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Splitting atoms with Thom Yorke

The world’s most mythologised indie-rock icon explains why these days he’d rather make people dance than cry

It’s three days since Thom Yorke flew back home from Australia after completing Radiohead’s mammoth The King of Limbs world tour. Sitting at a table in the lobby of a quaint 300-year-old hotel to the north of Oxford city centre, he’s instantly recognisable but cuts a slight, unassuming figure among the graduates and tourists checking in and out. Dense, greying stubble lines his chin, and long dark-brown hair frames his angular face, curling around his famously asymmetrical eyes.

In the age of PR firewalls, it’s a heartening surprise to find him quietly sipping sparkling water next to an open fire in this refurbished relic, rather than locked away in a soulless white suite surrounded by a team of advisers. Not many rock stars would feel comfortable conducting an interview within earshot of the public, let alone one who would rather avoid doing them altogether. Yorke has never liked having his life dissected by others for the sake of selling records. Having shifted in excess of 30 million albums and been heralded as one of the most influential songwriters in history, you can see his point of view. If you want answers, just listen to the lyrics.

When he was last on our cover in 1996, Yorke was riding high on the success of Radiohead’s breakthrough second album, The Bends. Back then, the self-confessed control-freak cut out the middleman entirely; he sat in a room on his own with a dictaphone and a couple of bottles of wine, got pissed and interviewed himself. What emerged was a fascinating, wilfully schizophrenic portrait of a 27-year-old caught in the heady throes of international fame yet completely disconnected from the person he saw looking back at him in the mirror. A year later, following the massive commercial crossover of OK Computer, something inside Yorke “went pop” and he descended into a deep depression, losing faith in everything he and the group stood for. When they emerged again with 2000’s Kid A, he had persuaded his childhood friends to embrace a radical new approach, replacing guitar lines with abstract synths and drum machines. It alienated much of their indie-rock fanbase, but ultimately proved the key to the band’s longevity. They’ve stuck to the formula ever since, with Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows and The King of Limbs solidifying their reputation as one of the few 90s bands who have managed to constantly redefine their musical parameters and stay culturally relevant.

Now 44 years old, Yorke’s insatiable hunger for new forms of expression has led him on a parallel solo quest into the digital realms of the dance-music matrix. The first major manifestation of this was 2006’s The Eraser, an album composed entirely on his laptop. Kanye, Pharrell and Lupe Fiasco became so infatuated with the title track that they formed a short lived supergroup and rapped over a remix just for japes. Since then his own reedits of DOOM, Liars and Major Lazer and collaborations with Flying Lotus, Four Tet and Modeselektor have marked Yorke out as a true EDM renaissance man. He even borrowed Daft Punk’s helmets to DJ at a Halloween party in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, plunging shell-shocked ravers into a pop-culture wormhole that some are still trying to crawl out of.

Next month, almost 20 years to the day since Radiohead’s debut album, Pablo Honey, was released, Yorke reveals Amok by Atoms for Peace, the first group project he’s undertaken outside of Radiohead. The collective – funky-bass cadet Flea, percussionist Mauro Refosco, drummer Joey Waronker and long-suffering ’head producer Nigel Godrich – initially formed in 2009 to play The Eraser live for a series of American shows. Their musical chemistry was so kinetic that following the tour they decamped to Flea’s Chili compound in LA, got twisted, listened to Fela Kuti, booked three days in a local studio and began embellishing on more of Yorke’s laptop experiments. Feeding the results back into the machine and remixing them over the intervening years, Amok’s final nine tracks ingeniously blur the lines between Radiohead’s melancholic rock and the beat-heavy production favoured by today’s generation of bassheads. EDM purists may write it off as a vanity project by a bunch of aging rockers, but that couldn’t be further from the truth: Amok is a masterclass in modern songcraft, regardless of genre.

Of course, none of this makes the prospect of actually trying to get the notoriously tempestuous frontman to divulge a deeper understanding of his musical process any less daunting. Fortunately, within a minute of meeting, Yorke gives Dazed a positive indication of today’s mood: “I always crash when I get back from tour. I’m just over it now, so you’re lucky,” he says with a soft, laidback voice, his eyes glinting. “To be honest, if it had been yesterday, you wouldn’t want to have known me. I would have been more like, ‘Get the fuck out of my face.’ But today’s alright. We’re gonna be alright.” Phew.

Welcome home, Thom. How has your relationship with Oxford changed over the years?
Oxford doesn’t change much, to be honest. It’s got richer people here now, which is unfortunate. There’s less of the bonkers nutters. Mentally speaking, I think there’s a high proportion of people that are trapped in their own heads in this city. Definitely. My local is full of researchers in all different fields and sometimes I go there and eavesdrop. I love eavesdropping. But these people’s conversations are not normal. They’re all about nuclear physics and mathematics.

Do you feel comfortable around them?
Oh yeah! (laughs) I wanted to go to St John’s to read English, because that’s what everybody did. But I was told I couldn’t even apply – I was too thick. Oxford University would have eaten me up and spat me out. It’s too rigorous. It’s insane. Especially the literature courses. People jump out of windows onto railings every year just before exams.

