Radiohead have just been announced as one of the headliners at this year's Coachella festival in California. Here, in an excerpt from her 1996 interview for pioneering site Addicted to Noise, Clare Kleinedler describes meeting the band when they were on the cusp of OK Computer fame——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
Britpop. It's all over the place, all of a sudden. There's Oasis, the Beatles' rip-offs trying to emulate the Rolling Stones' drug-taking, groupie-filled past. Then there's Blur, the self-described "middle-class" darlings of the UK music scene who just can't seem to make a dent in America. Don't forget Elastica, Pulp, Supergrass and Echobelly. But whatever you do, please, please do not include Radiohead in the list of "Britpop" bands.
The only thing Radiohead have in common with the abovementioned bands is that, yes, they are from England. What makes them different from their fellow UK musician brothers and sisters is that Radiohead do not limit themselves to playing recycled '60s music, and they do not engage in public spats with other bands nor do they spend their free time bragging about how "fookin' great" they are. They don't have to talk the talk. Radiohead's songs and live performances speak loud enough for themselves.
Radiohead's current album, The Bends, alone made 1995 a year of great music. Every single song on the record is amazing; from the breathtakingly beautiful melody 'Street Spirit' to the ear-piercing, guitar-wailing Just. And after over 50 weeks on the charts, people are finally beginning to take notice. The album is currently bobbing in and out of the top ten in Britain, and is enjoying its first break into the top 100 here in the states. MTV can't get enough of the band's video for the single 'High and Dry', and virtually every other music critic in the U.S. and the UK voted the album as one of their top ten for last year.
Not too shabby for a band that used to play to a crowd of about, um, two people at parties 10 years ago when they first started out. Having met at an all-boys private school in Abington, England, singer/guitarist Thom Yorke, guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien, bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway formed the band out of sheer boredom. The group put the band on hold to attend college (except for youngest-member Jonny, who stayed behind at school) but rehearsed during breaks and holidays. By the summer of 1991, the lads re-grouped and decided to take this whole music thing seriously.
They called themselves On A Friday and started gigging around their home town of Oxford. Though in retrospect, Yorke says "We were pretty crap," their appearance at Oxford's Jericho Tavern in October of 1991 attracted about 25-30 A&R guys and inspired a journalist from a local 'zine to write: "And successful On A Friday will be. No ifs and buts with this lot. This time next year they will have outgrown all the venues they talk about and for once I think I may just have got it right."
The journalist was right. The band changed their name from On A Friday, a name that proved confusing on fliers if they played a gig, for example, on a Thursday, to Radiohead and scored themselves a record deal with Parlophone. The band recorded their debut album Pablo Honey in three weeks, and released it to minimum hype and enthusiasm. In 1993, the band's single 'Creep' was re-released, and the rest is history.
'Creep' was probably the best and worst thing that has ever happened to Radiohead. While the single propelled Pablo Honey into gold album status in the states, the song became somewhat of an anthem for the band, especially singer Yorke. Much to the band's dismay, Radiohead became "that 'Creep' band" and Yorke became the weirdo of all weirdoes, the misunderstood, reluctant poster boy for a generation that identified with the agonizing lyrics "I wish I was special/you're so fucking special/but I'm a 'Creep'!" MTV picked up a heavy rotation of the video, and even invited the band to play to a crowd of bikini babes and frat boys at the channel's Beach House. Seeing the video of that performance proves how undiscriminating the whole 'Creep' obsession was; frat boys banging their heads to Radiohead? Creepy.
Although many bands dream of having a hit single early on, the men of Radiohead loathed the idea. The band was immediately pressured to come out with another 'Creep', and the recording of their follow-up album became a nightmare. Yorke and Co. "crawled" around the studio with producer John Leckie (Stone Roses, Ride) for three months, driving Leckie and each other crazy. According to the group, it was a major low point for the band; a time that saw each member go through bouts of self-doubt and depression. Finally, Leckie ordered everyone to go home, with the exception of Yorke, and made him go to work. The band went back out on the road for a bit, came back, and in two-weeks time, The Bends was finished.
Since the release of the album in March of 1995, Radiohead has been a non-stop touring machine. The band has done several headlining club tours around the globe and supported R.E.M. last year in America, giving them the opportunity to play arena-size venues. While touring is very much a part of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, off time is spent in a very un-rock 'n roll manner. The members of Radiohead prefer books over parties, and each keeps a fairly low profile in the public, choosing to stay in Oxford rather than join the Britpop masses in London or Manchester. Often referred to as "the most polite band in music," the guys are pleasant, with the exception of an occasional stress-induced outburst from Yorke.
