Jonny Greenwood hears the future
The unlikeliest of guitar heroes, Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood doesn't show off. He's never going to try to be another Eddie Van Halen, dazzling you with fleet-fingered solos. Rather, he goes for drama: Those ominous, staccato blasts of noise in "Creep" right before the chorus kicks in — almost like a shotgun being cocked — are his.
Radiohead's music has always been cinematic, so when Greenwood began scoring movies — first for an experimental 2003 documentary called Bodysong, then for 2007's There Will Be Blood, for which he created a violently percussive backdrop — it made sense. The guitarist, 50, modestly says his pivot to screen composing wasn't part of a master plan. "It still feels like quite a strange thing to do," he says. "But I enjoy the connection with the director. It's a bit like being in a band, but with someone who's making a film instead of songwriting."
As fate would have it, Greenwood has three original soundtracks — all unique and major — in release this season: a damaged, piano-heavy aural carpet for Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog; smeary strings and skittering jazz cymbals for Pablo Larraín's Princess Di psychodrama Spencer; and pure nostalgia for Paul Thomas Anderson's '70s-set Licorice Pizza. It's likely Greenwood will be Oscar-nominated for one or perhaps two of these, vaulting him into the rare company of John Williams and Alexandre Desplat.
But the rock star's palette is wider than theirs, more adventurous and culty, and he's turning a younger generation on to modern classical music. "What always fascinated me was how many colors and instruments there are," he says. "My teenage fantasy was that I'd be able to go into any music shop I wanted and take any instrument. But I would never take more than one guitar. I just wasn't interested. It was more like: Okay, I can get a French horn or some bagpipes or whatever. That was my idea of pure pleasure."
As he says this, Greenwood pivots his Zoom camera to his practice room, revealing the wooden cabinet of the ondes Martenot, an eerie-sounding electric keyboard you can hear on Kid A's "How to Disappear Completely" and many of his scores. "It looks alarmingly like my fantasy all came true," Greenwood says. "Minus the French horn."
He admits that his formal music education ended when he was 18, after studying Bach chorales in high school. But Greenwood has made up for it with an autodidact's zeal. His favorite composers aren't the obvious ones, but revered modern masters like Olivier Messiaen, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Hollywood's Jerry Goldsmith. You may not know these names, but you've heard their sound: atonal, marked by aggressive harshness, but also aching beauty.
Increasingly in demand, Greenwood takes his time, working by himself for months with no arrangers or assistants. "It's nerdy," he admits. "You're doing one note at a time on paper, on a score. And then it's all over in five minutes, all these days and weeks of work, all that preparation, and then bang! It's like a fireworks display, and I love it."
Greenwood's process begins early, poring through scripts and set photos. "The test footage for Spencer was all very claustrophobic and handheld," he recalls. "It made it clear that it wasn't going to be The Crown." That phase leads to "endless emails" and stabs at melodies — which Greenwood calls, with self-deprecation, pretentious but fun.
There's still a bit of showman in him, too. For example, when Anderson was running late to the studio session for Phantom Thread, Greenwood held the orchestra back so the director could hear it live: "When you're on the other side of the glass, it's like nothing else."
A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly's February issue, on newsstands Friday and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.