NIGEL, JONNY, GARTH, THOMnot endorsement of irresponsible drinking!
I just got back from the Oxford countryside where I’ve spent the last couple of days with the members of Radiohead and a few of their friends putting together a three hour webcast, which went out live last night, to celebrate the completion of their album In Rainbows. It was intense but fun. Funtense! Like the band themselves I suppose.
My friend Garth Jennings and I drove up to the band’s residential studio on Thursday morning and as soon as we’d unpacked our gear and marveled at the coolosity of the place, we sat down for lunch with the webcast team: the five bandmembers, producer and technical mindhub Nigel Godrich, the artist currently known as Stanley Donwood (who along with Thom is responsible for all the Radiohead artwork), and various other friends and helpers.
I’m a long time fan of Radiohead and I’ve only recently got to know them a little (Jonny did the theme tune for my BBC pilot MeeBOX) so I’m still not properly over the strange feeling of excitement and anxiety you get when you see musicians you admire in ordinary situations having formed a very personal one way relationship with them through their work. I think it’s something that’s peculiar to music because a good song becomes part of you on a far more fundamental level than a great performance from an actor or even a really good book. So when you’re suddenly presented with the architect(s) of so many things that mean so much to you, there is an understandable desire for them not to think you’re a dick. Unfortunately that pressure is often exactly the thing that makes a fan immediately revert to dick mode. Or is that just me?
Anyway, there I am sat in Radiohead’s kitchen thinking â€œI’m in Radiohead’s kitchen!â€ and all around me are bits and pieces that I recognise or am curious about, but I’ve go to focus on the matter at hand, which is: what are we going to shoot in the next 30 hours or so that we can play in to supplement the live elements in the webcast? Nigel, Stanley and the band have already got a good few items in the bag but they need more. Thom looks at Garth. â€œWhat have you got?â€ he says. Brilliantly concealing his fear that the band will pour buckets of tepid scorn over the few fairly silly ideas he and I have come up with, Garth pitches his arse right off. Luckily everyone seems up for pretty much anything so when Garth suggests we take Thom and Jonny out to a field somewhere to shoot a performance of Faust Arp it’s not long before the four of us are squeezed inside a mini on our way to Wittenham Clumps, a hill overlooking Didcot powerstation that was a hang out for the band in their younger days.
The sun is almost down as we scramble up the hill and after some brief, breathless discussion over whether the wind is going to ruin the sound and whether Jonny and Thom should sit or stand, we start filming. They perform the song, one of my favourites from In Rainbows, three times. The third one is the best and the wind even holds off for a gap in Thom’s vocal before blustering into the mics. It’s pretty dark by then but luckily my camera picks up enough to make it worth it. We get a final cutaway of Thom and Jonny silhouetted against the streaks of orange behind the powerstation then head back to the studio.
JIGSAW FALLING INTO PLACE
BOX O HELMET CAMS
The next item on our agenda is the Helmet Cam video for Jigsaw Falling Into Place, the first single from the album. The Helmet Cam is something I made a couple of years ago to shoot some bits for my comedy night. It’s a mini surveillance camera mounted on the front of a bicycle helmet which makes the head of the wearer appear stationary while everything around them slides around nauseatingly. It’s a technique that’s been used a lot (Martin Scorcese and Peter Gabriel spring to mind), but it always occurred to me that the bike helmet version might be good for some kind of music video. When I found out we were doing the Radiohead webcast I got to work making 5 new ‘units’ for the band. A bike helmet is ideal for mounting the camera because you can strap it on tight enough for it not to wobble too much, but it has the downside of making you look like a bit of a prat so I was concerned that a band like Radiohead might be uncomfortable with that. If they were they didn’t show it and when Garth and I had hooked up all 5 helmets in the band’s main studio and checked they were all recording, we got everyone in, strapped the helmets on and ran through the song a couple of times. That was it. After supper Garth and I loaded everything onto a laptop and it looked great. We stayed up til 2.30am chopping the footage from the 5 cameras together and when we were finished it looked pretty good. In fact we were very pleased. The band give a fantastic performance made pleasingly odd by the Helmet Cams so that by the last section my heart was soaring as we watched it back. What a band! What a song! Crank it up. I hope you like it.
WHAT’S IN THE BOX?
On Friday morning Garth and I finished tweaking the Jigsaw video and put together the Faust Arp footage then began to think of what was next. Garth had an idea about using the climactic scene from David Fincher’s Seven for something. Although to me it seemed quite well trodden territory (we did our own version for The Adam & Joe Show years ago) the idea of incorporating Thom somehow was too tempting to pass up so Garth found a box and went off to pitch to Yorkles. A few minutes later I found Thom sat on the sofa in the main studio with Garth facing him on a chair with the box between them. It looked like a doctor’s surgery where the patient has just been told he’s going to have to have his leg amputated. Thom took a deep breath and said â€œcome on then, let’s do it.â€ Once his head was in the box Thom said â€œhang on, this is familiar. It’s No Surprises all over again!â€ We gave him a little slap and stuffed some packing foam in his mouth to show him who was boss and he was fine after that.
Everyone seemed to like the finished item although Thom was worried that there would be copyright infringement trouble. Garth and I reassured him that as it was a non profit exercise it shouldn’t be a problem unless anyone at the film company was feeling particularly humourless. You’re not though, are you chaps?
The rest of the day was a scramble to get things finished and transfer bits to various computers for the webcast. It was deeply impressive to see everybody getting this thing together themselves without any help from so called professionals other than the guy sat outside in the satellite truck. Nigel and his two man team sat in his little control room surrounded by old vision mixers he’d bought off E-Bay and various laptops and put together a three hour live show that was slicker (in a good, home made way) than it had any right to be. In the end the last 20 minutes of the thing went out with no audio thanks to a problem with the satellite link, but as far as I could tell there was still an amazing amount of wonderful stuff in those three hours, including about 5 live performances from the band in addition to pre recorded pieces that I would certainly have been delighted with had I been watching at home. At one point I even found myself doing a scrappy link with Thom, which may have made for some pretty awkward viewing but was certainly one of my prouder presenting moments! What other band would work so hard to do something like that for their fans though? Maybe Jimmy The Hoover and Living In A Box in their heyday but very few since.
As if all that wasn’t enough we had been visited earlier in the day by David Byrne who was conducting an interview with Thom for Wired magazine. When they had finished David came up to the control room and watched the Helmet Cam video. I was stood next to him as he chuckled away at the sight of them all being so serious in the silver helmets. 'What a great performance!' he said. 'And you can crop the helmets later, right?' I had to spend the next couple of minutes explaining to David and Thom why I thought we should keep the helmets in vision. Good times. Byrne is completely white haired now and very dapper indeed. Apart from Bowie I loved David Byrne in a kind of romantic way more than anyone when I was growing up so the old gay Byrne fancier in me was delighted to find him looking so good. I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear that. He’s so great though. No wonder Radiohead took their name from one of his songs, even if it was one of the unlikliest and least representative in the Talking Heads cannon (I have a soft spot for it nonetheless). If you’re a fan, you should really check out The Catherine Wheel (almost a lost Talking Heads album) and The Knee Plays which has just been re-released. It’s grade A art pop that’s great to listen to while you’re making art. Details of all those can be found on Byrne’s well maintained website here where you’ll find all kinds of treats including this wonderful clip of a NY City bike ride with commentary from David. For a cycle nerd and Byrne obsessive it doesn’t get much better.
What a couple of days though! I do hope it won’t be the last of my Radiohead dalliances. Cheery Ho.