JULY/AUGUST 2009

Thom Yorke

[OF RADIOHEAD]

“WE BELIEVE THE PEOPLE FIND MUSIC EXTREMELY VALUABLE AND WE’RE GOING TO PROVE IT.”
Album-art inspiration:
Knocking over a table covered in candles
NASA’s website
Something top-secret that can’t be discussed at the moment

At the turn of the twenty-first century, when Radiohead became the new gleaming hope for innovation in rock and roll, the band began renovating the dismal state of the music industry. At concerts they banned corporate sponsors; they attempted to minimize the heavy ecological footprint of traditional touring; and, recently, they released their seventh album, In Rainbows, without a record label, in a digital format on their website, allowing buyers to pay as much or as little as they liked.

Along with all these experiments came furies of hype that Thom Yorke, primary hype-target and living-legendary singer of the band, described as “being the Beatles, for a week.” Yorke has been reticent in his interactions with the press, and in past interviews, especially those from the OK Computer era, Yorke acted downright spiteful: hissing at questions he didn’t like, ignoring others, and criticizing the interviewer with Dylan-esque zingers: “Next question…” “It’s not your business.…” “Answering questions like that’s a fucking waste of time.” Meeting People Is Easy, the only of several Radiohead documentaries the band endorses, is mostly an investigation into the conflicted relationship between the press and the music.

I met Yorke in the lobby of his hotel, the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. Before the interview, he had spent the day shopping with Nigel Godrich, Radiohead’s longtime producer, and during the interview he took a few minutes to talk about Australia with Neil Young’s manager, Elliot Roberts. He wore cargo pants mottled with white paint. He apologized four or five times for his jet lag, but responded to every question with thoughtfulness and patience, demonstrating what seemed to be a newfound acceptance of his place amid the stars of rock.

—Ross Simonini

I. “WINDOW-DRESSING AND NICE PROGRAMS ON THE TELLY”

THE BELIEVER: You’ve talked before about the environmentally awful aspects of touring and how Radiohead is trying to find more sustainable options for traveling. Have you come to any conclusions about a touring industry that would be less disastrous for the environment?

THOM YORKE: Well, when we started talking about touring, I had just been reading about David Bowie’s Station to Station tour. I’m not sure if this is entirely true, but as far as I can tell, he did actually go station to station. He didn’t get on a plane. He even did the Trans-Siberian Railway. And he did it across the US as well. So the first thing that I said, with a sort of pouty lower lip, was “I don’t want to fly, I want to go by train.” But then it was completely impossible. There was no way to do it. The infrastructure is no longer there. I mean, it wasn’t really there then either, but Bowie wasn’t taking a great deal of gear. So I don’t know. The whole thing has become a massive compromise, and the nature of flying, which is the absolute worst disaster situation… Well, actually, that’s not entirely true. The biggest disaster—’cause we had this study done—the biggest disaster is people getting there. People driving.

BLVR: That makes sense.

TY: We tried to set up carpooling things. I don’t know how effective it was. So we tried just playing cities, and that had its limits as well. But anyway, even if you ignore the flying thing, there’s still the basic lack of infrastructure and public transport, and that has the most significant effect on touring. And in fact, most of these issues, you go round and round until you sort of get to a point where unless, say, Obama decides to change the infrastructure, we’re all just pissing in the wind, especially in a city like L.A. I mean, did you know that it used to have fucking trams? I found that out when I wound up downtown one day. There’s fucking tram lines down there. And then a friend of mine gave me a book about it.

BLVR: Reading anything good right now?

TY: Yeah, I’m reading Bram Stoker’s short stories. Just read The Secret Agent, but I didn’t enjoy that very much. I’m a very slow reader. I don’t want anything heavy at the moment. But what was the last heavy thing I read? Borges’s Labyrinths. That was pretty cool. The idea is the story, you know. I tried reading it a few years ago, and I was like, “What the fuck is this?” and then some guy in the pub explained to me what was going on and then I actually really enjoyed it. And then I read that L.A. public-transit book.

