I have almost nothing to say on the subject of Radiohead. I barely know anything about their music, because I’ve never liked it. It’s not a value judgment on their personhood or anything — it’s just not for me.
The only person in my immediate life who likes Radiohead is my dad, who also happens to be pretty much my best friend in the world. He’s super smart– he’s a journalist and a tech wizard, and he’s also a huge music nerd. He also, historically, doesn’t take shit from me, so I figured I would ask him to explain why Radiohead is good, rather than sit here and write about why I don’t like them.
MEREDITH: You know my thing with Radiohead. I’ve just never liked them, and I’ve given them a couple of chances. Usually what will happen is that someone will tell me to listen to a band, and I’ll listen to it and I won’t like it, then a few years later I’ll come to it on my own terms — it’s almost like I can only like something when it’s my idea. Radiohead, I’ve tried over and over. I’ve heard almost every one of their records, and I find absolutely nothing to latch on to. Nothing grabs me whatsoever. But you do like them …
DAD: Yeah, I mean, sort of. Yeah.
MEREDITH: Why sort of?
DAD: I don’t like them like them. I don’t like them like I like Duke Ellington, or Cecil Taylor, or Sun Ra. I like them in a very specific set of ways, and it scratches a very specific itch for me. But you know, they’re not Hank Williams. They’re not Bob Dylan.
MEREDITH: Well, why listen to them at all, then?
DAD: How it started was, back in the early 2000s, I was listening to a lot of Brad Mehldau piano trios, and he covered a bunch of Radiohead songs. I mean, I knew there was a band called Radiohead out there, but I didn’t pay any attention because I don’t listen to much rock music. So my first exposure to what their songs sound like was hearing the melodies when Mehldau played them. And I kind of liked them, I thought they fit well; it always surprises me when I hear anything in modern music that fits alongside the Great American Songbook stuff. But I didn’t do anything about it; I just kept listening to Brad Mehldau and didn’t think too much about it. In 2007, when In Rainbows came out and it got a lot of attention because of the gimmick that was associated with it —
MEREDITH: The pay-what-you-want model.
DAD: At that point I couldn’t resist. So I started listening to that album and I kind of liked it, and I did a little bit of reading at that point and realized that these guys had some connection to, and were sort of working backwards on some of the same turf that some of the maverick classical composers of the 20th century had been on. Because they used that instrument, the ondes Martenot, which I associated with [Edgard] Varese’s music. Johnny Greenwood eventually recorded something connected to Penderecki’s thing for Hiroshima victims, all the connections to modern classical music.
You know, when I was like, 14 years old, there was this big push in rock music to associate it with classical music, and it was all dreadful and awful — bands like the Moody Blues and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, it was just dreadful — that kind of music is terrible, it betrayed everything about rock music, and it certainly wasn’t classical music; it was pretentious junk. But you kind of couldn’t help but wonder over the years whether anyone could ever do anything with that that wasn’t pretentious junk.
So, since I was already listening to In Rainbows a little bit, I kind of went backwards and listened to Kid A and to Amnesiac, which were the two albums that did a lot of that stuff, and I liked them well enough. Now, I have zero interest in the first few albums — I know a few of the songs — but those [later] albums hooked me enough to keep listening.
But here’s how I listen to them — you said early on that you didn’t hear anything you could grab on to, and I kind of think that’s a feature, not a bug, with them. I never, ever listen to that music loud. I always keep it turned way down, so I can barely hear it. It’s just sort of the very edge of my hearing. I use it as background music. What it reminds me of is easy listening music for people my age.
MEREDITH: You’re the person who introduced me to the term MOR [middle of the road], and I’ve always thought Radiohead was the textbook definition of what you taught me to understand as MOR.
DAD: Yeah, but I like that. I don’t like it all the time, obviously, but I do like it sometimes, and I mean, I like it in a very specific way. You know the John Zorn game pieces and the file card pieces from the 1980s with the quick cuts in them where they’ll do 30 seconds of noir jazz and 30 seconds of surf rock, and 15 seconds of screaming noise and ten seconds of modern classical music? I always liked that stuff — love that stuff — because it reminds me of someone tuning a dial on a radio.
