interviews

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

2003 August - Mojo

Into the light

Depression, dysfunction and near-dissolution - Radiohead have spent the last few years in the wilderness. In a series of astonishingly intimate interviews, Peter Paphides charts their journey into self-discovery, culminating with their emotional return to Glastonbury.

Mojo
08.03

STUDIO ONE, BBC TELEVISION CENTRE.

Radiohead have been standing on-stage for half an hour while technicians work out how best to light them for their appearance on Later. There isn't a huge amount to do, but Thom Yorke has mastered the art of waiting. He sits cross-legged on the set, like a studious seven-year-old, absorbed in Scott Ritter's War On Iraq - an extended interview with a former UN weapons inspector who claims America went to war under false pretences. Beside him, Radiohead's bassist, Colin Greenwood, opens up an Apple G4 Powerbook and places it on a floor amp. Naturally, you assume that some kind of last-minute adjustments need to be made to the programming on one of Radiohead's notoriously outre electronic excursions. In fact, he's uploading another day's worth of snaps taken on his brand new digital camera. "They've taken to calling me Dave Bailey," he says, mock-aggrieved. "Not even David Bailey, but Dave Bailey. They won't be laughing this time next year when my exhibition hits the galleries of Europe."

"Yes we will," says Ed O'Brien, guitarist, placing a line of tobacco onto a small rolling paper.

"Oh, that's right. You will, won't you? What was I thinking of?"

Finally, they get the signal to run through "There There", the first single off their latest alburn, Hail To The Thief. O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood grab their drumsticks and hypnotically beat out a path for Thorn's somnambulant ramblings. The following evening, when they perform this for broadcast, it's worth noting the physical discomfort which spreads across the features of erstwhile Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan. Given that his group Zwan are on directly after Radiohead, it's hard not to draw parallels. Here are two of the biggest 'alternative' figureheads of the last decade attempting to move forward in very different ways. But by the time the spooked, spastic magnificence of Yorke's performance reaches its conclusion, it's as though any inclination to compete has drained out of Corgan. As a result, his band's wilfully unshowy brand of college rock recalls nothing so much as the poorer bits from Radiohead's Pablo Honey.

Yorke himself seems unerringly bullish throughout the three days Mojo has spent with him. This is something he attributes to his diet - although, later, some more deep-rooted reasons surface. He's been wheat-free for the last two years and, as a result, feels sufficiently energised to make it through the longest of days. All of which is just as well, because for Hail To The Thief Radiohead have hit the promotional trail with a fervour that would shame the politicians Yorke wrote about on OK Computer's "Electioneering". The group chortle their way through a Time photo-shoot by discussing their alleged invitation to play at the Hollywood wedding of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.

"If they sent us an invite, it never arrived," says Colin Greenwood.

"We were gutted!" exclaims Thom. "Really! We were fully expecting it. But, you know what? To be honest, I don't think Jennifer was quite as into us as Brad was. I know he's a big fan, because I met him once. What did he say? 'Great show, man!' It was brief, but beautiful."

So you really would have done it?

"Fuck, yeah!" he says, and, for that moment, he appears to believe it. "We could have played on the back of a truck. I don't know why, but that's how I imagine it. A truck with Brad Pitt on it, announcing our arrival. Now, wouldn't that be cool?"

I DID ONCE Thom Yorke in similarly easy spirits, but that was in January 1993, shortly after he'd left art school - when the idea of rock stardom appealed to him so much that he even wrote a song about it called "Anyone Can Play Guitar". Like many of their songs at that time, it was good rather than great. Sounded brilliant when they played it live. But if all their tunes were of a similar calibre you wouldn't have fancied their chances above those of long-lost contemporaries like Kingmaker or Silverfish. When we left Georgina's cafe in the covered market of their native Oxford, our walk to Ed's car was interrupted when Thom and Jonny spotted someone wearing a Radiohead T-shirt. Their immediate reaction was to hide behind me and watch their unwitting fan from a safe vantage point. At this point in Radiohead's existence, it seemed that this level of success was plenty enough to be getting on with. And were it not for "Creep", this is about as far as they might have got. After our first meeting, it seemed like every time I met Thom Yorke he was a little more confused, a little more lost than the previous time. On their first visit to Los Angeles - a trip hastily scheduled to capitalise on "Creep"'s "most-added" status on KROQ - Thom seemed to cut a strangely solitary figure. Asked by one of the KROQ DJs to sing a jingle to the tune of "Creep", he refused - only to have the DJ question whether it was him that really sang it. Fearful of the consequences of upsetting America's most influential music station, he swallowed his pride and sang some pre-prepared rubbish about how, if you didn't listen to KROQ, then you were a weirdo. That same evening, I saw the first bona fide example of what Colin Greenwood delicately refers to as Thorn's "unique ability to project what he's feeling outwards into a room". At a corporate barbecue held in Radiohead's honour, he shut down and retreated into himself, murmuring just enough expletives to ensure everyone left him well alone.

