This week marks the 20th anniversary of Radiohead’s first classic album, The Bends, and in honor of the occasion we’ve declared it Radiohead Week at Stereogum. Our array of features will include an Anniversary writeup of the album later this week, but first, we asked drummer Philip Selway (second from left) to share some of his memories from the era.
Viewed one way, The Bends represents an awkward in-between state for Radiohead, a stepping stone between One-Hit Wonder and Very Important Rock Band. The album is definitely transitional in nature, splitting the difference between the straightforward rock and minor quirks of 1993 debut Pablo Honey and the paranoid grandeur of 1997’s OK Computer. Yet for a passionate subset of fans, The Bends represents Radiohead’s pinnacle, the moment when they nailed their sound before ambition and neuroses carried them off to flights of fancy. I’m not a hardcore Bends loyalist — the best was yet to come! — but my nostalgic fondness for the record runs deep, so it was a pleasure to walk down memory lane with Selway.
STEREOGUM: Can you describe the headspace of the band after you had been on tour for Pablo Honey and had the big success with “Creep”? What was the attitude of the band when you started to work on The Bends?
PHILIP SELWAY: I think when we started work on The Bends it was kind of like pausing for a breath. So much had happened over the course of Pablo Honey, from the recording to the tour and all that, and then “Creep” doing what it did. It felt as though things moved very quickly for us. The band went from touring around the UK in a small spitter van to these large tours in the States in a matter of a couple of months. So it felt like we had to play catch-up. It felt quite intimidating in a lot of ways. It was undoubtedly exciting, though, as well. But when we started to record The Bends, that felt like clear time again. We were riffing and writing around Oxford, so we were back at home and actually felt like a very recognizable process. It’s something we’ve done for years, getting together and shutting ourselves away in a rehearsal room and writing and arranging material. That felt as though, from my point of view anyway, that we were reconnecting with ourselves after having been in very, very unfamiliar territory.
STEREOGUM: Did the success of “Creep” influence the making of The Bends? Were you consciously trying to distance yourself from it?
SELWAY: “Creep” did us a lot of favors. I think it gave us a lot of space in terms of how the record company approached us. But I think for us, creatively, I think each track has always been a reaction to the last one. That’s how we work. So it was maybe not specifically a reaction to “Creep,” but it was probably getting to a point, actually, we’d been playing that material from Pablo Honey — we’d been kind of going down that route for a good few years, and there were these other ideas coming through. And our musicality had developed toward the end of that time. So I think we were itching to try something new by that point. So that was kind of led by us developing as musicians, I think.
STEREOGUM: Britpop was a big deal in Britain at the time. Were there record company people trying to nudge you in that direction?
SELWAY: We didn’t fit comfortably in that whole thing, and also we were out of the UK a lot around that time, so we just weren’t present in that scene. To go back to the year when we recorded The Bends, which was 1994, and it’s the first year we played the Glastonbury Festival. We were on the second stage at Glastonbury Festival, and I look back at the bill on that stage and it was us, Oasis, Blur, and Pulp. So we were there among the mainstays of that whole scene at the time, and in that context it kind of showed the breadth of what was going on in the UK at the time. But actually aside from a fashion stance, I don’t think we were really aligned in that whole scene at all. It’s kind of the way it’s always worked as well. We’ve always been out in Oxford anyway. So we’ve always been out in the provinces as a band, kind of forging our own path, really.
STEREOGUM: How did you guys decide on John Leckie to produce?
SELWAY: It was one of the suggestions that came our way. Around that time we were aware of the variety in what he does. I mean it’s a very eclectic production record behind him. He had just worked on so many great records that we’d loved, and then of course he’d done the Stone Roses record as well. But it was more about meeting John at the time, seeing how open-minded he was, how relaxed he was actually about it. We were still wet behind the ears at the time, and perhaps actually having that kind of reassurance in working with somebody who was that musical and had that breadth of experience and actually wasn’t going to be phased by anything, that gave us a very secure basis to work from. It took a little while to get there. The initial sessions probably were a little fraught from our point of view, but we got there, and John guided us through that process. So he was fantastic to work with.
STEREOGUM: Why do you think the sessions started off a little fraught?
SELWAY: It was probably a number of things. We had high expectations of what we could do at that point. I think we were still relatively inexperienced in the studio, so our studio chops probably weren’t quite up to it at the time. And I think we wanted to be ambitious with the record. So you get all those things, and probably the initial sessions we were just feeling frustrated with ourselves, and it showed in what we did at the time. But it was part of the process. We needed to go through that to get to the good takes on the songs.
