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'I Don't Want To Be In A Rock Band Any More'
In his most in-depth interview ever, Thom Yorke answers the two questions everyone's asking: what the hell was ‘Kid A’ all about? And what will Radiohead do next?
Interview: Yoichiro Yamasaki and Erica Yamashita / Illustrations: Neil Shrubb

Thom Yorke has admitted to many things since Radiohead first went public with their new, electronically enhanced incarnation. He has admitted to having a nervous breakdown after ‘OK Computer’. He has admitted to suffering from writer's block. He has admitted to wishing away his band's illustrious legacy. He has admitted to developing a difficult relationship with electric guitars. He has suggested that “melodies became an embarrassment to me”.
What he hasn't managed to do, until now, is reveal just what was going through his head when he put together ‘Kid A’, the first stirrings of the radically reinvented Radiohead and one of the bravest records in recent years. Certainly a work which doesn't give its secrets up easily, it will long continue to be argued over by everyone from hardcore fans to casual admirers.
Sitting in a Tokyo photo studio, calmly unruffled in smart short-sleeved shirt and stubbly beard, Thom Yorke claims to be bemused by the reactions to his band's return. In fact, he seems to view the creative freedom Radiohead have now achieved with something close to relish.
Chatty, engaged, frequently laughing, this is clearly a man who, in his own words, doesn’t hate himself quite as much as he used to.

The first surprise about ‘Kid A’ was its lack of basic rock songs...
“It seems music has got to a point where everybody has the right to go any place they like. And it shouldn't be over your career or one record. It can be over a song or half a song, or even ten seconds. There's ten seconds of hip-hop on the LP, y'know. To me, that's how I listen to music now. I don't want to be in a rock band any more, anyway.“

Do you think electronic music is more capable of capturing the essence of your world?
“Umm, yeah. On ‘OK Computer’ we were dipping our toes in with that stuff. This time, it's just become a part of the furniture, what we use now. Every time I picked up my guitar, I just put it down again. It didn't mean anything to me at all. I played more keyboards and piano than anything.
A lot of the songwriting now isn't really about songwriting at all, it's about editing, building up a lot of material, then piecing it together like a painter. But it's weird approaching that with vocals, because all the stuff I've been listening to, almost none of it has vocals. That was one of the things that I was most interested in; that I was so in love with this music, yet there wasn't much vocal interpretation. Apart from Björk, y'know. When I did the session with Björk [for Selma Songs track ‘I've Seen It All’], she had all the same records. It was great, actually. But coming from being in a rock band, I had no confidence in exploring that stuff. I felt I knew nothing about it so I didn't have the right to go into it. There was all this baggage. You know, rock bands going into making electronic music have a fairly bad history [laughs]. Neil Young being an obvious example.“

Was the recording process different this time? Was that necessary in order to progress?
“There was no sense of 'We must progress". It was more like, "We have no connection with what we've done before" [laughs]. What we're hearing in our heads is much more like this disjointed, fragmented thing, very much a landscape. Well, the artwork is very much a landscape - for fear of sounding prog-rocky. It wasn't about people as such, not really about observing characters. It was very much about objects that you have no emotional attachment to at all. I consider the album to be incredibly unemotional. It's not in any way trying to pull you in. The vocals are like a grammar of noises.“

It's interesting you felt no connection to earlier material. This record sounds like Radiohead starting another...
“...phase? I was contemplating changing the name of the band. I'm absolutely serious! I didn't want to be answerable to what we'd done before. Emotionally, I'd had enough. It felt good to put a full stop on it. But then, in a way, that's kind of running away, a bit lazy. What I worry about is people saying, "It's a big transformation, a big leap forward." To me, it's not really about that, it's about simply representing what you're hearing: what you hear when you go to sleep at night, what you wake up with, what you hear when you're driving, what you hear when you're walking. Then it's just a long, incredibly infuriating, frustrating battle to try and get it down to give to other people to hear.
What I'm saying is it's about starting again. It's not about having to live up to any myth about who or what you are. That's why I'm finding it extremely difficult to do interviews at the moment... I've only done two, and I've decided this is the last. [Adopts smarmy American accent] "You're so hostile, why are you still angry?" It's totally fucking irrelevant!”

