Thom Yorke, Radiohead and Atoms for Peace frontman, admits that, even after over 25 years in the business, performing is “either wicked fun or really awful.” He talks with Alec about his pre-show ritual—"I stand on my head for a bit"—and how he and his bandmates have been able to stick together since they were teenagers.
Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin and you're listening to Here's The Thing from WNYC Radio.
In 1992, Radiohead released their stunning debut single, "Creep." It was quiet yet explosive, even haunting -- and its refrain had a powerful hook. Radiohead's front man and principal songwriter, Thom Yorke, is my guest and if it was his wish to be special, the world granted it. Yorke's band has become a commercial and critical success, selling over 30 million albums.
Radiohead's music actively resists definition. Each new album explores a different sound, delighting their followers and scooping up more fans along the way.
The New York Times called Radiohead "rock's most experimental Top 10 band," and the spirit of experimentation isn't limited to their music. In 2007, Yorke and his band mates released In Rainbows on their website first. Fans were invited to pay what they wanted for the album.
Radiohead may not have been the first to thumb its nose at the music industrial complex, but they might be the first to do so and sell out a major arena. That said, Thom Yorke hasn't necessarily been comfortable on the spotlight. He complains about celebrity worship, and I wasn't sure what to expect.
Thom Yorke: Actually, I've got you a health food snack.
Alec Baldwin: Did you?
Thom Yorke: Yeah, because someone told me you were like all vegetarian and that.
Alec Baldwin: Thom Yorke has a new record out, Amok. The band calls themselves Atoms for Peace.
Alec Baldwin: You don't do a lot of press, or you do it on an as-needed basis.
Thom Yorke: Yeah, on a need-to-know basis. Yeah, yeah kind of. I kind of need to explain what I'm doing a bit with the Atoms for Peace thing, just a little bit because it's something different, and some vague effort to explain myself, occasionally I think, is morally acceptable.
Alec Baldwin: Tell us about the Atoms for Peace.
Thom Yorke: It's just – it was – I did a record on my own called The Eraser a few years ago.
Alec Baldwin: Was that your first solo record?
Thom Yorke: Yes. First time I'd sort of worked on my own with Nigel [Godrich], who normally produces Radiohead. And it came out, it was okay. People liked it a bit. A couple of years after I suddenly thought I really want to actually – because it was all done – it was all programmed; it was all computers and stuff. And I thought actually I really, I'm curious to know what it would be like to actually get a band together to play this. It was an excuse to go on a jolly to L.A. and hang out.
I emailed friends of mine who I knew liked the record. One was Flea from the Chili Peppers. One was my friend Joey, who's drummed with everybody. He's a genius drummer from L.A. Anyway, we got it together and it turned into this thing. It became really exciting, and we ended up calling the band Atoms for Peace and making a record out of the excitement of that. And it was all brand new to me because I'd been in the same band since I was 17 – 16.
Alec Baldwin: And when you do that, when you go into another room with people, it's not so much, I'm assuming – and you can help me – that you want to not play with those guys anymore, you just want to play with different people for a change.
Thom Yorke: It was a – yeah, it was a totally different process. I mean it's always fun if you know what you're aiming at, if you know what the tunes are. You're not trying to write them, you're just emulating what's already been written. That makes it fun straight away because it's a different sort of creative process.
Alec Baldwin: How so?
Thom Yorke: You're not struggling around in the dark for a way into a piece of music. You're figuring out how to strip it down to its raw essentials, especially if something's been written on a computer and then you have to humanly learn how to play it. It brings in this quite interesting thing with the feel of what you're playing. Anyway it's loads of different things, but it's a lot more fun and a lot more relaxed if you're not trying to write, you know, which is what also, all the time what we're always trying to do with Radiohead.
Alec Baldwin: What's the first time or the first experience you had with using computers to create music?
Thom Yorke: That was, I think, after we did OK Computer. I finally, in the late, late '90s, you could like go on tour with a laptop and it was powerful enough that you could record, edit, use synthesizers built into it and it wouldn't crash and it was fairly stable. So I first started getting into it then. And what I thought was really interesting is when we were working on OK Computer, I started using – learning the software that we were using in the studio to edit.
We were still mostly working on tape old school, but I suddenly thought, "Well hang on a minute. If I can learn how this equipment works, I'll have a completely different way of thinking about how to write." So I forced myself to learn all this – all this equipment and learned to use the laptop because a lot of music I was into was being made electronically anyway and I kind of thought it would be interesting to do it within the band.
Because a band, normally musicians don't fall into doing the production side of it or building the tracks. They like stay this side of the studio fence with the mics and let someone else –
Alec Baldwin: Front of the house, back of the house, kind of.
Thom Yorke: Yeah. So I definitely was much more into blurring that up.
Alec Baldwin: Did Nigel produce both your solo albums?
Thom Yorke: Yeah, he does the lot.
Alec Baldwin: And he did all of the Radiohead albums.
Thom Yorke: Yeah, he does.
Alec Baldwin: What do you attribute that to, having that kind of faith in someone?
Thom Yorke: For me it's sort of you find someone you trust – I mean not all the time. We do argue a lot, but to have someone who's like a sounding board all the time, it makes everything so much more fun. Because if you're knocking out ideas, you can't edit them and knock them out at the same time. Like if you're on stage and you're trying to get through your part or whatever, you have to have someone out front saying, ‘Okay, that's not working.'
I mean I do, on my own a lot, I do work, you know, you generate ideas. But all I then have is a mountain of ideas that gradually I then have to sift through and it just takes so long. It's so much more fun sharing it with someone.
