Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood phones Kevin Courtney to tell him about recording their new album OK Computer, tipped to push the band into the big league.
Friends usually phone you out of the blue, but rock star calls tend to be wellplanned affairs, arranged in advance through the record company, and requiring a fax roll or two, a couple of signed affidavits and even a secret password before a single word can be spoken. So it was a pleasant surprise to get a phone message early one afternoon informing me that Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead was going to call in 10 minutes and talk about his band's new album, OK Computer, and their upcoming gig at Dublin's RDS Showgrounds.
That gave me exactly 600 seconds to do a quick recap: let's see now, Radiohead . . . Formed in Oxfordshire in 1991; name taken from the title of a Talking Heads song; band led by diminutive, misanthropic songwriter Thom Yorke; band initially dismissed by the critics; single Creep becomes surprise US hit; début album, Pablo Honey, sells two million copies worldwide; second album The Bends stiffs in US but is unanimously hailed by the critics; band's songs covered by such diverse artists as Alanis Morissette, Chrissie Hynde, Tears For Fears, Mark Owen and Brian Kennedy; forthcoming album, OK Computer, tipped to push Radiohead into the U2 league . . . Hello, Jonny! How nice of you to call!
"I just enjoy talking to people in Ireland," says the guitarist without a hint of plámás in his voice. "I didn't want to just sit around waiting for the NME to do something on the gig, so I thought I'd get proactive and start pestering people like you."
Jonny is calling from the band's office outside Oxford, close to their rehearsal studios and a stone's throw from all their homes. The Oxfordshire landscape, he says, is "all cottages and power stations", which might well explain the blend of pastoral strains and industrial textures in Radiohead's music. They'd rather be in Dublin, confesses Jonny, but they've got to stick around to finish off the mixing of OK Computer.
"Thom and I stayed there for a week after our show in Galway last year," says Jonny. "We just went up to Dublin and it was amazing, we go quite often, we've got a lot of friends there."
That's the `we're really looking forward to playing in Dublin' bit out of the way then. What's more interesting is that OK Computer was recorded over a couple of months in, of all places, Jane Seymour's house in Bath, Somerset.
"We sort of squatted there! It was cool. We just kind of got our own stuff together and set it up there. Studios are generally very horrible places for recording - they're pretty unmusical - so we just decided to turn a big empty house into a studio, and that one was available. She said to us, `come and stay', handed us the keys and told us to feed the cat."
Ms Seymour is busy elsewhere in the world, starring in the television series, Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman, so she probably isn't home that often. Her show's average viewer probably wouldn't know who Radiohead are either, but that could all change when OK Computer hits the shelves on June 16th. What's the prognosis on Radiohead becoming a household name?
"Well, I don't know, I'm not so sure," muses Jonny. "I think the common perception is that we're all set up to do the big crossover, commercial, stupidly large, colossal album, but we've just carried on from The Bends, really, and recorded songs in a similar fashion. So I don't think that's going to happen, really. There's no big crossover track on it. It's just The Bends Mark II in a way."
So was The Bends deliberately designed not to be a big crossover album, then? "Well, no. Everyone just started saying, oh, you've had it with Creep, and you haven't got another album in you, etcetera, etcetera, so we just recorded some songs."
Some songs indeed. The Bends is as close as bedamned to a modern rock masterpiece, an album where crashing, cathartic sounds meet fragile, faltering spirits, and anguished songs like High + Dry, Fake Plastic Trees and Just have the piercing ring of honesty and truth. The Americans didn't go for it much, since it lacked a dumbass anthem like Creep, but the Brit crits put it high in their Best of 1995 lists. It may not have sold zillions, but The Bends is proving a bit of a sleeper, still nestling in the UK album charts almost two years after its release.
In the US, however, The Bends managed to dispel the stale smell of premature success which began to waft around Creep ("we were afraid of being lumped in with bands like 4 Non-Blondes, who also had a big hit single") and it bought time for Radiohead to regroup their creative forces. It has also allowed space for the Radiohead myth to grow, and by the time the band hits the road this summer for live shows in Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe, they might well be in for some all-out superstar adulation. But is Jonny ready for the mad whirl of touring? "Completely not, no," says the guitarist. "I've got no expectations really. We've kind of got some expectations from Ireland, because we never fail to have some wild, insane times there. I dunno, that's up to you really!"
They have sold all 35,000 tickets for the Dublin date, but regarding the big stadiums everywhere else: "We haven't toured here [in Britain] for a year and a half, so it's hard to tell. We put tickets on sale for the British shows, and they sold out in so many days, so I suppose people are interested. But we're only playing small theatres. Ireland is the only show we're doing that's on that scale."
Irish fans will have to hold out till June 21st to hear Radiohead perform their new songs on stage, but if you can't wait that long, just fly off to Spain, where the new songs will get their first live airing in Barcelona next Thursday. Two tracks have already been heard on record: Lucky, which the band contributed to last year's Help album, and Exit Music, which features on the best-selling soundtrack for Romeo And Juliet. On Monday, the band release the official first cut from the album, the six-minute-plus mini-epic Paranoid Android.
"We're still into the idea of releasing singles for people to own and listen to, rather than just giving them free to radio stations and trying to get the drivetime radio slot."
The other songs on the album include Electioneering, "which is certainly the hardest thing we've ever recorded, and then again there's one song called The Tourist which has got less movement and sounds in it than anything else we've recorded. We get bored very quickly with styles of music that we've done, which I think is one of the strengths of The Bends, that each song is trying to do something different. And we've just done that again really with OK Computer."
Radiohead's single Paranoid Android is released on Monday; the album OK Computer is released on June 16th; The Longest Day, featuring Radiohead and Massive Attack, is at the RDS Showgrounds on Saturday June 21st.