London, November 17th. It’s just stopped raining. I leave the beautifully restored station of St. Pancras, and the first thing I see is a rainbow. That can’t be a coincidence. ‘In Rainbows’, the new Radiohead album, will be released on cd on December 31st after all. What’s more: in June 2008, Oxford’s finest are touring again. Werchter has already been booked!translated by kid.android
I’m meeting Jonny, Colin and Phil in London. Thom is ill and at home. Ed is “somewhere”. Since the last time we met, Thom, Phil and Jonny became fathers. The atmosphere within the band seems really relaxed. There’s not much that can go wrong: they’re all millionaires by now, and the new record has been widely hailed as their best since ‘OK Computer’. ‘In Rainbows’ reveals that Radiohead is still “fuckin’ special”, even though in the last fifteen years they’ve also been (as Thom said) “fuckin’ precious”: self-absorbed, overly sensitive and needlessly complicated. I’ve prepared a practical joke. I brought the twenty year old demo’s of two songs by On A Friday, Jonny and Thom’s first band. I ask Jonny if he wants to listen to “my band’s demo”. Phil and him immediately exchange a glance: journalists bothering stars with their own music is not done. My plan: chastising Jonny once he’s exclamated “Worthless!”. “Gotcha: it’s YOU!”. However, the plan fails.
Jonny Greenwood (playfully strict): “Sorry, but this band has no future. Past expiration date, mate! It’s a good attempt, but I happened to come across this old demo tape myself last week. I’m still using this trick with the spinning coin (as heard on ‘Philippa Chicken’ – editor) – we haven’t evolved a bit in the last twenty years (grins). It was strange to hear those songs again: it’s us, and yet it seems like a totally different band.”
What strikes me the most is that Thom was a rather average Bono-imitator in those days – he sang pretty forced. His singing is much more natural now...
Jonny: “Yes, he’s definitely more himself since “The Bends”. It was pure insecurity – Thom won’t deny that. When we started, we didn’t think that anybody would be interested in who we really were. We shaped our style with clichés and sounds and singing lines that we thought were hip. We only became successful when we grew the courage to be ourselves. I think that’s quite beautiful, actually: with most bands it works the other way around. By the way: where did you get those On A Friday demos? That’s highly illegal, you know.”
Ehm...I got it from someone who works at EMI, your former record company.
Jonny: “There you go: a multinational spreading bootlegs themselves!”
No, the guy is just a fan. Which brings me to this year’s main point: who are those horrible record industry people musicians keep complaining about? I’ve met EMI-people on three continents and they were all sincerely passionate about music.
Jonny: “I don’t doubt that. The real wolves are a few stories higher, of course.”
People who went to inrainbows.com to download your album saw “It’s up to you”. And then after another puzzled click: “No really, it’s up to you!”. The fans could decide for themselves how much to pay for In Rainbows. That’s just about the same as saying “You decide who you really are, dear fan: a reasonable person, an opportunist or a cheapskate.” Nice and original, but also a real mindfuck.
Colin Greenwood: “If you say so. We thought it was amusing to make people stop and think about how much music was worth to them. More than a good bottle of wine? Less than a restaurant dinner?”
Philip Selway: “Compare it to the honesty box in the bar of a quaint family hotel: you grab a drink and the owners trust you to put a reasonable amount in their savings jar.”
Jonny: “The genuine mindfuck only came about when our server crashed in early October and the fans had to wait for an eternity before they could order the new album. Awful. Frustrating people is the last thing we want.”
Offering your new music as a download first, at a price of the customer’s choice, and then releasing a traditional cd after all: what on earth is the idea behind that? Especially in an age where everyone has an iPod and an internet connection.
Jonny: “That’s too complicated to answer shortly. It was a test.”
I’m curious at how revolutionary or futile that test will seem in ten years’ time.
Jonny: “Same here. We’re not the scared type, and something had to happen. Actually not having a record company only has two disadvantages: not working with the employees of EMI, whom we’ve shared everything with over the last twelve years, anymore, and not having a deadline, which causes us to just keep working aimlessly. That’s why we can’t do it without a producer.”
There’s also the physical aspect: I think cd’s and vinyl and cover art is delicious, it’s an almost fetishistic pleasure.
Jonny: “Yeah, I also feel that way: you want something you can hold, not just sounds in a small box, thousands of songs piled onto each other invisibly. It trivialises the music, as if it doesn’t really exist.”