Alec Baldwin: What did he think about your forays into computerized music?
Thom Yorke: Oh, he was into it. I did wonder when I first started doing it, but he was into it because he watched me doing it in such a different way to him. I mean I was like a kid being given a hammer. I was just hammering away on stuff. I didn't really know what I was doing. But he was kind of fascinated by that, you know, and he'd come and literally tidy up the mess I'd done on the computer.
Alec Baldwin: What were other people – who were other people that were working in that area that you listened to? Who else was making –
Thom Yorke: Then?
Alec Baldwin: Well then and now.
Thom Yorke: Well then it was – I was obsessed with Aphex Twin then, and Autechre, there was a lot of really interesting things happening in Britain then on this label called Warp.
Alec Baldwin: How do you spell that?
Thom Yorke: Warp, as in –
Alec Baldwin: Warp, W-A-R-P? Like ‘The floor is warped after the flood?'
Thom Yorke: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: I must say, with your accent that could have been any one of four words. When you said, ‘On this label called Warp.'
Thom Yorke: Warp.
Alec Baldwin: Warp? Warm? Wall?
Thom Yorke: Warp. Warp.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. [Affects southern accent] Say it like we say it here in the United States.
Thom Yorke: [Affects southern accent] Warp. It's a County & Western record label.
Alec Baldwin: You bet yer bottom dollar there, boy. So you were obsessed with the music that was on Warp.
Thom Yorke: Warp Records, ‘cause it didn't have any guitars. I was having a troubled relationship with my guitar at the time.
Alec Baldwin: Is that true?
Thom Yorke: Well not really. It's just like I ended up being in a band signing to this big record label, and it's a band in big letters, so certain things go with that. But yet when I was at college I was listening to a lot of other things and after a while it was like it's really annoying that I felt like we couldn't break out of that. So I just started forcing us to break out of that because it didn't make sense to me.
Alec Baldwin: You've been with those guys for how long now?
Thom Yorke: We started when we were 16, Radiohead, which is – now I'm 44, so that's quite awhile.
Alec Baldwin: And some bands that have had tremendous longevity, obviously the Rolling Stones are the premier example, they've changed partners over the years like they were the New York Yankees. There's somebody else playing third base every four or five years. But you guys, it's the same cast of people all this time. What do you attribute that to?
Thom Yorke: Yeah. Persistence. My great diplomatic skills – not.
Alec Baldwin: There must be times when they've – I mean I'll never forget McCartney said to me even the Beatles got tired of being the Beatles. Were there times when you guys sat there and looked at each other and said, ‘I think we're done?'
Thom Yorke: I do that frequently – frequently. I mean at least –
Alec Baldwin: The others too?
Thom Yorke: Not as much. They just wait for me to do it. But it changes 0
Alec Baldwin: They wait for you, so it's like yeah, just stick around, Thom will quit for us.
Thom Yorke: I'm feeling it's coming up. I mean you know, something to do with the fact that we haven't done anything useful for three weeks. It goes through these phases, you know? We've grown up together. It's weird. I mean so we just did a tour last year, right? And it was probably, in theory, the scariest one we've ever done because it was lots of big gigs, which I normally am spending my time trying to shy away from.
Alec Baldwin: Why? Because you can't achieve technically in a large space what you normally want to?
Thom Yorke: Exactly that. You can't get across to people the right way, I felt. So we did spend a lot of time and effort coming up with like a stage design which used screens in a certain way which made it intimate even though, you know, some nights it was like thirty or forty thousand people.
Trying to create some sort of intimacy and when it worked, it was insane. It was – because the upside of playing to that many people is you have this really crazy collective energy that you can tap into, like a crowd thing.
There's one show we did in Phoenix that sticks in my mind where there was something about maybe that it was in Phoenix and people don't get the opportunity – those sort of people don't get the opportunity to get together that often or something. There was some sort of excitement within the crowd that was so great to play with. When we hit it musically, it felt like the whole room – the whole building was moving. Honestly, we both came off stage -
Alec Baldwin: I understand.
Thom Yorke: You know, because - it's bonkers.
Alec Baldwin: I understand, not from my own experience, I mean but from seeing artists perform.
Thom Yorke: You know, I often ask myself why in the hell would you put yourself through this because it's very stressful. It's a lot of pressure, and for me mentally, I have to build myself up to it in my head gradually. It sounds really precious, but it messes with my head.
Alec Baldwin: I want to get to that, but I want to come around it and say your music has such a spiritual quality to it. There's a spiritual element to it, and not a stated one. It just emanates a vibe to me that's a very - there's a spirit to it.
Thom Yorke: Yeah, but to me that comes off the audience. That's what I find. It's something that's developed. It's not like we're not going into this intending to do any of that, it just sort of happens when the waves go right, you know, when the waves fall into place then you'll get to the end of the song and you can feel okay, we've done whatever that is – that was it.
Alec Baldwin: What's your preparation before you do a live show, before you - because in the studio, it's obviously a whole different animal, correct?
Thom Yorke: Yeah. There's no preparation for the studio. You – it's bull-in-a-china-shop most of the time, which is how it should be I think.
Alec Baldwin: Performing live, give it to me the couple of hours before you go out there and you've got to blow this thing out for all these people.
Thom Yorke: It's just stone cold silence basically.
Alec Baldwin: Almost meditative.
Thom Yorke: Well, yeah. I do that and –
Alec Baldwin: Focused.
Thom Yorke: I stand on my head for a bit and basically I'm completely on my own until five minutes before we go on, and then we're all in a room together pacing up and down like wild animals and then we're on.