What was his problem? He had a record deal, but quite what it was he wanted to do with it - beyond holding on to it - was unclear. If they made it to a second album, he joked, it would probably be called "Unit". As in, "We shifted 100,000 units." At the time, that seemed a very Thom sort of thing to say. After "Anyone Can Play Guitar", their next single in Britain was to be called "Pop Is Dead" and it was all about, um, pop being dead. The video depicted the rest of Radiohead carrying Thom away in - geddit? - a glass coffin. At times, it seemed like he was treating being in a band as though it were just another art school project. Critiquing it rather than attempting to do something amazing with it. An early photo is especially revealing, a shorn Thom brattishly sticking his middle finger up at the camera. It was the kind of thing you'd expect someone in a Hungarian punk band to do. As he later admitted, "We were trying to make statements all the time - to justify, to annoy, to fuck people offf. That seemed like the only thing worth doing, really." With 10 years hindsight, the memory affords him a rueful chuckle. What was he trying to say at the time? "There was definitely a lot of 'LOOKATME! C'MO-O-ON!!!' going on."

Privately, he was found out. He once confided his envy of artists like P.J. Harvey, who "appear[s] on the scene and it's perfect, fully formed". By contrast, Thom had announced himself to his public with a song called "Creep", a patchy debut album and little else to justify his platform. At the end of 1993, after a year spent playing the same song across the TV studios and radio stations of America, Thom - now sporting an inexplicable bleach-blond rock barnet - looked like a man in the throes of a titanic confidence crisis. "I think a sense of panic overtook things. The songs I was writing were drunken consolation songs. It just seemed like there were a million ways we could go and the easiest one was into oblivion, never to return."

It's all there on the songs that emerged from the tortuous recordings for The Bends. Written at the height of the band's obsession with Morrissey's Vauxhall And I (and, according to Thom, you can hear as much), "My Iron Lung" remains an alarming metaphor for the success of "Creep": "Here is our new song/Just like the last one/A total waste of time/My iron lung." "High And Dry", by contrast, is heavy with the weariness of 300 nights away: "Kill yourself for recognition/Kill yourself to never ever stop."

Following his return to his basement flat in Oxford, one evening saw Yorke falling into "a sort of drunken coma and singing a song which became '[Nice Dream]'. That song refers to a story by Kurt Vonnegut where this crystal's been found that turns all water completely solid and someone drops it into the sea. If you want to kill yourself you just put your finger into the water."

If there was one piece of advice Thom could have given his younger self, what would it be? "Um, you know when you grow your hair long..."

YOUCAN TAKE the boy out of art school, but... Damon Albarn has the beads his mother gave him as a child. Jim Morrison had his imaginary Red Indian friend. For Thom Yorke, it's notebooks.

Ed O'Brien: "Thom always says that the best thing they ever taught him [at art school] was the notebook. He's always done that. It's not the same as going back and writing what you remember. With Thom, it goes straight in. What you're left with is a moment in time."

Those who mourn the passing of Radiohead's "classic period" - from The Bends to OK Computer - tend to view its two albums as two halvees of a piece. Spooked, soul-baring millennial masterpieces to take rock into the 21st century. It's not a view that the group's singer particularly shares. The way Yorke sees it, he's only ever made one album about going to America for a year and turning into "a human jukebox". And the moment he finished it, he had no plans to write another one.

Much more than a series of musical diary entries, OK Computer was the first album which saw Yorke effectively utilising methods taught to him at art school. Worried by a comment from a friend that his lyrics were "too direct and leave nothing to the imagination", his note-taking set the agenda. The list of characters became wider; those "moments in time" to which Ed refers captured forever by lyrics like "The Tourist" and "Paranoid Android".

While recording the album, Yorke enlisted the help of one of his old Exeter University mates. Rescued from the nomadic life of "a busking fire-breather", Stanley Donwood had been asked to provide cover art for The Bends. This time around, though, his brief was to formally sit in on the sessions and render what he heard in images that eventually appeared on the album's artwork - something Donwood has continued to do up to and including the conceptual aerial city view which adorns Hail To The Thief. Yorke says that Radiohead simply wouldn't be the same band without Donwood. "This sounds pretentious, but fuck it. It's often been the case for me that I don't know if [the song we're working on] is any good. But if I'm shown some kind of visual representation of the music, only then do I feel confident. Up until that point, I'm a bit of a whirlwind."

There's plenty at this point to ponder for anyone seeking to draw a connection between Yorke's increased politicisation and Donwood's involvement with the group. "Hippy idealist" and "art dreamer" are two phrases used to describe him by one friend of the band. For his degree show in 1991, Donwood put together a series of photographic screen prints of policemen at the poll tax riots attacking protesters.

Simon Shackleton, who played alongside Thom in university band Headless Chickens, remembers their association. "They were both very involved in all sorts of forms of direct action. One time, we took over the vice chancellor's office and stayed there for a few days. We did all sorts of road painting. Painting massive slogans on roads and putting different road markings up."

"Stanley's hard to pin down," says Ed O'Brien. "I've just been reading Bill Drummond's autobiography, 45, and Stanley's kind of similar to that in many respects. In Bath, where he lives, he's printed up a load of made-up histories of the place, which he sells to tourists. It would be very strange to imagine us making an album and him not being there."

