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."
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?
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!'"
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?"
"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."
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