As a member of Radiohead since their founding 35 years ago, Ed O’Brien has seen more commercial success and critical acclaim than roughly 99 percent of people who have ever picked up a guitar. But when he finally gathered up the courage to start writing and recording music on his own, he truly wasn’t sure if he could produce anything worth releasing.
“My role in Radiohead is one of serving the song,” he says on the phone from his home in Wales. “It’s one of serving’s Thom [Yorke]’s songs and Thom’s lyric. It’s not easy to make that transition to doing it on your own.”
It wasn’t until he moved to a remote area of Brazil with his wife and two young children in 2013, where they lived without Internet and even cellphone reception, that songs began pouring out of him that he knew he had to share with the world. “It was a bit like falling in love when it happened,” he says. “It was like, ‘Oh my god. Where does this come from? This is all-consuming. This fills a hole that has always been there.'”
It was a long journey from that breakthrough moment to the release this month of his debut LP, Earth (recorded under the moniker EOB), largely due to the long break he took to record Radiohead’s 2016 LP A Moon Shaped Pool and tour it all over the globe.
For Radiohead fans who’ve long been eager to hear O’Brien on his own, it’s been worth the wait. Recorded with veteran U2/Depeche Mode producer Flood and studio pros like bassist Nathan East, drummer Omar Hakim, and Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley, Earth is a bold fusion of folk, rock, samba, psychedelia, and electronica unlike anything in the Radiohead catalog.
O’Brien initially planned on touring it this year, but COVID-19 shut down the concert industry after just a handful of warmup shows. He’s pretty sure he came with the virus himself a little over a month ago, but he was well into his recovery at home when he phoned up Rolling Stone to discuss the album’s long gestation, getting ready to share his singing voice with the world, the possibility of a Kid A 20th anniversary box set, and when fans can expect to hear the next Radiohead album.
You’re one of the last members of Radiohead to make a solo record. Was this always an ambition of yours?
Not really. If you would have asked me 10 years ago if I had ambitions to make a solo record, I would have said that I didn’t. I was busy. I wanted to be a hands-on dad, and Radiohead kept me busy. It only really came about once I figured out how to how to write songs and once they started flowing out.
I’m incredibly thankful that I’m in this great band that I’ve always loved. And in spite of all the great success and artistic endeavors and all the great work that I’ve been involved with, there’s always been a hole, and I didn’t know what that was. Sometimes you don’t realize there is a hole, but as soon as I sat down with a guitar or a keyboard and these songs started to come out, I was like, “Ahhh. This is what it’s all about. This is what I need to do.” It was a surprise.
This happened around the time you moved your family to Brazil?
Yeah. The seeds of inspiration were sown in Brazil. I wanted to take time out with my family and step off the hamster wheel of life. I lived in London, and it was a very busy life with lots of stuff going on and lots of being pushed and pulled in different ways. Relocating to Brazil and living very rurally meant timeout. Life was reduced to music, family, and food.
There was no wi-fi and no telephones. It was a very loving environment with a different culture from Britain. That’s a great place to come from, but there’s something about the open-heartedness and the abundance of love that Brazilians seem to have. There’s a kind of joy of life. That is coupled with my love for Brazilian music and attending Carnival in Rio. When you’re watching the people and participating, it really is the greatest show on earth.
I thought to myself, “I really want to write, and I want to get something of what I’m experiencing here in my music somehow.” I didn’t know what that would be or how it would be, but I just had to start. I knew I had to start writing.
This was a number of years ago. Why are we just hearing the music now?
Well, we got back to the U.K. in mid-2013. I started writing and demoing. I basically had everything written within a year. By 2014, I had songs and was ready to go if I had a team and a producer. But that is when the Radiohead cycle started for A Moon Shaped Pool, in September 2014. We didn’t finish the record until February 2016. And then there’s the subsequent touring, that went on intensely for a year and a half. Then there was a tour of South America and another tour of North America in 2018. I started recording the album proper at the end of 2017, but I had to fit it around Radiohead.
I’ve read that you weren’t even sure at first if you’d sing the songs yourself. That surprised me, because I’ve always really liked your voice.
You haven’t heard it a lot, though. I’ve done a bit live, but the last time I sang on a Radiohead record was a couple of backing vocals on In Rainbows. I haven’t really sung a whole lot on Radiohead records. It’s very different from being a backing singer to singing lead vocals. I’m not an extensive backing singing either. It’s not like doing harmonies with the Beatles. It’s very, very part-time.
I didn’t want to be in that situation where I have these great musicians and a great production team and the whole thing is let down by weak or poor vocals. To me, it’s all about the songs. If the songs needed to have another singer who was stronger, then that’s what I thought would happen.
