An Interview with Thom Yorke

At the start of the twenty-first century, Radiohead emerged as a shining beacon of hope for innovation in rock and roll, and they began to shake up the music industry.

During their concerts, they refused to accept corporate sponsors; they tried to reduce the environmental impact of touring; and more recently, they released their seventh album.

In Rainbows, without a record label, with a digital format that could be obtained directly from their website, and buyers could decide for themselves how much to pay for it.

Thom Yorke, the legendary singer of Radiohead, referred to the band’s immense popularity as “being the Beatles, for a week”.

His interactions with the press have been relatively reluctant and during interviews in the OK Computer _era, he was known for being hostile and rude, often responding to inquiries with phrases like “next question”, “it’s not your business” and “answering questions like that’s a waste of time”. 

The only documentary that the band permits, _Meeting People Is Easy, is mostly an exploration of the press’ and the music’s contentious relationship.

I encountered Yorke in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. 

Prior to the conversation, he had been shopping with Nigel Godrich, who is Radiohead’s long-term producer, and during the interview he took some time to converse about Australia with Neil Young’s manager, Elliot Roberts.

 He was wearing cargo pants with specks of white paint on them. He kept saying sorry for his jet lag, however he answered every query with attentiveness and forbearance, displaying what appeared to be a newly discovered understanding of his status amidst the famous figures of rock music.

Ross Simonini’s words express that

Humans are not only shaped by their environment, but they also shape it in return. We are both pushed and pulled by our surroundings, which eventually form our behaviors and beliefs.


Radiohead has mentioned the environmental issues associated with touring before, and they have been attempting to find ways of touring that are more eco-friendly.

Have they managed to come up with any solutions that would make the touring sector less detrimental to the environment?

Discussing touring, THOM YORKE mentioned the Station to Station tour of David Bowie, of which he read about. He was intrigued by the idea of traveling by train, instead of plane, as Bowie did with his Trans-Siberian Railway tour.

However, the infrastructure to do this was not available. The compromise became flying, which is seen as the worst disaster situation. But after a study, the most disastrous is people getting to their destination by driving.

BLVR: That is understandable.

We attempted to set up ride-sharing systems, but it didn’t prove to be useful. Then we tried out playing cities, but that too had its limits. Even without the issue of air travel, the lack of infrastructure and public transportation has a major impact on going on tour.

All of these problems end in a stalemate, unless a leader like Obama takes action to change the infrastructure of a place like Los Angeles. I was astonished when I learned that the city formerly had trams, and it was only after a friend of mine gave me a book about it that I found out.

Have you been reading any interesting books lately?

TY: I’ve been reading Bram Stoker’s short stories, but I found The Secret Agent not to my liking. I’m a very slow reader, so I’m not looking for anything too complicated at the moment. Oh, I remember what I read last that was more challenging – it was Borges’ Labyrinths.

I had tried reading it previously and didn’t understand it, but then someone at the pub explained it to me and I ended up really enjoying it. After that, I read a book about the Los Angeles public-transit system.

BLVR: The moment I comprehended that Who Framed Roger Rabbit was in fact reflecting the demise of L.A.’s red-car system was when I was truly astonished.

TY: The automobile industry in Europe made a conscious effort to demolish public transportation, and the Western governments were left in a state of confusion, asking, “What are we going to do?” However, it was the government’s own fault since they allowed it to occur.

Therefore, they must come up with a solution.

BLVR: In the future, do you plan to keep up with the standard touring approach?

At this point in time, a restriction exists. Alternatively, we could decide not to go ahead with it.

BLVR: Is ceasing touring the only way for international performers to reduce their carbon footprint?

TY: It’s hard to say, as it may be a situation of self-aggrandizement. Are you truly helping others or are you doing it to benefit yourself? Are you sure about that?

BLVR: What adjustments have you made to your everyday routine?

For eight years now, our family has owned a house near the ocean. It has an underground heating system, which I can’t quite recall the name of right now, since I’m a bit jetlagged. Oh, right – ground-source heat.

We’ve managed to make that house mostly carbon neutral, aside from the energy that was required to achieve that. So that’s great news.

Was it a challenge to accomplish that?

TY: Two years ago, it was a challenge to get companies to invest in this type of project because the government had not encouraged it.

But now, the government has changed their stance and it is much easier for companies to make money with this. If Obama were to advocate for this, it would make a huge difference.

