In 2001, around the time that his first child was born, Thom Yorke took the habit of spending the early evenings driving alone around the fields and by-ways surrounding his home just as dusk was drawing in. "I've got one of these cars with the natty blue headlights and the colours of the headlights got mixed in with the wild-life running into the bushes. The twilight invoked a dream-state within me. It's incredibly beautiful where we live but I used to listen to this Penderecki tune that's really ominous and scary and I'd just get this perverse sense of foreboding."
These solitary drives helped inspire the ideas that bolster up much of what would eventually become Radiohead's 6th album. "I wrote a lot of stuff quickly: pages and pages of notes that seemed pretty incoherent at first. Most of it was taken from the radio because -suddenly being a parent- I'd be confronted by the radio giving a news report every hour of the day. It was during the Afghan war and it would ring bells in my head. I'd sit there making mad lists on pieces of paper of the people in the public eye that I had it in for." (laughs)
"We were taking six months off and Ed asked me, 'Can you put down some ideas for the new songs you've got kicking around?' I wasn't trying to write anything -I was just putting demos together for the others to listen to. When we got together I said, 'If nobody likes this new stuff, it's fine by me -we'll start again'. But I got good responses from everybody else."
In early 2002 the quintet reconvened at their Oxfordshire rehearsal/recording studio for six whole months of ironing the new material into workable shape. "We're an old-fashioned band in the sense that we work very intensely on our arrangements", claims Jonny Greenwood. "The rehearsals were all recorded endlessly and we'd eventually got a compilation of the best songs, so that once we reach the studio we could present Nigel (Godrich) with finished material and work quickly."
The group also began performing the new material live at European shows during the same period. For Colin Greenwood, "One of the starting points for the new album was "I Might Be Wrong", the live compilation of songs from "Kid A" and "Amnesiac" we recorded a couple of years ago... It gave us an idea of what could happen if we went in and recorded songs for "Hail To The Thief" after having played them in concert."
In September 2002 the group flew out for recording sessions in Los Angeles at the virtual insistence of producer Nigel Godrich. "I remember us recording "Kid A" in a country house in the middle of nowhere and Nigel would keep telling us "we should be doing this in L.A.. We could be eating sushi right now", recalls Jonny. "and we'd be standing in some market square in Oxfordshire at midnight and there weren't even any street lights! So we said, "Nigel, you can have it your way this time. But only for two weeks."
"Nigel dragged us out to L.A.", adds Ed O' Brien, "because he'd done three records there -two with Beck, one with Travis. We'd always been hesitant about working in Los Angeles because -let's face it- Radiohead mixing in with the Hotel California mind-set doesn't sound like a potential marriage made in heaven. But we quickly realized you can function out there without becoming tarnished by whatever else going on there. It was the best recording experience we ever had. We finished one song each day we were booked. We didn't over-scrutinize. We didn't get too cerebral. We trusted in ourselves, Nigel, the studio and the songs and just let go, really."
Phil Selway concurs: "During the time-off from touring "Kid A" and "Amnesiac", Thom started distributing these CD's with new songs -just a vocal, a guitar or piano. We'd listen to them, let the songs seep in and -over time- ideas would develop about how to best develop them. This was the opposite of "Kid A" which involved no preparation beforehand and enormous pressure in the studio. Occasionally that can be stimulating but too often it becomes incredibly daunting. Two months of pre-production meant we could work much faster in Los Angeles where we ended up recording a song a day. On "Kid A" we were recording one track every one and a half months!"
Ed O' Brien again: "This time we captured our actual energy -an energy that's been missing since "The Bends". Climate affects the way you make music and a lot of "The Bends" was re-recorded in the sunshine during the summer of 94. This time, we had good weather and each day we'd leave the studio at about 5.30 and drive up to Griffith Park Observatory for a walk and look around. Looking out over L.A. reminded me of "Bladerunner": no green spaces, all grids, motorcars and sandy-coloured buildings."
These sunny promenades did little to lighten the menacing and depraved images percolating from Thom Yorke's imagination into the lyrics he was coming out with on the sessions. The Brechtian "We Suck Young Blood" was inspired by his trips through Hollywood. "It's got a sex thing about it -sex being a form of currency in Hollywood. There's a malignant quality to it -a dark force devouring everything in its path. It's an expression of that desperate urge to be somebody at any cost, even if it means being preyed on and sucked dry by every scheming parasite in the world. You find examples of this in the music industry and the porn industry but it could just as easily relate to the way the extreme right seduce young people to enlist in their ranks. Fascism starts with the embittered 50 year old sado-masochist who finds dysfunctional teenagers who he then works on for a couple of years until they become transformed into homicidal little skinhead motherfuckers."
The album's final song "A Wolf At The Door" features a lovely set of chord changes courtesy of Jonny who quickly noted his music was "too busy and too pretty so Thom basically started shouting on top of it. "The ultra-paranoid, they're coming to take me away sentiments he expresses are "a basic documentation of the nearest I ever came to having a complete nervous breakdown. It's about fear -real or imagined- that still makes total sense."
