Thom YorkeMusic Features Thom Yorke
“Thom Yorke looks like a dashboard hula dancer on speed!” This is what I’m yelling into my friend’s ear as we sit seventh-row, dead-center while Radiohead blasts the Boston Skyline with one of its nine new tunes, “Bangers and Mash,” a rock-infused, drum-driven distant cousin of the band’s characteristically electronic-laden soundscapes. My friend nods in agreement, and screams back, “You’re right—he does look like Dr. Evil’s son, Seth Green!”
Given the volume’s intensity, it’s useless to correct him. All I know is that the band’s harmonic vibrations could alter the flight path of migrating birds—and that the little white boy from Oxford can freaky dance.
Before I begin windmills on my air guitar, the menacing Chicken Little strains of Hail to the Thief’s “Where I End and You Begin (The Sky is Falling In)” start bleeding through the speakers. Add the artsy angles and security-camera quality of the live-video feeds on the 10 trapeziums hanging behind the band—plus the ambient melancholy wafting through the tent like dry-ice fog—and Yorke’s mirrored image fuels some seriously creepy disconcertment. Before I decide whether to raise my lighter or run for cover, someone hurls a pair of socks on stage.
“I was really hoping for a bra, Tom Jones style,” says Yorke without missing a beat. So the Oxford white boy also has a sense of humor.
And therein lies the rub—how is it possible for someone constantly portrayed in the press as a distant, gloomy, neurotic elitist to be having so much fun twirling and gesticulating around stage fronting one of the biggest bands in the world? For the rest of the show, Yorke effortlessly walks the tightrope between unleashing banshee yowls of feedback into the sound hole of his guitar on “The National Anthem” and taking sarcastic jabs at Big Business. “So I was walking around the venue earlier, and I happened to see the Cadillac VIP. Does owning a Caddy make you a VIP? Typical Clear Channel or whatever they’re called now. ‘I know, we’ll change our name and now no one will hate us.’ Yeah, right,” he says and then launches into “Hail to the Thief.”
Perhaps Yorke’s art and vitality come not from the balancing, but from the tension in the tightrope. And did I mention the dancing? At one point I swear Yorke was about to scream, “Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance!” Whether he’s deadly serious or merely engaging in subversive tomfoolery, fans and critics alike can now search for an explanation by dissecting Yorke’s ?rst solo album, The Eraser (XL Recordings). Fortunately, I have plans to meet with Yorke in the morning, so I stop analyzing and start dancing.
With all the hoopla surrounding music’s most notoriously prickly frontman, you’d think spending teatime with Yorke would be like hugging a cactus, but sitting across from him over iced tea at the band’s hotel, I’m struck by the ease of his demeanor, naturally congenial with a quick cat-who-ate-the-canary grin. With my ears still ringing church bells from the night before, I give him some homegrown honey to help his throat. His son takes honey to help his asthma, he says. If you believe some of the reviews of Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, parenthood has somehow mellowed Yorke’s writing. Critics pointed out that the album had hints of accessibility where the previous two had none—a sign that he’s pulled back on the obstreperous band’s reigns.
Yorke simply roll his eyes, “I just think it’s bullshit. People just project; they’re going to write whatever they write. They want to project your life onto your music, which is very handy, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s all nonsense. Especially since I think Hail to the Thief has some of the darkest stuff we’ve ever written. But it’s much easier to gloss over that point and project; it makes for an easier story to write. … It’s an unacceptable part of the rock ’n’ roll mythmaking; it just goes to show how f—ed up it is that once a woman or a man becomes a parent, and still chooses to make music, that the music is somehow toned down or lighter-edged—well that can only be written by [journalists] who don’t have kids. I would agree that one’s perspective can change, but the anger and that edge is simply something different.” Being the father of a precocious two-year-old myself, we also talk about how time—either spent fighting for grand causes or exploring muses—seems to vanish after having kids. He lets out a laugh in acknowledgment and counters, “You know the Nike logo that reads ‘Just Do It?’ Well, I got a big page in my sketchbook that looks just like it, but it says, ‘AH, F— IT.’” This idea of time for reflection being precious as a parent was nicely illustrated by the fact that the only place I could really listen to The Eraser was in my car. Due to the ultra-sensitive copyright protection on my watermarked advance copy, computer play was out of the question, and since my home stereo has been overtaken by my son’s constant rotation of Dan Zanes, Buck Howdy and Sesame Street CDs, I found myself sitting alone, late at night, in my driveway, blasting Yorke’s new sonic manifesto. With the windows rolled up and German-engineered soundproo?ng, the exquisitely belligerent beats and frequencies emanating from my secluded chamber kept nagging familial responsibilities at bay. After several plays it’s uncanny how the album seems to exist in a musical vacuum—each track carries its own weight, but as a collection it spins in its own distinct orbit.
