Radiohead know the value of Making It in America, but that didn't stop them from recording a quixotic album (OK Computer) that has garnered raves fromcritics, but might be a bit too obscure for the mainstream. Will they succeed? Or willthey end up with more time to read science fiction?
Reprinted in MU magazine and in IE magazine
Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood is eating like he's never seen food before in his life. The ultra-thin Greenwood shovels spoonfuls of chicken curry into his mouth, and with each bite, shakes his head back and forth to show his approval. "It's excellent!" he says, giving the waiter a thumbs-up signal. "Really fucking excellent!"
We're at Toi, a Thai restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The walls are plastered with rock posters, and the staff of about five 20- something slacker-looking guys, are stoned out of their minds.
"They're absolutely wasted," remarks guitarist Ed O'Brien, somewhat happily. Drummer Phil Selway nods in agreement. Both are fairly amused by the sight of our glassy-eyed waiter, who is trying desperately to maintain his focus as he hands over plates of food.
For the three musicians, the distraction of food and people watching is a nice break from a week's worth of shows and interviews. Just a few days before, Radiohead played the Tibetan Freedom Concert in New York, followed by a club gig in the city the next night. The club show was attended by a handful of major stars, including Madonna, U2, R.E.M., Oasis, and a load of supermodels. And it seems the whole world is buzzing about what an incredible performance the band put on that night, adding more fuel to the massive hype that precedes the release of their upcoming album, O.K. Computer. Pressure with that meal, anyone?
"At this point, we've done the record, and there's fuck all we can do about it," says O'Brien, between mouthfuls of spring rolls. "But I remember five or six weeks ago, we were all really worried about it because we were getting reports back from the record company here that it wasn't what they expected and they were concerned that it would go over people's heads because they felt it required three or four listens to get into the album.
That's not surprising considering the album is a breakthrough piece of work, a departure from anything Radiohead has ever done. The album's 12 songs seem to tell a story, and will eventually link up visually through video. The band plan to make a video for every song on the record, starting off with the cartoon mini-movie for the first single, "Paranoid Android." The music on the album ranges form bizarre noise to breathtaking piano melodies (inspired by Ennio Morricone's "60 Seconds to What?" from the score to the spaghetti-western A Few Dollars More, according to the band) but flows surprisingly well, each song complimenting the next. The lyrics, unlike the straight-up introspective words of their last album, The Bends, challenge the listener to come up with a theory or a concept, even though the band claim they never set out to make a concept album.
I, for one, am always up for any challenge. My theory, after carefully looking over the lyrics with my housemate and living with the tape for over a month, is that the album is built or based on a sci-fi book, more specifically, Philip K. Dick's V.A.L.I.S., especially since all the members of Radiohead are major bookworms. Much like Dick's narrative about the paranoia of being watched over by some higher, menacing power, the songs on O.K. Computer talk of fear, feeling small and fighting an "enemy." "Airbag," the first song, starts off with optimism, and tells the story of someone who has survived a car crash and is now up to conquer the world. "Paranoid Android" sees the same narrator crawling back into a hole, fearing the higher power that is harassing him/her: "Please, could you stop the noise, I'm trying to get some rest?" The next three songs build up this fear, and beg for relief. "Karma Police," the sixth song, has the narrator beginning to wonder if the "enemy" is inside his own mind: "he buzzes like a fridge, he's like a detuned radio," but is quick to deny that with the lines, "phew, for a minute there, I lost myself." "Electioneering" seems to name the enemy, and has it talking in the first person, then "Climbing the Walls," a pivotal song on the album, confirms that the power is, in fact, inside the narrator's mind: "Open up your skull and I'll be there, climbing up the walls." The last song, "The Tourist" sees an escape, with the narrator going "1000 feet per second," before realizing the crash ahead with the lines, "hey man, slow down. Idiot slow down." So, the last song actually precedes the first, with "Airbag," bringing the album to a complete circle.
Later in the day, I meet up with singer/guitarist/lyricist Thom Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood (Colin's younger brother) at the Capitol Records offices. Yorke asks what I think about the album, and I tell him I have my own theory about the record. He rubs his hands together, sits straight up in his chair and tells me he's eager to hear my thoughts. I take a deep breath, and, somewhat fearful that I may be totally wrong, read him my notes. After a brief silence, a smile comes across his face.
"Wow...that's great," says Yorke. "Absolutely right about the last song preceding the first. Very interesting."
"Nobody has ever got that before," adds Jonny. "That's cool!"
