Radiohead: “I don’t want to be in a cupboard… I write music to communicate” – Part 3
As Thom Yorke’s Atoms For Peace complete their London Roundhouse residency – check out John Mulvey’s blog on their Wednesday night show – it seems a good time to delve back into Uncut’s history to find this illuminating Radiohead interview from August 2001 (Take 51). With Amnesiac, their second smash hit album of uneasy listening in just over six months, at the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, the band are even more determined to retain their anonymity. As for Thom Yorke, he wants the myth-making to stop… Words: Stephen Dalton
Another spur behind the creative left turn of Kid A was doubtless the new crop of emotionally charged guitar bands cruising in Radiohead’s wake, their corporate paymasters hoping to bathe in reflected glory. Just as Travis, Muse, Coldplay and their peers seemed to consolidate this A&R trend, the original Radiohead wisely set their controls for galaxies new.
“Everybody’s got to start somewhere,” offers Yorke diplomatically, but his tone is one of thinly veiled contempt. “Just like we were ripping off the Pixies when we started, or trying to and failing. But at the same time, the one thing that does my head in about it in this country is that Radio 1 will willingly play that lot and won’t touch us with a bargepole – that sort of makes me spit blood. It’s all about supply and demand and as, of course, we’re not supplying that demand now, then someone else ought to.”
Radiohead stumbled through 1999 with recording sessions in Gloucestershire, Paris and Copenhagen, but progress was slow. “It’s taken us seven years to get this sort of freedom,” confessed O’Brien in his online diary at the band’s website, www.radiohead.com. “It’s what we always wanted, but it could be so easy to fuck it all up.”
After OK Computer, Yorke bought a new house overlooking a remote Dorset beach, and blasted his overheated brain with fresh air. “I got back into drawing,” says the man who left Exeter University with a 2:1 in English and Art. “Lots of drawing, and lots of walking. It was the best help I could get, really, especially in extreme weather and strong winds and things like that. It kind of reflects what’s going on inside.”
A thoroughly English cure. Never mind the self-medicating slackers of the Prozac Nation, we do things rather differently over here. Fresh air and solitude. A brisk walk, an improving book. Very Radiohead.
Yorke’s windswept comedown sessions also helped alchemise personal angst into political anger. The undercurrent of social protest which haunted OK Computer finally crystallised into serious social activism, and Yorke became a spokesman for the Jubilee 2000 campaign to drop Third World debt, finding a healthy outlet for his natural persecution mania in the growing anti-globalisation movement. If nothing else, he gained a sense of perspective. “Radiohead very much came out of the culture of complaint,” announced Yorke in 1999. “We’ve grown up now and it’s dawned on us that our problems are utterly, utterly irrelevant.”
Radiohead’s frontman had been on protest demos as far back as the late ’80s, but grew impatient with old political definitions. “I got involved with left-wing stuff when I was at university and it was just so boring, like comparing the size of your penis – how much redder am I than you? It’s just really dull, really macho. A waste of space, really. This to me has nothing to do with the politics that are being discussed. This is to do with the operations of people like the IMF who are responsible for the deaths of millions of people every year around the globe, who we have put into power, we finance, and we don’t know who they are, and they’re not answerable to us in any way, and yet they decide everything. This is a humanitarian issue.”
So it was a personal connection? “Yes, it was exactly that. I had to wait for it to become personal, which it did, really. And getting involved in things like Jubilee 2000 made it personal for me.”
The Jubilee 2000 march at the 1999 G8 summit in Cologne showed him the power of political spin, with armed police keeping protestors at bay while Tony Blair claimed his own victory against Third World debt. “Complete bullshit,” is his honest assessment of the event. “He [Blair] hijacked it because he’d failed on all the other issues he was trying to deal with that weekend. When you’re actually there and that shit’s happening to you, you think: this is amazing, I’ll never ever see this again, I’ll never be this side of the fence. It was a completely peaceful protest and they were calling us trouble-makers. Jubilee 2000! It’s a bunch of Christian women in cardigans!”
During the lengthy, sporadic sessions which eventually spawned Kid A and Amnesiac, Yorke digested Naomi Klein’s seminal anti-globalisation tract, No Logo. A ready-made manifesto for Radiohead?
“Not really, because all the songs were written,” explains Yorke. “You know, we’d read our Chomsky and our John Pilger. But she put connections together which I thought were good. And since then, as she says herself, she has a pretty face and she can sell the ideas to people and she gets asked onto chat shows and she knows exactly what she’s doing. I think that’s a cool attitude. She knows she’s being used.”
The Trojan Horse idea? Fighting the system from within? “Totally. But because of the nature of the protectionist media, people like her will be hung, drawn and quartered at some point, and patronised by a large section of mainstream political media. But she knows it’s going to happen, and that’s fine. At least the issues are getting into the mainstream, even though they’re roundly dismissed by all those on the payroll.”
But surely Klein and Radiohead are “on the payroll”. After all, both of these anti-globalisation figureheads are bankrolled by huge media conglomerates: Radiohead by EMI, Klein by the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins. For all his anti-corporate rhetoric, Yorke’s music is promoted and distributed by a vast global marketing machine. Can he live with this contradiction?
