interviews

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Sunday Chronicle, San Francisco

Radiohead

Interview by Tom Lanham
first published in The Sunday Chronicle, San Francisco

"Love songs have been killed by mainstream music, and to actually write a love song is kind of a peculiar thing to do these days."

--Thom York[sic]

Right from their inception in a snobby Oxford private school in the late 1980s, through to their haranguing of unappreciative fellow pop stars and music critics, Radiohead has always had a big hang-up about being undervalued. This sense of grievance, shared by Jonny Greenwood (guitar), Colin Greenwood (bass), Ed O'Brien (guitar/backing vocals), Phil Selway (drums) and the particularly bolshie Thom Yorke (vocals/guitar), manifests itself in aggressively self-pitying lyrics about such problems as the élitist attitudes of Oxford students ("Prove Yourself") and the bitterness of unrequited love ("Creep"), and a fierce "if you can't join them, beat them" outlook - a take on the world that led this nominally indie band to sign with EMI to amplify the commercial clout of their melodic sound.

Their first EP, Drill (1992) - a tinny collection of demos recorded when the band was still known as "On a Friday" mixed antisocial moaning with R.E.M.-ish strumming and vocals, interspersed with Nirvana-ish wails of guitar, and was not greatly welcomed. "Creep" (1992), however, was different. Not realizing the tape was running, the band recorded the song in one spontaneous take, and so captured something of the abrasive excitement of their three-guitar sound when played live. The band's stock rose with critics and punters alike after the release of the next two EPs, Anyone Can Play Guitar and Pop Is Dead, and their debut album, Pablo Honey (1993), surged into the UK Top 30.

Despite this taste of success, however, the lads weren't happy. Thom told his public, "if you're not interested, fuck you," and the band insisted they were perfectly happy to develop their skills without the help of the national papers (who still weren't interested in them). And they had mixed feelings over the release of the uneven, poorly sequenced and overly familiarPablo Honey, which featured six previously heard tracks. So it was under a cloud that they departed on a headlining tour of Europe in May 1993, only to hear some weeks later that, as if by magic, "Creep" had become the most requested alternative track on US radio, with heavy MTV rotation to match. Quickly changing their plans to building up a "word of mouth" reputation, Radiohead shot off to America for the first of several sell-out tours which would eventually have them CO-headlining with Belly, and supporting such luminaries as Tears for Fears.

--Rock: The Rough Guide

Thom Yorke and Colin Greenwood have just finished their morning bowl of granola, and they have something on their minds.

Do you know where we can get some used Levi's 501's?" they inquire. "We can't go back to England without some." Given that the vocalist and bassist, respectively, for Oxford's curious new combo Radiohead are on their final promo junket stop in San Francisco and only have a couple of hours before the flight leaves, they probably won't be diving into any Jean pools. "But these pants are impossible to get back home," they whine - as are the stylish Ray-Ban sunglasses they're proudly sporting.

Stateside status symbols are important to these Brits, eager to prove themselves against the U2s, Cures and Depeche Modes back home. They've released an engaging Anglopop debut that contains one of the memorable numbers of '93, a self-deprecating little ditty dubbed "Creep." Yorke positively oozes uneasiness in the slithery chorus of "I wish I were special/ But I'm a creep/ I'm a weirdo" and that feeling is magnified by the song's unassuming arrangement, which sort of, oh, creeps along. And who hasn't felt like a creep at some point in any given relationship?

Q: I read where you failed at being an art student. Is such a thing possible?

THOM: The way I failed was, I went to college one morning, presented them with my paintings, and they told me I couldn't paint. That was about halfway through. I then disappeared for a month and came back with all these other works, so I didn't actually fail at all. I got a degree in Art and English.

Q: Your sound's a very artistic one, not to mention American.

THOM: Without being too obvious, I hope. We have a great many favorite American bands, just like the Beatles did. Any British band that refuses to admit the fact they're influenced by American culture is lying through their teeth, because Britain doesn't have a culture. All Britain ever does is take American culture and sell it back to America again. "Prove Yourself" was kind of written about that. Oxford's a very intimidating place, but not in normal sorts of violent way - -it's like Los Angeles was for the brief time we were there. After the first few hours of novelty value, the California sunshine gets quite intimidating in the same kind of way.

COLIN: Yeah, there's always a pressure on people to be known, to be doing something.

Q: Who is this "Creep," exactly?

THOM: "Creep" is more the way people look at you. The guy in the song doesn't necessarily believe that he's a creep, but he's being told he is. But these things change. "Creep" is the term for someone who follows people around and drinks on his own in bars and stuff, but the idea came from a rocky relationship I was having. I find it very disturbing that there are thousands and thousands of these wonderful love songs which aren't really wonderful at all, and it's evident that the people who were writing them have never even been close to anything resembling the emotions they represent. Love songs have been killed by mainstream music, and to actually write a love song is kind of a peculiar thing to do these days.

Q: Your album title, Pablo Honey, is rather unique, too.

THOM: That comes from the "Jerky Boys" crank-call tapes, the one where he rings up this guy and pretends to be the bloke's long-lost mother - he just chooses names at random from a phone book. We picked the tape up from Chapterhouse, who picked it up when they were on tour over here.

Q: I read where there was a recent poll in England that asked kids to name their personal heroes, and they chose the video game character the Sonic Hedgehog.

COLIN: Yes. We played that in the studio while we were making the record. We love Sega.

THOM: We figure that we shouldn't be doing music anymore, but music for video games. We ran into these 12-year-olds one day playing video games, and they asked us what we did. We said we were in a band, and they just weren't very impressed. They said, "Get out of it! Get into writing tunes for Sega!" All the record companies in England are really paranoid about it, because the retail shops in Britain sell more games than they do records. But that's OK, we're going into virtual reality rock. We'll never leave our homes. We'll have rehearsals in cyberspace.

COLIN: You have these new pop stars like the Sonic Hedgehog that're creations of the company, not human beings, so they're controlled completely. But we're not Sonic, we can't be programmed to do things that the record companies want us to do. Sonic's not going to walk out on Sega and threaten to sign to Nintendo, now is he?

Q: Which pops up in your song "Vegetable": "I am not a vegetable/ I will not control myself."

THOM: A lot of things I write come from really simple ideas. That was a funny song because I had a lot of phrases floating around [in my head]. But the principal image I had in my head was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and all the people who sit around the main area in the film but don't actually do anything except drool or go to the toilet without knowing it. But when you read the book, you find out that The Chief is the main character, and that's the brilliant thing about it - nobody speaks to him because he's the idiot.

The song "Anyone Can Play Guitar" is slagging off that whole "I want to be Jim Morrison" thing. When they released Morrison's lyrics as poetry, I thought, "Oh, God." It just showed what he was - a real piss-head. There were flashes, though, and he was very good-looking. And in that sense, I'd like to be Jim Morrison.

Q: So instead of the "Lizard King", you'd like to be known as....

THOM: Any reptile would be fine.

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