Juice Magazine, October 2000 (thom interview)
Juice Magazine, October 2000
Many thanks to Chris for the transcription
FITTER, HAPPIER, MORE PRODUCTIVE
THEY MADE THE 'ALBUM OF THE DECADE' AND ARE HERALDED AS THE SAVIOURS OF MUSIC. IN A WORLD EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW LAUREN ZORIC DELVES INTO THE MIND OF RADIOHEAD'S SINGER, WRITER AND MISERABILIST, THOM YORKE, AND THE MAKING OF KID A.
No one in the latte belt of Cowley Street, Oxford, pays the slightest attention to Thom Yorke as he walks up the street from his house, army disposal canvas bag over one grey jumpered shoulder, and takes a seat in the cafe window. When he waves to friends who pass by, it's an easy gesture, unmarked by the usual self-consciousness of rock stars. He's smaller than you think - pale skinned, gingery facial hair making his features seem like a baby's. He rubs his face with his hands while he thinks, massaging thoughts into shape. My fear is that Thom Yorke - the most elusive man in rock - will be closed off and difficult. Instead, he is extremely generous. Yorke wants to talk; he's an articulate, fluid conversationalist, and there's much to ask.
..... By the end of his first interview in several years, we're chatting about Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (he hasn't seen it, but seemed intrigued that some of Radiohead's new songs made me think of it), his obsession over WWII history, the cover art of Kid A, inspired by accounts of the snow-capped Kosovo mountain range appearing to be on fire. Yorke speaks from a reserve of hard-won wisdom, leavened by moments of sheer glee when discussing the music that inspires him and darkened by glimpses of the turmoil that almost finished him.
..... It's been a rollercoaster rise on the back of the novelty hit, "Creep", the second album, The Bends (which had unanimous critical praise and earned them the envy and esteem of their fellow artists) to the breakthrough of OK Computer, which launched a legion of copycat bands. Now they, like the Rolling Stones or Nirvana or Guns N Roses before them, are the market leaders.
..... "If you spend your life being a creative person and expend energy on regretting stuff you've done before, you are so fucked," Yorke offers, like a warning. "Because it will cramp you up and you'll never be able to work again. Because I think I skirted around the edges of that for a while. Quite a while." A pause. The singer is discussing the ramifications of the world's most important guitar band using principally electronic instruments on their new album. It's a dilemma that has made his life a misery of late.
..... Were you honestly that unhappy? He laughs, embarrassed (possibly for me) and squirms around. "That sounds like an MTV question."
..... What I want to say is, seriously, you're a worry.
..... "I was a complete fucking mess!" comes the unexpectedly straightfoward reply. "When OK Computer finished, yeah. I mean, really, really ill."
..... Do you know why?
..... "Just going a certain way for a long, long time, and not being able to stop or look back or consider where I was. For, like, 10 years. Not being able to connect with anything. Becoming completely unhinged, in the best sense of the word."
..... But you don't seem like that now.
..... "No," he half-smiles. "It took a while." A long pause. We'll get back to that.
Ever since Radiohead, five Oxford-based college friends - singer/guitarist Thom Yorke, guitarist/keyboardist Jonny Greenwood, his brother, bassist Colin, guitarist Ed O'Brien and drummer Phil Selway - hit the international stage with the overwhelming success of "Creep" from their debut album, Pablo Honey, in 1993, their success has threatened to engulf them.
..... The precedents were all there, Nirvana had imploded with gruesome poignancy, bigger bands like U2 or the Smashing Pumpkins threatened to drown in their own self-importance. But Radiohead responded in 1995 with The Bends, an album that people were still talking about 12 months after its release. With its powerful songs of self-disgust ("Just"), world-weary depression ("Fake Plastic Trees") and bruised, tender entreaties for love ("Street Spirit"), Greenwood's shimmering guitar-scapes and Yorke's sometimes almost supernatural wails were the bedroom soundtrack for loneliness and frustration in a world where disconnection has become the darkly ironic downside of unprecedented mass communication.
