Radiohead discuss OK Computer and Kid A in this NME feature from 2000
Originally published in NME’s 30/9/2000 issue and reprinted in Uncut’s Radiohead Ultimate Music Guide – limited copies are still available to buy now.
“You have no-one to blame but yourselves and you know it.”
Message on the sleeve of Kid A
Having already been uniformly heralded as the most important record of its generation, OK Computer was released on June 16, 1997. It took just six days for Thom Yorke to become disillusioned with it. On Saturday, June 21, Radiohead played their biggest gig to date in front of 40,000 people at the RDS in Dublin, and it sent Yorke tumbling into an abyss of loathing and self-doubt.
There’s a song on the forthcoming Radiohead album called “How To Disappear Completely” that documents these emotions. Its key lines – “I’m not here/This isn’t happening” – capture his mental state at that point, as well as offering a clue as to what happened as the rest of the promotional schedule unfolded. Yorke may claim now that all the plaudits didn’t “mean a fucking thing”, but clearly there was a price to pay.
“I had this thing for a while,” he reveals, from the confines of a café on Oxford’s Cowley Road, “where I was falling through trap doors all the time into oblivion – like acid flashbacks. I’d be talking to someone and then I’d be falling through the earth. It went on for months and months, and it was really weird. It was all happening towards the end of OK Computer… the end of the ‘promotional period’.”
Were you unhappy?
“That sounds like an MTV question,” he laughs. “I was a complete fucking mess when OK Computer finished! I mean, really, really ill.”
Do you know why?
“It was just going a certain way for a long, long, long time and not being able to stop or look back or consider where I was, at all. This was for, like, 10 years – not being able to really connect with anything. I was basically just becoming unhinged… completely unhinged.”
By the end of 1998, Yorke was close to collapse. Suffering from writer’s block, he got “the horrors” whenever he picked up a guitar. The band, aware that something had to change, decided that from then on, the way they wrote, recorded and promoted their music had to change. They had to start again from scratch.
Next week, you’ll be able to hear for yourself what that entailed. Three years on from OK Computer, Kid A is the sound of a band struggling to surpass a record with a critical and cultural importance that is unmatched in recent memory. Recorded in four studios and three countries over a 12-month period rife with false starts and inter-band friction, the very least you can say about it is that it represents a complete and definite break from the past.
It trades the ambitious, heavily treated guitar sounds of its predecessor for a skeletal electronic framework of meandering ambient clouds and fractured, subsumed vocals. Supported by brittle drum patterns and keening static, the songs drift by with minimal human input, utterly at odds with their live counterparts. If OK Computer vividly articulated Yorke’s anxieties, then Kid A shrouds them in sonic fluff. It’s almost as if Yorke has chosen to erase himself from the group completely.
A few tracks stand out – and it’s no surprise they’re the ones that are more propulsive and conventional in tone. The fuzz-bass and free-jazz histrionics of “The National Anthem” recall the excesses of Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR, while the warped acoustics of “Optimistic” push towards the sound of Isn’t Anything-era My Bloody Valentine, but these are exceptions within the general electronic haze. It might be the record Radiohead had to make, but it won’t necessarily be a record you’ll want to listen to. Although the rest of the band dispute it, Kid A is very much the sound of Thom Yorke working through his own neuroses. For better or worse, it’s his record.
By the time Radiohead entered the Guillaume Tell studio in Paris at the start of January 1999, Yorke had already begun to worry that OK Computer was not the radical new dawn critics had purported it to be. Worse, rehearsals for the new record were going terribly.
“After a while you just hear a sound,” Yorke explains now. “And it doesn’t matter what you do, you’re not going to respond to it even though you think that’s what you should be doing and it’s what you’ve always done. When you get to that point, it feels like the ground is being pulled out from beneath you and you’re just falling through space. It’s a fucking nightmare.”
