It's hard to reconcile the torture of recording and writing with the colour and unexpected humour of their worldview. Andrew Harrison spends three months in Radiohead-world to discover the roots of their singular mission...
It's January, it is bitingly cold in the streets around London E1's Brick Lane, but the effect of a face-cracking wind are softened by the unfamiliar warmth of shuffling, closely packed bodies. It is Radiohead Secret Gig Day. This morning, the band announced on its website that it would perform at the new Rough Trade East shop that very evening. Bogus sicknotes flew through the electronic ether; people began to queue before noon. Now there's at least a couple of thousand squeezed into the cobbled streets, stamping and huffing into their hands, hoping for admission to a show with a capacity of a couple of hundred tops.
It is amazingly exciting, the brittle air fair crackling with anticipation at witnessing up close and personal a band who are usually just stick figures in some distant festival horizon, and disbelief that this is really happening. After the unexpected online release of In Rainbows, Radiohead have relinquished the role of modern Pink Floyd and instead become some reincarnation of the KLF, suddenly conscious that event and surprise are what it's all about. It's already clear that the Rough Trade shop will be too tiny for tonight's show. When flight cases are seen moving through the crowd, text messages fly and people flock like birds towards wherever they think the magic door is going to open. When we're ushered into hastily arranged substitute venue 93 Feet East over the road, ten minutes ahead of everyone else, the frozen crowd actually boos us. But in the club's main room I run into Colin Greenwood, Radiohead's bass player, who will shortly play before a human audience for the first time in two years. He's regarding the empty stage with the wide-eyed thousand yard stare of a condemned man.
The show, though, turns out to be one of the most astonishing things I've ever seen, simply because this sound that's so pored over but so little understood – this rock music that challenges itself without falling into the mirror-image cliches of 'challenging music" – is, for once, happening right in front of you. At last you can see how it's done. When Ed O'Brien stoops over a jury-rigged box of self-made effects and sound processors that's so close it's practically sitting at your feet, you can see him ministering to the buttons almost tenderly. Thom Yorke's electric scarecrow motions, usually framed by speaker stacks or conveyed by stadium Jumbotron, take on new immediacy when the droplets of sweat are arcing over your own head. He's not just putting it on. This is the way he is.
I used to think that Radiohead wrote and played their songs in conventional manner and then "Godriched" them afterwards – added the sci-fi stardust, the hallucinogenic textures and feedbacks and sonic wormholes with their producer Nigel Godrich. But now, on Videotape, O'Brien is plucking a guitar string to emit the sound of a twanging ruler, and I can finally see that whatever contortions Radiohead's music goes through in their famously tortured recording sessions, .they really are doing with their very own hands. This is really happening
Strangest of all, they're clearly enjoying it, big smiles of relief and pleasure flitting across the tiny stage and into the crush of people in front of it. This is alarming: Radiohead do not do fun. Except maybe they do. Halfway through the show – a full rendition of In Rainbows, in order, with an encore of older songs – Colin wanders to the lip of the stage grinning so hugely that the crowd actually starts laughing. They finish In Rainbows, encore with My Iron Lung and The Bends and when Radiohead go offstage it seems they don't want to leave.
The world is full of overheated, fake once-in-a-lifetime events. Tonight the crowd ebbs away into the frosty night of east London's Nathan Barley-land, wrapped in the happy daze of people who've just witnessed a real one, and know it.
Back in the days when I went to the pub on a Friday night instead of hurrying home, Colin Greenwood occasionally came too. He had gone to Cambridge with a friend of mine, and every six weeks or so Colin would join us for a beer, his appearances becoming less and less frequent with the rising fortunes of what we all still called "Colin's band". One night, back at another friend's flat in Stockwell after last orders, Colin sheepishly asked if he could play a cassette of songs that Radiohead had just finished. They'd been working on it for ages, he said, probably for too long, and though they thought it might be good they really couldn't tell any more. Would anyone mind if he played it? He put the tape on and wandered off to make a cup of tea. This is how I first got to hear the songs that made up OK Computer, a record that would soon be routinely and without irony acclaimed the best album ever made. The man who played bass guitar on it seemed a little bit embarrassed about the fact.