What seems clear is that, after Donwood and Yorke's reacquaintance in 1994, Radiohead seemed to represent something much greater than a bunch of Yorke's songs played by five old school chums. The two began collaborating closely on the group's merchandise and website. Be it a record, a T-shirt or five minutes on the group's website, every enterprise seemed to act as a vehicle for Thorn's increasingly bleak view of our place in the modern world. For the first time, Radiohead seemed to stand for something - even if it was just a vague sense of millennial anxiety. Yorke was reading up voraciously on politics. Will Hutton's The State We're In and Eric Hobsbawm's Age Of Extremes: The Short History Of The Twentieth Century - both of which depict a world run not by governments but by oil barons and multinational conglomerates - blew him away. For the first time the world was really as he always felt it had been. We really were all going to hell in a handcart. Perhaps he should have gone home and spent some time with his friends and family. Certainly, a year-long world tour was not going to mellow him.

Five months after OK Computer appeared, when I caught up with him in Strasbourg, he had all but turned into one of his own songs, "buzzing like a fridge... like a detuned radio". "Sanity for us is sleeping on the tour bus and not staying in hotels. You feel a bit more of your soul ebb away every time you check out of a hotel. But in periods of crisis and difficulty, you just fall back on the usual crutches. You end up drinking a lot."

A month later, following one British show, he found himself unable to speak. "That tour was a year too long. I was the first person to tire of it, then six months later everyone in the band was saying it. Then six months after that, nobody was talking any more. I remember coming off stage after the Birmingham NEC show. I could hear people talking, but I could not speak - and if anybody tried to touch me I think I would have strangled them. That was quite a scary thing. It was like, 'Please can we get the fuck out of here?'"

Was there a single biggest sacrifice that he'd made in order to get to this point? In Strasbourg, his answer was immediate. "Yeah, my life's a mess. When I go home, I've got everything everywhere. I've got six years' worth of life to sort out and I never get to sort it out because I'm working."

To which the obvious answer would have been, Well why not stop? According to one friend, it wasn't merely a matter of removing him from the situation. "He simply didn't know how to stop. He always used to carry notebooks around. I don't think it started out that way, but in the end, those notebooks became the prism through which he viewed everything."

"You need to switch off once in a while though," says Thom. "I read this autobiography of Miles Davis and in it he's taking these huge breaks where he won't go anywhere near his work. All right, he can't help thinking about it all the time, but he's not actively doing it all the time - which is what I used to do. And after OK Computer came out, I had drawers full of notes just about everywhere. Just frantically writing all the time. And although 99 per cent of it was fucking nonsense, everything just seemed to have this profound significance."

As fans attempting to understand the dynamics of our favourite groups, it's tempting to imagine that only those within the group know "what's really going on". But as Yorke himself says, "People in bands don't have the kind of conversations people might think they have. The best things about being in a band are the things that are unsaid. You click together in the studio or whatever and that's enough to make you feel close to each other. There are no long nights of bonding where you tell each other your innermost fears."

When the OK Computer tour came to a close in 1998, all five members of Radiohead readjusted to domestic life and assumed their frontman was doing the same. In fact, Thom Yorke went home and simply carried on doing what he had been doing on tour. Chronicling everything he was seeing, thinking and dreaming.

All the time?

"Oh, constantly. Absolutely constant. It was absolutely out of control."

What were you like to live with?

"You'd have to ask other people. It ranges. You're definitely not in control of what's going on. You can flip pretty quickly."

The between-albums sabbatical works along roughly the same lines with most bands. You all go home and cease contact for a while. Then, one day the call comes and there are some demos for the rest of the band to listen to. This was how OK Computer and Hail To The Thief were born. But for Kid A and Amnesiac, no demos arrived from Thom.

His voracious scribbling had found another outlet. A look on the group's website at that time yielded page upon page of writings, their tone oddly reminiscent of Syd Barrett's solo outpourings. Though uncredited, they had clearly emerged from the same source as OK Computer's "Fitter Happier". Typical of the prevailing mood was a dark piece of prose titled We Dug Into The Meat: "i sit here feeling my pulse/wondering what it would be like if it stopped/i write a list of stuff i need/ice cubes/neil young/toothpaste."

On something entitled Just For My Own Amusement, he wrote, "there is a certain time of year/when all the cows on the farm/go to slaughter, jersey cows/trample you under foot, you have to let them know/that/gods/voice is on your side/howl/and make them realise, you aint havin none of it. otherwise theyll trample you under foot as they stampede as they run screaming wailing with sad panic in their eyes as the farmer hangman comes for them to lead them to the electric exterminating thunderbolt."

Interspersed among such writings would be quotes from Dante's Inferno, John Pilger's Hidden Agendas and a telling gripe from the aforesaid Miles Davis book, questioning just what it is that audiences want from their artists: "By now they had made me a star, and people were coming just to look at me, to see what I was going to do, what I had on, whether I would say anything or cuss somebody out, like I was some kind of freak in a glass cage at the motherfucking zoo... man that shit was depressing " It wasn't just the content that prompted alarm, or the sheer amount of late nights that must have gone into writing this stuff - but the decision to post it on the internet for his fans to see.

One such fan was the frontman of R.E.M. Michael Stipe and Yorke had already established a friendship after Stipe had asked Radiohead to support his group in 1995: "We'd already had a lot of conversations actually," remembers Yorke. "At the beginning I think he was just trying to stop me going round the twist. He was sort of saying, 'It's OK. These things have happened to other people and there's a reason why.'"