A change of approach was vital, and it was Yorke – still crippled by the writer’s block – who instigated it. Having begun to immerse himself in the avant-electronica of Warp artists such as Autechre and Aphex Twin, he began to bring in demos that were little more than drum loops or found sounds, and the band would have to build something around them. He insists it wasn’t just an arbitrary shift towards a more electronic sound. “I could so easily find myself beating myself up about having played guitar music,” he sighs. “‘Oh no, it’s all completely fucking shit,’ but ultimately people will think that within my neurosis about what we’ve done in the past I’ve gone off and said, ‘We must be electronic,’ but that wasn’t the point in what I was doing. I’m sure certain people will see it like that…”
Certainly, the rest of the band were unsure about this new approach. “When people say you’re doing something radical in rock or dance music I’m not sure how special that is,” confides guitarist Jonny Greenwood. “What we do is so old-fashioned. It’s like trying to do something innovative in tap-dancing. As a motivation, it’s irrelevant. We don’t sit down and say ‘Let’s break barriers.’ We just copy our favourite records.”
Feed that into guitarist Ed O’Brien’s comment that he just wanted to make an LP of three-minute guitar songs and bassist Colin Greenwood’s confession that he doesn’t really “know anything about the Aphex Twin”, and you can see why there were tensions. But despite the fact that Yorke was obviously driving proceedings to a greater extent than ever before (even though he’s always been sole songwriter), everyone is at great pains to stress that Kid A isn’t just a glorified solo record. “It’s a return to when we were at school,” argues Colin. “And we couldn’t play our instruments very well and we just picked up what we could. It’s fine. Thom played some amazing bass on the record, everyone contributed and no-one took it easy, but there was a lot of pain in making it. Personally, I’ve come out of it feeling excited and grateful about the whole experience. The only reason you go through all this shit is because you’re looking for new things to inspire you.”
It’s a sentiment that Jonny echoes. “No, that’s not true,” he says of the ‘Thom’s solo album’ accusation. “You can argue that for maybe one or two songs in the whole sessions and that’s it.”
Despite their protests to the contrary, there were problems. Paris was a wash-out, and in March 1999 they moved to Medley Studios in Copenhagen. There, they began work on fragments of songs – and while the other band members struggled with the new methodology (Thom claims the songs on the new record weren’t written, they were ‘edited’), long-standing producer Nigel Godrich aired his doubts.
“I think he thought I’d lost my marbles,” states Yorke bluntly. “Because he didn’t understand why, if we had such a strength in one thing, why the fuck we’d want to do something else.”
What did you say to him?
“At the same time he trusted me to have an idea of what I wanted, even though he didn’t understand at the time what the bloody hell it was. But basically (for me), all it was, was frustration, not getting off on anything that we’d normally do. So it wasn’t like I was even trying to prove anything, it was just, ‘Well this isn’t fucking working for me. We have to do something else.’”
Little by little, the band settled back into their new working pattern. By April, though, they’d moved again, this time to Batsford Park in Gloucestershire – they had now accumulated upwards of 60 incomplete songs.
“The truth is,” explains Jonny, “that it was a difficult process to get going, but once we were up and running, it started going too well, and we were recording good song after good song, and it became difficult to stop, which is partly why we’ve got so much material recorded, and partly why it’s taken so long.”
Parallel to the album’s musical construction, Yorke also began to work on its lyrics. A dispatch on Radiohead’s website claimed he had “had enough of dwelling in (his) existential – and now highly profitable – angst”, the hint being that Kid A was to represent a more political direction. As it is, the lyrics – like the record as a whole – are tied in with the period in the immediate aftermath of OK Computer – and fear constitutes one of the main themes.
“It’s fear of dying, actually,” he smiles. “It’s a 30 thing. Most men hit 30 and think, ‘Oh my God, I’m not actually immortal.’ There’s definitely fear of dying on Kid A. I have this house down by the sea and the landscape around it is really harsh and I used to just go off for the whole day walking and just feel totally like nothing. It’s just corny stuff, and when you sit down and talk about it, it all just sounds like complete bollocks.”
So much for ditching the existential angst, then. Yorke might be an avid supporter of the Drop The Debt campaign, as well as Amnesty International and the Free Tibet movement, but it’s something he’s unable – or unwilling – to incorporate in his songs. By the time the band had finished Kid A in April 2000, the only political song he’d written for it (“You And Whose Army” – which the band performed at their Royal Festival Hall show in July) was destined not to feature – a move that only added to the insularity of the whole project.
That insularity was finally broken when Radiohead returned to the public domain in June this year with a series of gigs around the rim of the Mediterranean. Relaxed, and peppered with new material, these shows were positively received, and suggested that the band’s re-entry into the real world wasn’t destined to be too bumpy. The reviewers, your correspondent included, might have felt differently, however, if they’d realised how many of the songs unveiled (particularly, “Knives Out” and “Nothing To Fear”) weren’t actually going to make it onto the record.