BLVR: I remember when I first realized that Who Framed Roger Rabbit was really about the death of L.A.’s red-car system. That sort of blew my mind.

TY: The same thing happened in Europe. The car industry made a concerted effort to destroy public transit. And the Western government’s running around all like, “Oh no, what are we going to do? Blah, blah, blah.” Well, you fucking let it happen. You let it happen. So you figure it out.

BLVR: So on future tours, do you think you’ll stick to the standard touring style?

TY: At the moment, there’s a limit. Or we could just not do it.

BLVR: That shouldn’t have to be the answer. Should all international touring artists stop playing live to minimize emissions?

TY: Well, I don’t know, because at what point is it all a self-fulfilling ego thing? “Hey, I’m doing everybody a favor here.” Are you really? Are you sure about that? Or are you doing yourself a favor?

BLVR: What about your day-to-day life? Have you made any changes there?

TY: We’ve had a house by the sea for eight years. It’s got one of those systems that go into the ground. Uh, what is that called? I know this. I know this, but I’ve got jet lag.… Ground-source heat. Yeah, so that house has basically become carbon neutral, barring the energy it took to do it. So that’s exciting.

BLVR: Was that difficult to do?

TY: Well, we first looked into it two years ago and, yeah, it was a nightmare then—because again, the government hadn’t decided to encourage companies to invest in this sort of thing. But now they have decided to, so it’s a lot easier. So now companies know that they can make money doing it. So it’s the same thing. If Obama now said, “I want shit to happen,” it would make a massive difference. ’Cause no matter what way you look at it, once companies know they can make money out of it, they’re gonna do it. But they ain’t gonna do it if the government is standing in the way. Sadly, as individuals, you learn pretty quickly that this is about the big shit. It’s got to be at the level of law and infrastructure. It has to feel fair to people. I’m being vague, but I got involved in this campaign in the UK where we got bills through parliament to commit to reducing carbon emissions.

BLVR: The Big Ask?

TY: Yeah, and straightaway the thing we realized is, well, infrastructure is actually what this is all about. Everything else is window-dressing and nice programs on the telly that make you feel good. Everybody has to do it ’cause they have to do it. A friend of mine, an environmentalist, was explaining it like a war scenario. It’s exactly the same as a situation in the Second World War and rationing. People should start thinking that way right now. Rationing only worked because everyone knew that was the rule. That was it. That’s what it’s all about.

BLVR: So you think the government needs to step in?

TY: Well, say a Western government came out and said, “Now we’re going to ration your energy consumption.” I mean, that’s going to mean some serious shit to people. But that’s what’s going to need to happen.

BLVR: Would you say that the Big Ask was successful?

TY: It was successful because it made the government do something it absolutely did not want to do. But really, it’s not succeeded because, in a sense, it hasn’t done anything at all.

II. “THE MUSIC BUSINESS WAS WAITING TO DIE IN ITS CURRENT FORM ABOUT TWENTY YEARS AGO.”

BLVR: It’s looking like people aren’t going to listen to music in a physical form for much longer, since CDs and records are being replaced by digital music.

TY: But then the CD was never physical, because it was digital.

BLVR: Right.

TY: But yeah, you don’t have the artwork with digital. I mean, I always hated CDs. Me and Stanley [Donwood, Radiohead’s longtime album-art designer] always hated CDs. Just a fucking nightmare.

BLVR: Based on the way you released In Rainbows, it seems as if you have no problems with the digital switch.

TY: I’m happy to see the CD format disappear. But what about laser discs?

BLVR: Let’s switch to the most impractical medium of all.

TY: Yeah, completely. [Laughs] But, no, I’m not too bothered with it. I’m more interested with the way things sound. Because of the nature of the music software, within the music itself, the tendency is toward soft synths and soft effects—and I use these too—which are all internal, inside the computer. And I think that’s making a big difference to music as well. Some of it’s really exciting but some of it’s a bit lame-ass. It gives everything a softness which is not very exciting to listen to. I know Modeselektor would love me for saying this.