But when we first started doing big shows, it was with my friend Michael Stipe and he does the total opposite. He literally – he'll be talking to you and then someone taps him on the shoulder and then they're on. I was like, "How the hell do you do that, man?" And I tried to do it like that, couldn't do it. So I ended up going –
Alec Baldwin: Did he – did you get any indication why Stipe could do that? There's a lot of nice spiritual tones inside of REM's music too.
Thom Yorke: Yeah, no. I don't know. I think what he used to do was he'd stand there for the first two tunes, barely move. He was a sort of lightening conductor and he was just waiting for it to hit. And then when it hit, he was off. But he would wait, and if it wasn't gonna hit he was still there three or four tunes later and waiting.
He kind of warmed up in front of everybody, gauging it all. Whereas I can't do that because I have to sort of be clear of everything before I – whatever I need to be completely empty.
I started playing guitar when I was seven. I sat down and said I was going to be Brian May.
Alec Baldwin: Not a bad thing to be.
Thom Yorke: Yeah. And then I tried to do – I read, like when I was 10 or something, I read that he built his first guitar himself, which is the one he still plays. So I tried to do that, but my efforts were –
Alec Baldwin: In that sense you were not Brian May.
Thom Yorke: No, in that sense, no.
Alec Baldwin: In the handcrafting of the guitar.
Thom Yorke: And I had to cheat with the neck on the guitar. I found an old – somewhere a neighbor gave me a neck of an electric guitar. I was like, "Great, okay, that's good." But you know, I was 10 or 11, so I was trying to like bolt it together to this other piece of wood that I'd cut out and it was just a disaster. But it kind of worked, but it was ugly.
Alec Baldwin: Was your family musical?
Thom Yorke: Not really, no. The only one that sticks out is apparently my great grandmother, she'd get really hammered and then stay up playing her pump organ thing downstairs all night and keep the family up. That's it.
Alec Baldwin: You were around? Did you witness that?
Thom Yorke: I met her once and she was kind of –
Alec Baldwin: Was she hammered and playing the pump organ?
Thom Yorke: She wore black and was quite scary, when I was really tiny.
Alec Baldwin: But neither of your parents were artists or musicians.
Thom Yorke: No. No, no, no.
Alec Baldwin: When the guitar came into your life when you were seven, Brian May or no, was it music itself? Were you moved my music itself or was it like many people when they're very young, was it rock stardom? Never that?
Thom Yorke: No. It was –
Alec Baldwin: You weren't running around your bedroom imitating Jagger, and you thought, like you wanted to be a rock 'n roll guy?
Thom Yorke: No. I just thought – my whole thing was we didn't have any sound system in the house. We had nothing, no hi-fi, nothing except for in my dad's car. It had a tape player in it. So I went and would sit for hours, I would sit for hours and when I was like – you know, it was the sound of Brian May's guitar, actually.
It was one of those funny things where, you know, you turn something up and you're in a very controlled, loud environment. It's just that sound was just - nothing else, it was that. When you're that small and you've never – I'd never really heard music particularly at all up until that point, you know. It's funny, it's got a weird thing.
But I mean lots of kids at that age, their parents didn't really have hi-fis or anything as such. The only guy I did know who had a hi-fi down the road only played Abba, which I thought was worse than not having one, but that was me. Some Abba's good.
Alec Baldwin: And then the guitar and you're trying to fashion your own guitar by the time you were 11. And then when do you take another step toward deepening your commitment? How old are you when you form the band? Sixteen.
Thom Yorke: I did have a band when I was 11, but um -
Alec Baldwin: What does an 11-year-old band sound like? Don't say Abba.
Thom Yorke: No. Not very good at all, but it was – it was very exciting, like going round to a friend's house, setting up and jamming and all of our mates would come and hang out – and girls, which I thought, "Hmm, this is interesting" as puberty hit. But, that sort of felt a bit, because I kept fighting with the drummer.
And then when I was 16, I was thinking, "Well Ok, I need to get this together, really," and just went around the school sort of choosing people.
Alec Baldwin: So you went around picking people.
Thom Yorke: I got Ed [O'Brien] because he was dressed like Morrissey and he had some cool socks, and I saw he had a guitar. I had no idea whether he could play or not. I didn't really care.
I got Colin [Greenwood] because I knew Colin could play very well and I needed a bass player who could play very well, but he'd never played bass before.
And his brother Jonny was this mythical musical prodigy, so I roped him in, and then Phil [Selway] was the only drummer we knew anyway, so - and he had a house down the road that we could rehearse in.
Alec Baldwin: You were all – and you lived where? You grew up where?
Thom Yorke: Well, this was Abingdon School near Oxford.
Alec Baldwin: And then when – you formed Radiohead when you were 16.
Thom Yorke: Basically, yeah. We started sort of writing and doing demos and messing about, and it was – you know, it was quite interesting straight away that it was quite – I think because Phil had quite a lot of experience. He was a bit older and he'd had his own band, so he knew how to put things together a bit.
And in fact, we used to go and do demos in his sister's bedroom, like right from the beginning, which was great. I mean there's nothing better than like just starting off by just trying to write demos from scratch even though you can't really play, even though you don't know each other, that's where you start, you know. It's kind of a nice way to figure out where you're about.
Alec Baldwin: What do you think you do best? You lead a band, you play guitar, you write music, you produce music and you sing. What do you think your greatest strength is, if you had to pick one?
Thom Yorke: That I don't know what I'm doing. I like the fact that I still don't know what I'm doing. I think – no, honestly. I'll go through whole phases of months where I haven't got a clue. I regularly lose complete confidence in what I'm doing.
