This 1998 interview with Thom Yorke proves the band were ready to make some bold creative moves
In 1998, Radiohead were reaching grand new heights of both commercial and critical success.
While they’d already had a breakout hit in 1994’s ‘Creep’ and followed it up with their first truly great album in 1996’s The Bends, the response to their third album, 1997’s OK Computer, dwarfed those past successes.
By early ’98, the album was already being heralded as one of the great rock albums of the modern day, a designation it has not lost in the 25 years since its release.
Yet, when he came into the triple j studios in January of that year, frontman Thom Yorke seemed restless, weary, unsatisfied and a little circumspect about fame, the future of his band, and whether rock’n’roll still had the relevance it once possessed.
“Fame has been the most damaging element of it, as far as I’m concerned,” he told triple j’s Richard Kingsmill about his band’s position.
“People start talking to you differently on a day to day basis, and there’s no positive side of that at all. That’s a destructive thing. You’re just lucky if you have never enough real friends who don’t talk to you differently.”
Thankfully he wasn’t alone. Yorke, who has since dabbled in solo projects, said sharing this affliction with his bandmates made it easier to contextualise. Still, he wasn’t prepared for the impact immense praise could have on a creative person’s psyche.
“I think if I was on my own, or if Johnny [Greenwood, guitarist] was on his own, you’d freak,” he said. “You’d really freak out. I totally understand when people do now. I totally understand why. I used to think ‘Ah they’re just being difficult’.”
Thom Yorke wasn’t interested in buying into the hype bestowed upon Radiohead at this arguable peak of their career, deserved as it may have been. He’d seen great artists buy into adulation and suffer creative stagnation as an untoward side-effect.
“People just believe what is written about them,” he said.
“Someone will give you attention because you’ve done a certain thing. It’s like a supply and demand thing.
“It’s like, ‘Well, this is what they want me to do. This is what they want to hear. So, I’ll do more of this. If I just do more of this, they’ll love me. It’ll be great’.
“That seems to be the demise of so many recording artists.”
Plus, in the 90s, fame in music also meant money. The ultimate poisoned chalice.
“Suddenly, people start giving you cash,” Yorke continued.
“You’ve got money. You get used to this lifestyle, and you don’t want to take any risks, because they’ve got you by the balls. You don’t want to take any risks.
“You’ve got all this baggage that you’re carrying around with you everywhere and you can’t let go. You’ve got all these things that you’ve bought, or you’re attached to. If you start spending all this money, that’s how they get you.”
When Kingsmill and Yorke sat down, Radiohead had just been excluded from the live program of the 1998 GRAMMY Awards, where they would end up winning Best Alternative Music Performance.
You can hear the relief in Yorke’s voice when relaying the news.
“They said that we weren’t good for the ratings, so we said ‘Okay’,” Yorke said. “It was cool. We were so happy, man. You wouldn’t believe it.
“We kind of went into it going, ‘It’d be quite interesting to sort of go on and play ‘Exit Music…’ in front of a lot of people that just won’t get it at all, sing ‘We hope that you choke‘ and walk off the stage.
“But, given the context of it, I think even that probably wouldn’t translate. Then they just started saying things like ‘Well, we don’t think you’re appropriate really’.”
Yorke’s distrust of the machinations of the music industry was palpable.
“The way those things work, they’ll probably just go and ask whoever’s the tastemaker in New York that particular day, who probably has the attention span of a gnat on speed, and ask him what he thinks,” he said.
“It’s all bullshit anyway. Once it gets to that level it’s got nothing to do with the music at all. It’s not voted for by people who actually buy the records. The people who vote for them are the ones are getting them for free anyway.
“They were asking us ‘Do you want to go up and present an award to somebody else?’. What purpose does that serve? Our face gets into this thing?”
Thom Yorke had big hopes for the future of music in 1998
Radiohead would soon become one of music’s most disruptive forces.
From the unexpected leftfield atmospheric electronic departure of 2000’s Kid A, to the ‘pay what you want’ model adopted for 2007’s In Rainbows, to the establishment of the Radiohead Public Library in 2020, the band’s most consistent trait is seemingly bucking trends.
Music’s new future was clearly on Yorke’s mind in 1998.
“You can now record and master any music so cheaply now, you don’t actually need record companies in the way that record companies used to be,” he posited.
“You don’t need this cult of personalities like, unfortunately, Radiohead has. Dance music doesn’t have this cult of personality thing.
“I mean, it has its own crappy baggage that goes with it, how it’s trying to maintain its coolness all the time, which I find even more laughable than the rock’n’roll industry. But at least they’re making stuff, and they’re independent.”
Yorke hoped that more visceral, leftfield, challenging music would find the audiences he believed it deserved, as artists gained tools to help them bypass the music industry’s traditional gatekeepers.
“I just think that one of the most unfortunate things about music at the moment is the legacy of the alternative radio stations that aren’t alternative,” he said.