In the demo process, however, I had to start singing. And the engineer, Ian Davenport, kept saying right from the very beginning, “You can sing this.” I said, “Nah, nah…” But a week before I reconvened with Radiohead in 2014, I had my last demo session. And I had a moment where I heard a quality in my voice and was suddenly like, “Oh, okay. You know what? I think I can do this.” And actually, more importantly, “I want to do this.” You have to want to do it in order to do it.
[My producer] Flood was always certain that I could do that. As soon as I had his assuredness and confidence…he’s worked with so many different singers over the years that I thought, “I don’t know how I’m going to get there, but I’m going to get there.” One of the the things I was enjoying about the touring I did this year was was feeling the voice get stronger. I know that’s what you have to do. It’s like a muscle, and the more you do it, the better it gets and the richer it gets.
Tell me about the decision to bring in Flood as the producer. I love his work on U2’s Pop, and I can hear some shades of that on this record.
I wanted somebody who could bring a sonic richness. I’m very lucky where I’ve come from in Radiohead. Sonics and sound and quality is really important to all of us. I’m a sound snob, if you like. There aren’t a lot of people who just blow me away. Flood was somebody that I knew. He started work as an engineer in the early Eighties, and he’s worked on so many records. He first engineered The Joshua Tree and ends up co-producing Achtung Baby and, of course, Depeche Mode.
In 2012, he made the Foals album Holy Fire with [co-producer] Alan Moulder and [engineer] CJ Marks. I loved the sonics and the excitement and the depth of sound. Fortunately and very luckily, he’s a father at the school my kids go to. I got to know him as a friend. When it came to doing the record, in my heart of hearts I wanted to work with him. I love the work he’s done with Polly Harvey and everybody, like the Murder Capital, this young Irish band. He does small albums to big albums.
I didn’t ask him directly if he’d be interested in producing me. What I wanted to do was play him the [music] I had and I wanted some honest counsel. It was the dream scenario for me, because after about four songs he turns around and he says, “Would you like me to do this with you?” He got it. He totally got the music from the demos and totally got the feeling of what I was trying to do. And I think he got excited as well. He saw the potential.
You’re used to being one-fifth of a band. What’s it like to be the sole decider and the guy calling all the shots for once?
Well, I’ll be honest. It took a while. It took me until two-thirds of the way through the record when suddenly another penny dropped and I realized that nobody can hear what I envisage in my head. It was then I really had to take the reins. Flood said to me, “What do you think?” I kind of compare it to an awakening. I awakened and realized that if we were going to do this album right and if it was going to be, in any way, halfway decent…
I’ll tell you what happened. After the Radiohead tour, I played [my album] for some people and they didn’t like it. I was really taken aback by this. It was potential record companies and things like that. Some people liked it and some didn’t like it. I listened and realized that I didn’t like it either and I had to take ownership of it.
It’s one thing having a form of rejection where you can say, “Well, you just don’t get it” and that’s fair enough. But if people don’t like it and you don’t like it, you’re a chump. It’s like, “What the fuck are you doing?” And for me it was like, “I have to really fucking love this. This is an album that I love.” And if people don’t like it, that’s fine. I’ve done my best and it’s just down to taste.
For me, that moment was revelatory. Once I step forward and make my mantle, “What is my truth? What am I really feeling here? What is my truth here?” As soon I as I did that, the record was finished in six weeks.
It’s really interesting. I’m very interested in art and the creative process. There’s something about taking full ownership and having no fear and just doing it. I’m in early days [with my own career], but I’ve obviously been a part of a few successful records over the years, and they’ve all taken a long time. It’s always that moment. Once you know what it is, then you can accelerate. But sometimes you don’t know what it is you want unless you have entered the swamp of sounds and you’ve immersed yourself in the laboratory of sounds and you try different things. I just love having having the vision and seeing it through.
Tell me about the first song on Earth, “Shangri-La.” It really sets the tone for the rest of the album.
“Shangri-La” is a song about a journey. It’s a journey that some of us have taken about trying to find peace of mind and happiness, and sometimes you go rafting into a river trying to get to the other side. When you dive in that river, you don’t realize how fast-flowing it is and how long it’ll take to cross. It’s about a journey, but also about when you get there and you find your tribe. For me, there’s a literal tribe — which is when you get to Glastonbury festival, there’s an area called Shangri-La. That song came out of my journey in life, but also the journey of going to Glastonbury and the joy you feel going out.
