Radiohead: A to Z
an interview with Colin Greenwood by Kodwo Eshun
// culturelab.co.uk, issue
1, june 2001
:: pictures (though not included here) by jason evans
:: russian version
It’s three weeks before the release of Amnesiac,
the companion album to Radiohead's Kid A. In a weeks time,
the single Pyramid Song will crash into the British charts
at No 2. Now, however, it is a rainy May afternoon at the Brook Green
offices of EMI Records. Bassist Colin Greenwood is in good spirits.
He responds knowledgeably and cheerfully to the A-Z interview
format. It is a simple structure that encourages complex digressions.
— A is for Alice Coltrane
C.G. We used Alice Coltrane
(1) as coming-on music, as a sort of good vibe blessing of
the last concerts we did. [Greenwood hums Cecil McBee’s bass figure
which opens the title track of Coltrane’s 1971 album Journey In Satchidananda
(2)]. Alice Coltrane to us means relying more on ambience than
technical virtuosity, frankly. Lots of one chord stuff as well. Over
these two records, we were exploring loops and repetitions that were
constructed in performance rather than on computer. Coltrane would
do what you’d get a Roland Pro Tools module to do but with a group
of jazz musicians.
Motion Picture Soundtrack on Kid
A was another Coltrane inspiration. My brother Jonny used
her harps for that. With Dollars And Cents on the album,
we had it as a band jam and I sometimes spend evenings playing with
records over the top of things we were working on to see what works.
Alice Coltrane was sounding really good with it so Jonny went away
and wrote this sort of string treatment in the style of Alice Coltrane.
We were playing the one with the cosmic incantation on one side. We
used that one.
— B is for Bass
C.G. If you’re working on a computer and you’re
editing bass, it looks like a warm curvy, sort of feminine object.
The actual shape of the sound conforms to what you’re listening to.
It’s like a big padded fluffy duvet and I like that. Ondes Martenot
(3) do good bass frequencies. Jonny’s just had 2 analogue synthesiser
Ondes Martenots built for him by Time Machines, a company in Cornwall.
Mad, beautiful things, voltage controlled tone generators with Ondes
style keyboards. My brother’s the big Messaien fan. I’ve seen the
Mass For The End Of Time in concert but my brother’s the more
musical one really. He trained as a musician. I trained as a classical
guitarist but that was it. I’m going to have classical piano lessons
— C for Computers
C.G. The trick with computers I think, is to approach
old and new things with the same reverence as you would like your
favourite chair and not be seduced by the constant innovation otherwise
you never do anything. I’ve got like an Atari ST and we’ve all got
Powerbooks which we run our favourite thing called Logic on because
it never crashes unlike Cubase. And there’s an Akai MPC 60 for those
like hiphop, swing moments and an Akai S3000 200XL just because everything
sounds great. They’re just things to play with instead of playing
on the Playstation.
I like Herbert (4). The second track [called It’s
Only No] on his new album Bodily Functions is great. A
top pop moment with nice samples. I think he’s better than Bernd Friedman
(5), because of the stuff he’s doing, like applying electronic frequency
treatments to jazz harmonics, especially in live performances.
— D is for Distortion
C.G. Like Peter Rehberg (6)? I love Peter Rehberg.
That album, Get Out on Mego records, Track 3, with the Morricone
sample. It’s my favourite thing of last year, it’s incredible, really
epic, really melancholic. For me the sound is very emotional, the
context of post-World War 2, anti-American classical-music-educated
German culture. That music is so powerful. I know he’s half-English
but from Vienna, you can’t help but listen to that and place it in
a cultural context.
The ‘kkkurrghh’ from Packt Like Sardines,
that’s from Thom’s laptop. We just compressed messed-up loops. Pull
Pulk Revolving Doors was made using an MC505 and some loops, together
with some other found loops that we made in St Catherine’s Court when
we were recording OK Computer.
We set up these tape recorders and we disabled
the erase heads. We stuck the record head so it kept on recording
over and over on top of itself and played keyboard notes into it to
create this ghost repetition melody. So that’s on there too. It contrasts
with the standing in the middle of the fire electronic noise of the
Roland box ‘kkkruuegh’. We just pick these things up and try and use
them and we don’t know how they work.
— E is for Epic
C.G. Kid A is more of a distant record,
like a message left on your e-mail, while Amnesiac is more
in your face, more present.
— F is for Faust
C.G. Alexandra Ritchie’s book Faust’s Metropolis.
What a book. Amazing. A history of Berlin from 1700 to now. She’s
amazing. I used to live in Germany as a kid and I used to speak the
language fairly well. I’ve forgotten it all but I can understand.
