- 07 Oct 20
Happy 52nd Birthday, Thom Yorke! To celebrate, we're revisiting our classic 2000 interview with Radiohead's iconic singer and songwriter.
RADIOHEAD are just about to release one of the most uncompromising and controversial records of the year in Kid A. As the band prepare for their upcoming Irish dates, mainman THOM YORKE talks about the genesis of a record that seems destined to divide rock fans for years. Not to mention Bono, Britney and Alicia Silverstone!
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Some bands really do deserve the praise lavished on them. Radiohead are one. The Oxford five-piece are the most adventurous, most enigmatic band of their generation.
Their story began simply enough with the high-octane thrills first evident on ‘Creep’ and later crystallised on The Bends.
It was the second album which catapulted them into the major league. Epic, anguished hymns like the title track, ‘High and Dry’, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ and ‘My Iron Lung’ packed an emotional punch way beyond that of most music at the time; the melodies and soaring guitars were equally exhilarating.
But Radiohead have never been prepared to stand still. Their third album, OK Computer, was simultaneously dense and sprawling, the landscape it explored one of disorientation and disillusionment. While some thrilled to the new album’s complexity, others lamented the move away from the visceral power of the bands earlier work.
Now, Radiohead are poised to release their fourth album, Kid A. It’s easily their most adventurous to date, with the conventional song format having been largely abandoned in favour of abstract sound textures.
Already the detractors are out in force. But, as Thom Yorke points out here, Radiohead have never been a band to impose artistic limits upon themselves. Kid A is another step in what has been one of contemporary music’s most dizzying journeys. From Radiohead’s perspective, the question is: are you prepared to take that step too?
Or do you want to?
DAVE FANNING: OK Thom, Kid A is pretty mind-blowing music there's no question about it, but it's hard work. Is that part of the plan?
THOM YORKE: Yeah. I wouldn't say we were trying to make it difficult though. It would be really easy to make a record that was difficult in all the worst senses of the word. I think that basically, you have a set of sounds in your head and regardless of the consequences, that's what you have to do and that's what you have to get onto tape. And that's kind of as far as it goes. So therefore mood and sound are the priorities.
Is that really the point? Because Kid A is definitely not a bunch of conventional songs.
Yeah... they're still songs, though. There's still you know, vocals and that...
Sure, but don't you think I could file the vocals on the Kid A album under 'weird'?
Oh yeah, I guess so.
I mean, you sing backwards on one of them.
It's not backwards. There's no actual backwards… (Thom pauses to contemplate) oh no… there is.
Have you heard the album, Thom?
(Laughs) Yeah, I remember it, yeah. I was there when they mastered it. But, you know, I guess that was us wanting to experiment. There's one track where I didn't write the melody, all I did was talk into a mike and Johnny [sic] played the melody. So it's like a vo-coded thing, where the keyboard's singing and all I'm doing is mouthing words that I'm picking out of a hat.
Is that the title track 'Kid A' itself?
(Ignores the question) And then there was quite a lot of not really what you call songwriters in the sense of sitting in a room with an acoustic guitar and plucking at your heartstrings. It was much more about editing, getting a bunch of stuff together, throwing a bunch of stuff onto a computer, onto the tape machine and making it coherent afterwards, like you'd edit a film or something. But actually fundamentally what you're ending up with is still songs.
How did you decide on the final content?
There's a lot of stuff that got jettisoned that didn't fit. There were like, 40-odd things that we finished, before the things that ended up on Kid A gravitated together. They did it of their own accord in a way really. So I guess it was just a long, painful process of editing, of a constant sort of experimenting and mucking around, and I think part of that is just simply 'cos we had our own studio. So we had an eternity to never finish.
So is it nice not to have to work to deadlines then?
Yeah, yeah. I mean for us you know, you set up your own studio and the first thing you think is ''Ok, we're gonna go so far up our own arses now and never come out the other end." And so I think we were quite heavily paranoid about that. It was something that we'd always wanted. But when we got it, we were a bit dumbfounded for ages, about the fact that we could go in and do stuff whenever we wanted and we weren't paying anybody. So, we had one of those terrible executive whiteboards with lists of half-finished crap...
And crossing things out and finally getting to the end and then you use the first one anyway...
Yeah, a lot of that. Or you'd do stuff and you think it's completely wack when you've finished it and then six months later you go back to it and you think ''oh right, that's really good, what've we been pissing around with?"
