Jonny Greenwood would prefer not to be here, this I know. Talking on an intercontinental phone call to yet another journalist about how great Radiohead, in which he plays guitar, is and how important Amnesiac, its new record, is in the face of the cultural poverty that's replaced the 21st-century music culture is not exactly Greenwood's idea of a good time.
And yet here he is, dutifully chatting with me about just that, being as polite as he looks in all the pictures, telling me things about Radiohead that I will now tell you. Should you listen? Depends on what you think of Radiohead and what you made of Kid A, the talk-talk-talked-about record it made last year when everybody wanted somebody to save rock 'n' roll and the members of Radiohead figured they'd do it, but only by accident. Amnesiac's another accident, but it's one of the best I've heard in a long while.
New Times: There's much less of a circus around Amnesiac than there was around Kid A.
Jonny Greenwood: I suppose there's less anticipation, because it isn't three years since we released anything.
NT: Does it feel more comfortable, more normal this time, without the circus?
JG: Yeah, I suppose, except we weren't really in control of the circus last time.
NT: Well, that's kind of what I mean.
JG: Yeah, exactly. The way it's been heard earlier -- we haven't been as paranoid about releasing it to journalists and such. So, yeah, it's all good, really.
NT: It seems like the early reaction is shaping up to be that this is the more straight-ahead companion to Kid A, that it's more direct. Have you been hearing that?
JG: Occasionally, but then some people say it's got stuff that's more . . . oh, I hate using words like "experimental," "obscure," whatever, but it's got stuff that's less standard on it than Kid A as well, I think. There's a song called "Like Spinning Plates," which is certainly my favorite and very upsetting and quite dark music, but in a way there's nothing quite like that on Kid A. But then you've got some quite straight-ahead songs like "Knives Out," where we just enjoyed the fact that you've got five minutes of music that doesn't really change, and it's very . . . in a way it's trying to be the Smiths or something. So, you know, we'll try anything; we're shameless like that.
NT: Was all the music recorded at the same time as Kid A?
JG: It was, yeah.
NT: How'd you decide which record would contain which music?
JG: We basically did a thing of recording, getting all this material together and wanting to release it, and as soon as we decided to split it into two, it just became a lot easier, really. We could put together 40 minutes of music, which is how long we wanted it to be. We had songs like "You and Whose Army" and "Pyramid Song" we wanted to release, and, like I say, it was like a release thing, really -- the fact that we could just do this. We wanted to release them even sooner; at one point we were talking about it being three months between the two records' release.
NT: When you decided what music was going to be on Kid A, did you know then what was going to be on Amnesiac?
JG: We did sort of, but we hadn't put it in order, and there was still things to mix and to edit. It felt like we just finished Kid A and sat and thought about the next one, which we didn't have to record much; that was a good feeling.
NT: Was there at all an attempt to make with Amnesiac something complementary or opposite to Kid A?
JG: No. I think it sounds different as a record, but I'm not sure how. I can't decide how. It sounds a bit like a mess as a record. Complementary? I don't know. I mean, I think it would be cool if people go back to Kid A after hearing Amnesiac and it'd make more sense in a way -- they hear things they hadn't before. People have suggested that Kid A was us trying to be obscure, when we could've done a much better job of being obscure, I think, if that's what we were after. And in the same way, like you say, people are suggesting that this is quite immediate, but I think we could've done a better job of that, as well. I'm not sure that it is. I think it's got more. . . . It's got that one song, "Like Spinning Plates," which is as disturbing as anything on Kid A, really, and sort of my favorite track, as well; musically, I think it's got very beautiful chords in it. I don't know. Who knows? I could say it still sounds like a mess to me but one that I keep hearing.
NT: If you could've made Kid A more obscure and this one more direct. . . .
JG: If that had been what we sat down and tried to do, as people suggested. I think, well, go ahead. It's a very safe record if that were the intention.
NT: I take it, then, that neither of those poles has been the goal in making these records?
JG: No. It's such a cliché, obviously, but we're just all in front of the mixing desk and listening to what the speakers are doing, and there are moments when you just think, "Oh, this is great; this is really getting close to what we want and how I imagined this song to be, or it's much better than I even hoped it would be." Whatever.
NT: What were your feelings on the reaction to Kid A? Not so much the hype before it came out, but what people thought after they heard it.
JG: I don't know. It's hard to say. I think people need a lot of time on their hands to like it like we have, in a way -- to listen to it enough times. It's that kind of thing, really, which is not necessarily a good thing. It's hard to get the mindset that we're in when we listen to it quite a lot and listen to it while not doing much else. And then it kind of reveals itself, I suppose. I hope; that's what I hope.
NT: Do you wish people could spend that time to get into it?
JG: It's very easy to get precious about that, and, I don't know, good music should just be good, it shouldn't. . . . 'Cause then you've got that whole thing of relying on the fact that when you know something so well, then you're just dealing with your memory of how it goes; you're not actually. . . . It's not having any effects on you other than -- which is what I really hate about some records: You start to like them just because you know how it goes. It's something we think about a lot: Why is music good, and why do I want to listen to this, and is it any good? It's nice just to sit with your record collection and listen to things. It's like when you make a compilation tape for somebody and you really . . . you get the feeling that it's the only time you really listen to music and think about it, is when you're deciding what to send to somebody else. You record a track off the end of whatever record, and you start to go, "Hang on, maybe this record isn't that good," and you're not so sure about it anymore. It's a really good thing. It's a bit like we're trying to do that, I suppose -- make a compilation album, but out of our own songs, and thinking about them. That's what I mean, really. I don't mean that people should sit and spend two months before they can even begin to understand this work of art it is that we've created.
NT: You're doing singles and touring this time. Are you excited?
JG: Oh, yeah. It's been too long. Oh, definitely. Fantastic. Finally, you know? It's great; this is what we indulge ourselves in, in a way, is just finding nice places to play and then going and playing concerts there in the summer and stuff. It's all a very excessive lifestyle, really. So how can you not? Fantastic.
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NT: Are you worried about making the music work onstage?
JG: Yeah. I don't know. That worries us. It's worried us since OK Computer, really. I remember long discussions about whether we'd even manage to play "Exit Music." But, you know, we just change instruments and change the song even, if we need to. It's not that precious, really.
NT: Is that something you've considered when making the two records?
JG: Yeah. I think it's good to let go of the idea that when you record a record, you're trying to reproduce the experience of standing in front of a band playing, because, you know, that's really never gonna happen. It's always gonna be an artificial thing. Even if it's just recording Thom [Yorke] singing by himself. People worry too much about combining the two.