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The Decade in Radiohead: Ed O'Brien on "Kid A" to "In Rainbows"

What we're trying to do now is make art without fear

December 21, 2009 11:30 AM ET

The Rolling Stone editors picked eight stars — from Bruce and Beyoncé to Radiohead and U2 — who not only made the best music but also led the way as Artists of the Decade in our new issue. Here's more of our conversation with Radiohead's Ed O'Brien.

Track Radiohead's evolution in photos.

How was the end of the first decade of the 21st Century for you?
Seeing Obama elected was a huge deal for us [in Britain]. Most people over here — we're feeling let down. We're faced with huge political failure on so many fronts. Yet this party, Labour, remains in power, and there doesn't seem to be any alternative. We don't have a political system where a guy . . . our prime minister has to come through the rank and file of his party.

You don't have dark horses.
No. And we need it. Ironically, we used to laugh at Americans: "They've elected a B-rate movie star [Ronald Reagan] to the White House." But there are two sides to that coin. You also get Obama. I stopped watching the news, I stopped reading the papers. Because I'd get very depressed. I feel there are more and more people feeling the same. I am looking for inspired leadership — and there are no conclusions. Nothing has really moved.

Do you feel more or less empowered than you did in 2000 — as a musical concern, as a band trying to make art in a strange world?
On a more personal level, if you went back nine, 10 years, you'd find that external events exerted way more influence. Imminent war — things like that affected us much more. Now, I feel more empowered, that these things cannot create heaven or hell within me.

In terms of the band, we feel way more empowered in terms of our art and what we're doing. We have been rehearsing for the last four weeks, for this new record. And we are in a very different place, a very new place. I don't know if this is relevant, but I was talking with Philip [Selway, drummer] three days ago about this. We were saying, "What's different?" And one of the things is we do things without fear. A lot of where we come from — our education, our upbringing — manifests itself in the shadow of fear. I love that Talking Heads album title, Fear of Music. There has been a lot of that. And in a sense, I don't think it served us too badly. It kept us on our toes. It kept us trying to seek new areas artistically.

The trouble is, as you get older, fear is not a great motivator. If you have fear, you can't relax. [The 2007 album] In Rainbows definitely hints at that. The way that album sounded actually goes against the grain of those two years, the gestation period. That was fear-based time. But the album didn't turn out that way. And certainly the gigs after it hinted at a different way of being. What we're trying to do now is make art without fear. You're relaxing. There is more joy in what you do.

How much has [singer-songwriter] Thom Yorke changed in the past decade? Many of the changes you went through as a band were instigated by his impatience and distaste for conventional rock stardom.
I think he feels incredibly empowered now. He's not an artist with his head in the clouds. He knows there is a very pragmatic side to being an artist. If anything, what's happened in the last ten years is that he's gotten less angry. The lyrics come more from his soul. He works hard at lyrics. But he is more concerned with evoking an emotion. He's good at that. The thing that is different about In Rainbows is that it was an album from the heart. It was a lot warmer. And from what I'm making out in the rehearsal room now, there are still elements of that. He's finding his way lyrically at the moment. It's early days.

But what's great about Thom is he's got a very acute bullshit sniffer. He can sense the bullshit in others — and the bullshit in himself. He's probably harder on himself than on others. He understands that if this thing that is coming out of him doesn't feel right, well, that needs to change. And that means hard work — like the shift from what we were doing on [1997's] OK Computer to [2000's Kid A]. He definitely led us in that period: "I'm not quite sure where this is leading, but this is what I'm listening to, and this is where I think we should be going." He doesn't seem to worry about, "What if this thing dries up?" He understands that there are periods when lyrics don't come. But as long as you keep being honest to yourself, to the people around you, to your audience, if you do all of that stuff, it might take a bit more time. But it keeps coming out.

The new track you released for free online, "These Are My Twisted Words," sounds like you are up to some good mischief.
I'm an eternal optimist, but I truly believe we can shift massively on this [next] record. That's the thing we all know, that we feel in our bellies as we're rehearsing — we're on a big move here. We're definitely on a journey. And it's exciting.

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