The Post-Rock Band.
Halfway through the making of its new album, Kid A, Radiohead was going to call it quits.
There was tension in the group over the direction the band should rake, brought on to a certain extent by lead singer Thom Yorke. Yorke, 31, possesses one of the finest voices ever to grace a pop recording, and it is what ultimately makes a Radiohead song a Radiohead song. He is the band's chief songwriter and driving force. "We operate like the UN," he says. "I'm America."
But he can be a difficult man to work with. He chooses not to speak to his fellow band members from time to time, which ends to make them uneasy.
Radiohead's five members met 15 years ago at the Abingdon School in Oxfordshire, England. In 1997 the group released OK Computer, a '70s-style concept album about a world of technological disasters and capitalist conformity. Critics hailed OK Computer as a masterpiece, and it was nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy. When the time came to record a follow-up, the pressure on the band was enormous.
Bass player Colin Greenwood says Radiohead did not want to settle for a repeat of OK Computer. "The whole thing, really, comes down to finding a new sound," he says. "You think about the Beatles, they sort of came up with a new approach every album--they listened to all this stuff, then brought it to bear on their work. But it's getting harder not only for us, but it would seem for music itself, to do something new."
In making Radiohead's earlier albums. Yorke would bring in his songs and the band would rehearse them for recording. However, when Yorke and the other band members gathered for the Kid A sessions, they learned that that was the last thing Yorke had in mind. He didn't think guitar bands were "relevant" anymore, he told the other band members, and was interested in new, more contemplative forms of hip-hop, like that produced by San Francisco's DJ Shadow, and recordings from the early '90s by Autechre and the Aphex Twin, weavers of rave-scene chill-out sound tapestries. The other members didn't get it.
"It was rather incredible to see," says Nigel Godrich, the band's producer. "I mean, Radiohead is a remarkable guitar band. But what Thom wanted now was a sound that doesn't tend to get made by bands."
A NEAR BREAKUP
The sessions went nowhere. Godrich recalls Yorke not talking much to anyone. Finally, there were tense meetings to decide whether Radiohead should call it quits. Phil Selway, Radiohead's drummer, says, "I think what was happening back then was that for the first time we didn't have anything to push against as a group, and so we pushed against each other."
The band agreed to take a break. When the members regrouped early this year, Yorke's idea for the album had begun to sink in. The understanding grew that there would be tracks on which one or more of the members would not appear, so the players became more comfortable with setting aside their instruments and contributing in other way. In a sense, the very notion of being a band member was evolving: What would count most now were taste and ideas.
The resulting album (named for a software program of children's voices) features only one genuine rock song, "Optimistic," reminiscent of R.E.M. As for the other nine songs, many of them don't have verse-chorus structures. The sonic textures are evocative: Sounds from the past (a churchy harmonium, a bowed double bass, a florid, cascading harp) surge and fade amid burbling electro-beats, taped and looped vocals, and computer-manipulated guitar and keyboard riffs.
"I think we managed somehow to bend the machines to our will--that's what we did together, as a band," says Colin Greenwood. "We approached them our way, naively, without reading all those instruction manuals."
The members of Radiohead talk about releasing more music from their recent sessions as early as next spring. They have also begun to discuss taking their tour to the U.S. next year. For the moment, they are not talking about breaking up.
"I think it will be our personal lives someday that get us drifting away from each other, not aesthetic disagreements," Greenwood says.
"I think we will exhaust all the ideas the band has," Yorke adds. "And then we'll exhaust the band."
Hear a sample of the new Radiohead CD at nytimes.com/upfront
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|Title Annotation:||Radiohead, its personalities and music|
|Publication:||New York Times Upfront|
|Date:||Oct 30, 2000|
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