Thom Yorke on Thom Yorke
Radiohead's Thom Yorke likes to think a lot. He says he worries too much, worries about losing the plot. Yet his explicitly personalised, emotive lyrics have made him the anti hero in a new generation of British rock'n'roll stars. Whether as a genius outsider, madman or tortured artist, Thom has always been the subject of black and white, one-dimensional media profiles. In this self interview he faces his multi-dimensional other selves and, for the first time, we get a close-up, full-colour, snapshot of the real Thom Yorke.
It's been a year since Radiohead released The Bends, and now one of the best rock albums of '95 is back by popular demand, firmly entrenched in our national charts at number four. Amazingly, the Brits failed to award them one of four nominations. Their last but one single, "Just", a charity record for the Help EP, was even refused a playlist by Radio One on the grounds that it was not "radio-friendly". Yet despite the media support afforded to many other bands, Radiohead have gone supernova through: nakedly brilliant songwriting, stadium-tilting sound, non-stop touring schedules and just being themselves.
27 year-old Thom Yorke is a difficult man to define. Like the difference between his one slightly sleepy eye and his other wide eye, there's a distinct contrast to his personality. One side of him is inward looking, the other looking out for answers to the outside world. The band are an internal support group; each member with their own neatly cohesive responsibilities. But as the focal and vocal point, Thom is pressured to play out the roles defined by the music. It burns him up inside, saps the poetry from his soul and conflicts with his passionate belief in artistic responsibility.
In The Bends, we see Thom's collective voices compressed and decompressed, like reflections in a hall of mirrors, into comically exaggerated lows and anthemic, epic highs. On stage, Thom's self-deprecation evokes an empathy and hysteria rarely witnessed in pop audiences. Seeing Radiohead live is less a group experience and more a personal revolution. During climactic moments, like the chorus for "Just", when he sings, "You do it to yourself, just you, you and no-one else", it's as if he's speaking to each and everyone there. So, do you ever have a laugh?
"Whenever anyone puts a microphone in front of me, I'm serious because I want to get these noises out of my head. At home I've got a very puerile, juvenile sense of humour. The people that make me laugh more than anyone else are Jonny and Ed. We've known each other since we were 15, so how can you not mercilessly rip the shit out of each other? It's just like when you're a kid; it's no different."
The Bends was an ecliptic moment in Radiohead's trajectory; a point where the pressure of producing a follow-up to their two million-selling debut Pablo Honey saw their fears and desires overshadowed by an honesty to find themselves. And just as The Bends was an evolutionary progression, so their new recordings, according to Thom, see Radiohead continuing to experiment; redefining their sound surroundings, with some purely computer-originated songs, others stripped down, unplugged and semi-acoustic.
Radiohead have already gone through several pop cycles. The New Wave of the New Wave failed to pick up on the not-so-new Radiohead, and, in its arrogant and self perpetuating publicity driven schemes, Britpop ignored them. They carved their own niche in the collective consciousness of the record-buying public. The Radiohead of today are anarchists in a highly politicised pop game, art students who didn't believe in college, rock'n'roll stars who don't write about cocaine. They're doing it their way. Thom: This is a quote, and I think this is you. 'The history of our times calls to mind those Walt Disney characters who rush madly over the edge of a cliff without seeing it. The power of their imagination keeps them suspended in mid-air, but as soon as they look down and see where they are, they fall.'
Thom: Well, am I looking down? I don't think I'm looking down. I sort of understand the Walt Disney bit, though. The cartoon character bit. I understand running off the edge of a cliff, the expression on the face as they look down. I suppose it means something about the suspension of disbelief, and I suppose what you are trying to ask me, is 'What are you doing? I can understand that, but it's better than working in advertising which is what my dad wanted me to do. And I'm looking down and I'm not falling.
Thom: No, but other people in your position do. Why should you be any different?
Thom: I don't say I'm any different at all. I just worry about losing it, you know? I spend most of every fucking day worrying about losing it. I've got to stop swearing as well, because some woman just wrote me a letter saying she really likes my music, but she's 50 years old; our music (laughs) and she's 50 years old and she doesn't like the swearing. (laughs)
Thom: Really? That's interesting. That's really interesting that you'd actually get worried about that. It's pretty pathetic, isn't it? You're really 'Be nice to everybody, nice big grin, shake hands, worry about wasteful packaging, worry whether people are going to break into your home while you're asleep. You worry about not having written back to fan mail. You worry about what to say to important people. You worry about what to say on stage in front of people. You're just a worrier. You're about as intuitive as a brick. You spend half your life worrying, more than half your life. You should fucking get a life, you should be enjoying what you're doing. Get on with it, enjoy it. Suck it up. All those lovely people being nice to you. It's what you always wanted.