‘Kid A’ seems more concerned with confronting people than giving them a melodic catharsis...
“The music scene at the moment is dominated with that terrible teenage stuff. But then other people are just getting on with it, because there's no longer that pressure to fulfil this obligation to be a rock band... Maybe that's all rubbish.“

‘Kid A’ suggests you think no one musical vision can entirely grasp the world...
“I think it's true. That's why it was such a nightmare putting it together. I didn't really know what any of it meant until we went and argued about what was going on it. We had massive rows. It's always been quite easy before, but this was just a nightmare.”

The sound of this album is like the sound of nothingness, what's left after everything else has disappeared. It's like a load of colours mixed together, but you end up with white...
“It's like walking for a long time, eventually your brain empties...“

It's a record to live in.
“Yeah, exactly. That's the best I heard it described.”

‘Kid A’ seems to try and capture the essence of the world as you see it, but suggests that you can't capture it, you can only be engulfed by it. Perversely, that's a pleasurable experience.
“Yeah, I was having a semi-argument with someone a couple of days ago. He didn't get the track ‘Idioteque’. I ended up saying I thought it was the most joyful thing we've ever written. He just didn't get it, he was saying, ‘But you're singing about the Ice Age coming.’ Well, yeah, that's because it is [laughs]. But that's not the point, the point is the joy of watching everything working. When we finished it I remembered how I always wanted to do a dance tune, something you hear when you go to a club. I used to go to a club when I was at university that played hip hop, James Brown and stuff. The speakers were really bad and blown up. I remembered that, because I always used to think, ‘Wouldn't it be amazing to try and get that feeling, but have all the things that freak you out, the most worrying images you could have, and rattle them off in the middle of the rhythm?’ “

With lines like "see you in the next life" or "I am not here", the album doesn't seem to have much sense of self.
Yeah, I know what you mean. It's very fragmented. Like, if you walk into a town one day and you pick up bits of people's lives, but only for seconds, and you don't really get any further. It's not really pursued, it's sort of just there, really. It's not a big deal, it's just happening.

That's a very human experience as well, though, isn't it?
“Yeah. That's more realistic than devoting a whole song to one particular emotional thing for me now. By the time you say it, you're already feeling something else. I think that's the way people operate. When we first stopped, I was writing down everything that was happening to me all the time, and I had these bits of paper in the cupboard. And then, I started throwing it all away. I was completely blocked, because I couldn't sustain anything through a whole song to make it convincing, and I couldn't sustain a thought to the end of a sentence, and I couldn't sustain playing the guitar over four chords without thinking it was shit. And then eventually when the confidence came back, it came back in the form of not having a problem with that, actually using that. Saying, ‘OK, this is just fragments.’ There's much more confidence there than on ‘OK Computer’.“

By the way, why's it called ‘Kid A’?
“I've got no idea.”

Who's responsible for the title?
“Actually my sequencer is responsible. That's what my sequencer called the opening melodies of that song. I have no recollection of writing it at all. Then I found it, and it was called ‘Kiddae’. In a way, that illustrates the way we were working. We had one of those horrible white boards you have in offices. At one point, we were working on 50 different things, which used to drive the others crazy, but it made me really happy. Depending on how I felt when I walked in one morning, I had 50 different things to choose from, and it's brilliant! And I had another 100 different things on the sequencer. Totally swimming at the tide, you don't know what's going to happen. Rather than [Straight voice] ‘Well, OK, we'll set up in a room, play these three chords and I'm gonna sing about this thing here.’ It was very liberating and it's also just nonsense as well. It comes from different areas of your head.”

It was really hard to imagine what the album would be like from hearing the songs played live...
“I'm enjoying the fact that everybody decided what the album's like from the live shows, and it's just not relevant at all, hahaha.”