You overcame guitar limitations, if you like, for OK Computer by treating them in a certain way, but in Kid A you overcame guitar limitations by saying ''Bye bye guitars''. Is Johnny [sic] happy with that?
(Laughs) Oh yeah, I mean, he did all the strings stuff, and he plays guitar on how many tracks now. .. two? Two. But then he plays double bass and harps - well, harp samples - and drum machines. A lot of it came from the fact that I couldn't listen to guitar music anymore, it was like bloody wallpaper to me. So, you know, I was trying to learn to play piano and trying to learn to program and shit like that...
Well, let's just cut to the chase then and say this is new music.
No, ah no.
How about: a new way of making music, then?
Ok, well, for us it is, but that's about as far as it goes. But then all that is is absorbing the influences that we had when we were doing it. Like Aphex Twin. And a lot of electronics stuff. And then also trying to absorb the old Can thing, 'cos you know, the way that Can used to do stuff was to play for hours, and then Holger whatever-his-name-is would slice the tape and make something coherent out of it. So I think it's a product of the things that we were influenced by. It's not like a new thing.
But it is for your fans, maybe?
Yeah, I think a lot of people won't find it acceptable, but that's cool.
So are you just being wilfully obscure for the sake of it? For instance, there's no singles and no videos. Britney wouldn't be pleased.
(Huge laughter) Yeah, well this is it you see. You can't compete with an artist of her stature...
Well you can actually, that's the point I'm making. You just don't want to.
There doesn't seem to be much point really. She's kind of got it wrapped up.
So you just follow the muse and if people want to follow you, great. And if they don't, you're not going to lose sleep over it?
Yeah, but we probably will at some stage. The thing is that as soon as someone puts me in a room and says "hey, do more like that", then, that's it, I'm fucked, forget it. I just can't work like that and rock music has lost its taste.
Would there be days when you would be in the studio and nothing would happen at all?
Weeks. It's a big downer but you kind of get used to it. The way I try and deal with it is by thinking if I was a painter, then I'd sort of think "OK, that hasn't worked out today. That's alright, you know." There's a lot of baggage from the fact that in the studios you pay for your time, you know, the record company scam essentially. Once you've got control of that then there really isn't any problem and you shouldn't really feel bad about it. But being in such an incredibly privileged position did my head in for a long time as well. To be perfectly honest, if it had been me I would probably never have finished any of it, 'cos for a long time I was like 'Yeah you know we can finish that some other time, let's do something else today'. I was doing that for about six months because I really didn't want to finish things and have to put them out to people and have to deal with all that crap that I'd essentially forgotten about. In the end you're in la-la land, completely. You've been sitting there working on stuff, you've got no idea what it means or anything. Then you have to put it out and you have to move on to the next stuff.
Why is that so hard?
It totally freaks me out, really, when you have to choose what goes where and what's not on. It's sort of like having a bunch of children and having to send them off to the war, something like that you know. It's a bit weird, but that's just ‘cause I'm incredibly precious.
One of the songs that I've heard about which isn't in the ten on the Kid A album is supposed to be a very commercial song called 'Knives Out'.
That's commercial, is it?
I've no idea, I haven't heard it, so…
I would say definitely not, but go on.
Would that be any indicator that the next album might be more halfway between The Bends and OK Computer?
Well, what we've always tended to do in the past is have a body of work which is kind of 'in-betweenies', you know, and that's what I'm worried about with the set of songs that haven't gone on this. Maybe they're just 'in-betweenies'. But I don't think that's the case. I think there's a lot of really cool stuff there that just didn't fit on this.
After the early success of 'Creep' there was a perception that you were big in America but, in reality, touring behind Tears For Fears and so on must have been strange?
Once the novelty wore off of touring, that whole period was really horrendous. I mean the sort of kiss-arse scene that you have to do in America, and some of the wankers that you meet, it makes you wonder whether it is actually worth it. But Colin's always fond of reminding us is that if it hadn't been for 'Creep' then there ain't no way that the record company would have kept hold of us, and given us enough space to even do The Bends.
OK, but are you still surprised at the huge effect The Bends had on people? Is there a responsibility that comes with it?
No, I don't feel responsible. Maybe I used to. I think now it's all about trying to get your head round what you do and not actually subscribing to the personality crap that goes with it, and the way that people project it back onto you personally, which can be quite a debilitating thing if you actually take any of it seriously.
How about all the attention you get on the road?
