"Americans have this thing about confessing. You can meet someone in a bar and within a few minutes you find out they've had three abortions and split up with two husbands. You've been talking to a complete stranger and you know all this stuff. There's this bizarre confessional aspect which I'm kind of into sometimes when I write and I think that's what they pick up on."
I'm talking to Thom E Yorke, Radiohead's diminutive shock-headed front-man about their massive success Stateside. The song Creep is well known - it was last year's anthem for the disaffected - but in Britain, Radiohead's epic pop songs have fallen largely on deaf ears. This must be due in part to the current obsession with nostalgia spearheaded by bands like Oasis and Blur. I ask Thom if he's worried that Radiohead have chosen a difficult year in which to reassert themselves on the U.K. scene.
"Not at all. That nostalgia thing's always been there. The best records of last year are all the records that are miles away from that. They had nothing to do with what everyone was writing about, which I thought was the ultimate victory over the music press."
Thom cites the superb Massive Attack album and the less than superb Grant Lee Buffalo. But surely Oasis, for all the hype, do genuinely kick ass? "They're a joke aren't they? It's just lots of middle class people applauding a bunch of guys who act stupid and write really primitive music and people say 'oh it's so honest'. It's just like the art world where they'll pick up on people outside the art world, on the periphery and bring them in. The things they love about them are that they're out of their environment - they're working class, thick or mentally ill. It's a freak show - they're laughing at them but at the same time they can say 'look how wonderfully varied and cultural we are'. Eventually they absorb what they were looking for and end up destroying it."
Do you view MTV in a similar light? (Radiohead have recently made a video with Ridley Scott's son Jake to promote the American release of Fake Plastic Trees.)
"What worries me most is that having toured places like Mexico and Thailand, MTV is like this cultural symbol that introduces you and I don't think I can handle being a part of that. They're flying around dropping little cultural bombs saying 'here you are, eat this'."
And presumably anything you have to say is subsumed within the message of MTV?
"Yeah but the irony of the MTV establishment is that it insists on calling itself 'alternative'. The presenter of MTV's Alternative Nation is notoriously right-wing. The two times I've met her we had blazing rows. In America she's hated and yet she's the presenter of the so called alternative show for America. It's not alternative at all but then we can't say anything - we're spending thousands of dollars on this video specifically so we can get it on MTV. It's going to cost the same price as the fucking album."
You've been accused of taking yourself too seriously. The NME called you the most serious man in rock. How do you respond?
"I'm not really serious, it's just when people get me on the subject of music. I think most bands do take themselves seriously but there's this double-think where you can be a musician but at the same time it's a bit of a joke."
Yes, but you've been quoted as saying that you are on a mission to save pop music. From what?
"Shite (laughs). That was supposed to be a joke, that was me being funny. I'm antagonistic rather than serious because there's so much shit around and so many people I know who are perfectly talented just don't get a chance."
Thom is becoming quite agitated at this point as he searches for a deserving example of injustice on which to vent his frustration. Ah yes, The Word.
"It shouldn't upset me," he says sounding upset, "but I find that program really frightening cos it's youth programming done by idiots for idiots. There's just loads of people running around not listening to themselves at all."
Radiohead's new album, The Bends, whilst retaining Thom's confessional song writing style has lost much of the claustrophobia of Pablo Honey. There is a sense of a band growing up, of a search for permanency rather than the capricious adoration of teenage pop fans. The new songs have a windswept, lovelorn feel conjuring images of wide open spaces and lonely dawns. This, one suspects, is the influence of America and the duality of being relative strangers in your home town whilst being pop-stars abroad. There is a line in The Bends (also a single) where Thom sings: "I wish it was the sixties, I wish we could be happy." This could be interpreted as a sign of Thom's despair at being left out of the cutting edge of British pop culture, of seeking refuge in the past instead of embracing the future.
"Well that's what everyone wishes isn't it?"
"Well no, I mean I don't but that seems to be an implicit neurosis of our generation. The thing about the sixties is that people had loads of money and freedom. There were jobs and they felt they could express themselves.
Do you despair of the nineties?
"No, I think the nineties are great musically but politically they're fucking frightening."
Do you think that music ever really makes a difference against draconian government measures like the Criminal Justice Bill?
"Well no, I don't think anyone's under the illusion that musicians can make more difference than anyone else. We contributed a track to The Levellers compilation but it's just a token thing really - the fact is the bill went through. What I find so frightening is that we all feel that we don't have a place in political life anymore. If we try and say anything, we get arrested."
How do you think the music press is going to treat Radiohead this year?
"I see us being dragged through a hedge backwards. We haven't given them enough of one thing to focus on so they're scratching their heads which is fine by us."
You sound pretty confident.
"I think part of it is not living in London, having success elsewhere, the kind of people we are; we stick together and don't really listen to anyone else. We're just quietly learning what we do and getting better. It's all an ongoing process, I think it takes a long time to understand the medium in which you work. We didn't just wake up one morning and decide to be mods."
(Radiohead release a single,
Planet Telex, in February followed by an album in March and a U.K. tour.)
• Typed by: Mark Maday