Yorke affirms my reaction with amusement. “Well, that’s where [I came up with most of the ideas for the record.] It’s funny, my father used to [sit in the car and listen to music], and I also used to do it, as well, because we never had a stereo in our house; the only place to listen was in my dad’s Volvo.”
While on first pass the album seems a mere epilogue to the progression of Radiohead’s albums to date, the textures and spirit of each cut begin to mingle in lambent grooves upon subsequent visits—never more so than on “Black Swan,” which is so deep in the pocket with joint-poppin’ dance-funk that you keep forgetting the beat came from a little laptop.
“‘Black Swan’ was kind of an accident,” Yorke says. “I mean the whole idea for the record wasn’t, ‘Yes, we’re going to make an album now.’ When [producer] Nigel [Godrich] and I were talking about doing it, it was toward the end of the whole Hail to the Thief thing, and I’d been banging on about it for ages and figured it was about time we tried this out. We had lots of random laptop sketches that I finally had the nerve to present to Nigel, and he was like ‘Eh, it’s OK.’ I knew I was going to see him again [in the studio] in another week so I was like ‘OK, next time around I’m going to blow his socks off’ … so, the first thing I did was ‘Black Swan’ and it took me all of 10 minutes. That said, a lot of this record was compiled by doing a huge, mammoth editing job, which Nigel is very good at, where you have a six-minute piece where the first five-plus minutes are really noisy—which, of course, I really like—and then Nigel hears the last 40 seconds and says, ‘I’m having that!’ But when you listen, ‘Black Swan’ is the key that opens up the rest of the record—once you ‘get it,’ all the other songs start falling into place. Because when we were putting this together, I deliberately wanted to do something that wasn’t too long, in order to sustain your focus, and—as you say—everything bounces off each other. I basically wanted it to work like [David Bowie’s] Hunky Dory, but with electronics.”
The thought of the Thin White Duke’s flirtation with folk-driven dancehall music permeating The Eraser’s machine-shop vibe keeps Yorke laughing. He first considered making a solo record back in 2001 when he started getting his head around using a laptop to cut up and rearrange sounds and snippets of music. This might sound like a painstaking approach, but the new album didn’t take long to record.
“It was a real breeze,” he says. “I’d done a lot of preparation work already, and Nigel wasn’t allowing me to do endless new programming. It’s a lot of me at home, with a bit of stuff on the road. But it all feeds back to how I work, even with Radiohead. I have a huge bank of small sections of sounds that I really like but that never worked, or just don’t have a point to them yet. I tend to work on those and call them up, change ’em around and then add ’em all up. Then I sample them and re-cut them until it finally takes shape.”
When I ask if he then tries to sneak those snippets back under the 40 seconds of stuff Nigel likes, Yorke nods, shrugs his shoulders and smiles; I swear you can see little yellow feathers stuck in his teeth.
“With this record, it was a bit mad because there were no songs; I didn’t go into the project with Nigel intending to write songs. I mean, Nigel may’ve had it on his mind—since he’d been working with Paul McCartney, Mr. Melody—and didn’t intend on telling me. In fact, all the lyrics came as it was going along, which was somewhat of a difficult situation, because the only way I could really complete them, bizarrely, was to try and play most of the tracks on an instrument. Generally speaking, I couldn’t write just listening to the laptop. I know that Stipey [Michael Stipe] has done this over the years, where R.E.M. sends him tracks, and he drives around in this old Volvo, and he used to write lyrics like that. I have done a lot that way, but I was finding the pace of what we were doing so fast that I just didn’t have time. So, the easiest way to do it was desperately figure out how to play it. Which is really interesting because it feeds back to the guitar part in ‘Black Swan,’ which hadn’t been there for ages. But to sing something, I needed to strum something and then the song came, a very peculiar way around.”
