We’ve Got A File On You: Radiohead’s Philip Selway

Phil Sharp

We’ve Got A File On You: Radiohead’s Philip Selway

Phil Sharp

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Philip Selway seems like a genuinely good guy. On a video chat from his home in London last month, Radiohead’s drummer was warm, jovial, and overflowing with gratitude for all the experiences that have come along with membership in an era-defining band.

And there have been a lot of experiences. In the nearly four decades of music-making leading up to his new album Strange Dance — the best, most fully realized release in his solo discography so far — Selway has not only contributed to a wealth of classic albums and played hundreds of rapturously received concerts with Radiohead. He’s also shared the stage with legends like Johnny Marr and Ringo Starr, performed his music on TV backed by none other than the Dap-Kings, appeared in a Harry Potter movie, soundtracked films and a radio play, and somehow ended up in conversation with Whoopi Goldberg on satellite radio — all while maintaining close involvement with the suicide prevention nonprofit Samaritans, an affiliation that goes all the way back to his pre-fame university days.

Our discussion touched on all that, as well as Selway’s take on the Smile, the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, and the state of Radiohead. But we started with Strange Dance, the lush and rhythmically complex collection of electronic chamber-pop tunes he released a couple weeks back. Read our conversation below.

Strange Dance (2023)

I found it really interesting that you decided not to play the drums on the album. Why not?

PHILIP SELWAY: I kind of always intended playing drums, I just hadn’t really thought about it that much before I went into the studio. [Laughs] I think really focusing on getting the songs to the point where they felt solid, that they just had the session template set so we had a really good starting point once we had the sessions underway. And when I started drumming, it just wasn’t happening in the way I wanted it to. I hadn’t really been playing ‘cause I’d been concentrating on preparing the songs for the session. So after a day and a half — there are bits of my drumming on the record — but I really realized the kind of momentum that I wanted to bring to the session, that wasn’t going to happen at that point with my playing. I needed a little longer to actually get into the swing of things. And I guess my mindset was elsewhere. It was very much in that overview of the arrangements.

So yeah, I got to that realization a day and a half in that actually I might not be the best person for the job on this one. It’s a lot easier saying that to yourself than it is to somebody else as well. So I spoke with Marta Salogni, who produced the record, and described how I saw the drumming on there, the kind of textures that I heard on there as well, and she suggested Valentina Magaletti, who she’s done a lot of work with. So me not coming up to the mark in my drumming was a bit of a blessing in disguise because Valentina came in and she just brought this kind of life force into the drumming and the percussion. So from the get-go with Valentina on there, we just had this really vibrant platform to build up all the other musical textures on. So yeah, I’ve stopped smarting from taking myself off the drums now.

Is this the first record you’ve played on where you weren’t the primary drummer?

SELWAY: No. The second record, I did all the drumming on that one, but the first record, bar one track, I didn’t drum on that at all. That was — again, so lucky with the drummers I’ve got to work with — that was Glenn Kotche from Wilco.

That’s right, I forgot he played on that.

SELWAY: I’ve got lots of notes from all the drummers that I’ve worked with now. [Laughs] “I’ll try that.”

You mentioned your headspace was really on the arrangements. They are really striking. I put on the record, and the first song, I’m like, “Wow, the arrangement on this is stunning!” And then it just continues on to the next song and the next song. Do you view the album as a new frontier for you in that regard?

SELWAY: I think for me, it felt like a combination of everything that I’ve been working on in this past decade of solo work. It kind of drew on all of those musical relationships that I’ve built up, with Quinta and with Adrian Utley. Laura Moody, who’s done all of those wonderful string and brass arrangements. And tapping into old working relationships that I’ve had. The choral arrangements on there are brought together by somebody called Juliet Russell, we did our degrees together up in Liverpool back in the day. So just kind of drawing from all these different aspects. And then Valentia Magaletti coming into the mix on the drums and percussion and then Hannah Peel, who’d been one of my reference points musically, coming into the record. She agreed to play on the record as well. So yeah, kind of pooling all these different musical voices together. That’s how I envisaged the record from the outset. Then it was a case of trying to get the right environment in the studio, the right kind of soundscape, for that all to mesh together.

