Taking music to strange places
Colin Greenwood was 12 years old when he first met Thom Yorke. They were both learning classical guitar at Abingdon School in Oxford and finding their own creative feet at that most awkward of ages. But before long they were concentrating on more potent and youthful music and a band called On A Friday was formed. Fellow schoolmates Ed O'Brien, Phil Selway and Colin's younger brother Jonny joined in and soon they began gigging around their rather rarefied home town.
The band lasted right through school, but then came the usual post A-Level scattering as On A Friday's high-powered membership dispersed to university - Exeter, Manchester, Liverpool and, in Colin Greenwood's case, Peterhouse, the oldest college in Cambridge. Under normal circumstances, that might well have been it, but the five friends were serious about their music and committed to meet and rehearse back in Oxford every few weeks.
It wasn't an ideal situation, but between them they held it together. Yorke sent Greenwood cassette copies of new songs like the extraordinary Creep and they could hardly wait to be a real band again. Graduations over, they got stuck in, found themselves a manager and signed to EMI at the end of 1991. The best decision of all, however, was to change their name to Radiohead and to set about taking rock music into some very strange places indeed - places even stranger than Oxford.
"When we were at school," says Colin Greenwood, "Oxford was a place to escape to and crash garden parties in summer. But it has become even more important now, as much for what it's not as what it is. And it's not London. It's strange too because I don't think there are any emotional ties to the city. You hear people speak about certain cities with pride, whether it's Manchester or Brighton, but Oxford is not like that, and I think that detachment is cool. It's good to come from somewhere you don't feel compelled to belong."
That said, Greenwood still lives in Oxford and takes some pleasure in the fact that 40,000 people showed up for Radiohead's "home-coming" gig earlier this year. It was a concert that marked the end of an extraordinary run for the band, scoring two chart-topping albums in the US in quick succession - the first of which, Kid A, was perhaps the most unlikely number-one album in living memory. In fact, it was so out of step with everything (including Radiohead) that it seemed like some deliberate attempt to flee their own success, perhaps even vanish altogether. The irony, however, was that it made them even bigger and Radiohead still sit with confidence at the top table with U2.
"When we started I don't think there was ever any kind of that projection at all," says Greenwood. "The music was always very firmly located in the private and the personal and I don't think Thom has ever written a song like a plane ticket - a song we could get somewhere with. We weren't trying to be anything; we never thought like that. And we never tried to be anyone else. We were too self-conscious and inarticulate to have the gall to appropriate something else. We just thought we wouldn't be able to do it anyway, so there was no point. That's what we liked about the punk stuff."
Greenwood also cites Talking Heads as an early influence, both on their approach and on their music. As awkward and self-conscious as they were, Talking Heads managed to ignore their inherent limitations and come up with remarkably powerful music - and On A Friday/Radiohead aimed to do the same. It's no coincidence that On A Friday took their new name from a Talking Heads song. But the real secret, however, was the way in which the band actually made the music. Yorke was the band's leader, but beyond that, it was a rare democracy.
"We were people who picked up their respective instruments because we wanted to play music together, rather than just because we wanted to play that particular instrument," says Greenwood. "So it was more of a collective angle, and if you could contribute by having someone else play your instrument, then that was really cool. I don't think of myself as a bass player anyway. I'm just in a band with other people. I also think it's a good start to be playing in a band with people who are friends."
But firm friends or not, Radiohead have had their difficulties. The 1997 album, OK Computer, landed them in a place they didn't particularly like. Yorke seemed especially uneasy with the "most important group in the world" idea and while Greenwood insists that it was all "brilliant" and he loved it, it's hard not to read the release of Kid A as a serious piece of deconstruction.
Surely they could never have expected such a chordless and odd record to do well, never mind go to number one in the US? In fact, many listeners muttered that if it hadn't been Radiohead, none of its "prog-rock noodlings" would ever have been released at all. Certainly the follow-up, Amnesiac, was a lot more accessible, but here again they weren't exactly making things easy for the fans of OK Computer. Even the single, Pyramid Song, was hugely complex and based on Charles Mingus - not many young bands were likely to attempt that one in the youth club.
"I know," agrees Greenwood. "And try playing it every night - it's a nightmare! But then I also think huge demands are made on people with crap music as well. You know that feeling of trying to remain interested when your boredom sensors are telling you to fuck off. And I'm into a lot of things anyway and I listen to lots of different kinds of music. I mean, I got record decks for my birthday! I'm 32 years old with two stacks and now I can do the village discos around south Oxfordshire!"
The recording of Kid A and Amnesiac can't have been an easy time. In fact, most rock musicians would have been at a loss as to how to contribute to the music at all, a music which was dispensing with all the normal individual functions. Increased use of electronics often means less and less room for human rhythm sections, but for Radiohead the move fitted in with their approach. As musicians and band members (rather than guitarists or drummers), their job was to contribute as best they could to the overall thing. For example, Colin put the Alice Coltrane sample on Dollars and Cents and it was Jonny who got Humphrey Lyttelton to play trumpet on Life in A Glasshouse.
That inclusion of Lyttelton on Amnesiac raises an interesting question. There are those who have long seen connections between Radiohead and jazz, particularly in live performance. Some might even suggest that what makes Radiohead so unique is that they are, in fact, a loud jazz quintet. Colin Greenwood disagrees, however. He may play acoustic bass now and again and Jonny may know his jazz chords, but as for an actual jazz sensibility, thank-you but no.
"No, I don't think that's true. Jazz is an improvisatory art and what we do is usually four beats to the bar with a repeating melody. But we do rearrange the structures to create space to move the furniture around the house. We make it possible for things to be different every night on certain songs because if we had to repeat the same thing every night, we'd be back at OK Computer.
"But that's really a combination of the way we deliberately change things and our inability to play things properly every night of the week."
Last night's Belfast's Odyssey Arena was their only projected Irish date for the time being, so do the gentlemen of Radiohead still remember Dublin and, in particular, the first time they played there?
"Oh yes, it was the Rock Garden. Twenty-five very bored people and they were definitely waiting for someone else," says Greenwood.
Amnesiac is released on Parlophone