Ed O’Brien: “I’m trying to demystify things”
The following is an account of slightly cut excerpts and interview with the guitarist from the popular rock and roll band Radiohead. Felten Ink had the honour of catching up with Ed O’Brien to discuss lockdown feelings, his solo record ‘Brasil’, the passing of time, and of course, the future of the one and only Radiohead. Please enjoy responsibly.
How have you been coping with another lockdown thrust upon us – how do you find your own routine being affected for better or worse?
I can’t say that life has changed enormously from how it’s been the last four months, really. I’m quite lucky because I’ve had to implement more. Since, I think in 2001, things came to its point and I knew I had to change. So I knew I had to do something. I’ve had to do things like keeping fit, trying to get stronger, or eating the right things, and meditation have all been part of my routine for a long time now. So, with lockdown, actually, things became easier in a way for me in that regard, because suddenly there was a bit more time. Pre-lockdown, I would get up at 6.45 am and meditate for 20 minutes before the kids needed attending to school and stuff like that. With lockdown, things changed and suddenly I was like, “Oh, there’s half an hour for meditation.” And during the day I found myself being like, “Oh I can do such and such”. Rather than trying to squeeze in a run or train for an hour, I’ve got an hour, an hour and a half extra… So it’s been brilliant health-wise for me and being able to do all those other things.
What about as a musician and the structure?
Musicians, well… unless you’re on tour or you’re in the studio, there is no structure to your day and you’re not always on tour, and you’re not always in the studio, so you learn how to be structured quite young. You can spend all day on the PlayStation, but it doesn’t really work… I learned that one 25 years ago, there’s something very unsatisfactory about it… it makes me feel like wasting my time away, so I’m pretty disciplined and on time with things.
Although you must have to still keep fit – in terms of mentally and even just through music…
Yeah, you have to. But what I think happens is, certainly for me the way that I’m trying to, or the way that the rhythm of life works for me and music and creativity and all of that, is that I don’t do it every day, 365 days a year. I don’t do it every day, because for me it’s often the gaps in between, it’s the space. I’ve got a young family, it’s important to be a father and I’ve got a wife. So, what I find is that I’m very much, I’m very intuitive, so when I feel a creative phase I can get to it. I have to say the thing about the first lockdown was I thought, “Yippee. This is going to be great. I’m going to have all this time to … No, I’m not going to tour this record, I’m going to do some writing experimentation.” And I didn’t feel like it. And it was really weird. And I just didn’t want to.
You’ve been through this with actually having Coronavirus. That must have affected your creative muscles (forgive the term)?
I think looking back on it, getting the coronavirus back in March, there was a very long tail on it. And I thought I was better by about mid-April, end of April, but actually, the way that it affected my energy and my health, it hung on there for a long time, probably until about six weeks ago. So, I haven’t felt it, but now I’ve felt it and you’re right, and what it is it’s like a muscle. I don’t know what is ahead of me, but I feel like I’ve got this big creative phase that I’m about to step into. And that will be probably, I don’t know, a year, two years, whatever it is, and now I’ve got to … I want to start picking up the guitar, start making sounds, new bits of equipment, to find new sounds, to find something new … And I’m working with the things for me as I said, the time away from music is as important. I feel like I’m still figuring this out. I think you’re always figuring it out, and I’m just trying to follow a thread and the thread is really the intuition that goes, “This feels right, or that, yeah I’m not sure about that, that’s not right, but this feels right. I’m not sure, yeah, yeah, this is good.” I’m sort of like Ariadne’s thread in the dark, sort of, “Oh yeah, okay.” Pulling on it.
I’m late to the party in many ways, I only just recently started to listen to your solo record, Brasil. It must have been a bummer, as a musician, to be unable to share your own solo stuff on a more widespread audience?