I remind Colin of this as we meet in the discreet lounge of the Old Parsonage Hotel in Oxford, one afternoon in early March, and he laughs, sheepish again. Chronic insecurity is part of the Radiohead public persona, even if they can't possibly have it as bad as they seem. In fact Colin is, and always has been, playful and funny, if a little off-centre. He orders us the "Very High Tea" – fancy sandwiches, fancier scones. "That's a statement teapot," he says, impressed, when the tea arrives. The pot is of such sophisticated modern design that when Colin pours, the tea goes everywhere.
Now married with two sons, Colin is in his 22nd year as a member of the band that formed at Abingdon School – he and his family still live nearby – and was until 1991 known as On A Friday. I ask him how he'd describe Radiohead to someone who had no concept of rock and roll. That's easy, he says: "We got together at school and wanted to make music, but we had no formal concept of rock and roll either. We were kids from Abingdon, we liked Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground, The Fall, Joy Division, REM – all the people that are still out there – but we didn't have any formal training and we didn't really know what we were doing. So we'd be exactly the same as the person asking the question."
Despite his nerves, Colin found himself thoroughly enjoying the 93 Feet East show. Beforehand Radiohead had worried that they'd completely forgotten how to play to an audience that was so close they could read the expressions on their faces. Instead it turned into another small step in the re-energising of the band, after an unhappy winding-down into predictability signalled by their last album, 2003's lugubrious Hail To The Thief, and the sudden delight of In Rainbows, whose recording was the usual endless purgatory for Radiohead but which arrived as fresh and beautiful as a spring morning – in the middle of November.
He was particularly pleased at how Thom Yorke, the emotional bellwether of the band, had opened up during the show. Afterwards, Colin watched YouTube clips and he could see the singer doing his 'bobbly head thing", a hangover from the days when Thom's father taught him how to box. "Thom's got really broad shoulders," says Colin. "When you see them go down, boxer-style, that means he's really enjoying it." Then he smiles. "You know, I really hate it when people say, 'I'd love to do a tour of tiny places, get back to our roots.' Big tours are luxurious! I love them!"
Meeting the members of Radiohead over the next couple of weeks I'll sense a lot of relief, satisfaction and even quiet amazement that the In Rainbows project – protracted recording, abrupt online release, surprise shows – has turned out so well. Colin thinks that the past few months have literally rekindled his passion for music; not an insignificant thing given that during the recording he temporarily lost part of his hearing from using the wrong headphones. "It came back, mostly," he says. "It doesn't feel like I'm talking to people underwater any more. For a few months afterwards I'd be watching the telly and suddenly hear these high-pitched whistling noises as more and more high frequencies came back. If you're worrying about how you hear it instead of what you're hearing, it completely gets in the way of making the music. It was a fucking nightmare, actually."
As, by the sound of it, was the recording of In Rainbows. After taking 18 months off work after the end of the Hail To The Thief tour, they endured a false start in making the new record with producer Mark 'Spike" Stent, who'd worked with artists as varied and non-Radioheadlike as Madonna, Keane and No Doubt (each member of Radiohead will take pains to lavish praise on Stent but accept that the combination of talents wasn't right). The process became enervating; they recorded some of the songs four or five times and felt no nearer to a workable record. Then Nigel Godrich, who had grown with Radiohead from engineer on The Bends to co-developer of their sonic imprimatur on OK Computer, became available again. "We realised afterwards that we were always waiting for Nigel," says Colin – "making plans for making plans with Nigel." The recording began to move forward. But do they always have to make such heavy weather of it?
