Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien steps up

Ready for his close-up, with solo project EOB and his first ever solo interview.

Oh, it’s alright – he’s the guitarist from Radiohead and there’s a couple of nice ambient moments.”

That, Ed O’Brien is saying, is the feeling he did not want his debut solo album to provoke.

I was very aware that you can’t make music unless you have something to say and communicate,” he adds. I also knew that Jonny, Thom, Philip were all making music and doing [solo] records. But I’d rather do nothing that put out anything that’s a bit meh.”

Welcome, then, to Earth. It’s not even as marginally meh as cynics might imagine would come from one-fifth of a giant, much-loved rock band who’ve sold over 30 million albums in a 35-year career that began when they were at school together.

Far from it. It’s a rich, vibrant, colourful, occasionally cleanly poppy, occasionally Glasto-cosmic and always wholly uplifting set of songs. Featuring contributions from singer Laura Marling, multi-instrumentalist David Okumu and Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley, it was inspired by two opposing versions of extra-planetary exploration: revered astronomer Carl Sagan’s universe-embracing 1994 book Pale Blue Dot and Primal Scream’s rave-space classic Screamadelica.

And, in case there was any doubt, O’Brien can sing.

Earth by the artist newly known as EOB began life in the Mata Atlântica of Brazil and on the carnival streets of Rio, was wrestled into shape in the Cambrian Mountains in Wales, then was finally nailed down in the well-named Assault & Battery studios in a grimy corner of northwest London. This hard-grafting ideas-factory is home base of veteran producer Flood and multiple sonically-adventurous albums from artists including Foals, PJ Harvey Depeche Mode and U2.

The start-point? Somewhere around In Rainbows O’Clock, that golden mid-period Radiohead moment when they let us pay what we wanted for their gloriously soulful 2007 album. That was when O’Brien told bandmates Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood and Philip Selway that, in 2012, he would be taking his family to live in Brazil for a year.

The end-point? The day after O’Brien sat down for this chat in a coffee shop near his home in Hampstead, north London, his first ever solo interview, when he’d be heading back to Wales to begin live rehearsals with his new band for a tour that stretches across 2020.

And Ed O’Brien’s aim? To do something that was very much him. Hence new name EOB, new management and a new record label. Hence, too, an internal mission statement to make a direct record. I think that was in reaction to loads of things I’d done before. I wanted to make it simple, [where] one thing does the job of five things. Great pop music does that. I was trying to find an element of that.”

Take us back to 2012 – 13. You, your wife and two young children are on a farm in the Brazilian forest, an hour from the coast, near a town called Ubatuba, equidistant between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, living very simply: no mobiles, no Wi-Fi, no Radiohead…

I started writing out there. I went out with a full electronic [concept]. I had my gear, my Ableton, and I’d been working on my laptop. Everyday at 11 o’clock I’d have a break and listen to music, a whole load of stuff that I was into, like Burial and a lot of dubstep. But it didn’t resonate with me in Brazil.

One morning, I put on Screamadelica for the first time in years and I had a fucking eureka moment. Hearing Movin’ On Up, I was like: Fuck! That’s the spirit!” It was rave, and it was connectedness, it was hope, it was powerful. There was a metaphor as well: for me, moving out of the darkness.

What kind of darkness?

I wasn’t plagued – that’s too strong a word – but I had depression for years and years. I dealt with it years ago and have sort of been coming out of that… So the music came from that, that spirit and being in Brazil, [of] open-heartedness, rhythm, colour. I wanted it also to be a reflection of where we are. We’re living in fucking turbulent times. But there are those clichés – when human beings really want to do something and we connect, it’s such a powerful and beautiful thing.

Which is something you get from Glastonbury, which you attend religiously, even when Radiohead aren’t headlining the Pyramid Stage (as they have three times).

Right. I go every year because it’s like plugging back in and connecting with your tribe, connecting with one another. Because we all feel so alone, right? We’re all so desperate. That’s what I wanted the music to be. I wanted it to have darkness but I didn’t want to stay there. When you’re a teenager, you love watching depressing European art films. I don’t want to watch those films anymore. I don’t want to watch Joker. It’s not good for me. I need things that go there but also have some light. That’s what I wanted with the music.

Cue the heavy-in-your-hips, mantric funk of Shangri-La. It’s the first single from the album, as well as the opening track, and named after one of Glastonbury’s most special after-hours places.

I wrote that four days after the 2014 or 2015 Glastonbury. I wanted that feeling, that spirit and feeling that you’re there, the image. I was with one of my friends in Shangri-La at four o’clock in the morning, people were dabbing away at MDMA, and I said to him: What is this?” He said: It’s the meeting of the tribes of the north, south, east, west!” I was like: Fuck!” It is all these people, these journeys, where you leave your shit behind.