MEREDITH: They Might Be Giants doing “Fingertips.”
DAD: Right. And I love that sound; I love the sound of a radio being tuned. That’s one of my favorite noises in the whole world. The thing about Radiohead, if you play one of their albums really quietly, it reminds me of a gentler version of that a little bit. There’s just enough change from song to song that it sounds to me like someone’s gently tuning and detuning a radio station. I’ve got to be in the mood for it, but I like that sound.
So I kept coming back. I bought King Of Limbs. My favorite Radiohead album is the remix album that some disc jockeys did of King Of Limbs material — a couple of discs’ worth of stuff that Four Tet and I forget who else did. They made it sparer and sparser and more fragmentary, and I like that. It sounds even more like the really quiet stuff that I want to hear. That’s why I like them — there’s nothing memorable about the songs. One of the things that always catches me when I go back and listen to a Mehldau album is that there’s actually melodies there that are really nice. I forget they’re melodic — I hear little melodies that bob to the surface and go away again, and then bob to the surface, then go away again, and that’s how I listen to them. I more hear them than I listen to them.
MEREDITH: It’s interesting, Radiohead’s first commercial cinematic moment was “Exit Music,” for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, one of the best movies of the ’90s, and that would have come out … I had no idea that you didn’t get into Radiohead until the early 2000s because that’s a band that started to play together the year you met mom. When Romeo + Juliet came out, I was 8 or 9 years old, right around OK Computer, and Jonny Greenwood started doing film scores.
DAD: And I remember when OK Computer came out, vaguely, because it was a big deal.
MEREDITH: I would have been about 10.
DAD: Yeah. That sort of stuff doesn’t move me. I don’t keep up, I haven’t kept up for a long time. I didn’t pay attention back then and I don’t pay attention now. Present company excepted, of course. And I still don’t care — I’ve got the deluxe version of OK Computer somewhere in the house and I think I’ve listened to it twice. “Exit Music,” though, was the first time I knew anything about Radiohead because I heard it on a Brad Mehldau album and I thought, That’s kind of pretty. I don’t think it’s insulting to talk about these guys as great background musicians or great easy-listening musicians. I think it’s kind of interesting that that’s what they do.
MEREDITH: But their influences aren’t those bands. The crazy thing to me about Radiohead — probably the thing that makes me maddest — Nigel Godrich, their producer, also produced U2. The people who champion Radiohead are bands like that. Who Radiohead cites as influences, especially around OK Computer, were guys like Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. And they’re making these MOR-ass records. It doesn’t line up. Something is off. You remember that documentary, Off The Charts: The Song Poem Story? There’s this moment when the composers of the song-poems are talking about how they do what they do, and they say, “We’re not making music, we’re making songs in the style of music.” Are you familiar with the “uncanny valley”?
DAD: Oh yeah.
MEREDITH: Radiohead is the uncanny valley of interesting music. It’s music in the style of interesting music. Their references and what they actually do don’t line up.
DAD: I’m OK with that. I think the disparity between those two things is kind of interesting. Talking about Miles and Mingus and stuff: One of the other things I do like about [Radiohead] that I noticed as I was playing through a couple of their albums last night is that there’s a real propulsive quality to this band. It doesn’t swing in any of the conventional senses of the word, but it’s got this kind of forward pulse to it that I like, that’s fun to listen to. When I say they make easy-listening music, they make hard-to-listen-to easy-listening music. There’s parts of Amnesiac and parts of Kid A where there’s a lot of noise in the record. But it passes. There’s a real feeling about a lot of their stuff and it’s hard to put a finger on it.
