The Future According to Radiohead

How they ditched the record business and still topped the charts

Thom Yorke of Radiohead on the cover of Rolling Stone.
James Dimmock
Thom Yorke of Radiohead on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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Sunday afternoons, Thom Yorke enjoys taking his kids to Oxford University's Museum of Natural History, a stately, neo-Gothic building on the outskirts of the city center. They wander around the grand atrium, past the skull of the humpback whale, propped up like a massive bear trap, and the stuffed dodo bird behind glass, and the creepy statues of Great Men of Science. The statues are extremely life-like except for their eyeballs, which, thanks to some odd sculptorial decision, have been rendered as entirely blank orbs, giving boyish, pensive Newton and bearded, stoic Darwin and an unreasonably furious-looking Aristotle all terrifying dead-eyed stares. And, of course, Yorke's kids love the enormous dinosaur skeletons, which dominate the room, rearing up in fearsome poses.

Approximately 150 years earlier, a sickly, stuttering Oxford mathematician named Charles Dodgson would come to the museum with his college dean's young daughter, Alice Liddell; to entertain her, he would make up fantastic stories about the dodo and various other animals, which he eventually published under his pen name, Lewis Carroll, as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Yorke, who is thirty-nine – he has a three-year-old daughter and a six-year- old son – also occasionally writes about animals, though not in a way meant to delight children. "Myxomatosis," from the 2003 Radiohead album, Hail to the Thief, is named for a horrible disease that kills rabbits and opens with the line "The mongrel cat came home holding half a head . . . ." Then there is "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," a track on the most recent Radiohead album, In Rainbows, in which Yorke imagines himself at the bottom of the ocean being nibbled upon by fish and worms. Pluralizing "fish" as "fishes" is an unusual choice, and whenever Yorke howls the words "weird fishes," the questionable grammar makes him sound like a demented schoolboy.

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The rest of the song has a muffled, underwater quality, with the titular arpeggio underlaid by a spare, insistent percussion and the guitar notes occasionally warping to sound like a steel drum might be buried deep in the mix. In another strange turn of phrase, Yorke croons, "Your eyes, they turn me," creating an interesting tension by never adding the expected "on." With all of the references to freedom – "why should I stay here"; "everybody leaves if they get a chance" – the song could almost pass for a morbid parody of early Springsteen, as if the protagonists of "Thunder Road" had busted loose from small-town Jersey by throwing themselves off a bridge.

"Hit the bottom," Yorke sings in the final lines, "and escape."

A few blocks from the natural-history museum, Yorke arrives for an interview at the Old Parsonage, a centuries-old building – Oscar Wilde lived here as a student – since turned into a quaintly cluttered inn. Yorke's face is furrowed and unshaven, and though he certainly looks his age, perhaps older, he's also the most boyish member of Radiohead, small, fidgety and, this morning, wearing jeans, a gray hooded sweatshirt and a knapsack with the straps stretched over both shoulders. (When guitarist Ed O'Brien shows up an hour later and sits beside Yorke, it's like a study in contrasts, stark examples for schoolchildren on how good and bad boys should behave: There's Yorke, squirming, hair a spiky mess, occasionally putting his head down or wiping his nose with his sleeve, while O'Brien, at six-five nearly a foot taller than Yorke, demonstrates unnervingly perfect posture, barely even moving his head as he speaks in precise tones.)

We're in a side room off the lobby. A Japanese businessman is sitting at a table in the corner, typing silently on a laptop as he waits to check in, while flames crackle in the hearth. "Big fire," Yorke notes, then murmurs, "They should use a stove. More efficient." Yorke's left eye is damaged from a series of operations he had as a child and is now stuck in a permanent downward list. But this morning both eyes are nearly squinted shut, and he has a sleepy grin. His daughter has a cough, and he's been up all night.

In Rainbows, Radiohead's seventh album, was released in October, and any talk of its content was immediately overshadowed by its method of delivery. As everyone knows, the band, in a surprise announcement, decided to release the album as a download on its Web site, where fans could pay whatever they wished, anywhere from nothing to £99.99 (about $212). Though Radiohead have refused all requests to release official numbers, even the estimates of the online survey group comScore – estimates that the band dismisses as low – would make the experiment a success. According to comScore, a "significant percentage" of the 1.2 million visitors to Radiohead's Web site in October downloaded the album, and while comScore claims only two out of five downloaders paid anything at all, the payers averaged $6 per album – which, factoring in the freeloaders, works out to about $2.26 per album, more than Radiohead would have made in a traditional label deal. And that's just downloads: Released on January Ist, the CD version debuted at Number One in the U.S. and Britain.