So, four days after Glasto, I’m still feeling great about everything, doing a demo, getting into that spirit and power of people coming together. And trying to do it in a way that is emotional and isn’t clichéd.

What was the first song you wrote that you thought was a keeper?

Probably Banksters. It’s an angry song. I was fucking angry around 2009 – austerity, why did that happen? Because of the fucking City. I was also angry with my best mate. I was in business with him and he stitched me up. But I must admit that’s the one song I feel hasn’t fulfilled its potential. I wanted it to be more Brazilian and we made it more electro at the end.

But writing that song unblocked something in you as you thought about making a solo record?

Exactly. A lot of it’s about confidence. I’d written bits of music before, especially around the time of OK Computer – quite a lot of music, but I’d never done words. My analogy was that I was a bit like a dog at the Battersea dog’s home – I had no self-confidence, I was slightly beaten up…

What’s the Radiohead songwriting process like?

When I met Thom at school, he’d probably been writing songs for about five years. He was an incredible songwriter. There was [space to contribute to] the odd b‑side or whatever. The writing process, pretty much off and on until In Rainbows, was Thom coming in to the band with a demo. [Or] he might have worked on it with Jonny, chords and stuff, then brought it to the band.

Then, with The Bends, OK Computer, we rehearsed massively and arranged… We always kind of wrote our own parts, there was a creative outlet for that. But that’s the way Radiohead was set up. I’m not comparing us to The Beatles, but John Lennon put it beautifully when someone asked about George Harrison songs: The empire was carved up between me and Paul.”

That’s the way that certain groups work, and that’s the dynamic. My role in Radiohead was always to service these songs. They started off as Thom’s songs and sometimes they became our songs, but other times they stayed as Thom’s songs. It was incredibly satisfying.

How would you describe you and Thom’s relationship very early on?

I’ve always been like his older brother. Not anymore, but that was my role. I always say that he was like the dad of the band and I’m the mum. My job was to always put my arm around him, and his job was to be Thom.

Vocally in Radiohead you’ve always done brilliant harmonies with Thom. But how challenging was it for you finding the confidence to do a lead vocal?

Initially when I wrote these songs I thought I’d get someone else to sing them. I thought maybe Thom would be up for it. But the week before we started, I was demo-ing the songs and it was literally a case of: I don’t hate what I’m hearing on playback.

And the big thing for me was getting Flood on board. [He’s used to] doing vocals all day with Bono, 13 hours in his underpants! And he was so certain that I could do it. So having that backing, that assuredness, helped me step up.

But I remember what Thom’s voice was like in the early days. It’s not what you see now. Radiohead in the early days, that first album was pretty shit apart from one song!

Which one?

[Smiles and gives silent dur”] Well, Creep, right? That’s the standout track. We weren’t that good but we worked hard and became good. That’s one of the things I’ve held onto: you don’t have to have all the answers straight away. People forget that the guy who wrote No Surprises, which was only a few years after that, maybe three or four years, how he evolved.

As did Radiohead.

[Nods] We weren’t like The Stone Roses. We were crap compared to Blur, all those types. And, after all that touring on Pablo Honey, then the songs that Thom was writing were so much better. Over a period of a year-and-a-half, suddenly, bang.

Bang, indeed – into 1995’s The Bends, and then 1997’s OK Computer. Radiohead went from Pablo Honey that pretty shit” 1993 debut, to back-to-back classic albums, and to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world. But as is now well-established rock lore – and as was painfully captured in can-we-go-home-yet? tour doc Meeting People Is Easy – that success sent Thom over the edge. How did it impact on you?

It’s when I went into a deep depression. I knew that we had to get through the touring of OK Computer in order to take a break, so I was really down. I was depressed at the time but my focus wasn’t on me. Thom was like that [also], so it was about getting Thom through it, being there for him.

When that finished I went home to Oxford. I was single, on my own, World Cup 98 summer… I was the lowest I’ve ever been. It was the irony as well – you’re at the top, that old cliché. Did loads of drugs [and] went full on into all the wrong things. And then that went through to Kid A.

It was hard, because I felt like my job was to keep everything going. I felt like being the mum of the band, making sure Thom was alright, but I was fucked. Thankfully I didn’t realise how depressed I was until we finished.

Were you on antidepressants?

No. I tried to have some therapy, but therapy was great for two days, then I’d feel shit for the next five. I could see how you could get into the dependency thing.

The thing I did get into around Kid A was this stuff called St John’s Wort [a herbal anti-depressant], which is fucking strong. Things were scary enough as it was. I was feeling so shit and in order to get through the day I would take St John’s Wort and smoke loads of cigarettes.