— G is for Groove
C.G. Phil is a real drummer’s drummer. He’s not
the man to give the drum workshop. But he does things the guys doing
the drum workshop wish they could do. Everyone from Beck’s drummer
who plays on Bob Dylan’s album, to Roger Taylor of Queen (laughs)
are all big fans of his.
— H is for Headphones
C.G. One of my obsessions. I have six pairs. I’ve
got In-ears, Electrostatic. My favourite are In-ears, they’re the
same ones worn by David Coulthard and Nigel Mansell and that lot.
They’re Sennheiser Drivers, moulded to your ears so you can’t hear
anything outside when you’re wearing them and they’re the best thing,
they’re amazing, they cost about £130 and you can walk along the street
listening to your favourite Lali Puna (7) track and get hit by a car.
— I is for Intimate Immensity (8)
C.G. I really like that, that’s partly to do with
Thom, I think, he manages to do that. The combination of sensitivity
and dynamic range. That’s how I’d describe the musical emotional aura
of Thom really. He’s always looking for a way of hearing his voice
back. One of the books we read a few years ago that had a big effect
on us was Repeated Takes by Michael Chanan. It looks at the
psychology of recording and repetition and how it works on your brain.
At how music moves from social to private spaces. He regards the Walkman
as Satan and the orchestra of Mozart as the pinnacle.
— J is for Jealousy
C.G. The number of times that Radiohead is used
by a journalist to talk about a group striving for some intimate inner
space and they put the ‘R’ word in there.
— K is for Kinetic
C.G. That’s one of my favourite B-side tracks.
— L is for Ligeti
C.G. Ligeti (9)? I don’t know him. That’s a good
opportunity to mention Nigel Goodrich our producer and one of his
favourite devices to use is an AMS Reverb. That’s where those sorts
of sounds come from. I don’t listen to much modern composition. I’m
really more of a soulboy. Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield, those
are the people who informed me in playing the bass. That combination
of rhythm and melody.
— M for Mayfield
C.G. As a person, the fact that so much of his
music was concerned with responsibility of the person and he managed
to do so much positive music. Dollars and Cents is Curtis Mayfield.
[Greenwood sings the bassline.] When I play fuzz bass on Packt
Like Sardines and Exit Music it’s all, I think his name
is Henry Thomson (10), something like that. Curtis’s bass player,
yeah, who is God, fine man.
— N is for Negativity
K.E. Radiohead supposedly epitomises miserabilism?
C.G. I think that when Thom writes his songs he
has the M for Miserabilist as the starting point but its not the end
point you know.
— O is for Ominous
C.G. The ominous tones of Like Spinning Plates.
In Copenhagen, I was listening to Woman’s Hour [popular BBC
Radio 4 programme]. They were talking about this English composer,
whose name I can’t remember, who wrote a piece of music for a singer
where all the phrasings were backward but she sung it forward. Thom
sung the backwards melody. It was recorded forward then listened to
backwards and he did the phrasing so as to create backward sounding
words but its sung forwards. It’s kind of my favourite track.
— P is for6 Processing
C.G. In OK Computer, the guitar was already
moving towards a tone generator as well as a riff generator. In Kid
A and Amnesiac, the guitar becomes one more texture, difficult
to separate from other textures. An electric guitar turned up and
hit through a Fender Twin or a Vox still sounds one of the most beautiful
things in the world but it becomes even more beautiful if you can
juxtapose it with other treatments. It’s all processing.
My brother works with Analogue Systems, a company
in Cornwall. Jonathan’s approach is to use the pure tones and sounds
which were the bedrock for all the 808, 909, 606 Roland drum machines.
And instead of using those machines, using the voltage control tone
generators that were the building blocks, the frequential building
blocks. Going back even further.
K.E. Becoming even more primitive?
C.G. Exactly! Exactly! More basic and more primitive.
Using sounds which you hear in a lo-res way, more pixilated.
— Q is for Queneau
K.E. Raymond Queneau belonged to OULIPO (11) who
applied mathematical formulae to literature. A simple restriction
allows you to generate massive complexity.
C.G. That’s cool. Limits are very important.
— R is for Reclusive
C.G. I think that we’re not reclusive at all. But
I think we are in terms of what is demanded of you by the media.
— S is for Solace
C.G. Solace. Consolation music. That goes to Thom.
He’s written some music that’s sort of a sustained minor key and it’s
really sad and it doesn’t let up. His ability is to write music that
has consoling qualities. In fact, he’s got a song called There
There which he’s been working on.
— T is for Texture
C.G. Thom’s approach to lyric writing as a kid
was partly inspired by Murmur by REM where the words would
come out as textures. I went to this Robert Bly lecture in New York
a few years ago. He talked about the primacy of the human voice as
the musical instrument.
— U is for Underground
C.G. I don’t think anything’s underground anymore.
And I think that’s a good thing. Everything is up for grabs.
