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THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE
How do you follow up a brilliant opus of alientation and a documentary that portrays the rock star life as soul-sucking bollocks? If you're Radiohead, you decide to "do things differently or don't do them at all." The result is the best anti-rock album of the year.
by Zev Borow / Photographs by James Dimmock




Presentation from the online edition of SPIN:


he way it works is you meet Thom last. Better, safer, to start with Phil or Ed. The Greenwood brothers, Colin and Jonny, are another option, as they seem only mildly nauseated by the thought of public self-reflection. Regardless, it isn’t until the third drink that I begin to consider the possibility that Radiohead are slowly, surely, trying to destroy me.
The facts: Within seconds of first meeting them, each member, separately but like clockwork, practically shoves a drink in my hand: 1) Colin Greenwood (bass/white wine); 2) Ed O’Brien (guitar/champagne); 3) Phil Selway (drums/beer); 4) Jonny Greenwood (lead guitar, electronic stuff/beer); 5) Thom Yorke (vocals, guitar, piano/champagne).

It’s June and Radiohead are in Greece for a three-show leg of a short European tour, the band’s first since taking off most of the last two years to relax, regroup, and record what is the most highly anticipated rock record since Nirvana’s In Utero. Titled Kid A, it’s as aggressively indulgent, sophisticated, and art-ful (rather than merely art-y) a record made by a band at the crest of its mass-market popularity in a long time. A predominantly ambient experiment largely absent of guitars, traditional song structures, and lyrics, it still manages to sound distinctly Radiohead: cerebral and haunting, sweeping and fierce. Is it great? Yeah, but the trickier question is: How many people will be willing to take the jump? And perhaps more important, if only to the band itself: Does it matter?
Regardless, the drinks are coming fast, already opened or poured. I tell myself, “Relax, Radiohead are British, extremely British, from Oxford; offering people drinks is just what British people do.” Moreover, Radiohead are bewilderingly polite, possibly the most well-mannered rock group ever to roam the Earth’s midsized arenas.
But I can’t shake the Fear: After all, I am the rock writer and they are the rock band most likely to politely offer a journalist a bunch of opened, and hence possibly spiked, drinks. Finally, I flatly ask Selway if the band is fucking with me. “Now, that wouldn’t be very nice, would it?” he says. “Besides,” he adds with a smile, “we don’t know you that well. Yet.”

You, however, probably know them. Radiohead, a brief recap: The band whose career was launched via the mod-rock success of 1993’s “I’m a loser” anthem “Creep” and who then, somewhat surprisingly, followed with 1995’s The Bends and 1997’s OK Computer, both dense, bombastic masterpieces about pain, menace, and alienation.
The band that, thanks to OK Computer—delivered at a time when rock, at least sophisticated and inspiring rock, was nearly left for dead—is now the most revered rock band around, with a certifiably obsessive cult of fans.
The band that many of those people now secretly, and not-so-secretly, hope will save rock once again from stupidity and lameness.
The band most likely to secretly, and not-so-secretly, believe it can save rock once again from stupidity and lameness.
The band that once inspired DJ Shadow to ring up Yorke’s cell phone at Christmastime, and tell him, “I know I don’t have the right to do this, but I just wanted to say keep doing what you do--try and keep that honesty.” (“He was probably, like, ‘Uh, okay, thanks, I’m trying to shop,’” Shadow says. “But I felt like I had to do it.” )
The band that commissioned the 1999 documentary film, Meeting People Is Easy, an epic screed of media/music industry paranoia masquerading as a chronicle of the group’s 1997–98 world tour. In it, the bad guys are played flawlessly by camera flashes and real-life members of the press. Armed with an endless supply of brain-deadening, soul-sucking, planet-raping questions about—eek!—Radiohead, these villains’ apparent motivation is to make the band, and particularly its brooding prince, Thom Yorke, cry.
A lowlight: An aural montage of banal, repetitive interview questions is capped by a moment—shot in black and white for goth-horror effect—in which a squirming Yorke is asked what he thinks about his band being a celebrity favorite. (Brad Pitt, for instance, has called Radiohead “the Kafka and the Beckett of our generation.”) He fake-smiles and stutters his way through a non-answer, but the reporter pushes him. “So, have you met any of these celebrities?” he asks.
Yorke’s shoulder begins to subtly twitch. His lazy left eye narrows a millimeter or so. It’s hard to tell whether he’s about to break down or, with one frighteningly fast motion, jab his hand through the inquisitor’s chest and rip out his heart.
That Radiohead. That Thom Yorke.
So then, the barrage of drinks. What is the band’s plan? To fatten me before slaughter? Or am I just being paranoid and self-obsessed? Every ambiguity is suddenly open to menacing interpretation, shameless narcissism, delicious melodrama. Remember the movie The Usual Suspects, where Keyser Soze says that the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was getting people to believe he didn’t exist? Well, spend some time around Yorke and you realize that his big trick is getting you to start thinking just like him.