The download plan was hatched by Radiohead's managers Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge ("when they were a bit stoned," notes guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood) during the long gap between Hail to the Thief, which marked the end of the band's major-label recording contract, and In Rainbows. "Poor guys," Yorke says, "they have a lot of time to think." Hufford and Edge have managed Radiohead from the beginning, when the band was still called On a Friday and playing Oxford pubs; the download idea was partly a response to the fact that every Radiohead album since Kid A, in 2000, had leaked in some form online.

"There's a compliment there," Yorke acknowledges, speaking in a low, unhurried voice, "the fact that people want to get a hold of what you've done. But if it's not the definitive version, if the ends are chopped off, if you haven't made the choice to do it yourself, it's a bit unfair. Bad karma. So it felt very liberating to take complete control.

"If I die tomorrow, I'll be happy that we didn't carry on working within this huge industry that I don't feel any connection with," he continues. "But the idea wasn't to make a big, significant statement. I mean, we knew it would be messing with things a little bit. But we just wanted to get the album to people who'd been waiting patiently for four years. I really thought it would be a splash in a little pond, and I was surprised at how much the media picked up on it." Adds Greenwood, "Unlike a lot of Radiohead stuff, this idea really was boredom-driven. Just about avoiding the old."

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There were complaints in certain online circles about the sound quality of the In Rainbows downloads, but surprisingly, considering the sonic complexity of their own records, none of the members of Radiohead are audio geeks. "That sort of hi-fi sound-quality thing really annoys me," says Jonny Greenwood. "I was in London talking to a label guy once, and we got on to this subject, and I said hi-fi is just about middle-aged men trying to make music sound as good as it did when they were teenagers, and it never will. They'll never be as excited as they were when they first heard that music coming out of just one speaker. They'll never get that close to it again." Greenwood smiles sheepishly. "Later, I found out he's got this amazing record player and spends all of his time upgrading his system."

It's suggested that the pay-what-you-like plan forced people to make an ethical choice about consumption – to actually stop and think, "OK, what is this piece of art, made by someone I feel some sort of connection with, worth to me?" But, Yorke says, "In a way, that was an afterthought. We knew that if we put it out for nothing at all, it would end up costing us an absolute fortune. Simply because you end up having to pay every time someone downloads it. But there's always been an integrity to the community of people on the Net who follow what we do. 'Ethical choice'? I don't know about that." He smiles. "Maybe if they were buying goat."

With the release of OK Computer, critics were quick to canonize Radiohead as the great post-Nirvana rock band, an honorific that, a decade on, feels more apt than ever, even as the group has continued to evolve in wholly unexpected ways. The band's songs, soaring and atmospheric, are spacious enough to till stadiums, and Radiohead have become one of the best live bands of their generation. At the same time, the more experimental direction the music has taken – the false starts and buried melodies, the messy electronica and avant-garde dissonance – not only complements the overweening sense of dread suffusing Yorke's lyrics but actually feels complementary to our entire damaged era, sounding like a future soundtrack to a documentary about early-twenty-first-century malaise.

After the Hail to the Thief tour ended in 2004, the band members took a year off to spend time with their families. Yorke, who has been with his partner, Rachel Owen, a fine-art printmaker, since they were students at Exeter University, will say very little about his family life. When asked if his children have managed to discover any music that annoys him, he thinks for a moment, then says, "I mean, I like the Chili Peppers. But I hear a lot of it in my house. They haven't really heard our new record yet."

Intentionally?
Just because . . . I think my missus isn't ready to hear it yet. Having seen me go through the mills making it.

She hasn't listened to it at all?
Not yet. She will. But it's a difficult thing for her to watch me go through the whole process. She doesn't like it. So she's not exactly ready to listen to the music.

Would she rather you'd not make music and just be a happier person?
Yeah, probably.

So working on a record makes you a difficult person?
To live with? That's about a hundred percent true. Yes. She does it, though.

