Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke is not a swinger. Neither is guitarist Jonny Greenwood. If they look a bit like fish out of the water in the glaring mid-afternoon haze of Hollywood, they seem even more out of place in Swingers, a restaurant reincarnated Aaron Spelling-style as a '50's diner. Tinsel Town fashion geeks might dig polyester high-waters, storage hair, and horn-rimmed glasses, but Greenwood's pronounced overbite and Yorke's drooping eyelid are disconcertingly real. And their pallid English reserve and genuinely bookish air clash with the diner's retro-hip ambience as well. The setting becomes downright ironic when Yorke and Greenwood begin describing how crucial the atmosphere of their working environment - a 500-year-old country house in southwestern England - was in the recording of their latest effort, OK Computer.
The new album bears all of the familiar features that have won Radiohead a devoted following and critical praise - impeccable songwriting, fiery playing and Yorke's transcendent vocals - yet it's also streaked with moments of preternatural beauty and unnaturally human electronics. Though OK Computer is the Oxford quintet's third album, it's the first they've self-produced, and, in calling all the shots, they seem to have startled themselves with the fascinating depths of sound they uncovered during their time in the stately home owned by actress Jane Seymour (aka Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman). According to Greenwood, Seymour doesn't live there; it's used as "a kind of corporate convention hangout" - which didn't make it any less of a sanctuary for musicians weary of working in the pop-culture confines of the here and now.
"What we found interesting and distressing was being in places that had a 20-year old history of Dire Straits gold records on the walls," the lanky, soft spoken 26-year-old Greenwood says. "Traditional studio history - we wanted to get away from all that."
"This house was the total opposite," Yorke says with a muted intensity that doesn't at all jibe with the 28-year-old's spitfire stage presence. Tucked into a Naugahyde booth, sipping chamomile tea and a glass of carrot juice, Yorke exhibits body language that suggests intense caginess, as if he's not quite comfortable in his own skin. His somewhat furtive speech patterns (snagged by the occasional stammer or tight knot of sarcasm) belie the unguarded, insightful observations he imparts.
"You were constantly presented with your own mortality in the sense that people had lived and died in this place, had literally spent their whole lives there," he continues, obviously still haunted by the recording experience. "It was extremely isolated, so the house was absolutely full of it. It was in a sort of valley, and there was absolutely no life around at all, ever, except the occasional motor car driving down the single-track lane. It did something to your head, anyway."
"It was less like a laboratory experiment, which is what being in a studio is usually like, and more about a group of people making their first record together," Greenwood adds. "It felt like we'd been taken back to the days when we did recordings by ourselves, before we'd signed."
"It's about as far removed as you could get without going to a deserted island," Yorke says. "The house had the most incredible sound signature to it. We'd recorded in our rehearsal room previous to that, but it was too near [to where we live] and we all just popped off home every night before we could get it together, so it was a kind of enforced exile really."
OK Computer isn't a concept album per se - Yorke insists the only reason anyone interprets it as such is because of its title - though a distinct theme runs through it, and despite the sense of detachment that was so integral to its genesis, the music is far from dispassionate. It's an anxious meditation on the alienating effects of modern life. but in a broader sense, it's also about being out of step with the space/time continuum. "Subterranean Homesick Alien" is a forlorn earthbound prayer for freedom reverberating in a dreamy, stellar atmosphere. Spectral Beatles-esque harmonies transform the lilting, angst-ridden "Karma Police" into a sardonic '90s commentary on the lost ideals of the '60s. The delicately brooding "Exit Music (For a Film)" incorporates the disembodied voices of children recorded at a playground near the space needle in Seattle. The edgy, semi-acoustic "Paranoid Android" is about human automatons, while "Fitter, Happier" is a monologue about the benefits of healthy living delivered by a disjointed computer-generated voice. It all makes for a vibrant kaleidoscopic vision of the end of the millennium, but what gives the album its allure is its constantly shifting subtext. Sifting through a mixture of images, ideas, and sounds, Radiohead seems bent on picking them apart even as it embraces them.
"The songs themselves were about the present, very much photographs of where we've been," Yorke says. "And then to take these quite transparent ideas about technology and so on - the general images I'd written down in the lyrics - to a place that had all this incredible presence and spirit. It just brought them all to life, as well as the performances themselves. There was this thing about, 'Well, why am i singing about these things? What do they mean?' They mean nothing really. They're so important to you, and then you take them to a place like that and it's just so irrelevant, in a way.
"For the first two weeks, me and [bassist] Colin [Greenwood] literally didn't leave the house, and them we went into Bath, which is the local town, and it was like landing on another planet. We were sort of touching the walls and seeing all these people and just running away from them because they were coming so close. It was like landing from Mars."
