Q&A: Radiohead’s Philip Selway On His New Album Weatherhouse
Philip Selway is probably the last member of Radiohead anyone expected to go full singer-songwriter, but with sophomore solo release Weatherhouse, the longtime drummer affirms that he’s more than capable of stepping out from behind the kit. Recorded with Bat For Lashes touring member Quinta and Four Tet’s former Fridge bandmate Adem Ilhan, the album is more confident and ambitious than Selway’s promising 2010 debut Familial. It’s a pop record with an artful touch that further develops his tender emotional spin on the expansively moody sounds Radiohead fans know and love. On his day off from working on Radiohead’s latest album, Selway called from the UK to discuss Weatherhouse, his Tonight Show appearance with the Dap-Kings, and how one of his songs shares a name with one of this year’s biggest hits.
STEREOGUM: Your last album Familial was explicitly about the theme of family. Is there a thematic binding to Weatherhouse as well?
PHILIP SELWAY: Well, it’s interesting, the title Familial actually came from the artwork being developed and being what the artist responded to in the music. They picked up on that kind of familial aspect of the record. And so for Weatherhouse, when I started talking to the artist, Ted Dewan, one of the first things he picked up on was “It Will End In Tears.” He really liked that image of the weatherhouse, and he made that junkyard sculpture, which became the cover. It’s not a title that explains the album, but it felt apt because for me it feels as though there is a lot of different emotional weather and a lot of different musical aspects in there. It just felt as though it tied all of those aspects together. It fit very nicely with the artwork as well.
STEREOGUM: I like that you describe it as different types of weather. There definitely are songs that are more hopeful and songs that are more downcast, and it all seems very personal in the same way the last album did.
SELWAY: Yeah, I mean I’d say the whole trajectory of the album is downwards, actually. You start on a very positive note in “Coming Up For Air,” and by the time you get to “Turning It Inside Out” it’s rather more bleak. For me, I suppose “Coming Up For Air” reflects my state of mind when I went in to start recording this record. We all agreed to take time away from Radiohead. We had had a great year of touring. We knew that was in a good spot. Then I was coming into record thinking of the happiest time ahead of me and actually, just on a personal level, being able to focus on being back at home, and on a musical level being able to develop these ideas that I had had hang around for quite a while and the opportunity to work with Adem Ilhan and Quinta as well on this record. So I felt in a really good spot, but I think that also those are the spots that you can actually start delving into negative sides of your experiences you’ve picked up from elsewhere as well. So yeah, as the year went on and I wrote more of the lyrics, I was probably surprised at what came through the lyrics in some instances. I wanted the lyrics to feel authentic and to be to the point and ring true and to me, it does ring true, it does feel as though it is an awful lot of me, well my voice in there not necessarily my experience in there, but my voice is in there and that has opened up those experiences.
STEREOGUM: The songs seem musically bigger and more ambitious this time. Would you agree?
SELWAY: Yes. I mean, Familial felt very ambitious to me. I was starting from zero, really, on that whole process of songwriting and finding a singing voice. So within those parameters, the arrangements I found felt very fitting for that material. I built confidence from having seen that process through and wanting to build on that. Also, I think one of the key things for me, I actually started drumming parts for this record as well. It gave that side of what it needed musically. Immediately one of the first things that went down was drum tracks, so immediately you have this kind of larger platform to build arrangements around. So I think a lot of the expansiveness of the record comes from that kind of musical dynamic of Adem, Quinta, and myself. We’d started working together when I was touring Familial, and there was something there that I thought had a lot of potential. I mean, between us we covered a lot of instruments, and we had access to a lot of very good instruments as well, you know, at the Radiohead studio. So we just felt kind of at liberty to really try out a lot of different instrumentation. And I suppose for me as well I had more confidence in my singing voice and was actually able to make myself heard over the arrangements this time. It stretched me again. Familial really stretched me, that whole process, and this one again proportionally felt like that same kind of stretch.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned a couple of times kind of the chemistry between you and your band. Where did they come from? How did you end up playing with them?