“Not really, I’m pretty touchy about it,” he says. “But if you want to actually have your record in a shop, then you’ve got no way round it because you have to go through major distributors and they’ve all got deals and blah blah blah. There isn’t a way around it. Personally, one of the reasons that I wanted to be in a band was actually to be on the high street. I don’t want to be in a cupboard. I write music to actually communicate things to people.”
So you can’t do anything without getting your hands dirty? “Well, you can, and I respect people who do because I think that’s the correct thing to do. If you can do it, then you should. And if you can’t, then you can’t.”
Naomi Klein and Radiohead have become friends, and namecheck each other in interviews. Two highly respected anti-brand brand leaders joined in cross-marketing synergy. An unavoidable consequence of being “products” in the marketplace, maybe, but the irony is amusing.
However, Klein tells Uncut that “I really don’t think it’s accurate to give the impression that the band is offering some kind of celebrity endorsement for these ideas. Their political ideas clearly inform the way they interact with the world in a far more organic way than that.”
Klein also claims that her “personal influence on Radiohead has been greatly exaggerated. The band had these political ideas long before reading my book, but until a couple of years ago there was less going on politically to tap into. That’s the way movements work – they are contagious. If some of the band members gave the impression that the book inspired them to get more actively involved in activism, I suspect they were referring less to No Logo than to being inspired by the movement itself, ie, Reclaim The Streets Indymedia, Drop The Debt, the protests in Seattle – which, after all, is the subject of No Logo.”
Even so, Klein’s book was widely assumed to have influenced Radiohead’s sponsorship-free big tent tour in summer 2000. “The only statement was having a good sound to people’s ears,” says Jonny Greenwood. “The lack of adverts was kind of a lucky byproduct. It didn’t save us any more money, or make us any more.” Radiohead also played London’s Meltdown festival at curator Scott Walker’s personal invitation – a full circle of sorts, since “Creep” was their attempt to write a Walker song.
Kid A finally arrived in September 2000. An artfully sequenced collage of drones and tones, fissures and moans, Radiohead’s audacious reinvention proved impenetrably self-indulgent to some, heroically avant-garde to others. The cultural significance of a huge global rock act releasing these fragmented, opaque, largely guitar-free moonscapes on a major label was almost palpable.
This was head music for post-rave ears, the weightless abstraction of techno wedded to the weighty inner monologues of rock. Comparisons with late-’60s Beatles and early ’70s Pink Floyd proved irresistible. Miles Davis, PiL, Joy Division, My Bloody Valentine and Aphex Twin were added for good measure.
With no singles, no videos, minimal press and only a handful of hysterical (but useless) “i-blip” TV clips as promotion, Kid A carved its own rarefied media space. Perhaps because it was the first Radiohead record to abandon the visceral thrust of what Thom once called “all the ugly male sleazy semen-smelling rock bullshit”, some called the record a failure of nerve. Were Radiohead raising the stakes or simply retreating to the experimental margins?
“The dangerous thing is that all this is pre-supposing we were somehow trying to be experimental,” frowns Jonny, “which I’m not sure is true. To me, half of Kid A sounds like half of OK Computer. There was no line drawn underneath, we just carry on. I mean, for the market we’ve arguably been making wrong turns since The Bends, and that was so long ago. But it’s not something we try and do or avoid, really. I think if we’d done three or four albums full of “Creeps” or something, and then done this, I could understand. But we’re just drifting off and always have been.”
An emphatic validation came when Kid A topped the album charts on both sides of the Atlantic. But even this achievement Colin Greenwood dismisses as a fluke. “It was like prize-giving day at the media,” he grimaces. “They had the gold trophy that the headmaster was about to give to us because of previous form. Then they heard the record and it got put back in the glass cabinet for the next people. It was like we won before we’d actually done the race.”
Over the past year, Radiohead have busied themselves with non-band projects and personal concerns. O’Brien joined an all-star supergroup with Johnny Marr, Tim Finn, and Lisa Germano in New Zealand. Yorke sang a duet on PJ Harvey’s album. In February, his first son was born.
Meanwhile, Amnesiac was released last month to very positive reviews, completing the cycle started by Kid A. “One kind of answers the questions that the other one throws up, maybe that’s the best way of saying how they are related,” says Yorke. “I think it makes much more sense of Kid A. It explains Kid A in a cool kind of way. But it’s nice to get it all finished and move on.”
Contrary to advance press speculation, Amnesiac proved easily as experimental as its sister album, although some of its crackly textures sound more antique than futuristic. If Kid A resembled a sense-warping bulletin from the mid-21st century, its sequel seems to excavate the lost musical civilisations of the mid-20th Century – especially the progressive jazz moodscapes of Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus and Chet Baker. One track, the sublime “Life In A Glass House”, even features 80-year-old veteran jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton and his band. Having mapped the sci-fi fringes of (post-)rock on OK Computer and Kid A, Radiohead are now reinventing the pre-rock past.
