Radiohead have been a recording band for two decades. This year marks the 20th anniversary of their debut EP, Drill, and the initial release of their seething Top 40 hit "Creep." Since then, Radiohead have enjoyed the weirdest forward motion of any major rock band. Their hit albums, including two American Number Ones, Kid A and 2007's In Rainbows, are slippery and jarring: blends and collisions of violent guitar dynamics, cryptic dance-floor electronics and barbed, elliptical balladry. Radiohead's last "conventional" album, according to their longtime co-producer Nigel Godrich, was their art-rock classic OK Computer. "Essentially, that was a guitar record dabbling in other dimensions," Godrich says. Radiohead have begun every subsequent album the same way. "We start," O'Brien says, "with what we don't want to do next."
There has been substantial outside work in recent years. Selway's first solo effort, Familial, came out in 2010. Yorke is almost done with the first studio album by his band Atoms for Peace. Jonny, a prolific writer for soundtracks and orchestras, just issued an album with Polish composer Krzystof Penderecki. An independent act since the end of their EMI contract in 2003, Radiohead also explore alternative ways of releasing music. In Rainbows was first available as a pay-what-you-choose download. A gorgeous 2009 track, "These Are My Twisted Words," was free.
The King of Limbs arrived as a complete shock: a download with a week's notice and no publicity by the band. A CD followed a month later. But the surprise attack, combined with the music's vexing restraint, backfired. "There were clearly people who were interested in the band's music, but they didn't know Radiohead had released a record," says Bryce Edge, one of the group's managers. To date, The King of Limbs has sold 307,000 copies in the U.S. – Radiohead's first album to fail to go gold here.
But that tally, Edge points out, "doesn't include all of the digital stuff we sold" – an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 copies purchased via Radiohead's website. "The majority of the sales were band-to-fan," says co-manager Chris Hufford. "Financially, it was probably the most successful record they've ever made, or pretty close. In a traditional deal, the record company takes the majority of the money."
Radiohead played only three concerts in 2011, after recruiting Deamer to help re-create the overdubbed tangle of drum loops on The King of Limbs: a surprise set at Britain's Glastonbury Festival and two hot-ticket gigs at New York's Roseland Ballroom. So now the band is going overboard: Its long U.S. itinerary includes festival dates, two at Coachella and one at Bonnaroo. O'Brien says the group has already "talked about the way the gigs might evolve, maybe doing them in three sections – three movements, if you like." Colin is excited about the prospect of studio time along the way. "Maybe we'll do some hit-and-runs," he says, "go in over a weekend somewhere and play."
The band is touring mostly in three-week legs with substantial breaks, in part for family matters. All the group members still reside in the Oxford area except for O'Brien, who lives in London, and all are married except for Yorke, who has been with his partner, Rachel Owen, since they were students at the University of Exeter. The five are busy fathers. Colin, Jonny and Selway have three children each; Yorke and O'Brien have two apiece. "My kids are changing schools in September," Selway, 44, notes. "I wanted to be around for that."
But there is a strong sense in the interviews conducted for this story over the past year – in Oxford, London, New York and finally Miami – of a band anxious to engage the world again after spending too much time too close to home. The first night at Roseland last September was, O'Brien claims, "a great lesson. The sound-check was a fucking nightmare. The monitors were rubbish – we couldn't hear ourselves. We felt underprepared. But you know what? It was all good. Our managers were like, 'Top-five gig!'"
"It was a fucking trip – the best adrenaline buzz I've had in absolutely years," Yorke crows. "It didn't feel like we were treading the old ground, walking over our graves. We were still wandering around in the darkness, stumbling. That was nice."
"It made us feel like a rock band again," Colin says, more thoughtfully, backstage in Miami. "It's fine to be in a band in a nine-to-five way: Get up with the kids, take them to school, do some work, come home. But I see my friends in Oxford who have jobs they work hard at that they don't enjoy, and it frustrates me. We have a job that is a passion. Roseland made us remember how great it could and should be."
Radiohead speak about The King of Limbs like it is unfinished business, an album with a future and an audience still waiting for it. The group is not touring this year "specifically to push that record," Selway says. But, he adds, "people hopefully will connect with it through that."
"It was amazing to just put the record out like that," Yorke says. "But then it didn't feel like it really existed." He mentions a chat he had about the album, a few months after its release, with Phil Costello, a friend of the band and a former executive at their old label, Capitol. "He was like, 'It's gone, just gone.' Really? Fuck.
"But that was the consequence of what we chose to do," Yorke concedes. "You can either get upset about it, or say, 'Well, that's not good enough.'"
It is a warm afternoon in New York, the day before the first Roseland concert, and Yorke – between sips of tea in a downtown hotel lobby – is recalling his Friday nights in college, working as a DJ while he was going for his bachelor's degree in art at Exeter. Radiohead were a part-time operation, writing songs and making demos under their original name, On a Friday, during the members' school breaks.