"Yes, it's all going wrong, we're doomed... We do make it hard for ourselves, probably unnecessarily so. We still get the red-light fear when someone presses 'record' – the fear of finally committing something and having to stand by it. We definitely get that with live TV too. You become so frightened of making a mistake that you make the mistake anyway – it's when you manage to not care too much that you can play really well. It's a middle-class thing. We were brought up to care too much, or worry too much, or care about the wrong things."
One thing Godrich did to unblock the band's thinking was to employ deliberately primitive recording techniques. This meant that, secretly, In Rainbows would be strongly influenced by the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest and early '90s hip hop. Godrich wanted to transfer or "bounce" all the rhythm tracks down to a single track of tape, where it would be fixed and immutable, rather than keeping them on multi-track where the band would be tempted to fiddle with them. "The idea was to make us commit to something," Colin says. "You know, ‘You've done it now and you can't change it.' It was as if we were sampling ourselves. And when you mash sounds together like that they cross-pollinate, they marinade, they interact with each other... they have little sonic babies."
The result, after a further year of work, was probably the most beautiful and even joyful record that Radiohead have made. If The Bends was about them discovering their talent, and OK Computer was about deciding what to do with it – and if Kid A and Amnesiac were about testing the limits of what a rock audience would accept – then In Rainbows put everything that Radiohead and Godrich had learned into the service of the best of human emotions. Yorke's lyrics may have mined insecurity, fear and personal disconnection but the music made a more sustaining connection of its own, from 15 Step's infectious drum'n'bass hopscotch to Body-snatchers' grunge-with-a-PhD rush to Videotape's hypnotic, piano-led vision of the afterlife. It's the Radiohead record that most bears incessant re-playing and its suggestion is that – though the infrastructure might collapse, though you might be eaten by the worms and the weird fishes, though you might be trapped in your body and you can't get out – what really energises this world is love.
In Rainbows also marked a step away from the clumsy politicking of Hail To The Thief, which from its title down tried to get a handle on the neocon/Iraq era but ended up feeling like incoherent rejectionist slogans. This was partly because Yorke's lyrics were typically abstract and partly because the febrile run-up to the Iraq War seemed to dissolve rational argument: you were simply either For or Against.
I ask Colin how he feels about Radiohead's political dimensions, which are usually articulated separately from the music, by their affiliation with campaigns or Thom's interviews. Everyone in the band backs the climate change stuff, he says, and he explains in detail the lengths they've gone to to reduce the carbon footprint of this year's tour. An environmental audit by Oxford-based company Best Foot Forward indicated that buying two sets of live equipment and booking a conventional tour meant more audiences would simply drive, or fly, to the big gigs. So they bought the kit and the revolutionary low-emission LED light show. "It's very exciting," Colin says, "but without the big Rock Lights it's going to be fucking freezing onstage." Then he tells me how interested he's become in the books of Nick Cohen, Oliver Kamm and Andrew Anthony, the blogger Norman Geras and the blog/website Harry's Place, all of which look at how the liberal left has lost its way and which have been vilified by the Stop The War wing of the left as rebranded neoconservatives. Colin considers himself mildly addicted to the new world of information. "I'm the old curmudgeon in front of my computer," Colin says. "It's the new version of shouting at News At Ten."
Colin loves soul music, Spank Rock and old techno; has just discovered Black Sabbath ("brilliant!"); has developed a interest in Fleetwood Mac ("the band are a bit worried about it"); and has a debilitating tendency to reach for the tambourine whenever he's not doing anything on a song ("the others have started hiding it from me, the bastards"). He also loves art photography: the work of Gary Winogrand, Joel Meyerowitz, street photographers like Walker Evans or Farm Services. As he drives me to Oxford train station he tells me how much he loves the new Underworld record Oblivion With Bells. Radiohead went to see them when they were making Kid A/Amnesiac in the punk-hippy enclave of Kristiana, Copenhagen, during a break from recording Pyramid Song and came back full of enthusiasm. It's funny how their own records are often punctuated by seeing other bands, he says. "Making The Bends in spring 1994, we were having a crap day in the studio so John Leckie said, 'Come on, let's go and see Jeff Buckley at the Garage.' Then we went back to the studio and Thom recorded Fake Plastic Trees straight away. It was genuinely, properly inspiring."
