interviews

Friday, January 25, 2008

2007 December 9 | The Observer

Caught in the flash

Radiohead released a landmark album, and gave it away for free. Craig McLean asks the questions of the band changing everything - with a little help from you, the people


Sunday December 9, 2007
The Observer

Toshio Suzuki, 25, from Nagoya in Japan, has a question he wants OMM to ask Radiohead. 'Dear Representative: with the assurance that this question is coming from an ardent fan, may I simply ask why In Rainbows took so long?'

'We were all in family mode,' replies Colin Greenwood, a bookish and slightly spacey chap who spent yesterday playing Risk with son Jesse, not yet aged four and one of 11 Radiohead children. 'Because Thom was doing his record. And [producer] Nigel [Godrich] wasn't around to record the album and... it became quite clear that we couldn't move forward without him.'

Alex Green, 15, from Cornwall, has another: 'Was In Rainbows the most painful album to make?'

'It was difficult,' says Colin. 'But I don't think it was more difficult than The Bends and OK Computer.'

'And Kid A and Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief!' chips in his brother, Jonny. 'They've all been difficult! But you forget that quite quickly, how painful they are, so it's fine.'

Now here is Louise Kent, 45, from Vancouver: 'Why is it called In Rainbows?'

'Um,' says Thom Yorke in the manner in which he begins most answers to most questions. Often he'll scratch his head, too, making him look totally Stan Laurel. 'Because it was the desire to get somewhere that you're not. I thought of that last night.'

So it's nothing to do with the theory posited by Cony Abbatemarco, director of food and nutritional services at Gaylord Hospital in Connecticut, who writes (and I quote): 'According to Genesis 9:1 (9+1 = 10!), God created the very first rainbow for Noah (Thom Yorke's son's name) as a symbol of gratitude and a promise of peace. This is known as the Noahic Covenant and in it God blesses Noah, his sons and all modern humankind ('Reckoner' lyrics??). God promised Noah that never again would there be complete destruction to all living things. Is the In Rainbows title related to this?'

'Ha ha ha!' laughs Ed O'Brien. 'Excellent. I love this shit! Fair play to somebody who works this stuff out!'

'Uh-oh,' says Thom Yorke. 'No. That's pure coincidence. Having not read that particular section of the Bible ...' he adds with a wryness so thick you could eat it with a fork.

'Some people,' notes Phil Selway, 'have far too much knowledge for their own good, you know.'

And now here's Maja Dorn, 33, from Germany: 'Can you say something about the sales figures of In Rainbows, the average price paid only for the download and the number of ordered discboxes? In which countries the most discboxes?'

Ed: 'I think there's about 80,000 discboxes.'

Jonny: '60,000.'

Ed: 'It was 65,000 a week ago.'

Colin: 'It's 72,000.'

Answering that question, it appears, might take some time...

Welcome to Radiohead vs The People, an OMM-curated global interrogation of the world's first post-tomorrow band.

As you may have heard if you've switched on the TV, or opened a newspaper, or talked to anyone, or walked down a desert track in Mongolia, on 10 October this year Thom Yorke (39, vocals, guitar, keyboards), Ed O'Brien (39, guitar), Jonny Greenwood (36, guitar, weird obscure muso kit), Colin Greenwood (38, bass) and Phil Selway (40, drums) released their seventh album and first in four years, In Rainbows. They had only announced its existence on 1 October, when a posting appeared on Dead Air Space, the diary section of Radiohead.com: 'Hello everyone. Well, the new album is finished, and it's coming out in 10 days. We've called it In Rainbows. Love from us all. Jonny.'

Initially the album was solely available via download. Boldly, simply, Radiohead were allowing anyone interested to set their own price: £00.00 if they wanted. A discbox, offering the download but also double vinyl and CD versions of In Rainbows, plus 'enhanced CD with [eight] additional new songs, artwork and photographs of the band', would be available in December at the fixed price of £40.

