The members of Radiohead were probably thrilled when the overbearing hype faded and they didn't command the national dialogue as much as usual with 2003's Hail To The Thief. Credit most of that to sheer exhaustion on everyone's part—the band, fans, critics—but the album was at least as good as Kid A and Amnesiac. Crawling up from below seemed like a fitting way for Radiohead to make its next move, though what a slow crawl it was: After a stagnant four-year period in which the band left its label and frontman Thom Yorke released a solo album (The Eraser), the band last year made the surprise announcement that a new record, In Rainbows, was completed and soon to be self-released online.
The hype level threatened to shoot back up, especially when the album was made into a pay-what-you-want download, but once In Rainbows hit the streets (er, hard drives), the attention rightly turned to the music. Beginning with the kind of raw, unsettling compositions for which the band has become known, In Rainbows slowly but surely becomes something else entirely—calm, clear-headed, even romantic in parts; combining the best elements of pre- and post-Kid A Radiohead, In Rainbows was a shoo-in for most 2007 best-of lists. After disastrous bad weather flooded the Virginia show on their current supporting tour, The A.V. Club met with Yorke and guitarist Ed O'Brien and chatted about making transition records, simplifying their sound, and erotic landscapes.
The A.V. Club: On Sunday, as you guys started your second encore and the pavilion was already flooded, there were still thousands of people streaming in, just for a few songs. Is it surprising that you still have such a dedicated fan base?
Thom Yorke: It demanded a degree of dedication just to get there. It was pretty hectic. The trouble is, we knew what was going on, but we were stuck in the building all day. We didn't know how bad it was until after the show, when we were told about the police freaking out, but we were absolutely determined that it was going to happen.
Ed O'Brien: It's the start of the tour; that was only the fifth show or something, and when you start your tour, you come out of an exile. It's been incredibly humbling that people are turning up and showing their loyalty. At the start of a tour, you can never know how people are going to be, or how things are going to be received. It's been pretty amazing.
AVC: What was the band's mindset before going back out on the road?
TY: We were a little more organized this time. We spent a lot of time hanging out in the studio, rejiggering it so we could rehearse there. That was really fun. We spent a lot of time playing together for a couple months, nearly every day except weekends. We felt considerably more prepared than we normally are. Normally, you're doing all this other crap and then you're suddenly on tour, and there's no time to really get your brains around it. The thing that's interesting for me on this tour is, it feels like a very finite period. We know it's going to end. We know it's not that long. We're trying to throw ourselves at it. The thing I'm hoping doesn't happen is that we get bored before the end.
AVC: You guys seem like a group that tends to get bored quickly.
TY: The main thing is having the 60-odd songs to choose from. That keeps your blood going and keeps you from getting bored.
EO: For example, we didn't play "There, There" the other night. We had played that at the four other shows, and it just started to feel like it was getting linear and boring. So we were like, "Okay, that's that. Let's do something else, then."
TY: It's kind of good with the old stuff that you can get three or four days with it and then say, "Okay, next," and not waste your time. For example, on the first couple shows on this tour, we haven't played "Paranoid Android." It's nice to ditch the ones that you don't want to play. There's nothing on this tour we have to play other than the new stuff, and we'd prefer to play that stuff anyway. We're still trying to get our heads around a lot of it. "Reckoner," for example, that's a bit tricky.
AVC: "Reckoner" makes In Rainbows, as an album, feel like a transition for the band.
TY: In a way, that's right. But, then again, Kid A was quite a bit of a transition, wasn't it?
AVC: Radiohead seems to make a lot of transition records.
TY: When you're making a record, you should be transitioning.
AVC: Was "Reckoner" intended to usher in a different feel for Radiohead? Everything before that song sounds like your past few records, then "Reckoner" is like the break of dawn or something—everything after it is so subdued and calm.
TY: It's definitely a first-thing-in-the-morning song. You don't write many of those until you have kids. It was something that happened despite us, really. It just happened. Once I'm in the flow of a record, and feel like I'm starting to cover some ground, it gives me a boost to write something that's appropriate to where I am and what we're aiming at. "Reckoner" is like that.
AVC: If "Reckoner" is what you were aiming at, the band must have had something different in mind for the record.
EO: There wasn't any kind of vision. But we were talking about making something a bit more bare-bones.
TY: More space.
EO: "Videotape" is the best example. We've had a tendency to pile on overdubs and tracks and fill everything up. I can't help but feel that we suffered from that. We just piled stuff on. You look to the essence of a great song: You've got great vocals, with lovely lyrics and a great melody, and you've got something that backs that. After Hail To The Thief, it was great to hear Thom's Eraser. You've got great vocals up front, in your face, not back in the mix futzing with all the other melodies and stuff going on. Keeping that was definitely in the cards.
AVC: Hail To The Thief was piled up with sound, but it felt like that was where the album was coming from. The music, the artwork, even the title "In Rainbows" suggests this album is coming from somewhere else.
TY: The title Hail To The Thief was pretty much stamped on the top of what was going on, just an anger thing. There was a lot of anger in that record—a lot. There's very little anger in In Rainbows. It's in no way political, or, at least, doesn't feel that way to me. It very much explores the ideas of transience. It starts in one place and ends somewhere completely different. That was the only way we could fit it together, but it turned out to be a real upside in the end. The first half of it is pretty raw, pretty hectic. Even though you have "Nude," what the lyrics are actually saying is pretty messed-up, nasty. After a while, everything calms down and you get it out of your system. You feel better; there's this feeling of elation. As far as the artwork goes, that was heavily influenced by the pictures NASA puts on their website. They have this great library of stuff online that we were looking at, and it coincided with [Radiohead album-cover artist] Stanley Donwood's experiments, throwing wax around. It was just experimentation, but it gave a sense of release, letting go.