When Stipe saw what Thom was posting, he immediately got in touch. Thom remembered the exchange. "Stipey thought I was crazy," he laughs. "He mentioned it and he was like, 'How can you do that? You're going to end up saying everything!' But it totally made sense to me at the time. It was the logical conclusion of that art college dictum. At Exeter there was a stipulation that when you had a show, you had to leave all your sketch books on the table - and I would do a show where I just had the sketch books and nothing else. I'd photocopy them up. It was all ideas that I couldn't get into practice because I couldn't get near the video equipment or whatever."

In rock, certain precedents for this kind of frantic creativity spring to mind, Richey Edwards being the most obvious. Although generally a more combative character than the fatalistic Manic Street Preacher, the prodigious output - coupled with the compulsion to quote illuminating passages from key texts - was a trait common to both. In Spike Milligan and Dr Anthony Clare's 1994 book Depression And How To Survive It, the comic legend and the psychiatrist attempt to ascertain the link between depression and creativity. Clare cites a study of prominent British writers and artists undertaken by American psychologist J. P Guilford, in which "an attempt was made to establish whether there is any association... between certain aspects of manic depression - most notably the heightened mood, word fluency, thought acceleration - and creative output. Almost all of the 47 subjects reported have experienced intense, creative episodes, the duration of such episodes varying from 24 hours to over a month. These episodes were characterised by increase of energy, enthusiasm, fluency of thought and a sense of well-being."

The more commonly known term for such periods of frenetic activity is hypomania. When a person is in a hypomanic state, they may not appear outwardly depressed. Indeed, the world may appear to make more sense to them than it has done for a long time. Guilford pinpoints the role of hypomania in the creative process by alighting on two terms: "spontaneous flexibility (the ability to produce a rich variety of ideas and to switch from one area of interest to another) and adaptive flexibility (the ability to come up with unusual ideas or solutions)."

Anthony Clare adds, "There is more than a suggestion that they can be heightened or facilitated by the quickening of cognitive processes and the surges of mental energy that are a feature of hypomania." At its most extreme, hypomania can precipitate a depression that can - although in Thorn's case, did not - result in paranoid schizophrenia. He expresses momentary surprise when the term is mentioned. "Hypomania. Yes, that's exactly what it was. And then I went through a period of deep depression."

It was another two years before the discovery of Clare and Milligan's book would reveal to Thom not only that his activity had a name - but that actually it was common among people who created for a living. In the meantime, he decided that if being in Radiohead was to be bearable, they had to fundamentally change the way they worked. The Thom Yorke that entered into the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions was a walking contradiction: on the one hand throwing his hypomanic writings open to public scrutiny (although ironically no one outside their circle of fans happened upon them); on the other hand, desperate to eschew the soul-baring role which he felt had made him so vulnerable.

"As much as anything," says drummer Phil Selway, "that's what motivated him to reinvent [the group]. He wanted to find a way of disguising his voice, or at least no longer making it the focal point of the band."

Was there some vestige of self-preservation finally kicking in here? On the website, where his fans weren't likely to judge him, he seemed happy to reveal the extent of his instability. Perhaps at some level, he knew that if he did the same on the records, the reaction might all but destroy him. If the idea was to turn Radiohead into a Trojan horse for his neuroses, Thom found an indispensable ally in Jonny Greenwood. After years of being lauded as the group's guitar genius, Greenwood - a classically-trained pianist and violinist - was tiring of the old way of working. As Yorke, quoting Greenwood, puts it, "there's a worthiness to a lot of rock music which makes us wanna puke. It's nostalgia, pure and simple."

Up until this point, Yorke's colleagues had been largely unaffected by his attempts to reconcile what he did to who he was. Hereon in, though, the effects were to radiate outwards to the rest of the group.

ED O'BRIEN IS MOST immediately identifiable as the tall good-looking one in Radiohead. Whatever Thom Yorke's ghost of a handshake lacks is more than made up for by Ed's presidential grip. His team are Manchester United - although a recent move to north London means an increased interest in the exploits of Arsenal. In contrast to the Greenwood brothers - both of whom own flats in Primrose Hill - Ed chose the Turkish kebab shops and all-night grocers of Stoke Newington. Late at night, he likes to roll a joint and wander the locale listening to The Streets' Original Pirate Material. He studied in Manchester, but in every other respect, he's a university-of-life kind of guy. At Abingdon Boys School, where he was a weekly boarder, he remembers getting into trouble after a short-lived sideline as a 14-year-old porn gopher to sixth formers. "It was just an attempt to become more well-liked. You see, I was the only person in the third year who could reach the porn magazines from the top shelf. So I'd get them and lend them out to the older kids. Then one day, one of them left one on his bed and I got hauled in to explain myself. My parents were divorced so I had to tell them separately. I remember my mum's disappointment, but the following week, when I told my dad, he was like, 'That's my boy!'"

It's hard to imagine a story like that coming from any other member of Radiohead. He's immensely likeable, and even more so when he addresses the lows of 1999 and 2000 with the same openness. "You all carry your own baggage, that's the thing. And for me, not feeling like I was part of the session - well, I'll put my hand up and say, yes, that was massively depressing."