But, yes, it's worth repeating: You could get the new album from one of the biggest rock bands in the world for free

This was the proverbial butterfly flap that caused a far-off hurricane. Debate raged. Really raged. Radiohead - who had previously sold 23 million albums via traditional channels - were single-handedly tearing down the music industry. No, cheeky kids were tearing down Radiohead, taking the band at their word and paying precisely nothing for the 10 tracks. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the entire global technological and media top brass were committing hara kiri. Guy Hands - boss of Terra Firma, the private equity firm who earlier this year bought Radiohead's old label EMI for £2.4bn - knocked over his latte. Bono was in the corner in a huff, muttering 'damn, why didn't we think of that?' The record shop was dead, the DIY age was here and long live the virtual store! Could this business model be applied to, say, cars and comestibles too? Nothing would ever be the same again ...

Liam Gallagher, asked if Oasis - also currently without a record deal - would release their next, seventh album via a similar 'honesty box' mechanism, replied with much cursing and a pithy 'over my dead body'. Jay-Z, though, was mad for it: 'What Radiohead did with their album was a genius idea. I'm going to pay $50 for it.'

'The kamikaze pilot in me wants to do the same damn thing,' Courtney Love wrote on her yellow polka dot bikini. 'I'm grateful for Radiohead for making the first move. I'd do it differently. That's why B-sides are no longer B-sides, but have to be A-sides, to an extent.' Right on, Courtney.

Gene Simmons of Kiss, waggling his big tongue, was less impressed: 'Are they on fucking crack?' he spluttered. 'Do they really believe that's a business model that works?' Lily Allen exhaled a ring of fag smoke and huffed: 'It's arrogant for them to give their music away for free - they've got millions of pounds. It sends a weird message to younger bands who haven't done as well. You don't choose how to pay for eggs. Why should it be different for music?'

'How do the band respond to comments by Lily Allen and others accusing them of being arrogant and inconsiderate for putting their music out for whatever price the fans wished to pay?' - Jacob Day, 25, Orem, Utah

Thom: 'That's from Lily Allen?'

No, that's from Jacob in Utah, but Lily Allen said that last week.

Thom [clapping hands and emitting high-pitched laughter]: 'Oh, I'm upset about that.'

So that's no comment?

Thom: 'Well, that was my comment. It makes me laugh.'

And in the middle of all this, some people were even asking about said music. Like, was In Rainbows really the warmest, most approachable yet still daring Radiohead album yet? Might this be, in Radiohead terms, the perfect storm: the record that married the big rock welly of The Bends, the heart and soul of OK Computer, and the sonic adventurism of Kid A and Amnesiac.

So many questions, so little response from Radiohead. So, when they finally agreed to talk, OMM decided to follow the spirit of the In Rainbows 'initiative' and have fans and album-purchasers help with the questions.

In the middle of last month I asked through two Radiohead fansites, Ateaseweb.com and Greenplastic.com, for questions for the band. I also asked respondents to include, if they didn't mind, the amount they'd paid for In Rainbows. Thirty-six hours later, some 700 emails from all over the world were testing the capacity of the OMM inbox.

I then hooked up with Radiohead in London on a wet Monday morning in late November. The venue was handy both for the M40 to Oxford and Marylebone Station (four-fifths of Radiohead still live in Oxfordshire, where they formed the band in 1986 while attending the private, boys-only Abingdon School; Ed O'Brien lives in north London). Ed, Colin and Jonny are interviewed together, and then Thom and Phil.

Few groups enjoy the bond with their fans that Radiohead do. By any measure, they qualify as one of the world's biggest bands, but politically attuned and socially-aware, they are wary of the baggage that implies, and operate almost under the radar - now more so than ever. Given the invitation, the type of question submitted was a long way from 'why are you so fit, Ed?' Although someone did ask that, too. What follows is a selection of the best with some further context and interpretation.