EO: Stanley is always in the studio with us when we're working.
AVC: Is that by design?
EO: He's either in a little room adjacent or above us in the mezzanine, or in the shed at the bottom of the gully. He's always with us, and we need him in that creative process. Not just for his artwork, but because he'll say, "I know nothing about music, but that was fucking brilliant!" By being there, the music seeps into him. He listens to things the same we do, having it repeated over and over and over again. It gets in him, and the stuff in that—the mood of the songs—is conveyed in the artwork. He's a receptor to that, and that's great.
TY: There can be some really difficult times in the studio, but most of the time, we have a laugh in it. A lot of times, when we're doing the artwork and things, there is an element of comedy about it—I've been throwing wax at bits of paper! It's not exactly the punk ethic, but we always end up taking a piss.
EO: The last few records, Stanley's started off with erotic imagery.
TY: Right. His erotic topiary.
EO: Erotic landscapes.
AVC: You have to look pretty hard to find landscapes erotic.
TY: No, no, not at all! I could tell you all about that. For days and days probably.
AVC: You say In Rainbows isn't political, but the feeling of transition seems to match this country's feeling of political transition.
TY: There is a certain way of a life, a certain way of being, that is, one way or another, going to come to an end. Hopefully something good to come to fruition, or maybe nothing will. A lot of background to this, for me, is the environmental thing. I didn't want to put that anywhere in the music, but it's absolutely there all the time, in my consciousness.
AVC: You've been doing a lot of work on behalf of ecological causes in recent years, even asking fans to find environmentally friendly ways to travel to your concerts on this tour. Where is the balance of having causes you work for as individuals, without turning into some photo-op-figurehead Bono type? And how do you keep that separate from your music?
TY: Sometimes when you get an opportunity to appropriate your work, or use whatever collateral you have, for something good, you think, "Well, yeah, you should do this." You're not in any way qualified to do it, but I was so sick of hearing so many unqualified people say that global warming doesn't exist, I thought, "Well, I'm no less qualified than they are, so I can deal with doing it." Generally, it's not good to be engaged directly with the political system unless you are qualified. Most of the organizations that you want to help or represent, ultimately, they are the ones that should be talking to governments, not you. In many ways, photo opportunities with politicians and people like that are a way to deflect attention. It's a very depressing business, the way politics works. You get stuck into it, but then, at some point, you have to walk away. I had to walk away, because it's like this dark, black energy void. There are some people who have dedicated their lives to living in that energy void, but I can't do it. I just can't go there. It feels like you're treading water too much when you do. It's a crazy thing.
EO: You have a limited amount of time to spend making music, and it's really important to not infringe on that time. Making music requires a lot of time; it involves putting the hours in and doing it consistently. Anything that upsets the flow of that upsets the music. The right thing is to spend the time making the music—then, if we have more time to give, give that to the other stuff.
AVC: Radiohead is nearly 20 years old. Being older, having families, and so on—how has that affected your music?
TY: It's harder to actually get time to work. It's harder to find your reason to work, and that isn't because you don't need to work, it's because you think, "More work? This is a young person's thing." But I don't agree with that at all. Music is music, and that's fucking nonsense. The reverse is true. There's that, but there's also the issues you face, that you're not the center of attention any more; you have children, and they are.
EO: What I liked about arriving at this record, thematically, was the lyrics had changed. What's really strong to me about the record is, the lyrics are perennial in their scope.
TY: They're positively evergreen.
EO: It's a very human thing. Music, at the end of the day, is communicating something—emotion, a feeling, a rite of passage, where you are in life. This record really does that. It's not a thing that's being written by someone who's in an exclusive position. It's something that's felt by everyone.
AVC: Was there a different tone from the start?
EO: The first thing I heard in the first rehearsal was Thom playing "House Of Cards," and I thought, "Hello there! Well, all right!" It's very strong, and I was like, "Yeah! I'm feeling it too."
TY: It's funny, because when I write lyrics and am using them in the rehearsal, people are like, "Well, I like that line, and I like that line, and blah blah blah" and usually, it's the lines I'm on the verge of throwing out. [Radiohead multi-instrumentalist] Jonny Greenwood is the best for that. I was writing this song the other day, and there's a line about voices down echo chambers, and I was literally about to delete it when Jonny goes, "That's the line I like!" It's the same thing on "Bodysnatchers," there's the line, "Has the light gone out for you? Because the light's gone for me." I was a bit unsure about it. When people respond positively to it, that's what stays in.
AVC: Has anything new come out of the band being together, and playing together, on this tour?
TY: We get to hang out with each other; it's a bit of a novelty. We don't see each other that much when we're not doing this.
EO: That's the great thing about doing this sort of thing—we get to spend some time together, socializing.
TY: Jonny and I spend quite a bit of time going through half-finished things and deliberately forcing ourselves to finish them so we can get them to the others. I'm getting a buzz out of that—this thing, "Slave," that I was playing for Ed the other day.
EO: That's right. It's quite good.
TY: I'll send it home to Nigel [Godrich] tonight to mix. Honestly, I could probably use a full day doing it, but you're in unusual places and want to get out. You don't want to stay in the hotel all day; it becomes a little too much for me. It's a little bit more than I can stand. In the end, when we're back from this tour, I'll probably think, "I really should have spent every day finishing stuff."
EO: He's finished quite a bit, though.
TY: I'm doing all right. I'm finishing what I want to finish.
AVC: Sounds like fans might not have to wait another four years for the next record.
TY: We try to keep the momentum of the operation going. Lots of times, if you stop too long, there's no momentum and it takes a lot to pick it back up again. We've had such a positive response to this. We're human; we lose our confidence far too quickly. It's nice to have our confidence. That's the biggest influence on things at the moment, being reasonably confident for a change.