'Sorry to mess you around on time, Matt.'
I was only kept twiddling my thumbs waiting to talk to Philip Selway, whose day job, of course, is as the drummer in the world’s biggest band, for about 20 minutes. I didn’t think that was bad going. Plus, an online glitch with the w.a.s.t.e store meant I didn’t pay for In Rainbows back in 2007 (yes, cynics, I did try to), so I was prepared to call it even. Still, it was immediately apparent that Selway’s reputation for being affable is well justified. Now he’s being drawn to the light in his own right as a solo performer - a sweeping second solo album Weatherhouse was released late last year, following the hushed privacy of 2010’s Familial - and his biggest headline show to date at Queen Elizabeth Hall is on the wall planner for the 11th of February.
Typically for a member of one of the most progressive bands in the world, he’s very thoughtful; his responses polite and deliberate, littered with pauses, qualifications and chuckles as we chat about his solo career and, yes, ALBUM NINE.
DiS: Familial took seven years to finish and there was a much faster turnaround for Weatherhouse. How do you account for that?
PS: With Familial I had to learn everything from the ground up. I had ideas for songs going into it, but I didn't know if I'd be able to see the project through to the end. I didn't know if I'd be able to sing the songs. There’s a lot to learn, and I had a few different attempts at trying to get that record together. With Weatherhouse I went in with the songs, I had that knowledge having seen the process through once in my own right and I also had the musicians that from the outset I knew I wanted to base the record around - that's Adem Ilhan and Quinta who'd been part of the live band for Familial. I had all the elements there in place. Apart from Radiohead touring and recording I was able to launch into it much faster, and it was a case of continuing the process that Familial had started for me.
So was it a collaborative effort, or did you come in with songs that were then fleshed out in the studio?
I came in with all the songs - they all existed in acoustic demo form. Fleshing out doesn't really give sufficient credit to Adem and Quinta, because they really took the songs apart and the textures and sound beds in there are very much a collaboration of the three of us. That's what I wanted to capture as well; I wanted it to have the sense that it was a band throughout the whole record. I think we've done that. It gives flexibility for what you can do musically without it sounding like a hotchpotch of ideas, because at the core there are very identifiable voices running through it all. So between the three of us, and also taking on drumming duties myself, it felt like a band.
You didn't really do much in the way of the drumming on Familial. Were you coaxed back round or did you find that you were naturally drawn to it?
Initially I wasn't sure whether I would drum on the record or not, but Adem encouraged me to. I was actually really pleased with how much I enjoyed it and how easily finding the drum parts fell into place for me. I hadn't heard drum parts in my head for Familial. I was worried the same would happen this time round, but once we started working drumming fell into place really easily. That made me very enthusiastic about it, because a solo record in my name is actually enhanced by having my drumming on it too, I think. It also gave a very different platform to build the arrangements on as well and then to be more expansive with them.
So was there a eureka moment when you thought, “Hang on, this is really how it's going to work”?
'Coming Up For Air' - there was something there. That was a good one to start on. It came together very quickly and immediately showed where the record could go. I’d say another, which was particularly instrumental, was 'Miles Away', because that actually felt a million miles away from what I was doing on Familial. If I do stuff in my own right outside Radiohead I'm doing it because I want to stretch myself musically and try things out to see what the boundaries of what I can do are. To actually have something that was that far detached from what I'd done before felt like a real progression.
It's interesting that you pick on 'Miles Away' in particular because that's a really abstract song, especially compared to what sits elsewhere on Weatherhouse and the general feel of Familial too.
Yes, and actually if you hear that song in its acoustic form it's a very different song again. That was good because you've then got a sense that there’s a few more guns in the armoury. It just felt like a very exciting setup - it was exciting actually hearing my material in that kind of context. That was quite an exceptional song for me.
On the vocal performance in particular, listening to Weatherhouse compared to Familial it's almost like there's a different person singing...
How far do you feel you've come between the records and do you feel like you've found your own voice now?
Yes, Familial was very much about finding a singing voice for me - something that worked in recording as well as building the songs around, reflecting things I was listening to and very much where my headspace was at the time. In Familial, the arrangements were built around the vocals, but they started around the drum takes on Weatherhouse and were given much more space to breathe and be expansive. Consequently I needed to learn to sing over that as well. Apart from that, it’s come through taking from the Familial material out live. Whatever instrument you play, actually going out live really moves things along considerably for you. My voice benefited from that and the different vocal challenges on Weatherhouse - all these things, like any instrument, it’s all a work in progress just as my drumming is, and that's what keeps it interesting.
Listening to Familial felt personal, almost veering into the realms of the private at times. Do you think that Weatherhouse is similarly autobiographical and has a similar level of privacy about it?