One of rock 'n' roll's most powerful charms is its seemingly limitless capacity to validate misfits of every hue, and while many artists struggle to cultivate the space-oddity syndrome, the members of Radiohead are genuinely odd. Not so much because of whatever individual eccentricities they harbor, but because they seem such an unlikely group of people to be making music together.
EARLIER IN THE DAY, plied with bottled water and ensconced on a generically cozy conference-room couch at the Capitol Records building, the other members of Radiohead - Colin Greenwood (Jonny's older brother), drummer Phil Selway, and guitarist Ed O'Brien - contemplate the future and reminisce about the past that Yorke and Jonny Greenwood are reluctant to dwell on because "you'll spend five paragraphs on it and it'll get really boring." Contrary to Yorke's fears, however, the trio deliver a lively, succinct account of Radiohead's history.
Like most fledgling bands, On a Friday (as the quintet was known during their mid-80's Abingdon School days) had its flirtations with the happening sounds of the day, including those of the Waterboys, the Cocteau Twins, New Order, and the Smiths. (Yorke later admits that he had once been a New Romantic, complete "with honey hair and lipstick.") Colin denies O'Brien's allegations that he was a Goth, though it's not much of a stretch to visualize the lean, slouchy bassist with mercilessly teased Robert Smith hair and wearing a black frock coat. But according to O'Brien, On a Friday never relied on covers, playing mostly original material from the outset. At one point, the band featured a trio of saxophones (friends from the neighbouring girls school) and briefly included a keyboardist, but other than that, Radiohead's lineup has remained unchanged for more than 10 years.
"Once we actually started the band, in 1985 or '86, i think we all shaped our lives towards that point where we would actually make it a full-time pursuit," Selway says.
Genial and clean-shaven (scalp and all), Selway, the band's senior member at 30, has a low-key, steadfast demeanor that suggests there's a grain of truth to Colin's facetious assertion that the drummer is the band's father figure. Selway had played in several bands in Oxford prior to Radiohead and found gainful employment as desk editor at an academic book press while waiting for the rest of the band to catch up. "I know that's how it's been for me," he says. "even though I've done other things, it's always been the band at the forefront."
"I think the way we got together is unusual," says Colin, whose animated facial expressions provide a running commentary on what his companions are saying. His posture is dismal as Joey Ramone's; at times he folds his arms behind his head and slumps so furiously that he seems to be sinking into the crevice between the couch's cushions. "When we started, we were 15 years old in a boys school that wasn't that much fun. So we tried to [use] music as a way to find our own space away from it and kept doing it all the way through college."
In 1987, the year of the Black Monday when stock markets crashed around the world, the 28-year-old elder Greenwood matriculated at Peterhouse, the oldest college at Cambridge University. While classmates once destined for lucrative positions in business scrambled to set alternate career goals, Colin watched unperturbed, secure in the knowledge that he was destined to be a pop star.
"I mean, we were always, like, slightly cut off from what was going on," he says. "If you look at it like that, how we work is just really a continuation of that. We haven't really changed. I mean, we all still live in Oxford, so we haven't really progressed." he chuckles. "Our working methods haven't either."
"We were all at different universities around the country," O'Brien says, "and the commitment was pretty unbelievable in that we'd get back every three weekends. We'd all come back to Oxford, and Oxford's not - you know, I was in Manchester and Manchester's such a great city. Why would you want to leave Manchester for weekends when there's so much going on? The only reason was 'cause of the band."
"Well," Colin says, a twinkle in his eye, "and 'cause of the friendships within the band."
Without missing a beat, O'Brien retorts, "that wasn't so important. It's even less so now." His expression is so dry it's hard to tell if he's deadpanning or dead serious.
Whether it's musical obsessions or social ties that bind the members of Radiohead together, the forces motivating them have fostered an extraordinary musical dynamic. Unlike many of the band's contemporaries, Radiohead's relationship to Brit-pop forebears like the Beatles and the Kinks is intriguingly muddied. There are a couple of Beatlesoid moments on OK Computer, but there are also deliciously warped, somber undercurrents that flow from the heart of the Pink Floydian vortex, and edgy outbursts as nervy as a mob of piled-up mods.
The ambient dabbling this time around has less to do with contemporary electronica then with works by composers who influenced its evolution like Ennio Morricone and Oliver Messiaen. Then there's Yorke, blessed with a voice that can plunge from a high lonesome wail to an acid rant without ever losing its musicality. Onstage, it all makes for a ungainly spectacle: an impish singer projecting his soul through his vocal chords, one statuesque guitarist counterbalanced by a second crimped over his instrument and hidden by a mop of hair, a perky but restrained bassist, and a hairless, unflappable drummer. They seem to value their idiosyncrasies, even if they can't really explain them.