Why are guitars still the main instruments live?
“It still sounds exciting, in a way. When we started recording we were thinking that, whatever we do, we have to rewrite it in order to be able to play it. So, in a way, we went into the touring not knowing what we were doing really. We had to just guess, which is why we had to use guitars.”

And now there's talk of another album...
“A lot of the other songs we're extremely attached to and we really like, they come from a totally different space, like sonically, which is weird. They went two very different ways and you had to make choices. So we're reserving judgment on it now. I'm not sure if it'll be a complete album.”

You've already played some of the other songs live: ‘Knives Out’, ‘Egyptian Song’...
“Yeah, even though they're really great songs, and I'm really proud of them, they just didn't fit, which is quite a weird feeling, because you think an album should be just basically the best songs. That's not necessarily true. You can put all the best songs in the world on a record and they'll ruin each other. On the later Beatles albums, when they got really, really good at putting things next to each other, like on The White Album, it's just amazing. How in the hell can you have three different versions of ‘Revolution’ on the same record [sic] and get away with it? I thought about that sort of thing.”

The album is very coherent musically. Would you say that's also true of the lyrics?
“Much less than before, but I'm not in a particularly good position to judge. I have a different relationship with the lyrics this time around. To me, it's like looking at things on a shelf... no, that's not right. They're more like shattered bits of mirror than anything else, like pieces of something broken. I don't have any attachment to it other than... well, it made sense to me when it was there at the time, and when we play it, it makes sense. But it's not like I'm trying to get anything across.
You're not supposed to think about the words. That's the whole point all through the record. That's why I'm not printing the lyrics. Never. Maybe I'll give people clues, but it shouldn't be read like that. The lyrics are over before you have time to talk and worry about it. That's how it works out. With ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, when you actually read the lyrics, if I wrote them out, they're just really silly. "Yesterday, I woke up sucking a lemon". That's pretty silly [laughs]. But I thought it was funny when I sang it. When I listened to it afterwards, it meant something else.”

What about ‘How To Disappear Completely’? Wasn't it inspired by a dream?
“It's pretty straight, straightest thing on the record... except the music isn't. All the orchestration is extremely not straight, which is kind of why it works. It's in the middle of a really bad space. "I'm not here, it's not really happening" is supposed to be like a chant.”

‘Morning Bell’ seems very dramatic.
“Oh yeah, big stuff [laughs]. It's very, very violent. Extremely violent. The really weird thing about that was I wrote the song with all the words pretty much straight away, which is basically the only one I did that with. I recorded it onto MiniDisc and then there was a lightning storm, and it wiped the MiniDisc and I lost the song. I completely forgot it. Then five months later, I was on a plane, knackered for 24 hours, I was just falling asleep, and I remembered it. It was really weird, I never had that before. It's gone in and took a long time to come out again. The lyrics are really... they're not as dramatic as they sound, you know? Except "Cut the kids in half", which is dramatic no matter which way you read it.”

You talk about chopping heads, too...
“Oh yeah. That came out of top hats. I blame the top hats. I had all these fragments that I couldn't do anything with, which is why I cut them up and put them in a top hat, and pulled them out when I was desperate. That's pretty much true of all the album's lyrics, except maybe ‘How To Disappear’ which is about trying desperately to get to the place where you can't feel these things any more.”

Songs like ‘In Limbo’, ‘Optimistic’ and ‘Idioteque’ seem influenced by atrocious world events.
“If I was honest, that's why I had a block for two years: because I couldn't actually write about these things and do them justice.”

You've got more creative independence than ever...
“Yeah, that's true. It'd better bloody be true!”

Do you feel at ease with yourself?
“At ease? Oh yes, I don't hate myself quite as much as I used to, which I think is a bonus really. Because that can only last so long without it destroying you.”

When you were recording "Paranoid Android", you famously threw a tantrum, told everybody it wouldn't work, and disappeared. Next day you woke up with a massive hangover, and everybody else was doing this great track. You described that as a cathartic, liberating experience...
“I think I know what you're gonna ask me, but ask me anyway.”