The next time NME catches up with Radiohead, it’s mid-August, and they’ve just played the first date of their British tour in Newport. The atmosphere onstage has changed markedly, with the chatty bonhomie of the summer having given way to something far nervier. The crowd too seem muted and confused by the new material. Meanwhile, in the press, stories have begun to circulate that Kid A was to be called ‘ENC’ (or ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’), but the label refused to allow it. The band, however, seem oblivious to the gathering storm clouds.
“You’d be apprehensive if you were playing in front of your home audience,” insists Colin equably. “There were nine to ten thousand people there tonight… We can’t just play in pretty places in the South Of France; that would be really crap. It was our first show, and we’re trying to do everything differently with the sound and lights.”
It hasn’t made you apprehensive about the way Kid A is going to be received, then?
“Not really. We’ve lived with the music for about a year now and I still like it. If you’re in a band and you become very professional and slick, I think you have to pull the rug out to survive. Thom was saying tonight when he came off that he really enjoyed it, because there were moments of chaos and frenzy and doubt and success and failure, all happening in an hour-and-a-half. We don’t want boredom to set in.”
Jonny, too, is optimistic: “My experience of the album from having given it to friends, is that after hearing it once, there’s two songs that you really like, but the more you hear it, the other songs start to take over. Hopefully, your relationship with the album will change. Different songs will make sense after a period of time.”
What about all the songs that didn’t make it onto Kid A? You seem to have deliberately left off all the catchy ones.
Colin shifts in his seat. “When we did OK Computer,” he sighs, “the first single we released was ‘Paranoid Android’, which was six-and-a-half minutes, and what I hope we’ve done with Kid A is what we did with ‘Paranoid Android’. We’ve put a record out that’s taking things a little bit further, and we hope people have the patience to deal with it, and then next year we’ll put out more music that we’ve been playing live, and that people will be prepared for. If you want to hear songs like ‘Knives Out’, come and hear us play it and then we’ll release it in March next year.”
In light of the fact that people understand the difficulties surrounding the making of this record, and the fact that it represents a massive stylistic shift in your sound, don’t you think you should have done more press explaining all this?
“Do you feel like you’re being jilted or left at the altar?” laughs Colin. “There’s no axe to grind. Isn’t this better than sitting in a hotel in North London? [We’re currently sitting in a freezing kitchen in South Wales] We’re trying to be more open and less confrontational.”
“I think we realised with The Bends and OK Computer,” concludes drummer Phil Selway, as their tour manager beckons them away, “there was an awful lot of energy going into things like interviews, which was taking time away from the really important parts of being in a band, making music and the whole visual side of it. We’re not putting two fingers up at anybody; we’re just trying to find a balance at the moment, and we may well have not got it right yet.”
The balance that Phil is talking about doesn’t just extend to the press. The fact is that following OK Computer was always going to be a near impossible task, and Radiohead have opted for a route, which, first and foremost, ensures their survival. Kid A sounds like what it is: a record that’s been slowly and painstakingly edited together. It’s a brave, but flawed affair. It attempts to mimic the arrhythmic sounds of Autechre and Aphex Twin, but ends up mired in compromise.
Aphex Twin works outside the music industry, releasing records when and where he wants, under his name and others. If Radiohead had wanted to, they could have followed suit. As it is, they’re still tied to the rock band aesthetic, determined to play gigs and trade on personalities. Under their current setup, all attempts at electronic radicalism come across as diluted and arbitrary. Worse, it’s arguable that they’ve missed the point about what made them sospecial in the first place. OK Computer wasn’t fantastic because it was radical sonically, but because the quality of songwriting was exceptional. Kid A sees them abdicating that responsibility, as if Thom was frightened he couldn’t reach the same standard (hence the exclusion of all the actual ‘songs’).
Making experimental music is the easy way out. For Radiohead, and in particular Thom Yorke, it seems to have been the only way. Time will judge it. But right now, Kid A has the ring of a lengthy, over-analysed mistake.
This interview – alongside other expansive features, new reviews and more – are printed in Uncut’s Radiohead Ultimate Music Guide – limited copies are still available to buy now.