Radiohead drummer Philip Selway preps a surprising solo debut: The Music Mix Q&A
Image Credit: Kevin WestenbergMillions of fans worldwide know Philip Selway as Radiohead‘s drummer, the steady rhythmic anchor for the British band’s most daring experiments. But for the better part of the last decade, unknown to all but a select few, Selway has been quietly developing his own voice as a singer-songwriter. We first got an inkling of this side of Selway last year, when he contributed two mostly acoustic tunes to an album by 7 Worlds Collide, the supergroup led by New Zealand rocker Neil Finn. He’ll kick off his solo career in earnest on Aug. 31 with the release of Familial, a delicate folk-rock set recorded over the past two years in between his work with Radiohead. (The band is currently on a summer break from completing their eagerly awaited eighth album.)
I met Selway, 43, in a downtown Manhattan hotel yesterday to hear all about it. Click over to his official site to listen to “By Some Miracle,” Familial‘s excellent opening track, and read on for a lightly edited transcript of our full Q&A.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are you excited about people getting to hear your album?
PHILIP SELWAY: Yeah! I mean, it’s been a very guarded secret for quite some time from practically everybody. So that whole process of putting it out to people is exciting. There’s a deal of apprehension in it, as well. But suddenly, it makes it real in a way. There’s actually a record that people are listening to, and it’s finished.
Why did you keep the making of the album a secret?
It was very much under the radar. I really didn’t know how I was going to do it. I just knew that I had all these little fragments of songs which were gradually building up into a bigger body of work. I didn’t really know what my singing voice was, and also, I’ve been very focused on drumming for most of my time in Radiohead. Making that leap of playing them to other people felt like a very large step. It was just me at home, hardly anybody hearing what I was doing. I gradually started playing it to people like Ian Davenport, who’s produced the record, and gradually I’ve let more and more people into it.
In terms of when you wrote these songs, is “The Witching Hour” [which first appeared on 7 Worlds Collide’s The Sun Came Out in 2009] the earliest?
In terms of actually completing something that I was happy with lyrically, it was probably “Broken Promises.” When I was working on my initial demos with Ian, the first thing that we did was “Beyond Reason,” and then we did “The Witching Hour” as well. When Neil Finn invited me to be part of the 7 Worlds Collide project, I found my spot in that in the space of a couple of weeks. [There were] all these things which I suppose I’d been working up to doing, but it required something like that to actually push me to [perform] up in front of people.
So the origins of this album predate that 7 Worlds Collide project by a bit.
Yeah, they do. That learning process that I was talking about was well in motion by that point. I was finding what my singing voice was and finishing more and more songs. It was getting to that point where I had a lot of music there, and it felt like a body of material that existed in its own right. So it didn’t feel appropriate to bring it in to Radiohead… It would be about seven or eight years ago that I realized things were gaining a head of steam. And then three or four years ago, that’s when I actually vocalized that thing to myself. “Yes, I’m going to make a record. Don’t know how yet, I don’t know if I’ll be singing on it, I don’t know if I’ll be playing guitar on it. But I have these songs, and I’ve got to find a way of doing that.” It also, I suppose, tied in with things that were going on at the time, just in terms of coming up to turning 40… My mum died [in 2006], and that stirred things up in some ways. It felt like a very fertile period in terms of what was going on in my life. [I had] that sense of being at the midpoint in everything, that perspective where you’re equally looking back and looking forward and taking stock of all those significant, rich and complex relationships around you. I don’t think I would have been ready to make a record before that point..
Had you sang or played guitar when you were younger, before you got seriously into drumming?
I suppose I started playing guitar and singing, after a fashion, at the same time as I started playing drums. But then, with Radiohead starting, I just decided to concentrate on drumming for the time.
About how long did you spend recording this album?
It was in fits and starts, really. Everything I’ve done has fitted in for Radiohead’s schedule. So when there have been gaps, I’ve been working on this. From making that decision to make a record to finishing, it would be about two and a half years.
Did you enjoy the recording process?
Yes, I loved it, actually. Just getting that chance to try out different instruments — you know, I think I’ve tried playing most things on this record at some point or other. But then, finding the right people to collaborate with, working with Lisa Germano and Sebastian Steinberg, and Glenn [Kotche] and Pat [Sansone] from Wilco. It was a musical relationship that came together very naturally.
The album has a very subtle, layered sound. How did you arrive at that?
Trial and error, really. Having the idea from the outset that this music lent itself to that very intimate, very close-up sense, and also looking at the music that I loved which did that kind of thing. Stuff like Lisa Germano, Juana Molina, Will Oldham, [Portishead’s] Beth Gibbons on her soloist stuff. That’s the place I wanted to work in. It’s almost like late-night music, isn’t it. It’s just you having that dialogue with the song.
Were you still writing songs while you were recording?
When I was demoing, yes, the songs were definitely coming together during that period. Musically, chord structures, melodies were there. Lyrically, it took quite a long time. I was pretty much there when we came to do the sessions with Lisa and Sebastian and Glenn and Pat, which was last September for a couple of weeks. I was using Radiohead’s studio just outside Oxford…The last thing that I did [in the studio] would have been around Easter time.