BLVR: Plus the tinny, low-fidelity quality of MP3s has become the standard way to hear music.

TY: Yeah, that’s a bummer. But I’m out of my depth here. Nigel [Godrich] is the one to talk to about this.

BLVR: It’s funny, because the loss of palpable CD artwork seems like it would effect Radiohead more than other bands, considering that your artwork collaborations with Stanley Donwood have become so linked to your aesthetic. How do you normally work with Donwood on artwork?

TY: Has it? Well, the In Rainbows artwork came literally from him knocking a table over. He had some candles on a table and, well, we were gonna do some pornographic etchings, which didn’t work out for a number of really good reasons…. They were pornographic landscape etchings.

BLVR: Pornographic landscape etchings, huh? Is that how I would describe them if I saw them?

TY: No, you’d say, “That’s a bunch of fucking scratches on a piece of paper, mate.” [Laughs] But in the process of doing that he knocked all these candles onto his paper and thought, Well, that looks nice, scanned it in, and went from there.

BLVR: And weren’t NASA pictures somehow involved?

TY: Me and my son got into watching the shuttle live. And one day I ended up at the gallery to the NASA page, which is fucking amazing. So all my input ended up being, “Here, look at these NASA pictures.”

BLVR: So you’ll continue collaborating with Stanley on artwork? This isn’t the end of Radiohead album art as we know it?

TY: No, we’ve actually got a really good plan, but I can’t tell you what it is, because someone will rip it off. But we’ve got this great idea for putting things out.

BLVR: In a digital realm?

TY: In a physical realm and a digital realm. But, yeah… no, I can’t tell you what it is. [Laughs] Sorry to be so vague about everything.

BLVR: Other than just the physical quality of the music, the move toward digital is killing the traditional music label.

TY: Yeah, there’s a process of natural selection going on right now. The music business was waiting to die in its current form about twenty years ago. But then, hallelujah, the CD turned up and kept it going for a bit. But basically, it was dead. So you have this top-heavy infrastructure. The press is top-heavy in the same way. You think, Why are these people surviving? Well, because they just started reissuing the back catalog.

BLVR: So it seems like you don’t really consider this transition a loss in any way whatsoever?

TY: Vinyl sales have gone up, you know. It’s no great shame that labels and CDs are gone.

BLVR: Will less physical musical production mean less plastic and carbon energy?

TY: That’s not entirely true, because, you know, all the servers have to run. All the big providers are trying to work out a way to reduce the energy waste of the servers. It’s a massive ecological disaster. The servers themselves are built like small rack things and they’re all running at the same power, day in, day out. But they’re not being used at capacity at all. And there are fucking huge buildings full of them. It’s apparently a huge expense for the providers and it’s a huge energy waste.

BLVR: And that’s worse than all the plastic?

TY: Well, I don’t know. I don’t know how to weigh them. That’s when you have to pay the twenty thousand dollars to the experts. The virtual world is not going to be environmentally safe until they find a way to rationalize it.

III. “FORTY MINUTES OF BLOOD AND SWEAT ISN’T ENOUGH.”

BLVR: One of the aspects of your pay-as-you-will method was that people could pay up to $99.99, right?

TY: Yeah.

BLVR: So why did you set that limit? Why would you say it’s OK for people to pay you a hundred dollars for this album?

TY: It’s not. You’re barking mad if you do that.

BLVR: But people did it, right?

TY: Yeah, yeah. Uh, why did we do it? Honestly, those meetings were so, so intense. I mean, they were really fun, but we were making it up as we went along. The ninety-nine-dollars thing came as a limit, because we didn’t want people showing off, saying, “Look how much I’ve spent!” But I guess the ninety-nine dollars was bad enough.

BLVR: How many people paid full price?

TY: I don’t know. There were a bunch. I’ve got all the figures somewhere, including a country-by-country breakdown.

BLVR: So you can see which nationalities are the most frugal.

TY: Oh yeah, but I’m not going to talk about that.

