How Radiohead reinvented themselves (again). EW.com goes behind the scenes of the new album, ''Hail to the Thief''
For just about any other rock band, Radiohead’s new album, ”Hail to the Thief,” would be a radical experiment. But after the willfully weird precedent of the quintet’s last two albums (2000’s ”Kid A” and 2001’s ”Amnesiac”) the song-oriented ”Hail” is being called a return to roots. And on tracks such as the first single, ”There There,” the musicians do come off as recidivist rockers, using ”real” drums and guitars again. Bassist Colin Greenwood (whose bandmates are singer Thom Yorke, drummer Phil Selway, and guitarists Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood), tells EW.com about the groups’s shifting sound, their role models, and why they don’t want to be U2 when they grow up.
How did the experience of ”Kid A” and ”Amnesiac” affect Radiohead?
It meant that we stayed together as a band. If we hadn’t recorded those albums we would have split up.
There was external pressure on us to produce music that was sort of slower and bigger-sounding to fill the Continental Airlines Arena. To do things that were really big. And it was something we didn’t really want to do. We’re not good at it. As the Edge says, ”There’s one band who’s really good at playing big places, and that’s U2.” They’re the best. We wanted to try to do other things. We’re inspired by artists like Neil Young or Lou Reed — people who do something different on every record and go where there muse puts them rather than where they’re commercially compelled to go.
Are you still making deliberately anti-commercial choices?
Well, ”Hail to the Thief” has some of our shortest songs ever on any record, but the single’s probably the longest song. The joke was that we would only put songs on the record that were short enough for singles. Then we ended up releasing the longest song. That’s very Radiohead [laughs]. It’s not trying to decommercialize it, but you end up making that decision.
Some of your fans are excited that there’s more guitar on ”Hail to the Thief” than on the last two albums.
I guess. For us, it’s hard to say because on the other albums we use guitars that don’t sound like guitars. You go to work and you’re in a studio, and the tools you use are all in front of you. There’s an electric guitar and an amplifier and a keyboard and a sampler. It’s whatever you choose to pick up on that day. Doing ”Kid A” and ”Amnesiac,” part of that was us treating all these musical instruments as equal tools.
So what changed?
Part of the reason the guitar is more evident on this record is because we rehearsed and wrote a lot of the tunes in a room like an old-fashioned rock band would. Then we finished work on them on tour, where we did eight new songs in a row every night. We were gonna follow the movie industry and have an audience response card every night and see what people like. We did do that, kind of, in that the ones that went down well were the ones we kept on the record. So it’s a very democratic record.
Speaking of democracy, is the title some kind of commentary on Bush and the 2000 election?
No. The original title of the record was ”The Gloaming,” which means the periods of darkness after dusk and just before dawn. That was the pervasive mood, this quiet we felt when we were working on the record. But then we wanted a title that was more loud and and colorful, clamoring for your attention. So we took a lyric from the first song on the album. Yes, it’s partly about our experiences in Western culture and contemporary politics. But to say it’s about George Bush would be about narrowing it. We want this album to be part of our music over the next few years, long after he’s voted out of office [laughs]. So there’s no reason we’d like to call it after him.
What do you make of Thom’s singing on the new album? He seems more relaxed.
I think it’s the best he’s ever sung on a record. He usually doesn’t like the sound of his singing, and he tries to bury his voice under effects. This time he just walked into his room and opened his mouth and sung and walked out again. This record’s awash in harmonies. I think he’s got more variety and more beautiful, relaxed tones to his voice on this one than on any of the previous records. He just let his voice be.
How would you sum up the album?
I guess for me it sounds like my favorite parts of all of our records from ”The Bends” until now. It’s a good summary of our musical career from 1993 to present-day. And we tried to make it slinkier, with a bit more groove. It’s the sound of us all playing in a room together, but it’s also the sound of us not being scared to use new technology as well together. It’s a good combination of the two.