I've personally experienced both aspects of the band. The first interview I ever did was a phoner with bassist Colin Greenwood. As fate would have it, during the interview my computer crashed as did my tape-recorder. Of course, I didn't realize until after I'd hung up with Greenwood that my tape was blank. In fear of losing my job, I frantically called Greenwood back, explaining through tears what had happened. "No problem," he replied calmly. "Call me back in two hours and we'll do it on my lunch break." A gesture I will never forget.
On a heavier note, I had a run-in with Yorke on a bad day last year during the KOME Almost Acoustic Christmas Show in San Jose, CA. "I just got here! Leave me alone!" he shouted, as I approached him for an interview. Completely shattered and feeling like a worm, I crawled into the corner, and wondered if I had chosen the right career path.
So it is that dreadful memory that is weighing heavily on my mind as I arrive at the Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco for my interview with Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood. My heart pounds and my palms begin to sweat as Tour Manager Tim walks me over to meet Yorke.
"Hi. Have we met before? You look familiar," says Yorke, pleasant as can be.
"Um, yeah," I stammer. "We definitely have." I wait until later to let him know the when, where and how.
Yorke and I have a seat on some plastic lawn furniture next to the pool. His hair is a blinding orange today, contrasting sharply with the oversized black-black sunglasses on his face. Seems he is nursing quite a hangover, but is in good spirits nonetheless. Jonny bounds over, shakes my hand and slides into a chair. The reluctant girl-magnet of the group, he's got "cheekbones that could start a war," (according to my friend Cat) and a bob of shiny black hair that hangs carelessly into his eyes. Noticing a painful-looking shaving cut on his chin, I inform him that he is bleeding.
"Oh, I know. I enjoy it, though," he says, pressing his hand against the cut. Staring at the splotch of blood on his hand, he looks surprised. "Cool! Should I go and mop?"
"No. Bleed on the table," says Thom, sarcastically.
The two of them could be brothers. They don't look anything alike, but they do weird things like finish each other's sentences and repeat every other word the other is saying. Jonny's real-life brother is Colin, but after hanging out with these two, I'm beginning to wonder if they were related in a previous life. They even play-fight over who will answer what question, constantly cutting each other off, competing to see who can be more clever. But it is all in fun. No Liam/Noel-esque punch-outs here in Camp Radiohead.
Addicted to Noise: How is the tour going so far?
Thom Yorke: Pretty good. It's quite exciting, but I've got to stop drinking.
ATN: Better then the last tour?
Thom: Yeah, it's sort of... yeah. I think so. And they've all sold out, which is pretty amazing.
ATN: Did you ever retrieve any of the stolen equipment from the Soul Asylum tour? [The band awoke one morning in Denver to find their entire truck, filled with all of their gear, had been stolen right out of their hotel parking lot.]
Jonny Greenwood: Nothing at all. Not a musical sausage.
Thom: Not a bleeding sausage.
ATN: Let's start from the beginning. You all met at school...
Jonny: It was a dark, moonlit night...
Thom: A dark moonlit night...
Jonny: We should make it more romantic than it was. It was a boring afternoon at school, probably.
Thom: I'm still fond of Jonny coming in and playing every instrument that he possibly think of to get into the band...
Jonny: Yeah, turning up with gel horns.
Thom: Yeah. He started with the harmonica, and we weren't into that.
ATN: Is it true that none of you knew how to play your instruments when you first started the band?
Thom: It's all relative, but I would say it was true...
Jonny: [To Thom] Really?
Thom: Well, you were quite good.
Jonny: Well, we just didn't play in public. I don't think we were as bad as most bands... we just sort of... we didn't think we were very good.
Thom: It was more a low opinion of oneself, you know, but justified low opinion I think.
ATN: You all seem to have different musical influences: jazz, Scott Walker, XTC, Magazine, various trip-hop groups... How do you all write music together?