“When people rip each other off but don’t add anything original to the equation, it’s painful because you can hear the anxiety of the creator wanting to be loved”

You’ve talked about Radiohead imitators in the past, but have you ripped off anyone from the EDM scene for Amok?
(laughs) Oh, of course! Totally, man! But that’s what it’s about. It’s about how you do it. There’s this theory about our collective imagination, and you’re either in tune with it or not. And I think, yes that can be used as an excuse, but it’s also kind of true. It’s certainly true in poetry and literature. You could even say the same in fashion. It’s how you use it. When people rip each other off but don’t add anything original to the equation, it’s painful because you can hear the anxiety of the creator wanting to be loved. I’m not going to say any names but you know what I’m on about. That desire to be loved, rather than, ‘Fuck you, this is all I got.’

Were you like that when Radiohead began?
That’s how everybody starts out; everybody goes through that period of imitating other things because you’re worried, you want to be liked. Everybody does it; it’s just how soon you realise that it’s not very pleasant to listen to and nobody wants to hear it anyway.

When do you think you were liberated from that?
The Bends. For the first time ever, we had two months just working on 12 tunes, not seeing anybody, and that was all we did. We went into the studio with John Leckie and the A&Rs and management would turn up, and say, ‘Where’s the hits?’ There was a half-hour period following that where everyone wobbled and then we were like, ‘Fuck you! You’re banned!’ and we pulled out all the phones. Then the anxiety was gone. The excitement of it being our choice and the fact that no one else was making songs like us was liberating. Once you’ve tasted that, it’s like, ‘Ahh, okay! I get it now.’

Knowing that you’ve found an original formula must be both a blessing and a curse, though.
Well, it becomes a massive hit and you’ve got to get your next fix. It’s hard to go through periods when you haven’t got something like that. So I don’t ever stop working.

Do you find yourself constantly chasing a new buzz?
Is that why Amok is rooted in electronic music? It’s just what I listen to. My missus says to me, ‘Why do you listen to dance music in the middle of the fucking day when there’s no one around?’ It’s just what I do. But to me the Atoms album is not dancey enough.

Atoms for Peace is also the name of a song from The Eraser, and both albums have similarly apocalyptic artwork created by Stanley Donwood. Is this a sequel?
Oh, it’s not like The Eraser at all. But it’s not a band album either; it doesn’t sound like a band playing. You never hear musicians exploring that weird grey area, apart from LCD Soundsystem who used to do it quite a lot. We wanted to go into the song realm, because it felt good to do that. If it were up to me, every track would be ten minutes long.

Who reigns in your epic prog-tronica tendencies?
That’ll be Nigel and his intolerance for expanding.

How has your musical relationship with Godrich changed since you first met?
It’s exactly the fucking same. It’s like brothers: we fight, but it’s always okay in the end. Sometimes I need to be left alone to just get on with it, sometimes he needs to be left alone to get on with it. Sometimes I’m like, ‘You’re not right, you’re wrong.’ And that can go on for days.

Did you have any trepidation about embarking on the Atoms For Peace project?
That was the real head-masher. During the first day of rehearsals it was clear that everyone had really done their homework. So when I got there with Nigel, we just started up and it was just there for the taking, it was fucking mental. It was really the first time I’d played properly with another band, ever, since I was like, 16. No kidding, it was a headfuck. I was buzzing for weeks. It was all informed by what I’d done on my own on a laptop, which I just thought was really wild.

You have such a diverse back catalogue now. would you ever go back through your Radiohead archives and remix it all?
I could do, yeah. I love remixing because you can take something people already identify with and claim it for something else. You can actually spend your whole life going back and sampling yourself – but that would be a bit like masturbation.

“I can’t say I love the idea of a banker liking our music, or David Cameron. But who cares? As long as he doesn’t use it for his election campaigns, I don’t care. I’d sue the living shit out of him if he did”

Does the fact that your music attracts everyone from teenagers and middle-aged dads to bankers and prime ministers annoy or delight you?
I can’t say I love the idea of a banker liking our music, or David Cameron. I can’t believe he’d like King of Limbs much. But I also equally think, who cares? As long as he doesn’t use it for his election campaigns, I don’t care. I’d sue the living shit out of him if he did. I’m now getting this thing where a cute 18-year-old girl will come up to me and she’ll say, ‘Aww man, will you sign this for my mum?’ She turned me onto your music when I was tiny.’ And I’d be like ‘Ohhh, fuck’s sake!’ That spins me out on a number of levels. I’ve got two generations now.

You wrote The Eraser’s ‘Harrowdown Hill’ about the suicide of biological-warfare expert David Kelly. Do any of your new songs have a political agenda?
The David Kelly thing was very much an exception. I thought it was just so horribly English, so fucked up. I get obsessed and that often ends up in lyrics. Politics is not a fun thing to write about. Now it’s too fucking dark. I went to the Copenhagen summit (on climate change), and that permanently flipped my lid, because the whole thing was so wrong. Obama stormed straight past me after the meeting he had with China, and it was just horrible. It sort of spun me out permanently to be honest.

