Fitter Happier: Radiohead Return
For years, Radiohead have been known as cold, cutting artistes who do everything--particularly interviews--the hard way. So why are they now acting like a bunch of chatty, regular guys who simply read lots of books and fear for our future?
MEETING THOM IS EASY
Everyone will tell you it’s not, and they’re all wrong. There are people who will insist Thom Yorke is a misanthropic sociopath and that he ends interviews for no good reason. They will suggest that the likelihood of him speaking candidly is roughly the same as the chance of him unscrewing two bolts from his neck and removing his cybernetic faceplate, suddenly revealing a titanium endoskeleton that was built by futuristic space druids.
But this is not true.
Thom Yorke is weird, sort of. But you’ve met weirder. He’s mostly just an intense, five-foot-five-inch 34-year-old who wears hooded sweatshirts with sleeves too long for his limbs, and this makes him look like a nervous kindergartener. He doesn’t appear to have combed his hair since The Bends came out in 1995, and his beard looks undecided, if that’s possible. But here’s the bottom line: He’s nice. Not exactly gregarious, but polite. He is neither mechanical nor messianic. And this is what everyone seems to miss about him–and about Radiohead as a whole: They may make transcendent, fragile, pre-apocalyptic math rock for a generation of forward-thinking fans, but they’re still just a bunch of guys.
I’m sitting with Yorke in the restaurant of an Oxford, England, hotel called the Old Parsonage. He was 20 minutes late for our interview, explaining that he had to run home and do some yoga because he was “feeling a bit weird.” He’s studying the restaurant menu and complaining that he’s running out of things he can eat–not only is he a vegetarian, but he’s stopped eating anything made with wheat (for the past six months, he’s had a skin rash, and he thinks wheat is the culprit). Eventually he settles on roasted tomatoes and butter beans, a meal he calls “expensive” (it costs about $17). We’re talking about politics (kind of) and his two-year-old son Noah (sort of), and I ask him how those two subjects dovetail–in other words, how becoming a father has changed his political beliefs and how that has affected the songwriting on Hail to the Thief, the sixth studio album from earth’s most relevant rock band.
His answer starts predictably. But it ends quickly.
“Having a son has made me very concerned about the future and about how things in the world are being steered, supposedly in my name,” he says between sips of mineral water. “I wonder if our children will even have a future. But the trouble with your question–and we both know this–is that if I discuss the details of what I’m referring to in Spin magazine, I will get death threats. And I’m frankly not willing to get death threats, because I value my life and my family’s safety. And that sort of sucks, I realize, but I know what is going on out there.”
Yorke’s reluctance is not a surprise. Since April, Radiohead have stressed that Hail to the Thief is not a political record and that the album’s title is not a reference to George W. Bush’s controversial victory over Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election (in fact, Yorke claims he heard the phrase during a radio program analyzing the election of 1888). This is a bit paradoxical, because that argument seems both valid and impossible: There are no overtly political lyrics on the record, but it feels political. And Yorke is not exactly nonpartisan: At a recent antiwar rally in Gloucestershire, England, he publicly declared that “the U.S. is being run by religious maniac bigots that stole the election.”
“If the motivation for naming our album had been based solely on the U.S. election, I’d find that to be pretty shallow,” he says. “To me, it’s about forces that aren’t necessarily human, forces that are creating this climate of fear. While making this record, I became obsessed with how certain people are able to inflict incredible pain on others while believing they’re doing the right thing. They’re taking people’s souls from them before they’re even dead. My girlfriend–she’s a Dante expert–told me that was Dante’s theory about authority. I was just overcome with all this fear and darkness. And that fear is the ‘thief.'”
Well, okay, maybe labeling Yorke a “normal dude” might be something of an exaggeration. Perhaps he is a little paranoid. But he’s no paranoid android; he’s just a paranoid humanoid, and he certainly has a sense of humor about it. After he casually mentions his girlfriend, I ask him if he’ll ever get married.