Thom: Well, it's not like you go to a recording studio or rehearsal going "Well, we're gonna make it sound like this." It's pretty bad if we do anything like that because there would be no point. I think, like, if you were a painter, you wouldn't, like, argue about who to copy, you know. You presume you get over that. It's not really an issue. If we were all into the Pixies and nothing else, then it would be pretty obvious what the band would sound like. I think it's the same with any band, really. I mean, if you talk to R.E.M., their influences are pretty disparate... about a disparate as you can get, really. Anyway, [looks at Jonny] he's got me into jazz now. Bastard.
ATN: So finally, The Bends is getting some recognition. Why do you think it took so long?
Thom: Well, the nicest thing is that Billboard thing. They have three journalists with their faces going [makes a fake grin] and we were number one in two of them and three in the third, I think.
Jonny: It's weird. It's been kind of a reversal from Pablo Honey. We had an album that sold a lot but wasn't taken much notice of and now we've become that horrible thing of a band's band, or a critic's band.
Jonny: Which is kind of a big reversal for us...
Thom: Because they're even more fickle than the public.
Jonny: It's a nice change from the first album.
ATN: Is this kind of what you wanted from the beginning, to slowly climb up the charts?
Jonny: Yeah. At least now, when journalists miss the point, and reviewers miss the point, then we can sort of disagree with them. But when reviewers are saying bad things about the first album, we just sort of half agree with them. (Thom lets out an enormous laugh) There's some truth to what they're saying. If they say [The Bends] is rubbish, and no one has said that, so it makes sense, really.
Thom: It makes us a little nervous.
FEAR OF CAREER, LOVE OF ARMS TRADING
ATN: What are your inspirations for your songs?
Thom: Change all the time. Mostly books about politics at the moment.
ATN: Speaking of politics, do you plan on pursuing a career in it, since you're involved in the Rock the Vote UK and you have a new song called 'Electioneering'?
Thom: Oh yeah. I think I wanna become a politician. Well, I wanna actually get into the arms trade first, and make my money there. Pop stardom, arms trade, have it all.
ATN: What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
Jonny: Career? You sound like my mother... she says that. "When are you going to get a career?"
Thom: Yeah. "Why have you chosen this career?" A career is going in the army.
Jonny: Career suggests long...
Jonny: ...and planning. There's something quite depressing when you hear a band say, "We want to make music together for another 20-30 years."
ATN: [jokingly] You don't want to do that?
Jonny: I don't know what I want to do, really. Music. That would be good, but you know, I don't plan on anything, really.
Thom: Peter Buck, he said... we were at this bar, and these two girls came up and tried to pick a fight with us. They started on me by saying something like... Oh, there was a Vancouver show where I walked onstage and said "We've been all over the world and you're the rudest fucking audience we've ever met" [laughs] and a fight ensued [laughs harder] and she sort of tried to pick a fight with me about that, and that didn't work. Then she turns to Peter Buck and says "R.E.M. guy" and started pushing him and stuff. It was really fucking weird! We both just stood there, and he said, "Well, you gotta sort of cultivate a healthy sense of the absurd," which I thought was pretty cool. Then I said, "Yeah, it's all gonna mean shit diddly when you're dead." And he said, "No, no, it will mean nothing well before that." So, that resounded in my head.
ATN: So what have been the highlights in being in Radiohead?
Jonny: I heard one of our songs used by the BBC for a trailer for Match of the Day.
ATN: What's that?
Jonny: Oh, you know, sort of [announcement] on BBC1 Tonight. [mimicking the announcer] "We'll be showing the Everton match." And they'll play a Radiohead song to it. It's usually something like Tears for Fears or something... [Thom making drum noises in the background]. It's surreal, yes.
ATN: How about lowlights?
Thom and Jonny: Lowlights?
Thom: Is that code?
ATN: Highlights, lowlights...
Thom: Oh, lowlights. Oh sorry. I thought is was a type of milk or something. Low points. Soul Asylum was pretty fucking low, I think.
Jonny: Yeah, that was pretty bad.
Thom: That was pretty low [laughs]. Just having one's gear stolen, then having to carry on with the tour. It wasn't much fun. Especially since we just came off R.E.M., so you couldn't really go down further. Couldn't really get much more let down. Handy link to a song. (One of Radiohead's new songs is called 'Let Down.')
ATN: You all seem to stay away from the Britpop party scene. Why is that?
Thom: There is one at the moment, apparently. We don't really like cocaine that much.
Jonny: We're from the wrong city, as well... Oxford.
Thom: Yeah, deliberately. They don't let us out.