It's actually very Radiohead to do the unexpected, the unusual. When the band hit big in America a few years ago with the angst-ridden anthem, "Creep" from their debut, Pablo Honey, they were immediately welcomed into The Land That Turns Away British Bands, and the word "ACCEPTED" was stamped on their passport pages by every other teenager in the country. But when it came time for the follow-up album, the band did a 180-degree turn and released The Bends, a record that contained no trace of their past hit, and as a result, the album sold considerably less than their first. That is typical Radiohead style; don't give them what they want, put out what we feel like putting out, and fuck you if you don't like it.
"I don't think we knew what we wanted when we came out here in 1993 for Pablo Honey," says O'Brien of the decision to not give in to the pressure of coming out with another "Creep." "We didn't know America. Now, I think as a band, we do want to sell records, and we want as many people to hear our records as possible, but that takes its toll. Like there's a trade-off; the more records you sell, the more you become corporate and the more you have to toe the line, and that's something we're not interested in doing. We want to be able to have a decent lifestyle and we want the freedom to make the records that we want to make."
Still, none of the members of Radiohead will deny that they do want to make it in the United States again. At the same time, they are realistic about their chances.
"I read a great analogy about touring and making it in America," continues O'Brien. "I think it was by Elvis Costello... 'America is like the Mt. Everest of countries to tour; it's the one to do.' And it's true...I think the thing with British bands is that if you break America, then you've really done something, because this country is like one hundred times the size of the UK. But it is very difficult to penetrate. If you do, well then it's an achievement. But like Mt. Everest, it takes it toll on bands. A lot of them break up in their quest to break America."
We talk about the changes in Blur, who have obviously embraced American music with their new album, and Oasis who have actually made it and by doing that are helping other Brit bands do the same thing. O'Brien, Selway and the elder Greenwood all shake their heads knowingly.
"Bands like Oasis...they're very canny, and they know," says O'Brien. "I think they know that if they're going to break America, they have to tour here, and an issue when they came over at first was that they pissed off a lot of people. But Noel's very canny now, he knows it's not the way that you do it. Liam's got a great voice and Noel's a good songwriter. They know what they want."
Yorke, on the other hand, is not going to lose any sleep over it.
"Someone gave me some advice last week. They said just take it as it's given which is with love and it's genuine," says Yorke, looking like he's not quite sure what to make of the advice himself. "Make sure you enjoy it. So that's what I'm doing. I did have a problem with all the hype before, and I was just trying to keep it together and not worry about it. Now, it's like, fuck it. But it would be nice. We've worked really hard."
Maybe The Bends didn't sell millions of copies, but the album did wake up a lot of people to Radiohead. The record became a favorite of critics and other bands, and for a while there, you couldn't read an interview with a music artist without coming upon a quote saying how much The Bends blew him/her away. R.E.M. personally requested Radiohead as openers for their Monster tour last year; Alanis Morissette even started performing her own version of "Creep" when Radiohead opened for her late last year. And then there was the New York club gig...
Well, I think it's because other bands and people in the music industry are about the only people who took the time to listen to that album," explains Jonny. "There's a difference between bands listening to bands and people who listen to the radio to find out what's good."
Yorke, who last year sheepishly confessed to me that he couldn't understand why other bands liked his so much, has come to terms with it now and is enjoying the attention.
"I think it's just amazing about R.E.M. and U2...I mean, to have gotten to know them and to feel positive things from them," says Yorke, still a bit embarrassed. "I mean how amazing can that get? For me, it's the most mind-blowing thing that could happen to me. All of us, really. Mark Mulcahy from Miracle Legion turned up (at the New York show). When I was a kid, he was my biggest idol. I mean, they were all there and it was like, 'This is great, isn't it?!'"
Even back in their school days, the boys of Radiohead showed major potential. If nothing else, people knew them for making some of the most annoying noises ever heard to man, but that was fine; at least people took notice.
"The first time we ever played together as a band, we did this 24-hour jam thing at our school," says Selway.
"Yes, it was the longest we ever played, then or now!" adds Colin, whose little brother was still too young to be in the band at that time.
"I think we played 'Dear Prudence,' since everything was Siouxsie and the Banshees at that time, but we thought we sounded brilliant," continues Selway, trying not to laugh.
Jonny remembers the first time he played with his older brother's band with fondness.
"It was a Sunday morning, and I had stayed at a friend's house the night before...I was about 14-years-old and we were just watching videos and talking about girls and things," says the younger Greenwood. "And I got a call from my lovely brother Colin. 'We're rehearsing near where you are now. Have you got your harmonica?' I said yes, and he said, 'Well come down right now.' So I went over...that was the first time really. It was loud and rackety and noisy as hell. It was pretty cool then."