He pauses and drums his fingers on the wheel. "We need to get out more."
What do people most often get wrong about Radiohead?
Thom Yorke: We play up to the tortuous thing a bit too much. It's not quite like that in the band. But also, this idea that there's some sort of masterplan, that we've got some sort of clue what we're doing... We haven't.
Ed O'Brien: I used to think that maybe people didn't know that there's actually a great sense of humour in the band. But maybe the webcasts and a few of the things we did last year show that we're not entirely super-serious all the time. You can't do what we do without humour. It's a lot easier to be melancholic in music. We struggle with songs of joy. That's the tough part.
Phil Selway: People have got a pretty accurate take on us, I think. It can be uncomfortable because some of those takes are less than flattering, but they're probably valid. You know, po-faced and over-serious... fair point, really. People are starting to pick up on the more playful side of Radiohead, which we hope has come to the fore in the past few years but, you know, no smoke without fire.
Jonny Greenwood: That we're grumpy. People confuse the work with the people who make it. We're not necessarily like our songs. Also I think they misunderstand Thom, and how really tiresomely energetic and enthusiastic he can be. Even when the rest of us are flagging, he's the one with the energy and the excitement who's saying, "Come on, this sounds amazing, what you're doing is great." That's really good for us and I don't think anyone knows it.
Ed O'Brien is a happy man this Thursday lunchtime. Not only did Radiohead play two fairly flawless shows for the BBC yesterday but his beloved Manchester United beat Roma 2-0 in the Champions League at the Stadio Olimpico. "The football was better than the gig," he beams. Being Oxford-born and now resident in north London, Ed clearly fits the description of the Man U fan to a tee but at least he went to Manchester University. He still knows "a few boys" at Old Trafford who get him tickets, and is concerned that Mani of The Stone Roses/Primal Scream has defected to the breakaway anti-Glazer team AFC Manchester. Famously the Tall One (six feet five), Ed is fantastic company, interesting, funny and thoughtful. He's also comically restrained – the strongest word he can find to condemn U2's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb and X&Y by Coldplay (the decaffeinated Radiohead) is "pants". Ed O'Brien has a healthy scepticism of what people say about his band and an uncommon insight into its music.
"I think a lot of what drives Radiohead's music is a longing to be in the place where you're not," he says, over pasta in a cafe near the Word office. "Or maybe not wanting to be where you are. We were never like the people at school who were happy-go-lucky. We're all from a very comfortable backgrounds in Radiohead but what fuelled us? Well, quite sad childhoods I think." Ed's parents split up when he was ten and he describes his own childhood as 'deeply unhappy". Radiohead's music of course has its morose aspect (though I'll discover that more than one member is burstingly proud of the scene in Father Ted where a melancholic young priest, rescued by Ted and Dougal from his own black dog, is sent spiralling back into depression when he hears Radiohead's Exit Music (For A Film) on the radio). But Ed's response to the sadness in his past seems to be to throw himself into the joys of creativity. "I'm not sad about my childhood now – I've got a great family of my own," he says. "But it's part of your journey. There's always something with musicians. Most of us have shit to deal with but we're British and we don't like to moan about it. Music can be a way to deal with it. I think our music takes you out of your place and maybe, hopefully, alleviates it." One of the few guiding principles for In Rainbows, he says, was that they wanted to capture some of the simple joy at being alive. One of the departure points, bizarrely enough, was Outkast's Hey Ya! They even got as far as trying, without success, to work with André 3000 on the record.