Radiohead are playing a small outdoor amphitheater in Thessaloníki, a bustling, working-class port city in the north of Greece. About 5,000 people stand on rising steps of concrete running up a stony hill facing the stage; another 700 or so are comfortably packed in an open area down front, swaying to the music and singing along phonetically. Guys selling beer from wicker baskets step gingerly among them, and beefy security personnel in alarmingly tight T-shirts are nowhere to be found. It’s such a relaxed atmosphere that even Yorke seems loose, prancing about and, as one long-time band observer put it, “bobbing his head like a new waver, which means he’s digging it.
Yorke, 32, is small and wiry thin, but it’s from him and his alternately quiet-like-mouse/fierce-like-lion voice that the band’s enormous presence seems to flow. It’s not just because he’s the lead singer; he drips with the kind of suffering-protagonist anti-charisma charisma that makes both his highs and lows fascinating to ogle. His highs are on particular display tonight during the closing number, “Everything in Its Right Place,” an exhilarating Kid A whoosh. Yorke begins the song standing at an organ, recording his riff and brief lyric onto a computer, then moves to the front of the stage for a little jig-like dance, his looped voice swirling around the amphitheater like a hot wind. Suddenly still, he stands facing the transfixed crowd as if it were an oncoming train, then clasps his hands and raises them high over his head, an odd gesture of both triumph and vulnerability.
Backstage after the show, Yorke looks utterly drained. We make brief eye contact, but he walks quickly past me to his tiny dressing room. I’d been expecting this, told that the band, and Yorke in particular, didn’t want to do any “normal” interviews. Instead, they were hoping for more of a “hanging out” scenario. But Yorke is far from the hanging-out type. Most of the time. I see him in Greece, he’s either alone, or at least acting like he wishes he were. Even in a crowded room, surrounded by his band, his is a bubble that few seem particularly inclined to pop.
So instead I talk to the personable, doe-eyed Colin Greenwood, who upon introducing himself immediately offers me a drink. “Wasn’t that really amazing out there?” he asks, referring to the venue and crowd. Before I can answer, Ed O’Brien approaches, flashing a thousand-watt smile. (Note to groupies: He closely resembles the actor Hugh Grant. Really.) He offers me a drink (though I’m obviously holding one) and adds, “This is what we’ve always wanted—to play small, cool venues; to have fun. Not to do it the old way.”
True enough, the vibe of the Greece shows couldn’t be any further from the horrific touring abyss—a blur of sterile hotel rooms, boring bus rides, and bad fluorescent lighting—portrayed in Meeting People Is Easy.. “It’s funny,” O’Brien says later. “While we loved the movie, it was mostly shot over the winter, when it was cold and awful. Right after that we went to Australia and New Zealand where we were really happy—sun-tanning, go-carting, having a blast. But this tour has been different. And that’s the whole idea—to do things totally different, or not at all.”
This concept has become a band mantra, especially with regard to Kid A. Says producer Nigel Godrich, who also oversaw OK Computer, “Thom really wanted to try and do everything different, and that was...bloody difficult.” Specifics about the nature and degree of that difficulty are not easily elicited.
”Musically, I think we all came to it a bit vague,” O’Brien says. “Thom didn’t know exactly what he wanted the new record to be either, but he did know what he didn’t want it to be, which was anything that smacked of the old route, or of being a rock’n’roll band. He’s got a low boredom threshold and is very good at giving us a kick up the ass. But at the same time, sometimes you need a softer approach.” He sighs, then laughs.
Phil Selway says there was “a lot of tension, personality issues. Things that we hadn’t really even gotten close to discussing in years.” Like what? “Let’s just say the shouting got louder.”
Finally O’Brien, who admits that he’s “the softy in the group, sort of the band mother,” offers a little more. “The initial sessions of Kid A were really sort of make-or-break for us as a band. We had to think long and hard about whether we wanted to continue at all. For me, at least, it was about growing up. If there was a trade-off, my bottom line was I was not willing to become a completely inept asshole for the sake of the music.

