Bitter Prophet: Thom Yorke on 'Hail to the Thief'

"The whole record is about thinly veiled anger," says Radiohead frontman

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Thom Yorke and Phil Selway of Radiohead perform as part of 'MTV2 2$ Bill' Concert Series at The Beacon Theatre on June 5th, 2003 in New York City.
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"People should listen to the record before they judge any of the other bullshit," declares Radiohead's Thom Yorke, after nearly an hour of explaining and defending the provocative title and guitar-driven foreboding of the band's new album, Hail to the Thief. "The music is the thing," he contends over a cell phone, speaking from a car in England after a long day of promotional action on behalf of the record. "It's a hoary old cliché. But it's true."

On Hail to the Thief, which comes out in North America on June 10th, Yorke – Radiohead's singer, lyricist and outspoken conscience – dives headfirst into the dangers and challenges of living in a world run by cowboys, guns and money. The title is an unflattering allusion to George W. Bush's disputed victory in the 2000 presidential election, and songs such as "2+2=5" and "We Suck Young Blood" seem drawn from the latest cable-news dispatches on Iraq and Wall Street. In fact, Hail to the Thief is more prophecy than protest. Yorke, guitarists Ed O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood, bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway debuted many of the album's fourteen songs onstage in Europe last summer, long before the crisis in Iraq turned into war. Radiohead then recreated the volume and thrill of those live performances in the studio, during two weeks of sessions last fall in Los Angeles with co-producer Nigel Godrich.

Yorke insists that despite the album's black air of politics and paranoia, Hail to the Thief is not a soundtrack for digging bunkers. The album's dark rhythms and fighting guitars are the surge and clang of engagement, not escape. "The music opened this shit up," says Yorke. "I was trying, hoping, to ignore it. But in the end, it was too obvious to ignore."

"Are you such a dreamer/To put the world to rights?": Those are the first lines on the new album, in "2+2=5." Are you addressing the listener or talking about yourself?
I don't know where those words came from. They were always there – as the opening of the song. I kept thinking, "Oh, that's terrible. I'll have to change that." All the way through the album, I was trying to avoid getting specific about issues. I was trying to hide away from all that.

I wasn't involved in choosing the order of the songs – not initially. It was Phil and Ed. Halfway through making the record, they thought it would be a good idea to find out what the running order would be. They picked up on that line, so you have to blame them.

The whole record is about thinly veiled anger – very thinly veiled. But there was not much analysis going on in writing these songs. Some of them are quite old, too. "I Will" is three or four years old. "Myxomatosis" is three or four years old. But they were the songs that were there. You work with what you have.

When did you first hear the phrase "hail to the thief," and what made it appealing as an album title?
It was a formative moment – one evening on the radio, way before we were doing the record. The BBC was running stories about how the Florida vote had been rigged and how Bush was being called a thief. That line threw a switch in my head. I couldn't get away from it. And the light — I was driving that evening with the radio on — was particularly weird. I had this tremendous feeling of foreboding, quite indescribable, really. To me, all the feelings on the record stem from that moment.

The other possible title was The Gloaming. I wanted that because of the twilight, that night in the car. But that title was too doom-y. And the record is not doom-y. Musically, the record is quite jubilant.

What were the initial reactions to the title – from Capitol Records in America, from the rest of the band?
Capitol have never said anything about it. They were totally cool with it. And they know what we're like, anyway. With the other guys – it was their thing, really. Initially, I was into it. Then I got really nervous: "No, the record is not just about that." But everyone said, "This phrase conjures up all the nonsense and absurdity and jubilation of the times." The title had it all. I smashed my head against the wall about it for ages. The others steered me back.

Earlier this year, you marched in anti-war demonstrations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and you spoke at an anti-war rally in England. How much of the Iraq war did you end up watching on TV?
I didn't watch any of it. I'm not into cowboys and Indians. I find it deeply offensive. I listened to the radio. Watching those reporters get so terribly excited instead of having something useful to do with themselves – I found it the most sickening fucking thing I'd seen on TV.

Ironically, the language of war now – phrases such as "embedded with the troops" and "collateral damage" – sounds a lot like your lyrics, as if the Pentagon and CNN had been studying Kid A.
It's interesting that you say that. When I started writing these new songs, I was listening to a lot of political programs on BBC Radio 4. I found myself – during that mad caffeine rush in the morning, as I was in the kitchen giving my son his breakfast – writing down little nonsense phrases, those Orwellian euphemisms that our government and yours are so fond of. They became the background of the record. The emotional context of those words had been taken away. What I was doing was stealing it back.

