‘Radiohead were never pin-up boys’

As Philip Selway and his Radiohead bandmates turn 50, the drummer says they are just getting better and better

Philip Selway has long stopped worrying about the "drummer in a famous band makes solo album" jibes that have been staples of scorn ever since Ringo Starr released his debut album, Sentimental Journey, in 1970 ("horrendous," opined Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone).

Indeed, the Radiohead drummer has actually gone one – or, as we'll soon find out, three – better by virtue of his work outside of his band. His debut solo album, 2010's Familial, was a gentle singer-songwriter work fashioned along the lines of Nick Drake-meets-Brian Eno. The follow-up, 2014's equally well-received Weatherhouse, returned to more propulsive rhythms, causing Selway to admit that he approached that album "as I would a Radiohead drum session".

Those albums set certain tones and topics, but his third solo work – the strikingly plaintive soundtrack to the Holocaust-themed film Let Me Go – is quite different.

In some ways, he observes, he is alarmed to claim it as his third solo album, because “I initially approached it as my first soundtrack. It is that, of course, but when we sat down to talk about what we wanted to do, one of the things we discovered is that it’s more music that would work as a soundtrack.”

What Radiohead has done is that we learnt on the job. Jonny studied music theory, but none of us are really trained musicians

That sounds like a lengthy process?

“Well, we knew we needed to cover a lot of base but we also knew the music had to work within the parameters of the film, within its dramatic content, and the tone of the cinematography.”

In many ways, Selway believes, “that drove the music, but I still felt that it was very much a part of the distinctive flavour of what I do in music. From then on, it felt appropriate to release it as not only my debut soundtrack work but also the third solo album.”

While this might come across as a musician being served a humongous slice of cake and wolfing it down, Selway points to how Radiohead prepare, develop and create.

“When we’re doing music in Radiohead, the parameters are limitless, so this was a process of working within the boundaries of the movie’s narrative, of trying to find what could support that. Once you got into the studio, it became a very recognisable process for me. You could see the pieces flesh out, so that was familiar. Being part of a bigger creative endeavour, however, and finding my place in that – yes, that was very different.”

And, he readily admits, instructive – even for someone so experienced. “Because it was my first film soundtrack, it was a steep learning curve, but a positive one. All that creativity from the different elements of the film,the cinematography, the director, and the performances, all of these were great for me to respond to musically. I’ve made a fair bit of music down through the decades, and I have that kind of experience, for sure, but learning how to apply that to the context of the film. That was a stretch.”

Selway isn't the first member of Radiohead, of course, to work on film soundtracks. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood is a comparative old hand, having scored Bodysong (2003), We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011), and three Paul Thomas Anderson movies, There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012) and Inherent Vice (2014). Did his bandmate give him any tips?

A laugh travels all the way down the phone from Oxford, where Selway lives.

“Oddly enough, we didn’t discuss it. At the heart of these things is a gut instinct you can do them. You’re going into the situation knowing there are blanks that have to be filled along the way. What Radiohead has done is that we learnt on the job. Jonny studied music theory, but none of us are really trained musicians. We learned how to play in the context of each other, and so you just build up all of those skills as the years go by. You’re drawn to some skills you follow naturally, and there are others you identify you need as you go along.”

Selway turned 50 in May, Thom Yorke and Ed O'Brien turn 50 next year, and Radiohead is now over 30 years old. Don't for one second think, he implies, there is less of a creative mindset burning bright, either individually or collectively.

“If you’re still making music that excites you and other people, music that people connect with, and you can still cut it live, then age shouldn’t be a barrier. You only have to look at visual artists where their better work comes later in life. It’s a very natural thing – if you accumulate experience and skill, and apply it well, then you’re just going to get better at it, aren’t you?”

The soundtrack work is going to continue, I hope, for the foreseeable future. In terms of Radiohead, we will absolutely carry on

He uses this as a qualifier for Radiohead's adaptable modus operandi, stating that the band has never been "age dependent". What exactly does he mean by this?

“Well, we’ve never been viewed as fresh-faced pin-up boys, have we? So long as we feel we’re progressing musically – if it feels that what we’re doing is exciting, challenging us – then there’s still life in it. That’s what we base our decision on to continue after each album-tour cycle. We just have to be honest with ourselves as to whether we’re still feeling that.”

And what about Selway himself? There is more film soundtrack work coming along, he says, before retreating into his home studio.

“The soundtrack work is going to continue, I hope, for the foreseeable future. In terms of Radiohead, we will absolutely carry on. With regard to producing new material, we’re going to be on a hiatus for a while, so that we can all work on other things.

“The great aspect about the side projects, however, is that they all feed back into the band.”

Drummer drumming: solo album highs

Dennis Wilson: Pacific Ocean Blue (1977)
His somewhat more illustrious songwriting bandmates in the Beach Boys never saw drummer Dennis Wilson as a serious contender. His only album, however, took everyone by surprise with its delicate melodies and expressive lyrics, perhaps best showcased on tracks such as River Song and Farewell my Friend.

Sheila E: The Glamorous Life (1984)
The niece of revered Americana songwriter Alejandro Escovedo is much better known as one of Prince's most favoured musicians. Produced by the Purple One, this album remains one of the best funk-rock outings of the 1980s. Classy songs (Sheila E wrote most of them) include the title track, Oliver's House and The Belle of St Mark, while the instrumental Shortberry Shortcake is as funky as it gets.

Buddy Miles: Them Changes (1970)
There was never any doubt about Miles's proficiency as a drummer, but could he cut it as smartly in front of a microphone? Them Changes is regarded as one of the great "lost" soul-rock albums, and original songs such as the title track and Heart's Delight proved his songwriting ability. His singing voice, meanwhile, measured nuanced interpretation with gritty delivery on covers Dreams (Gregg Allman), Memphis Train (Rufus Thomas), and Down by the River (Neil Young).

Don Henley: Building the Perfect Beast (1984)
The Eagles' drummer Don Henley leaves the "take it easy" living of the 1970s behind on his second solo album, writing a bunch of songs with a socio-political slant, and conveying them with a tad more urgency than normal. The album features The Boys of Summer, a classic song about the passing of youth and impending maturity.

  • Let Me Go OST is on release on Bella Union. The film Let Me Go is also on release

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