Yorke's memory doesn't serve him quite as well.
"I don't remember the first time, really," says Yorke. "I just remember it was the only time I used to get girls. They used to come to our rehearsals."
O'Brien, Colin and Yorke befriended each other at the all-boys school they attended in Abington, England, not too far from their hometown of Oxford. The three had similar taste in music, so it wasn't long before they started a band together. The three played a few gigs with a drum machine, but not too long after, the machine broke down and the lads were left drummer-less. Even though the three were eyeing Selway, who was already drumming for his own band at the time, they had a hard time approaching him.
"We were all scared of Phil," says Colin. "He was in the class ahead of us, and he was in this band called Jungle Telegraph, so we knew him as 'The Graf.' We weren't old enough and not in with his crowd."
Finally, after much debate on who would approach Selway, O'Brien took the responsibility.
"I was a bit scared going up to him," says O'Brien, as Selway breaks out into laughter. "No, it's true! Going up to you and asking you...it was hard! It was quite like a scene from Grease. I was like (cocks his head back and acts cool) 'Um, so, how's it going?' And Phil was like, 'O.K. How was your gig last night?' And I said (running his hand through his hair) 'Yeah, cool, man. We had a bit of trouble with the drum machine.' Phil says, 'Yeah.' And I say, 'We're rehearsing next week. Wanna make it?'"
Selway, who claims he was never anything but a nice guy (and both O'Brien and Colin agree) also had his own ideas of what the others were like.
"Well, come to think of it, the others were always very distinctive around school," says Selway, tilting his head back to gaze at his two bandmates.
Have things changed much since then?
"I think that's what makes Radiohead unique," says Colin. "We are all very different people, and I don't think we've gotten any more similar as the years progressed. I think we know each other a bit better, but I don't think we've merged into this one metamorphous musical blob."
O'Brien looks over at Colin trying not to laugh. Colin takes this as his cue to annoy his mate.
"However much I'd love to be Eddy," says Colin, leaning his head into O'Brien's shoulder. "I'm reaching 30 and I'm realizing I'm never going to cut the mustard or make the grade. So I'm just going to have to be happy with what I've got. And console myself with the fact that I'm sharing a stage with the man..."
O'Brien groans. I remind Colin that he gets to share a hotel room with O'Brien as well.
"No, no! We don't share rooms anymore," says Colin. "He dreams and talks like he's in the dream, and we'll tell him and he doesn't remember. It's happened so many times...he rooms alone now. I vaguely remember him dreaming of being a disc-jockey for Live 105 (an alterna-rock radio station in San Francisco)...he would talk about a song, then pause while the record was playing in his mind! Doesn't that scare you? It scares the bejesus out of me, I'll tell you!"
O'Brien groans again.
BACK TO THE BASICS
Getting back to the ways of the old school days was what Radiohead wanted to do for the recording of O.K. Computer. Instead of going into an urban environment to record, the band converted an old apple storage shed into a makeshift studio and called it "Canned Applause".
"It was like a dream workshop," says Yorke. "We had all this gear, all these lights and lots of alcohol and food in this beautiful place. When it was working, it was the biggest fucking buzz I'd ever had, and when it wasn't, it was totally terrifying for me. It was like, 'We spent all this time and all this money and oh my God, fuck!'"
The band plugged away in the shed for almost three months, co-producing it with their sound engineer Nigel Goodrich. Located in the middle of a field outside of Oxford, the place was conducive to recording an album, or at least it was in the beginning. The drawback was that it was almost too close to home, and with each member going home every night and having a life outside of the studio, the recording process was becoming increasingly lengthy.
"We had to live and breathe the album, and we just weren't doing that there," says O'Brien. "We had to go somewhere far away together and be there the whole time."
"Principally, it was Nigel's shout. He was getting very frustrated and he felt that we weren't committing ourselves. But I have to say the lack of enmities (no toilet or kitchen) at that place meant that if you couldn't get a meal there, you'd have to travel like seven miles. We needed to be further away from distractions."
The band headed out to a retreat outside of Bath to finish up the album, but had with them four songs completed in Canned Applause. The workplace in Bath was also an unconventional setting: the band worked on the album at actress Jane Seymore's 15th Century mansion. It was in the hallowed halls of the massive house that things really started coming together.
"My highlight was 'Airbag,' says Yorke. "For two days, we did programming, cutting up bits up drumming we had done and we didn't really know what we were doing. I think everybody thought we were mad. So to see the song actually come together...it was brilliant. It was amazing that we had done it. I'm one of those people where I have a sound in my head so when we actually do get it and finish it it's like, 'how the hell did we get to that point?' We mixed it, and later sitting there listening to it, it felt like we weren't responsible for it, but everyone was telling us that we were."