It's cool. I realised why I liked it when we started touring again, when we did the small tour in the summer, 'cos it felt really cool. It gets a bit scary when you become essentially what I call a moving target. There will be people that, simply before you open your mouth or walk on stage, will do anything, already, and ok, that's just weird. That's their fucking problem and I'm not gonna take responsibility for it, but it is there, and it is a bit intimidating and a bit scary, but, I guess that's just the way it is.
Have you got a fear of fame? Or just no respect for it?
I don't take it seriously enough to have no respect for it. Is that right?
We can come back to it...
I'll tell you, some of it's quite funny. I quite like some of it.
Yeah, it's quite a laugh. Some of it is quite a laugh.
On the other hand, do you ever fear for your mental health with the whole thing?
Ooh, well, yeah. I have done.
It can do your head in completely, can it?
Yeah, yeah, la-la-land definitely.
Speaking of la-la-land, why after The Bends did you do five tours of the States?
Don't fucking ask me, it wasn't my idea.
(Laughs) Seriously, I mean, it's pretty bizarre.
(Adopts US accent) Hey, you gotta break America!
Sure you do, but Jesus, that's hell-bent for leather stuff, you know. You don't have to do that, do you?
Well, we did. I mean, it was like starting again. And, you know, it's a big place. Gotta play in the middle, unfortunately, every now and again.
There's one way, of course, you can get to the middle, Thom, without having to play there.
It's called a video.
That's right, yeah.
So, you did some amazing videos in your day and now there are no videos for Kid A.
And yet you'll perform the songs live on stage.
We're trying to work out what it is that we can do without it feeling like you're just back like a hamster on a little wheel again. So you try and make it something creative and that you're into, as opposed to that whole bullshit about having to prove your worth by touring endlessly and turning into an animal or whatever on the road, which doesn't do anybody any good. It’s just really, really dull.
Tell us just how weird it can get: think back to 1995, the Smash Hits Pollwinners Concert in London, and you're there with Boyzone, Take That and East 17.
Oh yeah, what a proud moment that was. 'My Iron Lung' as well.
You played 'My Iron Lung', did you? Get my head around that please, Thom.
It was a joke, we thought it was funny, and it was going out live and we were standing there at the side of the stage and it suddenly dawned on me how utterly stupid it was.
And you played 'My Iron Lung'?
We played 'Iron Lung', and little children were crying - yeah - and you should have seen some of the parents, it was wicked! It was great. I was really proud we did it.
In the movie Clueless, Alicia Silverstone walks into her brother's room and he's playing Radiohead and she goes ''ugh, Complaint" and walks out the door. Was that alright?
No, I had a problem with that.
Why did you have a problem with that?
You know what kinda person she was in the movie; she wouldn't have a Miles Davis boxed-set in her home, you know?
Yeah, I know - it wasn't anything to do with her. It was just the fact that it was put in the movie, it was just a bit wack. I was not into it at the time, because the music means a lot to me, so when it gets reduced to the level of a joke like that... I think now I probably wouldn't have a problem with it. But it just did my head in at that particular moment. I guess I was vulnerable to that. I had a problem with it.
Colin did say at the time of OK Computer "I hope we don't lose people who like The Bends". In terms of Kid A, what would he say now, if he was in the room?
I think he'd probably sit here strenuously defending the fact that it's not as weird as you think.
You seem to be slightly defensive, as if maybe I think weird is bad.
No, no, not at all. That's not what I mean. There were some pretty extreme things going on in my head at the time when we were doing it, and they're on tape. But they're not wilfully extreme, that's the point. Wilfully extreme is like, bad heavy metal, or Death Metal or banging 200bpm techno. It's just trying to prove a point. And I don't think we're trying to prove a point, really.
You had a song on the Romeo & Juliet soundtrack: have people have been introduced to Radiohead through that soundtrack?
Yes, in Greece. We'd never been there before and 'Exit Music' was the last track, right at the end. And the place went absolutely nuts, and we went - what? And they told us afterwards that 'Exit Music' was a huge thing because of the film. We were asked to do loads of things for Fight Club, and then we just weren't in the right head space to do it, and it was such a shame but it was just the way it was. And the Romeo & Juliet thing; the director just kept sending us tapes and wouldn't go away, and I was really into the idea of writing to commission like that.
Moving on to a political issue, what does Drop The Debt mean to you?