“So we had a meeting, and there was a scary, unspoken sort of fear,” he continues. “We were really serious. I mean, why not go out on top? But we’ve known each other for 15 years, and here we are now just getting to the point where we can do things the way we want. So now it’s like, We’re going to make mistakes, but let’s retain a degree of calmness.” He laughs.
“We really can be quite hysterical at times.”
Despite the turmoil, Radiohead finally completed Kid A in late 1999 at the band’s home studio/hideout in pastoral Batsford, England. It will likely surprise even the most devoted fan, full of thick, beat-heavy, nonlinear arrangements, and layers upon layers of electronic sounds. Says Godrich, “In the same way the Beatles and the Stones wanted to sound like black American R&B, but couldn’t, and produced something special anyway, Radiohead now want to sound like Kraftwerk, but can’t, and that’s good in the same way.” But two Kid A songs, “How to Disappear Completely,” a beautiful, eerie wail, and the album’s rambling, mostly instrumental closing track, “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” still capture much of the band’s trademark allure: enabling masochists to indulge the pain of feeling small (and desperately wanting to feel even smaller), blown up silver-screen big. Deft, angsty mood music for the self-pitying art-movies in your head.
Of course, some people at Radiohead’s American label, Capitol, consider Kid A uneasy listening for other reasons. “When I first heard it,” says one Capitol insider, “I thought, ‘It’s amazing, but weird, there aren’t any radio singles, and they hate doing press.… Roy Lott is going to shit.”
Roy Lott is the president of Capitol, and he claims he didn’t shit. “I had no expectations of what the record would or should sound like,” he says. “Is it a challenge for us? Sure. But the record is great. In fact, the analogy that comes to mind is the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and we still sell a lot of those.” In order to warm up Capitol’s L.A. staff, Lott instructed them to listen to Kid A over portable CD players as they rode in rented vans to the beach in Malibu.
But Lott can’t rent a van for everyone, and recently fans have been less than loyal when artists tinker with their sound (see Nine Inch Nails). “People do seem more open to this band,” argues Godrich. “I mean, if Oasis made a record like this, I don’t think anybody would go for it. But, you know, it isn’t something to put on at a dinner party.” He pauses. “I don’t really expect people to like it.”
Doing things “different” also means no plans to release any Kid A songs as singles, and though the band made several award-winning clips for OK Computer (including the creepily animated “Paranoid Android”), they will not be making any traditional videos. Instead, they’ve commissioned dozens of 30 second “blips,” which Meeting People director Grant Gee describes as “interstitial-type stuff, some live footage and animation, very artistic and cool.”
Not exactly MTV fodder. Or is it? Tom Calderone, senior vice president of music programming for MTV Networks: “Here’s why Radiohead are important to the channel—they’re a special band.”
So will MTV be playing the blips?
“We’re certainly going to try.”
Is Radiohead above the rules?
“Well, not above…maybe beside.”
“People think we’re control freaks, and maybe we are a bit,” O’Brien says. “But there’s an awful lot that’s just horrible about the process of the music business, and when you’re a young band, you can’t do much about it. Now we can. And we’ve stopped having that conquer-the-world sort of feeling. It’s less important to us than doing things our way.”
Still, Radiohead couldn’t, or wouldn’t, buck the system entirely and are doing some things they really rather wouldn’t—like (albeit very limited) interviews, and (coming soon) the obligatory spot on SNL. But you don’t have to be J.D. Salinger or Captain Beefheart to simply refuse to do press. Despite their anti-media image, Yorke and his mates clearly want their Boswells—not that they’re unaware of the hypocrisy that entails. As Yorke sings on “Paranoid Android,”“Ambition makes you look really ugly.”
I ask one of the band’s managers, Bryce Edge, about the Radiohead Way. He shrugs and says, “Sometimes I’m not sure if Thom and the boys think they’re in a rock band or an art project. Somewhere in between, I suppose.”