Colin Greenwood agrees. When it transpired that Thom wanted to operate in small units - essentially, he and Jonny Greenwood in one room and the remaining three in the other, awaiting instructions - he had misgivings. "It's almost always a disaster when bands write in the studio, isn't it? It usually coincides with their cocaine period. Someone decides that now is the time to do the big studio record and this becomes a huge creative ark. And we lead our ideas in two by two. The only problem was that we weren't taking cocaine, so didn't have the necessary confidence to work out which of it was any good. "

The facts, of course, have long passed into band lore. Fragments of songs were painstakingly put together using equipment that Radiohead were learning to use as they went along. Three hundred and seventy-three days elapsed between the conception and execution of "Knives Out", a pretty Smiths-influenced tune which finally appeared on Amnesiac. Ed O'Brien felt so sidelined in the group's Oxford studio that he started keeping an on-line diary of the sessions, highlighting the band's apparent dissolution.

With no clear plan, everything seemed like a good idea. Adjourning one evening to watch a Channel Four documentary on the history of hip hop, Thom saw an exposition of the way Public Enemy recorded Yo! Bum Rush The Show and decided there was no reason why Radiohead shouldn't work like that: "They'd sort of record everything for 50 minutes, edit the segments where a cool thing happened, and turn it into a song."

If ever a band sounded adrift in a sea of infinite possibilities...

Colin: "We were clutching at straws."

Ed: "Yeah, definitely. On one level, I didn't care if I didn't play a single note on the album. This was about Radiohead, not about me - and whatever we did, I wanted to be part of it. But at the same time, I don't want it to be someone sitting in a room with a laptop, getting off on it. That's not what Radiohead's about."

Colin: "There was a lot of turning up and hanging around and wondering what to do next and not doing anything, and then going home. Every day. For weeks and weeks. It's very soul sapping."

"There were some fairly major barneys," remembers Phil, who had just become father to a second child. "Whatever heaviness was going on in the studio inevitably had an imprint at home. That's why things couldn't carry on as they did."

Was there a point at which any of the band said, "Look, I can just leave"? There's a certain amount of nervous laughter from Phil and Ed. "Not really. That never came about."

Colin: "Errrrrrm. Ummmm. We had this sense of duty that you should sort of hang around, which was probably not necessary at all. Sometimes it was a bit like two years of intense manual reading. You felt like an underpowered middle manager for, I dunno, a shoe company, who the bosses are trying to edge out. So they tell you they're moving you to Tokyo and you have to learn Japanese in a week, or else. And you're on the language course, and you haven't got a hope in hell, but you have a go."

Later, when this is relayed to Thom, he erupts into hysterical laughter. Finally, when he gathers himself, he says, "I should just add that there were some really good days too." He mentions the completion of "Everything In Its Right Place"; successfully communicating to a sessioneering brass section that he wanted them to sound like traffic on "The National Anthem"; and "watching a really amazing thunderstorm approaching over the valley".

In spite of this, you can't help wondering whether his experience of the sessions remains different to that of his colleagues. If you have a genuinely obsessive nature, the studio camouflages it better than most places. As he admits, "I would have stayed there forever. It was Jonny who called time on the whole thing." As one source close to the band puts it, "Thom just couldn't leave it alone."

Among all the elliptical murmurings and childlike electronica on Kid A and Amnesiac, one line from "Optimistic" seems to leap out with unmistakeable poignancy. "You can try the best you can/The best you can is good enough" - an assurance given to him by his partner Rachel, when he felt that "nothing we'd done was releasable".

"In the end," observed their manager Chris Hufford, "they just had to look at what they had and go with it."

IT'S A PLEASANT SUMMER'S evening drive to the village where Colin Greenwood and his wife Molly live. There isn't, in fact, very much to the village itself. Just a car showroom and The Harcourt Arms - a pub set amid gardens with several fibre glass constructions for small children to climb on. One of these is a tree. If you stood inside it, you could create your own low-budget version of the "There There" video, in which some manner of woodland voodoo leaves Thom rooted to the spot.

It's the release date of Hail To The Thief, and tonight Colin's holding a party from which Steve Lamacq will be broadcasting live. The gathering also doubles up as 50th birthday celebration for the band's co-manager, Bryce Edge. Everyone's here, including Stanley Donwood - his shining pink head a testimony to three days spent at a cider festival in Bath. Jonny, a father of six months, repeatedly checks his mobile phone, lest the babysitter calls. He talks breathlessly about the learning curve of fatherhood. On stage, that molten vinyl fringe obscures his eyes, but when you talk to him, you realise he shares with his elder brother a yearning gaze which makes you feel oddly protective of him.

The house itself is amazing - '60s modernism set amid fertile forest aand lush greenery. In the main living area is a balcony which houses an upright piano and Greenwood's record collection: Kraftwerk, Weather Report, various post-rock 7-inches and a compilation of indigenous British fishing songs given to him by Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous. Directly underneath, Steve Lamacq is conducting an interview with Ed in which the guitarist bemoans the lack of currency that hit singles hold in the modern age. "I mean, Westlife had 10 Number Is in a row, but I couldn't hum a single one of them. I bet I sound like an old git, don't I?" Flanked by assorted pals on the sofa, an amused Yorke nods so vigorously that his whole body is bouncing up and down.

Away from the hubbub, a wooden pathway leads us past the vegetable patch and into a candlelit grotto. Hidden amid the trees at the end of this is a sunken rectangular pit which, tonight, pays host to a crackling bonfire. Yorke attempts to put into words what has been so remarkably evident over the time Mojo has spent with the band. There's a touching dedication to Spike Milligan on the CD insert of Hail To The Thief - this, says Thom, "because that book finally helped me to understand what was happening. In a way, it's lucky that [his depression] results in something because, for a lot of people [who don't make music], it's just depression and that's all you've got to show for it.