What’s the lyric-writing process like for you? Do you write at home, or does it come to you at odd times?
A mixture. It’s where I can find the time. It can be hard to make the time at home. You have everything that’s going on. I suppose a lot of it was done on tour, where you do have the time.
Which songs on the album are you proudest of having completed?
“Broken Promises” was a difficult song to find the way through. The lyric was the first lyric I completed, but it’s the hardest one to record. I’m really pleased that I found the appropriate thing for that one in the end. It went through various phases. There was an electronic take on it, and a Teenage Fanclub take on it. That sparse arrangement [on the album], at points it felt like, “That’s not trying hard enough,” but then anything else was kind of choking up the song… “By Some Miracle,” which is the opening track on the record, I was finding it quite hard to finish the lyric. We’d done all the music for it. It was there as a band performance. And it had some of the lyrics. But taking those and trying to respond to what was going on in the music, coming out at the end and having something that felt quite cohesive, that was very satisfying.
There’s not that much traditional drumming on the album. Did you drum on it at all?
Just on one song, “A Simple Life.” The rest of it’s Glenn Kotche from Wilco. As I was writing the songs, I didn’t really hear any drum parts in my head. It really didn’t feel as though my drumming was the appropriate way into this. I just felt it would swamp it. [Laughs] But working with Glenn — he’s such a versatile drummer, he can do anything, but he has this way of working on a very much more delicate level. He comes up with these interesting sounds and textures. It was like that with any of the [instrumental] parts. They’re lovely in themselves, Glenn’s in particular. I wanted stuff that didn’t prettify the record. It kind of scuffed it up. I didn’t want it to be tasteful. I wanted it to be warm. I think what everybody else brought to it put it off-kilter a little bit.
You’re touring Japan and Europe soon. Do you enjoy performing your own material on stage?
I went out and did some dates at Easter with Lisa. That was a steep learning curve. I suppose I was finding my feet. It was my apprenticeship. Looking back on it, yeah, I can see that I have really enjoyed it. There are bits where it was all falling into place, and I really enjoyed those bits.
Was it satisfying to have your own project to work on in and around the things you were doing with Radiohead?
Yeah. It’s nice having the two working alongside each other. It was finding the knack of stepping out of one and into the other, because they didn’t really marry up. It’s two different mindsets, which I think I’ve probably acquired a better knack for as I’ve gone along. When I’ve been working on my stuff on my own, going back to Radiohead, I suppose I listen with a different ear, which was good. I feel that benefited the material. Having the sense of developing another side of myself musically was a good feeling to go back into Radiohead stuff with.
Were the other guys in Radiohead aware that you were working on this stuff the whole time?
Well, they knew. They’ve known that I was working on it for quite some time. But actually in terms of playing them anything, I wanted to finish and to have lived with it for a little bit and know that I was happy with what was there. So I didn’t even play them anything. I gave them a copy about two months ago. That was the first time.
Do you feel any trepidation about putting music that’s this personal out there for everyone to hear?
There is a sense of staking your reputation on it, laying yourself on the line, in a way. When you’re part of Radiohead, we’re always laying ourselves on the line, but you share that with five people. And lyrically, that’s very much Thom [Yorke]’s voice, as well. So yes, there is a slight trepidation in doing that. But I’ve worked on the material for some time now. I just feel that it’s the right time now to put it out there and see who listens to it. I want it to be heard.
Naturally, people are going to compare this album to Radiohead’s work. Is that a high standard to be held against?
As I’ve been going through the process of writing and recording it, I know what goes into a Radiohead record. All the different stages, from the writing, through to the self-critiquing, going through it and not letting up on something until you’re happy with it, and jettisoning the stuff that isn’t working. I suppose I’ve wanted to maintain that quality filter. So, yes, there’s a high bar there, particularly in terms of the songwriting. I suppose I’ve not wanted to put something out until I actually felt that it would stand up in that respect. Of course, it’s not going to be Radiohead, because that’s got those five voices going into it. This is me, at the core of it, with other, different musical voices in there, which bring, hopefully, depth to it.
So, now that you’ve finished this, do you imagine you’ll make another solo album at some point?
Yeah. I mean, I think I’ve got it in me to make another one. I’ve enjoyed this process. When the appropriate time comes — God only knows. But, yeah, I’ve learned so much. In some ways, it almost feels like finishing it is bringing me to the starting line, if you like. But as ever, the main focus of what I do is Radiohead. Long may that continue.
While you’ve been getting ready to release this album, Thom Yorke was performing with Atoms for Peace. Did you have a chance to see them?
No, unfortunately not. It’s all happened over here. On the last lot of stuff that he did around Coachella and all the U.S. dates, I was doing my [tour] over in Italy with Lisa. I’ve seen some clips on YouTube, which look great. It looks like a different side of Thom, as well, which is great to see.
Do you think it’s healthy for the band to have members going off and doing their own side projects?
For a band that’s been going on for as long as we have, yes, I really think it is. Each feeds into the other. Definitely. The open musical relationship. But you can only do that when what’s there at the heart of it is a very strong bond — something that still feels very fertile. In no way does us doing this stuff outside feel like it’s running away from that. It’s just complementing that, really. The fact that that is working allows you to do this stuff.
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