Ed is often described as Radiohead's second guitarist, which is both an over- and an under-statement. "I love sound," he says. "I'm not a technical guitarist. My heroes were Johnny Marr, John McGeogh, even Andy Summers. Sounds and riffs are the things that make you pick up a guitar. When we made our first record, Sean and Paul [producers Slade and Kolderie] said I was sort of like the keyboard player. I took great offence at the time but now I realise it's kind of true. I see myself as a bit of a sweeper – bit of rhythm, can play up front or in the hole. I'm not a Ronaldo or a Rooney: that's Thom and Jonny. But in my dreams I'm a Paul Scholes."
Making Radiohead records has become so tortuous, he thinks, because the band's success put them in a place where they could do literally anything they wanted – and so could not work out what that anything was. "When a band becomes successful, sometimes there's nobody to look up to for a bit of advice," he says. It was a long wait for that final, elusive spine-tingle that tells you, finally, that what you've been working on really is good and worthwhile. He remembers listening to the new song Arpeggi eight times in a row as he drove to Radiohead's Oxford studio from London, as he does every morning. When he arrived, he marched into the studio and told Thom Yorke, "You have no idea how good these lyrics are. This song needs to be heard, because I'm being fucking moved by it and other people will too. It's what I want to hear and other people need to hear it as well."
I wonder how many other "second guitarists" do that kind of thing with their singers. "I'm big on intuition," Ed says, and laughs.
We talk about the band's politics and how they are mostly expressed outside the songs themselves. Radiohead have had what Ed describes as "a lot of very interesting discussions" since Hail To The Thief – "really heated at times".
Different members have different views, and the idea that they're all identikit left liberals just isn't true. They disagreed over Iraq, for instance. "I think Tony Blair is a war criminal and he should have been impeached," says Ed, "so you get where I'm coming from. But while I don't want to speak for everyone else in the band, not everyone thinks that."
Does he agree that the band was in danger of turning into a statements group, an approach that never ends well for rock bands? He hopes not; one of the good things about In Rainbows is that it's emotional and warm, not didactic. "But to Thom's credit, he's the one who is the public face and has to do the political balancing act. I'd argue that we're not saying we know any better than you. We're in a band, but were still entitled to an opinion. And if people's opinion of Radiohead is formed by seeing Thom on the front of the Observer magazine Green issue, they're not digging very deeply there, are they? The fact that people want to talk to us and put us on the front of magazines is a blessing, not a problem for us."
Ed will have turned 40 by the time you read this. This used to signal admission to the elephant's graveyard of rock musicians; but now, when middle age doesn't start till you're 60, he's still part of the new and the now. Ed has decided not to mark the event – he and his wife had a big party when they got married and he's a little embarrassed at being the centre of attention. "I'm pretty happy now," he says. "I'm in a great band, I've got a great family, I've worked out a lot of my own demons and I'm ready for the next bit."
That afternoon a press release lands in my email inbox. On 2 June EMI Records will release The Best Of Radiohead. It's got all the big singles, insofar as Radiohead have had big singles at all, and a second CD with songs like well-regarded B-side Talk Show Host and their first single Anyone Can Play Guitar on it. But it's pretty far from the present Radiohead way of doing things, and seems to represent a final headstone for the relationship between the band and its old label. It follows a box-set of all the band's albums from last year; it was rumoured that, in a genius stroke of blue-sky new-business thinking, EMI's new owners had originally planned to sell the box exclusively via the retailer that their market research had determined was most favoured by Radiohead listeners: the clothes chain Next.
"We're not really bothered about it," says Thom Yorke with a sigh that suggests quite the opposite. "If they spend a wodge of cash trying to get those songs heard again, then great, but our management tried to tell them that people don't really buy greatest hits any more. Only in Britain, nowhere else. iTunes has seen to that. You might not make your money back. And we haven't really had any hits, so what exactly is the purpose?
"But there's nothing we can do about it. The work is really public property now anyway, in my head at least. It's a wasted opportunity in that if we'd been behind it, and we wanted to do it, then it might have been good."
Are you over your divorce with EMI yet?