Colin: “Ah, the joys of a 12 inch single! The smell of a record sleeve! The...”
Phil (interrupts): “I believe I overheard a musac-version of ‘Creep’ in the hallway just now, is that possible?”
I recently heard “Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors” in a documentary about...clitorises!
Jonny: “Really? That makes me happy. More even: grateful! Usually, documentary makers only use our music to accompany depressing footage about heavy-handed subjects: fraud, feuds, suicide, war, conflicts,... That has been irritating us for a long time.”
Colin: “We’re already satisfied if a Radiohead snippet shows up in the report on a soccer game. Many people forget that our music also has a beautiful, spiritual, even sensual side.”
Now that you mention it: it can’t be coincidental that there’s a dj who calls himself Radioclit.
Jonny (laughs): “The guys in Slowdive recently said that their songs weren’t penis substitutes, but clitoris substitutes, I liked that one. Oh man, I’m really happy with any association with sex...can you make it stand out even a little more? Even our fans think that they’re depreciating or raping or music if they use it for so-called light-hearted means. We’re no gloomy doommongers at all: we’re consciously living young people who aren’t disgusted by having a social and political conscience.”
Let me dredge up an old story: Radiohead didn’t perform at Live 8. Isn’t doing something always better than doing nothing? When a politically engaged band like Radiohead boycots such an event, it’s easy for young people to think: “Then we don’t have to do anything either”.
Jonny: “I suppose so. At the time, the band was asleep after a long tour, and we were a little sick of everything. Not just each other but also the monster called Radiohead. We doubted whether or not we still had a future. Thom was also not fully supportive of Live 8. A gigantic festival like that simplifies things. It leads the attention away from the real problems, which are always complex, and enables politicians to work on their public relations without really making an effort to change anything. But maybe we missed an opportunity there, yeah.”
Colin: “We were enjoying parenthood for five minutes after ten years of hard work. We were totally not in that mindspace at the time.”
Radiohead rehearsals. Tell us all about them.
Phil: “Exhausting. Time-consuming. But after all those years still exciting, thank God. On a good day, that is.”
Colin: “Jonny does a lot of preparation work. He loves tinkering.”
Jonny: “Among other things, I made a machine which takes sounds on radio stations – music, but also conversations and even the silences between two words – and turns it into rhtythmic patterns. A sort of improvising drum machine.”
Phil: “A conspiracy to rob me of my job, that’s what it is!”
Colin: “We do a lot of jamming, but our jam sessions aren’t the same as your avarage rock band’s. We often jam by talking. And by being silent. (laughs)”
Which song on ‘In Rainbows’ was most fun to work on?
Colin: “15 Step. With perverse pleasure.”
Jonny: “Bodysnatchers, Weird Fishes/Arpeggi...although that was a tricky one.”
Phil: “Nude, anyone?”
Yeah, that jewel of a song has been around for ten years.
Colin: “That song demonstrates how terrified we are of finishing our ideas. What’s the matter with us that we’re so hesitant to make definitive versions? Maybe we should give that some thought.”
Jonny: “Or maybe not at all.”
During recording sessions for ‘The Joshua Tree’, Brian Eno tried to erase the master tape of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’. He wanted to force U2 to start from scratch. A sound technician was just in time to stop him. Would you hire Eno?
Jonny: “I doubt it. It would probably be a bit much. We’re all a bit Brian Eno ourselves.”
Bono once said that U2 was so desperately trying to avoid surrounding themselves by yes men that after a while, they got stuck with counterproductive naysayers.
Jonny: “We ourselves are those naysayers. I sometimes wonder whether we’ve made good records because we’re such insecure, self-critical worriers. Maybe our music would be even better if we were a happy-go-lucky bunch.”
Phil: “Sometimes all the worrying is really just too much for us.”
When Thom is once again prey to doubt and misantrophy?
Colin: “Unfortunately, that happens to us all. Most of the time doubt is a motor for creativity, but sometimes it’s incredibly bollocks. In any event we don’t have the extreme amount of self-confidence people associate with rockstars.”
Maybe you can borrow some arrogance from Oasis and lend them some of your sense of adventure.
Colin: “That’s the best idea I’ve heard in years! The best unrealistic idea (laughs)”.
Many songs on ‘In Rainbows’ differ drastically from the versions you’ve been playing live. ‘Nude’ exists in four guises: a rock version, an orchestral version, a piano version and the version on the record. Picking the definitive arrangement out of a thousand options: it would drive me insane.
