INTERVIEW WITH THOM YORKE
Thom Yorke grabs the mike and peers over the sea of fans and celebrities gathered at New York's Irving Plaza the day after this year's Tibetan Freedom concert. Radiohead's frontman pauses for a moment, perhaps staring at Madonna, Bono, or his pal Michael Stipe, then says, "We're going to do this next song because we still like it. We've never had a problem with it. Sing along if you like." Radiohead begin the hushed opening of "Creep," the anguished 1993 tune that plugged the band into the mainstream in an era of grunge-inspired self-deprecation. In truth, it's kind of surprising to hear Yorke say he doesn't regret penning the ditty. Sure, it set the radio dials in motion, but it also gave critics a proverbial noose with which to hang the band neatly in the "I-hate-myself-and-want-to-die" category, along with dozens of other trendy, sometimes one-hit alterna-guitar outfits.
Radiohead's follow up record, The Bends, helped break the band from the noise-pop mold by offering a dozen warped, dynamic songs that ranged from the woebegone ballad, "Fake Plastic Trees," to the skittering, anxious "Planet Telex." But if the album was a musical breakthrough, its introspective, pain-stricken lyrics only reconfirmed the public's notion of Yorke and his mates as doomed tragic heroes.
Radiohead's latest release is a logical development up the ladder of experimentation. But if the group reached the second rung of weirdness on The Bends, they've suddenly scurried a dozen levels higher with Ok Computer. "If you're expecting a record full of "High and Dry," agrees guitarist Jonny Greenwood, "you might find yourself the least bit disappointed."
Yes, as Bob Dylan once mumbled, the times, they are a changin' These days, self-loathing in music is as tired and irksome as a Bon Jovi chorus. As a nation of twenty-somethings watches the job market improve and the economy pick up, a growing number are turning their attention away from angst-rock, and towards more celebratory forms of music. Radiohead may be turning the corner with them: The biggest difference between The Bends and Ok Computer is Yorke's lyrics. Instead of dwelling on his fragile, insecure psyche, Yorke has addressed a dizzying array of subjects including car crashes, politics, and urban claustrophobia, all from a variety of perspectives.
"I came to the realization I was being selfish in the past, and that was a good thing," Yorke says candidly. "It happened after The Bends. A drunk bloke comes up in the bar or a girl comes up in the street and says, 'Thank you, that record helped me through a difficult time.' And you stop being the selfish wanker you've always been."
In addition to opening himself up to enlightenment by other people, Yorke was prompted to change his lyrical style by the disgust he felt for popular bands that he felt were using vulnerability, self-doubt and self-immolation as vehicles to move heaps of records. "Far be it for me to throw stones, but I started to find that whole self-loathing thing pretty offensive pretty quickly," says Yorke. "I think there was a genuine point where it really was important for me to say things on a personal level to get these things sorted out for myself. But once it was out, it was done. With this album, I am moving on."
Still, if Ok Computer is any indication, Yorke's idea of optimism is expecting it to pour and only having it rain. Whether wobbling in front of a mike or walking across the street, Yorke, who is cynical even when things are going well, seems to feel unsettled unless he's in a state of flux. That condition permeates Ok Computer. Stormy and schizophrenic at times, spacious and rambling at others, the record opens with "Airbag," a lush, ethereal number that echoes with diaphanous guitars, sharp, sparse bass punctuations, head-spinning effects, and nervous beats reminiscent of DJ Shadow. It follows with the skewed, chaotic seven-minute single, "Paranoid Android," which ebbs and flows from featherweight fragility to stealthy jazz to caustic noise. Elsewhere, there's the quiet desperation of "Exit Music," the harrowing violence of "Climbing up the Walls," and the poisonous lullaby, "No Surprises."