She's an artist, as well. Do you ever ask for feedback on what you're working on?
It's – yeah. Anyway. Next question.

All five members of Radiohead are married or have longtime partners, and each couple has at least two children. "I think we've always been a band in their thirties," says Jonny Greenwood. "We're like the Pixies in that way. Maybe that's why we like them so much. When they had their reunion, in my head it just made sense – because they were always like that, really. They were never teenagers. And it's the same with us."

Greenwood, 36, is the youngest member of the band, shy and gangly, with an understated sense of humor and an eccentric taste in music even by Radiohead standards. (He spent six months in 2005 listening to nothing but dub reggae.) Over lunch one afternoon, when his salmon sandwich arrives with a side salad but no silverware, he simply begins to eat the lettuce with his fingers. His personality in no way jibes with his first appearance in the public eye, in the 1994 "Creep" video, where he's strumming his guitar with such angular violence he could be a cop holding down a protester with one hand and swinging a truncheon with the other. Jonny's brother, bassist Colin Greenwood, is thirty-eight, and with his mod haircut and black leather jacket, he's the only member of Radiohead who looks like he could be a member of Oasis. In conversation, he's given to pausing midsentence and staring off into space, eventually saying, "Yeahhhh," in a way that never makes it clear if he's bored or spacey or trying to think of the exact right word or enhancing his spaciness for dry comic effect. His wife is a novelist, and Colin, a literature major at Cambridge, is quite well-read, making reference to everything from Richard Ellman's biography of Oscar Wilde to Bill Buford's cooking memoir, Heat.

Drummer Phil Selway, 40, is Radiohead's sharpest dresser, and like all sharp-dressed men with shaved heads, he looks a bit like a hired assassin, though he's also kind-eyed and charming. O'Brien is thirty-nine and recently married his longtime girlfriend; in lieu of a bachelor party, he went camping in the remote English moorland with Yorke, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and the Chemical Brothers. O'Brien is the only member of Radiohead who no longer lives in Oxford, where the band members all grew up and met as students at a boys' school. He says his wife would never live anywhere but London.

Yorke says remaining in Oxford "is probably fifty percent inertia." Later, over breakfast, Colin Greenwood elaborates, "It's sort of this unspoken thing with us, that if we move from Oxford, we might lose our juju. In London, we might get distracted by the lights and the big city. Look at Ed."

Selway, who is also present, smiles and says, "He's a shadow of his former self."

"That's right," Colin says. "He's just interested in superficial things now, like his latest pair of sneakers. Whatever Londoners do."

"Well, they talk about their London ways," Selway says.

"When he comes to rehearse with us," Greenwood says, "it's like we're these old codgers in the village pub with the clock ticking madly in the corner and a couple of dead rabbits hanging on the door."

The mock-provincial attitude isn't, of course, entirely mock: Four of the five members of one of the biggest international rock bands have chosen to remain in their very small hometown, college town though it may be. It's especially curious considering that a major thematic concern of Radiohead has always been the terrifying aspects of modern life – yet here they remain, in a medieval city, surrounded by the fossils of a long-expired empire.

In part, the band seems to enjoy the anonymity a place like Oxford allows. One morning, when they assemble in a park for a photo shoot, a large group of schoolboys out for a jog don't even give them a passing glance. (Yorke does often skip town during the summer, when tourists, who tend to be more gawking, arrive en masse.)

Later, Colin Greenwood takes me on a walking tour. As we wander past the imposing walls of Oriel College, Colin says he always avoided the school because the students were "kind of boaty." Noting my confused look, he adds, "Rowers. What would you say? 'Jocks.'"

At the end of High Street, we duck into Oxford's historic covered market. A row of Christmas geese hang by their necks outside a butcher shop, their heads discreetly covered with miniature hoods. We pass a diner called Brown's. "Ed used to work at another Brown's," Colin says. "When he had a ponytail."

Next, Greenwood points out a staircase leading up to Georgina's, a coffee shop where he and Yorke used to hang out back in their school days. "We'd be with the other goths, talking about Bauhaus in our mohair jumpers," he says. "I haven't been in there in fifteen years."

We make our way up a narrow staircase and enter the cafe, which feels very collegiate. The walls are covered with rock and movie posters and, just as we enter, as if on cue, the Kinks' nostalgic, hyper-English "Waterloo Sunset" begins to play. Colin widens his eyes and says, "Well, now, that's a bit much."