Were there any of those moments this time?
“Yeah. Early on, we were sort of going back on history and we hadn't moved on and all that shit. That was the point when we thought that maybe this had run its course. But over a period of time we worked things out, had time to get away from the things we were supposed to be. We learned to be human beings again, rather than monsters. And that translated to how we worked. I mean, I'm probably never going to be the easiest person in the studio because I get frustrated. I can hear something in my head, and it's not happening. There's only so much patience you can have. This fragmented way has made that easier, because I'm not trying to sustain one grand emotion. And having a lack of attachment to what I'm writing doesn't make the work any less powerful. In fact, it's more powerful, because you're not trying to prove you're something that maybe you aren't really feeling at that particular moment.”

Do you think rock music is still stuck in an infantile stage?
“Hopefully, this'll be the last time rock musicians are allowed to behave like idiots and get away with it. For me, that's dull. They should all go home, and get a life and go and listen to something else. I don't think that's sour grapes because I'm over 30, heh heh heh. When the ‘OK Computer’ thing stopped I had no connection with that sort of emotional range any more. I didn't have any emotions at all for a long time. Probably the purest emotion I had was when I finished this record. That was like the strongest feeling I've had in three-and-a-half years. Elation, achievement, happiness, that was the most definite feeling I had. Because everything else had just been a mess, and it was like putting pieces back together [laughs].”

With that, Thom jumps up and makes his apologies. He has, finally, said enough.
Turn over for a rundown of the tracks destined for the next Radiohead album.
Another 'Kid' On The Way?
Songs about cannibalism and adultery. Gomez, Madness and Inkspots influences. Lyrics that implore, “Lighten up, squirt”. Select reveals the incredible truth about the Radiohead tracks lined up for album number five

If ‘Kid A’ was intended to deflate expeditions and throw people off the scent, it failed. Radiohead Album Number Four having divided opinions massively, Album Number Five is now the most eagerly awaited album of the moment.
On Radio 1 last month, guitarist Ed O’Brien acknowledged the strange situation where excitement over what Radiohead haven’t yet released remains higher than for what they actually have. “We’ve done that to ourselves,” he said. “If you record 24 songs and some of the songs you play live are off the next record, it’s inevitable people are going to talk about that next album.”
The band always considered the tracks they’ve held back to be among their best and now, thanks to their frequent live airings, so do the fans. Unlike the hemmed-in intentionally unemotional likes of ‘Morning Bell’ and ‘In Limbo’, these songs are no strangers to stirring rock release. Off-kilter, allusive and drenched in mournful post-millennial distress, certainly, but of an altogether more comforting persuasion. Bassist Colin Greenwood has equated the situation to releasing the challenging ‘Paranoid Android’ from ‘OK Computer’ first before then giving people more of what they want.
While by no means definitely in line for release in 2001, the following tracks are undoubtedly the likeliest candidates. The remaining mystery is in what form they will actually appear. Ed has suggested an EP of new material could be released very soon while also waxing lyrical about Internet possibilities. A full album is rumoured to be penned in for March.
What is certain is that when these songs do become available, opinions of Radiohead will once again have to be revised. They should even help make more sense of ‘Kid A’, turning a strangely sparse oddity into part of an undeniably impressive body of work.

[editorial comment: an error in the original article was corrected for the presentation here. The entry for 'I Will' was under the title 'Nude' and vice versa.]

The intro tape of choice at this summer’s gigs featured ‘40s vocal group The Inkspots and the recorded version of this live favourite – a driving mid-tempo rock track – has threatened to feature a similar style of bassy vocal harmony. The goading, confrontational lyrics [“Come on if you think/You can take us all on”] confront multinational corporations in far more directly collectivist terms than any ‘Kid A’ tracks.