"I think we all got really worried at first when people said this record was commercial suicide, because that wasn't the intention," says rhythm guitarist Ed O'Brien. "Maybe the record sounds really different from everything else because we weren't listening to everything else. Before we went to record, we were listening to stuff like DJ Shadow, Underworld, Ennio Morricone, Marvin Gaye, and early Pink Floyd. Then when we were in the studio, there was a conscious decision to shut ourselves off from music because you can get panic attacks. I've done that before. I once put on London Calling, by the Clash, and I thought, 'God, how can anybody beat this album. We might as well just give up now.' So we don't do that anymore because it's bad for morale."
On Ok Computer, Yorke set out to examine the busy world of shopping malls, mass transit, yuppies, adolescence, and even psychosis. But he found that years of self-obsession made it difficult to concentrate on external stimuli. "I felt like I had the attention span of a gnat on speed," he says, which helps explain lines like "Karma police, arrest this man/He talks in maths, he buzzes like a fridge, he's a detuned radio," from the song "Karma Police."
"It was like running around and opening all the blinds after I had been in the dark for so long," he gestures with exaggerated motions, then runs a hand through his short, scraggly hair. "I was constantly trying to find positive things to write about because generally we felt quite positive as a band. But I just kept getting unstuck all the time. Things kept going wrong, and that's why this record is sometimes incredibly uneasy."
The Ok Computer song perhaps most emblematic of Yorke's inability to concentrate and his futile search for stability is the cryptic "Fitter Happier," an experimental Eno-esque soundscape in which a talking computer runs through a checklist of self improvement methods ("not drinking too much/regular exercise at the gym, three days a week/...no killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants"). Yorke wrote the piece out of desperation following six weeks of serious writer's block. "I had gone through such a long, frustrated time of not being able to get anything done, and then this just poured out of me," he says. "I was trying to just get on with my life, so I made this list, but I never expected it to be used for anything. Then we ran it through the computer, and that brought it to life in a really weird way. It was a total accident, but it helped me get back in gear and start writing again."
The microchip may have been the catalyst that reopened Yorke's creative floodgates, but the title "Ok Computer" was conceived as a satire, not a gesture of satisfaction. The singer remains ambivalent about the computer revolution, and eyes the Internet with wary fascination. "A lot of people think the title is a really positive statement," says Yorke with a frown. "The thing that worries me about the computer age is the fact that people know so much about you. It's an incredible invasion of privacy. And no matter where you are in the world people can monitor you if you're using your credit card. I heard this weird rumor on the Internet about how the military are funding this great big research project, and basically they believe that in the future, the balance of power won't be determined by who has the most nuclear weapons, but by who has all the information. I'm not afraid of being taken over by computers though, because the thing is, computers cannot resist. You can always smash 'em up, and they're totally defenseless. All we need are more people with hammers."
On first or second listen, Ok Computer sounds just that: busted up, fragmented, somewhat inaccessible. Since the songs don't use standard verse/chorus constructs, the hooks get buried under the many layers of atmosphere and impulse. But once those levels are penetrated and the nebulous structures start to gel, the melodies separate from the dissonance and the songs become truly memorable. "We weren't operating on any desire to be subversive," declares Jonny Greenwood. "It was more like we were bored with the past stuff we'd done, and we wanted to do something different. If we'd wanted to be willfully perverse, we could have done a much better job."
Radiohead began writing Ok Computer in early 1996 at their rehearsal studio, Canned Applause, a converted apple shed near their homes in Oxford, England. By July they had recorded four songs with producer Nigel Godrich. The next month, the band returned to America to open for Alanis Morissette. While on the road, they sampled some of their new material live, including an epic, expansive version of "Paranoid Android."
"If you think it's a long song now, you should have heard it then," boasts O'Brien. "It was eight to ten minutes longer, and when we started playing it live, it was completely hilarious. There was a rave down section and a Hammond organ outro, and we'd be pissing ourselves while we played. We'd bring out the glockenspiel and it would be really, really funny."
"A lot of people just seem to think we're this serious, humorless band, but a lot of things we do are really funny," adds Yorke. "On "Airbag" we had a great time. There was a party going on for like three days in a row. By the end of it the studio was just a fucking pit of all sorts of disgusting things -- half-finished bottles of wine and beer spilled on the desk and ashtrays everywhere. It was great. We do play cards and bridge and shit like everybody says we do all the time. But then," Yorke jokes, "we go smoke crack in the bathroom afterwards."