BLVR: People talked a lot about paying as little as they want for an album, but you didn’t hear a lot about people paying as much as they wanted. If you keep thinking about this idea a little, with people giving money to musicians, you start thinking that artists could start functioning, at least financially, almost like nonprofit organizations.

TY: Sure, but that sounds mawkish. For us, it was more about a statement of belief, like, “We believe the people find music extremely valuable and we’re going to prove it.” Everybody else was like, “Oh, it’s the end of the world, the sky is falling in,” and we decided to figure a new method. But then again, it depends who you talk to in the band, because, to me, the whole name-your-own-price thing was definitely secondary to being able to leak it ourselves, rather than having some guy at a record plant do it. And that was where I was coming from. But we’re a funny bunch. All these ideas came from a group of fifteen of us, sitting around a room, saying, “Yeah, that will work.” Most people would think, That will never work. A lot of it came from Chris [Hufford, Radiohead’s manager]. If it didn’t work, we could’ve just blamed him.

BLVR: Do you think it worked?

TY: Oh, yeah. It worked on two or three different levels. The first level is just sort of getting a point across that we wanted to get across about music being valuable. It also worked as a way of using the Internet to promote your record, without having to use iTunes or Google or whatever. You rely on the fact that you know a lot of people want to hear it. You don’t want to have to go to the radio first and go through all that bullshit about what’s the first single. You don’t want to have to go to the press. That was my thing, like, I am not giving it to the press two months early so they can tear it to shreds and destroy it for people before they’ve even heard it. And it worked on that level. And it also worked financially.

BLVR: Do you think this method would work for other bands who aren’t as known as Radiohead?

TY: With the press, we’re in a lucky position where we don’t really have to rely on a reviewer’s opinion, so why would we let that get in the way? If people want to play it for themselves, why don’t we just give it to them to listen to? I just don’t want to have to read about it first.

BLVR: And that style of release definitely promotes the album as a work of art, rather than as a bunch of singles floating around the Internet.

TY: Oh, that’s interesting. I appreciate that. Unfortunately, a lot of people got the album in the wrong order.

BLVR: What about the idea of an album as a musical form? You think that format is still worthwhile amid iPod shuffling?

TY: I’m not very interested in the album at the moment.

BLVR: I’ve heard you talk a lot about singles and EPs. Is that what you’re moving toward?

TY: I’ve got this running joke: Mr. Tanaka runs this magazine in Japan. He always says to me, “EPs next time?” And I say yes and go off on one, and he says, “Bullshit.” [Laughs] But I think really, this time, it could work. It’s part of the physical-release plan I was talking about earlier. None of us want to go into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again. Not straight off. I mean, it’s just become a real drag. It worked with In Rainbows because we had a real fixed idea about where we were going. But we’ve all said that we can’t possibly dive into that again. It’ll kill us. It’s also linked up to this whole thing about what is the band, what is the method of how we get together and work. But you know, Jonny [Greenwood] and I have talked about sitting down and writing songs for orchestra and orchestrating it fully and just doing it like that and then doing a live take of it and that’s it—finished. We’ve always wanted to do it, but we’ve never done it because, I think the reason is, we’re always taking songs that haven’t been written for that, and then trying to adapt them. That’s one possible EP because, with things like that, you think, Do you want to do a whole record like that? Or do you just want to get stuck into it for a bit and see how it feels?

BLVR: Certain ideas seem like they aren’t meant to be forty-five minutes long.

TY: Yeah. I mean, obviously, there’s still something great about the album. It’s just, for us, right now, we need to get away from it for a bit. But it’s important to keep it going. The CD-reissue thing almost killed it, because all the labels were like, “Seventy minutes! Let’s fill it up! Blah, blah, blah.” So you get all the bonus-track shit. The majors used to put huge pressure on us and everyone to put extra stuff at the end—you know, to give the shop something extra to sell. All that fucking crap. As if your forty minutes of blood and sweat isn’t enough. But basically, they were charging too much for the CD—they knew it, and they were trying to justify it with extra stuff.

