A Conversation With With Thom Yorke (Radiohead)

In 2003, Radiohead released Hail To The Thief while MAGNET was busy hailing itself on the occasion of our 10th anniversary. We’re all a little older and iTunes is a little less novel, but the following interview (which originally appeared in issue #60) is interesting in light of Radiohead’s 2007 digital self-release of In Rainbows. Clearly, Yorke has long been weary of conducting business—be it album sales, interviews or rock—as usual.

MAGNET: This interview is being conducted for our 10th-anniversary issue. Radiohead was in the first issue of MAGNET.
Yorke: Really? My god, that makes me feel old.

Do you have fond memories of coming to America in 1993 and trying to promote your album on the strength of “Creep” and trying to make sure people spelled your name correctly and all that?
[Laughs] I guess you’re young and you don’t give a toss. At first, we were just sort of excited that people were listening, because we were having a really tough time with the British press, which is something that’s just … continual. [Laughs] We were prepared to work hard. But at the same time, I never thought it was a particularly soul-enriching thing to pay lip service to these so-called alternative radio stations and meet the programmers who were just middle-aged men who had no fucking clue what they were doing at all.

So even back then, the meet-and-greets weren’t your bag.
I was always shit at that. The others are kind of good. Colin (Greenwood) was the best. He could smile while putting a knife in your back and you wouldn’t know, whereas I tend to produce the knife as people walk in. The worst one for me is when they’d do this thing where you go out and have dinner with the record-company marketing people. It wasn’t a particularly rock ‘n’ roll thing to do but, you know, we were hungry.

I’d guess there was a sense of adventure back then, of things being done for the first time. In the first issue of MAGNET, you have a naive quote about visiting New York for the first time: “Everything’s so tall here.”
[Laughs] Awww. When we finished [Hail To The Thief], Stanley Donwood, the guy who did its artwork, came and was painting in the studio while we were working. We used to drive around in Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and he just couldn’t get over all the signs. He reminded me how it felt the first time we were there. Because everyone’s speaking English, but that’s about as far as it goes. The record company really wound us up the first time. We were quite prepared to do anything for two weeks because we’d had a limo from the airport.

I remember liking—as millions of people did—“Creep” very much at the time, hearing it on the radio, but I also thought, “What a trendy song. And what a silly band name: Radiohead?”
[Laughs] Fuck yeah. We were definitely a bit geeky. We haven’t really lost that yet. I’m still working on it.

Well, I think you’ve come around some from then. You’ve definitely built on the success of that song.
I guess. [Sarcastically] Well, that might be highly deliberate. Very well thought-out.

How do you rate The Bends now?
I can’t remember when I last heard it. I like playing the songs off it. It’s a little bit rock for me. [Laughs] But that’s OK. Every time we dig up “Bones,” it never kind of works. It sounds a bit like Status Quo, which is weird, because it didn’t at the time.

I was curious, because a lot of fans who didn’t get on board with more recent stuff still point to that record as their ideal of what you do.
A lot of other people think the same about OK Computer, and then a lot of people think the same about Kid A. I don’t lose sleep about it or anything, because that’s where you are then and you’re somewhere else after that.

Around the time of OK Computer, it became apparent Radiohead is an “album” band.
I think we’re definitely getting bored of that. Big time. We definitely want to do something else. To be honest, the thing that makes us annoyed—and it’s nobody’s fault, it’s the way it is—is the level of scrutiny the albums get.

But isn’t there something pleasing about the long form? It’s almost a literary quality, the way you make records like big novels.
That is pleasing, but it’s kind of wearing as well. We would really love to do stuff that’s more throwaway, in the sense that it’s not a big body of work making a big statement. It’s like, “This is what we’re doing today.” It’s quite a difficult mindset to stay in for a long period.

Does it concern you when, for example, Apple comes out with iTunes, where you download one song for 99 cents?
No, we’re so fucking into that. We’ve been trying to get the record company to do it for ages.

That’s a big “fuck-you” to the album as a form.
That’s great. I say down with that. To me, a lot of things that are wrong with the music business are structured around the concept of an album. The album reviews, the disproportionate markup the shops take on it—the fact that it doesn’t matter how many songs you put on the fucker, the record company still gives you the same break. Even though you might have put on 24 tracks, you still get the same amount of money. It’s based around the old vinyl concept of an album, and that concept is just dead. Or it’s not dead, it’s dying. And it’s dying of its own accord, because people are picking and choosing and taking stuff off records. If that’s what’s happening, we’re into it. I think for us it’s going to be a liberating thing.