At the end of the day, it has to be done through legal means and infrastructure to make it fair for everyone. In the UK, I was involved in a campaign that ultimately got bills through Parliament to reduce carbon emissions.

BLVR: What Do You Need?

TY: We soon came to the conclusion that infrastructure was the crux of the issue. Other aspects were nothing but superficial and appealing TV shows that gave a feeling of contentment. Everyone needs to get involved since it is essential.

A buddy of mine who is an environmentalist compared it to a wartime scenario. It is similar to the rationing that occurred in World War II and was effective due to the realization that it was required. That is the bottom line. That is what it is all about.

BLVR: So, in your opinion, is government intervention necessary?

TY declared that if a Western government were to implement energy rationing, it would not be taken lightly. He asserted that this action is what will be necessary.

Was the Big Ask a success in your opinion?

TY: It could be said that its success was predicated on the fact that it compelled the government to take action, a course of action it was not inclined to pursue. However, it is debatable whether the effort proved to be successful since it did not actually accomplish anything.

  1. Roughly two decades ago, the existing state of the music industry was on the brink of death.

BLVR: It appears that physical formats of music, such as CDs and records, are going to become obsolete sooner rather than later due to digital music taking over.

However, the CD was not tangible, since it was online.

BLVR: Correct.

TY: Although you don’t have the physical artwork with digital, I have always detested CDs. Stanley [Donwood, Radiohead’s longtime album-art designer] and I felt the same way; they were a total nightmare.

It appears that Radiohead has no qualms with the digital media transition, as evidenced by their method of releasing In Rainbows.

I am delighted that the CD format is no longer around. But what is the case with laser discs?

Let’s transition to the least practical form of communication there is.

TY: Absolutely. [ Laughs ] But no, I don’t care that much about it. What I’m more interested in is the way things sound. Due to the software used to create music, usually synths and effects are internalized, within the computer.

This has had a great impact on music, some of it really thrilling but some of it quite dull. It gives a dullness to the music that isn’t that enthralling to hear. I’m sure Modeselektor would agree with me about this.

Today, the tinny, low-fidelity quality of MP3s has become commonplace when it comes to listening to music.

TY: Yeah, that’s a real shame. Unfortunately, I’m not the right person to talk to about this – Nigel Godrich is the expert to consult.

BLVR: It’s humorous, as the absence of tangible CD artwork would appear to influence Radiohead more than other groups, since your artwork team-ups with Stanley Donwood have become so connected to your look.

How do you typically collaborate with Donwood on artwork?

TY: Has it? Well, the In Rainbows artwork came from an incident with a table. He had put some candles on it and planned to do some graphic landscape etchings, but that didn’t end up happening due to various considerations…. The etchings were meant to be pornographic.

BLVR: Could I say that these landscapes I’m looking at are pornographic etchings?

TY: He jokingly said, “That’s just a bunch of marks on a piece of paper, friend”. As he was saying that, some candles were knocked onto his paper and he thought it looked attractive, so he scanned it in and kept going from there. [Laughs]

BLVR: Were there any images from NASA involved in this?

On one occasion, my son and I began to observe the shuttle launch in real-time. We eventually found ourselves at the NASA website, which was truly remarkable. As a result, I had to show him the incredible pictures the organization had to offer.

BLVR: Are you planning to keep working together with Stanley on artistic projects? Is this the last we’re going to see of Radiohead’s album artwork?

TY mentioned that they had a great idea for putting things out, but he couldn’t reveal what it was in fear of someone stealing it. He said that their plan was really good.

In a virtual world?

TY: For both the physical and the digital world. But unfortunately, I cannot give you a more specific answer. [ Laughs ] Sorry for being so obscure.

BLVR: Apart from the sound itself, the shift to digital is having a devastating effect on conventional record labels.

TY commented that a process of natural selection has been occurring in the music business. It was in a state of demise around twenty years ago, but the CD kept it going temporarily. The infrastructure is overly complex and the press has the same issue.

He questioned why these people are still surviving, and suggested that it is likely because they just began to reissue the back catalog.

BLVR inquired if the individual felt like they were not losing out on anything during this transition.

It’s no surprise that vinyl records are seeing an increase in sales due to the decreasing relevance of labels and CDs.

BLVR: Could a decrease in physical music production result in a reduction of plastic and carbon energy use?

