- 20 Apr 20
The legendary guitarist chats to Hot Press as his solo debut Earth arrives.
Nearly 30 years into Radiohead’s glittering career, the band’s celebrated guitarist Ed O’Brien has finally gotten around to releasing his solo debut, Earth, which he has issued under the moniker EOB.
Recorded with super-producer Flood, and featuring contributions from bandmate Colin Greenwood, as well as Portishead’s Adrian Utley and the duo of Nathan East and Dave Okumu – both of the brilliant and much underrated The Invisible – it’s one of the finest albums of the year, mixing art-rock and electronica to inspired effect.
There was an additional dimension to our interview, with O’Brien being one of the most high-profile musicians to date to be diagnosed with Covid-19. Though still in recovery mode, the musician was in fine form when we recently linked up for an in-depth Zoom chat.
PAUL NOLAN: I know you were diagnosed with Covid-19 recently – how is your recovery going?
ED O’BRIEN: It's funny, I had a couple of rough weeks – like a really heavy flu. Then I started to pull out of it and I was feeling great, but it's come back again a bit. I mean, it's not bad at all, but you can just feel it. My wife has actually got it again: she got it five weeks ago and now she has it once more.
So, we're doing okay. I'm fine, it's not life-threatening. It's so interesting – well, interesting isn't the right word – but it hits people in different ways, in terms of symptoms. I didn't think I had it at first, cos they weren't the official government symptoms. Then I googled it and The New York Times said these are symptoms of Covid-19. So, that’s the way it went.
Radiohead albums like OK Computer and Kid A had a notable dystopian element. Is there a similar feel to Earth?
Not really. I know what you mean about the Radiohead stuff, particularly OK Computer, but Earth is my emotional and musical response to living on this planet right now. I've felt for a long time, as many people have, that this world is completely out of kilter, and all of the things we accept as the norm are not sustainable. They're not good for the planet and they're not good for us as human beings.
That's always been the nature of Radiohead – when OK Computer came out, the culture was all about Tony Blair, Britpop and how Britain's finally thrown off the shackles of empire. We apologised to the Irish for our historical abuses: that was an important and amazing thing. For all that Blair did, the apology for Northern Ireland – coming from a family who've come from Ireland, I know how important that was.
But at the time, OK Computer looked at it and went, this isn't all as it seems. Everyone's going, this is fucking brilliant! I am a very happy person, and joy is an important part of my life, but I've always felt deep down that in my lifetime, something big was going to happen that would change us.
You’ve found a lot of inspiration in indigenous cultures.
I love when you talk to indigenous people, because they always talk about this planet as having a soul. I also love Professor James Lovelock's book Gaia, which he wrote at the end of the '60s, wherein he stated that this planet is not something to just be mined and used – it's got a soul.
You see it in films like Koyannisqatsi: they show that the way we live is unsustainable. It hasn’t changed, and I’m as plugged in and addicted to it as anyone else, but it has to change. It’s a dark place where we are right now and it has been for a while. The climate emergency is the dark night of the soul, and maybe the pandemic is the time when this really starts to change.
My thing is that for all of the darkness and crap and shit, human beings are also capable of moments that are incredibly creative and powerful, which can be a force for good. Like, we’ve got this HMS Nightingale hospital that was built in six days. Fucking unbelievable! It’s amazing. At 8pm every Thursday night in this country, people are going out on their doorsteps and clapping for the NHS.
You do see the best of people in times like these.
It’s that thing – when the crisis hits, most people come together and raise their game. And knowing a bit about Ireland, I imagine it’s happening there as well. Because Ireland has been oppressed and had that history for so long, the spirit of the people has always been undeniable.
That’s been one of the strengths of Ireland: the people. And in Britain, it’s really coming out now, which is great. I mean, there are a few idiots, like there are anywhere. But in general, 90% of the people on this planet are good. They want to co-exist and respect one another, and respect the planet.
On the topic of environmentalism, I do think Trump’s most damaging legacy will be how he normalised climate change denial. How do we tackle that? I guess a Democratic victory in the US this year would be a good start.
I think what we’re witnessing around the world are these big chasms and splits. There are people who feel very passionately about Donald Trump and what he stands for, and there are people who very passionately feel the opposite way. It’s interesting, if you look at American politics, the schisms that have been there since the Civil War, and on to civil rights and so on, they were – not papered over – but the wounds were still there.
Maybe for a while, material comforts kept those at bay. But these things are coming to the surface and they’re like old wounds. Trump represents a very challenging part of that, and I see the same thing in our country: there are chasms.
Have you seen any rays of light?
What I love are the conversations I’m having now with people who are very like-minded, and it’s about the planet. It’s about the holistic nature of living here – if you like, it’s a more indigenous view. The planet has a soul and you treat it as such. I would never have had these conversations 10 or 15 years ago.
But now, we’re having a lot these discussions, and people are waking up. Of course, there are a lot of people not waking up, and I don’t know how we move forward from this. What I do know is that I don’t want to be fearful. Ultimately, it will be what it will be, but I also have a deep down faith in the ability of human beings to get their shit together when the shit hits the fan, for want of a better phrase.
You have a degree of optimism.