“That’s a totally personal question–next,” he says gruffly, and for a moment it feels like I’m watching an outtake from Radiohead’s 1999 documentary, the mediaphobic Meeting People Is Easy. But then I laugh. And he laughs. And suddenly he’s just a bearded humanoid who’s eating tomatoes, completely aware of how ridiculous our conversation is. “What is this?” he asks. “Do you work for Us Weekly now?”
MOST OF WHAT YOU BELIEVE ABOUT RADIOHEAD IS WRONG
“The first time I ever saw Thom, he was jumping over a car.” This is not something I expected Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien to say, but he appears to be quite serious. “Thom was an amazing gymnast in high school,” he continues. “Nobody knows that about him, but you can get a sense of it just by watching him move around. He’s really strong. He did this handspring right over a car. It’s like how Morrissey was a great long-distance runner in high school–nobody knows that, either.”
O’Brien is the fifth member of the band I have spoken with over the past eight hours, each in a different room of the Old Parsonage. I’ve been rushing from room to room for answers, not unlike the final ten minutes in a game of Clue. O’Brien is the last person I’m speaking with today, and he’s different from the other four guys in the band: He’s significantly taller (6’5″), he’s the only one who doesn’t reside in Radiohead’s native city of Oxford (he lives an hour away in London), and he talks like an intelligent hippie (if such a creature exists). He’s also rumored to be the most “rock-oriented” member of Radiohead, preferring the conventional structures of older songs, like “Just” and “Ripcord.”
Here, again, my assumption is wrong.
Part of the reason O’Brien is perceived as Radiohead’s designated rocker is that he’s the most interested in classic rock; he especially enjoys discussing U2, who appear to be Radiohead’s third-biggest musical influence (the first two being the Smiths, whom all five members love unequivocally, and the Pixies, from whose records Jonny Greenwood learned how to play guitar). For the most part, the other four members don’t talk about mainstream rock.
“I’m interested in bands as beasts,” O’Brien says. “I’m interested in U2 and the Rolling Stones and Neil Young & Crazy Horse. I love the dynamic of musicians working together and all the voodoo shit that comes with it. It’s a complicated thing to do over the expanse of time, which is why I respect U2 so much. Don’t get me wrong–I adore the Stones, but they haven’t made a good record since 1972. Exile on Main Street was the last great Stones album. But U2 have been at it for 20 years, and that song ‘Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get OutOf’ was amazing. And that’s after 20 years. That’s when the Stones were making Still Life.”
It’s intriguing to hear O’Brien discuss band dynamics, because Radiohead rarely discuss the internal mechanics of their organization; their dynamic is relatively unknown. The band members tend to describe the creative process as their “methodology,” and here’s how it works: Yorke writes the material alone (usually on piano) and gives demo CDs to the other four. They all listen for a few weeks and deduce what they can contribute; then they meet, rehearse, and arrange the songs as a unit (according to Jonny, arrangement is their favorite step). They perform the songs live (in order to see what works and what doesn’t), and then they go into the studio to record them.
With Hail to the Thief, the recording process was intentionally short. Most of the record was cut in two and a half weeks in Los Angeles with longtime producer Nigel Godrich, often one song per day (supposedly, the very first sound you hear on the album is Jonny plugging in his guitar on the first morning they arrived at the studio). What’s surprising is how conciliatory the other four band members are to Yorke. They’re all accomplished musicians, but he directs the vision of the band. Yet this seems to cause no problem whatsoever.
“In a band like the Smashing Pumpkins, that kind of songwriting situation caused problems, because one gets the impression certain members of that band felt replaceable,” O’Brien says. “But if you feel good about yourself, you will be honest and generous toward other people. I hope Thom makes a solo album in the future; there’s no doubt he will. And it will be fucking amazing. But as a band, we are all individually essential. In Radiohead, no one is replaceable.”
“For every song like ‘I Will,’ which arrived fully formed and was immediately perfect, there are songs like ‘Sail to the Moon,’ which weren’t great,” Jonny says. “I’m not being rude, but ‘Sail to the Moon’ wasn’t very well-written, and it had different chords and only half an idea. It only came together after the whole band worked on it and figured out how the structures should be, and [drummer] Phil [Selway] had some insight on how the song could be arranged. And then it became just about the best song on the record.”