"I wasn't particularly good," Yorke says of his spinning, "because people were buying me drinks to get me to play what they wanted to hear. At the end of the night, I couldn't see the records." Yorke remembers mixing electro-dance tracks by a Belgian duo, Cubic 22, and the English trio 808 State with early Seattle grunge. He was especially keen on the way Manchester bands such as Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses were fusing Sixties psychedelia and British rave culture. "Which then stopped," Yorke complains. "Suddenly, guitars were the authentic way to go. We were a part of that."
Since OK Computer, Yorke has persistently fought to increase the distance between his band and customary rock instrumentation and record-making. "I talked about it endlessly while we were doing In Rainbows," he says. "It was a constant frustration that we were actually going the opposite way."
The King of Limbs is Yorke's student-DJ dream come true: rock fundamentals wholly transformed by electronics. The drum, bass and guitar parts are all samples, individually played by the members of Radiohead, then manipulated, looped and layered into tracks shaped by Yorke's reverie-like melodies and haiku-style lyrics. "Lotus Flower," "Codex" and "Give Up the Ghost" hover and throb more like suggestions than songs, exotic murmurs in no hurry to become declarative statements. "I can see why it's alienated people," Yorke says now of the album. "I didn't realize it was its own planet."
"We didn't want to pick up guitars and write chord sequences," Jonny says, sitting in a London cafe near Abbey Road Studios, where Radiohead made part of their second album, 1995's The Bends. "We didn't want to sit in front of a computer either. We wanted a third thing, which involved playing and programming." It was a long hunt: Radiohead worked on The King of Limbs in bursts from May 2009 to January 2011.
Tall and shy, constantly sweeping a long curtain of black hair from his face, Jonny is the only member of Radiohead without a college degree; he left his studies in psychology and music at Oxford Polytechnic College when the group got its record deal in 1991. But he is arguably Radiohead's most gifted musician: a classically trained violist who also plays violin, cello and keyboards. Jonny also created the software program used to sample the instruments on The King of Limbs. "I was never happier," he says, "than when I was in my bedroom as a kid, working on rubbishy computer games.
"The brick walls we tended to hit," he adds, going back to the album, "were when we knew something was great, like 'Bloom,' but not finished. We knew the song was nearly something. Then Colin had that bass line, and Thom started singing. Those things suddenly made it a hundred times better. The other stuff was just waiting for the right thing."
"They are unlike any other band in the studio," says Godrich, who has worked on every album since OK Computer. "They could not record 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' because they don't have the attention span. If it's not happening straightaway, Thom gets confused. That's not his way."
Godrich cites one classic Radiohead song that was never finished in the studio, "True Love Waits," a popular concert ballad: "We tried to record it countless times, but it never worked. The irony is you have that shitty live version [on the 2001 mini-album, I Might Be Wrong]. To Thom's credit, he needs to feel a song has validation, that it has a reason to exist as a recording. We could do 'True Love Waits' and make it sound like John Mayer. Nobody wants to do that."
Radiohead did not support Limbs with an extensive tour last year for two reasons. One: "We thought it might not be playable," Jonny says. The other "was partly my fault," Yorke acknowledges. The album "released such a load of weird possibilities." He wanted to go right back into the studio, then decided against "carrying on in the same vein. We couldn't do that, we couldn't play live: 'Aw, shit, now what?'"
Deamer, 51, a veteran jazz and dance-music drummer who has also worked with Robert Plant, was the answer. "I've loved his drumming for ages," Selway says. "He seemed like the natural person to go to." In early 2011, the two started dissecting the new songs and deciding which of the many drum parts they could feasibly perform live. A year later, Selway is on the phone from Oxford after Radiohead's final day of tour rehearsals there: "Everything is wide open," the drummer declares in an ecstatic version of his soft, gentlemanly voice. "Seeing that dynamic between the six of us bearing fruit – we have started something. A lot of bands at this stage don't get that opportunity. Or they miss it when it's there."
But, Yorke says, "There is no way in hell we could have come up with what we're doing now, live, if we hadn't been sitting in front of turntables and samplers, piecing the record together in this method. There is no way it would have turned into this dynamic thing."
Asked which songs on The King of Limbs have changed most in performance, Yorke mentions "Lotus Flower." "With the two drummers it suddenly got nasty," he says. "I quite like it." And he agrees that "Give Up the Ghost" – a spare, repetitive ballad on the record – became something else at Roseland: a booming, circular prayer as Jonny sampled and manipulated Yorke's live vocal.
"You're sampling what the mic is taking from the room too," the singer explains. "It's getting the room back, again and again and again. What it's going to sound like in an arena. . ." Yorke's eyes go wide with delight. "I'd forgotten about that. It could be something."
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