‘If I didn’t do it then a creative part of me might have died’: Radiohead's Ed O'Brien opens up about his latest work
Being part of global stadium-filling rock outfit Radiohead has left guitarist Ed O’Brien with plenty of tales to tell on his freshly released debut album, as Neill Barston reports
Facing up to life in lockdown is proving eventful in more ways than one for Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien.
The guitarist contracted Covid-19 earlier this year , which happened to coincide with promotion of his long-awaited debut solo album that’s now gained its release. He seems calm about his brush with the condition that has brought the world to a near standstill.
“People have had different experiences with coronavirus. But, for me, it was like flu and, though I felt I was getting better, it’s something that lingers,” says Ed.
“But we’re very lucky that we’re out in the countryside. I am very aware there are a lot of families out there that don’t have a lot of access to nature, which especially resonates with me.”
He says it’s been many years since he upped sticks from his native Oxfordshire to mid-Wales, and seems more than content with his present surroundings alongside his wife, two fast-growing children and their pet dog.
As someone who has spent the past three decades chasing the horizon as part of a stadium-filling band that has so far shifted over 30 million records, you might wonder if devoting time to a sideline is feasible. However, as the 52-year-old explains, having spent more than seven years finalising his album’s material, it was a mission he felt had to be completed.
But with the group’s frontman, Thom Yorke, and fellow bandmates Jonny Greenwood and Phil Selway having all conjured their own respective solo projects, he grappled with whether to pursue his own venture.
“Making a record isn’t easy, it takes a lot of work and a lot of soul searching. But doing this was something I felt compelled to do. If I didn’t do it then a creative part of me might have died. It was one of those ‘what if’ moments, you just have to follow your instincts.”
Titled Earth and featuring the production talents of Flood, who has worked with the likes of a-ha, New Order, The Killers and U2, the album offers up a varied mix of sounds that reflects its complex journey.Its inspiration straddles everything from early Primal Scream rave anthems to touches of samba , with angst-ridden grooves, elegant duets and more.
“My debut has elements of soul, rock and ambient music, but lyrically it’s a gospel album, about having been through the dark and moving towards the light,” says Ed.
He’s found a sense of vindication in finally completing the album, released under the moniker of EOB. Clearly, surviving amid an industry where so many musical peers have fallen by the wayside is no mean feat.
After nine studio albums, Radiohead proved their resilience many times over, and last year entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Though Ed admits he’s not yet at the nostalgic “book writing stage of my life,” he appears happy to speak about the band’s eventful past.
Recalling his own inspiration, he acknowledges that growing up in a particularly musical household has served him extremely well in his career.
“Both my mum and dad loved their music, getting me into the Beatles, as well as bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival,” says Ed, who adds he was also exposed to a lot of classical music, singing soprano as a youngster. In his teens, he eagerly lapped up all that punk, New Wave and bands such as the Smiths, The Jam and The Police had to offer in an age when the BBC’s Top of The Pops served as a musical bible.
As for Radiohead, or On a Friday as they were originally named (after their rehearsal day), they met at Abingdon School in the mid ‘80s. Their path was set in motion when Ed, playing Lysander in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, encountered the young Thom, who was arranging the show’s musical score.“I don’t know if it was a case of knowing we were going to be special, but it felt instinctively the right place to be as part of the band, right from the very first moment.
“We became thick as thieves and it was like a brotherhood, which I have always thought has been really important. For us, it’s never been just being all about the music, though we are all very different characters."
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Ed recounts it was relatively painless actually getting signed, having happened within a short time of Thom’s university graduation.
Their grunge-inspired sound took its template from the likes of Nirvana and Pixies, with their resulting debut album spawning the global hit single, Creep. Such was the song’s popularity upon its release, it was going to take something remarkable to propel them to the next level.
But its successor, The Bends, exceeded all industry expectations in producing an inspired clutch of globally acclaimed singles including High and Dry, Street Spirit, My Iron Lung and Fake Plastic Trees.
“With The Bends, we just wanted to make an album that every track on it would be strong.
“While we had struck gold with Creep, people were writing us off as one-hit wonders, which I can understand. But I think we achieved what we wanted to with the follow-up.”
While their third album, OK Computer saw them achieve stratospheric heights and gain international plaudits, a decision to retreat from rock into more experimental and electronic influences proved a bold move.
However, their subsequent recordings have revealed a valuable knack of evolving amid ever-shifting music scenes, and emerging out of the other side.
So with so much history, how challenging is it to pick an ultimate highlight?
“Well, there have been so many moments - the last time we played Glastonbury was definitely one, but my favourite ever gig was probably a festival we did in Brazil for the In Rainbows tour, which had such a great atmosphere.”
As for where the band are right now, it’s been four years since their last album, A Moon Shaped Pool, which saw them return to the limelight once again.
While Ed says they’ve had conversations about their next potential move, it seems this year offers a welcome pause for focusing on their respective projects. “I feel really happy about where I am now that my album is done, after all that has been put into it.
“It has just made me want to carry on writing the next one,” adds Ed with a sense of positivity that suggests there’s plenty more in the pipeline for his own work, as well as with the band that has seen him enjoy the grandest of global adventures.