How the most experimental band in music learned to rock again
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."
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."
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."
On a cool midsummer evening in Oxford, Colin is strolling briskly to a pub in the old center of the city, noting historic sites along the way. He gestures at a narrow door leading into Modern Art Oxford, a prominent gallery. When they weren't playing together or in school, the young members of Radiohead hung out in the basement lounge, "talking forever, each of us over a single cup of coffee for five hours," Colin says.
Around the corner, he points to a store – part of Cult, a clothing chain – and notes with a bemused smile that Yorke worked in another local branch as a salesman. It is an improbable image: Yorke, a compact man of impatient energy and lethal irony, closing a deal on designer jeans.
Passing a phone booth, Colin remembers Radiohead's first, stumbling attempts to make records, before they got their EMI deal. "There was no e-mail or cellphones," the bassist says. "We'd find a call box, put money in it and call a studio." Once, when they asked how much a session cost, "the guy said, 'Nine hundred pounds.' We said, 'Thank you!' and hung up." Radiohead ultimately cut most of their first album, 1993's Pablo Honey, at a studio co-run by a producer who had worked with the Sixties-blues version of Fleetwood Mac.
Then there is the Bear Inn, a truly ancient pub (established 1242) with perilously low ceilings. Colin, an Oxford native, and Yorke – born in a small East Midlands town, Wellingborough, and raised for a time in Scotland – first met in their preteens. They were both taking classical-guitar lessons at Abingdon School, outside Oxford. At the Bear, the two managed to buy drinks even though they were underage and talked about their role models for the band they planned to form: New Order, Talking Heads and Yorke's favorite, R.E.M.
Over a pint of ale at a picnic table outside the Bear, Colin fondly recalls "that excitement of noise" at Radiohead's first local gigs, "when you play in a pub, borrowing some older guy's Fender bass cabinet and you've had four cans of lager to get your courage up. We did that for the first show we ever did. It was a 20-minute walk that way." He points down the street running behind the Bear, toward the Jericho Tavern. Radiohead made their concert debut there in 1986 under the name On a Friday, after their usual rehearsal day, when the members were all at Abingdon School. Selway, the oldest member, was 19; Jonny was not yet 15.
Later, standing outside a restaurant in a residential neighborhood, Colin notes another Radiohead shrine: the house near the corner of Magdalen Road and Ridgefield Road that Colin, Selway and O'Brien rented in the summer of 1991. The band stored its equipment there, and all five members lived there, in varying combinations, for about a year. "Good times," Colin says with a sigh, "although Jonny never did any of the washing up."
Selway characterizes that period as "good training for tour buses. There were piles of pizza boxes in the corner. It would get so unbearable that someone would have to do the cleaning. I was coming and going for most of the year. I seem to remember Colin moving into my room after I'd decorated it quite nicely."
Yorke arrived after he graduated from Exeter. "We would come back from gigs," he says, "and listen to the answering machine. There would be messages from 10 A&R men."
The Ridgefield Road house was the end of Radiohead's adolescence – the point at which they became a full-time band obsessed with their work and progression. Jonny describes one Christmas when he was still in high school and the others were home from college: "We rehearsed in some hall in town every day, including Christmas Eve. It was insane. There was no concept. We were working on songs for some nebulous future reason we had not clearly thought through.
"That's the kind of intense time we spend together," he says. "That's how it's always been. Our gang principally revolved around playing musical instruments, songs to talk about."
"I think that was when we wrote 'Creep,'" Yorke says when asked about that Christmas. "There are these periods when you get energized. You can't force yourself to hang out. But when we're working, when it's happening and it's all good, all that shit just occurs."
Yorke's aversion to the road surfaced early. So did his distaste for the play-the-game decorum expected of a major-label band. Manager Edge recounts "a famous gig" in Las Vegas "when we'd done some ridiculous routing because of the seeming lack of knowledge American promotion guys have of geography. We were doing a radio show, supporting Tears for Fears, and everyone was grumpy." During the show, "in a fit of pique," Yorke smashed half of the stage lights. Edge maintains that "the idea of him doing anything like that now is long gone."
But Yorke looks back on his not-much-younger self – particularly the tormented anti-star preserved in Meeting People Is Easy, the 1999 documentary of the OK Computer tour – without excuses. "I was bored," he states flatly, backstage in Miami, of his aggro-zombie aura in that film. "I loved that record. But the idea of being stuck with those songs for a year and a half, in the same form, no change, no nothing – I struggled with it. We'd finish a song, and I'd stand there, frozen.
"I understand now why we did all of those shows," Yorke confesses. "If we hadn't, we wouldn't be where we are. But I lost my nerve. We've been through different stages – that was a bad one."
"What's different about us," Jonny chimes in, "was that right from the beginning, our obsession was songs. As a byproduct, we tour now."
"It wasn't a bunch of mates" on Ridgefield Road, O'Brien observes, "more like a bunch of co-conspirators. We had this common goal. That's what it was all about, dreaming it up. All this stuff we have now – there was never any doubt it was going to happen. And it did, because the material world caught up.
"But I would say this – they are my brothers. Some of the others don't realize that. But we'll be at one another's funerals. We've been through this. We're family."
That is "a strength we don't really acknowledge to ourselves," Colin says. "We're far too English."
There is a physical side to it that I find interesting – the breath," Yorke says. He is trying to explain where he goes in his head and what he feels when he sings. "It's a meditative state, like standing in the tube station when the train is coming through. Things go past you – trains, people.
"It took me a few years to learn how to do it," he says of performing, during a breakfast interview in London last July. "Seeing people like Michael Stipe and Jeff Buckley – I realized it's a good place to go. It's OK to shut your eyes."
Later that day, Radiohead convene with Edge and Hufford to discuss touring in 2012. Afterward, O'Brien describes the meeting as "fraught." Yorke already sounds uneasy over his egg-white omelet: "The level of machinery freaks me out sometimes. You walk backstage, and there's people and stuff everywhere.
"We never wanted to be big," he says. "I don't want to be loved in that way. You can say it is selfish. You can also say this is someone who gets a kick out of what they do: trying to fuck with your head." Yorke enunciates the last phrase with relish.
"Because that's what it's all about," he continues, "casting the net wide, creating chaos and trusting something will come of it – not panicking, just going with the blind faith and all of these moving parts. This idea – where will the band be in five years? Fuck that. I'm just looking for little diamonds in the dust."
"Thom has the most acute bullshit detector in the band," O'Brien says, with awe, in Miami. "It's that balance – an intensely critical life, with an ability to feel, to have great intuition. We're not necessarily making the smartest business decisions. But we are following our intuition. It's about the art."
"This is a work in progress – that's the bit I like," Yorke confirms, just before that last practice. Then he says something else. "I was thinking, when I was on holiday recently – I've been doing this more than half my life." He pauses. "That's bonkers!" Yorke proclaims with an astonished laugh. "And it's cool. It's a job – and a good job.
"We actually need to get on a stage now and see where we're at," he declares, ready to play. "It's a large stage, and there will be a lot of people." There's more laughter. "But I've been told that's OK."
This story is from the April 26th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.