Because it's got my name on the tin I think it would be disingenuous to be anything but, really. It's definitely my voice in all those songs, but whether it's strictly my experience is another thing. I wanted it to ring true for me in both records. Familial does have that very intimate, almost private feel to it - I thought of it almost as a pillow-talk record. That kind of approach worked in certain venues - in very intimate venues with good acoustics, for want of a better term parlour settings, but there’s a different kind of vocal style and arrangements I’m excited to be taking out live this time round. Because of that we revisited the material off Familial to rearrange it, rework it and bring it back more into the world of Weatherhouse, so I’m excited about going out to do that.
Because of your other commitments you've maybe not necessarily have had the time to tour as a solo artist as much as you may have wanted to, so how are you feeling about the upcoming gig? Will there be a different approach beyond making the material more suited to a different setting?
I'm excited about it. It's a lovely venue to play in anyway, and from what we've been doing in rehearsals how we're approaching it frees me up more as a performer. Between myself, Adem and Quinta I feel that we can bring something really good to that kind of space. Yes I'm excited about it, but it will be a challenge as well - a good challenge though. I like to do stuff that I feel is stretching me, so it ticks all the boxes.
In stretching yourself it's difficult to think of a bigger transition in terms of performance from a drummer to leading a band as a frontman. How've you found it?
Actually I started that kind of process about ten years ago when I first started thinking about how I'd go about making a solo record. Now, having had experience of making two records and touring Familial, I feel that I've... found more what I can bring to that role. I've got far more comfortable with it now... I don't feel so much of a novice.
You don’t necessarily see the distinction between the amount of time you've had to devote to recording and finding vocal confidence and just transplanting that to the live arena? Playing live isn’t something that should faze you now with all your experience - you've been doing it for nearly 30 years...
[Laugh] That’s true. With the material that we've been working on - Weatherhouse material, Familial material and as we do with Radiohead - when you take it live it breathes a whole new life into it. It actually opens up the possibilities of where you can go beyond that as well. It's always been a very central part of me developing as a musician to go out and play live because there's that immediate feedback that you get on what you’re doing. You can't lock yourself away in a studio and convince yourself that what you're doing is absolute genius.
There's a strange dynamic when material is played in front of people - it cuts to its essence and you can’t not know what people think straight away.
Yes, absolutely. And that’s good. The whole point of doing a show anyway at the heart of it is that it's not about you. It's other people's evenings out that you’re tapping into, so you want the best experience for them.
How do you feel immediately before you perform? I recently watched the Nick Cave film [20,000 Days on Earth] and was really taken aback to hear him say that before he goes on he can't even conceive about how the show's even going to work. He's got such presence and is such a fulminating character, but still it’s like there's a mental block there. Then he steps out on stage and it falls into place. How does it work for you?
I try to keep my head as empty as possible before a show. There are always nerves, and if they're not there then you start worrying anyway. I think it's quite natural for there to be those self-doubting voices as well; you are anxious about it. I suppose that the process of working up to a show is trying to stamp down those voices... but if you're going out as a musician you're also going out to lose yourself in the music and to get that musical side of your brain working properly. You have to remind yourself that’s what it’s about ultimately.
Do you think that people have read too much into the darker themes of Weatherhouse? I read an interview when it was implied that you've got an intractable problem in your life, either with Radiohead or your family. Do you feel it's more of a nuanced record than some have interpreted it as being?
Maybe. I would hope they're all vivid emotions in there and that they ring true as well, but they’re probably not the complete reflection of where I am in my personal life and in my working life. I'd suggest I'm a rather more nuanced person. In the context of those songs I hope and think that it brings all that stuff to life.
The second half actually seems pretty positive to me - there’s more of an acoustic feel rather than the electronic, and a song like 'Waiting for a Sign' seems to me to speak about seizing opportunities in an active way.
Yes, it's a proactive song. I hope I'm a positive person - I feel like I am - and I hope that comes across in the record... I’m drawn from a writing point of view to, I suppose, the trickier relationships and more uncomfortable emotions, but I hope that as in my life I come to that with a more glass half-full rather than glass half-empty approach.
You're a phenomenally successful musician in your own right. What do you ultimately want from a solo career? How would you define it being successful?
Good question. Well... there’s a lot of musical ground... I bring a very specific thing to Radiohead, and Radiohead works well like that, and that's great. Over a number of decades I have and continue to get so much out of that musically. But I feel that's only part of the picture with me; there is other stuff that I feel that I can do, and that’s led me to doing solo work. In terms of how I measure any level of success in it? There’s the immediate kind of personal level with yourself - with Familial: getting to the end of that and producing the record that I wanted and feeling proud of it. Similarly with Weatherhouse, that feels like it satisfied something in me. Then, beyond that, it connects with some people. I hope it continues doing that. That's the other measure of success. I don't think of it in terms of a Radiohead scale or anything like that, but if it means something to some people then that for me is a success.
