2003 July - Q
Silence! Genius at work!
Something’s eating Thom Yorke. His old albums make him feel ill and he really doesn’t give a toss what anyone thinks of the new one. You don’t have to be maddening to work in radiohead but it helps!
One day last summer, during a six-month hiatus from Radiohead, Thom Yorke decided to lavish treats on his son Noah. He bought the two year old some children’s DVDs, among them Bagpuss, the 70s TV series featuring a ragged pink and white cat who lives in a shop with friends Prof Yaffle, a doll called Madeline, and a troupe of mice.
When presented with this archive classic, Noah got up and walked out of the room, but Thom found himself sitting through all 13 instalments. Episode 2 - The Owls of Athens - caught his eye and in particular, a sonng called the Bony King of Nowhere.
“It’s about this pipe-cleaner king with a bony arse who moans about the hardness and coldness of his throne,” says Yorke. “So the mice scurry about trying to make him a comfy one.”
Naturally, you bite your lip as Thom tells you the story. But don’t worry. He knows. In fact, the resonance with his own life was so strong he decided this would be the title of the new radiohead album. What’s more, he got on the phone to Bagpuss creator Oliver Postgate and asked if he’d make the video to the new single "There There".
Postgate is 78, retired, and therefore declined. In the end, "the Bony King of Nowhere" was deemed too ‘prog’ by the rest of the band and the more declamatory Hail to the Thief was preferred. Even so, the pre-eminent rock seer of his generation is undeterred.
“I’m telling you, there’s a lot in there. You could do a lot worse than get yourself the DVD of Bagpuss.”
It’s Good Friday and Oxford glints in spring sunshine. Tufty-haired folk wearing cordoroy walk past college portals. Future prime ministers hack past on push bikes. Along Banbury Road, a man carrying a 8ft wooden cross leads a solemn progression along the pavement. Coming the other way is Thom Yorke.
He has walked 10 minutes to the interview from his new Oxford home. An hour ago he was rough and tumbling with Noah, but now, in a leafy pub garden, he is on duty. Appropriately, two young American fans approach with a copy of The Bends. He’s a part of Oxford heritage now: the colleges, Inspector Morse, the angry guy from Radiohead. “Don’t ask me to get you into Glastonbury,” he jokes with them, signing the album. Later he will say he will never listen to this or any other Radiohead album again, since the experience makes him ill.
At 34 he can still pass for a cool yet shambling student: baggy jeans and pumps, a stonewash jacket and a white shirt with cuff buttons missing. These are accessorized by large, orange-tinted sunglasses which make his internal world hard to fathom. All the same, you can see him trying to read your questions. Up close, there is age in the details, flecks of grey in the stubble. There’s worry, too, in the gnarled fingernails and vibrating knee.
For fans he’s an ambassador. For the journalist the full panoply of Yorke’s mood is activated. We met by chance last week and he was easy, fun. Today, ordinary icebreakers, small talk, proffering a bowl of olives in the shade (“I’ve got to watch my moles,” he says) gain no leverage. He’s diffident, icy, and you sense immediately that your “take”, your “angle”, is under laser scrutiny. You half expect him to cite the Geneva Convention or demand his phone call to his lawyer.
No, he will not accept received wisdom that the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions were hell, that in abandoning the traditional rock approach Radiohead escaped the rock paradigm but also nearly fell to bits. And he certainly rejects the notion that Hail to the Thief’s partial return to song, conventional instruments and spontaneous recording has made the band a happier community.
“You’re getting this a bit arse about face…That’s a silly way of putting it,” he begins. “There was more time to live with the songs rather than starting work cold. But it wasn’t about giving the others more room because it implies I was stamping about in big boots, when I wasn’t really. Why, has that ruined your angle?”
That last niggle comes with some venom. So we break down the facts: a week prior to this interview I spent the day with Radiohead minus Yorke. Ed O’Brien said that during the recording of Hail to the Thief, Yorke had let go and become less precious. Jonny, too, said there was less angst and a greater inclination to work quickly, now they have families. "Naturally, if there’s not enough for you to do it ceases to feel like a group project,” drummer Phil Selway noted.
And then there was this from Colin Greenwood, "I felt like a rat going for the piece of cheese, bracing myself for the electric shocks. But this is the first time I’ve enjoyed most of it, as opposed to some of it.”
