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Thom Yorke in Voir: Un homme et son PC

For all the french speaking people… Thom Yorke did an interview with Quebec’s newspaper Voir. The story is available online at voir.ca. Another french interview can be found in Les Inrocks, Cover is available here. [thanks Jeanfrancois]

Below is a translation of the interview [thanks James]

“One man and his PC”

Marie Helène Poitras

Thom Yorke launches an album without Radiohead. This rare tête à tête with the leader of a seminal band passing through town reveals his torments, desires and obsessions.

Radiohead played in Montreal last month, two nights rather than one, to present their new material in the cosy Wilfrid-Pelletier Hall, a “small” 3000 capacity venue. Small, that is, when compared with the concerts the Oxford group usually play in the Jean-Drapeau park, under rosy skies and before a sea of faithful fans, always ready to follow them in whichever direction they choose. Six thousand tickets gone in 5 feverish minutes.

We also learnt recently that Thom Yorke was on the point of releasing – not a solo album – but one on his own. Eh? – and that the group will return to the studio in the autumn to work on a new record. 2006 seems, therefore, to already be a very prosperous and productive one for Radiohead, who’ve just completed their long-term commitments with EMI, and find themselves free as air at the moment.

The Radiohead fan that I am, I was already more than satisfied, but here was a voice at the other end of the telephone saying that Thom Yorke didn’t want to do his usual 10 interviews, each of around 10-15 minutes, but would give only one interview to the Québecois media, and had chosen Voir. Stupor and contentment!

The Eraser is 40 minutes long, 9 songs laid down in only 7 weeks, with the computer playing a starring role. Whilst his band adopts a more rocky style, bringing back the drive of The Bends, Thom Yorke stays on the other side, saying OK once more to the computer. The album was recorded with Nigel Godrich (Beck, Air, Paul McCartney, and all of Radiohead’s albums) and a laptop, without the customary arsenal of guitars and synths. What strikes most of all when one listens to it is the amalgam of “scratchy ideas” on the one hand, says Thom Yorke (messing about with beats, programmming and threads on the computer, a bit, you might think, like with Amnesiac), and on the other, the voice right at the fore, there to humanise the whole thing, adding a more organic touch. At the heart of these songs, there is, just as with Radiohead, that constant tension, relieved occasionally by a fleeting peacefulness, Yorke’s sense of vulnerability, and by his troubled lyrics, where politics and intimacy glide together like two tectonic plates. Songs which simultaneously describe world chaos and an ambient malaise.

The meeting is to be in the lobby of a chic hotel in Montreal’s old town with none other than Thom Yorke, who turns up alone, without manager, make-up artist, press officer, tour director, or anyone else who ca typically be found around rock stars of this stature as a means of human protection. Concentrated, reserved but generous – more so than I’d expected – Yorke has only one request: that we find a place where this atmospheric and vaguely ‘lounge’ music, written to be forgotten, that seeps through the hotel’s corridors like some pungent perfume, can’t be heard. Forget about the post-adolescent bleached ‘head that sang Creep in the mid 90s just before Kurt Cobain died – today, Thom Yorke is 37, has 2 kids, 6 incredible albums behind him, one of which, OK Computer, has turned a page in Rock history. Head-to-head exclusive with Thom Yorke:

It’s been said that you started work on The Eraser during moments of boredom, when you had nothing to do…

I spent a few years thinking, wondering how I could use a laptop. Ideas started to flow. When I set to work with Nigel (Godrich), it started to get really exciting. But the strangest thing was that at the start, we didn’t really have any songs… all we had were some scratchy ideas. The more we managed to isolate them, the more we began to realise that these ideas could form songs, even though that wasn’t the main intention.

So when Thom Yorke relaxes and mucks around, out pops an album!

Yeah, in the end! First of all it seemed to me to be a good way of getting something out of my system. In one way I think it’ll benefit Radiohead as a band, cos I refound a lot of confidence while I was doing the project. And also, in part, because in doing this record, I’d got really bored with the band, and in the sharing of potential musical ideas at the heart of the group. Nigel and me didn’t have a lot to play with, and I think that’s one of the strengths of the album: We worked with so little. I found that hard, really very difficult…

And the other members of Radiohead, do they like the record?

