Radiohead - At Long Last, A Future For Rock Guitar

by Bob Gulla - Guitar World October 97

If the recent decline of bands like Live and U2 have got you scratching your head and wondering who the next Great Arena Rock Hope will be, take a minute to consider Radiohead. Yeah, they sang "Creep," but don't hold that against them. If you haven't listened to the band lately, you're missing out on something special. And if you haven't heard its transcendent new record--the #1 British album OK Computer--you've overlooked one of the best records of the year, a beautifully dark and mind-numbing "concept" album that will leave you mystified and spent. How in the hell did the band make such a massive artistic leap to the present without anyone knowing?

"It's quite . . . stoned," quipped Radiohead's press office before the record's official release. Shrouded in secrecy, OK Computer was Oxford, England's biggest event since it opened the college a few centuries back. A year in the making, the album turned out to be everything we hoped for, and more. Not only does it thumb its nose in U2's fey Pop face; it walks adventurous guitar-rock down a dangerous plank, edging it ever closer to the perilous, shark-infested seas of the next century.

Together, guitarists Jon Greenwood and Ed O'Brien, along with songwriter and occasional strummer Thom Yorke, have created a scintillating spectrum of inspired guitar orchestration. By working supremely tasteful bits of heaviness into a credible, artful form, Radiohead has come to symbolize both the real and imagined future of rock and roll. There is a sense of revelation in every note.

But do these guitarists even feel that their work on OK Computer represents some kind of state of the art? Ask Madonna, Bono, Michael Stipe, Oasis, or the Beastie Boys: All were in attendance at Radiohead's one-off headlining show in New York City last June--a show that sold out in 20 minutes.

We had to sprint, but we managed to catch up with Radiohead guitarist O'Brien and Greenwood before the start of their full-fledged American tour. Indeed, Mr. Corgan, let us introduce you to the true future of rock and roll.

Ed O'Brien

How important has touring become to Radiohead?

When we toured Pablo Honey we played the songs the same each night. Now we have to maintain the level of interest for ourselves and get better as a band. When we came back from our last tour we were full of ideas and playing much better, so OK Computer really benefited.

Are there many songs from the new album on your set list?

There are two or three songs from Pablo Honey, but the majority of it is The Bends, that stuff you don't have to think about. We're still working on the new stuff. It's virtually impossible to duplicate live because it's so heavily textured, with so much electric and acoustic guitar overlays. We're trying to make sense of it in the live arena.

It's not going to be easy to arrange, is it?

It's all about tempos. When something [interesting] happens in the music, you instinctively speed up, but we're trying hard to hold back a bit, let things swing, not let the adrenaline take over.

What did recording OK Computer mean to you as a player?

It was a dream come true getting into this material as a guitarist. I really get off on new sounds and melodies that pop in and out of the mix. My role as a guitarist is to bring those melodies and sounds into the mix. We all had things we brought in, that's why it's so tricky to play live. You can't recapture those spontaneous moments, especially when there's a chain of pedals, the sound of a particular room, a certain frame of mind.

There's a huge artistic leap between this record and The Bends.

It would've made more sense had we brought another record out between this one and the last one. If you paid close attention, the b-sides, like "Lucky" and "Talk Show Host" have documented that passage. But it's a shame we can't bring out a record a year. We have to do too much touring to make that happen.

Were most of the songs on OK Computer worked out before you went into the studio?

Some tracks, yes, they were pretty well worked out going in and we just focused on capturing the sound and performance. Other tracks, like "Airbag," we had trouble approaching. With "Paranoid Android," we got bogged down, too. It was a six-and-a-half-minute song with three parts. How do you record that? We tried to play the whole song live, incorporating the tempo and mood changes, but it didn't work. So we recorded three parts differently at different times and then spliced them together. There were no philosophical disagreements. The arguments came when we had to decide what the best take was. Ultimately, Phil, our drummer, had the final say. He has to be happy with the drum take. But, then again, there are tracks like "Climbing Up The Walls," where everyone's playing is integral. We're recorded at the same time, and mics are picking up each other's stuff, so we all have to be happy in those instances.

OK Computer has remarkable cohesion. Was that purposeful?

By accident, actually. We wanted it to be diverse, and the tracks are all different. It's great to say there was a game plan going in, but it's generally by chance. As musicians, we had no idea about the way a track listing could effect the final album. But when we shuffled the order the entire mood of the record changed.

Is there a specific Radiohead sound that you're moving toward?

One of the things we do frequently is try different sounds. It'll never be the detriment of the song, but we want you to hear things you wouldn't expect.

