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Radiohead Reconnect

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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.


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