And you met Johnny Mar…

Yeah. Him, The Edge, Will Sergeant from The Bunnymen were my guitar heroes. And Johnny was on a spiritual, healing thing at the time, he gave me this Aldous Huxley book called The Perennial Philosophy. It’s existential stuff. That really helped. It helps me stay rooted to being a human being on this planet. [Before that] I think I was slightly, rudderless, meaningless.

The moment I met Johnny, I felt like I was in a safe space. Like, I can say anything I want and he will listen. He’s wise. And it was interesting – he said it was the first time he could talk about The Smiths, to me, because he knew what a fan I was. He helped me find a place where I could start again, give up on booze and drugs and all that stuff.

Kid A and Amnesiac were the paired albums where Radiohead ripped it up and started again. In reductive terms, that meant much less guitar. As one of the guitarists in the band, did you come close to thinking, I need to walk away from this”?

Not really, no. The band was everything. I didn’t have a family, didn’t have kids. This was the be-all and end-all and had been since 1985, when we were at school together. It was the most important thing. But it was a whole period of supreme un-confidence. Feeling shit about myself, feeling unworthy, guilt… All that stuff.

What’s the closest the band has ever come to ending?

I don’t know whether there has been a closest time. I think [doing] the tracklisting of Kid A was really fraught. That felt like it could go either way, it could break. Like it would snap and that would be it. But we came in the next day and it was resolved.

That was the worst ever argument you’ve had?

What you have to understand about Radiohead is that we’re a family and we’re like a lot of families: so much goes on below the surface. It doesn’t come to the fore. It’s not like that, it’s too middle class!

But you got through it, and then came In Rainbows and your revolutionary approach to selling the album. Radiohead were arguably the only band in the world who could have done that. It was like you used your power and clout to turn inwards, and to empower the fans, rather than play bigger venues or 10 nights at Wembley.

That’s another great thing about Radiohead: it’s always about trying to do those things rather than about how much money you can make out of it. It was a thing of trust with the fans, saying: what do you think? And this karma thing, you get so much back. So our audience on the In Rainbows touring was a real age-spread, people brought their kids, there were teenagers, lots of students. You could feel the love. That tour was probably my favourite tour we’ve ever done.

You were reluctant participants in that arms race to be the biggest band in the world. But you happily let Coldplay and Chris Martin win. They wanted it.

They did, and I totally respect Chris for that because he’s honest. I was at the cricket with [Coldplay’s fifth member and co-manager] Phil Harvey about five years ago. He was telling me they were going to do an inward album, that they weren’t going to tour it, and how it’s like this five-year plan. He asked what we were doing. I said I didn’t know what we’re doing in six months.

And, actually, the job that Coldplay do, whether you like their music or not, if they’re going to be the biggest band in the world, they do it really well. I loved U2. They were a very important band for me growing up, and they set the template for that arena thing, the way for people to follow. A lot of bands followed. But Thom was never gonna be that kind of frontman.

You created a space to play for yourselves.

Yeah. Radiohead were much more keen to please John Peel than the world. The irony is that we never did a Peel session. He never played anything until Kid A, and when he played something off Kid A, we were like: Ohhh! Finally! We made it!” It was only 30 million records [later] or whatever!

Back to this record, and back to Screamedelica: the second-last track, Olympik, is a proper rave banger.

That’s what I wanted it to be. When I came up with those chords I called it Olympik with a K after 808 State’s Cubik. It’s an homage to that. That’s the last song that was written for the album. It’s like, the rave: that’s what I’m after. That feeling. That’s what I want for the live gigs. I don’t know how it’s gonna go, but that’s what I’m aiming for.

It has that transporting oomph (for want of a better word) that Radiohead have at a couple of crucial points in your live sets. I’m saying: Everything In Its Right Place and Idioteque

Totally. For me it’s a bit like the bastard brother or sister of, say, Weird Fishes on In Rainbows. My favourite Radiohead moments are those euphoric ones. I love when you can feel it, the wave. That’s what I was trying to do.

The interesting thing for me is that my frustration with rave is that there’s not enough light and shade. Sometimes you’re just fucking bored. And if you’ve ever gone to a rave and you haven’t done any drugs, it’s… [shrugs] you know? That’s why I wanted the darkness [on the album], the slower moments. So that it’s not just bang, bang, bang. It’s a journey.

So, the title: Earth. Explain.

I wanted to call it Pale Blue Dot but then, yeah, copyright issues [smiles]. And there’s a film coming out with Reese Witherspoon called Pale Blue Dot [actually, Witherspoon exited and was replaced by Natalie Portman, it was retitled Lucy In The Sky, and it was released to less than stellar reviews last year – Space Movies Editor]. So I kept coming back to planet earth… Then, Blue Earth sounded like David Attenborough! So I just thought: Earth.