..... Two years later, OK Computer led by the sprawling, uncommercial seven-minute single "Paranoid Android" nevertheless sold upwards of 4.5 million copies. Lit at one end of the guitar spectrum by the affecting acoustic ballad "Karma Police" that would have entire stadiums singing along, and at the other by raucous maelstroms like the politically unflinching "Electioneering", OK Computer daringly flirted with a new palette of electronic sounds, prompting critics to crown it best album of the '90s. Radiohead became the most important and influential group on the planet. Meanwhile, the band were struggling internally: the documentary film, Meeting People Is Easy (which cameos Triple J's Richard Kingsmill interviewing Yorke in a Sydney hotel room), shows them having their music reduced to fodder for the PR machine, leaving them to hobble onwards as reluctant, unhappy, media-circus freaks. While this is an all too common complaint amongst the famous, Radiohead - and Yorke in particular - were hounded, because they displayed a human frailty that so many could relate to, as well as for the fact that they'd achieved the near impossible alchemy of untouchable critical favour and massive sales power. They'd done everything right. So why did it end up feeling so sickeningly wrong?
Radiohead's first London show in over two years at the annual Meltdown festival in July was surrounded by intense speculation. In the preceding weeks, gigs in Paris and Barcelona had made the cover of the still extremely powerful music weeklies, hyping the shows as events on a scale with Moses presenting the new commandments for rock bands in the 21st century. NME described Kid A as "the most anticipated comeback in living memory." Desperation for even a note of new music has made them one of Napster's most in-demand downloads, and recordings of the June European gigs were available just hours after the shows.
..... To put it mildly, Meltdown was a spectacular triumph. To everyone's astonishment, the five previously wracked, sullen musicians cracked jokes onstage and Yorke even laughed when "My Iron Lung" suddenly fell apart halfway through. The new songs fluctuated between the aggressive rhythms of "Optimistic" and "Knives Out", monumental constructions that would hurtle into chaotic, urgent cacophonies of wailing guitars, like aeroplanes breaking up in mid-flight, and other songs like the undulating waves of melody and rhythm of "In Limbo" and "Everything In Its Right Place" where Greenwood sampled Yorke's live voice into staccato glitches. Again, Radiohead's midas touch was in joyful abundance.
The hardest thing in the music world is to juggle the magic, qualities of integrity in one had and popular accessibility in the other. Moby nearly did it, but the overkill of having every song from Play licensed to commercials - even though it allows Mute Records to nobly release Add N To (X) records - has meant that the songs have been stripped of their own worth. You can't hear "Porcelain" without thinking of a car ad.
..... And while the end may justify the means, it's still prostitution. It's taken Radiohead more than three years since the release of OK Computer to find ways of making music that still excites them, and to figure out how to exist in the global economy on their own terms. "It's nothing to do with left and right now," Yorke says of the corporatisation of the world political agenda. "I think resistance is quite a good way of putting it. If nothing happened at all, then we would all just bow down to a global economy and willingly watch millions of people die for no fucking good reason." It's extreme, but who isn't aware of the fact that every time you buy an item someone, somewhere has been exploited? When you look around for models and methods to aspire towards, it's pretty slim pickings.
..... Radiohead are doing it like this: the release of Kid A will not be accompanied by any singles, or any videos. Their promotional duties are selective and restrictive (Yorke now harbours a pathological loathing of hotel-room interviews and would have done today's interview in a nearby park had it not rained) and anyway, their website and various 'unofficial but sanctioned' sites already contain just about everything you need to know.
..... Instead, the band have been working on 'blip-verts' which you can download from sites like followmearound.com, 10-40 second videos with sound bites from album tracks, later to be released to media like MTV.
..... "They're just cheap TV ads, they always were cheap TV ads," Yorke describes even his band's own music clips. "I mean, in the context of MTV, although we owe them a lot, the whole MTV thing and what it did to music, it just got way out of hand.