Radiohead leave ThessalonÍki for Athens, a city they’ve never been to before. The first night there, Yorke plays ironic tour guide as the band’s bus passes some ruins. “Look everyone, to your left, extremely old columns!” It’s one of the few times I’ve actually heard him speak to anyone in the three days I’ve been with the band; he spends most of his down time alone in his hotel room, watching CNN.
After tonight’s show, he briefly attends a backstage party for Colin’s 31st birthday, a very adult (as opposed to, say, Def Leppard) affair. The only individual remotely resembling a groupie is a young Japanese fan whose father is apparently wealthy enough to subsidize her attendance at nearly every Radiohead concert in the world for the past several years. “One time after we played a show in Detroit, she hired a cab to take her to our next gig in Toronto,” O’Brien says. “Thom is very good about chatting with her.”
A lot of people ask if I’ve “chatted with Thom yet.” It’s a query usually phrased with an upturn of understanding and hopefulness. They may be quick to assure me that Yorke is actually “quite a jolly person,” but everyone’s well aware how impenetrable he can be. So after watching him say good-bye to his number one Japanese fan, I follow him to his dressing room, where he sits with Jonny.
After an uncomfortable moment, Jonny introduces me, if only to avoid seeming impolite. Yorke is slouched in a folding chair, clutching a plastic glass half-filled with birthday champagne. He slowly turns toward me, says hello, and…offers me a drink. Jonny, like a knowing mother realizing her son is chatting up a girl for the first time, quickly excuses himself. Yorke’s despair at being accosted by anyone not part of the immediate Radiohead family is palpable, and the room is overcome by a painfully awkward silence.
Normally I’m pretty good at navigating painfully awkward silences , but I’m unable to think of a single thing to say that won’t make me another one of them. I scroll through what I know of Yorke’s upbringing: father a chemical engineering equipment salesman, mother a teacher. He was teased some, got into a few fistfights, but admits to having had a relatively nontraumatic childhood. He felt lonely a lot but liked Legos, drawing, and his bike. At age eight, he got a guitar....

Pretty normal, right? At the same time I can’t help but think: Don’t make any sudden moves. Because though I sense real fragility, I also get the feeling that if cornered or in some way startled he might try and take my eye out. The more I’m merely around him—he’s the type of person intense enough to reshuffle the energy of a crowded room without saying a word—the more I wonder to what extent he cultivates both these responses. After all, he’s simply too self-obsessed not to be aware of the Yorke Effect—which can basically be defined as Him inducing increasingly intense feelings of anxiety, alienation, frustration, and, finally, anger in You. His psychoses become yours. Some cryptic people are merely mirrors of those around them. Yorke functions in exactly the opposite way, which is a big reason why he’s a rock star and why his music is so compelling.
Trying to break the ice, I tell him that the crowd seemed to respond well to the new songs. “Yeah,” he says expressionlessly. “I was surprised.”
Conversation stalls. We’re on a bad date. I move to travel small talk. He says his girlfriend (she’s a doctoral student studying—shock!—Dante’s Inferno) recently spent time in Brazil. I say that I’ve heard Brazil can be dangerous. He says he was a little worried for her, but that everything was fine.
He runs a hand over his head, darts his eyes to the floor, and clears his throat: “Where are [long pause] you from?”
I tell him New York. “I was in New York once,” he says, “driving down 42nd Street, in a limo actually, and we saw a dead body lying on the street. We stopped the car and called an ambulance, but I remember looking out and seeing other people on the street just walking by, not doing a thing. It was the most crazy bloody thing.”
I tell him I’ve never seen anything like that in New York. “Hmm,” he says, then mentions traveling with Jonny through Israel sometime last year. One morning they took a dip in the Dead Sea, the world’s saltiest body of water. “I looked over at Jonny,” Yorke remembers, “and said, ‘Jonny, does your asshole hurt?’” Apparently it did. Then Yorke says it was nice meeting me, and I realize he’s asking me to leave.