One of the key people in that as well, and I think the key relationship to get in place before I could even contemplate doing something as ambitious as what I felt I was trying to do, was Marta Salogni coming on board to produce and mix the record. Marta, she brings so many strengths to the studio. And one of the key ones is the fact that she really listens. She really listens to what everybody wants to bring to the session, and in particular what my overall vision for the record was. And she uses that. Everything that she does goes towards making that happen. And she just seems to kind of spin all these musical plates in the recording, she just keeps it all there. It’s the swan — you notice so much is going on beneath the surface, but she’s just there, as calm as you can be in the studio. So it just creates this really lovely atmosphere in the studio. It’s a very supportive, very creatively open atmosphere. And it’s kind of all of those aspects, which I think make for a good collaboration.

How did she come on board?

SELWAY: I first met Marta on a session for my second solo album, Weatherhouse. I’d gone to this studio in London called the Strongroom to do my vocals, and Marta was the engineer. And it turns out, actually, that was her first freelance engineering session. I didn’t know it at the time. But I was just so impressed with her. Her take on recording, her musical taste, just how she was in the session, how she managed the session. She was really impressive from the get-go there. And of course she’s gone on and done amazing things in between. So I was made up that she agreed to produce the record.

“Strange Dance” is the title track. Why is that?

SELWAY: “Strange dance,” it kind of refers to the balancing act that we all do throughout life, particularly at this stage of life, where you’ve kind of got all these contrasting feelings, stuff that almost feels irreconcilable, and it’s like a strange dance that you do, contorting yourself, trying to pull it all together. In that, there’s an elegance, there’s something that you choreograph in your life as well. The title itself was pretty much the very last thing that came along for the record, and with that song itself, actually, it probably had the longest lifespan in its making. I originally wrote it about 20 years ago. It was just this little guitar ditty at the time. That’s something where I thought, “I don’t know what to do with it yet.” So I just kind of put it on the shelf. And it found its time in these sessions.

So it kind of morphed into being a piano ballad when we came into the sessions. And then when I was talking with Valentina about how I heard the drumming on there, I sort of came from the Tom Waits Closing Time era on it, that kind of crunchy piano ballad-y way. But then also going further into Tom Waits’ work, the rhythmical textures on something like Bone Machine I can really hear in there as well. And Valentina went into the studio and in no time at all she just conjured up this incredible rhythm track, which just had this kind of lolloping groove to it, with all these scraping sounds. It felt very angular. It was just this amazing rhythmical bed to start working from. And then on top of that we were able to build up all these weird, wonderful orchestral textures and electronic textures in there. I really felt like it was a track where all the different musical voices that everybody brought really meshed, kind of combined into this sound in there, which was very much of its own world.

So it had the longest journey as a track from when I started writing it. It was the very last track that I wrote lyrics for. Kind of didn’t have a second verse until 10 minutes before I was due to leave to go record the vocal. But it fell into place — woohoo! And then, I guess it’s always the way, isn’t it? From the title of that track, then it’s just like, “Actually that’s the album, really.” So it became the title of the album as well.

The press bio for the album says you envisioned it as Carole King collaborating with the electronic pioneer Daphne Oram. When I interviewed you about Weatherhouse, you compared “It Will End In Tears” to Carole King as well. It seems like she must be a pretty strong influence for you.

SELWAY: I mean, yeah, she’s one of the best songwriters… ever! You know, she has all that lineage of learning her chops in the Brill Building. But there’s something, regardless of whoever plays a Carole King song, it’s got that signature of her in there. There’s a complexity in the work, but you don’t really take that on board. That’s not the overriding impression that’s left with you from the song. You have these very strong melodies, you’ve got this beautiful harmony that kind of plays out underneath, and these very relatable lyrics. So if you’re going to aspire to any songwriter, Carole King is a good one to aspire to.

And I just like the idea of this fantasy collaboration, two ends of the spectrum. You have Carole King, and then you have Daphne Oram, this kind of very experimental electronic classical artist from the UK. And just seeing how those two very contrasting elements could marry up. That felt as if that keyed into the musical voices, what all the other musicians could bring into it. It’s also just… it’s good to aim high. [Laughs.] So yes. And originally I was going to be drumming. It was me drumming on their fantasy collaboration.

7 Worlds Collide (2001-2009)

This was a collaborative project organized by Neil Finn, which brought you to New Zealand alongside artists like Eddie Vedder, Johnny Marr, two-thirds of Wilco, and your Radiohead bandmate Ed O’Brien among others. How’d you get involved?