One of my favorite tracks on a Radiohead album is the last track on Amnesiac, “Life In A Glasshouse,” where Thom Yorke sings with a set of horns, sort of quasi-Dixieland horns. It’s completely unexpected. I couldn’t sing the song, but it’s fun to listen to his voice bob and weave with the saxophone and trombone.
These songs are very much made up of a bunch of little fragments, shards of stuff. That’s what I remember about Radiohead. If you ask me to tell you my favorite Radiohead song, I can’t. But I can tell you my five favorite Radiohead moments, and that’s what I get out of them. The other thing is, they reference a bunch of stuff that I think is interesting. They use the word “Telex.” I mean, who the hell knew what a Telex was in 1995, or in 2015?
MEREDITH: What’s a Telex?
DAD: Telex was a system to send teletype messages back and forth, a network — a pre-computer network for passing messages around. I remember it from this book of photographs that I owned and lost, unfortunately, about Telexes that came out of Iran around the time of the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah there, by a really good foreign press photographer, called Telex Iran. It was a way of talking, or a way of communicating. And Radiohead seems to have that thing running through it. Look at the name of the band: Radiohead. I’m a huge radio fan, that’s the other thing — and this is dumb and corny — but I love the radio, I’m obsessed by radio stuff. The band name means something to me.
MEREDITH: For me, not being a Radiohead fan but being a huge fan of my dad, there are two contextual cues that I get when I think about the history of Radiohead and you, and one is looking at Radiohead through a lens of technology. I grew up in a house where I was never without a computer because of you. Remember me playing around with DOS when I was like, 4? And of course, Radiohead’s not only got those really trying, exhausted references to technology but they’ve also got the whole pay-whatever internet-driven model for In Rainbows, and this internet-driven fan base, and this phone app, Polyfauna, and they’ve developed a whole social network named after Pynchon, the WASTE network. Radiohead is a very technology-driven band.
DAD: I thought OK Computer was a dumb name for an album. I think nothing ages quicker than technology references.
MEREDITH: But you like the Telex thing.
DAD: Yeah, but that’s because it’s old enough. It doesn’t matter anymore because it’s old-old. It’s old tech, and I like old tech. Anything that’s new and cutting edge — it’s like owning a first-generation iPad. Which is interesting because, when I was listening to Kid A last night knowing that we were going to be talking about this tonight, I didn’t think it aged all that well.
MEREDITH: People also didn’t love that record at first.
DAD: People haven’t loved a Radiohead album since OK Computer.
MEREDITH: No, I think In Rainbows did really well. But people were lauding it like, Oh, it sold three million copies that year — Taylor Swift’s most recent record has sold three million copies in two months. Radiohead wins Grammys.
DAD: Yeah, although I don’t think they care very much about that. The other thing about this band worth admiring is, I think they’ve done a very good job of being a big popular band and have still tried to go their own way as much as they can. I think after OK Computer, they could have sort of done Part 2, Part 3 of that, or after The Bends they could have done 2, 3 of that. They didn’t do that — they tried to do other stuff, and they’ve continued to try and do other stuff. I think that speaks well for them. Everything Jonny Greenwood does interests me. I have an album he curated of reggae tunes that I like a lot. I buy most everything he puts out. I like Thom Yorke’s solo albums, too — I like Thom Yorke’s voice. I don’t like watching these guys, by the way.
MEREDITH: I watched some live videos preparing for this, I realized I’d never seen them move on stage, and you know how important stage presentation is for me. The first video I watched — you know, there’s one Radiohead song I love, “Fifteen Step” —
DAD: Sure, the first song on In Rainbows.
MEREDITH: I watched them perform it on the Grammys. There’s a live video of them with a —
DAD: A marching band! That’s great. I watched that when it happened.
MEREDITH: He looks like he’s making fun of everything. And these kids — there’s a great shot near the end of the boys in the drum line. They’re fucking cheesing, grinning, gritting their teeth, playing so hard, they finally loosen up — they’re so happy it’s almost over, they’re terrified and thrilled and playing and doing complicated parts and they’re smiling because they’re getting through it! And Thom Yorke just looks greasy, like he’s screwing around. It’s not sincere.
