Thom Yorke: Daydream nation
At the Barbican gallery and estate, one of London’s most iconic slabs of concrete, Thom Yorke is in a reflective mood. “Scott Walker invited us to play once for his Meltdown,” he tells us. It’s a poignant moment. The groundbreaking singer and auteur passed away in March aged 76, leaving a void in experimental music.
With dark balladry that exposes the fragility of the human experience, both Walker and Yorke opened new worlds. The similarities didn’t go unnoticed. Yorke once jokingly described Creep as the band’s ‘Scott Walker song’ after it was initially dismissed by producers who mistakenly thought it was a Scott Walker cover. In 2006, Walker was quoted saying: “Radiohead are fabulous. If I could have it all again and be in a band, that’s the kind of band I’d like to have been in.”
Of Walker’s death, Yorke tweeted, “he was a huge influence on Radiohead and myself, showing me how I could use my voice and words.” If part of Walker’s enduring legacy was to impact the use of Thom Yorke’s voice, we arrive at a pertinent time. On a forthcoming solo album, the details of which are kept close for now, Yorke tells anxiety-ridden tales of contemporary claustrophobia across layers of electronic fuzz and deconstructed noise, his voice in many guises taking centre stage.
With its themes of inner city pressure, reflecting on the record enclosed by the Barbican’s 400-foot high tower blocks today feels fitting. “It’s very J.G. Ballard,” Yorke admits. (In Ballard’s 1975 novel High Rise an apocalyptic tower block drives its inhabitants insane.) As with most of Yorke’s creative output, the record treads along a line of relative instability. While he speaks of a period of “dreadful writers block” and “incredible bouts of anxiety” over the last two years, this new project is Yorke as you want him – living out the darker aspects of the human condition and holding a torch up to the prevailing mood.
Despite the existential obstacles, Yorke has remained remarkably focused in the last 18 months. Suspiria, his first film score, took his sound into eerie new territory for Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of the cult Italian horror film. With his Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes show, he continued to cement his identity as a solo performer, putting his body at the centre of the stage. Ten days before we meet, he performed classical compositions with sisters and acclaimed pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque as the Minimalist Dream House band at a sold-out show at the Barbican.
Today, his tone is hushed and he seems relaxed. In our peaceful surrounding encased by Brutalist architecture, the green foliage of the tiered conservatory provides beauty among the bleakness. Halfway through our interview his daughter bangs on the window. Yorke pulls a face at her and throws her a peace sign. Despite the intense subject matter, there’s a consistent playfulness to our conversation, something that’s been mirrored throughout his work.
Existing in a world where constraint is considered a challenge, Yorke has spent the past 30 years testing the preconceptions of what is expected of him, wrong-footing everyone along the way. In a rare interview, Yorke shares his dreams, reality and the dystopian visions behind his new album.
“Sometimes I don't even recognise myself in some of the music I've made, which is always what I'm looking for, I guess”
You’ve just completed a new solo record, performed your first classical piece and scored a soundtrack. How do you explain this rich creative burst you seem to be in at the moment?
Wow. Well I think I’d look at it in a different way, because things slowed down for a while and I’m happy I can work again and come back into focus. I seemed to spend a lot of time in my basement, in the studio for two years, and suddenly everything that was kicking around in there is starting to come out.
It seems like you’ve ticked off so many boxes in the last 12 months alone.
It really wasn’t meant to be. The thing with Katia and Marielle Labèque, the piano piece, to me it started as a joke. They were asking me, ‘You should write some piano music for us,’ and I’m like, ‘Hah hah, I guess. I can’t read music.’ Then obviously I realised that that wasn’t a prerequisite.
When suddenly I found myself saying yes to doing a film score and writing music for piano, I realised that it’s actually not that different to the way I’ve learnt to use a computer. It was the weirdest feeling building something on the laptop and handing it over to these two incredible musicians. The work was based on a few ideas of using probability and arpeggiators, a very electronic state of mind, and suddenly they’re playing it like it’s a piece by Schumann or Ravel!
Was there a similar feeling with what you achieved on Suspiria?
That was such an insane process. I was so wildly out of my depth. I liked the fact that it gave me a set of things to do, like write for a string quartet and write for a choir. Things that I never would’ve imagined. Sometimes I don’t even recognise myself in some of the music I made, which is always what I’m looking for, I guess.
Do you feel a sense of artistic freedom working across these fields?
You have to come to something with a beginner’s mind. Once you’ve learned to use a drum machine, or learned to write in a particular way, the temptation is to go back there, because you know it works. But the point is, if you’ve discovered it works, it no longer works. Look at Aphex Twin. He does similar things to me but uses machinery. Once he’s gone through a phase of going back to an old sequencer, he’s done with it, he’s moved on.
This album feels like the natural progression of your electronic exploration over the last 20 years.
It’s certainly heavy. It’s big. We watched Flying Lotus in the early years on tour with us, and we watched him with his live set-up performing all his loops and thought, ‘Well that’s interesting,’ because it’s a live performance, he’s improvising. We suddenly realised this is a new way to write stuff. I would send [Nigel Godrich] completely unfinished, sprawling tracks and he would focus in on the bits and pieces that he thought would work, build them up into samples and loops, and then throw them back at me, where I would start writing vocals.