SELWAY: With Quinta, I met her when she was playing with Bat For Lashes opening for Radiohead on the In Rainbows tour. And I really, really liked what she was doing musically. With Adem, I’ve always been a fan of his solo work. He is a great songwriter, a very inventive arranger, and he has got a great singing voice too. And more recently his work as a producer has impressed me as well. So I approached them when I was putting the live band together for Familial, and there was something there that just jelled. The live band for Familial was large because there was Caroline Weeks and Alex Thomas. Both had been playing for Bat For Lashes on that tour as well, and both had been really good. But I thought for the recording it would work very well with that focus between three people.
STEREOGUM: “It Will End In Tears” really stands out to me. It’s almost like a soul song. How did that song come about? Was it originally a musical idea or a lyrical idea?
SELWAY: It was around in demo form on guitar around Familial. I figured out what to do with it at the time when we started working on Weatherhouse. For me it always felt like a Carole King or Carly Simon song. So actually we could afford to play that one straighter. It’s that big play between the piano and the drum track and how that kind of opens out at the end. Lots of work to put the drum track together for that one, actually. I think I had a couple of lines hanging around for a while, but the lyric came together once the arrangement was recorded. It did pick up a little bit like a soul song. I was in New York a couple of weeks ago and actually got to perform that song with the Dap-Kings [on The Tonight Show]. It really did lend itself to that kind of approach. It was amazing playing with them actually.
STEREOGUM: I was going to ask you about that. How did you get hooked up with them?
SELWAY: Well, I went to see the Dap-Kings Soul Revue when it was in London back in June. I was actually blown away by that evening. From start to finish it didn’t let up — brilliant music because it is this amazing band. I’d been invited onto The Tonight Show, and I’d had in the back of my mind after that, “That song could really work with a Dap-Kings arrangement behind it.” And I approached them, and fortunately for me they said yes. It was a really amazing experience playing with them. We had one rehearsal the evening before The Tonight Show, and I was in musical heaven doing that. Such amazing players.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned one of the first things to go down in the tracking was the drums, but on “Don’t Go Now” I don’t think I hear any drums, which I thought was fascinating. Since obviously you’re a guy who has been known first and foremost as a drummer, it must be odd and maybe a little liberating to do a song without any.
SELWAY: I have to say, there were drums on that but they weren’t very good and didn’t make the cut in the end. But yeah, that song probably in texture and everything is most akin to Familial on the record. That approach really brought out the best in that song
STEREOGUM: “Coming Up For Air” seems like an important song since it is the first track on the album and it’s one of the ones you shared ahead of the release. I get the sense that a lot of these songs are generalized ideas and not about specific instances, but is that one about something specific that you survived?
SELWAY: I guess it’s just looking back on that time of life. I think when you live through your thirties and forties you lose yourself in your career at points and disappear into yourself as well, and sometimes you have a wake-up call, and sometimes you don’t. You can come out of that. It’s almost like that song is an affirmation of the point that I found myself at when I was writing the record — a sense of accord in my life, I suppose, if you want a better expression.
STEREOGUM: On “Let It Go,” there’s the line, “Just as you walk away, there is always a sad song playing/ But I’m over it now.” Is that about a particular incident in your life, or is that also more of a generalized song?
SELWAY: It’s more generalized, I think. I think it’s very much kind of tied up in that time of life, you know. I’m 47 now, and I think you get to that point, there are a lot of experiences that you have accumulated, a lot of bad habits that you might have accumulated as well, and it’s just that kind of moving on from those things, acknowledging them and looking for kind of healthier ways of approaching life. And that lyric “Just as you walk away, there is always a sad song playing” means some of those things that don’t feel appropriate anymore, there is always a sense of regret about that point in your life, and I think it’s a quite potent point in your life. So yeah, it is kind of more generalized around that thing.
STEREOGUM: Were you conscious of the Disney’s Frozen song “Let It Go” when you wrote your “Let It Go”?
SELWAY: [Laughing] No, I wasn’t. Yes, you get to the end of writing songs and you have a feel around, and you hear a lyric that you might have chosen in other places. Everyone has their own take on these kind of things.
Weatherhouse is out now on Bella Union.
[Photo by Deirdre O’Callaghan.]