See published article here: http://www.gigwise.com/features/42120/radiohead-exposed
For a band that have proved themselves capable of reinventing the music industry, Radiohead are remarkably humble. The release of In Rainbows cemented their position as one of the greatest bands of the modern age, not only because of its musical invention, seamless production, and utter aural completeness, but because Radiohead shunned convention in their method of distribution. In a world where commercialism stunts creativity and muddies the simplest of transactions – the one between the musician and his audience – with endless hype and unnecessary top-down time delays, Radiohead proved that it doesn’t have to be that way, that it’s better to discard the hot air and the vanity and get obsessed about what really matters: the music.
A cheerful Phil Selway, the forty-year-old Oxfordshire father-of-two better known as Radiohead’s drummer, was thankfully amused when I suggested that the video for Nude indicates that the band aren’t too concerned about appearances these days. “I hope from a vanity point of view that we’ve got beyond that now,” he chuckled. “We’re more concerned about how we present the music. Then how it all works together. We’ve never sold ourselves on our looks!”
With seven albums behind them, Radiohead have got a lot of music to fit together for their forthcoming tour. Phil explained: “We started working on 70 tracks for the tour - that’s from the whole back-catalogue. There are a couple of new tracks that we might sort of get together in time to play on this tour, but we’re kind of whittling down the amount of songs that we’re going to work on… from In Rainbows back into the mists of Radiohead time.”
And they’re not too sick of going back over the old stuff? “Well, because we haven’t toured for two years, you take a break from it and in two years’ time the way that you play quite dramatically changes. You come back and you find a new way into the songs. Some songs you return to and they just don’t work, they just don’t seem relevant at that point, but then you return to other songs… we’ve been playing Optimistic in rehearsal and that song’s just come to life for us again, and you do find something new in old material. If that doesn’t sound too glib!”
So despite Thom Yorke famously declaring that Glastonbury 1997 was the high point of Radiohead’s career and everything was downhill from there, it seems In Rainbows have given them the chance to revive their early glory days. Phil seems to think that they are in better shape than ever. “I think we’re playing well at the moment,” he declared, “I think we’re playing the best we’ve ever played, so yes, all those things add up to it being a good time to be in Radiohead.”
With their sights firmly fixed on the future, Phil was quick to discard the idea of Radiohead breaking up, saying “I think for all of us, as long as it’s still moving forward and it sits with all our lives then yes, I’m sure we will carry on making music, as there’s loads of impetus there to do it.”
Which begs the question, when you’ve warped and morphed and twisted convention and expectation as many times as Radiohead have over the years, where is there left to go in music? “Well, it’s a cycle isn’t it? There’s a whole breadth to what you can do as so many things are valid at the moment aren’t they. You see bands with very traditional line-ups actually producing very vital music. I think from our point of view, we’re just trying to bring in all those elements that excite us about music, be that stuff that’s been programmed, or live performances, we try and meld those together.” In Rainbows is testament to this theory, with its elegant sparseness that explodes into the choppy fury of ‘Bodysnatchers’ or the ethereal nastiness of ‘15 Steps’. Phil found it difficult to pick his favourite personal performance on the album, stuck between ‘All I Need’, ‘Bodysnatchers’ and ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’, perhaps another indication of just how polished the finished product is.
Aside from the utter brilliant of their music, Radiohead are also in the news because of a certain frontman’s political and environmental beliefs. They are increasingly considered a single consciousness in the shadow of Thom Yorke’s outspoken actions against climate change. True, Yorke’s no headline grabbing Bono, but with his increasing public profile as an environmentalist and Radiohead’s subsequent yen for ‘green-gigs’ supported solely by public transport, there is a danger that Yorke comes off as the shepherd of the band. Phil struggled to disagree, saying “with all the things we discuss, be it music or other issues, there’s always going to be quite a range of views that come out of the five of us. I don’t think any of us would have any truck with what Thom’s been saying with Friends Of The Earth, I think we fully support everything he says there. But, also, I think Thom is very much at pains to say, “these are my own personal views, these aren’t the views of the other members of the band.””
For anyone that got carried away envisioning all five band members chatting environmental issues over a barbeque every Sunday, with their wives in tow and a gaggle of Radiohead offspring playing together sunshine, the truth is not quite so: “well, we do get together occasionally but I think, for us, as we do spend so much time together, our home time and work time are fairly separate. We do all get on extremely well outside work, but you do need some time away from it!”
Phil’s time out from the band has involved him changing his sticks for a guitar in ongoing solo projects with producer John McCosker, as well as keeping up with the fickly music industry. Radiohead have been working solidly on their tour set in the studio for a month now, but Phil still has plenty of time for new music. “Well, I like going on last.fm and seeing what other people’s recommendations are, that’s good fun. I’ve been listening to the new Portishead album, which is very good. The new Four Tet EP, that’s great…”
Though the Radiohead will go down in history for the way they utilised the internet for distribution purposes, I wondered if Phil didn’t ever yearn for a simpler time where music came from records, and such things as leakages and illegal downloads were sci-fi impossibilities. “I like the fact that you can have more direct access to music, it just means you end up listening to an awful lot more music, as well. I suppose you get through music a lot faster these days. I don’t know if your attention span for it is quite the same, speaking personally, as it used to be. There’s that whole thing where as a teenager you’d buy a record and you’d really get into it and listen to it over and over again. I don’t think I’d necessarily do that now, although that might just something to do with the age I’m at. But you do have that breadth of music to choose from.”
Breadth maybe, but there is also the added frustration for new bands trying to break into the mainstream that potential fans just buy one or two tracks, never delving into the rest of their material. Phil, who by this time is showing his true colours as keen new music enthusiast, is much more positive, saying “I think if you’re a music obsessive, there are bands that come along that you will obsess about, and I think probably that is something that is still there within people.” He goes on to enthuse about Lou Reed and Velvet Underground, citing a more recent obsession with Will Oldham, until it is transparent that it is no accident Radiohead have managed to crawl under so many people’s skin and send shivers down so many spines, and cause overexcited bloggers to brand them ‘so far ahead they’re out of sight’. It’s their obsession with music that makes environmental ranting and weird slow motion videos not just passable, but somehow endearing. I tentatively suggest to Phil that he’s obsessed by music, but I realise he’s known that for quite some time when he replies, “I hope so, I hope so.” And suddenly it’s clear that even if the future of the music industry is potentially grim, as long as bands like Radiohead are about with their contagious musical obsessions and refusal to conform, there’s hope for us all just yet.