'The In Rainbows cover art departs from the impersonal and apocalyptic imagery of recent albums. The music does the same. It's warm and inviting. The whole aesthetic points to a shinier, happier Radiohead. Do the band agree a shift has occurred? If so, why do they think it happened?' - Wes Jarrell, 25, USA

Thom: 'Uhnnnn, yeah, kind of. More sort of explosive and ... Explosive is perhaps not the right word but in-your-face, spontaneous. That's what we were aiming at.'

Ed: 'I think the big thing was Thom's lyrics really. That always heralds something. The music always seems really strong, but the lyrics were ...'

Where has that come from within Thom?

Ed: 'I think not being scared to be personal. And not being scared to ... I think it was really liberating for him to do [his solo album] The Eraser. His voice is really upfront. That's the most noticeable thing. He's not hiding. And after OK Computer he sort of withdrew a bit. I think it's also being bold enough and brave enough to be personal. And you know what... there's stuff to write about in your late thirties. You've lived. You've started families up.'

Jonny: 'You're a different person.'

Ed: 'Yeah, you've stopped dealing with, "Me, I'm the centre of everything." Because you've got kids you can't do that. So, it changes. It was like, "Wow, there's a warmth to these songs, it's very human."'

'Lyrically, In Rainbows seems to revolve around infidelity and relationships. This is a big jump from the more world-focused, environmentally-charged lyrics in the previous two-three albums. Was Thom more focused on family life and dealing with personal matters during the songwriting process for this album?' - Bianca Carlson, 30, Denver, Colorado

Thom: 'More focused on not getting into large generalities, definitely. Other than that, I couldn't really say, to be honest.'

'To what extent is In Rainbows about middle-age malaise and the sort of drifting moods you find in the corners of 15-year-old marriages?' - Anthony Strain, 28, Modesto, California

Thom: 'It was much more about the fucking panic of realising you're going to die! And that any time soon [I could] possibly [have] a heart attack when I next go for a run. You know what I'm saying.'

Before the release of his solo album in July last year, Yorke told me that being in Radiohead 'was getting boring and it just got a bit weird and self-perpetuating ...

'It felt like everyone was under obligation to do it rather than because we wanted to do it. And one of the things I had wanted to do for ages was get stuck into a bunch of things that I had been mucking around with that didn't fit into the Radiohead zone.'

The band had started recording a new album sometime in 2005 in the wake of the brain-scrambling world tour (another one) in support of 2003's Hail to the Thief. They began working on album seven with Mark 'Spike' Stent. Then, throughout May, June and August last year, around the July release of The Eraser, Radiohead toured the UK, Europe and America. They were 'road testing' new songs - 11 in total by the tour's end. They had done this before, when they meandered through Spain and Portugal in summertime prior to the recording of Hail to the Thief, and it had worked fine. So it seemed last year: 'Nude', a 'lost' Radiohead song that they had been trying to record for a decade, was finally sounding great. 'Reckoner' was a 'cock-rocking guitar stomp' (© Jordan Cox, 21, Auckland, New Zealand). 'House of Cards' was a beautiful, ethereal ballad. Radiohead were, as Yorke said, 'getting to a good space'.

But away from the stage ... The sessions with Stent seemed to have come to naught. Maybe they would produce themselves. Whatever, no one was breathing down their necks - their contract with EMI had been fulfilled, so Radiohead were unsigned. No deadlines, no focus ... When the tour ended in Amsterdam on 28 August 2006, the band were still, it would transpire, all over the shop.

That said, back in the spring, Yorke had been restless. He knew Radiohead had become bogged down in the studio in the past (see: the agonising sessions that would eventually produce Kid A and Amnesiac). And he had an eye on the future.

'It seems crazy to have this all [new material] sitting around,' he said. The new album was, 'to varying degrees, finished, [and] to just have to wait for another six months, eight months, seems nuts.' Oooh ... somewhere in the recesses of the collective Radiohead psyche a little idea may have just begun - as Yorke put it last month - 'floating around'.

Fast forward to April this year. Having reunited last autumn with Nigel Godrich for sessions in a leaky country mansion in Wiltshire, their own Oxfordshire studio and in Godrich's place in London's Covent Garden, Radiohead are, at last, at the mixing stages of the making of their seventh album.

