Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood — he of the manic, talking guitar — is standing in the lobby as I arrive at the trendy San Francisco hotel where the band is staying. Alas, Jonny isn’t waiting for me, and Ed O’Brien, Radiohead’s other able guitarist and my intended interview subject, is still asleep. Somewhere between San Francisco and Capitol’s offices in New York, wires were crossed, and I got there an hour earlier than expected. “He’s just going to take a shower and will be right down,” their publicist apologizes.
Unexpected wakeup calls aside, things are looking good for Radiohead. Their third LP, OK Computer, debuted at number 21 in the US and easily reached the top of the charts in their native Britain. O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood, together with Jonny’s brother Colin on bass, Phil Selway behind the drums and the owner of the breathtakingly lovely vocal contortions — singer/guitarist Thom Yorke — are Radiohead. The group (who don’t consider themselves part of the “Britpop” movement), has been playing sold-out shows across America, performing at venues with names including words like Theatre, Ballroom and Arena: certainly a step up from the club tours of the not-too-distant past.This band has been busy this last year: recording, touring, promoting, playing for Tibetan Freedom, and getting favorable attention from the press and an ever-increasing legion of fans. Even before the July first stateside release of the album, the band was getting the kind of attention usually reserved for music legends, fashion designers and boxers. Face it: when you can count Madonna, Marilyn Manson, Sheryl Crow and members of U2, REM, Oasis and Blur among your fans, you’re either doing something right or something revolutionary… or, in the case of Radiohead, very probably both.
Anyone can play guitar?
At the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco, their tight 22-song set — including four songs over three encores — included every track from OK Computer, half of The Bends, a lone number from their debut, Pablo Honey, and one B-side for the devout. The band’s success would seem to be a natural result of their clear passion for the music, an obvious and mutual creative respect, and the fact that, well, they seem to be having a good time just being Radiohead.
But was recording the songs as much fun as playing them in front of an audience? O’Brien smiles, “We did kind of go a bit stir crazy recording OK Computer, when we were in Bath at Jane Seymour’s house, but we had to go through that. We got to Christmas of ’96, and we’d been kind of experimenting. The only thing we’d finished was ‘Exit Music,’ because that had to go to Romeo and Juliet for the film. We had started about fourteen or fifteen songs, and it was then that we said, ‘Right, we’re going to have to start finishing stuff off.’ What we’d do is half-finish fourteen songs, and then go on to a new one. We get bored very very quickly. So, by Christmas, it was basically that we wanted an album out by the summer, and we had to finish it off.”
Well-versed in the fine art of procrastination, I imagine it was difficult to complete those songs. Nodding a deep yes, O’Brien says, “It’s all the little bits. We tracked a lot of this album live.” He pauses and searches the air for an analogy, “It would be like building a kitchen. It’s quite easy to get all the wood in and see something fairly immediate — but all those little joints and the hinges, and making sure the drawers and the cupboards open properly, and fixing all the little things — that’s what takes a really long time. Smoothing down the edges. It’s exactly the same when making a record. And mixing… mixing is kind of like the French polishing. It was fairly traumatic at times, because there’s so much going on.”
Radiohead’s career development has been upward, if not smooth, since their days playing around Oxford as a band called On A Friday. Such progress comes directly from their unwavering dedication to the cause. O’Brien reckons they’ve all known since their mid-teens that they wanted to play together. “There was never any question that we weren’t going to do it, really, in terms of like make the effort to do it.” Although the band was on hold during their college years — re-forming only during school breaks — they maintained that group cohesion, “And [after] Thom finished college, we were signed in about four or five months. Looking back on it, what was amazing was the commitment. Ten years ago, we talked about it. We knew we wanted to do this — there was never any question.”
Ed O’Brien of Radiohead was interviewed San Francisco in 1997