In a way, it all sounds remarkably simple, but things weren’t always this easy. O’Brien says Hail to the Thief represents “the end of an era” and that they’ve taken “this kind of music” (however you want to define it) as far as it can go. But that statement seems more reflective of their new outlook on life, which is that being in this band is an exceptional–and relatively painless–experience.
They like being Radiohead. Six years ago, they did not.
“The worst point [in our career] was playing shows in the U.K. right after OK Computer came out,” says bassist Colin Greenwood, Jonny’s older brother. “There is nothing worse than having to play in front of 20,000 people when someone–when Thom–absolutely does not want to be there, and you can see that hundred-yard stare in his eyes. You hate having to put your friend through that experience. You find yourself wondering how you got there.”
Colin is saying this as he eats in the hotel’s parlor room. It’s the second of four meals he will consume today (he claims nervousness over Hail to the Thief has raised his metabolism). Colin is both the band’s friendliest and goofiest member and about the most enthusiastic person I have ever met. Sometimes he closes his eyes for 20 seconds at a time, almost as if the world were too brilliant to look at; there appears to be no subject he is not obsessed with. He tells me I must visit the Oxford University Museum of Natural History to see the stuffed dodo birds (which I do) and insists I check out a cartography exhibit at the Bodleian Library (which I do not). He gleefully mentions having seen a baby deer while driving to the Spin photo shoot, as if it had been some rare sighting of the Loch Ness monster. He mentions about 15 different books during our interview and even gives me one as a present (Brian Thompson’s Imperial Vanities). Everyone in this band probably reads more than you do; hanging out with Radiohead is kind of like getting high with a bunch of librarians. At one point, I ask Colin, who is married to American writer and literary critic Molly McGrann, a theoretical question: If the music of Radiohead were a work of literature, would it be fiction or nonfiction?
“I think it would be nonfiction,” he says. “Thom’s lyrics are sort of like a running commentary on what’s happening in the world, almost like you’re looking out of the window of a Japanese bullet train and things are sort of flying by. It’s like a shutter snapping in succession.”
That’s an apt description of the lyrics on Hail to the Thief, particularly on less abstract tracks like “A Punch-Up at a Wedding” (a narrative about the clichéd reactions to a social faux pas), “We Suck Young Blood” (about the vapidity of celebrity), and “Myxomatosis,” perhaps the most interesting entry on Hail to the Thief. Myxomatosis is a virus that inadvertently devastated the British rabbit population after it was introduced in the 1950s, covering the countryside with bunny carcasses. The disease is not what the song is literally about, but hearing Yorke’s explanation illustrates why trying to dissect the metaphors in Radiohead’s music is virtually impossible. The dots do not connect.
“I remember my parents pointing out all these dead rabbits on the road when I was a kid,” Yorke says. “I didn’t know that much about the virus, or even how to spell it. But I loved the word. I loved the way it sounded. The song is actually about mind control. I’m sure you’ve experienced situations where you’ve had your ideas edited or rewritten when they didn’t conveniently fit into somebody else’s agenda. And then–when someone asks you about those ideas later–you can’t even argue with them, because now your idea exists in that edited form.
“It’s hard to remember how things actually happen anymore, because there’s so much mind control and so many media agendas,” he continues. “There’s a line in that song that goes, ‘My thoughts are misguided and a little naive.’ That’s the snarly look you get from an expert when they accuse you of being a conspiracy theorist. In America, they still use the ‘conspiracy theorist’ accusation as the ultimate condemnation. I’ve been reading this Gore Vidal book [Dreaming War], and I know Vidal is always accused of being a conspiracy theorist. But the evidence he uses is very similar to the evidence used by a lot of well-respected British historians. Yet they still call him crazy. To me, that’s part of what ‘Myxomatosis’ is about–it’s about wishing that all the people who tell you that you’re crazy were actually right. That would make life so much easier.”
This self-analysis is noteworthy, because it speaks to where Yorke is coming from intellectually. However, it avoids one trenchant question: What does mind control have to do with a virus that kills rabbits?
The answer is “nothing.”