TY: That’s not quite accurate, as all the servers need to operate. All the major companies are attempting to find an approach to decrease the energy misuse of the servers. It is a huge ecological crisis.

The servers are created as small rack systems and they are all operating at the same power, day after day. However, they are not being utilized to their full potential. In addition, there are huge structures full of them. It is evidently a major expense for the providers and a large energy waste.

BLVR asked if the situation was worse than all the plastic that is polluting the environment.

TY: It’s difficult to decide which is more important. Spending money on experts may be the only way to ensure a sustainable virtual world. Until then, protecting the environment is uncertain.


BLVR asked if the pay-as-you-will option allowed individuals to pay up to $99.99.

TY agreed.

BLVR questioned why a limit of one hundred dollars was imposed on the album, inquiring as to why it was deemed acceptable for people to pay that amount.

TY: It would be a terrible idea to do that. You’d be crazy to do it.

BLVR: But it was definitely done by someone, correct?

TY: Absolutely. So, what was the purpose of these meetings? They were certainly enjoyable, however, we were essentially making it up as we went along.

We established a ninety-nine-dollar limit to avoid people showing off and bragging about how much they had spent. Although, I suppose that ninety-nine dollars was already quite a bit.

How many individuals opted to pay the full cost?

TY: I’m not sure how many there were in total. I have the details, along with a breakdown of the number of countries, that I can access.

BLVR: Thus, one can determine which nationalities are the most thrifty.

TY: Yeah, but I think I’ll refrain from discussing that.

BLVR: There were numerous discussions regarding paying a minimal amount for music albums, however, not as many on people shelling out as much as they wished.

If one contemplates this concept a bit further, with people offering money to musicians, it is possible that artists could, financially, start to function much like non-profit organizations.

TY: Definitely, although it sounds cheesy. We saw it as a statement of our beliefs, like, “We trust people will recognize the worth of music, and we want to demonstrate that.” Everyone was like, “The world’s ending!,” yet we chose to devise a different approach.

It depends on who you ask in the band though, because to me, the name-your-own-price element was not as important as enabling us to release it ourselves, instead of a record plant’s staff. That was my standpoint. Yet, we are a funny crew.

The fifteen of us in the room brainstormed ideas and said, “Yeah, that should work.” Most people would think, That won’t work. A lot of it was Chris’ [Hufford, Radiohead’s manager] idea. If it hadn’t worked, we could just have blamed him.

BLVR questioned, “Did that do the trick?”

TY: Indeed, it did the job on multiple levels. The main purpose was to emphasize the value of music. Additionally, it acted as a way of advertising the record without having to utilize Google or iTunes.

This was an approach based on the idea that many people wanted to hear it. We wanted to avoid the process of going to radio stations to choose the first single and to avoid presenting it to the press two months in advance for them to criticize before it’s even heard. And, of course, it also worked out financially.

Is this technique feasible for other musical groups that are not as famous as Radiohead?

We have the good fortune of not having to wait for a reviewer’s opinion regarding the press, so why should that be an issue? If people are interested in playing it, let’s just offer it for them to hear for themselves. I don’t really see the need to go through the reviews first.

BLVR: Distributing the album in this manner helps to emphasize it as an artistic accomplishment, rather than just a compilation of tracks scattered around the web.

TY: Interesting. I am grateful for that. Sadly, many folks purchased the album in the incorrect sequence.

Do you think the concept of an album as a musical work is still relevant in our current era of iPod shuffling?

I don’t really have a desire to listen to the album right now.

BLVR: I’ve noticed you seem to be focusing a lot on releasing singles and EPs. Is that the direction you’re leaning toward?

Mr. Tanaka, who runs a magazine in Japan, has a running joke with me where he always poses the same questions – “EPs next time?” and I respond with an emphatic “yes”, only to be met with a mildly exasperated “Bullshit”. However, this time I think things may be different.

The plan I spoke of earlier involves a physical release, and none of us are keen on going through the arduous process of creating a full-length record right away; it’s become tiresome.

It worked in the past with In Rainbows as we had a specific vision for it, but we all agree that it’s unwise to attempt that again.

It also relates to the question of how the band comes together and creates. Jonny and I have mulled over the possibility of crafting songs for an orchestra and orchestrating it, then executing a live take of it – all done.

We’ve discussed it before, but never acted on it due to the fact that the songs weren’t written for that purpose, and so it’s been challenging to adapt them. Perhaps that could be a good EP – to have a go at it and see how it feels, without trying to make a full record out of it.