Ultimately it’s what we are, musicians, if you get down to what is it about, it’s about making some sounds that connect emotion with other people. I’ve been touring a lot over the last 25 years or whatever, 28 years, it’s a time when you grow and you evolve hugely as well. You’re playing in this band. I’ve got a band together, a fantastic group of players, and we just started, we’d done gig six, the last gig was at the Roundhouse, and we were just rather than it being ‘oh, rabbits in the headlights’ because it’s all new and you’re bedding down, and we were just starting to feel, just starting to relax, just starting to flow. So, that’s a shame. Having said that, it does allow me to move on from that record in a sense, so that next we go back out there’ll be those songs, but there’ll be some news songs as well. So, it gives you a broader palette. My whole philosophy in life is if you’re presented with something there’s rather an, “Oh shit, we’re fucked.” It’s kind of like, “Okay, here’s a challenge. How can I grow here? How can this be of some kind of benefit? What’s the advantage of this? What’s the opportunity really?”
Your own record ‘Brasil’ has a ton of really important and interesting musicians on it – how did you go about choosing people to work on it? I’ve heard you say you were apprehensive about it, which is weird to me as you’re in Radiohead – one of if the not greatest band of all time. Like, who the fuck is anyone to say no to you…
I literally was like, “Who are my favorite musicians?” Laura Marling is somebody whose work I’d followed since her first album, and then there’s David Okumu and Omar Hakim, and Nathan East. It’s a funny thing because my initial impulse wasn’t to ask these people because I don’t know if this sounds absurd or this sounds strange, but I don’t think of myself, I think the perception of Radiohead from the outside is a lot greater than the perception of Radiohead within. It’s really nice when you say those words about the band, but I don’t feel it. I know that we’ve done some really good stuff, and I know that it’s a great story and I know that we’ve been doing it a long time, but I don’t go round thinking, and I don’t think the others do, thinking, “Oh, we’re one of the best bands in the world.”
How did those decisions come about?
I was out on tour, we were out on tour in America in 2016 and…. And this is the thing that happens, that when you go out on tour it’s a funny thing that happens, Radiohead, you suddenly step out and especially in America, you’re kind of like, “Oh, there’s a lot of people who really like this and there’s a lot of people who really rate us.” And so it gives you a bit of, you go, “Oh okay, all right.” So, that’s when you make those phone calls, you’re on tour and you’re saying, “Listen I know you live in New York, Omar, we’re rolling into town. Or Nathan East, would you fancy coming? Come to the gig and I’ve got this idea I want to talk to you about.”
I suppose you’re right because in a way there’s no way you could continue to make such important work if you did go about thinking how good you were…
I think so, yeah, and I think I mean it’s not like creativity is not something, I don’t feel like I’m responsible for it, if you see what I mean. I think for me I’ve never felt really comfortable with that thing of I’ve done this or we’ve done this, I think I have a different feeling to it, and it mirrors a lot of what my heroes and heroines have always said: “We’re conduits”. And that thing that when something of beauty, or something happens, it feels like it’s always been there, and I just think that we’re dialing in the frequencies and our job as conduits, as musicians, is to be the best shape that we can to download this information, this stuff.
I would argue that you and your band, Radiohead, are indeed so perfect, so unique… so I guess I don’t but the whole channeling thing…
Well, like when you hear Paul McCartney talk about ‘Yesterday’, it was a dream of his. He woke up and he called it ‘Scrambled Eggs’. It’s like, “Did I write this?” And that for me is the mystery and the magic of it all, and I really believe that in order for … Because I’ve seen it in my own kind a little way and in the band’s way, and I’ve seen it with other people. If you start thinking that you’re the dog’s bollocks, that thing stops, it’s like you get kicked up the arse. So, I’m very aware that I’m very reliant on feeling inspired and having that connection. Because I can’t really do it otherwise, I’m not a session musician, I can’t go okay, “G sharp minor, let’s go into this.” I’m not one of those guys.
“Coming out of the darkness into the light.” And I guess that’s to do a lot with your break with depression. Although that was a long time, it was interesting to me, and then I started to think about some of the practices you indulge in to keep yourself healthy and mentally healthy, and with the fasting and meditation. Are you a spiritual person much? Are you religious?
I’m not religious because religion for me is control, it’s organizing people, I don’t like that. But at the heart of all religions, as Aldous Huxley writes in The Perennial Philosophy, is the same thing, so I’ve taken a real interest in that. And I’ve read a lot, but also more than so reading it’s experience and feeling it. So, yeah and as I said to … I’ve said to people before I’ve worked fucking hard to be happy. I’ve been incredibly blessed. I had a very melancholic disposition, my childhood was really happy and there were very happy moments, but if you were to describe it I think it would be sad. I felt a lot of sadness, and I don’t want any self-pity for that, or anything, that’s just a fact and an acceptance. I always had a low-level of depression and problems with energy and it reached a point where it was, I just … It was very, very, reached a point in 2001 I’d had enough, and I was doing all the wrong things then.