If you’ve ever perused Radiohead’s album inserts you can see the trend of cerebral chaos splayed over the pages. Thus, it’s easy to imagine Yorke really woodshedding in order to puzzle together all these scraps of paper and journal entries to create something tangible and cohesive. “The focus was a good thing,” he says. “It was a kick up the ass. I mean, within the band context, I’m used to having lots of time to develop because you’re sharing the tunes with other people, and the songs and lyrics naturally evolve. But, if you’re just sitting there with the stuff and you’ve got to concentrate, it’s difficult, especially since you got Nigel just sitting next door whistling and waiting. I don’t like time-wasting either, but I also wanted it to sound natural,” he chuckles. “Yeah, right—make people think I’ve had this stuff kicking around for ages.
“My favorite was ‘And it Rained all Night,’ just because I’d never written a lyric like that before. It was basically a cut-and-paste of something I’d written, where I had my lounge just covered in bits of paper, and one was four pages long, which I cut down and cut down—all the way through thinking, ‘This is never going to work.’ Then we actually ended up recording it on a full moon through the night, because I have one those big, fat telescopes my partner bought me, and since Nigel is the only one who knows how to use it, when he comes to my house it’s like ‘come on, set it up for me.’ So I’d go up to the roof and look at the moon and then run back downstairs and quickly write away. Back and forth, it was really good, actually; it surprised me to write that lyric. And it really surprised me that I got Nigel’s voice in the headphones at the end going, ‘Yeah, that’s good,’ because all the way through I was thinking ‘this is so wack, it’s never going to work.’”
Some listeners will see the new album’s clear, reverb-free vocals and musical accessibility as a brave step forward in Yorke’s writing, and some will see it as a retro move to capture past acclaim. For some reason, critics are always angling for a return to the relative simplicity of Pablo Honey or The Bends.
“I find it surreal—‘He’s found melody again.’ They all say that. It’s like the story is already written … ‘It’s their back-to-basics record,’” Yorke laughs. “Ahhhh no! It’s the same old shit every time.”
The Eraser, however, is not the same old shit, by any means. In a very true way, it’s an album of love songs. But before you think Yorke has gone completely soft, by clarification, the “love” here is the whole package, complete with mean streaks and caustic wit, not merely the trite, romantic-idealist definition. “Who would want to listen to that crap?” Yorke says. “It’s not real; love isn’t like that. Well, it isn’t for me—maybe that’s why I don’t get any action,” he laughs.
For Yorke, a true love song speaks to the realities of love—the egotistically sadistic side, the analytical side, the physical depravation side, all of it, not some ‘Here are your roses, I love you darling’ Lionel Richie sendup.
“Happily ever after… not!”
The Eraser’s title track is the most pointed. The first lines you hear on the album are, “Please excuse me, but I got to ask, are you only being nice because you want something? / My fairytale Arab princess be careful how you respond / You might end up in this song.”
When asked to comment on the lyrics of “The Eraser” there’s a long pause before he simply answers, “I can’t.”
Fair enough. Luckily all good lyrical poetry acts as kernels for greater meaning. Clues to any broader existentialist statements might be gleaned from the album’s website (TheEraser.net), which opens with a small animation sequence backed by an ethereal dirge with the smallest speck of melodic hope. Fronted by theater curtains, pen-and-ink cardboard cutouts of dark clouds and storm waves lurch across the stage. A small figure in a dory clings to life while being chased by large buildings with serpentine tentacles. The monster “sea-edifices”—including the U.S. Capitol building, British Parliament and Big Ben—are followed by several nondescript industrial plants and, finally, a small, lone black animal riding a plank of wood. Menacingly, the sea and clouds grow darker before fading to black when, suddenly, the sequence ends with a large man cloaked in a black hat and overcoat holding back the surging storm waters with his outstretched hand. Like Edward Gorey meets an episode of Captain Pugwash, the dark chase obviously symbolizes some ominous harbinger Yorke sees on the horizon. Fortunately, when he explains why he titled the album The Eraser, he’s more forthcoming.