SELWAY: The first 7 Worlds Collide was back in 2001. It was April 2001. Ed was going down, and we’d met Neil Finn at festivals — Crowded House were headlining a bill we were much lower down, and we got to know Neil Finn. Ed had in particular, as well. And he invited us to go and be part of this project. Where it was taking his back catalog of material and inviting a whole group of musicians — like Eddie Vedder and Johnny Marr, Tim Finn was there, Lisa Germano, Sebastian Steinberg — inviting us all down to Auckland to revisit Neil’s back catalog and then pull together a show around that. And everybody was feeding in their own music around that. So for Johnny Marr it was, I believe, it was the first time he revisited Smiths songs. And so suddenly you find yourself drumming on “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” and thinking, “Oh my gosh, it’s the first time he’s played it since the Smiths, and I’m drumming on it!” You kind of feel really special.

So that was such a profound experience for me because up to that point I’d only ever really played in Radiohead. Because of what we wanted to do with the band and what we needed to do with the band, none of us had really played outside of the context of the five of us before that point. Thom had possibly just started. Jonny was starting to look at soundtrack work. It was like a crash course in playing with other musicians — all these incredible musicians, as well. You find yourself there playing Pearl Jam songs with Eddie Vedder, and just Neil Finn’s entire back catalog, which is just incredible. He’s the most amazing songwriter. But it was a really supportive atmosphere to do that in. It was quite scary as well, initially. But just that real sense of getting a better sense of what I can bring to the table there.

And then Neil put together another one of the 7 Worlds Collide projects at the end of 2008 into 2009. Kind of extended it. The idea for that one was that we’d go down and write, record, and perform an album all in about two and a half, three weeks. So he kind of extended the group of musicians. It was a lot of the original musicians and then other people like Wilco were part of it, and KT Tunstall, Bic Runga. We all kind of pitched camp in Neil’s studio in Auckland. It’s an amazing studio, over three floors, with lots of different spaces. So it was the perfect place for everybody to break down into little groups.

When I’d gone down to originally drum on those sessions, it was about the time I was starting to develop my own songs with a view to recording them at some point. Didn’t really know how it would work at that stage. And I played a couple of songs to Neil, and he said, “Well why don’t you go record them?” I wanted to say, “Well I can think of plenty of reasons why I wouldn’t want to go and record them.” But in that context, yeah, I didn’t really have time to think about it. You go play your songs, record your songs with some of the best musicians around playing on them, making them come to life for you. That was a very significant moment for me and I think really gave me the confidence to go then and make my first album, Familial. The musicians that I worked with on that record, I effectively met them on 7 Worlds Collide. Working with Lisa Germano and Sebastian Steinberg and Glenn Kotche and Patrick Sansone. So a lot came out of those sessions for me. And yeah, it was just a really standout musical experience for me. It was just lovely. I still smile putting myself back in that environment.

Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (2005)

You and Jonny Greenwood were cast as members of the band the Wyrd Sisters alongside Jarvis Cocker and others. How’d that happen?

SELWAY: Jarvis Cocker and Jason Buckle had been writing the songs for this, the Yule Ball scene in Goblet Of Fire. I was in the conversation with Jonny being invited to go and play guitar on it, and [laughs] I think I rather cheekily said, “Well, if they’re looking for a drummer, I’ll come and do it.” I went and did the sessions for that, and we had a couple of days of getting the songs together, and they were really good, actually! It kind of had a real feel of a band. And I think all of us thought initially that was it. We’ve done the songs for the film, and that will be the end of it. But then they invited us to go and be the actual band at the Yule Ball. So we all went off to Hogwarts, Leavesden Studios. I mean, we were all decked out in this kind of winter festive garb, and because of the nature of that scene, everybody was in it. All the cast are in it. All the young actors were there and all of the actors who are on the staff of the school. So yeah, it was literally stepping through the screen and into this world. And it was so vividly Harry Potter and Hogwarts all around. So that was kind of a very bizarre experience, but a wonderful memory as well.

When we were filming, it was the end of a particular stretch of filming, so a lot of people, it was their last day of working on that particular film. So at the end of this shoot, this is a couple of days before Christmas, we had an end-of-term assembly at the great hall at Hogwarts with the director. So kind of as the headmaster, just saying, “Well, I hope you all have a wonderful holidays, and thank you so much for everything that you’ve brought.” Yeah, I’ve had some wonderful experiences in all of this.

Let Me Go Soundtrack (2011)

Was this the first time you’ve done music for a movie?

SELWAY: Yes, it was. Kind of stumbled into that one as well. So, I’d been talking with the producer, and the director was kind of bringing all the elements of the film together. And originally I was in more of a music supervisor role, but then as everything started to unfold a bit more, they asked me if I would consider doing the music for the film. I remember saying, “It’s not like anything I’ve done before, but yeah, I’ll give it a go.” Yeah, that was another door opening up, and finding how I could immerse myself in those other kind of worlds that somebody else has created, and that kind of wider collaboration between the screenwriting, the production design, and there’s the sound design in there — all these elements that you take on board and just try and pull into something that supports the drama and supports the characters in that. I found the whole process fascinating, and I found it creatively inspiring to actually be part of that.