But shouldn’t that have provoked you to write something?
Yes, but when you’re presented with that level of stupidity, it kind of blows your mind. Which sounds terrible, because I don’t want to be the person that goes, ‘We’re all fucked,’ because I don’t think we are. I’m trying to convince myself not to care. It’s like this phrase I keep seeing around – ‘I couldn’t care less, it’s such a mess.’

Are you sick of people saying that you only write and sing miserable songs? 
It used to piss me off and then I thought, ‘Well, people hear something in my voice and respond to it, and there’s nothing I can do about it.’ You could say the same thing about Scott Walker. Recently it’s not as heavy, it’s a lot lighter, because I’m more into rhythm and the fact that it dances through the track rather than grabbing you and being the centre of attention. Sometimes I don’t want it to be. Sometimes I just want it cruising through the rhythm.

Do you ever feel caged in by your voice?
Absolutely. Maybe not as much now, but certainly it can be quite frustrating. I’ve done enough stuff now that it’s not such an issue – at some point you’ve got to say, ‘This tone is me, there’s no getting round it.’ Now, in a way, having that signature is licence to do more. It’s kind of liberating to say, ‘Well, that’s my instrument, and that’s a very clear limitation right there.’ But what’s nice is you can make a really complicated piece of music and then just put a simple line through it and suddenly you don’t see any of the complications there at all.

What about your image? Have you become more or less confident about your looks over the years?
I’m never confident about how I look, but I’m always into being shocking and visually interesting. It comes down to whether I’m comfortable or not. It takes me a long time to get my head around that. I was deeply uncomfortable with the ‘Lotus Flower’ video. I did the whole thing, it was such a crack, and then they showed me the rushes the next day and I was like, ‘This ain’t going out.’ It was like paparazzi footage of me naked or something. It was fucked up. But if it’s a risk that’s probably a good thing.

Are you surprised that ‘Lotus Flower’ has now been watched over 20 million times on YouTube?
It’s a massive kick. That’s what everybody wants. If it’s something you’ve worked at and it goes over the edge like that then that’s great. If you do a few duffers it puts you off for a while.

Which are the duffers?
Oh, I couldn’t possibly say... (laughs)

Which is your favourite?
‘Karma Police’ is still my favourite, because when I watch it or see clips it just reminds me how much of a laugh I had shooting that. It was brilliant. Especially because I’m totally wasted in it.

What were you doing?
All sorts. (laughs)

Do you think your videos and your reluctance to do much press have built up this mythology around you? Do you encourage the mythmaking?
No, I think it just extends to whatever you’re doing next, to see if you can bend people’s heads out of shape. It’s the old art student in me really. If you’re going to do something you should at least shock or mess with their expectations - not that it’s necessarily art.

When you were last on the cover of Dazed you talked about not recognising your reflection. Was that true?
I really didn’t. It was quite scary. It’s hard to explain. It was all part of this weird catatonic headspace I was in. I can’t do a lot of photographs because I become too aware of that projected image and I can’t handle it. It sounds really precious but that’s just what I know and how I know it is.

“I was so driven for so long, like a fucking animal, and then I woke up one day and someone had given me a little gold plate for OK Computer and I couldn’t deal with it for ages”

You also admitted that you had always wanted to become famous. Seventeen years later, have your feelings changed?
I guess it depends what you’ve become famous for. Fame for fame’s sake, or for working your nuts off at what you do. Also when I was a kid, I always assumed that it was going to answer something – fill a gap. And it does the absolute opposite. It happens with everybody. I was so driven for so long, like a fucking animal, and then I woke up one day and someone had given me a little gold plate for OK Computer and I couldn’t deal with it for ages. I moved down to Cornwall, went out to the cliffs and drew in a sketchbook, day in, day out. I was allowed to play the piano and that was it, because that was all we had in the house. I did that for a few months and I started to tune back into why I’d started doing it. That’s how I remember it anyway. I remember having nothing in the house, except a Yamaha grand piano. Classic. And the first thing I wrote was ‘Everything in Its Right Place’.

Do you have much recollection of what life was like before you became famous?
I’m now painfully aware that I’ve been doing this for longer than I haven’t. Which is pretty fucking mental. Am I aware of how it was before that? I think so. I mean, we did sign our deal when I was 22, so for my whole 20s and 30s I was working. I don’t even remember it. It’s quite weird.

How well do you think you’ve aged?
My favourite quote of Tom Waits is, ‘I wish to age disgracefully.’ And I’m doing that, that’s me. I’m probably easier to deal with but I wish to remain disgraceful, if at all possible. (laughs)

Why do you think you have been portrayed as such a mercurial character over the years?
I’m not as volatile as I used to be, which is good ’cos I’d have burned out if I was. I can still be a nightmare though.

There’s a quote that I thought would be a good way to finish. It’s from your friend Stanley Donwood talking about his artwork series Lost Angeles, from which the cover for Amok is taken: ‘There is no future, there is only the present... no one seems to care much about the present.’ What do you care most about right now?
The present. Trying to stay in the present because that’s how to not get ill. Don’t overthink. Let it go.

Amok by Atoms for Peace is out on February 25 on XL Recordings

Taken from the February Issue of Dazed & Confused