“I was reading this book about the death of Aldo Moro, the head of the Christian Democrat party in Italy who was murdered by the Red Brigades in the ’70s—which was a big deal when I was a kid. Before he died he’d written all these letters and was disowned and ‘erased’ from Italian Politics. Even before he died everyone was saying, ‘Well, he’s obviously lost his mind; the person writing these letters to newspapers in desperation is obviously not the real thing.’ It got me thinking. For me, a lot of the record is about living in a world where things like Iraq happen. You pick up The New York Times and there’s one little column saying ‘a bunch of soldiers blow away 100 people they’re trying to save because they were on speed’ and over on another column there’s some other small piece on how they should be brought home, OK and next page—the ability to erase these people from one’s [consciousness], partly in order to exist day-to-day, exists. Also, all these nightmare scenarios that are going on in the background. In Britain, it’s almost too much the other way. People in the U.K. are constantly talking about climate change right now, but the big fear is that it’s become some bizarre fad, and I’m a bit freaked because it doesn’t really work like that. Talk about ‘erasing,’ what about New Orleans? I mean Stipe and some other artists have been talking about it, but, oh my God, how can you do that? How can you erase all these people like they don’t exist? Obviously there’s the personal thought of me trying to erase this or that from my mind to move on because there are all these things going on, and then I thought, ‘No, the record is much more a response to the political environment and general public psyche.’ It’s a response to the ability to [snaps his fingers] and these issues can just go away.
“In Britain there was a massive thing called the Hutton Inquiry, where there was this scientist, David Kelly, who was the chief chemical-weapons person in Britain. He was a whistle-blower on the lack of WMDs in Iraq. He was rather inconvenient, much like [outed CIA operative] Valerie Plame, so he was outed by the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense by saying he was a leak, and that he was the one talking to the press when he shouldn’t, and he ended up ‘committing suicide.’ I feel really funny talking about it because he lived locally to us and I have friends who know his family, and to me, it’s this incredibly dark period in British life, where basically the entire country held the prime minister responsible for it because his press man said, ‘I want this guy rid of, I want him erased; I want him gone.’ So there was this Hutton Inquiry, which naturally said the Ministry of Defense was probably at fault with the way they handled his outing, so obviously the prime minister can’t be held responsible, which everyone thought was a crock of shit, but—poof—it went away; it was whitewashed. It was erased, and the culprits are all still there, and this poor man died for whatever reason. It seems like this very, very small thing, but it’s an expression of something much wider and much more frightening.”
As we discuss the Orwellian nature creeping into the world’s collective psyche, Yorke’s other side begins to appear, the one similar to Toto sniffing around the Wizard’s curtain. Unlike what most critics would have you believe, Yorke isn’t a pessimist; he’s a realist with a mighty big spotlight. Yet, continually using one’s influence as an artist to shed light on the atrocities of modern life isn’t really in the job description, though it’s always tempting.
“I wouldn’t want to take on that kind of responsibility, but I think I can’t help finding myself—given the particular weapon I have at my disposal—wanting to use it occasionally in certain circumstances. But I think it’s best used inside the music; that’s where you can have the best effect. Some people are able to do it—Neil Young, Bob Marley; Bob Dylan’s done it endlessly. Lots of rap does it; Public Enemy does it endlessly, so it’s possible to do and do well. But I always have to be aware when it comes to writing and when it comes to music, you don’t just come and say, ‘I want to put this in the song.’ It naturally evolves, and it’s naturally a part of what’s going on. … Anger is an energy source for me, especially lyrically when I’m presented with something I consider utter madness. … My writing is a constant response to doublethink.
“A big, formative thing for me, having left college, was reading Manufacturing Consent by [Edward S.] Herman & [Noam] Chomsky. All these issues that were being knocked around at college and then someone just going, ‘boom—It’s like this!’ You’re never the same again because a light has been turned on and you’re like, ‘OK, I get it, now I get it.’ I know you can easily fall into all the conspiracies and shit, but for a long time Chomsky just keyed open these things that’d been rattling around in my head. It’s very easy to get too speci?c about it and too conspiratorial, but to me it’s just about a change in mindset.