You’ve said yourself that while recording Kid A/Amnesiac you were responsible for a “climate of fear”
Yorke: “Well, that’s kinda true”
So you were stomping around in big boots?
Yorke: “They were sort of big…”
Perhaps the Kid A fretting wasn’t all his fault. It was the methodology: recording arbitrary sound segments and then compiling an album from a computer hard drive. “Last time we went to Copenhagen thinking, Our music needs snow, cold and darkness. It was a wretched way to think,” Jonny admitted. “This time we said, sun and warmth, now there’s something we haven’t tried before.” They spent two and a half weeks at Ocean Way in West Hollywood with long-time producer Nigel Goderich. And, in their way, Radiohead set about having a good time: they ate in diners, cruised LA in minis and went on day trips to the Griffith Observatory and the desert. And although no one can remember getting drunk, O’Brian said smoking dope made the sessions more relaxed. You can hear the spontaneity in the first few seconds of the album: Jonny plugs in a guitar. “That’s a good way to start,” offers Yorke, and they launch into "2+2=5".
The story of Hail to the Thief begins last summer. O’Brien, Jonny and Colin Greenwood and Selway hadn’t heard much from Yorke during the six-month sabbatical and they were at their respective homes when the motorcycle courier showed up. The dispatch rider dropped a package through each of their doors. Inside were three CDs entitled "The Gloaming", "Episcoval" and "Hold Your Prize". They were from Yorke: the new ideas for the sixth Radiohead album.
With a sense of trepidation they loaded the discs into their players. “He hadn’t named CDs for five years,” explains O’Brien. “It reminded me of tapes for OK Computer. It was a nostalgic thing. This is the way it used to be. It signified to me that he was ready to engage again.”
There were programmed ideas like "Backdrifts", piano sketches like "Sail to the Moon", and basic guitar ideas strummed onto a Dictaphone. The band were excited. Well, all except for one. “Once I’d made the CDs I felt very little about any of it,” says Yorke. “I wasn’t really interested; I didn’t have any feeling toward it at all, which is really how I used to be when we were kids. I used to put things down and not evaluate them. So that’s what I did. Didn’t try. No effort. Lazy, in fact.”
This is where Yorke needs to be. In the past, Radiohead have buckled under expectation. After the fevered autopsies of Kid A and Amnesiac he feels they’ve arrived at a place where they can just “get on with it”.
Yorke has chilled out and become more domesticated since becoming a father. He spent a lot of time away from the band with Noah and his partner Rachel. He did the coaxing and wiping at feeding time. He did the shopping, though he drew the line at gardening or putting up shelves. Throughout this, he still managed to gather material for the famously dark, malign Radiohead universe. He kept up with the world via TV or Radio 4 (“good for current affairs, but not those stupid plays where a woman is having a not very scandalous affair”).
At home next to his and Rachel’s bed he keeps a plastic folder, she a sketchpad. Hers says “remain orderly in your life so you can remain free and chaotic in work”. His folder has no title but it is filled with funny, macabre phraseology dredged from his daily experience. “That notepad reminds me why I still do this,” he says.
When he came to plunder the pad for lyrics he found a lot were about hell, death, burning. Just listen to "We Suck Young Blood", or "Wolf At The Door"... but the notepad, and by extension Hail to the Thief, has increasingly been filled with fragments of both his and Noah’s childhood, too. "2+2=5" contains the line “Go and tell the king that the sky is falling in”. It’s from Yorke and his brother Andrew’s favourite bedtime story, Chicken Licken. In it, an acorn falls on a bird’s head, making it think the sky is coming down and inspiring it to tell the king. En route, the bird attracts a following of concerned poultry. Eventually, a fox says he will show the birds where the king is. He leads them into his den where he and the fox family rip their gizzards out. The end.
“At the end there’s just a few feathers and that’s it,” says Yorke. “Goosey loosey and Drakey lakey get what’s coming. I love that idea of there being no intention of a happy ending.”
Yorke laughs to himself and it’s a sound worth sticking around for; richly nerdy, full of stifled glee.
“And the worst thing is, they don’t get to tell the king that the sky is falling in,” he says, after recovering. “That could be happening everyday of our lives, the ones with the news are getting knocked on the head.”