Do you have band influences?

We admire bands like the Clash. They played punk, rock, reggae, and by the time they got to Combat Rock, they were taking on rap. They don't quite hit the mark but they make it their own. They don't bring out the same songs each time out. If you're perceived as having fun musically, then fans might forgive you for your wilder experiments. We copy records that have influenced us, but because we don't want to make carbon copies, we do our own take on it with our own limitations.

OK Computer seems awfully dark. Is that the band's state of mind?

It's a heavy album, but a lot of it makes us laugh. "Paranoid Android" makes me laugh. It's cheeky, it's tongue in cheek. It's the track we were most proud of and we wanted people to come and smirk at it, too.

You knew radio wasn't going to play it, so why did you release "Paranoid Android" as the first single?

We get on with several people at MTV and they're incredibly supportive. We told them we had this great animated video that we weren't going to radio with. So they stuck their necks out, and it was very cool. It's worked for them, too. MTV can be proactive with bands. Radio in the States is reactive, reacting to advertisers, to listener surveys. It's very uncool.

What's the first official single to radio?

"Karma Police," of which we had a fantastic video by Jonathan Glazer. It was going to be "Let Down," but the video came out appallingly bad and we scrapped it. There's $100,000 down the tubes, half of which comes out of our pockets. We were devastated. Videos are about trusting. We trusted the producers and they let us down.

Tell me about your coming of age as a player.

Self-taught, I've been heavily influenced by rhythm guitar players like Johnny Marr. He was an amazing, brilliant rhythm player, rarely played solos, so full of sounds. Even something as obvious as the intro to "How Soon Is Now?"-that brilliant tremolo. Of course, I'm nowhere near as technical, but I'm also into sounds, pedals, rhythmic textures, and arpeggio stuff.

What was the first guitar you bought?

It was an awful Rickenbacker. I bought it because Marr, Weller, and Peter Buck all played them, and they were great rhythm guitarists. I always associated leads with cock rock. The only lead guitarist I like is [our own] Jonny Greenwood. He doesn't have that cock-rock stance.

You still play Rickenbacker, right? Yeah, I play a 360 model six-string. Two beautiful sunbursts. It's a dream come true playing them. Rickenbacker is the coolest. But the factory has stopped making six strings momentarily, because they're oversubscribed for 12 strings. People are moving the 12-strings with that vintage jangle.

What do you like about the sound of the Rick'?

Well, it's halfway between acoustic and electric. It's a real unique sound. It's got that trebly thing I like. For the effects stuff I use a Strat, but for the rhythm the Rick has more warmth and resonance. Plus, I like the way they look; now I can look like my heroes. Paul Weller I think has over 300 Rickenbackers, and I'll always remember those photos with John Lennon and George playing them.

What music did you grow up playing?

I never sat down and copied records. I started playing my Rick, and within about three months I started buying pedals. I bought a Yamaha phaser, a distortion, and a delay. When Thom and I got together it was initially about sounds, with multieffects units. Now it's more the technical side of it, playing better. But I love rhythm guitar. When you get to the point when you understand what rhythm guitar is really doing, you begin to appreciate good rhythm guitar. Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam is a great player, and I love the work he's done with Brad. And guys like Steve Cropper, the way he slides out of rhythm and goes into an arpeggio and slides back into rhythm.

Thom Yorke is the third guitarist in the band but he doesn't much like to talk about it. Why?

He's a really great guitarist. He plays terrific rhythm, but he doesn't like to talk about it because he thinks he sounds like Brian May. He grew up with Queen. There were times when we've been competitive, but we've got this really nice situation where if one guitarist doesn't play in a song, we're okay with it. We can really chill out and enjoy it.

Jonny Greenwood

Did you have any idea of the scope of OK Computer?

Just before we finished we started to realize what was good about it. You gotta realize that it's only when it's on CD that you get to hear all twelve songs in a row. Up until then they're floating around on different tapes.

Is it possible to describe the sound of Radiohead at this time?

I expect so I think it's possible to peg our style, but that's not my job, is it? That's for the music journalists.

Then you'd be the first one to criticize us for pigeonholing, wouldn't you?

Nah. It's a tired old cliche complaining about pigeonholing. It's quite a helpful thing, actually. When my mum asked us what kind of music we play, I say it's like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, because that's her reference point. Everybody has a different reference point.

You seem to have high quality standards for yourself, and you strive to make music of importance.

Our creative process is more driven by disappointment with past work we've done, and realizing what kind of shelf life a recording has after its out. You've got to get it right the first time, so you don't regret anything.