Based on a downward spiralling chord progression, this jangling guitar track became a recent live favourite. Lyrics like, “Cook him up/Don't look down/Shove if in your mouth” certainly bear out Thom's claim that it's “about cannibalism”. Also accurate is Ed's “'Smiths-esque” description. Considered by many to be the most likely single of all the new tracks.

This acoustic ballad has been performed in soundcheck since 1997. The lyrics – “Once again I'm in trouble with my only friend/She's been smashing up my house again” - tackle personal relationships more direcly than any 'Kid A' track. Select reported in December 1997 the song “lies somewhere between 'Exit Music' and 'Climbing Up The Walls'.” A version on the documentary Meeting People Is Easy features Thom on acoustic guitar and Jonny on Rhodes keyboard. Peculiarly, last December, Thom fretted that the “last version we did sounded like Madness.”

This fantastically frail, deeply emotional song takes its title from a US pro-virginity slogan. First played live in 1995 [when it was accompanied by satisfyingly crude synth arpeggios], it was rejected from 'OK Computer' before being taken up again in January. The lyrics are a potent mixture of tender romance [“I'll drown my beliefs/To have you be in peace”] and spooked alienation [“I'm not living/I'm just killing time”]. Classic Radiohead, really.

New song worked on extensively during the abortive Copenhagen sessions and taken up again this March. Featuring Thom on drums and Jonny playing some “cool organ”, Ed has explained that, “It's incredibly evocative of that whole time out there minus all the baggage. So that's good.”

Another song briefly revealed in Meeting People Is Easy. The repetitive lyrics explore a potentially destructive bond between lovers. Thom and Nigel Godrich have confirmed the song has been worked on. Unlike the earlier version, it now apparently features a drum machine, new lyrics and copious Pro-tooling.

An absolute classic, considered by their management team to be the best Radiohead recording ever. First played live by Thom solo on piano at the Amsterdam Tibetan Freedom Concert in June 1999, a full group version has featured live this year [with Colin on uptight bass]. Somberly meditative, it circles around three Yorke-played piano chords and the repeated line: “There was nothing to doubt and nothing to fear”. Almost childlike dream imagery sees Thom jumping in a river and spying angels, stars and “astral cars”.

Initially called 'Last Flowers In The Hospital', this track was an 'OK Computer' contender which Colin was particularly disappointed never made the final cut. The string-heavy music was written by Jonny. In December, Thom declared: “I absolutely love this song. Jonny and I have rewritten the second verse and we're yet to start recording it. But it's not lost.”

A long [over eight minutes], hypnotic Neu-esque groove built around three chords and based, like 'The National Anthem', around a bass riff and drum pattern. Continually attempted between August and February, its structureless nature posed continual problems. Ed expressed worries that the temptation to pile on layers of overdubs might make it “over-cooked”.

A notorious old song [which also didn't make it onto 'OK Computer'] first played acoustically by Thom in Tokyo at the start of 1998. Rejected titles include 'Big Ideas (Don't Get Any)' and ’Failure To Receive Payment Will Put Your House At Risk' (not catchy enough, apparently). The full band effort sees Thom on piano and Jonny doubling up on Hammond organ and xylophone. Lines like “she stands stark naked and she beckons you” and “now that you found it, it's gone” appears to address guilty males' compulsion to commit adultery. A Radiohead first surely.

Another live favourite that the band has so far held back. Thom admitted in December that the group hadn't forgotten the track, but that, as yet, no definite recording had been made. Oddball lyrics picture Thom being rescued from a trapped lift and concludes with the line, “So lighten up, squirt”.

A gradually swelling, propulsive track based on a jittery rhythm pattern. Originating from a Copenhagen jam, the finished version should feature a Jonny-penned string arrangement and, possibly, some Moog from Ed. Lyrics obliquely tackle political oppression [lines include: “We're gonna crack your little soul”].

Built around a jolting Gomez-like Delta blues riff, this was debuted live on 19 June, 2000 featuring Thom on acoustic guitar. With atypical lines like, “Have ourselves a good time”, the lyrics concern a sudden moment of pleasurable enlightenment. The music isn't nearly so joyous.