Transpose this children’s tale to Radiohead’s world and Mr. Fox is a corporate exec or a govt minister. We are all dull dupes, waiting to be picked off.
Listen to "Myxomatosis", wherein the narrator is so haunted by the discrepancy between personal experience and media-reported reality he succumbs to paranoid illness. Yorke can be very funny about his suspicions (although his “Lizards you see, we’re being overrun by lizards" is more of a joke at David Icke’s expense that a serious explanation). In general, he’s had his fill of being seen as a complaining, trouble-making rock star, as evidenced by "Myxomatosis"’s lines: Now no one likes a smart ass/But we all like stars”.
“Paranoid, miserable, that’s me, isn’t it?” he says. “That’s my job. Too clever by half. But we all like our stars, our celebrities...”
If you ask him about the malevolence engulfing the world he can be perfectly apposite: the track "I Will" is a beautiful hymn to Iraqi families vaporized during the accidental bombings in the 1991 Gulf War. At other times, though, he can sound trite. The biggest media scandal he can unearth is this: last year a friend of his threw a flan in cabinet minister Clare Short’s face. .
“It was brilliant, she went nuts,” beams Yorke. “The cameras were there. It was guaranteed newspaper front pages and Channel 4 News.” Then, he claims, the government’s minister of spin, Alastair Cambpell, had the story buried.
“It never ceases to amaze me the way the mainstream press will obediently re-write an event if they’re told by the government to do so. They do, they jump. Alastair Campbell had rung around and said, If you do this, you get no access in the next election. The story was dropped, gone, gone, gone. The public will never see it.”
In fact, The Observer’s political editor Kamal Ahmed confirms that Clare Short was hit by a custard pie at Bangor University in March 2001. If this is Yorke’s conspiracy, it was reported, albeit briefly, in most British newspapers, perhaps just not the ones read by Yorke.
Campbell himself is equally dismissive: “The situation he describes in which I am alleged to have stopped the media reporting an incident involving Clare Short is fictitious, but if it makes him feel better...”
Still, you might argue that in raising issues such as Third World Debt and Fair Trade Yorke is at least trying to use his profile constructively. Sadly, we never get to discuss this. I make the tactical error of mentioning Yorke’s name in the same sentence as the word “celebrity”. It’s a tantrum launcher. There’s no option but to sit back and endure the foaming.
“Oh, yes, cos I’m a celebrity, aren’t I? Hmmm... celebrities. I love my celebrities. I would love to be a celebrity. It’s just brilliant. So great. Q Magazine, brilliant! I should have moved to Primrose Hill, really... never mind...
“Really, I should go to more film premieres. I’m really into dressing up and shit like that. I dress up even when I go out and get a sandwich but no one wants my picture. No one gives a shit.”
You didn’t like the word celebrity, did you?
“No, no! I want to be in Heat! I wait outside the supermarket for the photographers. Why don’t they want me?”
Eventually, after perishing a bowl of olives with his stare, he says this, “For the time being, I try and voice issues... for the time being, while people still give a shit.”
Ed O’Brien says you shouldn’t take Yorke too seriously. “He drives himself very hard and doesn’t always realize the effect that can have.” O’Brien is the warm, ambassadorial face of Radiohead. He might have been designed to a perfectly-nice-young-man blueprint by a committee of Home Counties grannies: Jesus-like good looks, tall, gushingly polite.
In a building of normal specifications, Ed O’Brien would be ceiling height. However, we meet in an Oxford inn built in 1666 and he’s all but bursting through the thatch. Two years ago he moved out of Oxford to London. “You can’t stay in Oxford all your life,” he says with an arch twinkle. All that’s missing is the rider, “not a man with my appetites”.
He is, he says, in educated tones, “a regular geezer”. He lives with his long-term girlfriend in Islington, likes a smoke and goes to Old Trafford with his mates. Three years ago he went to The Grammies with Phil and Colin. Thinking they might end up clinging to each other and cringing at the superficiality, O’Brien decided to make it more interesting by necking a fistful of mushrooms. (“I brought them from Oxford. It was brilliant. No, change that, I didn’t fucking take them in! I got them over here! My fucking visa, man!”)
It was like a party at the end of the world, Hugh Hefner and the Playboy bunnies over here, Bono over there. “You’re supposed to say, oh, it’s really false, but I had a fucking great night!”