“I think I’m more acutely aware now than I was that the vast majority of human life on this earth is concerned with looking after their babies and making sure there’s enough food to eat. … For me there’s a different sort of ‘compassion’ there—for want of a better word—and I’m much more interested in trying to not be part of the fetish of general politics and the personality cults of this or that figure in public life because, to me, that’s all part of the game of irrelevance, which is, in a way, the fog held up for people to just ignore what’s going on in their life. I find a lot of politics nowadays are like soap operas, and something that’s a major political issue can be so quickly hijacked by this or that personality, for this or that reason, which diffuses a potentially life-threatening issue for millions of people and transfers it onto this culture of irrelevance. It’s very easy to get sucked into that. Talking about politics, don’t talk about [defense secretary] Rumsfeld. Talk about the reason he’s still in power. Why’s he still in power? Because the Pentagon is so powerful. That’s more scary than f—in’ Rumsfeld.”
Yorke has walked the walk with many causes in the past including a couple high-profile events with Neil Young, Michael Stipe and The Beastie Boys, but while most of those focused on using music as an outreach tool, Yorke worked for a while offstage with Bono on debt reduction. Teaming with someone who has such a wide audience, he figured, was a valuable opportunity to help create a better collective mindset. But—in Bono’s fight—while the goals are morally unshakable, his methods have raised a few eyebrows.
“I think what he does for AIDS is amazing,” says Yorke. “No one else seems to have that energy. I think what happened with the Drop the Debt campaign, unfortunately, is that the very people responsible for those debts, the G8—as these things go in high-level politics, if someone chooses to engage with them saying, ‘I want you to help this or change that,’ they want something in return. They don’t give a f— if it’s morally right, they just want the photo op, and that’s where I got off the ride.”
Power brokers attempting to capitalize on the intensity and devotion of Radiohead’s audience is obviously a cunning, deviant method of attracting support for political issues. But, remember, this audience is comprised of musical zealots. A picture of a politician’s arm around Thom Yorke isn’t necessarily going to open up a demographic some interest group is desperately trying to convert. Still, Yorke is acutely aware of the power of his iconology, how it can be abused, and how, in the end, it can actually hurt the greater cause.
“After all the talk, they don’t do shit; they get something out of it and you get nothing in return. Not only that but they play the blackmail game where it doesn’t seem to matter that there may be millions of kids outside, Genoa for example, getting the shit kicked out of them by the Italian police behind big steel fences because what matters is the image. When the representatives of the G8 get together they seem to forget they were actually put in power by the people they’ve chosen to ring a fence around, and that they’re accountable to these people. They tried to do the bizarre blackmail scheme with me because I’m involved with Friends of the Earth who are trying to get the British Government to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2050. They were talking about setting up a meeting with me and Tony Blair. I wasn’t particularly happy or wild about meeting the guy who took us into Iraq, and then they started talking about having a few meetings beforehand with us [Yorke lapses into a formal British voice] just to discuss how the day would go, and to make sure I was ‘onsides,’ so that if perhaps after the meeting I said things less than positive about the situation and what Blair was doing… just to remind me that [kind of behavior] may well jeopardize Friends Of The Earth’s access to the Prime Minister in the future. That’s called ‘blackmail,’ and that’s exactly what they used to do with Bono. And I don’t think that’s good enough, and it’s not Bono’s fault. The constant discussion I’ve had with him about it was, ‘I’ll try to work from the inside, and you try and work from the outside,’ which is good. But what I worry about is that you don’t come out of it intact, and it can jeopardize the issue.”
Left to ponder the potential of the Bono/Yorke tag team while the waiter refills our glasses, I begin to see Yorke as a human thaumatrope, a token with two different pictures on the front and back. When you roll it quickly back and forth, the two pictures become one image, flickering and three-dimensional. Like the two faces of Janus, one side represents organic beginnings while the other represents the transition between primitive life and civilization, peace and war; spin them fast enough and you have Thom Yorke. I’m curious to see which side will respond to his album being leaked a month early.
There’s a long pause before he sighs, “I think what we should’ve done was just make a download of it anyway earlier on. The problem is that it leaks from the pressing plant, which is lame. I do think it’s quite nice that all these unofficial Radiohead and blogging sites have said they won’t post it, which is amazing.”