Musically and melodically, I wanted to create this slightly psychedelic, warm, colorful vibe. I was really influenced by “Sympathy For The Devil”-era Rolling Stones, that kind of moment where the percussion gets turned up. It’s what I heard in Brazilian music and when I was demoing…basically all of the instruments on that track are played by me apart from a blistering guitar solo by Adrian Utley from Portishead at the end. Basically, I wanted that shuffle blues thing I got from that Stones Mick Taylor era. I know he was a bit later, but that groove and shuffle and dance that I felt in Brazilian music, particularly in Tropicália.
I always felt like the right album opener. It’s up and it’s positive and fearless. For me, I love South America as a continent. There’s a magical realism to the life there and you find it in the writings of the great South American writers, people like Gabriel García Márquez. I was trying to find that place in music as well, that has depth and color and is slightly psychedelic in parts.
The song “Brasil” was obviously inspired in your time down there.
Yeah. That’s a song of two parts. The first part, the acoustic part, is very much written in Wales. For me, it’s a very creative place to come to and to be. You feel folk music really resonates here — the acoustic guitars, that comes out of being in Wales. But the second part is really about transporting you from the bucolic, natural world of Wales to the samba-esque, magical realism, trance-like music of Brazil. When you go to Carnival, it runs for two nights and it has six samba schools each night. They run throughout the night. You go to sleep each morning and 8:00 am and you’ve still got those rhythms in your head. You can feel the pulse of samba, these polyrhythms.
There’s great similarities between electronic trance music and samba. They both get you into a kind of trance, and what’s what I wanted to do on that track. I wanted to find that moment where it’s like stepping into another world.
I think “Olympik” is my favorite song on the record. It really takes you on a journey.
That’s kind of my favorite song on the record too, along with “Brasil’ and “Cloak of the Night.” When I wrote it, it was the last song I wrote for the record, and I was so excited about its potential, because I wanted to create a kind of epic, cosmic, funk/dance track that had this kind of pulsating groove. I thought that was going to be the hardest song to realize. Actually it was the first one we created, and that was because of [drummer] Omar Hakim, [bassist] Nathan East, [guitarist] David Okuma and Flood and [co-producer] Catherine Marks. My house band for the first few weeks were these extraordinary musicians. That’s basically a live take with a few overdubs.
That track, to me, is like the mother of all the other tracks. Once we had that as the keystone, I knew we could get the others. That was like a sign saying, “We’ve got this. We can do it.”
You played a few live shows in February. How was the experience of playing these songs live?
It was good, but it was deeply unnerving at times. I was massively out of my comfort zone, and I felt very uncomfortable. Sometimes they are almost like out-of-body experiences, but the good news is I really felt…because I didn’t know how it would be. You make a record, but you don’t know if you can do it live. I was fully prepared to accept, “Okay, I can’t do the frontman thing. I am just a sideman and that’s how it’s going to be.”
In spite of all this discomfort and unknown and uncertainty, there were very profound moments during each performance — maybe not the first one, but the subsequent four or five where I thought, “Okay, this is the right place to be. This is where I need to be. And this is where I need to be for the foreseeable future.”
It felt right. It’s a process of unfolding and owning your faith. I don’t think there are very many people born to be front-people. There are exceptions, but with Thom I could see the difference from seeing him now, as an extraordinary frontman, and Thom in the early days. It’s very, very different. You get more confident, you do it more. It’s like these wings you get each time you stretch out a little bit more. I had a sense of it. It felt good.
Do you think you’re going to return to Radiohead as a different artist and be able to contribute to them in a new way because of this experience?
I’m definitely a different artist now. That’s for sure. I think that inevitably anytime Radiohead gets together to make a record…We don’t make a lot of records. We’ve made two in the past 10 years. When people arrive now, they are different. People have moved due to age and stuff like that. Even if I hadn’t made a record, I would have been different.
I’m very much a different artist, very much so. But I have no idea how that will impact the whole Radiohead dynamic. It’s one of those things that until you get into it, you never know how it’s going to be. There’s also a certain unknowing about Radiohead albums anyway. To be honest with you, it’s not something I think a lot about, like “Oh, I’m going to be different” or “I’ve got more to do.” I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.
Is a Kid A/Amnesiac box set still something that might happen this year?
Umm…maybe yes? I’m not sure. To be honest with you, I know it’s the 20th anniversary. We obviously have meetings and stuff like that. If there is something good for a box set…We did it for OK Computer, and that was good, but I’m of the school of thought that goes, “If there’s something really great to be said or done or celebrated, then that’s okay. But it’s gotta be good.” I think the OK Computer thing was good. We had a couple of tracks that had never been heard.