Did these compositions feel as daring as anything you’ve tried with Radiohead?
At the beginning it was terrifying. I was hiding behind the decks, pretending to sort of DJ, but it’s not like that because I’m also singing and occasionally playing guitar. There was a bit of a eureka moment at one show we did in Paris where there was a stage in front [of me] and I thought, ‘Oh fuck this,’ and I just ended up using the stage [to dance].
When you don’t have a band playing you come at it from a different point of view. You start off basically feeling really exposed. Then you have to find a new way to just be there. The worst thing onstage is to feel self-conscious. That’s where it all got a bit weird because suddenly it was like, ‘Hang on, this is a bit more like theatre…’
Or performance art.
What my partner has taught me as a theatre actress is that she can’t do what she does if she isn’t completely in the moment. It’s so obvious when you’re not. But also I’ve got to think about the machinery cues. I’ve got to run back to the desk, turn the modular on, change the tempo on this tune, change the vocal loops, make sure to change the patch for the next synth sound, while I’m doing all that.
© Clementine Schneidermann
Shirt: Lou Dalton
There is such contrast between your movements and the intense subject matters you’re singing about. It seems like you’re dancing and revelling in the grimness of the songs.
I really enjoy that. That’s the point where I think ‘OK, I don’t think anyone else would be daring to do this right now.’ The thing I’ve always loved about watching John Lydon is the way he would revel in those moments where you’re like, ‘Fuck.’ You and I both know what I’m talking about. In the music is something really, really dark, so I’m not going to stand here and be really dark, I’m going to move.
Have you tried to hold up a mirror to the prevailing existential mood on this record? There’s quite a dystopian feel to the record.
There is. Have you ever flown to Tokyo? That jet lag is the definition of an existential crisis, every time. There was one night where I’d go to sleep, two hours later I’m absolutely wide awake and I just had these images… humans and rats changed places. A dream. And as I came out, I woke up with this really strong set of images of girls in tottering heels, but they’re actually rats and the human beings are in the drains. I had another one, these weird images of the city of London and all the skyscrapers are just shuffling along.
The dystopian thing is one part of it, yes, but for me, one of the big, prevailing things was a sense of anxiety. If you suffer from anxiety it manifests itself in unpredictable ways, some people have over-emotional reactions. [For] some people the roots of reality can just get pulled out, you don’t know what’s happening. Then eventually reality comes back. For some reason I thought a really good way of expressing anxiety creatively was in a dystopian environment. I had so many visual things going on at this point. Another one was where everybody was travelling to work but their bodies were telling them that they wouldn’t do it anymore. They were refusing to cooperate, so they were doing these involuntary movements.
If we’re touching on anxiety, let’s move onto wider issues.
How did you reconcile your need as an artist, your need to live a practical existence through touring and earning money, while living a sustainable lifestyle?
It doesn’t sit easy with me. I don’t even like flying! I was really, really upset about it a few years ago. The amount of it, as well – if you only do a few shows, then people fly in. Which is way worse. But the wider thing for me is that we have spent a good 16-20 years pointing fingers at each other. These endless headlines like, ‘Yes but what can you do.’ Change your lightbulbs. Blah blah blah. While the government is allowing licenses for fracking.
For example, just travelling in Europe, right? If you gave me the chance to travel on the train in Europe, in a comfortable way in a reasonable amount of time, I’d take it. Our system of travel is not geared up to support that; it’s geared up to support flying. We subsidise aviation fuel and that’s the only reason that it’s cheap to fly. Every government massively subsidises the cost of fuel for planes. And then they tell you not to fly! It’s just one example of how without government support we can’t change the way that we operate, and that’s not just here. That’s everybody.
Do you feel like we’re heading towards some kind of dystopian society and do you feel like that’s reflected on the record?
It’s reflected on the record, definitely. Whether we’re actually heading for it? I think we’ve got to this crisis point because we’ve allowed our social system and the way that society functions, the way that it looks at economic borders, travel, politics – we’ve allowed it to drift. It was my generation that did it. ‘Cause we grew up with Thatcher and Blair and just went, ‘Alright, well they’re just a bunch of fucking losers living in a bubble.’ And in doing that, we left the losers in charge. Michael Gove as Prime Minister? Are you fucking kidding me?
I was a daydreaming, idealistic 20-year-old, 30-year-old. We were still refusing to accept that something more fundamental needed to change as a society and our trajectory was essentially unsustainable in a million different ways. That’s why I find it wonderful seeing now, my son is studying politics, and to realise how much [the younger generation] consider it something important, to be lying in the streets and getting involved – thank fuck. Because our generation just gave up. We left losers in charge and assumed they’re gonna do it right.
Do you feel like there’s a compelling will to act now that we’ve hit that point?
