Instrument swapping! Ditching guitars! Spending 373 days writing one song! Ed O’Brien and drummer Phil Selway talk exclusively to TG about the making of the long-awaited follow-up to OK Computer.
It’s June 2000. No-one has heard the new Radiohead album apart from the band themselves, and even they aren’t 100% sure which of the completed songs will actually make it onto the final CD. It’s one week before their first live European dates of the summer, and the album has just been completed. Over the following months, rumours circulate that Kid A (as the album will be called) features less guitar than all their previous albums, that it’s “challenging and unconventional” and “more a collection of interesting sounds and ideas, than the more structured song format that might be familiar to Radiohead fans”. When it finally arrives on TG’s desk days before going to press, we get a bit of a surprise. Put simply, TG won’t be tabbing any of the songs on Kid A. Not because they’re bad songs (in many ways it’s an adventurous and beautiful album), but because (a) you won’t be asking us to and (b) there just isn’t enough guitar to tab.
Guitarist Ed O’Brien and drummer Phil Selway, meanwhile, are just relieved to have finished the bloody thing. “It came really quickly in the end,” says Ed, “but in February we were in the situation of [frustrated voice]: ‘We’ve been doing this for a year, it’s been going on and on’ – we just couldn’t see the end of it. It was winter and dark and we were tired and thought it was never going to end. When we’d started in France at the beginning of 1999 we thought it was all gonna be over by Easter 1999.”
“That happens with every single album we have done,” says Phil. “We always think that it’s all going to be over within two or three weeks…”
“And we always say ‘Let’s do it quick’,” says Ed. “We said it again this time. It was like ‘Let’s do really short, two or three minute songs, just to get it down really quickly and have fun’.” He laughs: “16 months later, we emerged from the studio.”
The question guitarists and rock fans everywhere will be asking is: was it worth it?
The facts: Radiohead’s last album, OK Computer, was once voted The Greatest Album Of All Time by the readers of Q magazine. It sold 4.5 million copies worldwide. In Virgin’s new All-Time Top 1,000 Albums book, the top five albums (as voted for by 200,000 punters and music journos) are, in descending order: Revolver, The Bends, Sgt Peppers, OK Computer and The White Album. Rubbing shoulders with The Beatles in the minds of both the public and the critics, Radiohead have made quite an impact for a band that were formed less than 10 years ago.
The downside to making this kind of impact is that suddenly everyone either thinks they know you or wants to know you. People hang on your every pronouncement, want to be your friend, and have opinions on you even though they’ve never met you. Worse, people think they own you: after all, they bought the records that put you where you are today. Radio stations, magazines and TV shows want you to give them exclusives. The industry wants you to play their little games: to say ‘hi’ to the west-coast distributor and his wife, to stick a sure-fire hit single (or three) on your album, to play every shithole in the world, sponsored along the way by Budweiser, Coca Cola or some other corporate monster. In short, you become the property of other people.
Radiohead do not like this. Radiohead do not date supermodels, are not thinking of going to into acting, and don’t particularly like doing interviews. So while Thom Yorke is widely regarded as the bandleader of Radiohead, guitarist Ed O’Brien has become more or less the official spokesman of the band. While Thom is reluctant to do interviews, Ed is happy to talk and – for over a year – has been compiling a studio diary on the official Radiohead web site at www.radiohead.com, chronicling the making of Kid A.
Reading through his 16 months of entries, one thing stands out: every band member seems to be in the studio at all times. For all that it may sound like only half the band made Kid A, Radiohead seem to work as a true collective. “We are always all there in the studio,” says Phil. “We keep on saying that we should ease up on ourselves, and that we don’t always have to be there all the time, but we all want to be there all the time.”
“And the thing is,” picks up Ed, “that we’re not that well organised, so we can’t really say to someone ‘You don’t have to come in today’, when we’re working. You know, something could happen, someone could start playing something…”
“And you want to be there,” says Phil.