Alec Baldwin: Why do you think that is? Because I have the same condition.
Thom Yorke: Why? Partly because I think I don't quite understand how it happens after the fact.
Alec Baldwin: When what happens, when the appreciation comes to you?
Thom Yorke: No, when you're piecing something together, things will fall into place.
Alec Baldwin: How you make it.
Thom Yorke: Yeah. I mean in some ways, the nicest bit about the creative thing – the nicest bit about recording and writing is this sort of weird limbo in between scratching away, scratching away, nothing really happening, nothing really happening, and then something wants to be built and starts to get built. You just have to let it happen.
And then it gets to the end and you look at it a few months later and go, "Huh, how did that happen?" It's sort of a weird amnesia that goes with it. Something will happen; one little sound goes off and you go, "Well, that's really nice."
For me, when I was at school, I didn't get on with the school system at all. I see it in my son the same – the sort of mechanics of how a school operates and how you're supposed to blend in or whatever. So I hid in the music/art department and I had a great time there and discovered that actually that's what I wanted to do straightaway. The heads of both schools just saw what I was up to –
Alec Baldwin: Is this the teacher that you often credit with your –
Thom Yorke: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: What was the teacher's name?
Thom Yorke: Terry James. But it was him and my art teacher as well, actually. It was like someone sort of takes you under their wing and they say, ‘Well, you know what? You're actually quite good at this.'
Alec Baldwin: Mentoring is a very critical thing in this business.
Thom Yorke: Yeah, because it's enough. At that age, it's enough to just get a little push and then "oh, okay."
Alec Baldwin: Or does someone to push you in a different direction?
Thom Yorke: Yeah, well that would be bad.
Alec Baldwin: Say "Yeah, well, how about you go into the other department – engineering is your' – yeah.
Thom Yorke: My father used to think I was to go into advertising, which is like - brilliant.
Alec Baldwin: Really?
Thom Yorke: Yeah, I'd really be good at that, selling other people shit.
Alec Baldwin: One thing you're good at is avoiding my original question.
Thom Yorke: Oh?
Alec Baldwin: Which was what do you think you're best at?
Thom Yorke: Oh, that. All right.
Alec Baldwin: Let's try to choose if you can, if you don't mind confining yourself to the list I prepared. What do you think you're best at?
Thom Yorke: Okay, this is multiple choice.
Alec Baldwin: Guitar, band kind of paternal figure, songwriting, producing, singing.
Thom Yorke: Hmm. I guess singing.
Alec Baldwin: OK, I'm glad you chose that one. I think when I popped the word singing the way I did-
Thom Yorke: Singing.
Alec Baldwin: I was trying to say, ‘Or singing.' What was singing to you? How did your singing evolve when you arrived to where you are now, where most people say you have one of the most evocative singing voices in all of music today.
Thom Yorke: Either that, or melancholy to the point of –
Alec Baldwin: Well, people who love Radiohead, they crave their music and they crave, particularly, your singing.
Thom Yorke: Well basically I went to a few singing lessons, but that was basically just so I could literally breathe right, you know. To me, like my favorite singer is like Björk. When I watch Björk sing, I've been lucky enough to sort of sing with her and watch her do it and-
Alec Baldwin: I was going to say, you're one of the people who can use that phrase, ‘When I watch Björk sing.' Most of us say, ‘When I listen to Björk sing.'
Thom Yorke: Yeah, and it's in here. It's right here. They say with, in yoga and stuff or whatever, I can't remember, but that spot at the top of the forehead that you really – most singers, like Neil Young is the same. He sings to this spot in his head. And what he's singing, he's already heard. You know what I mean? He's hearing it come out.
And the same with Björk. When she's singing, she's singing what she's hearing so there's no force. It's a force in itself.
It took me awhile to get that. You know, even when we were on tour with REM back when we were doing The Bends in '96 or whatever, it was still – I was still trying to figure it out then. Watching Michael and wanting to sound like Michael, but I couldn't, you know, because my voice is in a different tone completely and so on.
But what I did learn watching him, was again that thing of like watching someone who, their voice is in sort of command of them rather than the other way around.
Alec Baldwin: It's a state that they enter almost.
Thom Yorke: Yeah, but it's very natural, but it takes a long time for that to become natural, I think. Like any singer, it takes a long time to find that thing, and it keeps changing. To me, how I sing now or to me it feels different to a few years ago.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Thom Yorke: It just does.
Alec Baldwin: Does age have anything to do with it?
Thom Yorke: Well yeah. There's probably some physical element to it, but also just where you're at, you know, because singing is nothing but – like probably like acting, singing is nothing but being in the moment. That's it.
Alec Baldwin: And where you're at.
Thom Yorke: Yeah. When you do like, what I used to be like, you know, when you're trying to do singing or whatever, I remember sort of OK Computer, I still had this thing like wow, I need to be a little bit half cut when I'm, you know, I need to do something or other beforehand so that I'm in the right space, man. Where it's all bollocks, because basically you just gotta learn to be there with it when you do it.
You're not trying to prove anything. You're not trying to get anywhere. You're not trying to achieve anything. You're not trying to get this emotion across. You're not in this space trying to get this space across. You're not trying to get this mindset across or anything. You're just letting it happen.
Alec Baldwin: When you do this now, when you live inside your life now, whether you're performing live or producing and recording music, do you feel different now that you're older? I mean the chasm between when you're 16 and when you're 43 is extraordinary.
Thom Yorke: Isn't it just?
Alec Baldwin: It's just mind bending.
Thom Yorke: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Do you feel like you're sick of it and you want to be done with it?