You opposed the war. But what do you think should have been done about Saddam Hussein?
[Long pause] In choosing to subvert the United Nations, to go around it, to treat it with complete contempt, we're entering a state of anarchy. When two of the most powerful nations on Earth choose to go above international law, that's saying, "Whoever has the most weapons is in charge now." We've entered that phase, and that should have been taken into account, regardless of what should have been done about that particular maniac. In flouting international law, you set the most dangerous precedent. It's insane.

But was the U.N. truly capable of dealing with that maniac?
Maybe not. But the U.N. had been subverted constantly, whenever it was not doing anything convenient [for the U.S.]. I find it a bit rich for America and Britain to assume they have the moral authority in this situation. [Laughs] There you go. I'll probably get shot for that.

Iraq is dangerously unbalanced now; Al Qaeda is back in action. What should people in opposition – the vocal minority – do now?
It's not a minority. And I don't have the answers. But the thing that keeps me awake at night is that my particular government is not answerable to the population. A majority of British people were not into this war, yet it still occurred, and it didn't matter what we said. It is the theater of the absurd. It's certainly not democracy. And in your country, fear of speaking out, of using your constitutional right to speak out – that is not democratic. If one is supposed to be fighting for one's freedom, how come people are more scared now than they've ever been?

When I spoke to Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder about his politics recently, he said that he had been reading only nonfiction since 9/11. What were you reading as you wrote the songs on Hail to the Thief?
I deliberately read nothing. [Pause] There was one book I read, by [Haruki] Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. The main character in the book is not a character at all. It's the darkness that envelops and follows people, that pulls them down. The dark forces in that book stuck with me.

When we were doing the record, I was trying hard not to get into any of this shit. I don't want to be doing interviews about it. It's part of the absurdity, really, to even be answering questions, deconstructing the role of the U.N. Because shit, man, I don't want to know [laughs].

Speaking of absurdity, you recorded much of Hail to the Thief in Los Angeles, as far away from peace and common sense as you can get. What was your initial reaction when Nigel Godrich suggested cutting tracks there?
We were like, "Do we want to fly halfway around the world to do this?" but it was terrific, because we worked really hard. We did a track a day. It was sort of like holiday camp. We went to a couple of glamorous parties, which really helped. We don't have enough glamour in our lives. Too much news radio, not enough glamour.

How much did Radiohead's 2001 U.S. shows affect the sound of the new album? Kid A and Amnesiac were records dominated by moody electronics. But you seemed quite happy playing those songs onstage, with the guitars turned way up.
I don't know why, but we just got hack into that. When we talked about it, after the tour, we realized that we didn't want to make any big creative leap or statement. This is a good space we're in. We should carry on and enjoy it.

Also, I was into the idea that even with electronics, there is an element of spontaneous performance in using them. Machines were going in and out of the music. It was the tension between what's human and what's coming from the machines. That was stuff we were getting into, as we learned how to play the songs from Kid A and Amnesiac live.

What are you reading and listening to now – for pleasure?
I'm doing some of the background research and reading that I should have been doing when I was doing the record. I'm going through my nonfiction phase at the moment. I finished some interviews with Scott Ritter – he was one of the U.N. weapons inspectors. And I'm reading a Noam Chomsky book. It kind of does my head in. For light relief, I sleep.

What about music? You raved a lot about electronica – especially the Warp Records catalog – at the time of Kid A.
I lost touch with that for a bit. But I've recently been getting back into it. I can't remember all of the names, but a lot of them are records on this label BPitch Control. That's what's making me jump up and down right now.

Are you looking forward to playing in America this year, feeling as conflicted as you are about the country and its leaders?
Some of the best touring we've done recently has been in the States. The vibe is always amazing. And I make no claims to be expressing other people's feelings. This is what there is, this is where we're at. And we'll be somewhere else later on – if there is a later.

But does it bother you that when Hail to the Thief comes out here, you may be perceived by some people – because of the title – as being ungrateful for your success in the U.S.?
[Laughs] Yeah. Perhaps I shouldn't have said any of this. If I'm told that I should shut up and be grateful, then [pause] I'll do neither.

This story is from the June 26th, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone. 


From The Archives Issue 925: June 26, 2003
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