Radiohead's Ed O'Brien Talks Going Solo and His New Album Earth

Interviews
04/15/2020
KEXP
Transcription by Jim Causey

Radiohead album releases often feel like holidays for fans. The anticipation, dissection, and eagerness to explore what's always expected to be a rich musical experience. The alchemy of Radiohead's five members coming together has always been a wonder to behold across all their records. As the band has carried on, however, its members have steadily begun to branch out on their own and try new things with solo material. We've heard it from vocalist Thom Yorke, guitarist Jonny Greenwood, drummer Philip Selway, and now we're finally getting a peek into the creative world of multi-instrumentalist Ed O'Brien.

On April 17, O'Brien will release his first-ever solo album EARTH on Capitol Records. Last October, O'Brien stopped by KEXP to chat with Kevin Cole about recording the new album between Brazil and Wales, creating existential dance music, and seeking for hope in increasingly dark times. Today (April 15) Kevin Cole will air segments from his interview and guest DJ set with O'Brien. Below you can read some selections from their conversation.

Listen to O'Brien's discussion on the record with Kevin Cole or read a transcript below.

This interview has been edited down for clarity. 


Kevin Cole: This is your first solo album. I'm curious to know more about how this project came about. In the past, you've been reluctant to record a solo album or have other projects as you've been vocal about your work with Radiohead and how fulfilling that's been and how it wouldn't feel right to do other projects. So, what made you feel like it's the right time?

Ed O'Brien: It wasn't that I didn't feel right about doing other projects because the others [bandmates] have been doing them. It was more a case of, I was very creatively satisfied with what I was doing in Radiohead and, massively, I had a young family. Once the kids were born, because I come from a split family, one of the things I've always said, like, "I want to be there for my family, for my kids." So, when the kids were born, it was suddenly... at one stage thought I might leave Radiohead because I thought, "I don't know how to balance this. I have to be there. I want to be there for my kids." But obviously, I didn't.

In fact, it was Neil Finn who turned around and said, "Ed, your kids are not going to thank you for leaving Radiohead when they're teenagers." So it was just a case of, I wanted to be with my young family. We had a lot of time with Radiohead. On the downtime, I wanted to be there for my kids. And then something happened. It's a bit like that pull of music when something happens. There's no kind of logic to it. Suddenly it was like I was writing. We got some downtime and this music just started to come out. I mean, literally, I found a way of writing. I always struggled with how to write and I found a method. And it was almost like letting go, and the moment I was like "I'm not writing a song" — stuff started to happen.

What was it? Was it just simply letting go?

Yeah. There were lots of things. I was inspired. So, what happened at the end of 2012, me and my young family, we went to live in Brazil. We went to live in the Brazilian countryside, really rural, halfway between Rio and Sao Paolo, on this farm. And I suddenly had time. I would go off and write in this little hut up by this lake. It was completely idyllic. And I started off trying to write something electronic and I just kept on coming back — well, I had a eureka moment with Primal Scream's Screamadelica. Every day, I'd have tea. Eleven o'clock, stop for tea, have a tea break and I play music. And it's so interesting. I find the whole process of playing music in a different location. So, listening to music in London is very different from listening to music in, say, the southwest of this country. Even the West Coast and particularly rural Brazil. A lot of stuff that I was kind of interested in, like the electronic stuff, didn't resonate with me anymore.

How did Primal Scream sound in rural Brazil?

It sounded amazing. You know, "Moving On Up" came on and that album, I hadn't really heard [it] in 20 odd years. And it was like, a light went off like, this is the music I want to make. It kind of imbued me with this kind of coming out, the darkness, kind of this elevation that you got in this music, the joy, the love, the warmth, the almost like gospel, I guess. "Moving On Up" is like gospel.

That's what I was going to say, there's such an uplifting quality to it and the vocals, the chorus, or the choir...

Yeah, totally. And I'm getting goosebumps just saying that because I'm remembering it and I was just there and I go, "This is what I want to do." And then we also went to Carnival in Rio, you know, and experiencing what was going on in the Sambadrome. That same feeling of joy, warmth, love, lights, expression, the beauty of the planet, the beauty of humanity, all these things. And they were like the triggers. And also, I have to say, reading Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, that was a massive moment. 

So, you really do whatever creative projects, have a tea break, and listen to music. Did you structure reading time in there as well?

No. What happened was, so I kind of had a... we went back to Britain and then I started going out to Wales. I felt like I haven't been in nature. Like, this is where the countryside, this sort of music — so, I'm a country boy, I grew up in Oxfordshire. And, so that's where I realized — I'd been living in London for 20 years — and I realized, being back in nature, that's where I was happiest.  So, in order to write, in order to be inspired, I need to be in nature. That's what I need to do. So I rented this little cottage in Mid-Wales, which is a very, very beautiful, isolated, wild part of the UK. It's, in fact, very close to where Robert Plant and Jimmy Page wrote Led Zeppelin III and IV. You hear it. You hear like "The Battle of Evermore" in that land. It's very, very fertile. It's an amazing place. And there is a discipline. So, there's a discipline where you get up in the morning and I'd walk up to the top of the mountain, then I'd go down to the river. And then I'd read some Walt Whitman. And by 9:30 in the morning, I was back up and I was inspired. And the music sort of flowed out from that. It was amazing because it didn't feel like I was forcing it, [I would] feel like it was just happening. I felt in touch with people like William Blake and Whitman.