Thom Yorke: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: You do?
Thom Yorke: Sometimes, but not – it's never really the music, it's always everything else.
Alec Baldwin: Primarily what?
Thom Yorke: Just stresses of life, whatever. Some things get –
Alec Baldwin: So your life is not like – I mean a lot of people think, they think that successful artists just walk across this bed of rose petals all day, and our life is really – the greatest torment of our life is do we go to Paris on spring break or Anguilla. My God, I can't answer that question.
Thom Yorke: It really is a problem.
Alec Baldwin: It is a problem, but you weren't supposed to say that. No, but what I'm saying is they think that, like do you sit there – you're very active socially, yes?
Thom Yorke: I guess, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Do you care? You've made some comments about world affairs. You care about the world. You care about what's going on.
Thom Yorke: Oh, I care, yeah.
Alec Baldwin: If I said to you, if I snap my fingers and you go back to having a very normal life and you're not you at all, with everything that goes with it, and the rest of the world is elevated, the rest of the world gets better, things you care about. Think of an issue you care about.
Thom Yorke: Oh, I see. Oh.
Alec Baldwin: And I say to you, Thom Yorke – Thom Yorke – Thom Yorke, you go back and the world gets better, would you make that change?
Thom Yorke: Define better.
Alec Baldwin: It's a tricky question, but you do – yeah, it's not an either or, but you do care about other things. Is there an issue that you are embracing now? Is there something you're involved with now or is there an ongoing one?
Thom Yorke: I – well in my slack-arsed fashion, I was helping Greenpeace do this thing, which was trying to stop drilling in the Arctic. But it sounds like it's kind of working because the companies seem to be pulling out because they can't –
Alec Baldwin: Shell just pulled out, didn't it?
Thom Yorke: Yeah, that's right. I don't think that's entirely down to us, but I think it definitely helped that we were making their life extremely difficult everywhere they turned. But the challenge now is to turn the Arctic into a reserve so it can't happen.
Because what that was going to do was create this gold rush – oil rush – up there, which was just gonna be insane, and this at the same time when the ice is melting. Basically they only started considering it was a possibility because the ice was melting and they thought, "Okay, great. Maybe we've got a better chance at drilling." Which is like –
Alec Baldwin: That's a global –
Thom Yorke: It takes irony to –
Alec Baldwin: Global warming doesn't mean less oil to them, it means more oil.
Thom Yorke: Yeah. So I was kind of stuck in that for awhile because yeah, to me the irony of it was too much. I don't know where I'll go next. I find it very stressful. I did get involved – a few years ago we did this thing in Britain, the first Climate Change Act, which meant the government was – is – committed to reducing CO2 emissions 2050 by 90 percent.
And now lots of countries have got it, but it was the first one. The government didn't want to do it. Blair didn't want to do it. But we found this interesting loophole and got thousands of people to send letters in. And said at the bottom of the letter, "To the MP. Please can you pass this on to Blair," right?
And apparently, they were obliged to pass on these letters, so Blair was literally getting thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of letters, which doesn't normally happen. And he did pass the law after much arguing and me refusing to meet him because it was during the Iraq war. And all sorts of -
Alec Baldwin: Which you were very critical of.
Thom Yorke: Yeah, well, any normal human being would be.
Alec Baldwin: I agree.
Thom Yorke: Anyway, I was very glad I did it and the people I was working for at the time, it was with Friends of the Earth and it was really inspiring and I became really good friends with the guy who was running Friends of the Earth at the time, Tony Juniper, who now works for Prince Charles.
And it was a great period, but I just – it burnt me out, getting that close to politics. The most fascinating figure that we worked with was the lobbyist that we had, our one lobbyist.
So like we went into Portcullis House in Britain. You probably have the equivalent here; I don't know what it's called. But Portcullis House was built for the lobbyists. It was built for special interests to go and sit with a cup of coffee, round a table about this size and wait for MP's to go past, collar them, sit them down and lobby them in big capital letters.
Alec Baldwin: We call that the Congress here. We call that the Capitol Building, but go ahead.
Thom Yorke: Okay, anyway, I found it completely fascinating, you know, because there's hundreds of these people walking around. And I'm like none of them are lobbying for us, except you maybe possibly could argue that our one mate, Friends of the Earth was like technically maybe speaking for the people a little bit, but basically they were all special interests and they had the ear of government. And I just thought hang on, hang on a minute. How did this happen? Anyway, where were we a minute ago?
Alec Baldwin: I know where I want to go.
Thom Yorke: Okay, go on then. Go ahead then
Alec Baldwin: Your children.
Thom Yorke: Oh no, no. That's too much of a jump. Hang on, let's finish with this first. No, all right then.
Alec Baldwin: Your children.
Thom Yorke: I'm lost now.
Alec Baldwin: Do your children know who you are and what you do?
Thom Yorke: Yep. They're used to it. They're used to people coming up and saying hello, but most of the time it's very friendly and that's normal. That's their normal. That's what they've grown up with.
Alec Baldwin: And how old are they?
Thom Yorke: Twelve and seven.
Alec Baldwin: So one is seven, the age that you decided you wanted to be Brian May.
Thom Yorke: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: And the other one's twelve. And by then, he would already have made his guitar with that neck – that was at 11, I think you said. So the other kid is really- Where are they at musically?
Thom Yorke: My son is a great drummer, but I don't know if he'll want to do that forever or not. He's like not bothered really, which is cool. He just – and he comes and hangs out with me when I'm working in my studio. We just hang out, you know. We're friends. But I don't think, you know, there's no burning ambition to be a musician or anything really, even though he's really good. He's for pleasure. I mean at that age that's good, right?
