. A friend said, when he found out that Rachel and I were having a baby, "Thank fuck for that. Maybe you'll stop throwing your rattle out of the pram... "'
AT ONE in the morning, outside the Tokyo hotel, the Greenwoods exit the minibus but Yorke stays sitting. He's on a ranting roll. He thinks the anti-globalisation movement is about compassion, is what the left wing of now. Blair is 'a media sap trying to mop up the potential blood'. He is appalled by the notion that, post-September 11, to question the way the West conducts its business and politics is a trivial irrelevance; that to say dissent equals disloyalty is an outrageous lie promulgated by the Daily Mail,'and they should be fucking burnt at the stake. These people are ignorant fascists. It's lack of information and ignorance. The Labour Party had to call the Daily Mail in a couple of weeks ago, and The Sun and say: "Less of this fucking anti-Muslim stuff. "'
Was this reported in other newspapers?
'I can't remember how I know that... Nobody can sue me, so... Actually, maybe the Daily Mail will sue me by this point.'
He seems suddenly drained. He can't help but getting fired up by this stuff, yet he knows the kind of snickering that greets such pronouncements (earlier this year, he claimed that M15 had a file on him).
Do you invite trouble by 'being political'?
'Yeah, I should just shut up. Absolutely. It's a nightmare,' he chuckles.
People think you walk about in workwear made from hemp, resolutely avoiding going near any shops...
'I probably would agree with them. I'm as confused as everybody, you know what I mean? I've got no idea, absolutely no idea. I mean, I was wearing Nike in the 'Just' video.'