It's the acceptable face of a campaign against the workings of the IMF and the World Bank, things that I fundamentally haven't agreed with for a long time. And it's kinda like the legitimate form of protest against that. And so I was totally up for it, as soon as I read about it. But it is a total mind-meltdown. When we did the Clone [Cologne, transcribed incorrectly] thing two years ago, all the stuff going on behind the scenes, all the political wranglings, all the point scoring, being done by Blair and his cronies - it was mad. I'd never ever seen the workings of the whole man. It just left me with total, complete 100% contempt for the Labour Party, and Blair in particular. And I think that I was kind of more hopeful this year with the Okinawa thing, that things would pick up. Even Kofi Annan is coming out and supporting the cancellation of the debts and still they ignore it. And it just totally does my head in, that the leaders of the G 8 believe that they can do that.
So would you be in awe of the fact that Bono can just wade through this vat of manure all the time, and try to reach the other side?
Absolutely - all the time. I guess he's been in some vaguely similar things before. It just totally did me in. There was this Press Call that was done, and we were standing there holding this little banner like this, you know, with Gerhard Schröder and you know, you have about 400 cameras just going - rrrrrrr - like a machine and just, the way that it was then portrayed in the press, in Britain especially: They managed to make Jubilee 2000 look like they were the same organisation that reclaimed the streets. And they managed to write Jubilee 2000, the Pope, the Dalai Lama, Bono, all these people into a bunch of trouble makers by Monday morning, in the news. And yet you have Blair standing there smiling saying ''It'll all be fine, we'll cancel all these debts now." He was scoring all these celebrity points with Bono, and Bob Geldof, and Alistair Campbell running around, you know, making sure he got the coverage he wanted, even though they actually hadn't delivered anything at all. And you know, I kinda saw the light in a certain way, but in another way it was incredibly disillusioning.
On Kid A there's a song called 'How To Disappear Completely' and the lyrics refer to you floating down the what?
The Liffey? Tell us about that.
That song was originally written years ago. We were about to do some big festival in Ireland. A was up all night, having the most terrible dreams, I was so shit-scared. And I had one of those really really vivid dreams and the Liffey was really, really muddy, like a mud river, and I was drifting down to the sea. And it just sort of stuck.
You were scared in terms of stage fright?
Yes, absolutely cacking myself. It was the biggest gig we'd ever done.
OK, I asked you this before - do you have a fear of fame, or do you just not respect it?
I quite like meeting famous people. I think that's really interesting.
Meeting people is easy, Thom.
Yeah, shake hands and everything. Tell them what they want to hear, and they go away. But I do have a problem when they come to your house. That's when I see red and totally lose it.
Because I don't think people've got the right to do that. But if I choose to stand on the stage in front of a microphone and sing, to whoever wants to hear, then I am choosing to put myself forward, so that's cool, and in the end I'm cool with that. I have a problem with the celebrity-culture thing. I think it fucking stinks.
One thing you did have a problem with when you were a kid is your left eye, and you had to wear a patch for a while. Did people laugh at you because of it? Did it make you a fighter?
I was probably five or six. The most annoying bit was bumping into things really because it didn't work. They had this theory in the late seventies, that if you had a lazy eye they put a patch over the other one to make this one work harder which was actually complete bullshit as they later found out. You have a kid bumping into things for a year, being miserable. But, did it make me harder? No, I don't think so actually. If you think about it - if I had a Kid And he had to wear a patch on his eye for a year, I'd be worried about what he'd be like at the end of that year. You know what I mean?
And I had a friend who had a glass eye, so I felt alright. She'd fallen into barbed wire and lost her eye, and she was in a much worse situation because that was much more dramatic and that was permanent. I could take my patch off when I wanted.
David Bowie changed an awful lot in the 1970s. But when he went to Berlin and did his most experimental albums, Heroes and Low, if you take the old vinyl days, on one side there was all the commercial stuff, while on the other side was the wilfully obscure. He mixed the two that way…
Shit, we should have thought of that (laughs). But, I think that's something to aspire to. Just to simply be able to go on that long, and stay true to whatever path you choose to go down, regardless of the consequences. That's frankly the only energy you can be sure of relying on. For me person ally, that'd be the only way that I can sleep at night. And I know it's the same for the others, that's the way it's gotta be. And it's nothing to do with trying to piss anybody off or put anybody's noses out of joint, or whatever, it's like, you know, this is the path I've chosen to go down, that's it. I'll explain it if you want me to explain it, but essentially it's just what it is, you know.