"What Happens in Radiohead Is Sometimes Inexplicable": An Interview with Philip Selway
We talked to the drummer of the legendary British band about his solo work and his new album.
This article originally appeared on Noisey en Español. Leer en Español.
Philip Selway has spent 30 years in charge of Radiohead's amazing drum sounds. Fifty-year-old Selway is that bald guy in all the band's photos and videos, the one who always has perfect posture while he plays his instrument with absolute concentration, as if there was nothing else in the world apart from the music he's making with his bandmates.
Like the rest of Radiohead's members, Selway is a composer who plays multiple instruments. He's a person whose head is so full of ideas that he can't limit himself to a single project, and besides, he's part of one of the best bands of all time. There are things that simply have to be expressed in a personal form, that only that person knows how to create and give shape to, in order to share how they feel. In Selway's case, these are three studio albums: Familial (2010), Weatherhouse (2014) and the soundtrack he composed for Let Me Go, a movie by director Polly Steele, that has to do with the relationship between mothers and daughters who are caught in the middle of a dark family secret. The film is based on the memoir by Helga Schneider and came out earlier this year.
As a soloist, Selway has moved away from the drums, which are a natural extension of his body, showing his side as a guitarist, singer, and composer. His songs have a special aura—soft, with melancholic touches that are both dark and luminous at the same time. They have a tone of sadness and well-being that make you smile and think of life's good moments, the ones you remember with simultaneous happiness and nostalgia. But with Let Me Go, he presents a new side, one that creates the perfect atmosphere for this dramatic film, in which a woman and her daughter have to confront the Nazi past of the mother, who abandoned her four-year old daughter to join the SS.
In this soundtrack, Selway explores instruments like the acoustic guitar and string quartets. He plays with senses through music, making the drama and anxiety of the film almost palpable. Let Me Go is proof that Radiohead is the product of four brilliant brains that complement each other in a unique way.
Noisey en Español took advantage of the soundtrack's October 27 release in Latin America to talk with Selway over the phone. In a warm, gentle voice, he told us how he managed to compose the soundtrack while recording A Moon Shaped Pool, and talked about his different sides as Radiohead's drummer, as a solo artist, and about the role of music in these times of global chaos.
Noisey: You've had several busy years with Radiohead, what with the release of a new album and the 20 year anniversary of Ok Computer. What was the process of making the music for Let Me Go like?
Philip Selway: Yes, it was a pretty busy year. To compose this album, I had to work in the gaps of Radiohead's schedule. For example, while we were recording A Moon Shaped Pool, I took advantage of the mornings, before sessions in the studio, to develop my ideas, and use the space to record some of the songs for the film. When I started my solo project, I had to segment my life. What I mean is that, if I was working on my things, I had to focus on them completely because I was trying to find my beat and my voice. At first, it was really hard to transition from my solo project to the work with Radiohead, but as things progressed, I was able to find a way to move back and forth between them. And sometimes, you need to work on two projects because in some way or another, they complement each other.
I read that you always dreamed of doing a soundtrack. What was it like to finally have that opportunity?
I've always had a few musical ambitions. One was to do the music for a dance [production], which I achieved a few years ago with London's Rambert Dance Company. And the other was to do a movie soundtrack. I thought it would be a long time before I felt ready to do that, but Polly Steele approached me and I was with the project from the beginning. Initially, I was going to be the music supervisor for the film, but over time, I felt it was appropriate to do the soundtrack. By that point, I had lots of ideas taking shape. I knew the script well and I thought that it had important things to say, in addition to complex, well-formed characters. Then, the actors began auditioning for the roles, and a fantastic British actor named Juliet Stevenson entered the scene as the protagonist.
As the project began to take shape, all of the elements began to fall into place. The actors, the director, and the cinematographer... they all contributed to creating the atmosphere of an actual film, and ideas and arrangements started flowing. I think that the main idea is that this film has three protagonists, all of whom are three strong female figures, which is rare in movies.
What caught my attention in this album was that there are various pieces made for string quartets. What was it like for you to begin working with them?
I'd never composed for a string quartet before and it seemed fascinating. I guess it's related to what I've always done with music, which is learn while I'm working… you know, identify what you need to know in order to fulfill an idea and then just learn it. In the end, it's a perfect copy of what you hoped to achieve and it has its own nature and character.
Another thing that caught my attention were the guitar arrangements. I read that when you began your career, you planned to be a guitarist and singer. How did you end up on the drums?
[Laughs]. I got my first drum kit when I was 16, and I began writing songs at the same time. A couple years later we began Radiohead and honestly, at that time, the level of musical skill I had was really only good enough to play the drums, so I focused on that. When you join a band with people who are so incredible and committed, it's important to improve your skill set, so I focused entirely on achieving the level that I felt I needed to reach in order for us to achieve what we wanted as a group. My composer side took a backseat for something like a decade. Once we finished recording Ok Computer and the tour ended, we took a break and that's when I began to reconnect with my composing side. Writing songs came before singing, and once I had the songs, I felt right about singing them, so basically, I had to sit down and learn how to sing. I felt like the same level of effort I'd made with the drums should be applied to my composition, my singing, and the way I play guitar.
What's the best part of Radiohead's composing process?
I think that, for me, the best is when everyone shows up with their ideas and each one of us adds things to the songs that can take them in a totally unexpected direction. We've spent decades playing together and, in a certain sense, we've learned how to use our instruments in relationship to ourselves. When this happens, it's something almost inexplicable, and that's the most moving thing. It's something that you can't explain, how an intellectual process is something that evokes a feeling that you just go with. This also happens in live shows. Again, it's not something I can explain intellectually; it's how you give yourself over to the music.
Jonny Greenwood, Thom Yorke, and now you have made music for movies—is there a special connection between Radiohead and film?
Honestly, it's not something we could do as a group; I don't think we could do a soundtrack together. I think it's something you do when there's a composer who's focused on the heart of the project. But we've always had this soundscape that's definitely connected to a cinematic context. I think that my work, and that of Jonny and Thom, has been a longing of the three of us, another dimension of what we do musically.
Do you think music has a role to play in these moments of chaos that the planet is going through right now?
I believe that music, like the other arts, is an inherent part of what's going on. I think it's a way that people have to escape from what's happening in the world, and it's an opportunity for people to express what's going on in their lives. I believe that music gives hope and, that, helps you reconnect.
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