O’Brien is unerringly loyal to his band, but the knows he’s a square peg. “Some of us like footie, others don’t. Some of us like crosswords, some of us... don’t.”
Oddly, Colin tells me that O’Brien moved to Islington, North London, two years ago, because he couldn’t bear to be away from his beloved Arsenal. That’s quite a passion, I say. “Arsenal? Fuck off! Who told you that? Colin?” spits O’Brien. “I’m an Oxford Red. Man United, mate. Chris Martin said Radiohead are the Real Madrid of rock but I say we’re United.”
For guitarist O’Brien, Kid A was a brilliant ego-squashing challenge (“Honestly, honestly, honestly, everyone needs to know what it’s like to have your toys taken away”), but he kind of likes the idea of plugging in again. “As a Radiohead fan, the last thing you had was Amnesiac and... I’ll be honest. I don’t like it very much. There are things I really don’t like about it. This time the energy is there. It’s not so cerebral, it’s more physical. This is the first time we’ve had that punky adolescence energy since The Bends.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Colin Greenwood. We lunch in a panelled tearoom surrounded by venerable, quivering oldsters, and an eerie truth dawns, the Radiohead bass player is in no way out of place. Keeping an eye out for his VW Golf in case it gets clamped, he says he’s just come from taking some cardboard out to the dump. He trills like a batty old aunt. “Yes, lovely, um... well, cardboard and boxes, actually, and, um... Really enjoying the process... of being in a band again. Rocking!”
While he chatters you get a chance to examine the eye-catching physiognomy. The Cambridge literature degree is stored in a massive head perched on a spindly frame, while the livid eyeballs suggest someone’s cut off his oxygen supply. It’s hard to know if the Greenwood clothes say, “I’m blind” or “I don’t give a shit”: a school cardie and wing-collar shirt. Important stuff is carried in an ever-present suede bag you imagine Twiggy swinging in 1964.
And all the while we chat, waiters run to and fro servicing his blast-furnace metabolism: in an hour he eats two main courses and a pudding. It comes as no surprise to learn that in the 2002 lay-off he applied himself to baking (speciality: “Rather a lovely plum pie. A Jane Grigson recipe from 1965") and gardening.
Greenwood defies all laws of rock and roll and therefore IS rock and roll. Eventually, though, you wonder if his amiable twittering is a strategy. “He’ll talk to anyone we don’t want to. He’s our secret weapon,” Yorke has noted in the past.
Drummer Phil Selway is all shyness and dignity. We meet in a hotel lobby, and, though he throws down spring water to keep himself lubricated, the tough questions make his throat dry.
He spent the six-month break with his wife and three kids at home in Oxford. When he had time he manned phones for the Samaritans. And when Thom Yorke’s package came, though he was aware electronic songs like "Backdrifts" or "The Gloaming" wouldn’t involve him at all, there was enough for him to feel this was still a band.
Way back at Abingdon School he was in Colin’s tutor group. He thought Colin and Yorke stood out for “obvious reasons” and joined their outfit On a Friday, wanting them to be like Orange Juice or U2 or Echo and the Bunnymen. For a time, there were two girls in the band who played saxophone. “We were young men from a boys school, so of course that was exciting,” he says. “I’m still in touch with Charlotte, but I don’t think she’d want you to know where she is.”
Finally, there’s Jonny. He was a 13-year old schoolboy playing the viola when his brother suggested to Yorke that he could play harmonica in their band. “I was an orchestra boy... you know, but Colin really pushed for me.” Greenwood gave up college eight weeks into his music/psychology degree. Even now, Mrs. Greenwood worries he has neglected his education.
As the one who reads music and plays guitar and keyboards, Jonny’s job is to take Yorke’s sketches and make them work. Yorke reckons that sometimes Jonny outdoes even him for nit-picking obsessiveness. Maybe it’s things like this: “I’ll never listen to OK Computer again,” he says. “There’s a song on there I can’t stand. I won’t say which because it will upset the others. But it’s there, it’ll always be there.”
During the lay-off he composed a soundtrack to a yet to be released British movie called Bodysong, an hour and a half of science library footage - birds, flowers, crowds - with no dialogue. “Ed says I should take some more time off,” he shrugs. “Maybe he’s right.”