Yeah. In the beginning I was really afraid of their reaction, and I really feared the moment where I’d have to tell them about the project… In the end they reacted really well, and that was a big relief for me. Jonny (Greenwood) is on the first song. He was playing, just like that, and I recorded it. I’ve no idea what chords he’s playing. I just took them, cut them up and rearranged them.

You insist on not calling this album a solo project, but you did it without the rest of the group. What does that mean, exactly?

Some samplings I worked with and which are on The Eraser come from recording sessions with Radiohead. I kept them in files on my laptop. They wouldn’t have been used by the group, but I came back to them cos I liked them. So, in some way, the members of Radiohead are present on the album… without having worked on it, you see? I don’t see it as a solo album because it was done in the context where I’m in Radiohead.

Why can’t a song such as Harrrowdown Hill, for example, have a place in the Radiohead repertoire?

Hmm… That one, I could see us doing. However… But it becomes difficult to reproduce the little sampled cuts. And it wasn’t in that spirit that the song was written. I’d have found it strange to take what I’ve done and ask the band to reproduce it… It makes sense to ask these question afterwards, once the song’s finished, but the creation process was different. On this record, everything starts from this constraint: you restrict your options. We told ourselves, get rid of what’s in this room. When you have too many possibilities, your head explodes. That’s typical of Radiohead, and sometimes it drives me crazy. We had the computer. That’s it.

I found the title of the album quite intriguing. Where did it come from?

It came mainly from the artwork, by Stanley Donwood, who did a lot of work on Radiohead’s album covers. We both had this obsession with a flood that we’re witnessing. It came in the studio, there were the three of us, Nigel and me, and Stanley was in the corner. The music we were working on inspired him to draw waves annihilating a town – London, but at the same time not exactly. I think the reason I went for a title such as The Eraser was that throughout the album’s conception, I had this idea in my head, this image of annihilated people. And also, I thought about this ability that people have to watch events, as witnesses, then just to erase them from our memory. Do you know the story of king Canut?

No…?

Its the story of this all-powerful king, who wrongly believes he can do anything. So he tells the tide to stop coming and going. And he fails. In a newspaper, an environmentalist was comparing Western government to king Canut, because they claimed to have all the power, somehow trying to stop the waves by a move of the hand. The Eraser is about this perpetual denial. It’s what I had in my mind at the moment of its conception.

I was re-reading the lyrics on OK Computer recently, and I found them fascinating, because of the paradox with which they’re delivered. It says OK to computers, and the way in which they can transform music, yet at the same time there is this condemnation of the excesses of the modern world. The Eraser seems to me to be strongly linked to computers too.

I think at the moment when we did OK Computer, there was a general sense of paranoia in the air, a sort of madness. For this one, as one person, alone, leading the project and programming, the will, even the obsession of wanting to capture everything was less present. It was done in a sort of deliberate isolation. The sounds are modest, it’s very insular, made to be listened to in small spaces, in your car, for example, when you’re caught up in traffic. This disc requires no additional acoustic space.

The album was done in a very short space of time…

Oh yeah. What was really good was that I felt that the pressure was off. And I’d like to be able to create that state of mind with Radiohead. My main fear with the group is that the necessity of making music is going to disappear some day, and ceases to be an authentic need, turning instead into a habit. The reason we took a break after Hail to the Thief was that we started to have that impression. It was really difficult for us to stop. We’re getting old. I’m 37, and we’ve evolved very much in public… Today, I feel old. After Hail, we didn’t see each other for a year, and I found that both scary and strange. Maybe it’s because we weren’t working on a project. I don’t want us to turn into one of those bands who’re continuously on tour, doing their old hits to death like the Rolling Stones, you see. The good gigs, for me, are those where the new material is the most exciting stuff. You need a better reason to keep going than just doing it because you don’t know how to do anything else. Otherwise it’s just a waste of plastic.

Why did you go to XL Recordings (home of the White Stripes, M. I. A., Devendra Banhart, Peaches, Dizzee Rascal, The Raconteurs)?

We’d finished the contract with EMI. I didn’t feel that EMI was the right place to release this record. I don’t know what they’d have done with it. I didn’t want it to become some huge thing and lose control over it. And I like lots of things that are coming out of XL, I think it’s one of the best independent labels with any breadth. For the moment, I don’t know yet who we’ll sign with as Radiohead.

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