Thom: I didn't know what I wanted. I don't think anybody knows what they want. We did a show in Los Angeles. It's a Christmas radio show; they have these every year and everybody does it who wants to be liked by the radio station that year, and we did it. And we thought we were going to hate it, but we turned up and everybody there, like Lenny Kravitz and people like Oasis, were talking to us and saying: 'Hi, you know, I really liked that song' or something and you're going, 'Er, thanks very much'. And that was great, and it was like being at your own birthday party, but you don't know anybody, but they know it's your birthday and I don't know. No, that's bullshit. Anyway it got a bit out of hand because all the people there - except for a few like Oasis and Lenny Kravitz who we have respect for - were just fucking clinging on, you know? And they got this crazy look in their eye, and apparently a lot of them were on coke. I didn't know that; they said it's the coke paranoia thing. There was one particular famous ex-celebrity who I can't name who was really ready to punch me and was giving me a lecture about not behaving in the correct manner towards him because he came up to me and he says: 'Hey, man, you know, I really love you, man, you know, your album's great, you know, we want to make music like you' and I'm talking to somebody else and I'm thinking, 'Well, I'm not impressed', and it's not like I'm having a fucking go or anything, I'm just not into talking to him simply because he's another famous person, ex-famous person in this business. I'm sorry, but I didn't get into this to go to the parties and fucking talk to other famous people. I got into this because I really love what we did and I really love the other blokes in the band and that's why I got into this and get out of my face, you know? But I didn't say any of these things, I just sort of said nothing. And there was this famous model there and I snubbed her because I was a bit out of my head at the time and I was a bit stoned. Anyway, I couldn't do it, you know? I wasn't really able to communicate with anyone except for people I really knew. I suppose the novelty of these people has worn off and I just sound like this sulky kid who has had a big birthday party but didn't get the present he wanted and, you know, someone should just slap him around the face. And this guy was quite prepared to do that.
Thom: OK, this is an obvious question. Why did you want to be famous then?
Thom: Because I wanted to meet REM and Elvis Costello (laughs) and now I have. But really we just started making tapes when we were younger. First me on my own, and then me and Jonny, and then with the others. And we'd play them to people, and they'd really like them and they'd take them home and they'd actually play them at home and I was really into this. Or I'd be at a party or something and someone would give me a guitar and I'd play a song. I mean this is all when we were sort of 15, 16 and it was the first time that I found something that I really loved and I suppose that I just loved the attention, so I wanted to be famous, I wanted the attention.What's wrong with that? But there is also something really seriously fucking unhealthy about it.
Thom: You haven't really answered the question. You've said 'Oh, I want to be loved'. And that's not the real fucking reason, is it? I think you're a bit of a fucking prat.
Thom: Yeah, I agree. Um... other reasons to be famous. I think this discussion is so fucking lame. There's no point in continuing it, really. My favourite answer is: 'Because that way more people get to hear what we do', but that would be a lie, because I'm sure if you asked other members of the band they would agree, but it isn't the only reason. I just get really wound up because I think that when we got involved in what we do, we were so naive. I still think we are naive and I used to sort of want to hide it and now I'm proud of it because I think the most offensive thing about the music business, the most offensive thing about the media in general, is the level of cynicism and the fact that people really believe that they can pawn off endlessly recycled bullshit with no heart and people will buy it. And people do buy it, so I'm wrong and they're right. Just to end this one; whenever I get lost about this, then the others always pull me up. And this is not just about me; I mean I'm doing this interview on my own because I think it's a good idea because I'm not very good at dealing with day to day press interviews, as most people in my position aren't, because they get very precious about the way people think about them. I'm not that precious about the way people think about me, but I am precious about offensive stuff that people write and I am precious about headlines like the one that was put in the NME, 'Thom's Temper Tantrum'. This was a while ago, before Christmas. As they put it, I threw a tantrum in Germany and left the stage and nobody could understand what had happened and everyone was really pissed off and the whole audience were really angry and wanted their money back or whatever. The article was run like that and it was sort of second or third hand. What actually happened on that night was that I'd been really, really ill for quite some time and I didn't know whether I would be able to do it or not and it's very difficult to tell but after a while, if you're doing a tour, there is a point where you have to just carry on. It doesn't matter how ill you are, you still have to get on stage, and that really fucking does something to your head after a while. When I tried the soundcheck I got really worried because I couldn't sing anything. And when the show came round, people had driven hundreds of miles to come and it was snowing and it was like three or four foot deep and I just thought: 'There is no way I'm not doing the show because these people have travelled this far'. So I got up on stage and I thought it would be alright, but after three songs I lost my voice completely and I was croaking and I just got really fucking freaked out. I got tunnel vision and I don't really know what happened. I threw stuffaround and threw my amp around and drum kit and ended up with blood all over my face and things. I cried for about two hours afterwards. I want people to know what happened that night. I'm sure no one gives a fuck and I'm sure the NME don't give a fuck, but what they wrote in that piece hurt me more than anything else anyone has ever written about me.