The level of hypocrisy and complacency from the Tory government over the environment is shocking. When they first got in, I was involved in this law that got passed when I worked with Friends of the Earth, which committed the government to do a report every year to monitor the progress with climate change, with reducing CO2 emissions. The Tories basically said, ‘We’re going to fucking ignore that.’ For us to be angry like we are, I think it’s fair enough. I’ve got a little ‘thank you’ plaque up in my house for being involved and I look at that now and think, ‘It’s not worth the fucking paper it’s written on.’ Everyone’s always told us to use the system, to work within parliament and within government to change things. You make a law, they ignore it.
© Clementine Schneidermann
T-shirt: Vintage PIL
“I've been going through the Kid A stuff with the others. We were all a bit mad by the end of that period”
What do the current oppositional forces in our society provide you with as an artist in 2019?
I don’t see it as subject matter because you can’t write about it directly. What you can do is pick up on the sense of anger and fear and half-truths. Maybe it’s dissipated now our glorious leader has stopped threatening us with crashing out [of the European Union]. But that build up, a purely manufactured build up, we’ll look back on that in 10 years – if we survive for that long – going, ‘What the fuck!’ I mean, how on earth did we let these people manipulate us to the point where it was genuinely inducing a sense of anxiety and panic, eating at the fabric of society. For what? To appease a bunch of lunatics who will never be appeased. About 200 people plus their fascist friends? Crazy. You couldn’t even imagine when I grew up, even in the midst of the darkest years of Thatcher when she was having a war with the miners, that we’d induce the entire country into a state of blind panic. And then wake up one day and say, ‘Oh yeah, we didn’t mean that. Sorry.’
We’ll look back in 10 years and see how our current Prime Minister, more than any other PM ever, spent her entire time trying to circumvent the sovereignty of Parliament. I wrote one thing directly to Theresa May on Twitter one day, ’cause I couldn’t accept the fact that one human being believes she has the right to drive us off a cliff like that.
You’re very active on Twitter now. Do you feel complicit in the problem of communicating messages on social media?
Yes, I do, but I don’t have a choice. I use it as a vehicle to retweet positive messages. You can only use the tools at your disposal to get the messages across. You’re left no choice. It’s the same thing that’s happening at the moment with Extinction Rebellion who have run out of choices and are acting.
Is there this looming inevitability of returning to Radiohead at some point?
We’re 50 now, most of us, so these things have to feel natural, they have to feel right. We haven’t scheduled this, this and this. I do really miss doing the shows. I felt like we got into a really good place when we did Glastonbury and toured South America.
I feel what you’ve recently achieved has in part been earned by what Radiohead did with Kid A and Amnesiac. I feel the fans will follow you anywhere now.
You know, it feels a bit like that time period now. Not all of them did, mind you. Some of them dropped off after OK Computer and some of them dropped off after The Bends, which was annoying as we hadn’t even got started yet!
When the record [Kid A] was done, I recently discovered this review in Melody Maker where we got absolutely destroyed by – what was his name?
Mark Beaumont. [On Kid A: “It is the sound of Thom Yorke ramming his head firmly up his own arse, hearing the rumblings of his intestinal wind and deciding to share it with the world.”]
I only read a couple lines of it and was like, ‘Phwoar, that’s fucking harsh.’ I do remember the rest of the band sitting in the dressing room before we went on at one of the first tent shows in Newport in the pissing rain, and they were white as a sheet going, ‘We’ve been absolutely trashed, we’ve been destroyed by blah blah blah.’ But at the same time, for me, there was a sense of, ‘Great. Bring it on!’ We went on stage and even though I was a bit like, ‘What the hell,’ because honestly I didn’t expect such an extreme reaction, we were also like, ‘Come on then, fucking come on then!’ There was a sense of a fight to convince people, which was actually really exciting.
Looking back at this point, how does nostalgia sit with you?
Recently, I’ve been going through the Kid A and Amnesiac stuff with the others. We were all a bit mad by the end of that period. We went through the whole crazy OK Computer period and I became catatonic at the end of it. Then we worked really hard for a year and a half with really not that many breaks and it was really intense. We didn’t know what the fuck we were doing, and I was refusing to rehearse anything! Imagine, if you will, the chaos.
I recently found this box file of all the faxes I was sending and receiving from Stanley [Donwood, visual artist] about the artwork and they’re hilarious. I’ve got all this stuff, pages and pages and photocopies, that I just left strewn around the studios. Nigel picked them up and thought, ‘We’d better keep these.’ I was so focused and at the same time angry, confused, paranoid. I’m looking at all these people involved, going ‘Who the fuck are these people?!’ We’re going to do something really cool with all that material.
My final question is: what makes you optimistic about the future?
I think we’ve reached a crisis point. I hope it will be our final crisis point where we actually allow the anger and frustration that’s inside of us to come to fruition. To speak. We need to wake the fuck up. Once we wrestle the wheel off the maniac – maniacs – trying to drive us off a cliff, I’m optimistic. I really do think right now we’re seeing the people at the wheel for what they are and it’s only going to snap us awake. I hope so.
Photography: Clementine Schneidermann
Producer: Kate Edmunds for Truro Productions
Styling: Charlotte James
Styling Assistant: SK Cheng
Hair: Mark Francome Painter
Hair Assistant: Kirsten Bassett
Thom Yorke’s next album is set for release via XL Recordings