And then there's "The Gloaming" -a rhythm track solely developed by Jonny and Colin that became one of the album's key dispatches as far as its creator is concerned.
"The Gloaming" was going to be the album title" (according to Colin, the rest of Radiohead vetoed the idea for "sounding too proggy")."It's the subtitle now. It refers to a general all-enveloping darkness that's slowly taking over mankind: like some plague from the middle ages that seems to be on the horizon again. In the middle ages, everyone was obsessed by people who were "possessed". The same thing is happening now. The same sense of a malignant force ripping apart civilisation. Then towards the end of the record I read a 'Murakami' book called "Wind-Up Bird Chronicles" and it all fell into place in my head. That's what I was trying to say about the darkness that envelops people. They don't know it's happening to them and they think they're doing the right thing but the rise of fascism and ignorance are what they're really calling into play. And that to me is the real "thief". The thief is someone who takes possession of one's soul in order to inhabit their body. And with the few politicians I've encountered personally, I've always got the sense that there's fuck-all going on behind their exteriors. If I met Blair, I wouldn't say anything. I'd just sit and watch him. I'd sit and watch his mouth move and see the air flying around."
"Hail To The Thief" is not without its moments of benign ecstasy "Sail To The Moon" is an exquisite sonic dreamscape to rival the likes of "Street Spirit" and "Pyramid Song", and a tender-hearted salute to Yorke's infant son. But then there's that belligerent techno bass line punching its way through "Myxamatosis" causing Thom to wail peevishly on about his Drop The Dept experience of "watching the politician as 'whirlwind of nothingness', just telling you what you want to hear in order to get your signature and then forgetting you ever existed. That was a mind-blowing experience. All power corrupts. The closer you get, the uglier it becomes. They're not even human beings. These people are possessed."
Track 2 "Stand Up- Sit Down" also sets its control for the heart of darkness by inviting its listeners to "step into the jaws of hell" at the song's outset. "It's actually a line from the book of Common Prayer", Yorke retorts. "I just felt compelled to put it in a song". Still, "Thief's" apocalyptic imagery shouldn't camouflage the sense of exhilaration the music summons forth over and over again. Ed O' Brien likes to talk about "how Radiohead have finally found their swagger" with the live-in-the-studio recordings that predominate "Thief" and Yorke is the first to agree. "The music sounds really positive to me. We came off the "Kid A"/ "Amnesiac" experience and we'd all become really confident with the things we'd learned and just wanted to carry on and enjoy it. And celebrate the way we were playing as a unit. The music sounds extremely confident to me. There's a darkness to it but it's also really shiny and bright."
Colin Greenwood remembers: "The running joke when we were making this record was that if we recorded a track that stretched over 3mn 50 sec., we'd say "Oh fuck, we've buggered it then. It's gone on too long." Of course, the irony is that the first single we're releasing is actually the longest song on the record. ("There There"). It was all recorded live in Oxford. We all got excited at the end because Nigel was trying to get Jonny to play like John McGeoch in Siouxsie And The Banshees. All the old farts in the band were in seventh heaven."
The first sound you hear on the album is the first sound that was recorded at the first session at Oceanway studios: Jonny plugging his guitar into an amplifier followed by a percussion track from a nearby lap-top, all recorded live. "The sound of us plugging in and beginning again". The end result is Radiohead's most powerful album to date, a musical mind-bomb that issues us all a very direct wake-up call from our slumbers in the comfort zone and asks us to consider what life in the New Millennium really has in store for us. And whilst it's true that "Hail To The Thief" is also the title of a book about George Bush's dubious election victory in Florida, the world is full of other equally tricky customers and Radiohead are shining their collective torch-light on all of them on this new album.
Colin Greenwood is more than happy with the results: "One of the best things about the record for me are the words -the bleak humour and the clarity. I'm not worried about Americans possibly not buying our records as a consequence of us being outspoken about certain issues. People need to focus on bigger issues instead of whether George Bush is an idiot or not".
His younger brother concurs "We'd never name a record after one political event like Bush's election. The record's bigger than that. Hopefully it will last longer than Bush unless he's getting a whole dynasty together, which is always possible. One of the things Thom's singing about is whether or not you choose to deal with what's happening. There are a lot of lines about escaping and avoiding issues, about keeping your head down and waiting. Everybody feels like that from time to time as much as they feel frustration about things they can't change. It's a confusing time right now but that doesn't mean that we're issuing any kind of manifesto. It's more like we're summing up what it's like to be around in 2003."
Thom Yorke of course has his own particular take on the new album's controversial contents: "We don't have to stand on a soap-box and preach because hopefully we're channelling it through the new record. We didn't start out to make a protest record at all. That would have been too shallow. As usual, it was simply a case of absorbing what's going on around us. The title of the record goes so much deeper than just being some anti-Bush propaganda. If we got into a situation where people start burning our records, then bring it on. That's the whole point. The gloaming has begun. We're in the darkness. This has happened before. Go read some history.
If we were threatened in any way for simply making a piece of art - that would be bad. Then it would be time to move to somewhere obscure. Like the moon."