"It wasn't an unfortunate divorce," Yorke counters. "I was quite happy to have an excuse not to get involved again. We wanted to be reasonable; we wanted to play along because, technically, they own all our work and if we walk away they can do what they want with it. So we thought maybe we should keep talking to them. Personally, I just wanted to forget about it. It didn't feel right. And now it's like when you move house: you don't want to peer through the window and see what they've done with the wallpaper because it will only upset you."
This is a little disingenuous. There hasn't been a band-label split as bitter as this in recent times. Radiohead's departure from Parlophone – as well as those of Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones, the latter from EMI subsidiary Virgin – began to be seen as proof that EMI's new owners Terra Firma could not understand its artists. Terra Firma CEO Guy Hands then told the press that Radiohead had demanded "an extraordinary amount of money" – £10 million – to re-sign with the label; details of the alleged losses that previous Radiohead albums would have made under such a deal were leaked to the business pages. In fact the sticking point in negotiations was continued ownership of the band's back catalogue, and indications are that Radiohead were well along the road of discussions with XL, the eventual victors, as well as a third indie label. Nevertheless, Radiohead were now on the receiving end of the aggressive language of mergers, acquisitions and corporate raiding; ironically, the subject of more than a few of their own songs over the years. How did Yorke feel about being briefed against as if he and his management were rival CEOs?
"It fucking pissed me off," he snaps. "We could have taken them to court. The idea that we were after so much money as stretching the truth to breaking point. That was his PR company briefing against us and I'll tell you what, it fucking ruined my Christmas. I was so angry, I decided I'd go for a walk, come home, write something on Dead Air Space [Radiohead's blog] and that would be it, it's over, the end. There was a certain satisfaction in knowing that I could redress it on our own website, but it was a clear indication that the relationship was over."
We're talking in a secluded upstairs room of a hotel in Covent Garden. Thom's curled up at the end of a chaise longue, drinking tea and wearing a new black Fred Perry shirt (good choice, I tell him; he seems a little startled and looks down at the logo as if he's noticing it for the first time). In person Thom's not as bunched and intense as he appears onstage – who could be? – and his sense of humour is self-deprecating. "We have to go through the misery to get to the joy," he says, grinning. "You don't want to spend too long in our world, I tell you."
But Thom's turn of phrase does sometimes mirror his famously abstruse lyrics. Lobbyists and political middlemen are a wall of "black energy"; the recording of In Rainbows dragged on so long that "we all started to think that none of it had ever happened, that we'd never been in a band, it was all a big Truman Show gag." We talk for a while about how he writes them. True to form, it's a painful business. He fill notebooks with potential lyrics but finds he uses maybe five per cent, or maybe just a single line from each book. He can't even write the words unless he can physically play the songs to himself. When he made his solo album The Eraser in 2005/6, he and Godrich had completed all the music in the form of loops and samples, but he couldn't finish the lyrics. So Thom had to learn to play all the songs by hand, on guitar and piano, before the words would come.
He must be aware that there are thousands of people scanning his lyrics for hidden meanings. Are they just trying to decode the undecodable or panning for actual gold?
"Yeah, fool's gold! It's not a very musical way of looking at things, to sieve it for meaning. It's more about feeling it, isn't it? If you write lyrics intending for a set meaning to come across, it's not art, it's just a rant. The best lyrics come from a particular moment when you've written a piece of music or you've learned a new way to play, or do something with sound."
He's now known as much as a political figure as a frontman, and this is something that can cut both ways. For everyone who takes on board what he has to say about Friends Of The Earth's Big Ask campaign for mandated carbon reduction, there'll be someone who wonders if there isn't something a little simplistic and student-y about his politics. See, for instance, the cartoons of businessmen with fangs on the artwork for Amnesiac, which Thom prepared with collaborator Stanley Donwood; the "kicking, screaming Gucci little piggy" of Paranoid Android; or Hail To The Thief's title. Did we really need a trite pun to tell us there was something fishy about the American presidential election of 2000?
