Ed O’Brien Interviewed: “After This Let’s Have A F*cking Massive Party!”

The good-looking one off Radiohead chats about his new solo record, COVID-19, and self-isolating before it was cool...

Any fool who dares question Radiohead’s relevance to the cultural conversation in 2020 should wind their neck in and get a load of this spellbinding nugget from axeman Ed O’Brien:

"We had a Zoom meeting the other day."

Way to embrace the zeitgeist, lads.

"Yeah, the Radiohead guys are all hunkered down at home, with our families. Just like everyone else really."

So, the Greatest Band Since The Beatles are doing what we’re all doing as the plague rages around us, which is to say fuck all, except Ed himself, who has a solo record coming out. ‘Earth’, by the modishly re-branded EOB, is an uplifting suite of ravey anthems and wide-eyed acoustic laments.

Clash caught up with him over a rigorously-sanitised telephone and found out what he makes of, well, you know, everything at the moment really.

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You actually had coronavirus. How are you feeling now?

Well, I haven’t been tested so I can’t say 100%. But I had symptoms, like a heavy dose of flu. My immune system is strong, but I was concerned about passing it on. For the past week-and-a-half I’ve been self-isolating in Wales with another family. Five teenagers, and four adults. It feels like a pretty good place to ride this thing out.

What’s the deal with COVID-19 anyway – Mother Nature’s revenge? A reckoning on our bloated 21st-century lifestyles?

I’m trying to see the big picture, and keep a level head. This reminds me of 9/11, in that it’s easy to play aspects of it over and over in your mind, which makes me fearful.

What this whole situation really feels like for me, and what it feels like for many of us I think… at the start of this year Australia had all those wildfires. Then in the UK we had the floods. This all feels like part of the same thing. For a long time now I’ve subscribed to James Lovelock’s theory of Gaia, which argues that our planet is one living soul, a living entity.

So Gaia is mad at us?

Indigenous societies have always believed in some version of the Gaia theory. Even the friend I’m self-isolating with, who works for a company that does reports in the world of business and finance, showed me a virologist report he’d been sent, basically confirming this.

Viruses can be locked away in parts of the world. When digging under the ice caps began, people came across incredibly strong viruses. Fracking, drilling for oil – all these places where human beings really shouldn’t be, where we don’t know what we’re doing… well, things are going to come our way. Just ask an elder from the Hopi tribe.

Will do. Your new album is called 'Earth' – did Gaia theory inform the record? What’s the overarching vibe here?

Whenever anybody asked what kind of music I was making, I’d say – slightly jokingly – ‘an existential dance record’. Part of the process was moving back to the countryside.

I grew up in West Oxfordshire, but then I lived in cities from 1987 to late 2012, which is when I moved to Brazil. The wild countryside is the only place I’ve ever really been able to write.

I learned a wonderful term when I was studying sociology, called ‘anomie’. During the Industrial Revolution, when people moved from the countryside to cities, anomie described their disconnect, the loneliness they suddenly felt. An urban loneliness.

Put it this way – when I’m on my own in the countryside I never feel lonely. But boy, can I feel lonely in a city.

What’s your domestic sitch in Brazil? I’m picturing a colossal rockstar mansion, jutting out over a teeming waterfall…

No. Just no. It’s a very simple place. An adobe house. When we first arrived, there wasn’t even anywhere to put our bags, the house was that small. So we built something on the side. Three days later we got ourselves an earth-and-horse-manure outhouse. It’s beautiful, and idyllic.

We’re the edge of the rainforest – you can see monkeys in the trees, incredible butterflies called blue morphos. After dark there’s amazing clouds of flies, which light up and fizz their way through the night. And in the heat of the day, when you’re in a field, the soundtrack is all insects – elaborate polyrhythms, interacting with each other. No wifi or phone signal.

Life is music. And books, and family, and food. That’s where the inspiration for these songs came from.

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There’s a lot of guitar on the record. Is it nice for you to get back to the guitar, instead of fannying around with, like, Jonny Greenwood’s fax machine beeps?

Oh, totally. It’s so, so nice being able to play ALL the guitars. Jonny and Thom are extraordinary guitarists, but the upshot is there are whole Radiohead tracks I don’t even play on. On 'Earth' I’m doing guide tracks, layering, lots of acoustic, which I barely ever play with Radiohead. The guitar is so direct. I’ve been playing it for such a long time now, but still… I just love it. I never, ever get bored of guitar.

As a teenager, in about 1999, I avidly followed the diaries you wrote during the 'Kid A' sessions. You griped a bit about what a pain in the arse the whole process was. Was 'Earth' a breeze to make, in comparison?

When I wrote those diaries I was trying to demystify our process – people seemed to believe there was some sort of sorcery, an alchemy that happened only within Radiohead. Even Radiohead have shit days. Inevitably, with anything creative, there’s a shit phase, when things are a struggle. But it’s the craft, the rigour, that eventually gets you into the good stuff.

Laura Marling’s on the record, how did that collaboration come about?

I’m just a huge fan. I wrote to her, via her manager, saying I’d love for her to be involved in any way she felt comfortable. A female voice is very important I think. She came to the studio for an afternoon, it was fantastic. We sang together on ‘Cloak of the Night’, which was an extraordinary privilege, but I was nervous as hell. Uncertain of my ability. I actually wish I’d been more relaxed, maybe laughed a little bit more. Oh well.

Bless you Ed O’Brien. There’s a definite rave flavour to the record, especially on tracks like 'Olympik'. How much of a raver were you, back in the day?

I was a very lily-livered, part-time raver. I loved the spirit of it, but I knew my boundaries. I’d certainly indulge, but I wasn’t one to over-indulge. When I came back from Manchester University in 1990, everything was focused on getting the band to work. Radiohead weren’t a rave band. We were rehearsing, hustling to get gigs. You need to have your shit together for all that stuff. I had friends who lived for the weekend, but they were total wrecks in the week.

Are you aware of the meme among Radiohead fans – that the backing vocals you sing are mostly just you hollering your own name? 

I didn’t know it was a big thing online. But on tour around 2018, in North America, I noticed [the bit in Weird Fishes] had suddenly become ‘a moment’. People all yelling ‘ED!’ I thought to myself, this is really lovely. It actually became my favourite part of the night. It’s such a great line to be able to sing. You have to sing it at the very top of your voice. And everyone sings along! I love moments like that.

Can you already tell what those moments will be when you get around to playing Earth on tour?

During the last show we played – 6 Music Festival – the whole end bit of ‘Brasil’ went down exactly how I’d hoped it would. People understood the drop, where the kick drum comes in. We had a proper connection, which was still a surprise, but one I’d definitely been hoping for.

Go on, give me a Radiohead exclusive. Which one of the guys is laziest about making the tea?

I don’t want to burst the bubble of Radiohead. There’s a great deal of normalcy, a lot of humanity. At the heart of Radiohead, we’re just five people. There’s stuff we laugh about, and things we get pissed off about. It’s like how you never hear what went down in the dressing room during [Manchester United’s] class of ’92.

Okay, how are you going to celebrate when all this coronavirus madness is done?

We’ll have a dance. A big fucking dance. One night of abandon, outdoors, with a big fire. Slightly elemental. Giant sound system. Family and friends. Just a massive fucking party.

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'Earth' is out on April 17th.

Words: Andy Hill

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