..... "The thing that really did my head in was going home and turning on the TV and the ads for fucking banks and cars being more like MTV videos than the MTV videos, and it seemed like there was nowhere to go. Whatever the new aesthetic was would be in a fucking car advert a week later. Especially Colin, he got obsessed over not making videos and making adverts. Because the ads were more like the videos, so we might as well go straight to the source. You're lying if you're pretending that it's not a product, that you're not trying to sell something. It wasn't like we sat down and said, 'How do we do things differently?' Necessity meant that we had to."
Necessity, as the saying goes, is the mother of invention. When Radiohead started recording songs (of which there are at least another 16, besides the Kid A tracks, a process mentioned in Ed O'Brien's radiohead.com recording diary), they found nothing worked anymore. Their old methods - standing in a room and playing - produced nothing.
..... "You just hear a sound and it doesn't matter what you do, you're not going to respond to it, even though that's what you think you should be doing," says Yorke, still clearly frustrated by the memory of those months.
..... "So when you get to that point, it feels like the ground is being pulled from beneath you and you're just falling through space, and it's a fucking nightmare. I got that early on and they got it afterwards, later, as we were making the record.
..... "It was a nightmare, and it took years, literally, because you feel like you've got nowhere to go and every day you think, 'Well, maybe we should just stop? Maybe there's no point to this,' because all the sounds you made, that made you happy, have been sucked of everything they meant. And it's a total headfuck. And you've got no one to blame."
..... There were fraught jam sessions in Paris and Copenhagen. Then they abandoned their own instruments and learned to use electronic equipment, as a means of rewiring their minds. "You can't just sit in a room together and play like that for the rest of your fucking lives and expect it to be wonderful. It's just not going to happen," says Yorke, philosophically.
..... Jonny Greenwood spent two weeks on his own scoring strings to "How To Disappear Completely", the completion of a circle for him that had been broken when he dropped plans to study classical music at college and joined the band. Yorke hunkered down over the computer to piece together "Kid A", created entirely from digital fragments. Their space gradually developed a dynamic where they could work together, and separately.
..... "We discovered that there are certain tasks that you have to do on your own, but basically, the best stuff comes out of collaboration with other people," says Yorke says. "It's all happening at the same time. In our studio we have everything set up in different areas of the same space, so when things are going on that I'm not interested in I go upstairs with Stanley [Donwood, Yorke's college friend who contributes images, ideas and web ideas to Radiohead] and do stuff.
..... "I end up in our studio collaborating all the time," says Yorke. "Walking into a situation cold and walking out again, that's my role. It makes me really happy because I have such a short attention span, but one of the things I'm good at is being able to spark people off."
Charles Mingus, the great bebop jazz bassist, shone the light that led Thom Yorke out of his wilderness. Specifically The Complete Town Hall Concert. "It was the most formative record of the whole time that I was 'away'," he says, bursting with excitement. He later writes a list of Mingus albums for me to follow up. "I got absolutely obsessed with this record. Our sound guy went out and bought a load of Mingus and when I heard the Town Hall record, I started seeing things, it was really freaky. It's not happened to me very often, but it was immediate. I couldn't even see where I was, barely. It was fucking weird."
..... For "The National Anthem", a track on Kid A shot through with chaotic, pulsating energy, the band set up eight brass musicians in the same way as they appear on the Mingus album.
..... "On the day I said to them, 'You know when you've been in a traffic jam for four hours and if someone says the wrong thing to you, you'll just kill 'em, you'll fucking snap and probably throttle them? You're like this -" he holds a palm millimetres from his face - "with everybody and any tiny spark and you're going to go off, and you're in the midst of two or three hundred other people who are in exactly the same thing. I wanted them to play like that, like, this fucking close to going off, lynching or killing, it's like a mob just about to spark off. Jonny and I were conducting it, and we ran through it a few times and people started to get ideas, and it was such a great day!" he beams. "I broke my foot, actually, because I was jumping up and down so much.
..... "It was great! The bit at the end was my favourite bit, because they said. 'Well, what are we going to do at the end?' And I said, 'I'll go, 1-2-3-4 and you just hit whatever note's in your head as loud as you possibly can.' And that was just the best sound you've ever heard!"