After ordering a hot chocolate from a decidedly un-starstruck barrista, Colin tells me that back in the late Eighties and early Nineties, he'd find out the location of illegal raves from kids hanging out on nearby George Street. O'Brien, who went to school in Manchester – "really because of the Smiths" – partook most enthusiastically in Britain's Ecstasy-fueled Summer of Love, though Yorke also DJ'd while he was at Exeter. He did not have a DJ name but says people would buy him beers all night and by 1 a.m. he'd be so drunk he could barely see the decks. He also had a sun-coming-up epiphany moment when a college friend, as part of his thesis, staged a mini-happening. Yorke, his girlfriend, Rachel, and his friend Stanley Donwood (the artist who has designed every Radiohead cover save Pablo Honey) were all given pieces of paper that instructed them to be at a certain pub with sleeping bags. From there, they were driven out to the countryside, then led by torchlight into a valley. They partied until four, when everyone passed out. Then, at some point, Yorke's friend woke them by shouting, "Wake up, time to die!" and led the group to a lake, where, in Yorke's memory, "he'd built this fire-breathing dragon that did this performance thing when the sun came up. It was the most amazing night." Unfortunately, Yorke's friend didn't properly document the rave and ended up failing.

"That was really the most influential period for all of us," Yorke says. "The Happy Mondays. The Stone Roses. At the end, Nirvana. It was just an interesting period of transition: Lots of electronic stuff, lots of indie bands, and it was permissible for it to be all mixed up. That's why I thought it was weird when we started making Kid A and people were like, 'You can't do that. It's terrible!'"

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Yorke is far less reverent when it comes to classic rock. Our interview takes place two days after Led Zeppelin's London reunion, and when asked if he was curious about the show, he admits, "Not really. My mate wanted to go. I said I was tired. Maybe if they play again. But to be honest, probably not."

O'Brien enters the room, and Yorke says, "Here comes Eddie. Were you curious about the Led Zeppelin reunion?"

"I was," O'Brien says. "I really was. I love the Zep. You weren't, were you?"

"Not really."

Yorke admits he'd be interested in a Talking Heads reunion. "Don't think they want to do it, though," he says. "Gang of Four, they re-formed. That was worthwhile. Kind of better. Darker."

"Age has made them darker," O'Brien agrees.

"Now that's where you wanna go."

"Yeah, that's where you want to get to. 'What have you been doing for the last twenty years?' 'Getting really dark.'"

Yorke laughs, delighted. "'I'm being honest about the route I'm going down. Death is imminent. I'm getting dark.'"

The ease and immediacy of releasing In Rainbows came in sharp contrast to the album's protracted, painful birth. With Hail to the Thief, an album Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich admits "was very unsatisfying for everyone," the band had once again fallen into the sort of long, exhausting tour-and-press cycle so monotonously documented in the 1998 Radiohead documentary, Meeting People Is Easy. During the post-tour break, Yorke kept busy working on his solo album. And then in August 2005, the band tentatively reunited at its studio. But, says Yorke, "Everyone had lost . . . not interest, but momentum. We'd all stopped to have kids. It sounds stupid, but that's the way it was. So when we got back into the studio, it was just dead."

One can trace the sessions' gradual disintegration through blog posts on the band's Web site, which begin with digital shots of a blackboard jumbled with song titles and arrows and hits a nadir with a rambling January 2006 post by Yorke [all sic]:

"we are being taken to task, we are having to shake the dust
off . . . stop answering the phones and thinking of excuses
to leave the building, instead get on with it . . . of course
there are the other distractions, sitting in the garden with your
12 bore shotgun, large orchestras doing drum machine noises,
getting suits made, puppies, canal boats, beer, modular synthesis,
lego, tax investigations, global warming and the end of life as we
know it, traffic, deafness, insanity, normality, whatever."

Godrich, who has worked on every Radiohead album since The Bends, says he loves everyone in the band but acknowledges that he and Yorke "have a particularly intense relationship." When I ask what they argue about, he laughs and says, "Pretty much everything. We're either completely at loggerheads or else we agree with each other completely and nobody else agrees with us. If it was up to Thom and I, 'Videotape' would have been the first song on In Rainbows. It's both of our favorite. Everyone else was like, 'You're fucking crazy!'