'Did you make a conscious decision to get away from the electronic sounds... or was a transition purely organic?' - Paul, 26, Ontario, Canada

Jonny: 'Eh...'

Colin: 'I think [not working with Godrich initially], we realised we wouldn't be able to make the record without him - and we discussed making everything sound sort of organic.'

Ed: 'There was a conscious thing that Nigel talked about, and we talked about, stripping stuff out. Not putting everything into.... You know, making arrangements and music slightly more minimal.'

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'When, and how, did the transition from suburban paranoia to sensuality take place?' - Jon Papas, 22, Rochester, New York

Ed: 'Yeah, yeah! Exactly!'

Colin: 'Tick!'

Thom: 'Ed always banged on about how this record was very sensual. The mind boggles slightly, but I think there was a lot of that. It was as much about the way it flowed and whatever, not specific things. But it is kind of... it's not supposed to be in any way cerebral.'

In April the band also had a meeting with their managers, Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge, who had a suggestion: as the band were without a record deal, why not release the album themselves, via the internet? Cue much discussion, endless meetings. Then, another idea: how about letting people decide how much they paid for it? If anyone could 'get away with' such a seemingly reckless plan...

Phil: 'Not everything had been working towards this initiative. The one thing that we had was, we wanted to make a record. Quite simply, that was it, that's what was driving us along. I think because [the album] was taking quite long, our management were twiddling thumbs at points and they were just coming up with ideas. And this was one that really stuck.'

Thom: 'Whenever the discussion was started up, it just seemed like so nuts to be talking it, 'cause we didn't know whether we were going to get our shit together. And it was only through the energy, the elation for want of a better word, of actually finishing it and being proud of it, that getting into this whole thing of, "Yeah, let's get it out, let's do the download" that it made sense.

'It felt so much it was Chris and Bryce's bag. It was nothing to do with us, we'd done our fucking job. And it was exciting because we knew we'd done something that we were really proud of.'

In the 10 days between Jonny's posting and the album going on sale, the internet and media were afire with discussion. Radiohead kept schtum. What was that period like for the band?

Thom: 'It was really fun. All this shit kicked off and we were all just sitting at home going [high- pitched], "What?". It was brilliant. Hard hats on!'

Phil: 'But also we felt quite detached from it... We'd be spotting the most bizarre place [in the media that the download 'business' idea] came up. One of the dads at school came up to me - he's a car sales manager - and said, "You're on the front page of Automotive Industry today!"'

So, back to Maja from Germany's question...

Any idea of the average price paid?

Colin: 'No.'

Phil: 'Well, we're still putting that stuff together at the moment.'

Thom: 'Very politically put.'

Phil: 'But it's been good. It has been good.'

'Was that last question from a "G Hands"?' adds the drummer, in his soft-spoken, schoolteacher-ly fashion.

Early last month a web-monitoring company called comScore claimed that 62 per cent of downloaders had paid nothing. The other 38 per cent had paid an average of £1.29. 'Those figures are all fucking shite,' says a somewhat vexed Yorke. (He isn't very good at hiding his emotions: in terms of spending time with him, this makes for someone who's either thoroughly engaging, or who makes you feel you're sitting smack in the middle of a cloud.) 'My parents were talking about some article [he affects smugly sneery tone], "Ooh it's all gone wrong. Oh dear, it's all backfired." That's utter fucking crap. It's all worked very nicely thank you, [mirthless laughter] ha ha ha.'

So you've made more money than you would have from the conventional sales route?

Colin: 'If we'd set out to do this to make lots of money, we'd have signed to Universal Records two months ago. So it was not something that we did... No sane person would have released a record like this for financial gain.'

'Did the band purposefully wait until after their record deal expired with EMI to release their most commercially appealing album since OK Computer, just as a kind of final "screw you"?' - Shay, north Wales

Colin: 'No, the whole EMI thing, we were still working with them up until the release of this record.'

Ed: 'We thought a deal could be done. We really did. So...'