Thom Yorke is trying to navigate a path through the modern world, keeping his sanity and soul intact. He's trying to make sense of his past, be comfortable with himself in the present (ie. Not be paralysed with neuroses), and deal with the demands of an art form that's rooted in a conveyor-belt mentality.
..... "But I wouldn't be involved with it if I wasn't aware that it was going to be a product," he says. "I always wanted whatever I did to end up in the high street, no matter what it was, because to me, there isn't anywhere else to go. It's pointless."
..... If the ambiguity of making highly unique pop music hasn't done his head in, there is always the state of the world. Over more than an hour of conversation, Yorke talks at length about the problems of late-period capitalism. He's not an anarchist, although he did attend the May Day march in London.
..... "I'm a champagne socialist, apparently," he grimaces. "Someone called me that last night; I got into a massive row with this guy. Personally, I was happy to get involved in Jubilee 2000, the Drop The Debt thing, because it's a mainstream, acceptable face of the resistance against the antics of the IMF and the World Bank. But equally, I'm interested in the unacceptable face of it, the disruptive elements, the anarchists, because I don't really care what methods are used to make the IMF and World Bank so incredibly unpopular that they dismantle it. I don't really care how it happens, as long as it happens. That's the point."
..... In the UK media, Thom Yorke has been cast as the miserablist, perpetually on the brink of self-destruction.
..... "By this time I'm supposed to have fucked myself up permanently, or be dead," he says with a smile. "I'm supposed to be so fucked up now that I can't work anymore. You can get precious about things. I just try to go with however I feel at the moment, otherwise I start writing agendas.
..... "Once we finished this record I started being easier on myself, because I understood a little bit better where I was supposed to be. All the way through making Kid A I was faced with the prospect of thinking, 'Maybe it'll never happen.' I managed to get sounds that I wanted out of my head and onto tape as much as we could, and that meant I could be a little bit happier about the place I was at."
..... Fear and being lost recur as big lyrical themes on Kid A. "Hmmm," he considers. "So are you asking me whether the new record is about that?" Well, fear in particular. He inhales deeply.
..... "It's a fear of dying, actually. It's a 30-thing. Most men hit 30 and think, 'Oh my God, I'm not immortal," he smiles bashfully. "Definitely fear of dying on Kid A. A lot of that going on.
..... "I have this house down by the sea and the landscape around it is really harsh, brutal. I used to just go off for the whole day, walking, and just feeling totally like nothing. Thinking I'll be back in the ground as soon as I know it. It's all just corny stuff, and when you sit down and talk about it, it all sounds like complete bollocks.
..... "Fear manifests itself in different ways. I had this thing for a while where I was falling through trapdoors all the time, into like, acid flashbacks. I'd be talking to someone and then I'd be falling through the earth, and it went on for months and months, and it was really weird. And that was all happening towards the end of OK Computer. And that was all linked in with death. Seeing people dead, like, as I'm talking to you… It's okay," he says reassuringly, looking at my shocked face. "I'm better now."
..... And being lost?
..... "I think there's a lot of not really trusting anybody in being lost. I didn't trust people at all, not even the people closest to me for ages and ages, and that means you really have nothing to hold onto. "Everything In Its Right Place' is about that. You're trying to fit into the right place and the right box so you can connect."
..... People dismiss the troubles of 'millionaire pop stars', as though their problems are cancelled out by their bank balance, or have no bearing on like you and me. However, the reason Radiohead are still the most important band on the planet today is that they wrested within the abyss of creative stalemate, personal futility and commercial constraints.
..... I tell Yorke that Radiohead's music makes me feel that being more vulnerable, facing change and not being afraid of chaos and uncertainty, are things I should do more often. That anything less is, well, weak.
..... "I think it's up to you," he replies, gently batting it back over the net. "But if it's encouraging you to be vulnerable, then that's fucking brilliant, isn't it?
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