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Radiohead Reconnect

How the most experimental band in music learned to rock again

April 26, 2012
Radiohead on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Radiohead on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Nadav Kander

Thom Yorke walks into the catering room backstage at the American Airlines Arena in Miami wearing a dark T-shirt, tight red jeans and a crooked smile. "I'm feeling quietly excited – and quietly nervous," Radiohead's frontman says as he pours himself a cup of coffee. Yorke flew in from Britain late yesterday – his eyelids are still heavy with jet lag – and he is due onstage shortly for Radiohead's final rehearsal before the launch of their most extensive tour since 2008: 58 shows over 10 months in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. They open here tomorrow night.

"Everything – the production, the new lights, the set list – is still a work in progress," Yorke says. "But it's finally getting started." Soon he can be heard warming up his voice behind a closed door, practicing scales in a high, precise warble, holding notes in long, clean aaaahs.

Radiohead are not only beginning a tour; they are unveiling a rebirth. The band is ending one of the most challenging and confounding eras in its career: nearly three years of public silence and private chaos during which Radiohead struggled with reinvention and their future. They made some of their most beautiful music on their least popular album, last year's The King of Limbs, but didn't promote it and stayed off the road, uncertain how or if they could be a performing band again.

"We're still flailing around," Yorke admits, sitting in one of the band's dressing rooms. He recalls the early practice sessions for this tour. "I was freaking out, going, 'Oh, no, it's not enough time. I want to do all these new things.'"

But onstage, a little while later, he and the rest of Radiohead – bassist Colin Greenwood; guitarists Ed O'Brien and Colin's younger brother Jonny; drummer Phil Selway and new second drummer Clive Deamer, who has played with the group for the past year – sound exuberant and confident as they push through "Bloom," from The King of Limbs. What sounded on that record like a glassy enigma of loops and ghostly incantation is now rushing water, arranged by the new six-man lineup as a fury of rhythms and murky-treble guitars. "Morning Mr. Magpie" is also harder and faster than the version on Limbs, while "Meeting in the Aisle" – an instrumental from the sessions for 1997's OK Computer – is played with fresh pepper, like Turkish surf music with a trip-hop step.

Radiohead have worked up more than 75 songs for the 2012 shows, including material written during rehearsals this winter at their studio in Oxford. The band will run through a pair of newborns tonight, "Identikit" and "Cut a Hole." Yorke, 43, describes the former as "joyful, slow but with a wonky hip-hop beat." He beams. "That one wormed its way to the head of the class." Colin, who is 42, is excited about another new one, "Full Stop," particularly the part "where Thorn's voice jacks up into this amazing falsetto. The song just takes off."

20 Songs You Can't Believe Are 20 Years Old

In an interview before practice, Yorke credits the addition of Deamer, who came from the British band Portishead, with Radiohead's live renewal. "Having another musician to go back over old stuff was as important as coming up with new songs," says Yorke. He's slumped on a couch, but his voice crackles with restless energy. "Along the way," he says, "you discard songs, because you can only do them in a certain way. To breathe new life into them is a good feeling. You don't have to ask, 'Oh, how does it go again?' It's 'How can we do this properly now?'"

The best example at this rehearsal is the title song from 2000's Kid A. Recorded at the height of Yorke's loathing of guitar-band convention, "Kid A" was barely a song at all – a cloud of whoosh with Yorke singing through a vocoder like a child robot. Tonight, it sounds huge and metallic, a bolt of argumentative double drumming with a striking, classical temper in the piano chords, played by Jonny.

"It was an anti-song," says O'Brien the next day, in an ocean-view lounge at Radiohead's hotel. "Now it's something warmer, particularly the end. Suddenly, it has this sunrise." For a long time, in a lot of the band's music, he admits, "nothing was allowed to be genuinely beautiful. Jonny was always so brilliant about throwing that slashing guitar through things.

"This is very much where we are – and Clive has brought this," says O'Brien, who turns 44 this month. "Didn't they say when the Beatles got Billy Preston everybody was on best behavior?" He laughs. "Having someone break up the energy – that's good. It got people out of old habits.

"You hear it all the time," says O'Brien. "These bands say, 'We're in the best phase of our lives,' and they don't make very good music. I'm reluctant to say that. It's not our best phase. It's another one – and it's a good one. It doesn't feel like a new band. It feels like a band that knows itself."

Yorke isn't so sure – yet. "It's weird not to have any definitive versions recorded," he says of the new songs, "because that's where you make the final decisions. To be rehearsing new stuff, not have it recorded, with a sixth member in the band . . ." He rolls his eyes in mock terror. "It's all very fluid. I'm not really sure what it is."

Jonny, 40, sitting on the sofa next to Yorke, remembers the singer arriving for the first day of practice in Oxford: "He came in and said, 'I had a dream that we had an extra month for rehearsing.' I thought, 'Wouldn't that be great?'"

"We haven't played in front of people yet, so we don't know if it's any good," says Yorke. "We might not even find out tomorrow." He flashes that crooked smile. "Maybe it will take a while."

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