Thom: I think you've said enough about your fucking precious bullshit. It seems that you're a graduate of the Sinead O'Connor school of media handling and don't you feel it's about time you grew up a little? Stamping your little feet comes across as rather laughable under the circumstances, don't you think?
Thom: I think that has a lot to do with the expression that's on my face. People are born with certain faces, like my father was born with a face that people want to hit. (laughs) I do stamp my feet out of frustration really, but I don't do it as much now because I feel that we're in more control of what's happening.
Thom: Do you think that people who read this find this level of agonising pretty offensive?
Thom: I think the only reason that I'm able to think like this is because we've been off the wheel long enough and I've been at home long enough to start to see a lot of things for what they are. What worries me more than anything else is the whole notion that I'm who people focus on, like it's of significance, you know? People look at me and think that it's a complete existence. What really fucks me up in the head is that basically I'm supposed to be endorsing this sort of pop star, 'Wow, lucky bastard, he's got it all' existence. What frightens me is the idea that what Radiohead do is basically packaged back to people in the form of entertainment, to play in their car stereos on their way to work. And that's not why I started this but then I should shut the fuck up because it's pop music and it's not anything more than that. But I got into music, because I naively thought that pop music was basically the only viable art form left, because the art world is run by a few very extremely, um, privileged people and is ultimately corrupt and barren of any context. And I thought that the pop music industry was different and I was fucking wrong, because I went to the Brits and I saw it everywhere and it's the same thing. It's a lot of women who couldn't fit in their cocktail dresses and lots of men in black ties who essentially didn't want to be there, but were. And I was there and we were all committing the same offence. All my favourite artists are people who never seem to be involved in the industry and I found myself getting involved in it, and I felt really ashamed to be there.
Thom: It sounds to me like you're going around in ever-decreasing circles.
Thom: Yeah, I agree. I don't know if anybody else has this feeling. When you're walking down the street and you catch your reflection in something like a car window or a shop window and you see your face and you think, 'Who's that?'. You know: 'That's not me, that doesn't represent who I am'. And I think I've recently discovered what the problem is and it's a feeling that essentially you're just in a room full of mirrors. You can shoot at all the reflections, but basically it's all meaningless because you're just trapped and you put yourself there. I've realised recently that it's actually worrying about it that's the fucking problem. It's actually saying, 'No, this is me, that's not me', and being precious about who you are, because I believe now that everyone changes all the time. I think the most unhealthy thing for a human being is to feel that they have to behave in a certain way because other people expect them to behave like that, or to feel they have to think in a certain way because what happens then is basically your mind goes round in circles. I was getting really freaked out the other day because I was talking to Jonny when we were in the studio, and I woke up one morning and discovered that during the night, as a dream or something, my mind was going round in a trap. Like it was going round and round and round and round. It was like four or five words just going round in my head and it went on for about an hour and I couldn't stop it. And Jonny said he had the same thing. He went to Israel with his wife after a tour and he'd just got out of the bath, and picked up a towel to dry himself. Then once he put the towel down on the floor, he stood there completely freaked out for a half an hour because there were so many different places to put the towel. He'd become paralysed and got really really scared, because his mind had gone into a lock and wouldn't stop. So I get scared about my mind going round in circles but I think that's only because I'm constantly aware of my own reflection and I feel that's an extremely unhealthy thing. And I feel sorry for anyone who actually starts to believe their own reflection because I've done it. What a wanker!
