Radiohead's fourth album, Kid A, is the strangest rock & roll success story of the new century, a set of cryptic, digitally twisted pop songs that snuck through the heavy boy-band and rap-metal traffic to debut at Number One in Billboard. And it happened despite the fact that the British band – singer-lyricist Thom Yorke, guitarists Ed O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood, bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway – made no videos, released no single and played only three North American shows to promote the record. In his only major American interview of the year, Yorke sat on a bench in New York's Central Park and, in the brisk autumn twilight, explained why Kid A is so bizarre – and he is not.
How does it feel to have the weirdest Number One album of the year?
I'm actually the last person in the band to ask about it. I've shut those particular cupboards, the ones concerning the industry. Whereas I used to be really into it. That was the ambitious side of me, wanting to get ours. It's good to know the devil you're dealing with.
I just hope it means a lot of other people get the chance to do things their way. The industry is very set in its ways, and those ways are no help and totally uncreative. When we finished the Ok Computer tour, I got obsessed with amazingly talented people being destroyed by the industry, and I started questioning whether I even wanted to stay involved, whether it was going to do the same thing to me.
There isn't a straight rock beat anywhere on Kid A. Do you still think of Radiohead as a rock band?
There's a lot of things about rock that are still valid, almost shamanic things: delving into drugs for creative reasons, not lifestyle reasons; music as a lifetime commitment. If that's what someone means by rock, great. But I find it difficult to think of the path we've chosen as "rock music". Kid A is like getting a massive eraser out and starting again.
Ed O'Brien's original idea for the new album was a back-to-the-roots record – which you crushed pretty quickly.
Yup [laughs]. There's plenty of other people doing back-to-your-roots records, so we didn't need to be doing that. To be honest, yes, we could have done that. And three weeks down the line, it would have been a fucking nightmare. We would have hated it.
Did you cajole the others into going your way? Or did you just say "No, I can't do that, end of story"?
I probably did the latter. I'm not trying to pick a fight with anybody. But if it's not there, there ain't no point in trying to make me go and find it.
But as the band's singer and lyricist, don't you have the ultimate veto anyway?
Not necessarily. When we put records together, it's not like that. If I have a direction, fine. If I don't have a direction, it's someone else's thing. When Jonny did the strings on "How to Disappear Completely," that was absolutely his thing. Nigel [co-producer Godrich] helped him, and that was it. The rest of us were not involved in that at all.
The mistake is to assume we had that level of a plot. Unfortunately, we had no plot. We had fifty things on a blackboard, and we just kept throwing them out and adding more. We kept driving everybody crazy: "Let's start this one today." "But we got these fifty other fucking things to work on." It frees you up in a way. You don't know what's going to happen when you go into the studio every day.
You went through a period of writer's block at the start of making Kid A. Did you feel you had nothing to say? Or did you have too much to say and couldn't spit it out?
A block is both of those things. The worst thing was thinking, "Is this it? Is this all I've got?" But there will be times when you won't be able to deal with things, won't be able to get them out. These things go in cycles. There's bad times and good times. Things never really die – they just go around.
What was the first thing you wrote for the album after you broke that block?
"Everything In Its Right Place." I bought a piano for my house, a proper nice one – a baby grand. And that was the first thing I wrote on it. And I'm such a shit piano player. I remember this Tom Waits quote from years ago, that what keeps him going as a strong songwriter is his complete ignorance of the instruments he's using. So everything's a novelty. That's one of the reasons I wanted to get into computers and synths, because I didn't understand how the fuck they worked. I had no idea what ADSR meant.
What does it mean?
Attack, decay, sustain, release [smiles proudly]. You should see Jonny's gear, man. He's got all this patch-chord gear. He gets the most amazing sounds. And he's only read the first twenty pages of the manual. He's got another 200 to go. He keeps going, "You know, it can do more than this!".
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