Alec Baldwin: Has fatherhood affected your work?
Thom Yorke: Yes, but not really. You have the obvious things where you –
Alec Baldwin: Would you go out on the road more if you didn't have children?
Thom Yorke: Yeah, absolutely. But that's not necessarily a bad thing at all. Being on the road is, it's a – it's not a great way to live your life.
Alec Baldwin: It's a necessary evil.
Thom Yorke: You don't want to do it all your life. You get a little bit un- it gets a little unhealthy quite quickly, mentally if not physically.
Alec Baldwin: Has it been difficult for you mentally?
Thom Yorke: It can be. It's wicked fun, but too much. It's either wicked fun or really awful. Like when you're sick, then it gets really – it's a real bummer, man.
Alec Baldwin: Tough to get out there.
Thom Yorke: Yeah, to try to sing your way through the notes that you can't find because you're so sick or whatever. That's really super stressful. But you know, it is a massive buzz. There's no denying it. It's great.
Alec Baldwin: But Thom Yorke is the first to admit that it takes work to keep it fun in the studio and on tour.
Thom Yorke: It's very difficult to play with people, you know, if there's problems between you. For example, if the issues come up, I mean I'm very much – I'm a Libra and I need to sort it out. I can't have stuff hanging around, you know, because it gets in the way.
Alec Baldwin: More in a minute with Thom Yorke. This is Alec Baldwin and you're listening to Here's The Thing from WNYC Radio.
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Given the level of success that Radiohead has reached, I did have certain expectations of Thom's lifestyle.
Alec Baldwin: I mean I'm assuming you're in a world, that your phone must have rang, maybe it stopped, cause you kept saying no, but maybe everyone was saying, Bono wants to pick you up and fly you to St. Barts.
Thom Yorke: Yeah. That never appealed. I don't hang out with people because they are who they are necessarily, unless I'm a big admirer of them. Like I mean, I stalked Ed Norton for ages until eventually he gave in.
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Thom Yorke: Because I'm a big admirer of him. I think he's brilliant. So I hang out with him a bit occasionally. And Flea, I've always really admired Flea anyway, so even before it became an issue of sort of playing with him.
Alec Baldwin: Now, tangentially related to that, as you've gotten older and you look around the musical landscape, do you – what you see, does it appeal to you? Meaning music now is available to us all the time in every way. Of the music that's popular music, I mean, what's selling now the most successfully, have you moved into a different place with that or do you admire a lot of what's being done? Is your music -
Thom Yorke: In the mainstream?
Alec Baldwin: In the mainstream.
Thom Yorke: There's nothing in the mainstream. The mainstream is just a void, you know, to me. I mean what's weird about putting a record out now, really – and this is not like sour grapes at all – it's just the fact of volume, literally the shear volume of stuff that gets put out.
It's like this huge frickin' waterfall and you're just throwing your pebble in and it carries on down the waterfall and that's that. Right, okay, next.
Basically, you know, like in this country the radio is tied up and people don't really listen to the radio the same way. It's – music's going through a weird time because on the one hand, as ever, there's always really exciting music being made. It's never not being made. It's a question of whether you're gonna get to hear it or not.
And I mean I kind of knew the game was up a few years ago when one of our sort of team of people came in saying, "Nokia wants to offer you dah, dah, dah, dah, dah millions of pounds because they want content for their phones."
And this is like in 2000 – I don't know, early 2000's. You're, like, Content, what? ‘You know, content.' What, you mean music? ‘Yes.' Content.
Alec Baldwin: Okay, yeah maybe that, yes.
Thom Yorke: Hmm, yeah. Just stuff.
Alec Baldwin: It could be music.
Thom Yorke: Stuff, yeah, stuff.
Alec Baldwin: It could be you snoring.
Thom Yorke: "Have you got some stuff?" You know, and you're like okay. And I think really my problem with it is like it's now like something to fill up the hardware with, you know? The music itself has become secondary to that, which is a weird thing to me. And I think that will change because there's only so many different permutations of the same hardware you can make before people go, "Well actually I have an iPod now, so thanks."
So I think things will change and I think the radio will change – and the sooner the better. Because no matter how – no matter in what way you look at it, the most pleasurable experiences you ever have is like when something's played to you you don't know.
Like going round to a friend's house and they'll stick a tune on you. Like what the hell is this, you know, which is what it's about, you know? Or like going into a store when I was a kid and like the new Smiths record's come out and like I'm going up to the guy – and he's really cool, the indie store in town – and just talking to him about music for 20 minutes, you know.
Alec Baldwin: And now everywhere you go, music is everywhere.
Thom Yorke: It's everywhere, but like –
Alec Baldwin: But not good music.
Thom Yorke: Yeah, that's what I'm saying.
Alec Baldwin: It's content.
Thom Yorke: Yeah, content is king. That bullshit will change and when it does then I think we'll have a resurgence and the underbelly will come back or the overbelly.
Alec Baldwin: If it's middle-aged it'll be overbelly. You have a ways to go there.
Thom Yorke: I'm gonna be taking some slimming pills.
Alec Baldwin: But in the way that you talked about this pebble in the waterfall and content and music marketing now, so if that changes – certainly which it has – and your attitude about it becomes rather specific, does your willingness to release your music into that world change?
I mean like for example, an obvious example – maybe too obvious – is you don't want to play Creep any more. Now do you sit there and say if the Sultan of Brunei called you up and said, "I want you to come to Brunei and we'll give you a million pounds. Just play Creep. You play Creep and you can go home."