The other thing with Kid A is there’s so much more material. With OK Computer, there might be 19 reels [of tape]. I think we got through about 80 reels of two-inch tape for Kid A and Amnesiac. There was a lot more experimentation with the songs, since we were trying to find our way. There’s lots and lots of stuff. [The question is] whether it’s any good, and I’ve got no idea. It’s not my department, really.
Is there any sort of timeline for the start of the next Radiohead album?
No. I think everything at the moment, because of the coronavirus, is up in the air. We couldn’t even make an album at the moment, even if we wanted to. And everybody is doing their own project. Thom is really massively into his touring. He’s got other stuff coming out. It’s the same with Jonny and the same with Philip [Selway], he’s got his next album coming out next year.
We are talking about stuff. But when you get to a band like ours, what you have to do is move forward in a way that keeps the integrity and the creativity of what you’ve done before. We’re always mindful of that. We’ve been in a band for 35 years, and we don’t work together like we did 10, 15, 20 years ago. We don’t. People have lots of other things going on, so it’s a matter of finding…when we feel that we have something we collectively want to do together.
I think that’s the beauty of what we do. There’s a real honesty about it. We’re not trying to fulfill contracts or maintain a lifestyle that requires us to make albums. We want to do it because we’re inspired to do it and that should always be the case. You should be inspired to work with people and make music rather than feel obligated. I can’t do that. I can’t do it unless I’m inspired, and I think that’s the case for all of us.
I saw lots of shows on the last Radiohead tour, and they felt very special. The band was really loose, and the setlist kept changing every night. Did it feel special to you too?
I think so. A Moon Shaped Pool was a very hard album to make, as every album is. I think there’s a relief of being able to go out and play. I think what was interesting about it was it was looser and a lot more laid-back. I think, in a way, one of the things we’ve always done is live and die by the show. As much as that sounds like an honorable way to be or a good intention, I don’t think it’s very healthy. It puts too much pressure on you individually or collectively. I think the looseness comes from just doing it, giving it the right intention, but not living and dying by it.
I think we play really well together. We have a lot of songs to choose from. The thing a band like us has to be careful of is…When we played in North America, we did two nights in most cities and played a completely different set each night. I think we have to do that. The problem that happens is you can get bored of even beautiful songs if you play them every night or you feel you have to play them every night.
I don’t think we felt like that. We found our mojo in a way. Also, we’re very lucky. We didn’t play much from Pablo Honey, but we’ve got eight albums to chose from, along with a lot of B-sides that people know. It’s a lot easier doing that than, as I learned recently, trying to find a set with one album under your belt. To have that breadth of material that people have an emotional connection with, the audience comes with a really amazing [energy]. We always have amazing audiences. It’s very emotional. They are very understanding. They allow you to go on a journey — and the more obscure, the more people seem to like it, as well. We are very lucky.
Our audiences enabled that to happen on that tour and they made us feel so welcome. I think something happens as you get old and people seem to…you’re like the BBC or something, you’re cherished as an institution. That’s what it felt like. There was this real warmth. It was really good.
You even did “Blow Out” that one time. It felt like anything was possible at any moment.
I hope we do that more. I really like the band Phish. They are such a great band. We’d always been slightly guarded, but on that tour we just let it go. And we played “Blow Out.” If it was fucked up and it didn’t work out, then so be it. It wasn’t going to ruin the set. We’d shrug our shoulders and go, “We did our best.” Maybe we weren’t as precious as we’d normally be. That’s another thing.
How is your health? You had symptoms of COVID-19 earlier this spring. Ae you totally recovered?
I’m definitely over it. It seems to hang around a long time, but I’m good. I’ve kind of rushed back to running and stuff like that, but I’ve noticed that isn’t necessarily good for me. I’m good — I’m talking to you, and I’m out and about. But if I’m honest with you…I got it five weeks ago and got better, and maybe I over-exerted myself. I can definitely still feel the exhaustion from it. It’s taking a long time to recover. I mean, I never had the classic symptoms I keep hearing about. But when I lost my sense of taste and smell, I knew that what it was. I’m going to be fine. though.
Are you going to encourage Colin Greenwood to make a solo record? He’s the last holdout.
Yeah! He should make one! It would be good, and he’d really enjoy the process.
Are you hoping you’ll get a chance to resume your solo tour?
Yeah. I don’t know quite how it’s going to go. I’d be surprised if I was touring this year. I really don’t see how. In our country they’re talking about social distancing being maintained until they find a vaccine. I don’t see how the realities of us getting together for a gig is going to happen. But hopefully next year or something.