If he does relax, it’s listening to 50’s BBC radio shows like Round the Home or Just a Minute featuring Kenneth Williams. One day, though, he would like to sit Yorke down and ask him about Hail to the Thief's closing track and lyrical tour de force, "Wolf At The Door".
Yorke had been listening to a CD of ragga freestyling when he flipped open his notebook of collected phraseology and constructed its extraordinary, splenetic rant.
“It’s a beautiful song, and then he starts shouting, 'Dance you fucker/Flan in the face',” laughs Jonny. “I mean, fantastic, but what’s he on about?”
In the light of Yorke’s less-than-earthshaking Clare Short revelations, we can now hazard a guess. This much is clear: you simply cannot hang around a mass-transit area, listen to the synthetically voiced options on a corporate switchboard, see an airbag sign, or open a vacuum-sealed sandwich without summoning Yorke’s anaemic wail to remind you what a hapless no-mark in a malevolent universe you are.
The big question, perhaps, is whether Yorke can play Edvard Munch’s screaming ghoul for much longer. He admits that having Noah has changed him. Getting up after three hours sleep and dealing with a child’s needs have brought him a welcome sense of what’s really important. Noah doesn’t even know what his dad does for a living, he says.
Tell him, “I’m the voice of a generation, son.” I joke.
“Well, was.” says Yorke, ruefully.
And then, almost absentmindedly he says, “I never listen to any of our records. Unless I have to because I’ve forgotten the chords. I might do that before touring and that’s OK because doing it live is like reclaiming the song. But even then it’s excruciating. Every time I hear them it makes me feel ill and I have to stop.”
It sounds like the simple honesty of a prodigious talent who creates and moves on. But there’s a sense that Yorke thinks journalism, perhaps even the fans, should move on too. There’s even the suggestion that he might not have the stomach for the fight any longer. He has finally disengaged himself, from the press, from expectations of any kind.
“We’ve had our moment... Come on... we’re old! It happens once and we had it and that’s great. But now I’m tired of picking a fight every time, making grandiose statements. The pressure of people wanting us to be a certain thing. We’ve made an album and it’s kinda there. No pressure. Nothing to live up to.”
Given his newly zen-like attitude, it seems strange that Yorke cares very much when people steal his work. When Hail to the Thief appeared on the internet in March, he was angry. “My feeling was, it’s all fucked. It’s all going down the tubes,” he says.
Strange, too, that the anti-corporate agitator who discards his work at the moment of its creation actually bothers recording for a mass market. Radiohead’s six-album deal with EMI is now over. If Thom Yorke leaned against the cage door he would now find it unlocked.
Will you re-sign to EMI?
Yorke: “Maybe we should do a Robbie Williams (in cod Mancunian accent) I’m oop for it. Fuck it, I’d take 80 million and not make any records. That’s how you do it. Free money. That’s what I want. A wheelbarrow of cash for no work. Marvellous.”
But given your politics...
“Politics, a strange use of the word.”
You’ve taken a stance on anti-corporate issues. People might expect such an influential band to lead the way. Why not sell the albums yourself on the Internet?
“I don’t think that’s the central issue. There’s other stuff. We’re making notes as we go along. What bits not to do again.”
“I couldn’t possibly tell you. We’ve said we’ll talk when we’re ready. When we’ve got something to say. There’s a lot of this which is arse about face. The whole set-up of the industry is not right, doesn’t make sense. Even if you forgot about the record, you’ve got Clear Channel (giant US radio and venue conglomerate) who own all the space you can possibly play. It’s a cartel, they’ve got it sewn up. We wanted not to pick a fight. It makes no difference. The whole thing’s going down the tubes.”
The interview over, he brightens and becomes almost playful. He’s humming as he gets up to leave. He says it’s from Bagpuss, the Bony King of Nowhere again, and urges me to investigate. It turns out that the grumpy old king hates his cold, stone throne and continues moaning even when the mice offer him feathers and even a hammock. Finally, the beleaguered rodents fashion him a cushion of silk and gold brocade. And there is after all a happy ending: “Now the happy king of nowhere/is smiling on his throne/He smile is rosy, his seat is cosy/Although his throne is stone, is stone/The mice have made it nice, so nice/He is a Happy King!”