Because I was doing all the wrong things like alcohol, drugs, all of that stuff, and that obviously, even if you’re in good health that brings you down and that was bringing me down in poor health and depression. There’s a whole six hours on the journey that I went on. I knew I had to change, it was like, I’ve got to do something. And I’d just gone on this journey that, and I wasn’t going to rule out anything. I was just like, “You know what? I’m going to experience, I’m going to do these things, I’m going to experience it, see how it resonates.” And of course, not everything resonates, and everybody’s different.
You have things along the way that really make a massive difference, and the massive one for me in the last … I’ve been doing it for about a month and a half now, and the fasting has been a big thing. I don’t want to bore you with my medical history or anything, but that’s been a big issue. But the Wim Hof thing, that book, and I’ve been doing the breathing and the cold showers, it’s unbelievable, and I’m on probably the fourth or fifth week of that. And it’s had a huge effect on me, profound effect. I work really hard to be happy, and I’m not happy all the time. But I know that good health, my spirituality, and being present, that’s what makes me happy and that connection. That’s what makes me happy, and there’s a simplicity to it, that I’m very lucky I live a very blessed life, but I don’t need to have lots of things. Shopping doesn’t make me happy, in fact, it does the opposite.
Shopping does make me ill unless it’s online. What does make you happy?
The things that make me happy are very simple things, watching the sunrise, having a great cup of tea, I really appreciate those things. And I don’t know why, but that’s just how I do it.
I’ve been watching a lot of your Instagram live isolation broadcasts. It’s fascinating to have someone like yourself, someone from an utterly life-changing band (in my view), be so available – excuse the term…
It’s like one of those things where it started at something and it’s become something else altogether. I mean, I’m perennially with it, going every Thursday, thinking, “God, do they want to hear me? And that universal thing, I put it out there, I put it, “Do you want me to do it?” everybody’s just like, “We do…”. I think it’s about connection. It’s always, for me, it’s always about connection. And taking something like social media is such a, can be such a destructive force, but there is something absolutely unbelievable that, and we take it for granted now, but 20 years ago we wouldn’t have it.
It makes me contemplate the world – in yours, it’s been 5 years since ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ which really brings reality home.
One of the things that I’ve been part of in Radiohead is that we constructed quite a big … After Pablo Honey and then we just started constructing the world as how we wanted to be perceived and that means a lot of the time you don’t have any contact, you have minimal contact you just place a few things and those are the things that do the work. And you understand what I’m saying, you let the work be done in the imagination, and it’s very cool, it’s a really good thing to do. But I felt intuitively on this record that I wanted to, my … Because it’s five people and it’s a collective thing, but I just wanted to tear that wall down, I wanted to … I’m kind of trying to demystify things.
And you’re doing that…
I think we live in an age of authenticity. I think a lot of those things that were relevant 20, 25 years ago … You think about, bands and stuff like that 25 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago, you think of bands like The Clash and Echo and the Bunnymen, and The Smiths, and they create through photography, photos, through music, through videos, they create this world. And most of the time that world is these people are demi-gods. They’re the coolest people on the planet and all the bands do that, you create it. And it’s completely disingenuous. Because all these people are human beings with problems and I’ve met a lot of these people and some of them are stellar human beings and some of them are complete dicks, and I think what’s amazing at this time, and I know there are a lot of people in my generation who go, “Oh, Ed Sheeran, oh. Bla bla bla.”
I think what we’re living in, and it really struck me about three years ago roughly was Glastonbury, when Adele headlined that Saturday night and she’s just almost doing this girl from next door with an incredible voice and Ed Sheeran’s the boy from next door with … And I’m like, this is brilliant, this is fucking brilliant, this is like looking behind the curtain, the Wizard of Oz, it’s like it’s taking it all down. And that’s something I feel comfortable about, and that’s why I kind of wanted to start the in isolation pieces because again social media is being used. I say it’s an age of authenticity, but there’s also a huge age of inauthenticity, we’ve got the extremes, you’ve got the way people construct the way they live this perfect life on social media, and I’m like, ‘I’m not interested’.