Why wasn't a deal done?

Ed: 'Because EMI is in a state of flux. It's been taken over by somebody who's never owned a record company before, Guy Hands and Terra Firma, and they don't realise what they're dealing with. It was really sad to leave all the people [we'd worked with]. But he wouldn't give us what we wanted. He didn't know what to offer us. Terra Firma don't understand the music industry.'

But in the words of Elizabeth Ortega, 16, from Whittier, California: 'do the band think they basically said "fuck you" to half there [sic] fans because not everyone has access to the internet?'

Thom: 'That was a condition of doing this whole project, that we put out a normal CD. Because I totally agree.'

On 8 November, Radiohead did indeed announce the release of a straight 'physical' - i.e. CD - version of In Rainbows via XL Recordings on 31 December. 'What type of contract have you signed?' - John Galantini, 22, Southampton

Thom: 'lt's licensing for one record. Same with [American label] ATO.'

Phil: 'Is that "G Hands, disconsolate of London" again?'

But if Guy Hands is smarting, his company at least has the comfort of releasing a Radiohead box set which brings together the band's first six albums, also this month.

'EMI appear to have reacted to your giving In Rainbows to XL in a particularly petulant manner, releasing a box set in direct competition...'

Thom [more mirthless laughter]: 'Ha ha ha!'

'...what did you think when you found out? More importantly, how will you retaliate? Novelty Xmas single? Limited edition Pop Is Dead remix boxset' - Andy Shade, 28, Coventry

Phil: 'And that was from "T Yorke of Oxford."'

Jonny: 'We knew something was going to happen, whether it was going to be a cheesy greatest hits or this.'

Ed: 'It came from up high anyway, it was from the Terra Firma lot. We knew that when the negotiations went on for this record, we knew that that was going to be an issue, and we had to accept that it was going to come out.'

Jonny: 'It's not done in the best possible taste.'

Thom: 'How did we feel? Um, isn't it lovely? What did the others say? Well, um, hmm, yes, isn't it nice? We're not allowed to slag it off.'

'What has been the hardest part of releasing In Rainbows by yourself?' - Dan Rockwell, 26, Corvallis, Oregon

Ed: 'The one for me was missing some of the people in our record company. We were lucky to work with some of them. That's the only downside I think. The people.'

Thom: 'It wasn't really a challenge as much as a "dive in, who gives a shit?" sort-of-thing really. Because it seemed to be the necessary thing to do. We were aware that we had no idea of the consequences, but that made it really exciting.'

'Some people think you do the bad thing for young bands - because who would like to pay for their records if we can all get album of Radiohead, world famous band?' - Aleksandra, 17, Poland ('sorry for my English')

Jonny: 'Yeah, we went through the pluses and minuses of doing this. That was the biggest question mark really.'

Ed: 'But the thing is, so much good music is now free anyway.'

Jonny: 'Yeah, the download culture is there anyway. It's King Canute - you can't pretend the flood isn't happening. This friend of mine bought the Muse album. And his 12-year-old son was just looking at it - "Wow, the real thing!" His son had the album already, he knew the songs, but he'd never held a CD. He just found it a curious object. That's kind of how it is now.'

Colin: 'It's not prescriptive for us or for anyone else. The problem with that line of questioning is you end up sounding like one of the old record companies. You're forgetting what music is all about: excitement and talent and artists doing cool new things that people are into. That's what record companies had forgotten about. They were worrying about all these ancillary questions and forgetting about the primal urge of people to share and enjoy music. And there's always going to be a way of finding money or livings to be made out of it.'

Ed: 'It's just [about] responding to the environment, the situation, that's all we're doing. And trying to do our best. But we haven't got all the answers.'

Out there in the blogosphere, some people think super-brainy Radiohead do have all the answers. Many respondents to OMM's posting were seriously exercised by the conspiracy theories (they felt were) embedded within In Rainbows

Jonny Greenwood sits up at mention of this. 'You know all these, don't you?' says Ed O'Brien - the heartiest, most gregarious Radioheader - to his fellow guitarist. Greenwood, the youngest and possibly shyest member of the band, replies by looking sheepish.