It’s ironic you’re saying this, because Radiohead has made albums with themes—not necessarily narrative themes, but emotional ones.
They’ve ended up like that, yeah. I think [Thief] is like that as well, but that’s just [a result of] you sitting down with what you’ve got and you discover there’s a trail running through it. But see, anybody else could do that. You know what I mean?

That people could just download their favorite Radiohead tracks and make their own album?Yeah, you can assemble what you think has a trail of thought yourself. We’re still heavily into having an artifact at the end of it, but to us, it’d be nice to not have that incredibly stressful period where you’re deciding what goes on and how it forms itself. That’s why I think that Apple thing would be wicked. And again, there’s not so much excruciating pressure put on the work itself, which is the thing that slightly does my head in.

When Kid A and Amnesiac came out, some people accused you of career suicide, making these “weird” records.
They weren’t exactly commercial suicide, either, really.

It turned out exactly the opposite, sort of like what happened with Wilco last year. How do you respond to accusations that those records were a calculated career move?
Well, I’d like to see them sit down and calculate the songs as well. Because no cleverness ever comes unless the work itself is in some way convincing. That’s the joke. It’d be impossible for me to calculate something before it happens and then make it happen. It would just be shit. It completely defeats the basic principle of music, which is it comes from the other side of your head that you can’t reach. To assume there’s calculation in it, it’s just, well … It pisses me off, because to me that’s kind of like dissing the music.

Why do rock fans distrust electronics so much?
I don’t fucking know, but they really need to grow up.

I have a theory that it’s because you can’t do a rock pose in the bedroom mirror using a tennis racket as a guitar.
Maybe there’s just not been enough death in electronic music for people. If there were more suicides and Lester Bangs articles over the years and general hysteria and cult of personality surrounding the people who did electronic music, I think people would find it difficult to resist the temptation to get into it. But the fact is, one of the greatest things about good electronic music is it’s got none of that shit.

You’ve acknowledged that Hail To The Thief is a reference to George W. Bush, but it’s obviously not a record solely about that. Is it safe to say that the title indicates our culture now celebrates thieves, villains and thugs?
I think we’ve entered an era of utter absurdity, where we’re quite prepared to let the loonies take over. And that’s not just an American thing, that’s absolutely everywhere. It’s happening in Britain. We’re quite happy to let governments be influenced by corporate power and vested interests. And quite happy for them to ignore the people who put them there just because we’re too scared to think about what the consequences might be of calling these things into question. We just don’t have the time or the energy to think about it. It’s just a theater of the absurd. Hail To The Thief is a great expression of that. This is nuts. This is absolutely fucking nuts. And it’s everywhere.

Radiohead is often cited as being “bleak” or having a worldview that’s such.
My worldview on one level is bleak, but it’s not on another level at all.

I think bleakness is something that’s conveyed in the music.
To me, the music is really quite hopeful. There’s no way I would’ve written the words like I wrote them if it hadn’t been for the fact that I considered the music to be quite beautiful and I could then use that to explore things that I needed to explore.

On Amnesiac, who or what was “You And Whose Army?” directed at?
The song itself was me talking to the voices in my head that were trying to turn me crazy. But then the “Holy Roman Empire” line came out from fuck knows where.

That’s a very suggestive line.
Yeah, and I kept it because it sounded good. Again, that’s not just America, that’s everything. That’s really more about globalization than anything, to be honest.

You know, it’s OK to be angry, Thom.
I was having that conversation with Bono the other night. [Catches himself] He says, name-dropping for once in his life. Bono was saying, “That’s what you do. That’s what you’re doing right now, you’re being angry. Just get on with it.” He was saying it never did him any harm to get angry. He said most of the best things he’d done involved anger at some point or other.

Some people think the best art comes from misery. Do you think that’s true?
No. Depression is probably not the same as misery. Misery has connotations of indulgence to it, which I’m not into. I find it difficult to listen to music that has that sort of self-indulgence, even though I’m sure we’ve probably been guilty of it.

Maybe dissatisfaction. Or am I splitting hairs here?
No. I think about it a lot. I still make music and get involved with this band because the things that are really getting to me—whether they be making me miserable or angry or joyful—they always have to come out through the music. If you come to your art with this mood and just try to put it straight down, it’s a longer and harder process than just that initial state of mind. A lot of it is just fucking work.

—Matthew Fritch

3 replies on “A Conversation With With Thom Yorke (Radiohead)”

Depending on when Thom Yorke was reading and pulling from Faust (obvious from songs like Faust Arp, Videotape, maybe Reckoner…”Holy Roman Empire” could have come out of that book. Early in part one that line is used as an exclamation I think. Yorke’s lyrics are so fascinating.

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