"My job involves a lot of psychology," he continues. "The dynamic between people is very complicated. Ed is very much a diplomat. Jonny's brilliant, and what comes out of him comes out very quickly. And with Thom—" He pauses, then says, "A lot of the time, I think he's the king of self-sabotage. So I'm just trying to prevent him from destroying things he doesn't realize are valuable."

For In Rainbows, Godrich tried to shake the group out of its comfort zone by recording for three weeks in a decrepit mansion built in the 1830s. The band lived in campers on the grounds of the estate, recording by day in the old library and, to entertain themselves, staying up until three in the morning playing bad blues rock. Slowly, the album began to coalesce. "Nude," a song Yorke had first shown Jonny Greenwood ten years earlier, finally came together as a lush, haunted ballad in the vein of Sigur Rós. The surprisingly sexy "House of Cards" begins with a line that could work for R. Kelly ("I don't wanna be your friend, I just wanna be your lover"), before making veiled references to wife-swapping parties, until by the end, even more traditionally Yorke-ian lyrics, such as "The infrastructure will collapse," begin to sound like vaguely dirty euphemisms. Yorke would, incidentally, like to make it clear that the lyrics are not drawn from his personal life. "I wish!" he says. "Well, no, I don't wish. That key-party stuff was a big thing here in the Seventies and Eighties, and it always fascinated me."

When it's noted that the rhythmic nature of Radiohead's music is generally at odds with Yorke's freaked-out lyrics, he says, "People come up to me after shows and say they love a song – 'It's the one me and my missus fuck to!' It's like, 'Don't tell me that! You can't tell me that . . . ' Like, 'Morning Bell.' Imagine that."

"That's quite abrasive," O'Brien notes.

Yorke nods seriously and says, "It's pretty fast."

By the last weeks of December, the hand was beginning to rehearse for its 2008 tour. The rehearsals included a number of covers: Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Smiths, "The Night," by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The band also performed live in its crowded studio for a November Webcast. In a hilarious opening segment, we see one of the final scenes from the movie Seven, in which Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt open a box in a desert to discover Gwyneth Paltrow's decapitated head, only in the Radiohead version, the box contains a video image of Yorke's head crudely superimposed where Paltrow's should be. Yorke proceeds to sing "15 Step," as the camera occasionally cuts to Freeman and Pitt looking horrified and wailing. The British comic Adam Buxton, a friend of the band, worked on the video, and after, in the webcast, he tells Yorke, "Brad Pitt is a genuine Radiohead fan, so he would be gutted it" your head was cut off and stuffed in a box, wouldn't he?"

After figuring out how to put out a record on its own terms, the band is now grappling with how to do the same for touring. Yorke has been quite vocal as an environmental activist – in his personal life, he has stopped flying altogether; he and his family take train trips to places like Barcelona – and Radiohead briefly considered simply staying home, because of the size of the carbon footprint left by most rock tours. After floating – and rejecting – the possibility of performing locally and beaming the show digitally to theaters around the world, they decided to transport their gear and stage set via ship and rail whenever possible. (They even considered shipping themselves to the United States, but cruise ships are just as environmentally unsound as jets, and the only other option was passage on a slow freighter.)

Whenever the band has been on hiatus, Yorke finds that he can't stop making music for more than a few weeks. He'll eventually begin scribbling down lyrics again, or playing around on his computer, sampling and editing. But the process of making a new album never gets any easier. Yorke hopes the band's newfound freedom will allow it to innovate in this area, as well. "With the download thing, I'd love to just put out singles, maybe before we go out on tour," he says. "Or maybe in the future, we'll work in twos and threes. Radiohead is not a contract signed in blood. Every time we do a record, that is not a validation of us carrying on. We're certainly not jumping into doing another nine months in the studio."

Yorke is quick to make amends if he catches himself complaining too much. "It's not that fucking difficult, you know," he says. "I went and worked on my friend's building site for two weeks over the summer, smashing bricks and stuff. I needed to be told what to do. Fucking hell. That was difficult. But it was nice smashing stuff up."

Later, though, Yorke shrugs and admits, "For some reason, we think too much. We're Method actors. For us, it's always hard."

This story is from the February 7th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 1045: February 7, 2008
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