It appears that certain concepts cannot be effectively conveyed in the span of forty-five minutes.

TY: We obviously still appreciate the album’s quality, yet right now we need a break from it. It’s essential to keep its legacy. The CD-reissue thing almost destroyed it because labels wanted to cram as much content onto it as possible.

There was a lot of pressure from the majors to add extra material onto the CD to make it more sellable, even though the original forty minutes was already a lot of effort. They were charging exorbitant prices for the CD and were trying to justify it by filling it with extra stuff.

BLVR: Considering this, albums in the digital age could be any length. It could be a long five hour album or, like Stockhausen, you could create something totally unique.

TY: What? With the choppers? [Stockhausen composed a piece specifically for a string quartet and helicopters, entitled Helicopter String Quartet.]

BLVR: Right. He furthermore composed an opera that stretched out for an entire week.

TY: Nigel is wanting to attempt something that, to be perfectly honest, would be terrible, but it’s worth a shot…

However, one thing to note is…

TY mentioned that it would be ideal to book in for three days, then post two tracks every week for six weeks. He said that it is unlikely to happen, yet the concept of releasing something even if it is uncertain would be a risk worth taking.

BLVR: It’s almost as if the ideas are flowing out of the writer without much effort.

To us, this is not what we usually believe. It may be terrible and we are not sure yet. That gives away the fact that we are unfortunately not doing very well. It takes a long time to find out what is below the surface.

The lyrics would be horrible. Jonny is insisting that we increase our work rate. He dislikes the speed at which we are operating. This is the consequence of how we began.


BLVR: It could be argued that the concept of Internet singles is reminiscent of the music industry of the 1950s, when radio singles were the primary way to define an artist’s success, preceding the introduction of full-length records.

TY: If you’re able to put aside the financial aspect of the situation–as it involves individuals’ means of living–and view it as the creation of an incredible broadcasting network, it looks completely different. This is really the optimal way to consider it.

I don’t waste my time searching for free MP3s on the web, as I detest such sites; many of them don’t even have knowledgeable personnel. Rather, I choose to visit Boomkat, a place where people know what they are talking about.

Boomkat is an exceptional service according to BLVR.

TY: It’s wonderful. This can be seen as a business strategy. It’s similar to when I used to peruse music stores in Oxford. You’d glance at one thing, then the next, and there would be a whole slew of other items down the aisle suggesting, “Maybe you’d like this,” and “This could be up your alley.”

I’m fond of shops that have carefully chosen items, and the employees that create write-ups about the music.

TY was affirmative that Boomkat is particular about the type of music it promotes, yet, he couldn’t envision any reason why the same medium wouldn’t be effective for any other form of music.

BLVR: I believe I read the phrase “return to form” in reference to In Rainbows on some kind of advertisement, which I have seen recur about twenty times since then.

TY: [ Snorts ] However, have you not observed that they normally express that? That’s a certain sign of a rock group that is losing its radiance.

BLVR: There doesn’t appear to be a way to go back.

We are lacking in shape or form as individuals.

Is there a particular sound that you consider to be your signature sound during the course of your career?

TY expressed strong hope that the outcome would not be the case.

The notion of Radiohead as an outfit that is continually in a state of evolution is present.

TY stated that In Rainbows was a certain kind of aesthetic, and he doesn’t feel like doing it again. Not because it isn’t good, but simply because he doesn’t want to.

BLVR: Is it practical for creators to retain the same concept throughout their entire career and refine it on a granular level?

Individual performers can accomplish that.

BLVR stated that it would be nearly inconceivable for a band to remain unchanged.

TY asserted that it was totally and completely unfeasible for their band, as each individual in the band had their own desired outcome. He added that Jonny was constantly attempting to add more to the mix.

BLVR: Any other items?

TY exclaimed, “Yes, let’s do it! We need some mistakes, like he always says. Got ’em!”

BLVR: What is the following sound?

TY: Our band hasn’t been able to meet up much, so I’ve been focusing on my own work.

Do you prefer electronic music?

TY: Sure, I’m stuck with certain electronic drums because of my lack of drum-playing ability. Computers are helpful in sprucing up my music. It’s great. Actually, it’s not that great… but I’ve been keeping busy, pushing myself. It’s like a part of me. I have to keep using it or else it will become limp and unresponsive.

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