Radiohead's first hit, "Creep," was everywhere in 1993. The band could have reacted as many other modern-rock acts did in the '90s: by repeating the same old sound, album after album, before fading into the background. Instead, the group made each record a reinvention, from the spare and haunting Kid A to In Rainbows, which sounded, well, sexy. It has all helped make Radiohead one of the most inventive and important bands in the world.
The group released its latest record, The King of Limbs, this February with little fanfare: no interviews, no publicity, no concert tour. Still, the album shot to No. 3 here in the U.S. Now, the radio silence may be over: Radiohead played two sold-out shows last week at New York's Roseland Ballroom, and performed on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live.
Speaking recently with NPR's Guy Raz about recording The King of Limbs, singer Thom Yorke and guitarist Ed O'Brien agree that, after coming off the long tour cycle for In Rainbows, the band was feeling exhausted and uninspired. To make the new album work, everyone had to slow down and step back.
"We had an initial session of about five weeks, and it was really like kids in kindergarten," O'Brien says. "You had to simplify what you were doing — you couldn't do loads of ideas. You had to listen to one another. Believe it or not, in a band you can lose that.
"Part of what you do is rejection," O'Brien adds. "I think everybody finds it hard, but I think part of creativity is bouncing back from that. What's great about the environment that we have is that no one ever says, 'You can't do that.' You try it, and then it's judged on whether it's right for the track."
Radiohead tried a new approach for The King of Limbs: Each member worked, piecemeal, on his own contributions before sharing them with the group. Yorke says working that way was a big gamble.
"Almost every tune is like a collage: things we'd pre-recorded, each of us, and then were flying at each other," Yorke says. "You get to a point where you think, 'OK, this bit needs a big black line through it.' It's like editing a film or something.
"I don't think we really genuinely thought anything would come out of it," he adds, "certainly not an entire record."
Playing live presents its own set of challenges. O'Brien says that, as happy as he was with The King of Limbs upon its completion, the prospect of turning an intricate studio creation into a concert experience was panic-inducing.
"That's the scary part — you realize that you have created in this vacuum, in this bubble," O'Brien says. "It plays tricks on the brain."
But Yorke says adapting the new material was liberating, as well.
"That's one of the ways we move on musically, is having to force ourselves to learn this thing," he says. "It's a backward process, but it really exists in another way once you can actually play it."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CREEP")
TOM YORKE: (Singing) When you were here before, couldn't look you in the eye.
RAZ: Since Radiohead released this song, "Creep," back in 1993, the British band's become one of the most innovative and critically acclaimed modern rock acts of all time. They've pioneered groundbreaking techniques using processed voices and invented sounds, all behind the delicate and powerful voice of front man Thom Yorke.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOTUS FLOWER")
YORKE: (Singing) I would shape myself into your pocket, invisible, do what you want, do what you want.
This track is called "Lotus Flower." It's off Radiohead's latest album, "The King of Limbs." They released it themselves without the pressures of a major label and with little fanfare back in February of this year. The band did no big concert tour and no interviews.
ED O'BRIEN: We didn't feel like it. We didn't want to explain it.
THOM YORKE: Yeah.
RAZ: That's guitarist Ed O'Brien and singer Thom Yorke. And yet, the "King of Limbs" shot to number three on the U.S. charts. Now, Radiohead is coming out of its shell a bit. Yorke and O'Brien sat down to talk with me last week about how they make music. Before they recorded their latest album, O'Brien described coming off a long tour, exhausted and uninspired. That is, until the band and their producer, Nigel Godrich discovered some interesting computer software.
O'BRIEN: Which enables you to use MP3 files and trigger them on a turntable, like with vinyl, you know, the...
YORKE: Make loops and stuff on the fly.
O'BRIEN: Yeah. So, we had an initial session of about five weeks and it was really like the kids in the kindergarten because it was...
YORKE: Absolutely no idea.
O'BRIEN: No idea, and we literally (unintelligible). And it was really interesting because you - what it forced you to do was you had to simplify what you were doing. You couldn't do loads of ideas. Probably the most important thing is you had to listen to one another. Believe it or not, that's also something that - in a band you can lose that. You can get so wrapped up in what you're doing, you're not listening to what other people are doing. So, Nigel was very keen that we start listening to one another. It kind of helps when you make a record, believe it or not.