"Also it taught me a lot about the nature of what you create. When I'm writing, I think that everything I do is shit. And that's all tied up in the fact that it's not mine. I'm tearing it to bits because I've yet to work out where it came from. It's like an Ouija board, but these days I try and have a positive outlook to the hand-pushing. Which, in a way, was what Michael [Stipe] had been telling me all along. You sort of have to learn to stop for a bit. You can't just be receiving this stuff 24 hours a day."

"It's a very particular thing that we do," Stipe recently told Time magazine. "It's different from playing guitar or acting or painting, and Thom just needed someone who had been through it to kind of bring him back down to earth and overstate the obvious, which is that you can't believe your own hype. His material explores darker aspects of walking the Earth, and people project that onto you. It takes some work not to project it back."

It's one thing, of course, to know what the problem is - but another thing to implement that knowledge. Yorke's friends unanimously alight on a more practical explanation for the singer's emotional stability. Shortly before the release of Amnesiac, Yorke's partner, Rachel, gave birth to a baby boy - a change which, according to Phil Selway, has allowed Thom "to let go of things in a way that he was never able to before. You can't just disappear into yourself. There's simply too much to do."

Radiohead may go on to make a better album than Hail To The Thief, but it's hard to imagine a more complete representation of the man who wrote it. It's the record on which Art School Thom, Father Thom, Paranoid Thom and End-Of-The-World Thom finally found a way of occupying the same space without taking it out on the rest of his band.

Ed O'Brien, for one, is relieved. He says he knew Radiohead was back to being "an inclusive rather than exclusive thing" when a courier arrived with a bunch of demos. "We went into the studio with the songs already in place." Nigel Godrich persuaded the band to fly out to LA after a series of live shows and record the album in a fortnight. Following a couple of abortive attempts, it was in similar circumstances that they finally nailed The Bends.

In rock, there's a grand tradition of artists having children and running into the studio at the first opportunity to make unbearably drippy albums: Van Morrison's Tupelo Honey, John Lennon's Double Fantasy and Richard Ashcroft's Alone With Everybody to name but three. Not so Yorke. His apocalypse fixation dates all the way back to 1980 when, aged 11, he wrote his first song, "Mushroom Cloud". That two decades on he chose to call his son Noah bears testimony to that enduring fixation. Tonight, when Lamacq persuades Thom to play something on Colin's piano, he chooses to sing "Sail To The Moon". The chattering throng is gradually brought to silence by the barely amplified sound of Yorke's vibrato quivering on the lines, "Maybe you'll be president/But know right from wrong/Or in the flood/You'll build an ark/And sail us to the moon." When he finishes, a visibly moved Colin Greenwood strides over and hugs him like just another Radiohead fan. At which point you realise that Yorke is conceivably the only songwriter in the world who can portray his two-year-old son as the saviour of our doomed planet and not make you retch.

"I don't see why people are no longer scared in the way that they were when I was a kid," explains the singer. "Fundamentally, nothing has changed. We're the first generation who lived under the bomb, and that was it. We knew that any day now, some loon could press a button and that would be the end of that. The cold war might have ended, but in fact things have got worse. Because both parties believe they've got God on their side."

There's little by way of explicit political content on Hail To The Thief. In fact there's very little on the album that is explicit, period. And yet at the same time, the global climate of political uncertainty pervades every note. Far from having mellowed Radiohead's music, fatherhood has enabled Thom to draw a direct connection from the "blind terror perpetrated by maniacs" to the future of his children. Inasmuch as it has vindicated his paranoia, becoming a parent in such troubled times is one of the best things that ever happened to him: "Someone gave me a tape a few years ago. It was an interview with John Coltrane, and he's saying, 'I got into politics for a while and then I just decided to channel it down my horn because, ultimately, it was the best place for it to be. Everywhere else was ugly.'"

While writing the songs, Yorke embarked on several long drives in "wild countryside", listening to Radio 4 in the weeks following September 11, memorising key phrases and mixing them up with other half-formed ideas and "images that seemed to fit the current climate". Before he could analyse what it all meant, he put his scribblings to one side and resolved not to return to them - something, he says, he felt unable to do at the height of his obsessive years. "Then a few weeks later, I would look at what I had and it would all make sense to me." "The Gloaming", he says, is about the rise of the far right. Fragments of children's stories - Chicken Licken and The Bony King Of Nowhere from Bagpuss - add to die pervading sense of unreality.

And what of the unhinged website writings of a few years ago? A couple of these have found their way into the music. Fragments of something called She Ate Me Up For Breakfast appear in "Myxomatosis". Two songs - Kid A's "Everything In Its Right Place" and the otherworldly funk of "Where I End And You Begin" have their roots in a posting entitled The Ashes Of The Gap In Between You And Me: "He was a good man they said/He was a gentleman they said/Even when life spat in his face/He put everything back in its right place."

When cajoled by Steve Lamacq to play one more song on Colin's piano, it's "Everything In Its Right Place" that Thom plumps for. There's a looseness and fluency to the performance which seems light years away from the padded cell production of the Kid A version. For want of a less cheesy term, it grooves. By the time it reaches its conclusion, it's five minutes past midnight. Yorke's decision to play another song has delayed the news update. He descends the steps to delighted applause.