When I go walking in the mountains, I'd feel inspired. I felt this planet is so beautiful, there's so much potential. And then kind of the city, it's all got drained out of me. But then being back there, reading these words and reading Walt Whitman aloud. When you read those words aloud, there's such power and beauty and it completely sort of knocked me out. And so by the time I picked up a guitar and started, stuff started just coming out.

That sounds like an amazing experience. And what you're describing is how the record sounds  it's just a natural flow to it, a beauty to it, an optimistic joyful quality to it, songs like "Shangri-La", which maybe describes that epiphany moment. Or songs like "Deep Days" that build and build. But with the vocal refrain, there is really a sense of support or hope.

Yeah, that was really important. Obviously, we're living in very challenging times and I wanted to make a record that acknowledged the darkness. But, also, I wanted to make a record that was hopeful... I think we need new stories at the moment, because a lot of time in the media, obviously, we're bombarded with how crap we are to one another. But, also, what's not reported are all the great things we do. I wanted to acknowledge the darkness, but also focus on the shards of light that's coming through. And I think they're amazing. For all the challenging moments we're going through, there is equally some extraordinary things that are happening: the #metoo campaign, the climate emergency, what's going on in Britain and around the world. And people are actually coming out. So, I feel it's... we're in this big moment of change, aren't we? It's huge.

What I was trying to do, also, was trying to see the bigger picture. The working title of the record was Pale Blue Dot, which references the Carl Sagan book and the photo that Voyager 2 took of the planet. And, those words that accompanied that image of the earth from 2 million miles away were so inspiring. Again, that's about the bigger picture. This is us. This is our home. On this tiny mote of dust, every dictator, every war that's been fought, every lover that's loved all on this tiny speck on this photo. And I felt again, you don't know why these things resonate, like, a lot of these things, but it resonated. I found things like that. The bigger picture, again, inspiring — so, that informed the music.

So, this idea of perhaps music, how does music sound in space? "Mass" was a reference to that and my friend, the astronaut, Michael Massimino, who helped fix the space Hubble telescope on the Space Shuttle's last voyage and all these things. What I was trying to do is get out of my head and into my heart. And you just intuitively feel your way through it. Coming from Oxford, it's a very sort of academic, cerebral place. And that's great. But the problem with that as well as [is] you can slightly close your heart. And for me, I wanted — like, literally. That was a bit of a mantra — "out of my head and into my heart." Just feel your way through. Your head has to come in. Sometimes you have to edit stuff, etc. And that's my thing now. Musically, I'm completely guided by my intuition. I'm not forcing things, there's something, there's a spark. And it's great because it means you're present. 

 

Was [moving to Brazil in 2012] part of kind of warming up and an opening to the heart?

Yeah, totally. My wife and I've been going to Brazil for a long time. When OK Computer came out, it was a really interesting period because obviously, this is a great period of success in the band, if you like. But I was really, really unhappy at the time. And, I sort of hit that I was depressed. And the music that I latched on to was Brazilian music. My wife and I had been back to Brazil, and one of the things I loved about Brazil was that it kind of helped me throw off the shackles of British reserve and all those things that the British are cliched for. And particularly if you've grown up somewhere like middle-class Oxford. And it's very academic, you know.  I needed to throw off that armor. Brazil is a very heartfelt place. The Brazilians are extraordinary people, so warm, so loving, and so joyful. And many of them live, you know, extraordinarily hard lives.

Tell me a bit about [the song “Earth”], because it's almost like two songs...

Yeah, very much. It has different sorts of levels on it. Essentially it's about endings and beginnings. And the first part is really about, I guess, it's the darkness, it's the melancholy.

And it's beautiful. Almost acoustic.

Yes, exactly. Acoustic. And that's the Welsh part.

There's a lot of acoustic guitar on this record.

Well, I was playing acoustic guitar and the Welsh thing and being in Wales, like I said. Mid-Wales... Acoustic guitar... you can just hear it. You know, again, Led Zeppelin III and IV. It's that place. It's in the earth. It's there. It's like – to reduce it to something people might know – it's kind of Game of Thrones country, you know. But it's very Celtic. It's very old. So things like acoustics, really.

I always listened to folk music a bit more as well and hearing Celtic folk music. But I think the thing is, I didn't want to leave [the song] like that. I wanted it to blossom into this moment of light and love and magic and Carnival, which is Brazil. It's about death and the afterlife. I was reading a lot about near-death experiences and what happens when people talk about going to the light. When people have drowned and come back to life, they leave their body. But it's not the fear and terror. It seems like this warmth and this love and it sort of corresponds with a lot of the things that resonate with me like reincarnation and Buddhist philosophy. I'm not a Buddhist, but a lot of the philosophy makes a lot of sense to me.