STEREOGUM: Recording The Bends was also when you met [longtime producer] Nigel Godrich, right?
SELWAY: Absolutely. We started recording at RAK Studios in London. That’s where the first sessions were, fantastic studio, and Nigel was one of the in-house engineers there. He had come up through the kind of trainee system there, so he was a very, very knowledgeable engineer by that point, and experienced. And so yes, he was working on that session. There was one weekend when John was away and he suggested that we work on some songs with Nigel, some B-sides and that worked out. It was kind of an aside to what was going on in the rest of the sessions at the time. “Black Star” was one of them, one of the B-sides, and that was the seed of that relationship there. Again, all made possible by John Leckie really.
STEREOGUM: Are there any moments you remember as particularly exciting, like, “Oh, this is really clicking!” Or is there any other memory from the recording sessions that stands out in your mind?
SELWAY: [When] we went to a studio called the Manor, which is not far away from where we lived in Oxford. We’d upped stakes from RAK Studios and just went off tour and just played material live in New Zealand and Australia and a couple of festivals on the continent in Europe. And so it kind of felt like replaying the material as a band over those shows, and going back into the Manor studios, I think things really fell into place quite quickly. Songs like “Bones” and “Bulletproof,” they kind of found their vitality there. So that’s where it felt as though we were really gelling as a band again in those sessions. But there are other moments. Looking back on the RAK sessions, Thom doing his performance which is kind of at the core of “Fake Plastic Trees.” He’d been off to see Jeff Buckley play that evening and came back and did that performance for “Fake Plastic Trees.” He’d been very inspired by that performance. Thinking back to hearing that, that’s a magical moment. So at the time, it felt like a very, very long process. But looking back on it, it was actually probably about four months of recording, which is not really that much actually.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, certainly compared to some of the later stuff you’ve done.
SELWAY: [laughs] Yeah, you can say that again.
STEREOGUM: Did you ever get the sense when you were making the album that you were making something that people were going to receive as a classic?
SELWAY: No. Dared not proceed on that front. I think we were just very wrapped up in making the best possible record that we could at the time, and we didn’t really look any further than that. That’s from my perspective anyway. It felt a big enough task just to get our heads around the music and doing decent performances and arrangements with that. Certainly we felt what we were doing, when it was working, was good, but it’s not until you actually have the final, mastered, track-listed record in your hands that you start to even get a sense of what it is as a record. Then you go straight from that into the whole process of planning the release and everything that that entails. So no, I don’t think we had any idea that it would be received as it was.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of planning the release, this was also the first album with artwork by Stanley Donwood right?
SELWAY: Yep, that’s right.
STEREOGUM: Was that Thom’s decision? Or how did Donwood get brought into the fold?
SELWAY: Thom and Stanley had studied art together at college and they worked well together. So yes, that was Thom’s suggestion on that one. And obviously that dynamic between Radiohead and Stanley is obviously a good one. So I think that’s where the whole aesthetic of Radiohead really all kicks off at that point.
STEREOGUM: What was touring for that album like? Were the shows as big as the ones for Pablo Honey?
SELWAY: I think we were covering some of the same ground as we were on Pablo Honey. The shows were starting to get larger, and where we’d been playing with Belly on Pablo Honey, we were headlining those shows in our own right. But I think one of the big things for us on The Bends touring-wise was supporting R.E.M. That introduced us to a much wider audience. And they were brilliant. They took us under their wing, and we learned an awful lot from them, really. So touring-wise I’d say that was one of the key points in the band.
STEREOGUM: How was the album received at first?
SELWAY: It took time to build. One of the things which helped it along was the videos. The videos for “Just” and “Fake Plastic Trees” and “Street Spirit,” those really established the record, and together with the touring I think gradually it seeped into people’s consciousness. I think after Pablo Honey, rightly and wrongly, we were probably perceived as a one-hit band, and there was some ground to cover there. I can’t actually remember the initial reviews, but it really did build a head of steam over the course of 1995. It wasn’t like all guns blazing from the outset.
STEREOGUM: There’s a certain faction of Radiohead fans who consider The Bends your high point and wish you would play more songs from that in concert and whatnot. How do you feel about that?
SELWAY: I certainly don’t feel disconnected from [those songs]. Even going into 2012 some of them really worked well in the context of the set. I mean you’ve got “Planet Telex” and “Street Spirit” and “Fake Plastic Trees.” They still feel part of the Radiohead repertoire. But we’ve written a lot of music in the interim, and it becomes part of that. I don’t think we see it as The Bends, I think we see it as a broader playlist that we draw from.
Check out more from Radiohead Week on Stereogum here.