Just listening to O.K. Computer makes you wonder how on earth any band could have managed to put the songs together. "Paranoid Android" is almost like a few songs in one; no chorus, and the tempo changes three times. Trying to imagine what the process was like is as hard as glancing at a 1000 piece puzzle and knowing right away which pieces fit into which. According to Yorke, many of the songs just came together themselves.
"Like with 'Climbing Up the Walls,' it was the weirdest thing," says Yorke. "Each song has a different voice, and with that song, the voice coming through was so strong...it was really eerie."
Fitting description for a song that is one chapter of what seems to be a story of paranoia.
"Well, you were right about the paranoia idea, but it's not anything to do with Philip K. Dick," says Yorke, ready to take on my theory. "It's not only the lyrics but the music as well...like in 'Karma Police', it does say, 'Phew, for a minute there, I lost myself', but the noise in the end of that song overpowers everything else in the track. And 'Climbing the Walls' is someone who would like to be normal...the local man who's shadow follows him home when he's walking home on a country lane."
Is that local man Thom Yorke?
"Well, in Britain, there are a lot of winding country lanes," continues Yorke. "One New Year's Eve, I was walking home, and there was no artificial light anywhere, no light except the stars. And the wind was blowing very very hard. And I was absolutely convinced that I was being followed. So that feeling inspired the song. And if you look at the artwork for the album, there are always two figures, never just one."
It is not hard to understand why Yorke is constantly mistaken for a Prozac-popping, clinically depressed, angst-ridden rock star. Lyrics like, "This is my final fit/my final bellyache/with no alarms and no surprises," from "No Surprises," have critics and fans alike thinking Yorke is a suicidal maniac. But that is the furthest from the truth; most of the songs are inspired by one incident, not a life-time of feelings or pent-up emotion. It is just Yorke's metaphoric style of writing that gives people the wrong impression.
"This album is much more me absorbing what was around me a certain points, certain days," says Yorke. "'Paranoid Android' is a good example. There was this woman in a bar who had just had red wine spilled over her Gucci dress and I had the lyrics, 'kicking, squealing, Gucci little piggy,' in my head, because there she was."
Yorke's bandmates are constantly astonished with his lyrical capabilities.
"Thom is such a visual writer," says Selway. "Like from the song, 'Let Down,' the line, 'hysterical and useless.' That was great, and for me, very visual."
"Yes. And on this album, I think we're all in agreement that we've got the finest British lyricist of our generation, or of our age group in Thom," adds O'Brien. "On this album, the lyrics opened me up to stuff that I hadn't necessarily noticed before or maybe felt but couldn't put into words. And I think it's amazing that he can do that. 'No Surprises,' just floored me. When we were rehearsing and we heard, 'no alarms and no surprises,' we were all completely floored."
A BOOK AND THE END
Completely floored is about the right description of the crowd at Radiohead's Troubador gig in Los Angeles. The band has no problem pulling off the complicated rhythms of their new material; in fact, at the risk of sounding cliche, they've never sounded better.
Yorke, with is new, "normal" hair (back to a natural brown and no longer bright carrot- orange) spits and howls his incredible wail with ferocity, determined to get the mostly industry crowd going. "You are all so polite," he says, probably wondering why everyone is just standing there, staring back at him. If Yorke thinks that it is because the people are not impressed, he is wrong; every single person in the room is stunned speechless. It was if they had just seen a UFO.
Foo Fighters Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins and Veruca Salt singer/guitarist Louise Post are three of those people. They just stare, watching the band intently from the VIP area. Afterward at the post-gig party, Grohl grabs Colin, kisses his cheek and hugs him hard for a minute or two before exploding with compliments for the band. "You guys were amazing," says Grohl. "Just amazing."
I find Yorke, stuck in the middle of about 100 admirers, all telling him how much they enjoyed the gig. I hand him a shopping bag, and immediately he smiles.
"Is it Philip K. Dick?" Is it V.A.L.I.S.?" he asks before opening it to find the book inside. "Cool! This is great. I really want to read that book now."
Before leaving, I walk around to say my good-byes. Selway, the Greenwood brothers and O'Brien are surrounded also; strangers are handing them drinks and patting them on the back. Publicists are doing their thing, entertaining the guests and answering questions from journalists and curious fans. Some people are even lunging at the bandmembers for bear hugs. I could be wrong, but this is Radiohead's year; this is the album that will make the world stand up and pay attention to one of the greatest bands of my generation. And it's about fucking time.