Thom Yorke: I would say to the Sultan of Brunei, ‘Why do you have that house near me that you never use?'
Alec Baldwin: I could just meet you down the block.
Thom Yorke: I mean come on, it's an empty house, man. It must be worth whatever. That's what I'd say.
Alec Baldwin: A trillion dollars. Thom Yorke: And I'd say "no.
Alec Baldwin: When you retire a song that way, why do you do that?
Thom Yorke: Well, not necessarily retire it. I mean I don't recognize it as me, which is kind of quite interesting when I hear it singing.
Alec Baldwin: Explain that.
Thom Yorke: Just that voice. I don't even recognize that. It's kind of odd. But then I remember hearing, I remember hearing Lou Reed like on some radio station in Dublin years and years ago, and they were asking inevitably about Velvet Underground. And he said, "Yeah, sometimes it comes on and I'm like this is cool, what's this? And then I realize it's the Velvet Underground and it's like wow, yeah."
I kind of know what he means. You sort of get to the point where you're like, what's that, oh it's me.
Alec Baldwin: That guy sounds pretty good. So you're 43 years old.
Thom Yorke: Forty-four.
Alec Baldwin: Forty-four years old. It's just our professional courtesy that we shave a year off of all of our guests.
Thom Yorke: Oh, really?
Alec Baldwin: Yeah, all of them. You're in the now and you're in the here or what have you, and I'm not saying that glibly. You know what I'm saying? You're not somebody who – like Mick Jagger, for example, like I wonder if Mick Jagger is gonna hit a day – like does it happen in a day? Like is Mick Jagger in bed one day and he picks up the phone and he's like, you know, "I just can't do it any more. I can't get out of this bed. I can't do another fucking show again." And it's over.
Do you think of other things? I think all the time of the next thing I'm gonna do. Is there a next thing? You don't have to tell us what it is, but do you think this will end?
Thom Yorke: Well, no. I mean it would end if something happened to my voice. I don't know, certain things could make it physically stop and it will stop at some point. Something will happen. But for me, yeah, I'm always hearing different things. There's always half-finished things.
You should ask poor old Nigel. He knows about that. There's always a mountain of half – stuff I want to get into, stuff I've started, stuff I want to, you know.
But I also think it's good to sort of take breaks, because I've gone straight from this Radiohead tour last year, which was a really heavy mother – but really good fun – straight into doing sort of Atoms for Peace stuff and not really had a break.
Alec Baldwin: So a break is due.
Thom Yorke: A break is due because what I've found with a break is it can be an incredibly exciting, that thing of thinking of all the stuff you want to do, but you just force yourself not – you just force yourself to wait and get back into just time and space.
Not being in music all the time, I think, because it's like anything. You start to go in small circles, so you've got to stop when that happens.
Alec Baldwin: I've had to practice that now – I mean I got married again and my wife is pregnant. I'm gonna have a kid. And I really sat and thought about that way that I want to have a more ordinary and more normal handling of my emotions.
I think the best way to put it is what people in my business say, which is, "Would you rather live it in real life or would you rather play it on screen?" And I'm thinking I want to walk away from it because I'd rather live it in real life now than play it on screen.
Thom Yorke: I think with what I do it's slightly different because what I do actually, unless you – literally you're spending – unless you are just literally working too hard, it's a regenerative thing.
I find that I'm, well my family and my friends know that I'm a nicer person if I'm working and if I'm into what I'm doing than if I stop. There's a period where I'm fairly unbearable if I do stop.
Alec Baldwin: For too long.
Thom Yorke: Yeah, for too long.
Alec Baldwin: But there's a specific time.
Thom Yorke: Probably. There's a threshold. But like if you want to shift, right, with your work, if you want to shift. If you're writing, if you're being creative at all, you kind of have to stop to make that shift. Because if you just, "I'm constantly creating, I've got this mountain of brilliant ideas," you're making the basic mistake that you're assuming all your ideas are brilliant, where in fact actually the more you do, then probably the more – kind of your thing in reverse because actually I need to go and do normal shit. I need to – I can't write unless I have a period where –
Alec Baldwin: You're restored.
Thom Yorke: Well no, it's not restored, just reset. I'm like just normal – normal. Normal, normal, normal, normal, normal, normal.
Alec Baldwin: Speaking of normal, do you have siblings?
Thom Yorke: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: You have a brother.
Thom Yorke: Uh-huh.
Alec Baldwin: What does he do?
Thom Yorke: Russian politics and stuff.
Alec Baldwin: He teaches.
Thom Yorke: No, he's –
Alec Baldwin: He's the mayor of a small town near Moscow. What do you mean?
Thom Yorke: All sorts of shit, investigations on people. He's an expert on Russian politics.
Alec Baldwin: Are your parents still alive?
Thom Yorke: Yep.
Alec Baldwin: What do your parents – I always love people in your business above all. What do your parents and your brother make of you – Going from being Thom Yorke, "Thom," to being Thom Yorke.
Thom Yorke: Well my brother was in a band of his own for a while as well, so he has a slightly – he can see what it is from another point of view. What do my parents think? I don't know. They like – when I was a kid they didn't approve. Now that I'm happy –
Alec Baldwin: They wanted you to go into advertising.
Thom Yorke: Yes. Well you know, it was like fair enough. I was pissed off at them at the time, but I – you know, that's what you do isn't it?
Alec Baldwin: That's everybody's parents. When I left a pre-law program and I was destined to go to law school and I went into the acting program, my mother was – she literally screamed at me over the phone.
