Radiohead's Philip Selway on pushing beyond his comfort zone
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Philip Selway at Bush Hall in London | via philipselway.com

In an August 2001 issue of The New Yorker, author Alex Ross described a brunch at Radiohead bassist’s Colin Greenwood’s Oxford home. Someone had asked Greenwood if he’d gotten a sense of the size of a crowd at a recent Radiohead show at Oxford’s South Park during the third leg of the Kid A / Amnesiac tour, a gathering that Ross suggests might have been the largest to date in Oxford’s history. “’Fraid not,” Greenwood responded to his guest, smiling, “I was too busy looking at Phil’s calves.  That’s where the beats are.”

Greenwood was referring to Radiohead drummer Philip Selway.  The unforgettable punchline seemed to testify so succinctly to so much about the backbone of that band: to the proficient work of a drummer that Radiohead fans have come to know as one of the most technically excellent in rock, at turns muscular, soulful, metronomic, mathematical. To the connection that the bandmates in team Radiohead felt for one another. To all the reasons their music, album after album, is able to transmogrify and reinvent and evolve as much as it does and never, ever miss the mark.

Over twenty years after the formation of Radiohead, Philip Selway ventured to create his first solo record, Familial. Five years on, is back with his second solo effort Weatherhouse, and his tour in support of it brings him to World Cafe Live next week. We got Selway on the phone to discuss the challenges of being a “solo artist,” the influences that inform his songwriting, and how an exploration of songwriting and of learning other instruments has helped him grow as a musician – and even renew his love for the drums. 

The Key:  There was a Pitchfork review about your first record in which they contended that there was a risk, in sort of emerging from the Radiohead collective for a solo effort.  I wondered if you felt that risk acutely, if that was something that sort of hung over your head, or if it felt more exciting than risky to you instead.

Philip Selway:  When I was making the record, I didn’t feel that risk, to be honest with you.  You get so wrapped up in the process of actually making the record, and working with different musicians than you normally would…it’s not until you get to the release [that you start to feel it].  With [the first solo effort, Familial], I got it to the point where I felt that’s what I wanted to do with that record, and I felt confident in that.  But then to release it, you don’t know how it’s going to be received.  And I think as well, that’s the point that you become aware that there’s quite a difference between what the record was, and what there might be as an expectation of what a member of Radiohead might do.  So initially, there was a sense of a risk there, at that point.  But that felt healthy, you know?  For me, it was a very conscious thing to do something that was quite different to Radiohead on that first record, because, you know, otherwise what was the point of doing something solo at the time?  But, as with anything, if you start feeling safe in doing something, if you feel that something is well within your comfort zone, than actually you’re definitely not extending yourself enough.

TK: I’m curious about the nature of that risk, and along the lines of that question – putting out a solo record as a young solo artist, say coming into the music industry for the first time, must be a very different feeling than of putting out a record coming out of a successful band such as Radiohead.  I wonder if you could speak to that a bit, and also about the challenges of sort of coming out of the shadow of Radiohead?

PS: When you’re making a record, it needs to be driven by your creative decisions, and those have to be informed by what you feel is appropriate to the material you’ve written, and the arrangements.  To me, I need to find a singing voice, and built the arrangements out of that on that record.  So that’s what drove the process.  The record wasn’t made in the spirit of thinking of how Radiohead was perceived in a broader sense.  I suppose that element came in when the record started being reviewed.  Because, yes, inevitably people are going to compare the two, you know, that’s just a very natural part of it.  I suppose you could draw that kind of parallel between a new artist starting on that path of finding their own voice, and finding the people to whom that music will appeal as well.  And I suppose that was much more the mindset that I was in, you know, of really feeling that I am – with Familial, in particular – I was a new artist.  And that’s kind of what I wanted to focus my mind on, rather than thinking I was stepping out of the shadow of Radiohead here.  Because, actually, I wasn’t stepping out of that shadow, because I was still very much a part of that process, that’s still very much a part of what I do musically.  It’s more a case of finding the different aspects of what I can do musically, and finding out if that connects with people.

TK:  This material is obviously very different than the stuff you’ve released with Radiohead.  I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how long you’d been developing it, and about wanting to put something out that was so different.  I hear a little bit of David Gilmour influence on this record, especially in your voice and delivery, and I wondered if you could also discuss the influences too.

PS:  In terms of actually putting material together for my solo record, that would’ve been from about my mid-thirties onwards.  When I first started getting into bands and playing instruments, I wrote songs then, with a very much kind of schoolboy take on songwriting.  That was part of what I did, that was part of what really drew me to music.  And when Radiohead was signed, I just wanted to concentrate on the drumming, for a good long while.  But the songwriting started bubbling up, and rather than thinking I want to have a solo career, I had these songs and I thought, well what am I going to do with them?  They didn’t feel like Radiohead songs, as such, and they didn’t feel part of that Radiohead process.  And so I’d also think well maybe I am the best person to do these songs, myself.  So it followed that pattern, really.

In terms of influences on the first record, it was very much influenced by people like Will Oldham, and Juana Molina, and Iron and Wine.  Those kinds of artists.  Lisa Germano.  With this one, you know you go through songs, and when you’re writing songs, when you’re starting to arrange them or record them, you might have an artist in mind – it’s what we do in Radiohead, I think it’s what a lot of people do – as a shorthand for kind of an overall feel to a song.  And artists that were there on this record would have been people like Talk Talk, or Scott Walker, or The Teardrop Explodes.