While the vast majority of songs come originally from Thom and are arranged by the band until everyone is happy with them, sometimes the songwriting becomes collective as well. “Dollars And Cents [which didn’t make it onto the album] is pretty unique in the sense that it comes from a jam,” says Ed. “We did that a lot in the beginning of this session, and we had never jammed before. Jamming involves a degree of proficiency musically which we’d never thought we’d attained. But then again Dollars And Cents is basically a major and a minor chord. It’s not exactly rocket science, but we kind of know that we can string that out for 20 minutes.”
The leap from Pablo Honey to 1995’s The Bends showed that there was more to Radiohead than Creep. Equally, OK Computer was hailed as a giant step on from The Bends. So what sort of shirt should people expect this time? “I’d say that the step this time is bigger than the step from The Bends to OK Computer,” says Phil. “The Bends and OK Computer came from very much the same direction in terms of the way we were working on band performances. It was stuff that we’d worked on live, really, and we actually avoided that this time, and used many different approaches.”
Would they say that the overall atmosphere is darker than OK Computer? “I don’t know,” says Phil. “OK Computer didn’t seem like a particularly dark album when we did it, but I know now that it is a dark album. It’s difficult to say what the overall mood of this album is. I’d say that there’s a ‘late night’ feeling to it.”
Ed agrees: “Yeah, it is a late night thing, but I think that OK Computer was as well. It’s just got that sort of feel that you want to hear it at night. Maybe it helps a little if you have a smoke or something,” he laughs.
While Radiohead’s first two albums were filled with raucous guitars, OK Compute moved to a sound more textured, less-riffy than before. During the making of this album, Thom Yorke was concerned that Radiohead weren’t really pushing the boundaries in the same way that the experimental dance music of artists like the Aphex Twin and Autechre were. While Ed’s vision for the album was to do short melodic “three-minute guitar songs”, Thom had a different idea: “I’d completely had it with melody,” the singer told Q magazine. “I just wanted rhythm. All melodies to me were pure embarrassment.” Instead of song structures, Yorke brought drum loops and interesting sounds to the studio. All the old rules and roles were thrown out the window. The result was that Ed rarely played his guitar during recording in 1999, and that Jonny Greenwood plays guitar on only a couple of songs (spending most of his time playing the Ondes Martenot, a weird keyboard most famous for providing the wailing effect on the Star Trek theme tune). So how exactly have their roles changed? Ed finds it a hard question to answer: “I don’t know really,” he says. “You probably know better, Phil.”
The drummer has a think: “In the past, Ed would make these marvellous sounds and Jonny would play the angular lead parts, and Thom would be playing the driven parts, but that’s over now. I’d say that they’re all very equal in all of those areas, and that’s added a lot of versatility.”
Not that this versatility, guitar-wise, is in evidence on Kid A. “Personally, I’ve been just as involved in making sounds and playing keyboards,” says Ed by way of explanation. “You just get bored with playing the same things. Thom played a lot of bass and Phil player guitar and that was the whole thing: not being territorial. But when you have played together for as long as us, something does happen, and that’s why it has been quite funny playing the old songs through rehearsal. All the old parts come back and seem so strange.”
“On this album we jut didn’t want things to be clearly divided,” says Phil about this bout of instrument swapping. “We’ve been trying not to be territorial about things, and some of us really had to fight it. There’s that natural impulse: ‘This is what I do and if you do it, then what do I do?’ Once you get over that it opens up the whole process, and it becomes to liberating.”
“You go away from feeling territorial about things,” says Ed. “You think ‘I may not play on this song, but I have an input and a view’. And there are several tracks on this album where either Jonny, Colin or I haven’t played on them. And that’s a difference from the past. It’s a part of the growing up process, you actually have to treat it like a band thing. You are in, even if you don’t play on the track.”
Does this mean that Radiohead have stopped being a guitar band and become Thom Yorke’s art-house ensemble? “Thom is the leader,” affirms Ed. “He is an amazing musician, he could be a solo artist without a doubt, but it would be different. We provide a way for him to be excited about music and a way for him to express himself. We provide a security and a sort of bubble he can work within. Thom wants nothing more than to be surprised by us and I think that we’ve surprised him a lot this time. He is the leader, he has an amazing musical brain, and his energy – you have never met anyone with energy like that. He can just keep on going for twelve, thirteen hours and then he stops and he’s incapable of doing anything else, he’s just worn out.”
