The logic is pure selfishness," Thom Yorke says in a soft, serious voice. "We'd had enough of bashing around in the studio, feeling completely isolated. It was 'Let's get out, stand in front of people and remember what the fuck we do it for.'"
Radiohead's singer and primary songwriter is in a hotel bar in the British seaside resort of Blackpool, explaining over coffee the peculiar circumstances of his band's current tour: two months of small-hall dates in Europe, England and North America, plus a headlining set at the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee on June 17th. Yorke, guitarists Ed O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood, bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway have no new studio albums to promote and, with their Capitol/EMI deal over, no contract.
There is a new record: Yorke's first under his own name, The Eraser, made with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and issued on July 11th by the independent XL Recordings. Radiohead are not playing Yorke's material live, but they are doing as many as seven new songs each night, all written during the past year in the band's studio in Oxford for the next Radiohead album.
"It's an interesting mess," admits Colin backstage after the first of two magnificent shows at Blackpool's Empress Ballroom. "We didn't have any direction last year. We were rehearsing without producers or outsiders. We had no one to be accountable to. We weren't even sure we wanted to keep recording albums. And here was Thom, working with a producer and making an album." By last Christmas, Colin says, the band decided to go on a tour and road-test its new songs "because otherwise we would just go mad in Oxford."
The shadowy tensions and cyclical electronics dominating Radiohead's best-selling trifecta – 2000's Kid A, 2001's Amnesiac and 2003's Hail to the Thief – have given way in their latest songs to a drive and clarity reminiscent of 2005's The Bends. "Bangers 'n' Mash" and "Bodysnatchers" are both strangled-guitar dynamite, with Yorke doubling Selway's gallop in the former on a second drum kit. "Four Minute Warning" moves at an odd, gently prodding R&B meter under Yorke's country-church piano.
"We're trying not to get too fussy," Yorke contends, "Which is obviously our tendency." He cites another new song, "Nude," which the band started writing during the sessions for 1997's OK Computer but only jelled last year in rehearsal when "Colin started playing this riff-y bass line. After years of smashing one's head against the wall, suddenly it's effortless," Yorke notes, grinning. "One has to be patient – and I'm not patient."
Yorke, 37, is also, by his own admission, "not a very confident person." In fact, it was a major loss of faith in Radiohead's future that drove him to start The Eraser. After the band finished touring Hail to the Thief, he says, "We didn't see each other properly for a year. It wasn't fun anymore. We weren't getting out of it what we were supposed to." The singer was soon at work alone, programming melodies and cutting up loops on his laptop, "just to see what it was like." Yorke began recording The Eraser in earnest with Godrich in late 2004 and continued working on it throughout 2005, between Radiohead practice sessions.
From the start, Yorke says of the album, "There were these songs, and the noises had a point to them." Some noises were actually made by Radiohead, pulled by Yorke from their library of original samples and instrumental fragments. "And It Rained All Night" is built on "this enormously shredded-up element" from "The Gloaming," on Hail to the Thief, Yorke says, "not that you'd recognize it." "Black Swan" has a "tiny segment" of a rhythm idea taped by Selway and O'Brien back in 2000.
But the most striking thing about The Eraser is the high, clear sound of Yorke's voice, virtually free of the milky reverb he favors on Radiohead records. "That was Nigel's big thing: 'I don't mind doing electronic records, as long as I can hear your voice,'" Yorke says. The result of an emotional and pictorial directness, rare for Yorke, in songs such as "Atoms for Peace" ("No more talking about the old days/It's time for something great") and the title track ("The more I try to erase you . . . the more that you appear"). "Analyse," with its reference to "Power cuts and blackouts/Sleeping like babies," was partly inspired by a night in Oxford when Yorke got home late and found his street without electricity. "We used to live on one of those historical streets, with these houses built in the 1800s," Yorke recalls. "The houses were all dark, with candlelight int he windows, which is obviously how it would hav ebeen when they were built. It was beautiful."
Colin says The Eraser "reminds me of when we were first starting, and Thom would do these little tapes, whole song arrangements on four tracks. This was so personal to him. But I would really like to play some of his songs within our set." He flashes a wicked smile. "It would be a real challenge for us, and him, to have those songs destroyed by us."
Radiohead expect to be back in the studio by the fall, formally recording a new album, and to tour again next year. In the meantime, Yorke is thoroughly enjoying the excitemend of the current shows and his own record. "I've got my confidence back," he says brightly. "Which is no small thing, believe me."
This story is from the June 15th, 2006 issue of Rolling Stone.