ATN: So much of what is written about you in the press tends to focus on your volatile personality. Why do you think the papers are so obsessed with that aspect of Thom Yorke?
Thom: Because most people in my position have learnt to behave and I haven't and I'm just not very good at behaving...
Jonny: I think people like their pop stars easy.
Thom: Like film stars, really. You can't be temperamental; you're basically a distraction.
Jonny: I think they want Pop Star Lite, really. L-I-T-E.
Thom: Someone from R.E.M. was saying to me the other night, "Get nervous when you realize you can do it. When you can go through a whole evening having talked to 50 people and not remember a fucking word of any of it. Then you really are in trouble."
THINK HAPPY THOUGHTS... C'MON, TRY...
ATN: I've read somewhere that you've been writing down happy thoughts for the next album. Have you written anything down so far?
Thom: Nearest I got was writing about the colour of the sky in LA.
ATN: That's happy?
Thom: Yeah, because that particular day it had rained the night before and you could actually see the sky. That's as happy as it's got, so far.
ATN: That's all?
Thom: Yeah, that's it. [Both laugh.]
ATN: What can we expect from the next album? Do you plan to put some of your current B-sides on it?
Thom: There's been talk of doing a B-sides album at some point.
Jonny: Yeah, they are rather good and do get lost...
Thom: But then that's sort of cool. Otherwise we'd be getting into Prince territory and release three albums a year and there would be no quality control and people would see through it, wouldn't they, really, frankly? Oh... Um... [to Jonny]. What can we expect from this next album? Jon? It'll be analog.
Jonny: Um, it will be, yes, sort of western.
Thom: Western analog. Communist.
ATN: Will it be somewhat experimental like the B-side remix of 'Planet Telex'?
Jonny: I think we'll do more stuff that will be experimental, but again, it will be as unlike 'Planet Telex' as... [It will be] weirder than anything else.
Thom: The best indication of what we're going to do is that we're building our own studio, we're producing it ourselves, and it's going to be a fucking mess.
ATN: Why are you going to produce it yourself this time?
Jonny: Because we sort of always wanted to, and we were used to it when we were recording in bedrooms and it's not really that much different...
Thom: Yeah, we just really want to get that bedroom mentality of not giving a fuck and not worrying about it being a record.
ATN: Where are you building your studio?
Jonny: That's a secret.
ATN: I don't mean the address! Where, like city, place...
Jonny: [laughing] 17 Turnpike... No, it's a sort of old apple storage place, or banana storage place...
Thom: Lots and lots of upside down trees.
ATN: Do you think that is going to be good for you to be out in the middle of nowhere?
Thom: Oh, very good. There's no toilet...
Jonny: Chi... good for the vibes.
Thom: [To Jonny] The chi? Is that as in Tai Chi?
Jonny: It flows up through the ground. Farms nearby. I mean, we've always been the kind of band...
Thom: [Cuts him off] Is that what chi is?
Jonny: Yeah [trying to finish his sentence]. That's recorded....
Thom: Does that come up through the ground?
Jonny: Yeah [continuing the story]. That's why...
Thom: [Again cuts Jonny off]. I thought that was sewage.
Jonny: No. That's why [it's good to] be barefoot and not wear shoes.
Jonny: Yeah. So anyhow...
Thom: [Cuts Jonny off again] Fucking hell, I didn't know that!
Jonny: So, yes. We're recording there. We've have always been the kind of band who records in picturesque village holes rather than in a city youth centres, so yeah, that's probably a good thing. I don't know.
ATN: Can you talk about some of the songs that you've already written for the album?
Thom: OK, what can we say about the... I don't know if they're any good, really.
ATN: I heard 'Electioneering' is excellent.
Thom: Yeah, it's all right. I don't know. I don't like any of it, really. Some days I like all of it, some days I don't like any of it. What do you think, Jonny?
Jonny: Yeeess. Sometimes all of our songs don't sound good, sometimes they all sound great.
ATN: How are they sounding today?
Jonny: People keep telling us we sort of sound like Queen, uh... Pink Floyd. Someone said we sounded like a skiffle band last night...
ATN: A skittle band?
Thom: You know, skiffle. Rockabilly...
Jonny: So, it's anybody's guess. Sort of skiffle-Pink Floyd that sounds like Queen. Yeah, that's us. Easy to categorize, as you can tell. That cliché, that old pigeonhole that we fit into so well.
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