I depart Athens, as scheduled, the next day. But I’m told I can follow up with Yorke when I get back, as “Thom is very into email.” Not really a surprise: like his songwriting, email allows him to express emotions other than fear and loathing without physically interacting with anyone. Interpretation is limited solely to his words—words he has time to shape. The more distance, the more control. Even so, it took Yorke almost two weeks to respond to my questions (an edited transcript of our email follows). In the interview, I’m allowed (manipulated?) to see several new sides to him. Yes, he’s still combative and inscrutable, but also unassuming, earnest, goofy, even sweet. And when we finish, I’m more sure than ever that I don’t know the guy at all. Yorke, of course, might take this as a compliment, which would be unfortunate.

Spin: The buzz about the new record is that it’s “difficult”. By difficult, what people really mean is, “It doesn’t sound like the last one/it’s not likely to sell as many copies as we’d like.” How conscious of that were/are you?

Yorke: We do not sit down and write a song or a piece of music considering any of these things—if we did I would have left the group a long time ago. You have a sound in your head, or a melody or a word or a rhythm and you need to get it out. You get it out because you need to give it to other human beings, otherwise you crumple up and disappear. Your question assumes that other people don’t believe sounds and textures are in any way emotional or evocative, which I think is retarded and symptomatic of what is holding back music in the mainstream. If you set about making music or sounds to alienate people then that can express as much as drawing them in; extreme sounds go with extreme emotions, or do we not have those? Am I simply in the business of creating the wallpaper to emptiness?

Art doesn’t always come from that place. It can come from places less dark, less extreme, less angry and guilt-ridden. Humor can produce art; exhilaration and joy, too. Is it wrong to assume that this isn’t also true of you and your lyrics/music?
Coool.
I stopped relying on extremes to get me through when OK Computer finished.… It made me nervous that the music was not coming initially from extremes, and for a long time I was kind of numb and in nonsense land. But then actually things only started working when I stopped thinking about it and just let it happen, guilt free. A lot of what I’m singing or saying I think is funny even if it’s only to me. A lot of it is on the edge of madness I’d say but when it works the nonsense sticks in your head and rings bells.
6:49 p.m. Tired now. Meetings/debates/arguments all day. Feels like work to me. All I need is the briefcase and the suit. Oh but which briefcase? Which suit?

About business matters, what compels you get involved as you do?
My fantasy has been to claim it all back for ourselves coz its all part of the same thing.... The politics still does my head in—especially with magazines and radio, wherever the celebrity thing comes seeping through the cracks. It’s kind of like a hall of mirrors at the fair. Lots of echoes and images that reflect and distort [and that] you become answerable to. Becoming answerable for stuff that you were not involved in, becoming a moving target, does my head in.

Your manager said that he sometimes wondered if you thought of the band as “more of an art project than a rock group.”
I never wanted to be in a fucking rock group. The Pixies were not a fucking rock group. Neither are R.E.M. Sonic Youth are not a rock group and neither were Nirvana. We use/have used electric guitars therefore we are a rock group?! Bryce was making a joke about me I suppose. What is an art project? An exercise? A kind of dabbling? Do we rig up and play in galleries? Are we relishing the stroking of critics’ contemplative chins? No. I don’t believe I’m being difficult. I am being protective of my sanity, regardless of the consequences. I’ve felt my energy sucked in ways that have fucked me up for years afterwards and nobody is coming close to me with that shit again. Is that the Art you mean?

I’m not using “art” as a nasty, pissy word. In my opinion, all great bands (see your list above) are rock bands and art projects. They can’t help it. I think what he meant was that you consciously approach the band—its dynamics, its output, even its business—in a way that is fundamentally different, more artful, from most other bands.
Apologies for my over-reaction, I misread your point like it’s easy to do in emails and bulletin boards. Special? no. Lucky? yes.
When I was at college I could never understand the desire to hang your life’s work in places that looked like pristine hospital waiting rooms.... I get so sleepy in galleries. I like the idea that our work gets to people reproduced 1000s and 1000s of times over for everyone to see. I can’t stand the idea of it being something exclusive like that.