Indeed. This communal stance online against the blatant piracy of Yorke’s work is a huge sign of respect. It not only displays the speed at which a leak can, somewhat organically, be thwarted by fans instead of label lawsuits, but it’s also another legitimizing step for bloggers. Ironically, it’s the type of journalistic integrity Yorke is always hoping for. Still, the hype resulting from the leak wasn’t what he had in mind.
“To me it’s a shame, because in my head I was really excited about the way [The Eraser] came out, and for some reason I was dim enough to think one could keep a lid on it. I mean, it started off with just four people I knew personally having a copy, and we were growing it really naturally which was a nice vibe. It’s a shame because that whole scheme, that whole way of looking at the record, it was like an experiment and it’s all been sort of blown by the leak. When Nigel and I finished the album, we were really excited, partly because it had been really fun to make—and it was quick. We felt like we’d been let out; we did the record without anybody watching; we did it quietly. It was just happening, a couple guys just f—ing hanging out doing the thing we like the most. There were no big scenes, no label people, no aggression, nothing like that. The whole point about the record for me was doing it really low-key. I know that sounds daft, but to me it’s that sort of record. As you said, listen to it in the car or a confined personal space and it makes total sense. And I don’t think it really demands a great deal of discussion because it’s short; to me it’s fairly straightforward, and it’s very direct. The more nonsense talked about it beforehand the less effect it has.”
So let the music do the talking?
Yorke laughs. “It’s indeed an elaborate way of saying that.”
Then this is just an exercise, a little game where you talk to me, I write about it and hopefully my writing piques people’s interest and they go and buy it?
“Yeah, you’re right so let’s stop talking shit!”
Thom Yorke’s duality is in plain view as he talks to his kids on the phone before bedtime. Like any father away from home he’s disappointed he has to miss the ritual of baths and bedtime stories, but he knows that—just like interviews—it’s part of the job. After chatting with him about surfing (he’s horrible, but loves it) and what he last heard on his iPod (the live, ’70s version of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My”) it’s hard to see how the world has missed the funny, energetic, regular-Joe side of Yorke’s personality. Of course, it’s dif?cult to shed the overshadowing cloak of cynicism and despair that hangs over his societal views, but perhaps listeners have simply chosen to ignore his elegant wit and jocular panache because it doesn’t ?t their pigeonholed portrayals of the brooding artiste; the one who speaks for the disenchanted and maligned. In truth, Yorke’s just a concerned customer like the rest of us who feel nasty things are happening to our world, and that no one is really paying attention (hence, this solo album). The real dichotomy comes in his wanting to wake up the world to its complacency by screaming from the rooftops while simultaneously wanting to be nothing more than a good singer in a great rock ’n’ roll band; The Eraser proved a well-timed catharsis for both sides.
“With the Radiohead thing, we basically got to the end of Hail to the Thief and everyone just wanted to stop for a bit. The whole thing was starting to get a bit… stagnant, mostly because our lives were changing and it was difficult to work out what our motives were for doing it. It was just like ‘everyone go away, get away from it and work out why you think we should be carrying on, because just carrying on blindly will reflect in the music, and that’s just a waste of f—ing time. So it was that thing of having to go away to get hungry again and—oh my God—were we hungry! A year and a half at home!”
Radiohead is now in the midst of an extensive summer jaunt through the U.S., Canada and Europe, its first major road stint since 2003. “This tour is just to get away and hang out basically, and it’s been really good,” says Yorke. “Bad gigs are still bad gigs, but to me the high is just about playing the new stuff and hanging out. It’s just the pleasure of playing with each other, because nowadays I feel we play quite differently when we’re on. We play quite differently than we ever used to play. The way we change the grooves and such is really important. It’s also a confidence thing; we lost all our confidence.”
I call bullshit. I find it very hard to believe you’ve lost the swagger.
I guess when you’re living inside the vacuum you don’t really see it from the outside-world perspective.
“That’s right, that’s what all my friends say, and it’s Nigel’s favorite stock rant: ‘Man, you just don’t see it, do you—and you never will.’ Well, no, I won’t. That’s the bloody point! For if I did see it, it would just go ‘click,’ and it’d be over anyway.”
Then you’d just be some megalomaniac jackass, and no one wants that.
“Well, I’d give it a go!”