Thom Yorke: My mom was very upset when I chose to go to art college. She thought that was – because she'd been to art college and she said it's a complete waste of time, don't bother.
Alec Baldwin: Then when I became successful in my business, my mother was like, "I'm so proud of him. Oh my God, this is wonderful."
Thom Yorke: Yeah, it's kind of bonkers like seeing them backstage at a really big show. They'll come to a big show and there's all sorts of shit going off with my mates. They're doing whatever, you know, and there's my mum and dad going, "That was fun. Got any beer?" Or whatever.
Alec Baldwin: When you do step away from it, are you interested in art, photography, theater, film?
Thom Yorke: Well, my mate Stanley Donwood, who I went to art college with, who does all our artwork with – I mean I do it with him kind of thing – we always have these lovely plans about we want to go and live in Berlin for a month and just paint and get in trouble and things like that. So, we call ourselves the Sunday Painters and we go on bad painting trips. We did one where –
Alec Baldwin: You said bad painting trips?
Thom Yorke: Well, they're bad painting trips because I'm involved. There was one - one of my favorite ones was we went on the moors down in Cornwall. Do you know what I mean by the moors, in Dartmoor basically, which is very, very, very bleak but really beautiful. We're in this stone circle. We drove part of the way, walked the rest of the way with these big canvases and paints.
But we only, discovered we only had purple and blue and yellow, so I thought well okay, we'll use that. And we painted landscapes all afternoon but they were purple and blue and yellow.
Some poor woman, I remember coming like, late afternoon, like coming and asking us for directions. We're both sitting there, canvases up like this, all huddled up with our hoods on and our just doing this - [Mimics painting]. And this poor woman comes up and asks for directions to go somewhere or other and then looks at the paintings and just wanders off like...
Alec Baldwin: "Good luck, boys. I hope you have another career. I hope you're not counting on that."
Thom Yorke: "I don't think the purple's working for you."
Alec Baldwin: That was like me being in Italy and this beautiful couple, they were like – they were older. And the man walked up to me with a camera and said, "Scusa, schuss. Il photo." He's pointing to me and his wife. He's triangulating. And I go oh, and I put my arm around his wife to take a photo. He goes, "No, no. You photo my wife and me. You take the photo with the mountain in the background." I was like, "Oh my God, they don't know who I am. I should move here, I should move here."
You mentioned someone gave you that push. Is mentorship in your career? Do people come to you and do you give them a push?
Thom Yorke: A little bit. I mean –
Alec Baldwin: You must have a lot of people in the music world – young people who look up to you.
Thom Yorke: One of the best buzzes, really, is that thing where someone comes up who's new and they're really into – you know, I'm really into what they're doing. It's really fascinating and it's really totally new to me but yet the occasions when –
Alec Baldwin: They fed off of you.
Thom Yorke: Yeah. And you're like how could you feed off me? I don't see any of my stuff in what you do.
Alec Baldwin: My DNA in what you do.
Thom Yorke: Yeah, but they see it and I'm like wow, that's so cool. Especially when it's like in hip-hop and I'm like really? You know, people within hip-hop who are into Radiohead. I'm like I find that so fascinating because I mean obviously I'm massively into hip-hop and we use hip-hop as a reference point in the way we build tracks and stuff, but really? Wow, that's bonkers.
Honestly, that's one of the really good bits, but it's not really mentorship, it's just people who you admire good at their shit, you know?
Alec Baldwin: And when that happens it happens.
Thom Yorke: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: How does success make you feel?
Thom Yorke: How does it make me feel?
Alec Baldwin: Radiohead means something. Your name means something.
Thom Yorke: Which I think is – well how does it make me feel? It's always been a little bit far away from me. And the only time it sort of makes sense is when we play in front of people, you know. The rest of the time it's like well, it's just – it's who I've been for so long, I can't tell you because it's just – that's what it is.
And I think I've probably been doing it more than I haven't in my life, in terms of years, in terms of time. So it's – most of the time I don't really notice and people come up and they go, "Oh that's nice. Thanks very much."
It's not like I'm not grateful, it's just I just don't notice. And then sometimes something will whack you over the head and you'll go blimey. Things like doing – the first time we did Saturday Night Live, for example and you go really? People give a shit? Because sometimes you can't tell. You don't know. You don't know. You got –
Alec Baldwin: You're not taken for granted.
Thom Yorke: Because you're on the inside. You can't see it. And also you've spent so long running away from it. I don't feel like I've run away from it now, because there's nowhere to run.
Alec Baldwin: There's nowhere to run.
Thom Yorke: Nowhere to run and also it is like yeah, I'm really grateful. I'm incredibly lucky.
Alec Baldwin: That's a very good point. There's nowhere to run and still do it.
Thom Yorke: Yeah. I mean I just think I'm, well, "jammy", as we say. It's just really jammy, especially in the U.S. So like people really give a shit and it's like oh, that's amazing.
Alec Baldwin: I guess I have one more question, which is what does "well jammy" mean?
Thom Yorke: I don't know, really.
Alec Baldwin: You don't know?
Thom Yorke: Jammy is like, ‘you're so jammy' like you just – I'm dating myself.
Alec Baldwin: No, no. Go on.
Thom Yorke: It's a total fluke, man. It's not really – you're just lucky. I mean I'm British, right, so I assume I'm just lucky.
Alec Baldwin: Jammy.
Thom Yorke: There's no skill involved. I'm jammy.
Alec Baldwin: This is from Thom Yorke's most recent album, Amok. He'll be touring in support of the album later this year. Find out more on our website, heresthething.org.
This is Alec Baldwin. Here's The Thing comes from WNYC Radio.