These theories include the 'tenspiracy', so named because In Rainbows came out on 10/10, the title has 10 letters, as does OK Computer, and it's out 10 years after said album. There is supposedly some binary coding at work here. This is what Cony Abbatemarco was on about when he wrote 'According to Genesis 9:1 (9+1 = 10!)'.

So for the record: with regards to 'the Kid 17 and tenspiracy theories' (Neil Dooley, 19, Dundalk, Ireland); the idea that The Golden Section of In Rainbows occurs at exactly the moment in 'Reckoner' when the backing vocals sing the words "in rainbows" (Tom Ballatore, 37, in Kyoto, Japan); that the bonus disc's tracks correspond to the Star of Ishtar in Taoist philosophy (Curtis Perry, 19, Ontario, Canada); that In Rainbows is a 'Pynchonian citation' (Carlo Avolio, 22, Naples, Italy); that it relates to Conrad's Heart of Darkness (Alex Drossart, 18, Wisconsin); that it is conceptually linked with Goethe's Faust, notably in 'Videotape' ('When I'm at the pearly gates/this will be on my videotape/Mephistopheles is just beneath/and he's reaching up to grab me') - in definitive response to all those: Radiohead don't know anything about any of that stuff.

Thom: 'All good records have a heart of darkness.'

Phil: 'You've been asked that one before, obviously.'

Thom: 'I have, yep! I vaguely know the story of Faust. But that would involve me having remembered it in some detail or picked it off the shelf. Which I didn't. But yes, hmm, Goethe's Faust. I'm going to have to look that one up, actually, 'cause that sounds suitably pretentious. We live in Oxford, after all.'

'When I listen to Kid A and Amnesiac I can't help but notice a narrative sewn seamlessly into the music. Does Kid A end with a suicide?' - Aaron McClaskey, 20, Fort Wayne, Indiana

Thom: 'No, 'Motion Picture Soundtrack' ends with little tweety angel noises, I seem to remember. [sings quietly] "I will see you in the next life..." No, that could just be saying goodbye to someone dying. They don't have to be doing it themselves. You can read suicide into most things, can't you?'

The Eraser, now, that does feature a suicide. Released in July 2006, Yorke's solo album was an electronic cri de coeur, an itchy collection of moans about the state of the planet and, more specifically, in the song 'Harrowdown Hill', about the venal state of a body politic that could allow a man - government weapons inspector Dr David Kelly - to be hounded to his death. The Eraser would go on to be nominated for the Mercury Prize, losing out to the Arctic Monkeys' debut.

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In response to the question 'has The Eraser made an impact on the music-making of the band?' (Hasan Dindjer, 15, London), Yorke acknowledges that making his solo album enabled him to get out certain thoughts and feelings that might have sat oddly within 'the Radiohead zone'. This thereby freed him up to be more 'in-your-face' with In Rainbows. Godrich, too, who produced The Eraser, was instrumental in prodding Yorke, convincing him that a techno-treated mumble was no use for the new Radiohead album - on these bright and direct new songs, the singer had to sing.

Dan Lewis, 32, a teacher in Philadelphia, asks: 'Margaret Florence [aka Stevie Smith] one wrote, "why does my Muse only speak when she is unhappy? She does not, I only listen when I am unhappy." Can you relate to this?'

Thom: 'That's good. That's true. But unhappy would be the wrong way of putting it. You're in a certain state of mind. Unhappy is not... the entire manifestation of that state of mind. It's also hyperactive, out-of-control, off-your-face. All these things. But not necessarily just unhappy or melancholic, which I read the other day, which is a much better word.'

'Why did Thom turn down Paul McCartney's request to collaborate [on his recent Memory Almost Full album]?' - Ron Sauzo, 25, San Fernando, California

Thom: 'Uhh, 'cause I can't play piano. Not like that. I had to explain to him that, I listened to the tune - "Mr Bellamy" - and I really liked the song, but the piano playing involved two hands doing things separately. I don't have that skill available. I said to him, "I strum piano, that's it."'