BLVR: Thinking about it, digital albums could really be any length these days. You could make it five hours or you could do a Stockhausen thing and—

TY: What? With the helicopters? [Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet was written for string quartet and helicopter.]

BLVR: Yeah. He also wrote an opera that lasted seven days.

TY: Nigel wants to do this thing where, I mean, I know it would be awful, but hey…

BLVR: But hey…

TY: He says, like, OK, we book in for three days, and at the end of the three days we put two tracks up every week and we do it for six weeks. I mean, it’ll never happen, but that idea of, we put it out even if we don’t know what it is and then, oh dear, it’s out.

BLVR: Almost like an automatic writing process.

TY: To us, that’s completely against everything we normally think. This may be shit. We don’t know. We haven’t had time to realize it yet. You know, that sort of thing. But that kind of gives the game away, because, actually, we are shit. And that’s why it takes three years to uncover the stuff underneath. The lyrics, I know, would be appalling. Jonny’s really big on increasing our output, though. He has a better way of saying it. Like “knocking shit out” or something. He can’t stand it anymore, the pace of the way we work. It’s fallout from all our false starts.

IV. “THE DEATH KNELL OF AN AGING ROCK BAND”

BLVR: In some ways, the way Internet singles work is close to the way things used to be with the music industry in the ’50s, before full-lengths were the thing, and radio singles were what defined artists.

TY: Right, and if you forget about the money issue for just a minute, if it’s possible to do that—because these are people’s livelihoods we’re talking about—and you look at it in terms of the most amazing broadcasting network ever built, then it’s completely different. In some ways, that’s the best way of looking at it. I mean, I don’t spend my fucking life downloading free MP3s, because I hate the websites. No one seems to know what they’re talking about. I’d much rather go to sites like Boomkat, where people know what they’re talking about.

BLVR: Boomkat is great.

TY: It’s brilliant. To me, that’s a business model. It’s like when I used to go to music shops in Oxford. You’re looking at this and you’re looking at that and there’s a whole line of other things going down the side saying, “You’ll probably like this,” and “You might like this.”

BLVR: I love those stores where everything’s hand-selected and the clerks write little descriptions about the music.

TY: Yeah, and you can listen to it all. I mean, Boomkat is very specific with the type of stuff they flog there, but I can’t see why that wouldn’t work for all music.

BLVR: Actually, I think it was on one of those types of blurbs where I read the “return to form” phrase for In Rainbows, which I’ve heard about twenty times since.

TY: [Snorts] But have you not noticed that they always say that? That’s the death knell of an aging rock band right there.

BLVR: Well, it also doesn’t seem like there’s a form to return to.

TY: We’re formless motherfuckers.

BLVR: Do you feel like there’s any definitive sound that you’ve been solidifying over your career?

TY: I fucking hope not.

BLVR: There’s this idea of Radiohead as a band who is always in transition.

TY: It just always feels like, we’ve gone down that road now. We’ve done that now. That’s that. In Rainbows was a particular aesthetic and I can’t bear the idea of doing that again. Not that it’s not good, I just can’t… bear… that.

BLVR: Do you think it’s really possible for artists to stay static anyway, to take one idea and develop it on the micro level over an entire career?

TY: Solo artists can do that.

BLVR: Yeah, seems like it would be impossible to stay static in a band.

TY: Absolutely, completely, utterly impossible, at least in our band. I mean, because everybody wants different things. Everybody brings different things to it. Jonny’s got his thing. He’ll always be trying to get extra things in there.

BLVR: Extra things?

TY: Yeah, come on, we need some wrong notes, he’s always saying. OK, you got ’em.

BLVR: So what’s the next sound?

TY: As a band we haven’t gotten together much. I’ve just been working on stuff.

BLVR: Electronic?

TY: Well, yeah, ’cause my inability to play drums dictates certain electronic drums. Computers are pretty nice at tidying you up. It’s great. Actually, it’s not that great… but I’ve been working, keeping myself going. It’s like a limb. I need to keep exercising it. Otherwise it goes dead, floppy.

Ross Simonini is the interviews editor for the Believer.

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