YORKE: Yeah, I mean, it was an experiment. I didn't think we really genuinely thought anything would come out of it, certainly not an entire record.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: I wonder if you can break down this song for me - the first track on the record called "Bloom."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: So, there are all these layers - percussion and bass and processed sounds. And Thom's voice comes in about a minute in. Thom Yorke, what are all those different layers we're hearing in the song?
YORKE: Almost every tune is like a collage, you know. Things we prerecorded, each of us, and then were flying at each other. It's like editing a film or something. It's quite interesting. The melodies were there but so much was implied so that when you did embellish, it was like, whoa, you know, it really sort of come out of itself.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOOM")
YORKE: (Singing) Open your mouth wide, the universal sigh...
RAZ: If you trace the arc of Radiohead from, say, a song like "Creep" to any track on this record and then you open up the band's catalog anywhere in the middle, every album is almost a reinvention of Radiohead and to some extent of experimental music. Can you talk to me a little bit about how you approach each record? I mean, do you sort of think about how much can we push ourselves to a new place and a place we haven't been to yet?
YORKE: Not really trying to necessarily be experimental or anything. In fact, when I first start doing little demos on my own and things...
RAZ: This is before you became famous and all that.
YORKE: Yeah. It was very much quite a good imitator. My daughter, she's the same. You see, you're constantly learning from other music, right. And then there's that Lennon thing about it's not how you, what's it?
RAZ: It's not who you steal from...
YORKE: It's not - yes - it's not who you steal from, it's how you steal. You know, I'm constantly absorbing other music. And that's what stimulates me the most. And to have the ability within our group with Nigel to sort of move around in all these different areas. So, there's never been the desire to sort of, like, tread back onto the ground because you don't know where else to go. Our problem is where should we go today?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORNING MR. MAGPIE")
YORKE: (Singing) You've got some nerve coming here, you've got some nerve coming here...
RAZ: Do you guys ever put together something, you've tried something and the rest of the band just says, no, that doesn't work, it sounds terrible?
O'BRIEN: Probably. I can't remember but I know definitely. I mean, no, yeah, I mean, the part of what you do is rejection. There's a big part of that. A lot of the time, it is like hitting your head against the wall and then you have breakthroughs. But I think what's great about the environment that we have is that no one ever says, well, you can't do that. You try it and then it's judged on whether it's right for the track.
YORKE: Our problem, I think, sometimes is you have a momentum thing when you're working and if you break the momentum, it's very much harder to go back to it. And it's interesting. Sort of like when you finish a record, as you finish, it releases its own energy because you, like, got a whole momentum going, like a whole creative flow and then, oh, you stop.
O'BRIEN: It's very interesting from what happens is that you're in this bubble. You finish this thing, and then as soon as you play music to other people, there's some kind of transfer that you suddenly understand it in another way. It's really, really interesting.
YORKE: Yeah, it's really, really hard.
RAZ: But I read that in past albums, you weren't really sure how people were going to respond, and when "OK Computer" came out you were shocked that it was so critically acclaimed, for example. Does that happen with every album you release, you sort of wonder what are people going to make of this?
O'BRIEN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I know I should be used to this. But it's a funny thing because when you release a record, you're really, really - well, I am - I'm really into it. And I think this is a no-brainer. "King of Limbs," man, it's like obvious, right?
YORKE: It's obvious, right?
O'BRIEN: And then you realize it's not and that's a bit the scary part. I mean, that's the bit you realize, you know, you have created in this vacuum, in this bubble and stuff like that. And it plays tricks on the brain and that's probably very normal.
YORKE: We didn't have a clue how we were going to play a lot of it. And then, like, learning to play it allows you to back into it in another way as well, especially after the initial sort of what the hell is that thing? So, I mean, and in some ways that's one of the ways we move on musically. It's quite interesting, like, having to force ourselves to learn this thing. It's like a backwards process but it really exists then in another way.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE BY LITTLE")
YORKE: (Singing) Little by little, by hook or by crook. I'm such a tease and you're such a flirt...
RAZ: That's Thom Yorke and Ed O'Brien from Radiohead. Their latest record is called "King of Limbs." Thom Yorke, Ed O'Brien, thank you so much.
YORKE: Thank you.
O'BRIEN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE BY LITTLE")
YORKE: (Singing) Little by little, by hook or by crook. Never in earnest, never get judged. I don't know where it is, I should look... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.