I’ve done other bits of soundtrack work as well, which I’ve really enjoyed. That whole thing of responding to somebody else’s work — and on the flip side of it when you’re writing your own songs and everything has to come from within you. To go to that kind of environment where you’re responding to someone else’s work, it felt quite liberating at the time.

Which other projects have you done the soundtrack for?

SELWAY: I did the soundtrack for a film called Carmilla back in 2018, then I did a radio play for Radio 3 here in the UK called Sea Longing, which was beautiful, actually. Really proud of that work. I’m proud of Carmilla as well. Strange Dance, the special edition, the box set, is actually going to have a second record in it, which is made up of unreleased soundtrack stuff which I’ve done. So that’s got music from Carmilla and Sea Longing as well. It works really well as a record.

The box set, I’m really proud of that one, ‘cause it’s got the two records in there, and then it’s got the artist prints. So I was working alongside an artist as I was making Strange Dance, an artist called Stewart Geddes, who’s a friend. And as we were going into lockdown, we were both going into our studios, so we’d catch up at the end of the week on Zoom and just talk about what we’d both been doing, and we found that what we were doing in our separate worlds started to interweave, and so it felt like a very natural process to ask Stewart to do the artwork for the album. And so the artwork’s made up of four of his canvases. And as part of the box set there are four artist’s prints of the paintings in there. It’s all a very good value! [Laughs.]

Nice sales pitch! Some of your Radiohead bandmates have also done soundtrack work. Is that something you’ve ever dialogued about?

SELWAY: Not really, no. I think we’ve all found our own way through it. I guess it kind of mirrors how we’ve all learned our instruments in the context of each other. We’ve listened to each other, but we kind of don’t really talk about it. But I mean, Jonny’s just done incredible soundtrack work. His work with Paul Thomas Anderson is sublime. All his soundtrack work! And Thom, the work he did on Suspiria as well, is, again, stunning. So it’s always fascinating seeing what all the others do in their different projects. It’s always a good window into their broader musicality as well.

Guesting With Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band (2017)

Did you get to pick which songs you wanted to do?

SELWAY: [Laughs.] Oh, no no no. That was a wonderfully bizarre day. So I’d gone across to New York, been invited to go and do an interview with Ringo Starr for the Beatles channel. Really exciting. So I turned up, and we were just chatting before the interview, and they said, “I hope you don’t mind. There’s another big Beatles fan who wants to come be part of the interview and do the interview with you. Do you mind?” I said, “No, that’s great.” And they said, “OK. Well meet Whoopi.”

Whoopi Goldberg?

SELWAY: Yes. [Laughs.] I’ve got photos of it. It’s like I’m photobombing these two major artists, like me standing behind Whoopi Goldberg and Ringo Starr. So we did the interview, and he’s great doing that. He’s just so wonderful in so many respects. And it was brilliant meeting Whoopi Goldberg and doing the interview with her. And at the end of it he said, “I’m playing in town tonight. Would you come play some songs with me?” There’s such a big part of me that was wanting to bottle it, just, “Oh, no no no no. It’s fine.” Just playing on Ringo’s kit playing Beatles songs with him. And there was a voice in my head which interjected and said, “Yeah, sure, I’d love to do that!” So I ended up going along. We played “With A Little Help From My Friends” and then “Give Peace A Chance” as well. And yeah, I was up there playing Ringo’s kit. He’s one of my heroes, and I’m there playing his drum kit with him on stage. Members of Toto. It’s just one of those things getting back to my room where it’s like, “Did that all just happen?” It’s like you’ve gone into this really delusional state. But it did all happen, because I’ve seen photographic evidence. And it was a wonderful day.

Performing With The Dap-Kings On Fallon (2014)

SELWAY: With Weatherhouse, one of the singles was “It Will End In Tears,” so I was invited onto Jimmy Fallon to perform it. And I was just thinking, “Well, how am I going to do it?” And in my head, I just felt that it could work really well as a Dap-Kings performance. I’d been to see them play in London. They were doing one of their revue shows. It was like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley in this venue called the Empire in Shepherd’s Bush in London. And it was just incredible. It was like an old soul revue show, and it just worked seamlessly, and all these musicians coming on and off stage. And so I approached them to see if they’d be up for it, and a couple of them are part of the [Tonight Show] house band anyway. And they went for it.

