“There’s a certain risk in making a bid to work with people that you love and admire. There’s always the risk because collaborations get messy and someone’s schedule can put pressure on a thing,” Edward Norton tells Rolling Stone. It’s especially daunting when that “someone” is Radiohead singer Thom Yorke, who the actor reached out to while writing his second directorial effort, Motherless Brooklyn.
“The last thing you want is to get at loggerheads about something you care a lot about and you invite someone you care and love in and it’s not working,” Norton cautions.
Norton – who wrote the script, directed and stars in the upcoming adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem novel about a Tourette’s-stricken detective in 1950s New York – has known Yorke since soon after Radiohead’s days opening for R.E.M. in the mid-1990s. The actor excitedly recalls attending Radiohead’s star-packed June 1997 gig at New York’s Irving Plaza the week before OK Computer was released.
Norton’s presence at that concert is captured in the “+Guests” next to R.E.M. on the now-viral guest list; it was Michael Stipe who would introduce Norton to Yorke, igniting a two-decade friendship strong enough that Norton felt confident asking the singer to contribute music to Motherless Brooklyn.
“I didn’t presume he would do it,” Norton admits. “I wanted Thom to write an old-world melancholy ballad, and I wanted his voice to be the properties for [Norton’s character] Lionel’s voice … But I sort of said to myself, ‘Yeah, you and everybody else in the world.'”
Before production began, Norton emailed Yorke the request and the Motherless Brooklyn script. Two weeks later, the actor received a 6 a.m. email from the Radiohead singer with the song “Daily Battles” attached.
“He sent me this track of him on a piano singing it and I was sitting on the edge of my bed in the dark, crying from listening to this song,” Norton said of his response. “It’s so instantly heartbreaking and evocative of so many of the themes to the movie without being overly specific to them, but so much so, I thought the idea of daily battles that everyone is fighting, that you’re trying to rise up and out of, was so evocative that I went back into the script and put the phrase into a scene.”
The song impacted Norton so much, it became a unifying theme in Motherless Brooklyn, featuring in a crucial scene where Norton’s Lionel and a character played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw go to a jazz club. To transform “Daily Battles” into “a ballad done by Miles Davis in ’57,” Norton enlisted jazz great Wynton Marsalis to record a jazz arrangement of the song.
“We wanted the characters to dance to a ballad and we were trying to think what to do; we didn’t want to do a famous Miles Davis track or anything like that. So I played Wynton Thom’s song and he said ‘That’s a really pretty tune,'” Norton said. “Wynton, two days later, came back with this arrangement. And the first time Thom heard it, he kind of put his head between his legs and said ‘Jesus, fuck.’ It was really a wonderful moment, so we did this great weird thing of inserting Thom’s song into the Fifties.”
“I was sitting on the edge of my bed in the dark, crying from listening to this song”
Rolling Stone will premiere both Yorke and Marsalis’ versions of “Daily Battles” in the coming weeks, when the new trailer for Motherless Brooklyn arrives ahead of the film’s November release. The two versions of “Daily Battles” will also be released as a split seven-inch vinyl.
In order to create cohesion between Yorke’s “Daily Battles” and Marsalis’ instrumental jazz rendition – and root it further to the time period – Yorke recruited an unlikely musician to contribute horns: His Atoms for Peace bandmate Flea, who also laid down the song’s waltzing bass line to, as Norton says, “put [‘Daily Battles’] in the language of the same jazz instrumentation, piano and bass.” The song is itself reminiscent of Radiohead’s non-LP piano ballads like “Last Flowers” and “I Want None of This,” and the softer half of slow burners like “The Daily Mail” and “You and Whose Army?”
“People don’t really know this, but Flea went back to USC and got his masters on music theory on trumpet, and his dad was a jazz musician and he is a deep aficionado of jazz,” Norton says of the Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist. “So Flea came in and played the most beautiful, simple lines that add that dimension. And then Thom took some of them and reversed them and put them through compressors so that it’s playing backward and forward at the same time. It’s really beautiful.”
“Daily Battles” is a stark contrast to Yorke’s usual electronics-and-beats-laden solo work, as evidenced recently by his third solo album Anima. “I’ve had it on loop. I don’t even remember where it starts and where it ends anymore,” the actor said of Yorke’s new LP. “If you close your eyes and put it on, you can think it’s a 10-hour record because it keeps going.”
Norton also praised the “one-reel” Anima collaboration between Yorke and filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. “I haven’t seen anything like that that I can think of. That was like Thom meets Kafka meets Buster Keaton. It is a really beautiful, beautiful piece. I was knocked out by it,” Norton said, adding of Yorke’s acting abilities, “He might be more Chaplin than Buster Keaton. He’s got some slapstick chops.
“In my generation, no one has really captured longing in the heart and terror in the head like Thom,” adds Norton. “He has really grabbed the nerve of the fearfulness of the age that we’re living in and also figured how to create anthemic melody and total discord and chaos at the same time.”