Thom: Well, I think you're being very dishonest. I think that you're a little shit like every other narcissistic little boy in a pop band. Your particular angle in life is being the tortured artist, which frankly is already appearing fairly tired. It's about time you lightened up.
Thom: You're right. I'll lighten up. At the moment I'm really excited about what we could do, but just as much, like 50 per cent of the time, I'm thinking how close it is to just being completely banal. I guess that's what's supposed to happen. The best thing for us is to just keep turning stuff out and not worrying about what people think. The thing that paralysed us for the first two or three months of recording The Bends was the fact was that we were paralysed about what people would think. We were paralysed about who we were supposed to be. We were paralysed about how we were supposed to be. It's pretty difficult not to love the attention. And I kind of went through a phase of going to London a lot and going to parties and things. Part of me really wanted to do that, wanted to go out and sort of soak up this beaming fucking sunshine coming out of my bottom or whatever it was, but you know... Maybe I should have done it, but it's not my thing, that's all. I'm not good at taking compliments, but I do it. I think it's more that people have put this level of significance into it, to the point where it's really taking the piss. The reason I'm proud of the fact that people have jumped to The Bends now is because I know how difficult it was to make. The record is a document of a period of time and that was a difficult period of time and the fact that people really like it makes me very proud. I don't really care who wins Brit awards because nobody else does.
Thom: It sounds to me like you're desperately trying to find something to fight against.
Thom: I didn't come here to be attacked by you. Just fucking lay off, alright? (laughs).
Thom: No wonder you don't talk too much: you don't seem to have much to say, Thom.
Thom: I don't think I do have.
Thom: Do you enjoy getting drunk on your own, then, Thom?
Thom: Stuff comes out, and I like it because there's a sort of comfort in it. Being pissed out of your head and on your own, but it's a bit softer. I think that I should ask you some questions now. You're the one that's been trying to pick a fight with me. Why do you follow me around everywhere?
Thom: What do you mean, 'follow you around'? I'm just another voice in the tape recorder, part of the interview. What do you mean, 'follow you around'?
Thom: You know what I mean. Why do you make me do that stuff? Why do you make me hurt people?
Thom: You sound like some dodgy John Hurt serial killer character.
Thom: I don't mean 'hurt people'; people say I get in a state, and I think it's because you're around.
Thom: I think you're just creating this as part of a convenient excuse for your bad behaviour.
Thom: You've always got a fucking answer, haven't you? You've always got a fucking answer.
Thom: I think this sounds a little bit too much like a very bad '80s thriller, or something. You're trying to create some sort of persona thing. Anyway I don't think this is really for the public domain. Do you?
Thom: No, but this is the first time I've ever talked to you.
Thom: No it's not. That's bullshit.
Thom: Everyone has different sides, and at least I don't go and harm anybody. Except maybe the fish in the pond. I think maybe this house is haunted. I tell you about the fish. It was during a Christmas and I bought this house and there were these two beautiful oriental fish that lived in a pond at the bottom of the garden and my other half went away for a few days and one of the things that was left on a note was 'look after the fish', because at that time there was ice and snow covering the ground. It was like two foot deep or something ridiculous. Now I let these fish die because I couldn't even be fucking bothered to get my shit together to go down to the bottom of the garden and knock a little hole in the ice to keep these fish alive. So when I eventually remembered that they were there, I saw them belly up in the ice and one of them was, his little mouth was right next to the last hole that had been made there in the pond. A last gasp for breath of air and I couldn't even fucking manage that.
Thom: Poor little Thom.
Thom: You're the wanker that wants me to sleep with all these women. But I haven't done it, and I won't.
Thom: But you know they're still there.
Thom: I don't think it's any of your business.
Thom: Of course it's my business.
Thom: OK then, but I don't think it's anybody else's business.
Thom: Everything is their business. That's the whole point, Thom. This tape's running out. Have you got anything else you want to say in this somewhat random interview that we've been doing?
Thom: I want to say that I did this for a reason. It was a good idea because I wanted to just take a different photograph. You know, a different reflection in a different shop window. But maybe I just kind of forgot what it was I wanted to do. I wanted it to be some sort of deep psychological experience. I wanted to be locked in a room for a day, but my life being what it is, I couldn't do that.
Thom: So let's find you a cheery question to end this, shall we? After all, this is the media. Do you think you'll ever get to heaven, Thom? Or maybe just the top of the charts?
Thom: Only if I get rid of you.
Thom: Absolutely no chance whatsoever…