I had this night in rehearsing in this studio in Brooklyn with the Dap-Kings and again it was one of those really magical musical experiences. We did the performance on Jimmy Fallon and went our separate ways. But that was an experience that sticks out very strongly in my mind. I went to see them a while after this when they were doing a show in Bristol in the UK. It was a Sharon Jones show, and I got to meet up with all of them afterwards. And Sharon Jones as well, which, that was like meeting the queen, really. She was just incredible.

Volunteering With Samaritans

How did you become aware of Samaritans?

SELWAY: It was when I was starting my degree in Liverpool, and when you start out new student life, you get all the leaflets thrown at you. And one of them was for Samaritans. They were describing what they were looking for in their volunteers. It kind of chimed with me in some way. And so I went along and trained with them and became a listening volunteer, and it became a big part of my adult life. This was back in 1986, so kind of some big events happened that year. The start of 1986 was when I joined — it was On A Friday at the time. [Editor’s note: On A Friday was Radiohead’s original band name.] We played a little bit the year before, a few things, but that’s when I properly joined the band. And then at the end of [the year], I became involved in Samaritans. It’s also the year that I met my wife as well. So all these key things happened that year, and they’re all the things that really defined who I became as an adult.

I understand you continued to volunteer taking calls for many years after Radiohead took off?

SELWAY: Yeah, I did. They were very flexible with me, because I would have to be away quite a bit. Yes, it was a very grounding experience doing it. It was a world away from everything that was going on in the band at the time. You know, you go from a situation, like in a band you’re very much center stage. Everything revolves around you. And going into that situation, where you’re not the focus of the conversation. You’re the person in the background, if you like. That was a good process to go through. It was a good way of balancing out the mad side of my life.

Are you still involved with it now?

SELWAY: I’m still involved with the organization. I’m an ambassador for them now. So yeah, I still have involvement. I was out doing some shows last week for Independent Venue Week in the UK, and as part of that, they had Samaritans volunteers come along to each show giving out information and doing collections. And that was lovely because I was able to talk to them. I do feel very much part of that community as well. So it’s an organization, as long as they’d like me to be part of it, I can see my involvement going on and on.

Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Induction (2019)

You and Ed went to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction for Radiohead. The rest of the band didn’t go. What made you decide to show up versus whatever their thoughts were on it?

SELWAY: I think you have to put it back in context. Growing up in the UK, we’d heard of the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, but it wasn’t one of our reference points growing up and getting into music. I think when we were invited to be inducted into it, I think then we started looking at it a bit more closely, becoming aware of what a significant invitation it was. So it felt very important to us that as a band we were there. It was a great evening. It was Roxy Music and Stevie Nicks and the Cure. The Cure were incredible! Really were. I’ve never been part of something that’s been that stage-managed either. It was a big show. So fascinating to be on the inside of that, really.

I know you’re used to fielding questions about what’s going on with Radiohead in all of your interviews. From the outside, with the Smile and everything, it felt like they were almost making music that could have been another Radiohead record. What was your perspective watching all that unfold? It’s hard not to speculate about what is happening there.

SELWAY: I got to go and see the Smile play about this time last year. They did some shows in London which were livestreamed. It was the first time I’d seen it. And yeah, I loved it. Seeing that dynamic between Thom and Jonny and seeing it in a different context. I mean, Tom Skinner, he’s an incredible drummer, and that way that they all meshed together. I mean yeah, they’ve got Thom and Jonny there, so there are inevitably going to be elements that I recognize. But actually, it has its own life outside Radiohead, and I think this is the case with all our projects. Radiohead’s the umbrella, if you like. What Radiohead does is very much the pole that’s holding up the umbrella, but all these other projects come underneath it as well. And it’s just fascinating seeing how we all operate in different musical collaborations. It’s fascinating getting that wider sense of each other’s musicality in that way.

Clearly you have been busy making this great record of your own. So it doesn’t feel like the Smile is holding things up in terms of being able to get back to Radiohead?

SELWAY: No, it’s a mutually agreed and beneficial time away from the band. The band still very much exists, and we get together quite often and talk about potential future plans. But I mean we’ve been going nearly 40 years as a band. I think it’s really healthy that we have these periods away from it. When we do something again together, we know it will be for the right reasons, and it will have that kind of enthusiasm and excitement about doing it. So this whole process around all these other projects, that all feeds into it as well.

Strange Dance is out now on Bella Union.

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