Does it bother you when people interpret a song in a way you didn’t intend?--Chipping Away: Brian Draper Interviews Thom Yorke (2004 October)
You have to take a deep breath and just go, ‘H’mm, that’s interesting!’ and then forget about it. I think that has always been the hardest bit: having to finish a song and accept the fact that people probably won’t get it. Because it’s so obvious to me, to all of us, at the time and it’s such a headfuck when we are called ‘depressing’. They just don’t get it. Depressing music to me is just shit music. It’s like air freshener – just a nasty little poison in the air. I remember being pinned down in a bar once by this guy who just went on and on and on and on about how ‘No Surprises’ was the most depressing piece of music he had ever heard in his life and why on earth would we choose to inflict that on people? But we don’t choose to inflict anything on anybody – and anyway I just don’t hear what he was hearing. And then you think, ‘Well, I’m not doing this to be loved anyway, so that’s OK.’
So, I’ve sort of learnt not to – well, I say that. It’s all bullshit, of course – I hope I’ve learnt not to think about it, but you do think about it. Because what we choose to be engaged in is trying to communicate with people.
But sometimes people may find things in a song that you didn’t intend which they really appreciate.
Yeah. It’s quite amazing when things take on extra meaning, but you have absolutely no idea when it’s going to happen or where it’s going to come from. ‘No Surprises’ was the most peculiar one on the last tour, because it had the line ‘Bring down the government. They don’t speak for us.’ When we were in the US, even though it is such a slow, passive song (and it was written in 1995, ’96), every night we’d get this stir in the audience and people would start screaming and shouting. Oh, it was really amazing.
And then a song like ‘Myxamotosis’ – when we did it in the studio, we kind of liked the sound of it but it really frustrated us, because we didn’t really understand where it was going; and then we played it live and the last three or four times we got this absolutely amazing reaction. It was like a train crash, you know? And sometimes these things happen.
The other interesting thing, I think, is that sometimes really powerful music can presage things that then happen. Like any artform, there’s that element of seeing into the future, no matter how dimly and naively. I’ve had it with artwork as well. Amnesiac came out in the summer of 2001 and almost every other image on the album is two towers collapsing. That freaked us out a bit.
You have said of some of your songs that it’s almost as if you received them.
A bit, yeah. I mean, all the good bits are received. All the bad bits I’ve had to hammer out with my own tools – fill in the gaps.
Given that, and that strange sense sometimes of presaging the future, do you ever feel as though there’s something not otherworldly but maybe sacred...?
Oh yeah! I was thinking about this last week, that I should count myself most lucky just to be able to stand back and look at what goes on around me – having the time just to zone out and absorb things and think about them. It’s an incredible privilege, because most people’s lives are full up from the moment they’re born to the moment they die, and I don’t have that. I spend a lot of my time watching that process without actually participating in it. Which is a kind of shamanic thing to do. That’s always been the role of artists in a way, and it’s incredibly important that someone’s doing it. (I would say that, wouldn’t I?) But you know what I mean? It’s not as easy as it sounds, either. For me, it’s quite difficult. In some ways, you are tempted to fill your life up with other noise instead. I see other people do it with all these incredibly important things they have to do all the time. It’s very easy to exist in this perpetual state of activity and then you’ll never be nudged in the direction you need to be nudged in if you’re trying to write. I do believe there are things pushing me in certain directions, but that only ever happens if I’m zoned out enough to let it happen.
Probably the most sacred thing I have to do is sit and watch, or go off and… Just go off, basically. I guess I see it as something religious, really. It’s not simply about doing nothing, it’s about being able to get to the right head space.
Can you put a name to the things that are nudging you? Do you have an explanation for it?
No, not really. It’s sometimes quite scary. I feel like a bleeding nutter. What happens is that there are certain periods when things that are happening here and now will take on a meaning they don’t normally have and become incredibly significant. It’s not my only inspiration, but it’s one that’s usually very formative in terms of moving on.
The closest description I’ve ever heard of it is the bardo thing in Buddhism. (I haven’t read it for ages, so I’ll probably get this wrong.) The simplest way to describe it is that when you’re about to drop into your deepest sleep you slip into that subconscious region where you may wake up or you may go further into sleep; and that’s a very important time in Buddhism, not for spiritual enrichment but for an opening into the beyond, that being able to see the strands that hold things together.
I don’t see it as clearly as that – I mean, I can’t meditate, I wish I could – but there are times when things take on such significance that I’ll write down what’s happened or I’ll try and write the music that went with it or whatever. And those are the things that, when I look back a few months later, are the things that are really powerful. All the endless-hard-work stuff will not be half as good.