Regarding you feeling your “energy sucked”—who or what did this to you?
I really mean that after touring whenever it was (1997/8?) I had lost all confidence, all faith in myself, I didn’t understand anything, no connection etc.… I had a mental block for about two years after OK Computer when I wrote everything down and immediately tore it up or erased it. I got my confidence back going on long walks in forbidding English landscapes, in storms getting soaking wet and sheltering in broken down buildings.… When I say “sucked” I mean my reason to write had gone; it was someone else’s property. I was never sure who exactly, so I had no one (or everyone) to blame.… D’you reckon Britney Spears will have this problem?

You once said of OK Computer: “At the llth hour, when we realized what we had done, we had qualms about the fact that we had created this thing that was quite revolting.” Any similar (or otherwise) thoughts about the new record?
When we finished it made me cry sitting in the back of a car from start to finish...does that help?

People who work with you mentioned that they believe you are as comfortable and generally pleased with things—both personal and band-related—as they could ever recall. Is that the case? (This would be my dressed-up version of the insipid “Thom, are you happy?” query.)
……. (пауза?)

Okay, while I sympathize with your hating such questions, I think the general despair inherent in your music, combined with the face you often choose to present to the public, makes them relevant. Those who know you say it’s a shame people think Thom is so unhappy all the time because he’s not. It’s fair to ask someone if they are currently enjoying their life, especially when that person seems to go to some lengths to avoid displaying/admitting it.
I’ve straightened stuff out in my head. But my head is my space. I don’t grin for my masters (paraphrasing Miles Davis). I feel alive again now. Not scared. That’s it zzzzziiiipp. Here’s a smile :)

Grant Gee said he thought the band, you in particular, were becoming more comfortable with, as he put it, “Being to other people what bands like R.E.M. were to you.”
I would not call it a comfort. I am English, this is a country where I got beaten up recently on the street for being Thom Yorke. For me guilt has been the most destructive force I have had to deal with. So I think I’m lucky to have gotten to know Michael [Stipe] so well as to feel okay about this place I’ve ended up in, he could see what was happening to me and that it was okay.
I did sessions with PJ Harvey and Björk recently and it was great to share experiences, it makes you feel slightly less of a freak and that maybe your motives are really genuine despite the doubting voices in your head all the time. But I don’t feel part of no royal family, I’m here to do my stuff then leave.
You got beat up. Who? Why? When? Where? How?
I don’t want to give them the satisfaction of that, sorry.
Which of your motives do you generally doubt?
mmmmmmmmmm. The model rock star motives. The desire to be famous.

And, finally, I don’t know if this is as a question as much as a thought. Because I’m guessing that you won’t get involved with any serious back- and-forth with me here, I’m in the awkward position of having the overwhelming majority of my exchanges with you to be mostly surface-level. This, of course, will mean that I will most likely write something that is at least somewhat surface, featuring yet another wasted column inch about how difficult it is to write about you all. All of this will only further sullen you on the entire process, and ensure its repeat. A vicious and slightly ridiculous cycle (like the panic of 1859!). Perhaps you’re used to it, but all in all, I see it as a waste. Why do press at all? I can see you making the argument: Let the music speak for itself. That way the cycle stops, for you and for everyone. The record will still get reviewed, the people who do marketing will still do marketing. If the music is compelling enough it will still demand attention.
Oh, yeah, one more thing: if you were an animal, what animal would you be?
It has come to my mind, too. I am bored of being fucked around* with by major monthly publications. (*Compromised)
A komodo dragon. If he comes and sits in your living room to watch TV you’d be too scared to shoo him out coz he’d break your arm or your neck. So you sit there and don’t move and leave him to it. He’ll leave when he’s ready.

Re: your choice of animal representation. Were you in a lousy mood, or do you really want to be a huge lizard other people should be afraid of? Isn’t it possible to be outraged at the infinite outrageous things of the world, without being consumed by it? I hope so.
This was the first interview I’ve done about well...me, since I fell to pieces. It felt weird and…I was certainly not in a lousy mood, I was having a pretty good day, just like today. Like the komodo dragon in your lounge, I just came in to watch the TV, I’m just chilling
Personality. Personality. Personality.
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Nice to meet you. Good luck piecing this together into bite-sized chunks.
:) Thom x