Last September, Radiohead moved their equipment from Canned Applause to St. Catherine's Court, a mansion in Bath once owned by the actress Jane Seymour. There, they recorded the rest of Ok Computer away from the pressures and distractions of the big city. "We set up in the ballroom," remembers bassist Colin Greenwood, "and the control room was set up in the library, which had these amazing views over the gardens. There were some magical evenings as we sat down with pieces of music with the windows open."
"Obviously there was still pressure, but it was in an environment where we could cope with it," says Yorke.
"The biggest pressure was actually completing it," adds O'Brien. "We weren't given any deadlines and we had complete freedom to do what we wanted. We were delaying it because we were a bit frightened of actually finishing stuff."
In music, fear, like any intense emotion, can be a powerful creative tool. Radiohead not only harnessed their fear, they converted it into artistic genius. Ok Computer shudders with anxiety and insecurity, as pensive, vulnerable vocals and ricocheting guitars struggle to make sense out of chaos. In part, the volatile tone of the record was accomplished through many hours of experimentation and improvisation. "For me, the most exciting part comes when a song is just starting to come together, and we're sort of arguing and experimenting, and everything is still fresh," says Greenwood. "Lots of the parts and melodies this time were either improvised while we were recording, or written five minutes before recording it."
There's no question that much of the music on Ok Computer is unsettling, but it's Yorke's pointed lyrics that really make the songs squirm. Lines like, "A handshake, some carbon monoxide.../This is my final fit, my final bellyache," from "No Surprises," are sobering and disconcerting. But the most arresting penmanship comes in "Climbing Up The Walls," in which Yorke examines the mind of a killer: "We are friends till we die/Either way you turn I'll be there/Open up your skull, I'll be there climbing the walls."
"The thing is, everyone's capable of murder," Yorke says, then reaches into a knapsack. For a second, it seems like he might pull out a revolver to illustrate his point. But fortunately, his arm withdraws holding a black journal. He leafs through the pages, then finds the desired entry. "This is from a "New York Times" article dated 19 October, 1991," he says, then quotes the piece: "Was it any accident that of the ten largest mass-murders in America, eight have occurred since 1980, typically acts of middle aged white men in their 30s and 40s after long periods of being lonely, frustrated and full of rage, and often precipitated by a catastrophe in their lives, such as losing their jobs or divorce."
Yorke's interest in gruesome subject matter surfaces on other songs on the record as well, but the references are rarely gratuitous. "I've been in two accidents myself. One was serious, and I could have died. I was really young, and I had just got a car and spun it off the road, and was very near to being hit by two other cars coming the other way. I missed them by inches. Then you have that thing where you walk away from the car and you just ask yourself, 'Well, why am I lucky? Why am I allowed to walk away from this?' when you constantly hear of friends who die in car accidents for no reason. It fucks with my head completely. The day we have to stop getting in cars will be a very good day."
Whether he's talking about accidents, religion, or politics, Yorke's wisdom is generally unconventional. He seems to believe that the world is populated primarily by deaf, dumb, and blind sheep who lack the willpower to decide anything for themselves, and eagerly lop up the useless absurdity fed to them by the powers that be. "So much of the public's perception revolves around illusion," he says. "That's what 'Airbag' is about, the illusion of safety. In reality, airbags don't really work and they go off at random." Yorkestraightens up in his seat and becomes progressively more emotional. "It's exactly the same as when you're on a plane. Everyone should really sit backwards. It's the safest way possible to face the back of the plane as you take of. But because people don't like the idea, and they feel a bit sick, airplanes have always been done the other way around, which is fucked. Anyway, if you're plummeting down to earth at 1,000 miles per hour, there's no way you're going to stand a hope if you sit there with your head between your legs with your seatbelt on. In the end, we're all just fucking bits of meat."
He stops, chuckles softly to himself, and shakes his head. "I need to get a laugh, I think. Let's talk about something funny."