Adele and Ed Sheehan are one thing but: What does interest you in terms of making your own music?
I’m interested in searching for the truth, the authenticity of whatever it is. And what I’m hoping is that when we start working in the studio I’ll be able to drop bits of music live. And let people in a little bit into the world of me and creativity and something doesn’t come out and it’s fully formed. I’ve always been interested in how you get there, and I think that’s really important. Because if you explain how you get there, I think that’s empowering to other people because they go: ”Well actually maybe I could do that as well.” And I think that’s so important, That whole thing of demystifying to me is part of bringing down hierarchies. There are so many hierarchies that have existed and creative hierarchies, hierarchies within bands, who’s the best songwriter, who’s the … Hierarchies of who’s the best musician, who’s the greatest artist, and I’ve got no time for that.
Because everybody has a part to play and partly our job on this planet, I think one of the things I feel is to find out what it is that you as a human being, what is your role? What is the thing that you’re meant to do on this planet? And I honestly, I don’t, just because I’ve been blessed with what I do, I don’t feel any superiority to anybody, and equally, anybody who might feel superior to me, fuck that, I’m not interested. It’s like there are bigger things here, there’s a bigger picture. We’re all here, so it’s all part of that, it’s all part of that whole thing.
I’d be criminal to interview you and not ask anything about what’s happening with Radiohead. Time to me seems like a small vacuum – on that, it’s been almost 5 years since ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’? What’s next for the band?
I know, time has concertinaed, hasn’t it? I don’t know. I’ve got no idea. People ask this a lot because obviously, they’re interested. I think my answer’s the same as it’s always been, I think in order to make a record, and a Radiohead record, one of the strengths of us is we’ve always made records when we’re inspired to make a record. It’s not been about fulfilling a contract or making money, it’s always been about are we ready to go, “This feels good.” And I don’t think we’ve got that impulse at the moment, and it’s again it’s not a mental thing, it’s not something you say, it’s something you feel. And I think that’s always been our strength is to feel it, but I do think that what happened at the end of ‘Moon Shaped Pool’, it’s the end of another chapter. When we started touring ‘In Rainbows’, that was the first time we’d really loved touring and we got it. ‘In Rainbows’ was more about, ‘fuck me, this is amazing, aren’t we lucky touring?’ And I think that has continued, and I think it feels like it’s the end of another chapter. And we just have to figure out. Also, I think, I’m speaking personally and I think it’s the same for Phillip and I think it’s the same for Thom and Johnny, that everybody’s kind of really into doing their own music at the moment. Everybody’s growing, everybody’s continually growing. The problem is with bands, when bands … kind of the level of success, say, that we have, and have made the amount of records and stuff like that, what often happens is you see the band lose their mojo. Do you know what I mean?
I guess. But Radiohead never lost their mojo?
My understanding of that is the mojo being lost is directly linked to the band that starts making, that has always made creative decisions, that starts making financial decisions. And goes, “You know what? We’re going to do it because we’ve got a contract to fulfill and we get lovely advances.” I’ll never, ever, ever, ever be part of that. And I’m sure the other guys wouldn’t either. I’m not interested in that. I’d much rather walk away now and it’s got to be in the right spirit, it’s got to be because you’ve got a love for it, it’s got to be because you’re inspired, it’s got to be. And it’s because that’s where it’s always going to be, and I think also the thing is if we made a record that wasn’t that way, then it’d be like the Wizard of Oz, the truth would be revealed that actually … I think it’s that intention and that spirit that elevates what you do because it makes it more powerful. When you remove that and it becomes about status, power, money you can fill out every stadium, you can fill out every arena, but you lose that. But I will never, ever go down that route. I would much rather, literally, honestly, I have no qualms, I would much rather walk away and dedicate myself to working in my garden. There’s people who recognize that there’s a purity to it. And it’s real, and there’s honesty. And if we were to lose that it’s like a bond that’s broken. I think that underpins everything. You might not like our music, but there’s an integrity, that’s at the heart of it.
Ed O’Brien, thank you.