One last exchange as he prepares to leave. It seems salient to point out to him that hearing a song like that on an old upright piano exposes the lie that Kid A and Amnesiac were bereft of tunes. There's more than a hint of anger about his response. "You know what? It doesn't bother me any more, because I don't read any of it."

Some reviews of Hail To The Thief suggested that it's been so long since Radiohead made a normal album they've forgotten how to.

"Well, they're bound to, aren't they? It wasn't their fucking idea, was it? Ultimately, it's quite funny because I distinctly remember when OK Computer came out and you had people going, 'Yeah, but it's not The Bends, is it? It's got all this weird stuff on it.'" His voice mutates into a contemptuous whine. "'Why are they being weird? Why can't they just be normal?' Fuck it. It's just nostalgia. It's like telling painters how to paint. It's not my problem."

HOW WILL THE DIVIDE between Vintage Radiohead and Experimental Radiohead play out at this year's Glastonbury? Thom Yorke's plans for the festival suggest there's nothing to worry about. There may be some work to do, but he has carefully set aside the entire weekend so that the Yorke family can fully absorb the festival experience. "It's something I should have done years ago," he says. "But doing it with Noah there will be great. I think he'll have the time of his life."

So, what's the plan? Headlining at the Pyramid Stage on Saturday night; then off to the kids' field on Sunday?

"There's a kids' field? Climbing frames? God, I have to keep him off those. He's happy on bouncy things. Are there any bouncy things? A library tent? Wow! He loves reading. Especially in bed. He chooses a book, usually The Cat In The Hat, and goes and sits in his bed. Then he falls asleep on it."

Six years have now elapsed since Radiohead's last Glastonbury - an appearance which, says Colin Greenwood, "was akin to having a huge reception planned for you, regardless of what you feel you've done to deserve it. Everyone seemed to have decided that OK Computer was going to be a big album. So there was a lot riding on that evening because it had only just come out. And for a time we thought we'd blown it in the biggest possible way."

If you were there, you'll remember it as the point when the mud ceased to matter. For the first - and arguably the last - time in their career, Radiohead did precisely the right thing at precisely the right time. The stoned starlit drama of OK Computer tracks like "Subterranean Homesick Alien", "Paranoid Android" and "Exit Music (For A Film)" effortlessly catapulted them into the big league. Onstage, though, Thom Yorke was trying desperately to keep it together. "It was only at the end when Rachel said, 'If you think it was a nightmare, look at the audience!' and she showed me the TV monitor. But by that time, it was practically over."

"Well, he couldn't hear himself," explains Ed. "And because we had the lights right in our faces, none of us could see the audience from the stage. So it was like being in a void. We had no idea what was going on."

Eventually, Yorke's anger got the better of him and, as O'Brien puts it, "a little piece of Glastonbury folklore was created. It's one of the great moments of televised rock swearing, isn't it?" laughs O'Brien. "'Turn the fucking lights on!' It's up there with Bob Geldof shouting 'Give me the fokking money!' on Live Aid. You've got to hand it to Thom. He does a good swear."

It's in allusion to that moment that, halfway through this year's Glastonbury set, Thom gazes ahead at the lighting desk and says, "I've got a good idea. Hey Andy - remember that thing we did last time?" But, this time around, Thom can see beyond the main arena, all the way up to the top of the hill. A scattering of single flickering flames illuminates the valley just enough to reveal the enormity of the crowd gathered to see Radiohead.

As promised, he's been here for the whole weekend. Initial plans to camp in the Tipi Field have succumbed to an inevitable compromise - his tipi has been erected in Michael Eavis's garden. From here, though, it's a fairly short walk to the Kidz Field [sic] - "Admission: Free for children, one smilee for adults" - where a man called Bodger and his mashed-potato loving dog Badger entertain the tiny revellers. The best way to relax before entertaining 80,000 people is to mingle freely amongst them. Well, that's the theory, but by the time Thom and Noah make it up to the toddlers' discotheque, the DJ clumsily acknowledges his presence by hastily steering his set away from "The Wheels On The Bus" and "Eh-Oh! It's The Teletubbies!" - and puts on "Planet Telex". One child instantiy bursts into tears; the rest scuttle off to their parents, and Yorke and son retreat to the relative anonymity afforded by the interior of a huge climbing frame.

Received wisdom advises against returning to the scene of past victories, but Thom Yorke has the air of a man finally able to accept the good things that the world has to offer him. Maybe that's why Radiohead's performance that night is so moving. For "Karma Police", Yorke drinks up every note as though it was his first taste of water in weeks. As he likes to remind people, this little retribution fantasy was never meant to be taken too seriously, hence the sing-along disclaimer which ushers the songs to its conclusion: "Phew, for the minute there/I lost myself." But meanings, unlike notes and words, can change over time and - at no notice - shower poetry on the most unexpected of moments. So when the song finishes and Thom returns a cappella to that line, just so he can lose himself all over again, you're left with no option but to lose yourself with him. Which, stage right, is what the three members of R.E.M. are doing too. Twenty years ago, Thom Yorke bought the band's first album, Murmur, and decided that this was the kind of group he would like to front. Tonight, he dedicates "Lucky" to his heroes-turned-mentors, with a look that suggests this might be the best evening of his life.

