Monday, April 07, 2008

Drowned in Sound interview

Better-received albums may have been released in 2007, but Radiohead’s In Rainbows (collective reader review), the Oxford-based quintet’s seventh long-player, was certainly the most significant addition to the end-of-year best-of charts given its method of delivery.

No physical CD found its way to high street stores, initially; instead, a box-set (‘diskbox’) was made available via mail order and a pay-what-you-will download was provided. Between 60,000 and 80,000 special two-disc sets were ordered, with many more copies downloaded (figures of a million-plus were published, before being called out as “exaggerated” by the band’s management). The release sent shockwaves through the industry, and since then, October 2007, many other acts have been reported as ‘doing a Radiohead’.

In Rainbows, DiS readers’ album of 2007, ultimately found its way to traditional distribution channels after the band signed with XL, following the end of their contract with Parlophone/EMI (1992-2005), and went straight to number one on the UK albums chart. This, despite the many copies already sold via the band’s original methods. Now, the band – Thom Yorke (vocals, guitar), Phil Selway (drums, programming), Colin Greenwood (bass), Jonny Greenwood (electronics, keys, guitar) and Ed O’Brien (guitar) – are to tour In Rainbows across the world, with UK dates scheduled for June.

But you know all of this: Radiohead are one of the biggest bands in the whole world, whose influence on the likes of similarly massive bands like Muse and Coldplay can’t be ignored and whose accolades are stacked higher than Perez Hilton's ego. They’re also maybe my own favourite band of all time, so speaking to Phil Selway was obviously A Big Deal. Share my nervousness.

Hi Phil. We’ve heard that you’re already planning to head back to the studio to work with Nigel Godrich. What’s the plan there?
Well, we’ve just been doing our tour rehearsals, and there are ideas coming through. We’re playing well, and I think we’re looking for times for when getting into the studio might work while we are touring, or just after touring. There’s nothing firm as yet, but there are ideas – it’s about actually catching yourself unawares rather than this whole thing of thinking, “Here we start working on new material, in this new session”, which can sometimes feel a bit daunting. So we’re trying to catch ourselves on the fly, and see what comes out of that. We’ll see what happens – if it happens, for starters. If it does, we’ll have limited time to do it which will provide focus, and hopefully it should be fun.

Your tour dates take in the States and Japan, as well as the UK – how do you find life on the road these days? Is it more difficult with band members having families these days?
Having families certainly puts a different complexion on it, but that’s a logistical thing, working out how you all get around together – it’s a slightly different approach to touring. But the whole thing of playing shows and actually getting to play, as ever, we really look forward to that and relish it, actually.

You don’t suffer any burnout any more?
I think if we were out playing 300 nights a year we’d possibly start to pale a little bit, but we’ve a very civilised tour schedule these days. We’re gentlemen of a certain age these days, quite!

Past tours seemed to have got to the band – thinking back to the OK Computer cycle of 1997 and ‘98, and the Meeting People Is Easy video, you seemed a little worn out.
That’s certainly one side of touring that year. That’s worryingly a long time ago now, ten years. I think so much at that period happened in a really short space of time – in some ways it’d been a slow burner for us, from the first album up to that point, but then everything seemed to go full steam ahead. There was a lot to take on board that year, so it did get a little tiring at points. I think where frustrations with touring in the past have come, it’s because it has actually got in the way of us getting on with new material, because you follow that process, that classic process, of recording and releasing the album and then going out and touring it for a year and a half. Hopefully, I think we’ve kind of stepped out of that cycle now.

There’s certainly a suggestion that the band’s enjoying greater freedom than it ever has, around In Rainbows.
Yeah, whether it’s the reality or not, I don’t know, but it does feel like that and it feels good!

Presumably XL aren’t being too pushy with you?
They’re probably listening in, so no! They’ve been fantastic, actually.

Was it refreshing, or simply nice, to be courted by a number of labels once the Parlophone deal was up and you were looking to put In Rainbows out in a ‘proper’ way?
Yeah, that was interesting, to be getting feedback on different approaches people would have taken with us. There were many really interesting ideas that came along, and fortunately for us XL seemed to be really in tune with what we were wanting to do, and they also great ideas and a lot of enthusiasm. So it’s worked out very well for us.

And In Rainbows reached number one, even after all the downloads. Was that a surprise, at all? Did you think that maybe it’d creep out, perhaps sell in the supermarkets but not rocket to the top of the chart?
I think the way that we originally released the record, via the download, in our minds we’d stepped out of the whole process of aiming towards the first week of sales, when you’ve the big push for the chart position. So we were out of that mindset really, so to then go through the process and go to number one, I suppose it did catch us by surprise a little bit. The whole thing with In Rainbows, up to now, has been the reaction rather than… Well, there were always plans for the download but we didn’t know how that would go, so we’ve been reacting to how that’s been received as we’ve been going along.

Something of a new learning curve for the band…?
Oh, we need it.