TK: In terms of your drumming style – it’s so singular…

PS:  … I like “singular,” that’s good…

TK: … you to me are one of the most innovative and unique voices in drumming, and I love what you’ve been able to do with your music.  It almost seemed to me like you’d come out of a vacuum and created your own sound entirely, which is amazing to me.  But that must not be true…

PS:  Well I’ve been very lucky.  I think we’ve all been very lucky, in Radiohead, inasmuch as we learned to play our instruments basically in the context of the band, and in relation to each other.  So I think then yes, there’s a lot of scope there to develop your own sound, your own style there.  I suppose, in a way, as a band, Radiohead has never really done cover versions; from Day One, we’ve always just played original material.  You’re just kind of figuring out the puzzle as you’re arranging it.  You’re led by your own gut instincts on it.  You know, of course, the influences of your record collection, that comes into it, but what you do musically, in your own part, is very much shaped by the other musicians – Thom, Johnny, Ed, Colin and myself – it’s always been in relation to and influenced by what other members of the band are doing.  And so I think when you’ve done that, and as we did for nearly twenty years of playing pretty much exclusively with each other, then I think yes, you’ve got a very fertile environment to develop something that’s unique to you, and it’s a very fortunate position to be in.  But then, it’s very good then to step out side of that as well, as we’ve all done, to work with other musicians.  Because that kind of challenges some of your habits, it feeds into you developing your musical voice as well.

TK: I saw a tribute to Ringo Starr recently on which Dave Grohl talks about two kinds of drummers.  He says there’s the kind of technically consummate drummer, and then the kind of drummer that can sit in a song.  And he asks the question rhetorically which was better, but to me, you sort of seem like the best of both worlds, which is an amazing thing for a musician.

PS: Oh, well, thank you! [laughs]  I suppose, for me, when you’ve been playing an instrument for a couple of decades, so much has just kind of come into your playing through osmosis.  And you have points where you concentrate on things like technique, because actually you realize that how you’re playing it is limiting what you can do, and I think if you’ve got any ambitions to continue improving as a musician, then you do go through phases where you do concentrate on skills which can take you to the next level.  But at the same time, that hasn’t been my passion in making music.  I suppose I’m quite an instinctive and emotional player, and that’s what excites me about making music.  I think I’m a songwriter at heart, and for me drumming has always served a function within that.

TK: Switching gears to your solo stuff again – obviously drumming is something you’ve made a career of.  Do you feel as comfortable writing songs for other instruments and considering other parts of the band?

PS: Yes, I do.  I suppose I’ve always played guitar.  And over this past decade a lot more than I had previously.  And I’m getting some keyboard skills together now, as well, which I learned for – actually I was on The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon’s show, last Fall, and I learned to play the piano for that!  My first public performance on national television – and so again I suppose that kind of makes you think about your songwriting in a different way, which is really good.  Again, you know, I don’t have an in-depth technical knowledge – I have enough, as I do with the various stages of my drumming, I’ve always had enough technical know-how to get where I wanted to at that point.  And that’s what’s driven that process for me.  But yes I do feel comfortable – well I find it exciting, working on those instruments.  And actually with the drumming, as well – working on my first record, I just did not have a drumming break for that record at all.  It just wasn’t happening.  And in a way, coming to making Weatherhouse, the second record, suddenly it made sense to me again, and for me it was a bit like rediscovering drums again, and just getting that kind of enthusiasm for the instrument coming through, and that was a lovely part of making Weatherhouse for me was kind of reconnecting with drums in that way.

TK: One of my favorite tracks on Weatherhouse is “It Will End In Tears.” I wondered if you could tell me what it was written about, and what the “Weatherhouse” is, in that song.

PS: Actually there are very few metaphors in the lyrics on Weatherhouse. I suppose it’s quite conversational, it’s quite a direct record.  But that’s the one that I felt was actually appropriate there, looking at those very interconnected relationships, where even though you’re both trying to pull in different directions, you’re both anchored in the same spot – for better or worse – but you’re there.  And that informs everything that you do, that kind of radiates out from that, I suppose.  And then, it just felt when I started working with the artist, Ted Dewan, who did all the artwork for the record, that’s one that he really picked up on, and just built a great junkyard sculpture that became the front cover.  And it wasn’t a key to understanding the record, as such, but it felt like a very good skin for the record, and all different kinds of emotional and musical weather that’s going on in the record.

TK: The artwork on Radiohead records is so conceptual every time, it’s almost like every record is a complete work of art, including the liner notes and the covers. Is that something that’s important to you as well on your solo records?

PS: Yes, that’s very important to me. I think everything is very tied in.  I worked very closely with Ted – he’s a friend but he’s also an artist that I respect enormously.  He connected with what was going on in the record.  I suppose having grown up making Radiohead records, that’s the experience that makes sense to me, in producing a record.  It does have to have that kind of sense of being interconnected in that way.  That’s what makes a substantial experience in listening to something or buying the record for me.

WXPN welcomes Philip Selway at World Café Live Philadelphia on Saturday, August 8th.  Tickets $18 – $30.  All ages.

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