The traditional roles of the band members aren’t the only thing to have gone topsy-turvy in the world of Radiohead. The traditional world tour, three months after the album release to give everyone time to get into the songs, is out. Instead, they toured over the summer, before the album was released, and in the UK, laying only in their own enormous tent. “It’s a novel way of touring,” says Ed, simply. “Again it’s a statement of intent. We want to get way from this idea of doing an album and then doing a year to 18 months world tour. That’s bollocks – it works if you are in it for the money and you want to maximise income, but we make enough money. We probably won’t be as creative in 10 years time as we are now, and we have to grab this opportunity while we can. “We are in our early 30s now. The last time we came out with a record we were in our late 20s. Because of the people we are: we don’t necessarily want to be doing this in 10 years time. Who knows? But personally speaking, the nightmare scenario for me is to see these old rock’n’roll bands like The Stones – there’s more to life than that. We have such an amazing time, and I love the idea of going out when you’re on top, still creating, and afterwards go and do something where you give back something.”
From the relatively simply Creep to the complex and epic Paranoid Android to the experiments with sound and structure which form the best part of Kid A, like many successful bands before them, Radiohead seem to have lost the ability to write short and simple songs over the years.
Ed nods his head: “That is true: we are incapable at doing something which is straight ahead at the moment. There’s an art and a discipline to doing it and part of that discipline is to throw things away. To maintain the simplicity of the song you rely on the main part of the song whether it’s a vocal melody or a groove and just leave it like that.”
“It’s also the feeling of not having to throw all our tricks into every single song,” says Phil, “which we tend to do. We just over-complicate things, and we get so uptight about it. I think that people think that we are, well, stupid really.”
Stupid? We doubt it. But in single-mindedly trying to be musical pioneers, Radiohead have moved from being a band with vocals, guitars, bass and drums (and all the directness, meaning and intensity that brings) to producing music that is abstract, distanced, ambiguous. And isn’t the idea that innovation means ditching guitars as old as the Human League? Total Guitar is just mulling this over when Ed says something very telling.
“Knives Out is the only song on the new record which is basically three guitars, bass, drums and vocals,” he says, as if he’s amazed himself at this piece of news. “The only one, and when we finished it we worked out that we’d spent 373 days on it. And when you hear this song, you’ll go ‘Why did you take so long to do something like that?’”
“It was the same with No Surprises,” says Phil. “We did X number of versions of it and ended up going back to that initial thing. With Knives Out, we ended up using the first take we did of it. Eventually you go full circle and realise that you got it right the first time.”
They didn’t know it at the time of our interview but, after those 373 days, Knives Out – their only real rock song – wouldn’t even make it on to the album. The new Radiohead, then: few guitars, fewer melodies, and little in the way of actually song structures. After all that hard work, did they get it right the first time?
“JOHNNY MARR IS A GOD”
The guitarists that influenced Radiohead
“Johnny Marr is a God, he is The Man,” enthuses Ed. “I went back to my Smiths records and realised that Johnny Marr is the most ego-less guitarist you’ve ever heard. I think that The Edge and Neil Young are great as well, but Johnny Marr above all. The first time I heard The Smiths, the guitars blew me away: everything he played was so beautiful, so understated, so technically amazing. And he never played any solos and I love that. I don’t like solos. I also love the textured way he played. I’ve subconsciously been ripping off Johnny Marr all the time, and not playing as well, either. He is the Don – he influenced all of my generation.
There were four of them: there was Will Sergeant from Echo And The Bunnymen, there was Johnny Marr, Peter Buck and The Edge. They kind of gave you new hope due to their unique sounds. And out of them, Johnny Marr is the one who gets the gold medal – just.”
And is that just his opinion or the general opinion in Radiohead? “That’s the general opinion of all guitarists in England,” he laughs. “No – actually I’m speaking on behalf of all 32 rock guitarists in Oxford.”