“The legacy of the hip hop that has been turned into this anaesthetised shit, and how every movement is anaesthetised before it ever gets to its full fruition. It’s always been the case in the music industry. It’s always been like that.
“Now, for the first time, musicians can record music themselves and do it cheaply. All they need is for it to be distributed. It seems like things should be changing. People should start rethinking what it is to make a record.”
When Kingsmill asked whether this would lead to a glut of mediocre music that would make the good stuff harder to discover, Yorke conceded this could be the case.
“That’s where I guess you still need radio, and you still need the press,” he considered.
“If that’s the case then it’s a shame that the NME‘s only concessions to the dance music industry is it’s [dance music coverage has] gone from one page to two pages. It should be virtually the whole magazine.
“Because most of the guitar bands and people picking up guitars at the moment are not producing anything of any worth. I don’t know why.
“But then, I don’t listen to radio anymore. So, I’m probably talking shit.”
The iconic videos that brought OK Computer to life
If you’re somehow a music fan without a working knowledge of OK Computer, there’s still a reasonable chance you’ve encountered its iconic music videos over the past 25 years.
Yorke said that the band had previously mixed success when it came to finding the right directors with the right ideas.
“It varies wildly, really,” he said. “Sometimes you just get the script in and it’s amazing, it’s exactly right.
“For ‘Paranoid Android’, I couldn’t find anything that that I thought in any way came close to the mood of the song. Except for this.”
A short animated series called Robin, created by Swedish animator Magnus Carlsen, had garnered a cult following in the UK upon its release in 1996.
Yorke was a big fan and had a hunch that Carlsen could deliver the right balance of humour and peculiarity to accompany OK Computer‘s epic first single.
“While we were finishing off the album, we just watched them all the time and it was just totally where our heads were at,” he said of Carlen’s show.
“In the end, I just asked him to do a Robin cartoon.
“The way he interpreted it was so uncanny. He didn’t want the words to the song – he doesn’t understand English very well – he sat and he listened to it all day, on repeat on his CD player. Constantly, all day. Writing down images as he was seeing them in his head. He’d put them together and fax it back to us.
“It was weird. It was the whole story of the actual song anyway, and the reason it was written. Sometimes you just have things like that, where people just respond in such a weird way.”
Sometimes you need to rely on someone close to make sure you’re getting the best ideas.
“‘No Surprises’ has been done by Grant [Gee], who has been following us around,” Yorke explained.
“He was seeing the other [ideas] that were coming up. A lot of the scripts for ‘No Surprises’ were the same old thing. A lot of surprises. Like, I’d be walking down the street and cars are blowing up and everything’s going off, and I have this completely deadpan reaction.
“We had this other script where I was gonna fly out of a toilet. I was gonna get into the toilet of an aeroplane and I was going to press the button to flush the toilet, and it was going to be the ejector seat.
“We were halfway down that and then we suddenly thought, ‘No, hang on. Great idea, but totally the wrong song’.
“Then Grant just came up with the weirdest idea of me just basically drowning myself, with the titles rolling up.”
“It’s kind of in reference to the [Stanely Kubrick’s 1968 film] 2001 [A Space Odyssey], when the lights are being reflected in the helmet.
“But Grant chose to frame it in such a way that the television was the frame, which I got really excited about. I liked the idea of maybe walking into a bar or something and seeing my head framed by the television, like a goldfish bowl.
“And then I drown – well, almost drown – and I actually had to do that as well.
If you’ve seen Gee’s 1998 documentary film Meeting People Is Easy, in which this interview briefly features, you’ll see the disturbing aftermath of Yorke’s helmet filling with water. The frontman struggles to breathe as the helmet comes off and the water gushes out.
“It was horrible,” he recalled. “Terrifying. There was no way of cheating. I did have to actually be submerged in the water for a minute. There was no other way of doing it. They built his helmet and filled it up with water with my head in it.
“I’m just there for a minute. In a goldfish bowl full of water, basically. We had a stuntman training me and everything.”
Music video production has been democratised in the 25 years since OK Computer, often allowing creative ideas to flourish without big budgets.
In the late-90s, film clips were still largely the domain of artists with healthy budgets, made by people who had more connections than creativity.
“It’s a very random thing and I completely understand why people give up on it,” Yorke says of the process. “It’s such an insane amount of money that gets spent.
“When we first started doing videos, every video director we ever met was just a bullshitter and a sort of hangover from the 80s.
“We had guys who used to come in and pretend they’d written a script, get us to come up with the ideas, and then repeat them back to us.
“They’d walk out thinking they told us a video. We were like, ‘They must think we’re really out of our heads on something’.”
Where do you go after releasing a classic like OK Computer?
We now know that Radiohead followed up OK Computer with 2000’s Kid A, one of the most extraordinary records of our time.
Its obscure, ambient, electronic-focused songs have endured as well as any of Radiohead’s work, though its sales paled in comparison to that of its predecessor.