DAD: But when you read these guys, when you read what they have to say, they come across as reasonably likable, pretty unaffected people. Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s classical music critic, wrote a long piece about Radiohead a few years ago that was really good; it was one of the reasons I took a bit of an interest in the band. You walk away from that thinking, If anybody’s not impressed by the trappings of stardom, if anybody’s managed to navigate it pretty well, it’s these guys. They understand how to do this part. And I think that’s something. I think they’re consistently interesting enough to keep listening, especially if you keep the volume turned down.
MEREDITH: The other context I wanted to talk to you about — I can’t really consider Radiohead alone, I have to think of it in terms of you as a listener — there’s the technology angle, but then there’s also Radiohead and politics. The Iraq War started, then Hail To The Thief came out, and everyone thought it was about George W. Bush and Thom Yorke denied it. What’s it like to hear that record and to see those political contextual clues as someone that makes news? When Amnesiac and Hail To The Thief came out I was 14 or 15 years old, and you were way more conservative then.
DAD: No, I wasn’t, I think you just saw me as being way more conservative, but you were insane. No, I mean, these guys have always been art rockers. Anybody that listens to Hail To The Thief and thinks it’s about something specific politically isn’t listening very hard. It’s a Radiohead album. It’s concerned with the things that Radiohead concerns itself with: a bunch of fragmentary, elliptical lyrics and vaguely interesting instrumental things. Amnesiac’s the same way. Yes, you can interpret stuff there, but you’ve got to work at it real hard. Political these guys ain’t, at least when it comes to the music. The music isn’t agit prop.
MEREDITH: But maybe the average Radiohead fan isn’t willing to do hard work when it comes to applying meaning to things. It’s stadium rock, in some ways. It’s rock that absolves itself of thought. You can listen to it with the volume down low. Where do you think people get the sense that they’re a political band?
DAD: I don’t follow this enough to know that people see them as being explicitly political. I look at their website, I look at WASTE once in a while, and I wait for a new album to come out, and I let it go at that. I think they’ve got a nicely honed sense of irony. What was one of their spinoff bands called, Atoms For Peace? But I think they’re mostly art rockers. Mostly concerned with the musical end of things.
MEREDITH: I don’t know. One of the reasons I never liked them — and I’ll admit this — is that when I was in college the people I knew who loved Radiohead were loathsome people. There were two kinds of Radiohead fans then: people who fancied themselves superior, at the absolute cutting edge of things because they also liked Godspeed! You Black Emperor, and Radiohead fans who had posters up next to their Bob Marley tapestries.
DAD: Okay, but I mean, fortunately for me I don’t have to carry any of that stuff around with me, being a 58-year-old adult. I didn’t have to deal with what other people think of a band, or have somebody else’s enthusiasm for a band influence me. I could like them for what I could make out of them. I would be annoyed by that too, but then again, I’m annoyed by anybody who thinks that listening to any kind of music makes you superior to anyone else. I like Duke Ellington a lot but that doesn’t mean that I’ve got the keys to the kingdom. Just because you like a certain kind of music doesn’t give you any kind of purchase on things. It’s fun, it’s good if you are that way, but it’s a private thing. If liking certain kinds of music is going to teach you something, or improve your life, you better keep it to yourself, I think. That’s the sort of thing you should not talk about.
The music I listen to more than anything else, jazz, is forever and ever the home of the musically superior — people with music-superiority complexes. Talking about this stuff is very hard. It’s hard to talk about this and not sound silly or pretentious and make a fool out of yourself. Whatever you get out of this music, most of the time I think it’s better off if you keep it to yourself. I can talk a little bit about how I use it, how I keep the volume turned down, but I don’t want to wax poetic about what Radiohead does for me.
MEREDITH: I think the clinical nature of that observation is actually relevant to the music. What you do with it is realistically more important than anything else. For as emotional as it can be played live, the themes and the sound itself at times can get real cold and clinical.
