"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?"
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 band 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 if 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."
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