Have you paid much attention to reviews? Radiohead are probably the most critically acclaimed band on the planet but Jonny [Greenwood] has said he tends to shy away from them because if you take on board the praise then you also have to take on board the criticism, then that’s what makes more sense and sticks. You want your solo work to speak to people, but do the critics matter as much?
Err... it depends on how you're feeling on any given day! I think... I mean yes, that’s a very wise quote from Jonny, and I think it's a good one to apply. There've been some reviews when you're looking at it and you think, “That's just... not this record”, and you can kind of get a sense of injustice by reading it, but that's more about your own insecurities than anything. In some ways it's best to try not to read too many reviews because then you can just get stuck in your own head, which isn’t a healthy place to be for too long. The whole process starts to become a bit narcissistic. If you get glowing reviews you're going to love it and it's going to make you feel great, but... it's really about whether other people listening to the record connect with it, and that's the ultimate litmus test for it. That’s what I try to concentrate on.
That very narcissistic element can come with the territory - didn't you call the early Radiohead studio 'Canned Applause', based on how your mind could get warped by adulation night after night, and you need to keep a sense of perspective and grounding? Are there any other ways that you get that in your life at the moment? Is it very much around family?
My life is centred around my family and everything is built around that. Fortunately that allows me to make lots of music as well, but I think it's very important to have a life outside of music. Going out touring is fantastic, but you can spend too much time doing that - it muddies the waters slightly. The past couple of years has been making Weatherhouse and getting back to Radiohead stuff which has all been based around home for me, and that's been brilliant. Also I’ve been doing this for 30 years now and you become much more aware of the pitfalls that can come along, and you manage that.
You said your role in Radiohead is fairly well defined. No one is idle during a hiatus; everyone comes back with something new - Thom [Yorke] has done solo work and Atoms for Peace, Jonny's a composer and now you've got your solo project too. Do you feel that will feed into the new material in different way?
I don't know if it will musically, but I think of it in terms of the whole dynamic between the five of us. You're building your musicality, you're building your musical confidence and you may be itching for some kind of musical stretches that can't be necessarily done in Radiohead. All those things feed back into a much more positive working relationship between the five of us.
Musicality is an interesting word to use. One thing I've always got from listening to Radiohead is that it's more than the sum of its parts all the time - it seems that you really do all work for the benefit of the song. There's probably a few, but can you pick out a moment of musicality that's really clear from across that career?
I mean, there’s probably a few...
I'd hope so over 30 years! The first one that springs to mind is ‘Pyramid Song’. That is really something that ran counter to what had come before in Radiohead in lots of ways. The interplay between what we were all doing suggested richness and complexity in there. The constituent parts are all quite simple, but I think the way that they then blend gives real depth to the song, then there’s a fantastic lyric and vocal on top of that as well. That's as much a result of having played together for that length of time and also that inclination to keep pushing yourself musically as well.
It's interesting you pick out ‘Pyramid Song’ because in my notes I scribbled down that listening to 'Around Again' from Weatherhouse made me think of it a little bit.
Oh! Well actually doing 'Around Again' was a drummer's delight because it's so many layers of kits and percussion on that one, and that allows it to get that same sense - there are these collisions of simple parts in themselves and you lay them on top of each other and you get these unexpected clashes. That feels fruitful in its way.
You’re off to the studio today. My editor would never forgive me if I didn't ask you what the purpose of that is...
[Laughs] It's a Philip Selway studio day today. It's our last week of rehearsals before we start the live stuff, so we've got sessions booked and then a session with Xfm at the end of the week. There’s a lot of ground to cover this week.
Well, equally, my editor wouldn’t forgive me if I didn't ask how album number nine is progressing with Radiohead...
It's all coming along nicely, thank you! We worked throughout the autumn up to just before Christmas, and now we're just taking some time away for other projects. We'll get back to it in March and we’ll make an assessment of where we are then, but we've been excited about what we've been doing so far. It's by no means finished yet, so we’ve got a way to go. It's been a productive time though.
So you're not even sure if new material might see the light of day this year necessarily? It's just going to be ready when it's ready?
I wouldn't want to start to predict that kind of thing in a Radiohead schedule because you can find yourself six months down the line saying “I wish I hadn't have said that actually!”
Is there at least a general thrust to the music? I remember Ed [O’Brien] saying that when you came together for the sessions that became King of Limbs, Nigel [Godrich] introduced software to you that helped you to trigger and mix samples on the fly, and that informed the layering of material and things went from there. Have you got a similar kind of spark or kernel for how the album might develop?
Well... as we always do, there might be a core thing eventually but we come at it from a number of angles. You don't really know ultimately what's the strongest intention until we've finished. I couldn’t tell you at the moment.
Philip Selway plays the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the 11th February with support from Eaves. Weatherhouse is out now on Bella Union records.