DAD: Look, you’re never gonna warm your hands by the fire like you could with Hank Williams, or Merle Haggard, or Ellington. Those are bands or people, musicians, that make you feel more like a human being when you get done listening to them, and that’s not what you do when you come to a band like Radiohead. You’re listening to them because they might do some interesting stuff and they might give you an interesting take on things for a little bit. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s one kind of job that musicians can do, and I’m glad they’re around for that reason. They’re never gonna replace Mingus, or Art Tatum, or Bach, but it’s good to have that sort of thing there too.
MEREDITH: All right, man, I think we’ve got enough and —
DAD: No, why don’t you like them other than the fact that you didn’t like the people who did like them?
MEREDITH: It’s not that. For me, it never gets past — I don’t know. So much of the popular guitar rock I see — and yes, I know Radiohead is more than guitars, and their use of experimental instruments, whatever, but a lot of people see them as carrying out a great British tradition of rock — never moves above this ambling ease. It doesn’t look challenging, even when it is so, technically. I guess that was my beef with the Grammy performance. Even when they’re playing technically challenging music, they’re playing it as if they don’t care. It never looks like they’ll die if they stop. There’s nothing about what I’m seeing that denotes any urgency, there’s no bloodlust.
DAD: Okay, but not everything has to be like that. Brian Eno’s ambient albums aren’t like that.
MEREDITH: Brian Eno would die if he wasn’t doing what he did.
DAD: I don’t think so. In fact, I think a lot of his music is predicated on the idea that it’s a small choice. I tell you what would make me deliriously happy with Radiohead, though, would be if somebody like a John Zorn or a great hip-hop artist came in and just cut the shit out of one of their records and slammed a bunch of their stuff together in little fragments, put it back together and played it like that. That’s the one thing that I miss with that band. I keep wanting to hear more collisions in it.
MEREDITH: So you DO want the same thing I want, to an extent.
DAD: Yeah. Because again I go back to this — their records all sound to me like someone tuning a radio if I don’t pay attention to them. There are times when I wish the stuff was cut up and slammed together harshly. Which, in its own way, is why I like the record of dance mixes. It’s not harsh at all, but it’s cut up, which I like.
MEREDITH: Who would you elect to do that?
DAD: Oh, I don’t know. There’s an album I really like out now by a guy who’s using the moniker Giant Claw, and his stuff is good. He cuts up a lot of stuff and slams a lot of stuff together, and that’s the sound I’m after. I don’t know, I mean, you know what? They’re the musicians, I’m not. They get to do what they want to do, and I’m OK with that.
MEREDITH: After a while you have to let go and let God. But I feel like there’s always going to be a little bit of a void with Radiohead. Please, let’s give advice to millionaires — but I always want something a little different.
DAD: I tell you, here’s another reason I like Radiohead: I like to put their CDs on when I’m driving. It’s good driving music.
MEREDITH: Because it’s like a film score.
DAD: Yeah, nothing wrong with that. I like film scores. I like easy-listening music, I like MOR. You ever read Joseph Lanza’s book Elevator Music?
DAD: You should. It’s a deep dive into the subject of MOR and easy listening, and it’s worth reading. I like that stuff. You can’t listen to it all the time, but it has a place, you know? And it has an unironic place, a place where you can listen to it because you like listening to it.
And I like film scores a lot … I like the sound of things changing, which is why I like the sound of radio dials. You’re the wrong generation for this — I love being in a car and tuning through a radio dial; I love what that sounds like. It’s one of my favorite noises in the whole world.
MEREDITH: When I was very, very young, and you still had that red Honda…
DAD: The red Honda, sure. And it works better if you’ve actually got a tuning knob, which most radios don’t have any more. I think that one did — it had that and a little cassette deck. I love that sound. Anything that gets me back to that sound is something that I’ll listen to.
Check out more from Radiohead Week on Stereogum here.