Some considered Kid A a heel turn, a deliberately antagonistic attempt at shirking off the casual fans the multi-million selling OK Computer had won them. A tangible way to piss off the media whose obsessive fawning sullied the band’s enjoyment of their biggest moment.
At the beginning of 1998, Thom Yorke didn’t know when Radiohead would start work on their next album, expressing unease at the very thought of it.
“No idea,” he said. “We’re not discussing it.
It was already clear to Radiohead that they would have to step back from OK Computer and everything it brought them in order to preserve their personal lives.
“We’re gonna walk away from this, and then when we can’t stand it anymore, maybe we’ll start work,” Yorke considered.
“But that could be a year. I’m not necessarily convinced that we’ll do another one before the year 2000.
“It’s like the end of a cycle really for us. If we don’t attempt to integrate ourselves into real life again now, then that’s it. We never will. We’ll just carry on doing this and turn into monsters.”
Songs weren’t the issue. It’s particularly evident, with the benefit of hindsight, that Radiohead wanted to rethink everything before they embarked on their next creative project.
The hamster wheel of ‘write, record, tour’ was yet another undesirable aspect of modern music they wanted to dodge.
“We could go and do it tomorrow if you’re talking about the actual material, but that’s not really the point,” he said.
“We always have a lot of stuff kicking around but it’s not about that, it’s more about what sticks with us and what takes on significance.
“We could go in and do it all tomorrow… But when you write a song, certain songs you just forget about and certain songs increasingly take on significance, and just don’t go away.
“I think that’s the most important stage really. Because I think anybody can just rattle them off, it’s what ends up meaning something to you.”
Had Radiohead made OK Computer after fastidiously working through its songs on the road, Yorke believes the results would be very different.
“It would sound dreadful,” he deadpanned. “It would sound absolutely awful. There’s only a certain time where you should record a song and then you should never record it again. Because you’re always from then on going through the motions.
“It’s a completely different thing, recording. You’re finding things out about yourself while you’re doing it and then it’s over. Then it’s somebody else’s forevermore.
“If people want to hear you play it again, then you’ll play it for them, because they’re giving you a reason to play the song again. Otherwise, it’s pointless. Because you just get bored of the material, and you get you don’t understand the sentiment of it.”
The frontman pointed to a real example from OK Computer to exemplify his point.
“‘Let Down’, for example, when we recorded it, we were already at the point where we were bored of it,” he said.
“We just managed to get a version down which doesn’t quite reveal the fact that we’re almost bored of it.
“Then I had a complete nightmare, personally, doing the vocal for it, because I was bored of it. I couldn’t get it together. I didn’t understand the song and it was only because the others weren’t as bored of it as I was that we managed to get it together.
“I guess it’s a year or so since we finished it. Now I kind of like it. Because now I have a distance. Now I understand that you get so confused when you’re recording.
Computer OK: How Radiohead blazed a trail on the internet in the 90s
Radiohead have had an intriguing web presence since the early days of widespread home internet usage.
The earliest versions of their website were intriguing and confusing. In 1998, it had fans working their way through a maze, where they’d uncover typically idiosyncratic easter eggs: bizarre imagery, strange text snippets, messages, and other unexpected delights.
“We basically use it for dumping ground for whatever half-formed ideas we have,” Yorke said.
“Whatever me and Dan and the others find interesting. Dan, Stanley Donwood, does the website and he does the artwork as well. He’s a busy man.
“I get a big kick out of faxing stuff to Stanley and, if he likes it, he puts it on the site. We use faxes, we don’t use email even.”
This nascent technology played into Yorke’s broad vision for what Radiohead could offer beyond what would ordinarily be expected of a rock band.
“It’s based on a piece that I did for my final degree show at art college,” he explained.
“It’s just basically the idea of being put into a maze, but not really having any idea where to go. And just being having these things bombard you.”
Like much of what Radiohead have done, its intention is to be a little bit challenging. To push the boundaries, not only of what’s possible, but of what fans will tolerate or enjoy.
“The initial one that we did, we had what you might call mixed opinions,” Yorke recalls.
“We had people writing in saying, ‘It’s great!’ and we had other people just hurling abuse at us about it.
“When we first built the website, we just made a list of all the all the taboo things you’re supposed to not do on the web and did them all on the first page. We had flashing letters, capital letters…”
The internet has changed the way artists and fans communicate with one another, often giving an audience a direct line to their heroes. Yet this was one popular aspect of the new technology Yorke was less fond of.
“I find the web interesting, but the few times that we’ve done chatlines and stuff, it’s really done my head in,” he said.
“We were doing a lot of correspondence while we were making the album and I kind of found it interesting, but I kind of didn’t as well.”
I think it’s really cool for people trying to find out stuff. When we encountered these discussion groups, whatever they’re called, I find that really exciting. But there was no reason for us to get involved. They didn’t believe it when we did anyway.”
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