While the new record is a more personal work, the fans still look to Yorke as political oracle; the people still require answers from someone.

'Does Thom feel that his efforts in the environmental battle are helping any? Are the politicians at last hearing him out in [Friends of the Earth's] Big Ask campaign?' - Kristin Idlebird, 18, Houston, Texas.

Thom: 'The Big Ask thing has been actually quietly really effective... Actually, Gordon Brown is now sort of suddenly coming on board. Or at least he says he is... The other thing which was going on in the background this year was that the Tories had a big environmental report. That was going to be quite a positive, exciting thing, but then it got quietly shifted to the side. That was a downer. But maybe, you know, Gordon Brown's now on the case and maybe things are looking up.

'Unless you have laws in place, nothing's going to happen. Nothing of this is going to be voluntary. It's a bizarre form of rationing that we're all going to have to accept, just like people did in the Second World War.'

So fundamentally, Brown must grasp the thistle of eco-taxes?

Thom: 'Yeah. Which for someone like the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer who's got [former director-general of the Confederation of British Industry] Digby Jones in his fucking government is going to be quite a tricky one. [Brightly] Anyway. Very technical and boring. I love going on about it.'

Another direct question that I'd like to put: in these post-Blair times are you more or less optimistic about the situation in Iraq?

Thom: 'What I find totally horrifying is the stories of the soldiers coming back. I think the thing that stays stuck in my throat is Blair saying, "I'm answerable to God over this." Well, actually you're not. In a democratic country you're answerable to us, pal. And I don't understand why the government really has never accepted full responsibility for its mistake, and sought to, with humility, address it properly in a democratic fashion, when it was the most unpopular thing any government has done for quite some time.'

Radiohead have also been - say it loud - having a laugh, as anyone who tuned into the Thumbs Down webcast that the band quietly hosted on their own site last month will know. 'What was the idea behind Thumbs Down?' asks Tobias Radoor, 15, from Denmark? Well, it was a 'chaotic news show' (Yorke), the name arising from 'a desperate attempt to find a name in five minutes flat' (Yorke). In the three-hour show the band DJ'd, performed cover versions (the Smiths' 'The Headmaster Ritual', Joy Division's 'Ceremony', Björk's 'Unravel'), reimagined the end of David Fincher's Se7en (with Yorke's head in the box instead of Gwyneth Paltrow's), and generally goofed around with comedy pals Adam Buxton (of Adam & Joe fame) and Garth Jennings (half of pop promo directors Hammer & Tongs).

You might view Thumbs Down as a further evidence of Radiohead's embrace of a DIY aesthetic and declaration of independence: we don't need record companies, and we don't need the media either. Or you might view it as five blokes having a laugh in the studio, hogging the record decks and going, 'No, my turn, my turn, listen to this!'

'We never play each other what we're into normally,' says Yorke. 'And the fact that people are watching is a bonus. But, also, it was a really nice thing to do because we set up this infrastructure and this way of thinking, and it's a nice way to get into this idea of doing TV stuff.

'Got to do it again in a couple of weeks,' he sniffs. 'But we have discovered a way where we can actually do it, not at the sort of bandwidth and quality that that one was, but we can do it off-the-cuff, stream it live from our studio whenever, which is fucking mental. It would be pretty lo-fi. So we might do a bit of that as well...'

The snarky view of Radiohead as 'gloomy, depressing, remote, difficult': this whole In Rainbows 'event', the soulful album and the heartfelt method of selling it, destroys that. Empowering the consumer has, in a way, humanised the band.

Thom: 'Well, part of the point for me personally was to get away from the story of [our] whole situation completely. If people want to know about it, go and find out. There's no perpetuating of myths that you don't agree with. [We're] just trying to avoid all that. I mean...

Thom Yorke sighs and rubs his ever-present (and rather gingery) stubble.

