A Spy In The House Of Music
Radiohead's Ed O'Brien Discusses Sonic Espionage
The Radiohead guys could just as easily be spies as musicians. With their current mission to keep a low profile despite their gigantic success, they may as well be hiding in the shadows, armed with Bond-like gadgets and fake passports. After all, the normal route for ambitious pop musicians is to record an album with several potential hits, release a steady stream of radio-friendly singles, take perfectly stylized photos, appear in all the glossy magazines, hang out with other famous celebrities, and make music videos with lots of hot chicks. Radiohead, however, chose to do the opposite. The band--Thom Yorke, Ed O'Brien, Colin Greenwood, Jonny Greenwood, and Phil Selway--created an experimental album with no potential singles, took a bunch of strange or unflattering photos, didn't escort any models or actresses, and made artsy film clips instead of MTV-ready videos.
Unfortunately for Radiohead's spy routine, the anti-success ruse worked like reverse psychology. The band's fourth album, Kid A, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Ha ha! The joke's on you, Britney Spears and N'Sync--you wasted all that money on McDonald's campaigns, and Radiohead just trumped you (well, for that one week anyway).
But although the band may have been driven above ground by success, it holds tight to its covert method of making records. "Creating music is kind of like espionage," says Ed O'Brien, one of Radiohead's three guitarists. In talking to MC", O'Brien was careful to protect the band's recording secrets while revealing how Kid A came to fruition.
What we know is this: Radiohead recorded for nine months in four studios--in Paris, Copenhagen, Gloucestershire, and Oxford--before work got productive. By spring 2000, the band had enough songs for two albums. (The follow-up to Kid A is scheduled for release in 2001.)
Fans of OK Computer are likely to be flat-out floored by Kid A. First because the three-guitar band hardly bothered to pick up a guitar. The 6-string doesn't even make an entrance until the fourth song.
"We got bored of guitars," O'Brien explains. "Guitars lend themselves to being played a certain way, and that just gets too comfortable. There are lots of different ways of making sound that don't require a guitar. Computer technology allows greater permutations in the sounds you can make."
Proving O'Brien's point, "Everything In Its Right Place" begins the album with a beautiful, haunting arrangement of filtered, effected, and panned parts from minimal instruments. The main ingredients were a Rhodes keyboard, Yorke's voice, and some Pro Tools cut-and-paste wizardry.
The rest of Kid A follows a similar modus operandi of melding striking sounds with anti-pop song structures. While OK Computer was still a band record, with the members performing songs live in the studio, Kid A was mainly produced round-robin style--with one or two members sitting in front of the computer at a time.
I can't help but hear Björk influences on Kid A.
I think we've all been envious about the way Björk has been able to reinvent music. Also, I've been influenced by Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, and Autechre. They truly seem to be the pioneers of new sound at the moment. While the band format is still valid, the really exciting things going on in music now are created in people's bedrooms.
But Kid A is obviously not a bedroom recording, and kids with bedroom studios obviously don't have the money to record on 2" analog tape--which is used for many big-budget albums.
We're real believers in the stuff actually hitting tape--there's something very physical about 2" tape and the way the sounds go down. However, some tracks were built up on Pro Tools, and were then transferred to tape to be mixed.
And you use Pro Tools for editing?
Pro Tools is brilliant for editing and arranging. What's fun about it is it can make a method out of the chaos you throw at it. For example, you can do very random guitar parts, yet out of that random thing, you can find something really cool. You have to be quite disciplined, however, because you can get to the stage where you're putting down five different guitar tracks. We've loved Pro Tools and loathed it in equal measure on this record, because the things you can do with it are fantastic--but it can also get quite frustrating.
What's frustrating about it?
Working with computers is quite an academic discipline--it's quite mathematical. It's very easy to forget the magical, emotional thing you get from picking up an acoustic instrument.
Also, working with computers is a very individual thing. It's not something that you can all huddle around and do collectively. It's essentially a lonely affair--inevitably, a lot of the stuff starts out with one or two people, and Thom is almost always involved in the process.
Another frustrating thing is that you expect these wonder machines to do everything, but, of course, they don't. They crash and you don't understand why. The worst thing is when you spend the hours setting up the system and don't know why it's not doing a certain thing. Sometimes you just wish for a good old analog 4-track!
So what makes working in the digital realm worthwhile?
The greatest thing has to be the sounds you would never ever be able to create with traditional analog recording. You can chop up bits of notes and reorder them, but if you chopped up bits of an analog master, your tape would be completely ruined.
There are a lot of crazy sounds on this album. "The National Anthem," for example, has howling-wind effects and freaky horns.
That song is really interesting because the track evolved over two years, and when you record a track over that amount of time, you forget what's good about it. The drums and bass were done at the end of '97 when we finished in the U.K. tour for OK Computer, and we went into the studio to do some B-sides. We didn't pick up the track again until last summer in Gloucestershire, and then we had a brass section come in sometime in November '99. It's a very ill-disciplined way of recording. But it's actually a very interesting way of working, because you're adding things to the stew--as well as rejecting things--and then you come back to the song with fresh ears.
You guys really like delay and reverb effects.
We are delay and reverb snobs. I think the interesting thing is, we don't go for nice sounds. For example, we processed the vocals on "The National Anthem" with a ring modulator. Nice implies "smooth," "coffee table," and "not very noteworthy." I think that's one of our great senses. We can get up our own asses a bit, but what we do recognize is, when it comes to sounds, I think we've got quite good taste. We're good at judging what is and what is not a good sound. For us, part of recording is finding out different methodologies and techniques to create new sounds--which is what you should be doing in the recording studio.
What devices would you recommend?
We are in a hugely luxurious position because we can buy a delay unit for $50 at a second hand store, use it for one sound on one song, and never use it again. What's good nowadays are the new Lovetone pedals, which use old circuitry from the '60s and '70s. You also can't go wrong with a secondhand Roland Space Echo or the reissue [Electro-Harmonix] Memory Man. Basically, be wary of things with digital readouts. The best reverbs are very dynamic--the natural reverb of a room, or the sound of an analog pedal or a plate reverb. Having said that, I use digital gear live. I think the Line 6 stuff is really good, but whether it would stand up in the studio is another thing.
Do you have a favorite computer plug-in?
I really like the Orange Vocoder--it gives you the opportunity to make hilariously drastic sounds.
How were some of the computer-conceived tracks on Kid A put together?
Some of the sounds on Kid A are like, "Wow, I've never heard anything like that in my life." And they all started off in Thom's computer--on Cubase, with plug-ins and stuff added on top. "Treefingers" is an ethereal, spacey song built from guitar loops. I'm not taking any credit for it, because Thom arranged it. He recorded me playing the guitar for ten minutes, then loaded parts into his sampler, played bits on his keyboard, and made sense of it. It doesn't sound like a guitar--which is great.
How was the loop at the end of "In Limbo" recorded? It sort of sounds like seashore crashes.
That's a bit of a software trick. It was just the sounds of the band--guitar, bass, drums--manipulated and distorted through a plug-in.
It's one of those funny things--we don't want to give the game away too clearly. Portishead got really annoyed when it was leaked about the samples they were using before their album came out, because they were worried about other people using those samples. Part of the thing about working with computers is you spend a lot of time seeing what works. And once you fall upon something you really like and feel is yours, you're quite loathe to give out all the information, because, well, you still have some use to be made of it, and you don't want someone nicking your idea. We want to surprise people and get the most out of the instruments, boxes, and stuff we're using. And the only way you do that is by not revealing anything.