I know you started playing guitar only recently. Do you feel you have evolved as a player?

I don't think so. Guitar's not really important to me. You're in a band and you play guitar, you don't play guitar and then go find a band. I was in a band before I played guitar. It's quite weird for me to talk about my playing.

Is it true that you started out in Radiohead on harmonica?

Yeah, I joined a few years after the band formed and played harmonica first and then keyboards. I started to play guitar˛quite badly as a matter of fact˛after that.

Are there any common elements between your guitar and harmonica/keyboard playing?

Yeah, I didn't know how to do either one properly in equal measure. We even turned the keyboard off for a while, because I was so bad, and I mimed a lot assuring everybody that it would sound very different if I weren't up there playing. Then I came stumbling out with a guitar in my hand.

But you couldn't pull these songs off if you couldn't play your guitar.

Yeah, but my style is so tightly tied in with our songs that I don't think you could even ask me to quit Radiohead and play guitar for another band. I don't think I could do it. It would probably reveal me to be the bluffer that I believe I am. That's how it feels. I wouldn't have the confidence to do anything but this.

You obviously need some kind of outlet for your musical energy and the guitar happens to be it for the moment.

I think that's the best way to put it.

OK Computer goes lighter on the hard, chordal rock than past Radiohead work. Is it still fair then to call you a "guitar band"?

Yeah, I guess. There are still more strings onstage than there are black and white keys.

Do you miss the riffing quality to the band's sound?

I don't think we've left it especially. We kind of get more bored slightly faster, so we don't do that 3 and a half minutes and do a guitar solo at the end. I think you have to listen to the songs more carefully. We're more driven by our boredom than the the hunger to say or do anything new.

What was the evolution of the fadeout riff on "Paranoid Android"?

It was something I had floating around for awhile and the song needed a certain burn. It happened to be the right key and the right speed and it fit right in. Rarely do we have riffs per se˛when we do they only have the lifespan of a few weeks˛so if they don't find their place quickly we discard them. We don't have a catalog of riffs. "Riff #63 played for two minutes."

Do you write on acoustic guitar?

Whatever's around, really. The piano's quite practical. For example, "Subterranean Homesick Alien" was written on acoustic guitar and then demoed by Thom on acoustic piano, but the final version doesn't include either of those instruments.

How important is it for you to keep your audiences off balance?

Not particularly important. Although I did like the way the Pixies did it. There was always enough surprise there to keep you coming back to hear more. You'd hear things three times instead of four, it was less mechanical and predictable. More curious and twisted.

Is the mood of the band dark?

I think there's a lot of humor in what we do. Like the Pixies in a way. There's a lot of black and twisted humor. It's not "the world is shitty" sort of attitude. It's darkly comic. It's funny in a way. I don't think you can call it bleak.

In your opinion does Radiohead look to the future of pop for its sound?

When you talk about "future-sounding" pop it kind of reminds me of bands like Ultravox or Spandau Ballet. On OK Computer we really were trying to describe last year more than any future year. It's the sound of how things are now. How can we be the future? Prodigy are the future, aren't they?

What kind of guitars did you use making the album?

Well, I've only got one, and one back-up for when we play live. It's a Tele.

Is it a stock model?

I'm not sure. It's one I bought before we signed. Same for the amp. I've never been one to hunt around for equipment. I've got a little transistor amp I bought when I was just starting out, but it sounds great.

Any effects? I've got like four pedals, typical, dull pedal stuff. I think you should be concentrating more on what's happening on the other side of the guitar cables, right? It's what you put into the pedals. It's too easy to rely on gadgets. I'm way more proud of a lot of the different tunes we've come up with than I am with our weird sounds, which are mostly irrelevant.

It's ironic. There are so many different, beautiful sounds on the record, but you don't think of yourself as a guitar player.

I think guitarists are really over-admired and over-revered. I don't mind when people are telling me about their 1971 Firebird, but it's the same thing as people telling me about their car or something. It's fine if you have an interest. By talking with me, though, you could be interviewing a novelist about guitars. It's the same thing, except I don't write that well either. I like my guitar and I enjoy playing it.

That'll make a great pull quote in Guitar magazine. "Guitarists are overadmired."

Oh no, it's Guitar magazine! I meant, I meant, I've got hundreds of guitars, thousands! Some have never been played even!

Let's be honest. Does modesty enter this equation?

No, there's just revulsion sometimes about being around people who love guitars so much. I find many of them love their guitars but they don't like music. That's really weird.

To some it's a phallic substitute.

Our guitars are more clitoris substitutes than phallus ones. We stroke them in a nicer, gentler way.