— V is for Voice
C.G. On the last two records, Thom was definitely
looking for other instruments to give him voices rather than have
his own voice at the front. He was looking for other melodies to write
countermelodies or rhythms as opposed to ‘I’ve written a song on acoustic
guitar and here it is’ and all the voicing is already done.
— W is for Warp Records
C.G. Warp was important to Thom about two years
ago when he was looking for different sounds. I don’t really know
anything on Warp Records. I like the Anti Pop Consortium (12), they’re
K.E. They’re lyrically advanced and sonically brutal.
C.G. You should approach technological things in
a nostalgic way. You should approach a sequencer like you would a
Dobro guitar. You shouldn’t think of it as the latest thing I’ve downloaded.
You should think of it as ‘look what I’ve dug up from the attic’.
If you think of it like that you start making music on it as supposed
to like becoming an engineer.
K.E. Does it work the other way round?
C.G. I guess! I guess.
K.E. Approaching a guitar like a laptop?
C.G. The guitar is a much more efficient machine
than a computer. More responsive.
— X is for Xenakis, Iannis
C.G. Who’s he?
K.E. Xenakis was a Greek architect, mathematician
and composer who died last year. In the 1950s, he applied computer
processes to composition, to model aggregate events like birds flocking,
or crowd behaviour, into his music.
C.G. Cool, cool. A comparison would be when we
were playing a show in Barcelona last spring before Kid A came
out and people recorded those things and put them on the internet.
So three weeks later we went to Israel and 800,000 people were singing
along to the new songs because they’d all downloaded it en masse and
learnt the new songs and participated. For me that’s what’s fascinating
about the internet, that aggregate thing. With our website we didn’t
want people to come to our site and find out about Radiohead. We wanted
them to come to our site and find out about what Radiohead are finding
out about. So there are lots of links.
Our site should be like Paddington Station with
a much better version of WH Smith’s in it. And from that site you’ve
got these groups of other sites who have all this information about
us and pursue it with such alacrity and commitment precisely because
we’re not in the middle of it all. They’re the actual centres of it
My page is junk, because I hate putting anything
to do with me on the site, it just feels wrong. But that’s what I’m
proudest about – how everything that Radiohead does is displaced into
other sort of nodes of energy from other people.
— Y is for Youth, Sonics for the Youth
K.E. This is Anti Pop Consortium’s term. It’s the
title of an EP by Priest of Anti Pop Consortium.
C.G. That’s great isn’t it. We’ve got the biggest
number of hits of any band website, 900,000 a day. I like to think
they come on to go ‘somewhere else’, as well as to go somewhere else.
— Z is for Zoology
C.G. Any pets? No, my brother’s just got a pet,
a little dog called Brixton Bruxelles, a dog that looks like him.
No pets. It’s a full on job just looking for human social responsibility.
R E F E R E N C E S
1. Alice Coltrane, harpist, organist, composer
and widow of John Coltrane, whose albums epitomise the early 70s era
of cosmic jazz.
2. Greenwood is referring here to Coltrane’s version
of A Love Supreme with the salutation from her guru Swami Satchidananda.
‘We used that one’.
3. Greenwood is enthusing about the Ondes Martenot,
the postwar analogue synthesiser used by the French composer Olivier
Messaien and popularized by the Star Trek title theme.
4. Mathew Herbert, English producer, famous for
re-inventing house music by sampling the everyday, splicing the crackles,
pops and accidents of glitch music into the warm pulse of house and
the intimate torch strong.
5. Bernd Friedman, nomadic German producer, releases
albums of digital bossanova with tricky maximalist time signatures
and elaborate fictional settings.
6. Peter Rehberg, producer and co-founder of the
Vienna based Mego label of Powerbook producers. Mego’s mix of punk
attitude, digital noise terror and unexpected melody epitomised the
late 90s shock tactics of music made by dsp, or digital signal processing.
7. Lali Puna are Anglophile German electro-pop,
making melodic electronic music inspired by 4AD on Berlin’s Morr Music
8. Gaston Bachelard’s term, first used in The
Poetics Of Space, to define the quality he looks for in a space,
specifically, a house.
9. Gyorgi Ligeti, the Hungarian composer whose
Lux Aeterna is used in 2001.
10. Henry Thomson, bass player on Curtis Mayfield’s
influential 1970s albums such as Roots, Superfly, and
11. Novelist Raymond Queneau belonged to OULIPO,
the postwar French group of novelists and theorists that applied mathematical
formulae to literature.
12. Anti Pop Consortium. Experimental New York
hiphop trio who combine extreme polysyllabic flow with brutal analogue
synthesiser riffs. Composed of Beanz, Priest and M Sayeed, they are
the first hiphop group to sign to the Warp label.