2007 December | SMH
Radiohead's new-found freedom
December 1, 2007
'It just felt beautifully simple. I don't think we thought far beyond that, to be honest'
Photo: Damon Winter/Los Angeles Times
SOME people hit their computers at dawn on October 10. That was the day In Rainbows, the passionately awaited Radiohead album, was released online. Anyone could get it, for whatever they chose to pay - even nothing - with a simple click.
"I can't remember the last time I woke up voluntarily at 6am," wrote a reviewer on Pitchfork, a music site. "But there I was, sat at my computer, headphones on, groggy but awake and hitting Play."
For others, it was a news story. Radiohead, arguably the most significant, innovative and outright thrilling band of their generation, were writing a new rulebook. Their contract with EMI had expired and the band had set up their stall and were selling their own stuff with the website equivalent of an honesty box. For friend and foe alike, it was as if they had sounded the trumpet that would bring forth the apocalypse. This, surely, spelt the end of the music industry.
Two months later, however, the music industry is still tottering along, getting its Christmas best-ofs into the shops, while the five members of Radiohead are doing the usual rounds of interviews to promote the physical version of the album, which is due out on December 29. Capitalism, at least for the moment, is safe. "We don't normally get that," Yorke says of becoming a newsmaker. "I think it's the only time we'll get that."
Oxford's Radiohead bestride the narrow British indie scene like a colossus; for something like 14 years, they have pushed the idea of what a pop song can be further and further into unknown musical territory, embedding catchy melodies and thrilling rolls of orchestration in a mesh of experimental sounds. As with Pink Floyd before them, Radiohead are relentlessly ambitious while remaining popular, their legions of fans having stayed with them from the more-or-less straight guitar grunge of Pablo Honey (1993) through the wind-blown electronica of Kid A and Amnesiac until this year's surprise gift, In Rainbows.
A lot of people have paid for that gift, although there is now a running spat about how many and how much. Internet monitoring company comScore said 62 per cent of downloaders paid nothing and that the average drop in the box was a mere $US2.26 ($2.60). "Those figures are wrong. Those figures are made up," Yorke says contemptuously. "It was about 50 per cent last time we looked."
The idea of a free download emerged during recording, which was as painful, draining and protracted - "the same old same old," Yorke sighs - as every previous Radiohead album. In Rainbow's four predecessors and Yorke's solo album, The Eraser, had all been leaked by somebody. "Not necessarily in the proper form," he adds, "which is sort of mildly irritating-stroke-very irritating if it was someone in the record company or, indeed, someone breaking into the record studio while you're working, which is what happened on Hail To The Thief. All these things were a real pisser. So it was nice to keep it really inhouse."
The skulduggery level was high; all working CDs were destroyed once heard and no copies were handed out. "And it became this really exciting thing, because we had something that was starting to come together but we kept it among ourselves and sort of kept hold of the whole procedure. And then suddenly, boom, there it is. If you want it. It just felt beautifully simple and I don't think we thought far beyond that, to be honest. I was just excited about doing what I wanted to do, which was have our own leak date: why let some snotty little bugger do it for us?"
This is, according to reputation, Thom Yorke at his most relaxed. Radiohead's keening, lowing singer and melancholic sprite has had a frequently adversarial relationship with the press, despite the band being critical darlings.
By the late '90s he was mired in depression, which he countered by walking along the cliff-tops of southern England in all weathers, preferably extreme. "It kind of reflects what's going on inside."
Some might say this rawness is the price of genius, although other members of the band tend to put more emphasis on the price of hard work. Yorke's relationship to the wider world - especially sabre-rattling presidents and prime ministers - similarly prickles with anger and anxiety, while one need only listen to the songs to wonder at what torments might lie in any disaffected lad's relationship with himself.
At times, relations within the band have come close to snapping point. Yorke, Phil Selway, brothers Colin and Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien have been playing together for more than two decades, since they were all at high school. Selway is now 40 and the others are just a year or two behind. Since their first album as Radiohead, Pablo Honey, came out, however, their survival has seemed to hang permanently in the balance.
After Hail To The Thief (2003) they had a long hiatus before beginning rehearsals for the new album about two years ago; meanwhile, Yorke released the solo The Eraser. Time was when he described himself as running the band as his own personal fiefdom, creating "a climate of fear, the same way that Stalin did". The balance is more realistic now but that doesn't make it easier.
"If I'm honest, it was hard to get back to the dynamic of working with a band again," he says now. "If you're on your own, you make all the decisions. There's no participation; it may be good and it may not but it just happens."
The glory of being part of Radiohead, he continues, is that the combination of views and talents means things happen that he doesn't expect but he still finds it difficult to open up to surprise. "It's a limitation but it's the reverse as well. That's a lesson I should be … well, someone should be hitting me over the head with a wet fish, constantly." Every time he drives through the studio gates, he adds later, he wonders why on earth he's there.
But here's the thing: he can't imagine living without that uncertainty. "You've got to have a reason to carry on, other than just blindly carrying on because that's what you do," he says. "Trying to keep it genuine, not making music just for the sake of it, that's a difficult thing for anybody."
He shrugs and looks vaguely into a corner of the room. "No complaints, you know. Could be worse. But obviously you've still got to be proud of what you're doing, and that involves a degree of dismantling every time you work. You have to dismantle where you're at and how you view your expectations."
It is the same sort of process, he says, as the ruthless but essential critical examination they make of what they do while they're doing it. "You're not feeling that kick but you're fooling yourself it's there: it's easy to fall into the trap of fooling yourself it's good when it ain't. That's the big fight when you're making a record."
Radiohead is always zesty on stage but the same songs on record can sound strangely morbid. "It's different live, obviously: that's a one-off and you've got the energy of this tune and then the next one and you've got an audience. The sort of disconnection when you're in the studio is a difficult thing to tackle."
Some critics have suggested that the prevalence of straight guitar, singable songs and beauteous string washes on In Rainbows makes it a friendlier record after a decade of challenging listeners and themselves.
"If it's more user-friendly, well, one would never know why that was, exactly," Yorke says. "But I think we did want to do something that was really coherent. I think that's true."
They were also entirely concentrated on a small number of songs they had been playing live, in a couple of cases for years, he says. "There were so many discussions on this record about energy. It had to have a lot of energy and not - ah - sound old." He bursts into a slightly maniacal laugh.
They have no idea how the next record - if, of course, there is a next record - will work. What In Rainbows has brought home to them, Yorke says, is that they can post tracks on the web as soon as they finish them.
"If we're hanging round the studio before Christmas and finish something we like, we can put it straight up. That's nuts! No trying to schedule-it-in or promote-it-now."
They are only promoting-it-now at all because they wanted the album to be available to everybody. In future, Yorke muses, they could post songs on the web as they finish them. Anything could happen; they are their own masters of the digital universe.
"Now we have our own little tiny infrastructure," says Yorke. "It may be little and tiny, but we can do all this shit!"
In Rainbows is released on December 29.--smh.com.au