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Jonny Greenwood on Radiohead and how it all began – with Matt Everitt BBC Radio 6 Music
Jonny Greenwood is well known as the guitarist, arranger, multi-instrumentalist and member of Radiohead. Matt Everitt took the chance to interview Jonny as part of the series The First Time… for BBC Radio 6 Music.
He is a respected composer in his own right and is well known around the world for his work with BBC Concert, Australian Chamber and London Contemporary Orchestras.
Matt speaks to Jonny Greenwood on Radiohead, the recent album, the ongoing tour, his love of bands such as The Fall and New Order but also classical composers like Krzysztof Penderecki growing up. He also opens up on how he and the band coped with the massive success of the album OK Computer, how he began his career and continues to forge his musical journey today.
Matt: The set lists for your recent live shows have changed radically every night. Aside from the new tracks, fans are getting a totally different selection of songs at each gig. How many tracks did you rehearse?
Jonny: So we started with one hundred twenty. It’s crazy. I mean, it’s just every song we’ve done. And then we gave up and realized that was stupid and got it down to about 60 or 70, and we played twenty four songs a night. So there’s a lot to choose from.
M: What was the thinking behind that?
J: Variety. Keeping it feeling fresh and interesting. It drives our crew crazy as you might imagine because they don’t know what to do with the lights. But that’s okay. We’ve always been like that. We’ve always decided the setlist just before we play.
M: This image that’s grown around Radiohead’s studio work; that it’s this very tortured, very emotionally draining, very difficult experience for everybody concerned, is that is that true?
J: It‘s by turns really exciting – and there’s usually Thom [Yorke] in the middle of it getting very excited and motivating everyone and getting worked up about how well it’s going – and then there’s periods when nothing’s happening and it’s just not working and it’s frustrating. But it’s like that for everyone with work. When it’s going well it’s such an exciting and ‘up’ and happy time that gets you through anything really. It’s only torturous looking back.
J: We recorded ‘No Surprises’ [from 1997’s OK Computer album] and then worried about it. And then we recorded it again because it didn’t sound very good. And then we recorded it again. And then went back to the very first recording and released it. So that’s what you hear. So it’s tortuous in that way. It’s not like you’re sitting looking for a kick drum sound for two weeks, its more effort than that. More hitting brick walls over and over again. You know that’s just how it goes.
J: Some mornings you come in and you hear what you did the day before and you can’t remember it being played and you don’t know where the sounds came from, and you’re hearing two or three people playing together and a new sound or texture is coming out of the speakers and it didn’t exist two days before and that’s really exciting. And you’ve got this ‘thing’ permanently there and you’re not sure where it came from. That’s really fun.
M: What are your memories of headlining Glastonbury in 1997 – a gig that is now regarded by many people as one of the greatest Glastonbury performances ever.
J: I just remember it being very stressful and the monitors breaking and Thom walking off because he couldn’t hear anything and it just being a disaster. It was pretty bad. It was like, ‘We can’t hear ourselves, and we don’t know what’s coming across,’ and then I remember asking Andy Watson, our lighting guy to illuminate the audience so we could finally see them. I remember that. You can hear what you’re playing and you hope everyone is hearing each other and that something is coming across, but it was a struggle.
M: You released your track Spectre on Christmas Day – explaining it had been intended as the theme for the James Bond theme of the same name. What happened?
J: It wasn’t right for the film what we did. So we thought ‘Great! Then it’s ours. So we can finish it how will it’s meant to be and we can release it.’ So that side of it was really positive you know. But I guess there’s lots of people interested in who does it, there’s a lot riding on it and the song we did was just too dark or whatever, so that’s fine. Which means we get to have it back and it’s ours and we got to put it out. We’re really, really proud of it. Why be like attached to an old fashioned idea of what a James Bond thing was and it being a big deal? It’s like it’s sort of stupid to get worked up about really.
M: ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ features a lot of arrangements by the London Contemporary Orchestra, who you’re a great champion of.
J: Well there’s songs like ‘Burn The Witch’ which, very rarely for us, we managed to get strings on near the beginning. We left it unfinished on purpose and left lots of room for the strings and we never do that usually. Usually the strings are the icing on top. And this time it was there from the start to be more of a feature for what strings can do. At the end of ‘Daydreaming’ I got the cellos to all tune their bottom strings down about a fifth. But then still try to play the music. So it’s you can hear them struggling to stay in tune and you have the low growl sound. That’s the kind of music they play anyway, and just all felt really effortless and exciting. You want to use strings in a way that isn’t just pastiche and that can be hard to avoid. That was fun, trying to square that circle.
M: I was lucky enough to see a couple the recent shows and it looked like you were really enjoying being on stage.
J: Yeah, it was really enjoyable. I think we’re appreciating being in a band with each other in the moment and enjoying the sound that we put across. So it’s a very happy time, yes. What can I say? There’s nothing to complain about really!
In a worldwide radio exclusive for BBC Radio 6 Music, Radiohead’s guitarist, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood has been interviewed by Matt Everitt for The First Time With… Jonny Greenwood. The programme will air this Sunday 19 June, 1-2pm.