Amnesiac arrived in the same week as Tony Blair’s historic second election landslide. Pure coincidence, of course, but one track, “You And Whose Army”, has been widely interpreted as an attack on the prime minister. Yorke has lambasted Blair in the past, but plays down any personal animosity. “It is,” he says, “about anybody who is put in a position of power and is then surrounded by his cronies and goes off and does this thing and doesn’t feel that he’s answerable to anybody.”
Blair, Yorke argues, is merely a “point man” for the shadow forces of globalisation. “He’s just a pawn, a cog in the wheels. But politicians are being incredibly naïve if they think people are going to sit down and let it happen. They won’t, I don’t think. They’re not that fucking stupid.”
By the end of our two-hour chat, Yorke has eased his foot off the paranoia pedal, laughed seven times, smiled five, and taken the piss out of himself twice. Is he more at ease with himself these days?
“Oh yes, big time,” he nods. “In a superficial, late twenties kind of a way. Hitting 30, entering 32, about to probably visit 33. Mellowing out, beards, big cars, baking your own bread. Definitely. Just growing up, really. Growing up is something to be proud of. Unless you’re The Rolling Stones, of course.”
The Oxford oddballs have undoubtedly moved rock forward, expanding the grammar of pop with Kid A and Amnesiac. Their importance in the coming decade depends on whether their vast global fanbase is prepared to follow them into uncharted waters, and whether other mainstream rock acts will pick up the gauntlet they have thrown down.
Another transatlantic chart smash, Amnesiac is the first Radiohead album not to include lyrics. “I’ve sort of changed my relationship with the words I sing on this one,” Yorke tells Uncut. “It’s much less confessional. I’ve really just fucking had enough of that.”
Funnily enough, he said that around the release of the last album. And the one before that. “That’s right, yes. Bugger! Shit! All right, it’s less than it was – all right? “Pyramid Song” is hardly what you’d call confessional, really… although it is.”
Cryptic, evasive, a conspiracy theorist, even. But Thom Yorke’s decade-long experiment in “How To Disappear Completely” has been a failure – thank God. The sheer emotional charge you get from Radiohead is something that sets them apart from the competent strummers and techno boffins.
After 10 years of break-ups and breakdowns, Radiohead have settled into some kind of workable routine. They live apart from the media glare. They tour in short bursts, usually when they choose. They have their own studio, their own rhythm, and the commercial mandate to do what they please. They now seem to be down to one serious band meltdown per album.
“It’s been pretty stable, really,” assesses the long-suffering Colin Greenwood, the band’s chief diplomat and peacemaker. “I used to think it’s all going to end tomorrow, every day – but I don’t think about that any more because it’s unhealthy. Am I ready for it to end? Probably not. You know people go to The Priory for rehab for drugs? I’d have to go to rehab for organising my life.”
Does Greenwood need Radiohead more than Radiohead need him? “Definitely. That’s the one most emphatic answer, to all the questions in your interview; a big ‘Yes’, underlined, italicised, with a flashing red light behind it.”
Right now, there are half-finished tapes all over Radiohead’s studio, but no future masterplan, no clear direction. “It’s much more like, this is an ongoing, healthy, slightly less destructive, slightly more enjoyable thing that we decided to do,” says the singer, visibly brightening as his car ride back to Oxford looms.
But if an air of calm hangs over Radiohead today, history tells us it won’t last. Yorke will find the success of Amnesiac too much to handle. There will be tears and traumas. The crucifixion of Thom Yorke dictates that genius equals pain.
“It’s not genius,” corrects Ed O’Brien, ever so politely, before dashing off to a gathering of Victorian polar explorers. Or not. “It’s just that if you want something good to come out of something, you have to put in a lot of effort, and that involves a lot of hard work, and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. No different to anything, no different to what we all do.”
The interview is over. Radiohead are moving onwards. Maybe we’ll travel with them, or perhaps we’ll get off at the next stop. Thom Yorke might make the world a finer, fairer place. Or maybe he will end up choking on the festering contempt for his fellow man which seems to fuel his bilious lyrical worldview.
“Really? Hmmm,” he considers the possibility for a moment, scanning his mental hard disk. Eventually, he decides: “I don’t think it’s about people. A lot of it’s about self-created demons. People build themselves their own mazes that they can’t get out of… but no, I’m not negative. In fact, if I was negative about strangers in the street then I think I’d go mad, definitely.”
So Thom Yorke has some faith in the human race?
“Yes,” he answers softly, carefully. “Given time and the correct amount of information. That’s one of the things I really hang on to. If you explain yourself, then things will be all right. Ignorance is the reason people get hurt.”
The people paid to protect Thom Yorke are hovering now, eager to whisk him away to safety. In fact, so keen is he to escape that he gets up from the table and leaves through the wrong exit, searching for a taxi that isn’t there. He returns a minute later, laughing sheepishly.
Uncut is determined to bid farewell to pop’s most paranoid android on an up note, a note of conciliation and of we-must-do-this-again. You know what, Thom? You really should do more interviews.
He’s already halfway through the door when he responds.
“You know what…?”
He never does finish that sentence.
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