After a growing interest in the music business inspired him to read Fredric Dannen's 1991 book, Hitmen, 29-year-old O'Brien concluded that those who made it to the top always seemed to be attorneys, and decided that his best bet for securing a niche in the biz would be via law school. Though he had never had a chance to test his hypothesis, it's not difficult to imagine the tall, toothsome guitarist in a navy suit and power tie consulting the Virgin mogul Richard Branson on the legal ramifications of a corporate merger.
"I remember, like, '87 through about '91 you didn't have anyone from England coming over [to America]," he says, offering his explanation of why 15 years elapsed between the second, early-'80s British invasion of U2, the Cure, and the Smiths, and the current wave of bands encroaching on the U.S. pop arena. "The Manchester scene in '89, '90, kind of revitalized that, but because they became so huge in Britain very quickly, bands like the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays came over to America with completely the wrong attitude. You have to keep touring [America]. They didn't - like Echo & the Bunnymen, the Smiths, or U2 - come over for a year. They came over from this enormous adulation in their own home country to playing clubs, and they didn't like it that much. They weren't willing to do the work."
In contrast, members of Radiohead have had few illusions about America. They've been meticulous and pragmatic about building success on these shores as they've been about cultivating their music. When their debut, Pablo Honey, was released in 1993, they soon had a massive radio hit on their hands in "Creep." The single ignited so quickly that it threatened to overshadow Pablo Honey and any future albums. The quintet knew they had to circumvent the hit-single machinery of alternative radio, and upon completion of The Bends, they hunkered down and, with delicate tenacity, set out to take their music to the people. Between April 1995, when The Bends was released, and the completion of OK Computer this year, they toured the U.S. no fewer than five times.
Yet despite their wariness of the hit parade, they haven't compromised their pop aesthetic. For all the experimental sounds that wend through OK Computer, Radiohead never sounds as if it's being smothered under arty affections.
"Well, 80 percent of it was recorded live in a room," Colin says, "which I think is important. There was no time for that kind of self-consciousness, because we were all hammering the shit out the instruments. I mean, of course there are overdubs on there but..."
"I think there's... not a lack of confidence," Selway says, "but we're not overly confident about over level of musicianship anyway."
Colin glares at him with bemused indignance: "I am."
"But," Selway continues when the chortling abates, "It's almost wanting to play the best of our abilities, as if you're proving to yourself that you can do it."
THE OTHERS MAY JEST about art and artiness, but Yorke is quite earnest about it, although his method isn't so much about applying principles like minimalism, primitivism, or dadaism than it is about how he approaches the music's creation. Compared with The Bends, Yorke says the making of OK Computer was a very external process, "like someone lifted the blinds in a room and the room's [suddenly] really really bright, like being electrocuted."
There's nothing truly outlandish on the album. What's startling is the way things lurk in the tracks only to spring out at you, like the computerized voice in "Fitter, Happier," clangorous outbursts that erupt now and again, and the uncharacteristic shuffling percussion on "Paranoid Android." It's the spontaneity of the sound that's most surprising.
"I can never do it all at once," Yorke says of songwriting. "If i know that I've got to do it, I won't do it. I have to do it whenever I'm doing something else, whenever I'm driving or on a train or on a plane. The washing up, or whatever. Some days, everything means a lot and you write it all down in your notebook, extremely profound, and then you go two months and nothing'll mean anything. You can't really go and look for it, so I have to keep notebooks. The only valid thing i learned from art college is keeping notebooks all the time."
From 1987 to 1991, Yorke studied fine art and literature at Exeter University, where he took up the paintbrush for a time. "Everything [I painted] was brown," he says matter-of-factly. "So that kind of made me stop. All I did was paint Jesus all day for no good reason, and they weren't even good paintings. They were sort of yellow, murky brown, and quite miserable. That's why I ended up using computers, because then, technically, you can cheat. You've got more licence because no one else is doing it and blah blah blah. In the final degree show, there was a portfolio [with] all the final-year artists in it, and each one had 'future plans,' and I just put 'pop star'."
Being a pop star is a completely manageable thing in Yorke's book, because he and his bandmates know what their priorities are and where they want to go. No matter how gratifying adulation from the media or the listening public can be, the bottom line is the music and the creative process.
"Most of the time you can laugh about it because you can see how people might read [the music]," he says. "But that kind of has to be to the extent of your own involvement with it, because if you actually start to think, to worry about it, then you sort of become whatever they want, you just cease to have imagination. You'll cease to be surprised by what you're doing. Every time you record a song you have to be surprised by what the fuck's going to happen with it. You have to be surprised."
Fresh customers trickle into the diner, seeing and being seen. As the conversation dwindles, the balmy harmonies of the Mamas and Papas' "California Dreamin'" begin to seep out of the sound system. Greenwood slips off to join Selway, O'Brien, and his brother, who are headed down the street.
Yorke pauses for a moment, then wanders off after them, humming his own quiet, slightly dissonant fifth-part harmony.