Look, I know history also says that some awful things happen, like the rise of Nazism in the ’30s and so on. I just feel like the younger generation are different. My kids’ generation, and the millennials and the Generation Z-ers or whatever, there’s a different thing happening. And for all of the negative aspects of technology, one of the good things is connectivity.
For instance, the Nazis could dupe a population through controlling the media – you can’t really control the media now. Through connectivity, there are kids in Iran listening to the same music I am. And we’re both going, ‘Well, hang on a sec, you and I are actually quite similar.’ It’s just our fucking leaders, these fucking idiots – sorry for swearing so much, but it seems appropriate! – who are trying to pit us against one another.
I know – there is still that camaraderie amongst people, despite the attempts to sow division.
It’s our political and business leaders who are doing that. So many of us, we’re looking at each other going, ‘You and I are brothers and sisters on this planet.’ And actually, some of the conversations I’m having with people are about how we are all connected. What I’m trying to do with my music is go, ‘Yes, there is darkness here, and it’s right that you feel alone. I have these moments where I feel completely overwhelmed by everything.’
Really recently, about six weeks ago before the pandemic, I was in Australia. And I was just like, ‘When will we fucking every wake up?! How many signs do we need to realise that this is not sustainable?’ There are times when I get like that. And listen, I’m like the kid in Charlie And The Chocolate Factory – I’ve got the golden ticket. I got dealt an amazing hand, so I always think, ‘If I’m feeling like that, how must most people feel?’ I mean, they could be living in a big city and you think, ‘How alone must they feel?’
But I also feel there are moments of joy, and that was really important on my record: I wanted to have real moments of uplift. Because there times in my life – say when I’m at a festival like Glasonbury – when you go, and it’s more than just people communing with music. You’re going somewhere deeper.
You find the spirit of community again.
You’re reconnecting with people as human beings, and you’re with your tribe. I felt that was really important. I didn’t want to give people music that maybe left them feeling sad. I like the journey of feeling sad, but I also need hope – and hope is a really important part of me and my music.
That’s actually the hardest thing. In a way, the easiest thing is melancholy and ethereal music. The hardest part is making joyful music, because like all these things, it has to come from an authentic place. At the moment, it’s so much easier to get into the more melancholic, sentient moments of living. Whereas, you need reserves of joy.
That’s certainly there at different moments on Earth, like ‘Shangri-La’.
It’s not just about being in Shangri-La, part of Glastonbury; it came out of that joy I felt, four days later, still on a high. I was in nature with my tribe – and that was the tribe at Glastonbury. And that’s not just me playing: my wife and I go with our friends every year. Because we need that reconnection and that remembrance of the goodness and kindness of people, all of that stuff.
When you listen to records like OK Computer, the darkness feels kind of cathartic. You come through it feeling that we’re all in it together.
I agree with you totally. For me, when I was a lonely teenage kid erring on the more melancholic side, I would fully immerse myself in The Smiths, and that was very, very helpful. When I a member of my family dies, or a close friend, I always have an evening of listening to Faure’s Requiem.
And why? Because it’s music for dying, it’s music for death, and you can feel it. And that’s important. The worst thing you can do is paper over something and go, ‘It’ll be okay.’ No – in order to move on, you have to fully process something. That’s why music is so important: it brings you into how you feel, and if you cry, you cry. And if you feel scared, you feel scared.
The thing is, you won’t cry or feel scared forever. But you have to allow yourself to be in that place in place of vulnerability, of feeling small and fearful. And once you’ve embraced that – like you said, it kind of makes you feel better. That’s my understanding of it.
Well, as a final question – we don’t know when we’ll be out of the Covid crisis and having gigs again. Radiohead and Blur are two of my favourite ever groups – and I had been thinking, if things had cleared up sufficiently by October, maybe both bands could form a one-off supergroup to play at my birthday party! And maybe Dave Grohl could sit in on drums on ‘Song 2’!
(Laughs) How does one answer that?! I love Blur too, I know Dave Rowntree a bit. When we were touring Pablo Honey, Modern Life Is Rubbish came out and that was such a great record. And then when we were making The Bends, Parklife came out, and that was like, ‘Wow!’
They’d done it for longer; they were always one step ahead of us. It was very healthy, it was a good thing for us. When you’re making The Bends and you hear a record like Parklife, you sit up and take notice. And there were a lot of great records around then, from bands like Supergrass and so on. It really made you up your game: you had to get your shit together.
And Damon Albarn is such a formidable musical force. But that whole band… I mean, I’m a huge fan of Graham Coxon as a guitarist – wonderful guitarist. And Alex on bass, and Dave on drums… I’m sure you’d get us on the same stage. And Paul, if it’s your birthday party, how could we possibly refuse?!
We can’t wait to see you in Ireland when this is all over.
I really can’t wait to come to Ireland. I’m on the other side of the Irish Sea, not far from Holyhead. I’m in Celtic land, I’m in the Welsh hills. I talk to my Dad a lot every day, and we talk a lot about the family. I love Ireland – my family come from Ballyporeen in Tipperary. I love my cousins.
When I was a kid and my family went over, it was always like, ‘You’re home.’ And I used to cry when we’d fly back from Cork Airport, I’d be in tears. So I really want to bring EOB to Ireland, because I’m a fucking O’Brien!
Earth is out now on Polydor.