The other thing is that in the last five years, a lot of people I know have died. And literally, we are dust, the soul – but also, our physical bodies go back to earth.

Again, I wanted something direct. I didn’t want to hide behind something that was slightly obtuse or mysterious. I’m not interested in irony at the moment. What do you really fucking feel? What’s your truth? Bang, boom! So, fucking Earth.

Do you want this record and sentiments like that to speak to kids in their twenties – kids who weren’t born even when even OK Computer came out, far less Pablo Honey?

I would love to. And they may not be into it. But [compared to] a lot of people my own age, I find I have more in common with the millennials, the way the conversation is. I would really like to connect, if I can, or get them to hear it. I’d like it to be part of those people and, when I go to meet people from XR, [for it to be part] of that. That it’s music that can be a soundtrack to this stuff.

Is making a solo album going to make you a better member of Radiohead?

Definitely, whatever that will be in the future. What’s brilliant about Radiohead is that there’s no plan. It’ll be what it’ll be. The truth is that we’ve been in a band for 35 years and we’ll make music when we all want to make music, not because we should or we have to or we’ve got a contract to fulfil. That’s the only way you can do it. If we went down another route, you’d be able to tell. People would be like: that’s a bit weird.

What do the rest of the band think of Earth?

Colin’s heard [teaser track] Brasil, he likes it. He likes the filthy bass. Phil wanted to hear it so I sent it to him. When we’ve done [solo] stuff, we don’t all send it out. Thom doesn’t send out his stuff to me. You ask to hear it, it’s that kind of thing. I haven’t been asked, so that’s fine.

Would their approbation matter to you?

Yeah. There was a stumbling block for me when I was making it, this default thing of: what would the guys think? But I actually had to let go of that because I think there are things they’re really not gonna like about this record.

Like what?

I think some of the emotion of it, the directness perhaps. The simplicity. But I’m not worried about that. I was, but you’ve got to get on and do it.

The other thing is, of course, you can’t please everybody all the time. I didn’t want to bring out a record that was a shit record by someone in Radiohead. But part of that was also: I have huge respect and love for what Thom’s doing, what Jonny’s doing, what Philip’s doing. I think it’s all really great, a lot of great musical stuff happening. My contribution to the individual parts isn’t going to let the side down, I hope.

You have a lot of touring mapped out across the year. How odd will it be to tour without Radiohead, and in much smaller venues?

Pretty weird! I’m starting with the tour manager who does monitors, two backline [crew], and that’s how it’s gonna be. It’s very different and I’m excited about that. I’ve seen how much Jonny and Thom and Philip have got out of it, playing with other people and taking their thing on the road.

Will you be more involved in songwriting on the next Radiohead album?

That would be good. I always think it’d be interesting to do the unexpected thing. How about four songs that I sing? [Smiles] Who knows?

Let’s say Face readers who don’t know the music have to stream one song by EOB and one song by Radiohead to get a sense of both artists. What are they?

Olympik and Weird Fishes/​Arpeggi. Olympik is probably my favourite track on my record. And Weird Fishes is my favourite Radiohead track, and without fail whenever we play it live, I get this feeling… That and Let Down from OK Computer, they’re the two where there’s an emotion that just sits there. I really connect with that. They seem to comfort the audience as well.

Is 2021 a Radiohead year?

Maybe a couple of shows. We have meetings every two or three months and there’s an idea of somehow trying to do some shows…. The records take so fucking long, it’s like a year-and-a-half and you can’t do anything else. And we’re not playing together at the moment, so…

But again, there has to be an appetite. We’ve been a band since 1985. We’ve only done two albums in the last ten years, so it’s not the most prolific time. That’s because people in the band have wanted to go off and do other stuff. It feels like we’re entering a new period because everyone’s doing stuff – Colin’s doing stuff too – and that’s where people wanna be.We might not make an album for 10 years, or we might make one in three years. I don’t know, it has to be right. Maybe it’s like a jazz band! But it always has to involve Thom.

Finally: are you happy with Earth?

Yeah. It’s funny, I had that feeling I have, not with every Radiohead album, but with the ones that I really loved, [where] you sit on it and you feel happy with it, and then you start hearing the flaws in it. That’s inevitable. So, it’s a start, and you have to see the flaws because that propels you on to do further stuff. And to make that next thing better, richer.

Shangri-La is out now, Earth on 17th April. EOB plays the BBC Radio 6 Music Festival in London on 7th March. It’s massively sold out, soz. But you can listen on BBC Radio 6 Music and BBC Sounds, and watch on BBC iPlayer and BBC Four.

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