'"Depressing?" Oh yeah,' he snorts, 'whatever.'

Other things we have learnt:

1. Radiohead fans - notably Italo Rossi del Aguila, 21, in Lima, Peru - are seriously vexed by the fact that the band have never played South America: 'Yeah, so am I!' says Ed O'Brien. 'We are going to go! We're fucking going!'

2. Radiohead have at least one fan on Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. Hello to First Lieutenant Sean M Warner of the USAF.

3. Radiohead will start touring in America next May; sorry, Daniel Baker, 19, in Bournemouth, Neil Burns, 15, in Glasgow, and Thomas Hutchcroft, 16, in Somerset, they don't know yet if they will play Glastonbury. But I think they would like to. (Yorke's favourite ever 'Radiohead moment' was Glastonbury '97.)

4. To reduce their carbon footprint, they've thought about touring by ship. 'But if we go on the Queen Mary to the US,' says Yorke, 'it's more carbon emissions than it is if you go on the plane. The most eco-way of doing it is for us to get a crate on a merchant ship. That was pretty impractical!'

5. In response to the question from Bryn Gay, 26, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, as to whether Radiohead might apply the pay-what-you-like initiative to gigs, especially in 'less developed regions', Yorke replies: 'That could get really out of hand. Imagine the touts getting on that one!'

6. In response to the queries from Kathleen Plank, 19, from Indiana, and from Colm Byrne in Co Meath, who read Nick Cohen's What's Left? on Colin Greenwood's Dead Air Space recommendation, Colin is currently reading Piers Brendon's new The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, Jonny's re-reading Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ed's just finished Man's Search For Meaning by Victor Frankel ('Brilliant. He's an Auschwitz survivor'), Phil's reading Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother, and Thom's reading Q by mysterious Italian anarchist group Luther Blisset. I tried to read that once, I tell him. 'Oh it's fucking ace! But my missus, that's her specialist field, so she's been explaining it to me all the way through. Medieval church carnage. It's mental. I want to get it made into a film. That's my next mission.'

Using the In Rainbows profits?

'Mmm-mm,' says Thom Yorke, shaking his head. 'I doubt it. That would cover basically the catering.'

Incidentally, among OMM's respondents - and bearing in mind these questions came via fansites, so the results should be weighed accordingly - half bought the box set. Ten per cent refused to say if or how much they paid. Of the remaining 40 per cent, just under a quarter paid nothing. Of the 75 per cent who did pay, the average price was £5.65. If we include those who didn't pay, the average price per download was £4.33.

Phil: 'What a lovely price.'

Is that pretty much pure profit?

Thom: 'Actually, unfortunately not in this case, because it's taken quite a lot to set all this shit up, servers and all that crap. There was a lot of risk. The biggest risk was that no bugger would pay anything, and we'd still have placed this infrastructure, and we would have lost out. But that hasn't happened, so that's fine.

'It was worth it just for getting a buzz out of the whole thing, which is what we have got. And it's worked actually way, way, way, way better than we thought it would.'

There's just time for one final question. Ana Paquim is Portuguese but lives in Sweden, and wants to know: 'Is it still fun?'

Thom: 'Hello Ana. Yeah. Sometimes. Definitely.'

Colin: 'It is at the moment.'

Ed: 'Yeah.'

Phil: 'Basing it on the five weeks that we've had so far, it's more fun.'

Jonny: 'I was listening to it on my iPod on the way up today, and some of the songs I still want to listen to. With all our records I'm normally keen to frisbee it out the window by the end of it. But I could still listen to 'Nude' and 'Reckoner' and think they're great.'

Thom: 'Well, definitely, definitely the whole download thing has given a real boost of energy to the camp. So yeah, so far. But after Christmas we'll all be bored again.'

Fear not, kids: Thom Yorke is, as he often is these days, joking.

· With thanks to the fan sites. Download 'In Rainbows' from inrainbows.com or buy it on CD from 31 December. The band will tour the UK in June 2008.
--observer.guardian.co.uk

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