Yorke named the track “Myxomatosis” for the same reason he repeats the phrase “the rain drops” 46 times during the song “Sit Down. Stand Up.” He simply liked the way it sounded on tape. The syllables fall like dominoes, and consonance collapses like a house of cards. Sometimes you can’t find the meaning behind the metaphor because there is no metaphor.
Yorke’s preoccupation with picking words for how they sound (as opposed to what they mean) is part of why Radiohead’s cultic following cuts such a wide swath (every album except 2001’s Amnesiac has gone platinum): If phrases have no clarity and no hard reality, people can turn them into whatever they need. If you need the words on Hail to the Thief to be political, they certainly have that potential; if you need Hail to the Thief to explain why your girlfriend doesn’t love you, it can do that, too. It’s a songwriting style Yorke borrowed from Michael Stipe; not coincidentally, Stipe’s R.E.M. were the last rock-band intellectuals taken as seriously as Radiohead are taken today.
“What I love about them,” says Stipe, calling from a recording studio in Vancouver, “is that Radiohead’s music allows me to craft my own film inside my head. That’s what I like about all music.”
Stipe and Yorke’s relationship is hard to quantify, as it’s difficult for über-famous rock musicians on different continents to have any kind of normal friendship (since traveling together on R.E.M.’s 1995 Monster tour, they’ve maintained a sporadic phone and email dialogue). However, this much is clear: The guidance Stipe provided Yorke at the height of Radiohead’s fame almost certainly kept the band from breaking up. To hear Stipe explain it, their interaction was almost academic–he talks about the complexity of “dealing with words” and how all performers “are missing something in their DNA” and that it’s almost impossible for artists to balance their inherent insecurity with the ego required to display oneself in public.
Meanwhile, Yorke’s description is considerably simpler.
“The nicest thing Michael did for me was pull me out of a hole I would have never escaped from otherwise,” Yorke says. “This was right after OK Computer came out. All he really did was listen to me talk about the experience I was going through, but there’s not a whole lot of people who can relate to that kind of situation, you know? That was very nice of him. I would like to pull a few other people out of holes at some point.”
I tell Yorke he should consider contacting White Stripes frontman Jack White about this, but he says, “I don’t think he needs my help.” This is another of Yorke’s quirks: He tends to assume that everybody on earth has their life more together than he does. Sometimes he puts his hands on the sides of his skull and inadvertently replicates the figure in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. Conversationally, he seems completely rational and calm, but he’s convinced he’s losing his mind. And it’s probably Bill O’Reilly’s fault.
“I absolutely feel crazy at times,” he says. “Anybody who turns on the TV and actually thinks about what they’re watching has to believe they’re going insane or that they’re missing something everyone else is seeing. When I watch the Fox News channel, I can’t believe how much nerve those people have and how they assume that people are just going to swallow that shit. And I find myself thinking that I must be missing something.”
This is who Hail to the Thief is ultimately for, I think–people who look for order in the world and simply don’t see it. Colin thinks much of the album is about the destruction of human space by corporate forces (he draws thematic comparisons between Hail to the Thief and Jonathan Franzen’s essay collection How to Be Alone); Jonny thinks it might be about accepting the condition of the world and concentrating on one’s own family; Selway talks of “dark forces” that drove the record’s creation; O’Brien casually wonders if “it might be too late for this planet.” (Part of Radiohead’s enduring mystery might be that even the other guys in the band don’t fully understand what Yorke’s lyrics are trying to convey.) Yet the songs are all about the same thing, really: learning how to understand a new kind of world. And while this isn’t always simple, it’s not necessarily depressing. In fact, it might be why Yorke still claims that Hail to the Thief is a record “for shagging,” which is what he told the press months before the record was released. Apparently, we’re all supposed to listen to “Myxomatosis” and get laid.
“I think this is a sexy record,” Yorke says, and there is at least a 50 percent chance that he’s serious. “The rhythms are very sexy. It’s where the beats fall. It has its own sexy pulse.”
Hoping for clarification, I ask him to name the sexiest record he owns.
“That’s a good question,” he says. “Public Enemy was pretty sexy. ‘911 Is a Joke’ was a sexy song.”
And I find myself thinking: “I must be missing something.”