“Melody Is The Thread” Philip Selway Interviewed
Phil Selway, bless him, is just back from his first proper tour in ages. As a solo artist, if you please.
“We were up in Scotland, doing Tae Sup wi’ a Fifer with James Yorkston and Nina Persson from the Cardigans”, he tells CLASH cheerfully over Zoom.
“Lovely venues. Around Inverness. My first time on Shetland, then down to Peebles, finishing up in St Andrews. It was one of those tours where you all pitch in. I made my bass-playing debut!”
Today Philip Selway – y’know, the drummer off Radiohead – drops his third solo LP, ‘Strange Dance’. It’s gorgeous, as it happens. By turns spartan and melancholic, gospel-sweet and bleakly poetic – sublime midlife vinyl from one of the greats.
And lucky old me, I had about half-an-hour to chat with him about stuff.
Hi, Phil Selway! Loving the new tunes. Some lush melodies in there.
Thanks! Melody is the thread that carries you through a song. If I don’t have a good melody, I know the song isn’t going anywhere. It’s important to me that my songs work stripped-back, just on piano or guitar. I want them to be robust.
Plenty of awesome sidekicks on this record too, nice job.
Basically, I drew up a list of my dream collaborators. Hannah Peel, Adrian Utley. Quinta, Marta Salogni, Valentina Magaletti and Laura Moody. All people I’ve had musical relationships with, or some musical connection to, over the years. I was delighted when everybody said yes.
How could they refuse! You’re rock royalty, my dude.
Well, that’s not for me to say.
Seriously. I picture Thom and Jonny as like the Harry and Megan of Radiohead rock royalty, super high-profile but with all the baggage. And you’re…
Prince Edward. And I’m very happy with that.
What are your lyrics mostly about these days? I’m really digging ‘Picking Up Pieces’.
I prefer to take myself out of the lyrics. They’re all from me, of course. Based on experiences I’ve had. But I want the songs to be relatable. Emotionally resonant, so that the listener can project their own narrative.
‘Signs Of Life’ feels like a love song.
I guess? They’re all love songs, in their own way. That song was about displacement. Radiohead had decided to take a year out to focus on other projects, so I started working on a record. During that process I naturally go into a sort of lockdown. But it was 2020, and everybody else was going into lockdown at the same time. We all experienced that enormity of change.
No offense but your lyrics are sort of… bleak? I guess you can take the boy out of Radiohead, but you can’t take the Radiohead out the boy.
I think that’s probably fair to say. It is a strong tone on this record. I try and offset it. But I want this album to be emotionally honest. Like one of those intense conversations at the pub, with a friend, about important topics. Generally, those topics aren’t jolly.
What’s your favourite track on this album, and why?
[Title track] ‘Strange Dance’. It started life as a piano ballad. I told [drummer] Valentina Magaletti I was thinking about a Tom Waits, ‘Bone Machine’-era kind of feeling, so she added this amazing, rich, angular, rhythmic percussion pattern. It opens the track out so completely. Then there’s all those lovely textures on top. Choral, orchestral elements, a fusion of different voices… altogether something that’s very particular to itself.
Obviously, everybody knows you as Radiohead’s drummer. Were you always sneakily singer-songwriting in the background?
When I was aged 14 or 15 my drumming and songwriting went hand in hand. Then On A Friday, and Radiohead… kind of happened. So I thought I’d focus more on my drumming. Especially when we got signed. There was this huge step-up in expectation.
Well, yeah. At what point did you decide to actually pull your finger out and make a solo record?
Towards the end of the ‘Kid A’, ‘Amnesiac’, ‘Hail To The Thief’ period I realised I had enough material. I knew I could sing in tune. But I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted my singing voice to be. As a drummer, I have distinctive voice. Finding that as a singer took a bit more time. On [first solo album] ‘Familial’ my voice was very hushed. That’s how I felt my I could best deliver that material. And that’s stayed with me.
Anyway, I fucking love the drum fill you play in the middle of ‘Exit Music’ on ‘OK Computer’, you know the one. Boom-da-boom-da-da-da-da!
You know the bit I mean?
Which Radiohead drum part are you most proud of?
Somebody recently wrote a book on ‘Pyramid Song’. The timing is odd, but you can still technically count along in straight 4s. Sorry if I’m making it sound banal!
You don’t need to apologise for shit, Phil Selway. Hey, you seem totally zen talking about Radiohead. Sometimes blokes in your position get cheesed off when interviewers prattle on about the band instead of their solo work.
The way I see it, the stuff we’re individually doing – The Smile, Ed’s album, Jonny’s soundtracks, Colin’s tour with Nick Cave – all comes under the Radiohead umbrella. That’s the bigger picture. I love Radiohead. Radiohead is where we all meet. Where we all dream together musically.
Is there a Radiohead WhatsApp group, and if so can I join it?
You all still really love making music, clearly. That’s glorious to behold.
If music wasn’t our livelihood – for want of a better word – we’d do it anyway. Music is innate to us. Over 30 years we’ve done a lot of it! Experienced a lot of stages. Stretched ourselves musically, time and again. Right now, I’m playing venues up and down the country, same as Radiohead did at the start. Learning my stagecraft all over again. Coming full circle.
‘Strange Dance’ is out now on Bella Union.
Words: Andy Hill
Photo Credit: Phil Sharp