To be fair, Yorke is absolutely sincere in his beliefs – Ed O'Brien had told me that climate change had been a big thing of Thom's since he had come to visit Ed at Manchester University nearly 20 years ago ("He wasn't exactly running around turning the lights off," Ed said, "but it was quite a far-sighted discussion. He was a bit ahead of his time"). Thom was surprised at how uncynical most MPs have turned out to be – it's the intermediaries you have to look out for, he says. And Radiohead are certainly walking the walk with their low-carbon tour. They even looked into touring the US by rail, "but America doesn't have a national rail network like they had in the fifties. I want to do the Some Like It Hot thing – travel the country on train bunks." Thom reads widely, pays attention, scowls a little when I mention Nick Cohen. He knows what he thinks. He is also aware that there's no target for stick like a rock star who talks politics.
When Friends Of The Earth asked him to front The Big Ask, his first response was to say, "You must be fucking joking. Me? The last person in the world. It's a bit like saying, 'Everybody stop flying, except us.'" Then he thought about it and concluded that any personal grief he might suffer would be worth it. "The tough aspect was having some twat from the Sunday Timesfollowing mnee around and pestering my friends to learn that, guess what, he flies in planes sometimes! But FoE wanted me involved because I wasn't holier than thou. None of us is, we live in a carbon society. The subtext is: if you have a political establishment that is so far up its own arse that it demands that someone like me, of all people, has to engage with a subject like climate change in order to get it noticed, God help us all."
Sometimes Thom will be in the middle of a politically-oriented interview and he'll think, "Oh, just shut the fuck up will you?" Whatever he says will always come across the wrong way to some people; folk going about their daily lives don't need some guy in a band giving them a hard time about their carbon emissions. I ask him if musicians ever come out of politics well?
Does that bother you?
"Yes. Yes, it does. But it's only my arse. Sometimes you have to participate in the things you agree with and accept that some people are going to hate you for it." Radiohead tend to work on "Thom time". He will be the one who decides the band needs to tour, or take a lengthy break from one another – and this, he accepts, creates the terrible problems with getting back to work which he himself is now sick of. He has in the past sent up his role as Radiohead's de facto ruler, taking on the personae of the tinpot politicos he despises in songs like Sit Down. Stand Up and mocking himself in squibs like I Am Citizen Insane. Does he worry that these songs might have a grain of truth in them? He squirms a little.
"Nnnnnn... I kind of have to stay true to what my instincts are. The good thing about everyone else in the band is that they will tolerate it. Sometimes I resent being the point person – as they say in the corporate world – or the mug, as everyone else says. I was talking to Michael Stipe about the difficulties of being the frontman and the main spokesman and all the rest of it and he made a really good point, which was, 'Yeah, but they have to put up with us. That's hard.'"
Do Radiohead songs ever baffle you?
Ed: No. Yes. Sometimes – but then I ask Thom, which is cheating. The lyrics rarely confuse me. On In Rainbows I liked the fact that he was writing about universal human emotions again, which he hadn't done for a while.
Colin: Frequently, at the musical level. You mean lyrics? Um... there's a song called Weird Fishes which evokes meaning rather than states it... the chord changes bear you aloft and sweep you back down and that's a sort of meaning. If all you're looking for in music is a way of talking about it, it's pretty poor, isn't it?
Late that afternoon, Radiohead are in the concrete bowels of BBC Television Centre, preparing to appear on Friday Night With Jonathan Ross. Outside in the central atrium, Radiohead's drummer Phil Selway and I sit in a peculiar wooden alcove and drink the famous BBC tea. It's not as bad as 50 years of comedians would have you believe.