It was about somewhere that's a sort of desperation that flowers into somewhere that's really beautiful. And it's kind of like, it's gonna be okay. You know, you're in this moment and it's hard and it's challenging. But you know what? It's gonna be okay. Endings and beginnings. That's a kind of a theme. I feel like that's what's going on in the bigger picture. That's kind of the end of the system. This is what's happening, the bigger picture. And I may be completely wrong, but the way the world is will probably be very different when the time my children are fully grown adults.

Tell me about being a frontman now and singing. Does that make you nervous? Because your voice sounds great and beautiful on these songs and [has] such a warmth to it.

I'm still nervous about it, to be honest. What my good fortune is that I do a record and at least there'll be a couple of people who are interested because of Radiohead. So, that's brilliant. But the other thing is that I need to have my shit together vocally... I'm trying to be easy on myself and hopefully other people will be easy, but this is a journey. I remember what Thom's voice was like in the beginning days — very different from what you hear now. So, partly getting out there gigging, which is what I really want to do. Connecting with an audience, being out there, taking out a band. I'm really excited about it.

I'm trying not to be too hard on myself because I want to enjoy the moment and, sure, it's flawed. I'm flawed, but I think it's like a muscle. My experience of like a band or anything, it's like a muscle. The more you do it, the better you get at it. The more familiar. So, it was totally new. And when I was very, very lucky because I haven't mentioned the producer on this record who's Flood and I was in extraordinarily good hands. I mean, the breadth of people and bands he's worked with from, you know, he was an engineer at Trident Studios in the '80s before he went on to work with U2 and Depeche [Mode] and, everything.

Had you worked with him before?

No, but he was a friend. We're both dads with kids at the same school and his son was in the same class as my daughter. And when the Foals album Holy Fire came out in 2012 that he produced with Alan Moulder – I love that record and I said to him, as we were quickly dropping off our kids — I didn't know him — I said. "Great record, man. I gotta tell you, I'm a huge fan". And he was like "It's just pop music, innit?" And we'd have these great conversations about pop music and how much we loved it. And our wives became friends. We ended up holidaying together.

It was interesting for him. He said he's never worked with somebody before who's been a friend. So, it was new for him. So, it was just a really great process. I completely trusted him. He's such a kind and nurturing man. He's also so honest, which is so important. But not that word, brutally honest. It's a kind honesty. And with kindness, you can be so much more honest. And so he didn't let me get away with stuff. He was also supremely confident. He was always like, "We'll get it".

I played him the demos just to play them to [a] mate. Within three songs, he turned around and he said, "Do you want me to work with you on this?" Because he heard the potential. And he heard the same thing that I did, which a lot of people don't hear. You know, they hear a demo and they go like, "yeah, well, you know, it's okay." But I was excited about the demos. I felt there was something here. I was really excited and he picked up on that. That's one of the reasons why he's such a brilliant engineer and producer.

Nothing feels forced about the record. Since you mention pop music, one of the tracks that you picked out as being underrated is from Christine and the Queens. Tell me about that.

Well, it was interesting because being in America, in the UK she sort of headlines the other stage at Glastonbury, which is a big deal. And I think she's a really wonderful artist. She does something really interesting. But the music is so pop-y. And when I heard the track, "Girlfriend," I was just like, man, this is just like the pop music that I love. And I really love what she's doing. I love the pop element. And it reminded me of just great pop records growing up.

 

Do you feel as an artist sometimes if you just open, you might not know what's kind of being channeled through you?

Yeah, totally. Aretha Franklin said, "Well, I'm just channeling God. It's just coming through me". If you ask me how I wrote the songs. I can't tell you either. I feel like I didn't write the songs. I feel like I've always I've been reluctant to say, "Well, I started writing these songs." It's like these songs started to come out. That's what a lot of people say. That's what a lot of the writers say. It's not about them. It's about something you're channeling.

I appreciate the genuineness and openness here.

I'm sure there are some people who think I'm talking a load of crap. But, you know, I have to be honest, and thankfully, I'm a little bit older, so I can be honest. And if someone thinks it's a load of bollocks, well, that's tough. I think what's interesting for me, as well, that other side of life, the spiritual path, all those things are very important. And they've been an important part of my life for a few years now. And I mean, I'm really interested as I think a lot of people are now about the visible world, if you like. What we see. And then there's the invisible world. And I think people have always been intrigued by that. And whether it's talk about God, chi, the force, whatever, you know, stars, there's something else that goes on on this planet. It's not just what we build and what we do.

It's human nature to be curious about that.

When I was asked – Radiohead fans were really lovely –  they said: "Ed, what kind of record are you making?" And I was like "I'm making an existential dance record," which is slightly flippant. 

Those are things I'm interested in. I was always like that as a kid. I used to love nothing more than sitting out in the garden at night, looking up at the stars with friends and like going, "How can the universe never stop? How can it go on forever?" I've always been curious about that stuff. And what's been so lovely is to sort of be able to just go there fully without going, "Grow up Ed.” So, it's been a part of it's almost like being childlike again at the wonder and the joys of this extraordinary planet that we live on.

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