As for that divide between Vintage Radiohead and Experimental Radiohead, it's the only muddy spot of the weekend. Five seconds in, Kid A's opening track, "Everything In Its Right Place", receives a Stars In Their Eyes-style cheer of recognition. That he has problems keeping a straight face throughout the song is due mainly to his own, looped, digitised scally voice calling "Hash for cash" over the backing track. Rather thinner on laughs are the panicking pulses of "Idioteque" and "The Gloaming", which see him all but consumed by the bleakness of his own words: "When the walls bend/Will you breathe in?" Driven to new heights of catharsis by the percussive landslide of "Sit Down Stand Up", he reminds you of the Sufi dervishes who attempt to channel divine energy through their own spinning bodies. Except, of course, that this energy is anything but divine: it's the kind of energy that drives insomnia and reduces fingernails to stumps. It's the intangible fear felt by the little man trying to do good things; the suspicion that, in the final analysis the karma police may be cancelled out by far more illiberal forces. Or, worse, that they never existed at all.

So, what does it say about these times that a songwriter who uses fear, paranoia and foreboding as his muses - Mother Shipton locked in the flailing body of Ian Curtis - attracts such incomparably intense devotion? It says that his truth accords with ours; that he gets us just as much as we get him. These times have paid host to unparalleled strangeness: we've seen the unhappy invention of the pre-emptive war; the nearest that the British Government now has to a credible Opposition is the BBC; American liberalism is seen as unpatriotic; and all that any concerned person can do is sign endless petitions, hoping that someone somewhere acts against their own self-interests to make the world a better place.

In 2003, the madness of Thom Yorke doesn't seem so very mad after all.

I KNEW HIM WHEN...

Before recording with Lunatic Calm and Elite Force, Simon Shackleton was a Headless Chicken - alongside Thom Yorke. Here's what he remembers...

"Thom was good friends with a woman who is now my wife. They were in the same hall together, so I guess my first memories are from seeing them in the halls of residence. I was in the year above him, doing music. There was a really big student night once a week at a place called The Lemon Grove, which would hold about 1,200 people. At that time, I first started to get interested in DJing but when Thom landed the job of playing there I was doing the door. I'd obviously have to turn up before the club opened and I remember that Thom would turn up early to try out some new tunes over the sound system. Things like 'Shut Up And Dance' and The Ragga Twins. But he also liked industrial stuff - The Young Gods, World Domination Enterprises, Renegade Soundwave - that also had a human element. His favourite band was the Pixies though.

"I was involved in a local organisation called Hometown Atrocities. We would get loads of punk bands coming to town. We'd work especially hard on getting American bands over, like Fugazi. Thom kind of came into that, though not on an organisational front. There was always loads going on. We used to organise parties and stuff out on Dartmoor. Thom would often bring his guitar along.

"Exeter's quite a hotbed of activism. Thom and I were very involved in all sorts of direct action. This was around the time of student loans and poll tax. We had spontaneous occupations of roundabouts, things like that. The art course was obviously very important in terms of how his future panned out. Stanley Donwood was on it - and so was Rachel [Thom's partner]. Thom and Rachel didn't get together until near the end of his time there. They seemed really well-suited. She was just this lovely, unassuming girl. He wasn't naturally outgoing or particularly gregarious. He was quite intense and quite thoughtful. On the whole, I would say that people liked him but didn't particularly bond with him that closely.

"He was brilliant to work with, though. When we started doing music, Thom always made it clear from day one that he had this other band back home, and whatever we did at Exeter was just a sideline. [The Headless Chickens] was never something either of us set out to take that seriously. Our songs were a 50/50 mix of original tracks and covers. After he finished his degree, our band sort of came to an end. I stayed in Exeter for a while. The Christmas after he left, I remember him visiting, sitting in this two up two down house that my mate lived in. Radiohead had already got their deal by this point. He took out his guitar and played us 'Creep' for the first time, which was amazing. I remember him saying that it had this swearing in it and the record company didn't know what to do with it - so they'll probably stick it on the B-side of the next single. I was like, 'You're kidding me! What have you got for the A-side?

"I don't think anyone could have predicted that he would have gone as far as he has. But then, it's hard to say how people will respond to even the most basic recognition. There were a lot of insecurities about him. He wasn't just this focused, driven individual. He was quite delicate. There are a lot of people way more brash and way more outwardly confident who dealt with fame far worse than Thom has.

"In the early days of Radiohead, the thing that always concerned us as mates was how much everything came down to Thom. It seemed like he was having to lead them by the hand through the process of recording. I felt that anyone who had to cope with that much pressure would struggle. I went to see some of their earlier shows when they first played up in London. And for me, the best songs were the ones Thom was playing on his own from the acoustic. Things like 'Stupid Car' [from the Drill EP], which I still think is one of their finest tracks. But the rest of the band have come good over the years. What they've accomplished as a unit is amazing. None of us could believe it when 'Creep' did what it did in America. The increments of their success since have seemed minor by comparison. I think a lot of the ideas he had as a student are still intact.

"Favourite album? Well, OK Computer definitely scaled some amazing heights. But then, the one thing Radiohead have always done really well is albums. Their records take you on a journey from A to B. They're great listening experiences."

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