If there's a perfect contrast to the popular idea of the rock drummer then Phil is it. He is delightfully wry and funny, even – and I'm sure he wouldn't mind the idea – ever so slightly camp in his mannerisms. Now a father of three, he coped with Radiohead's extended lay-off by concentrating on being a full-time dad. "When you tell people, 'I'm taking some time out from work, I'm an at-home dad,' they immediately glaze over. Then you mention being a musician and the facial expression says, 'Hmm... unemployed.'"
What's harder, dealing with a band or dealing with kids? "One's good training for the other. I'm not saying which one's which."
I ask him about Thom's comment about his confidence – it struck me as odd that members of one of the world's biggest bands could doubt their own abilities. Radiohead are not all lack of self-esteem, Phil says. But maybe collective dependency is a better word than confidence.
"We feel a big responsibility towards one another. I don't know if it's because we started in a school band, with all the bravado that goes with it. Every school band thinks it's the best band in the world, and then you get into the proper music industry and you feel a bit fraudulent. We're the same five people so we have the shared history of feeling like that." He misses the mad confidence of youth. The first gig he ever played, he'd never sat behind a drum kit before but it sounded alright. "I'd never ever do something like that now, and yet we've sold X million records, we're quite well thought of. You'd think that's do something for your confidence but it doesn't. That teenage exuberance and unquestioning self-belief, you think, 'Where did it go? I want it back.'"
We go upstairs to the canteen where I join Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead's youngest member and the broadest interpreter of the word "guitarist" in music today, for a plate of exemplary BBC roast potatoes. Jonny's excited to be at the BBC at all. "Last time I came here, I saw Michael Fish," he declares. As an aficionado of British comedy – from Round The Horne and Julian and Sandy to The Mighty Boosh – he's practically breathing in the history. One of his proudest moments is hearing Jeremy Hardy singing the words to Creep to the tune of Grandma We Love You on I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue.
Apart from Thom Yorke, Jonny is the member of Radiohead with the busiest extra-curricular life. His soundtrack for the Thomas Anderson movie There Will Be Blood was nominated for a BAFTA this year, although Jonny says soundtracks are "a bit of a con. You get access to a roomful of incredible musicians who can make whatever you write sound brilliant. Your slightly shit three-note chord will sound absolutely incredible in their hands. I feel like I'm getting away with something."
Being at the BBC reminds Jonny of Nigel Godrich, and how they missed him when he wasn't around. "There's something institutional about Nigel," he says. "Something quite BBC-ish." Godrich once told Jonny that he at his happiest when simply plugging things into a rack of equipment. He made a mixing desk out of a plank of wood and some yoghurt pots when he was seven years old. "It's borderline some kind of syndrome, isn't it?" says Greenwood. "He'd have been very happy in this building 40 years ago, walking round in a white coat. Working with Spike Stent felt a bit too much like there was an adult present. With Nigel we can reminisce about old ZX Spectrum games. He's our generation. It feels more like we're in it together."
Stage managers appear and wave photocopied schedules – the band will be on in a bit. Over the past few weeks of listening to Radiohead discussing their working lives and private worlds, I've heard reflected back at me the same concerns that make most of us in the middle classes tick. Perhaps, boiled down, it's simply a desire to do your best and not make a song and dance about it. Are Radiohead really just the most self-effacing band in the world?
"No," says Jonny, "because when we've done something good we know it. We've got that middle-class work ethic that stops you being overtly impressed with yourself, but inside we know that something like Pyramid Song is a great recording and we're really proud." It helps, he thinks, that the members of the band don't feel individually responsible for its work. "It's as if Radiohead is an institution, or a company you work for, and people really like their product. We're just working for it."
An hour or so later Radiohead round out a Ross show that features David Tennant, Catherine Tate, John Hurt and reptile-wrangler Nigel Marven. They play Nude and 15 Step, the spectral ballad and techno-jazz squaredance puncturing the programme's air of enforced jollity and making you wonder about, you know... stuff. Perhaps this is what we want of rock music in the 21st century. Something doesn't add up, something that's impossible to nail down, something that slips through your fingers like the weird fishes of Radiohead's dreams.
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