Was there ever any expectation within that band that the download of In Rainbows would send such significant waves through the music industry? That so many others would now be seen as ‘doing a Radiohead’?
Erm, no – I don’t think we ever expected that. The release did seem to gather a head of steam that was in some ways way beyond the release itself. I don’t think we could ever have predicted that (the impact). When we finally decided to release it as a download, which was only a week and a half, or two weeks, before announcing it, there was that moment where we thought: “Will anyone be interested? Will anyone care about it?” That was exciting, because it felt slightly risky, and also it seemed a very proactive way of getting music out to as many people as possible.

Seemed to work – no doubt the distribution and ease of access aided its critical reception. Our readers voted it their album of 2007.
Aw, bless them…

It must’ve been nice, though, to have the album praised by critics, given that some could have anticipated a collection of odds and sods rather than a ‘proper’ album, given its means of release?
Um, yeah… The record spent three years to make, so it had a long gestation and a short labour. When you’ve put that amount of time into working on something – and it was a very painstaking approach – it was very gratifying to find that there were decent reviews for the music itself. Did you say ‘gimmicky’ earlier on?

Not exactly, but yes: In Rainbows could have been received as a gimmick.
It could have been taken on that level, yes. We felt we’d done the best work that we could at that point, so we were as confident as you ever can be before a release, with the music itself. But it was great to get positive feedback.

Have you ever felt any trepidation prior to an album’s release? I recall some lukewarm reviews for Kid A (2000).
Well, I suppose by the time you get to the end of the record, you’re in two minds: you’re committed to it, and you’re attached to it, feeling pretty confident about it; but at the same time because you’ve been so close to it for so long you don’t know how objective your view of it is. There’s always that slight trepidation, therefore – it’s been in amongst the group of you for some time, but you might have lost complete perspective on it as you’ve made it. It might be a complete pile of pants! I suppose with whatever record you release there’s always the slight realisation that you might have got it wrong.

What was your first impression of Kid A? Were you worried you’d take a back seat, of sorts, in the band when the song ideas were being developed, as the electronica aspects seemed to be at the forefront of all the reviews?
It was an interesting thing – going back to the learning curve thing, it was an interesting curve for us all there. We’d worked in a particular way as a band ‘til that point for what was over a decade, since the first album, and any kind of change was slightly worrying. But also, it’s how you continue to develop as a musician; it’s important to have that uncertainty. For us, as a band, the songs themselves have always been paramount – we work as a group of five people, and with Nigel, in trying to find the best or most appropriate way to bring those songs out. That’s your focus, rather than thinking about it too individually.

Band members, particularly Thom and Jonny, have worked on solo projects, yet Radiohead seems as tight as ever. How does the band stay a healthy one? Do you need as much time apart as you do together to keep going, to maintain that group mentality when it comes to write and record?
Oh, this is sounding like Trisha now, isn’t it?! It’d be great if we were up on stage, having a big fist-fight and getting pulled apart. But probably, yes. I think it’s being as brutally honest as we can with each other without bringing the whole thing down. It’s a fine line to tread, but I think we get there sometimes.

I guess any reservations about speaking your mind in the studio were laid to rest some time ago.
Oh, they’re still there. We all tread lightly with each other, but at the same time you recognise that if you don’t broach certain subjects then they’re likely to trip the whole project up. Compromise is a good thing, isn’t it? Every band is a compromise.

These tour rehearsals – apparently you’ve been practising some 70 songs?
It started out there, but we’ve now trimmed it down to 55.

Oh, only 55 eh?
Yeah, only 55. The songs are from across the catalogue.

A broad selection then, but these dates aren’t to be ‘greatest hits’ affairs, are they?
Certainly not! Oh God, the thought of us on a greatest hits tour… I couldn’t see that somehow. I think, actually, the (wealth of material relates to the) whole thing about keeping some momentum to the shows, having that breadth of material means you can change the set so much, and that keeps it vital for you as you’re going along.

And the In Rainbows material presumably fits well with older songs? After all, you’ve been playing a number of the ‘new’ tracks live for some time. (New single ‘Nude’ dates back to the OK Computer tour, for example.) I think you choose material that goes together well, and we’ve not actually done too many sets yet. We’ve the Radio 1 thing this week.

You’ll be able to see the whites of your audiences’ eyes…
And they can see the fear on our faces! No, that’ll be good fun.

Just before our time’s up, I want to mention the recent Skins trailer featuring ‘Nude’, and your involvement with licensing decisions. You seem like the sort of band to be quite in control of what your music can be used to promote.
There are certain things where there are blanket agreements, like on television, which you have little control over, but elements we do have control over we do get involved in. But the trailer you’re talking about, the one for Skins (watch), the song was brilliantly used, and that feeds back into the music itself. When you see it happening in places like that, everybody benefits from that one.

Too true. It gets the kids out there into the band, too, like it’s 1994 all over again…
Nostalgia time!

Well, sort of. Put it this way: play ‘High & Dry’ on the tour and I’ll be singing along.
It’s not on the list I’m afraid! It’s wearing jeans and can’t get in I’m afraid.

Ha ha… no trackie bottoms allowed either. Well, that’s too bad, but thanks loads for your time Phil.

Available here.