Jonny: “That can work paralysingly, yes. Especially when you’re in a band. Just when, after months of doubting, you’re completely certain about what you want, someone else says “Hmm, I’m not sure, maybe it’s better if we...”.”
Colin: “Often we’d be discussing certain songs during a concert. “How long can this break last? Shall we stretch the outro a bit more?”. It keeps being a delicate issue: one version works better on the record, another is better fit for on stage. ‘Videotape’, for instance, is really sparse on the album: Thom on the piano, that’s about it. In its live form the song had a majestic arrangement because it’s much easier to work towards a climax that way.”
Phil: “We’ve become less nitpicky. Before, we didn’t want to stray from the original live: if there weren’t any guitar or drums in it, we’d play it without guitar or drums. Now we keep working on our songs, and if after two years the live version has become better than the studio version, that’s just how it is. We have only one rule anymore: anything goes as long as it benefits the song.”
Four years ago I was at a David Sylvian concert – in the nineties he used to perform with a band of six up to ten brilliant musicians. That night, I saw three intellectuals typing away on a laptop. I thought to myself “God no, is this the way of the future?”
Jonny (nodding fiercely): “Yes, I know exactly what you mean. At the time of ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’, we spent way too much time surfing the internet. We did too much messing around with downloads, technical gizmo’s and obscure, ehm, computer input. On ‘Hail to the Thief’ we were painstakingly looking for some counterbalance to all this experimentation, but only on ‘In Rainbows’ have we really succeeded in doing that.”
During a rehearsal you once played ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ by Queen. Done any other silly covers lately?
Jonny: “Yeah, in a corny mood Colin and me played a ‘Creep’ cover as The Greenwood Brothers.”
I once saw a showcase where Moby covered that song.
Jonny, Colin and Phil: (total silence)
Are you too tactful to comment on that?
One of the beautiful things about Radiohead is that you create mind-expanding music without any drugs ever coming into play. Or am I wrong?
Colin (after a long silence): “I won’t say that we never took anything, but definitely a lot less than other rock bands.”
Jonny: “What fascinates me about drugs is that you can never be sure how they will influence your creativity. Take Fleetwood Mac, for instance: they were high as a kite while recording ‘Rumours’. They snorted tons of cocaine, a drug that turns even an insecure footwipe into a megalomaniac dictator. And yet the album is full of wonderful, subtle, sensitive ballads with very open-hearted lyrics. Remarkable.”
When I last spoke to Thom in Oxford, I jokingly gave him a list of my favorite Radiohead-songs, to use as a setlist for the next tour. “Why is ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ not on here?”, he commented. It wasn’t until I heard your brilliant live version of that song at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London that I understood why.
Colin: “I remember that show: we never came closer to a classic jam session. At the end of the song I totally cut loose while Phil was sustaining a glorified disco beat. Strange, a few years before that we wouldn’t have dared, because of it being...”
Phil: “Too predictable.”
Colin: “Too festive.”
Phil: “Too danceable.”
I can imagine ‘EIIRP’ being the most intense moment in the set for you, a kind of natural climax. Is it tricky to keep being focused on the music then?
Jonny: “For me all songs are equally risky, because I’m constantly fidgeting about with effect pedals, samples, livestreaming, guitars and keyboards...a lot can go wrong. Actually it’s a miracle that we don’t mess up more often.”
Is there room for humour during concerts?
Jonny: “As in Thom riding up the stage on a tricycle with a clown mask on and a party whistle stuck in his mouth? After which the wheels fall off one by one? We have lots of laughs behind the scenes, but on stage? No.”
And yet I saw Phil playing a lemon during ‘EIIRP’. Funny if you consider the opening line of the song: “Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon”...
Phil: “That wasn’t a joke, I couldn’t have been more serious! During another concert, I used a pear-shaped shaker – THAT was a joke.”
Finally, could you listen to this cd? The Flemish girl choir Scala covers ‘EIIRP’...
Phil: “Lovely. Sounds good.”
Colin: “Yeah, really nice.”
‘Nice’? Are you being polite? Because Steven Kolacny is a real Radiohead-freak.
Jonny: “Oh no, I already have a cd by Scala at home. But I wasn’t familiar with this cover yet. It’s tastefully done, original and atmospheric. Moving, even. Congratulate the singers.”
You just did.