As Radiohead prepare to start work on their ninth studio album, Philip Selway is quietly enthusiastic as he talks to CHRIS FAMILTON about the writing and recording process of his second solo album, scoring for contemporary dance and pauses to reflect on nearly thirty years as a member of the Oxford quartet.
Philip Selway first emerged from behind the Radiohead drum kit in 2010 with his debut solo album Familial, a collection of wistful folk songs that tread softly, intimately but sometimes too tentatively. Now in 2014 he has readied his sophomore record Weatherhouse, a much darker, expansive and mood-driven effort that shows the songwriter blossoming with confidence and creativity.
I first interviewed Selway at the time of Familial’s release and the impression I got was of a musician just starting to explore a different side of his craft, that of his guitar playing and singing. He talked about being inspired and encouraged to pursue his own songwriting when he participated in Neil Finn’s 7 World’s Collide project (2007) and had the opportunity to write and record with artists such as Johnny Marr, Lisa Germano and members of Wilco. That experience was the seed for his debut album, which in turn laid the foundation for Weatherhouse.
Congratulations on the new album, how are you feeling ahead of its release compared to when you released Familial back in 2010?
A couple of things. It will be a relief to get it out as we finished it at the end of January so I’ve been living with it for quite a while. It’ll be exciting to share it with other people and see how they respond to it. It’s a different situation to when I released Familial which was a complete unknown at that point. This time round there’s something to measure it against in a way. There’s a development from the first one and there’s more of a familiarity in terms of the process of releasing a solo album so I’m feeling a bit more confident this time around.
Were you comfortable with having four years between your first two solo albums?
It was good. In that time we made another Radiohead record and toured it as well so when you have those kind of cycles going on four years is a nice period. You’ve taken in an awful lot of other musical experiences and its a chance to develop those songwriting skills and build up a body of material for when you reach that critical mass where you think it justifies making another record. When we were out touring with Radiohead in 2012 I used the downtime on tour to get my demos together and sharpen up the songs so that when we started working on the album at the beginning of last year the material was ready to go. Over four years you also build a few more things to talk about and experiences to draw upon.
Was there anything in particular that triggered the start of Weatherhouse in terms of its themes, the sound of the music or the initial songwriting?
If you take the songs in their demo form they can sit alongside the material from Familial and it feels very much of a body of work but going into Weatherhouse one of the crucial things for me was working with Adem Ilhan who produced and played on the record and Quinta, she’s a multi-instrumentalist and did some of the additional production on Weatherhouse as well. We’d played together when I toured Familial and I thought something really interesting happened musically and I wanted to explore that. When we sat down and talked about it we wanted it to feel like a band playing on the record. It definitely felt like that and I think it comes across on the record, it’s cohesive in that way. I suppose I wanted it to have a greater palette as well. Familial was me learning my songwriting and singing chops so finding my singing voice was very crucial to that record in a way. What I was aiming for on that record was somewhere between Will Oldham and Beth Gibbons, something very intimate and up close so that dictated the arrangements. On Weatherhouse we got the arrangements together first and then I had to find a way to sing around those arrangements. Also, on Familial I only drummed on one track whereas on Weatherhouse I’m drumming a lot. After a guide vocal the first real thing that would be recorded would be the drumming ideas. From that basis it automatically opens up where you could go with the arrangement. It made it far more full-bodied.
Does being a drummer mean that rhythm ever had more of an influence on the arrangements or recording process over instrumental or vocal melodies?
The melodies were already there before I started thinking drum parts but it then has a knock-on effect to how you deliver those melodies when you record them. It was a much more rhythmically aware record.
Most of the songs were first composed on acoustic guitar yet they’re presented in often haunting and layered, textural form on the album. Did the themes of the songs drive the sound in that direction?
It was more of a sonic preference. By the time we’d finished recording the tracks I had the melodies in there, some of the lines in there and the sound of lyrics that I knew would work with the songs. Then I got into the process of writing the lyrics once we had the tracks musically complete. I think its a very good way to work as you can respond to the moods generated by the music. It makes it much more cohesive. The lyric writing took as long as the recording process, it pays to put the time in there!
I know that Adem Ilhan and Quinta played integral parts in the recording of the album, were they also involved in the songwriting?
The songwriting was just me, that felt the right way to go with a solo record but we’ve collaborated on joint stuff together since then. We had a commission for the Rambert Dance Company over the Summer and that was our first fully collaborative process. It was the first reinterpretation of the choreographer Merce Cunningham’s work since he died five years ago. The nature of his dance is that it was very self-contained without cues in the music and so we were very aware that you have to work around that. You’re not putting strident rhythms in there, all those musical approaches you’d normally fall back on didn’t apply so all three of us had to re-think the process. it was really stretching but it opened up a whole new way of approaching arranging. There’s a lot to explore in that musical relationship still, it’s a fruitful one.
When we last chatted you said “If the opportunity arises I would love to make another solo album”. With your second one about to be released does your own music still feel subject to opportunities or do you see it as a certainty that you’ll continue to release solo records?
I would love to make another record after this. When you go into a project you have a long to-do list with a lot of questions to answer. By the time you get to the end of the project there are a whole raft of other questions as well and they lead onto the next project; be that another solo record, a new Radiohead record or other projects. The more you do it the more the possibilities mushroom as does the hunger to explore other musical avenues.
Whenever Radiohead reconvene to work on new music, as I know you are about to, to what extent does the solo work of yourself and the others feed into the band’s writing?
It is a separate process. We’re all very supportive of what the others do outside of the band but we’re recognise it has a real value to us as a five piece as well. Everybody is developing their musicality and it gives us a chance to try out things that maybe we can’t do collectively in Radiohead. It frees up the way we do things in Radiohead. We all began in school together and for so long we worked exclusively with each other which was brilliant as we built up a strong musical identity together but then stepping out of that and getting experience from working with other musicians that then broadens what you do, you pick up lots of technique from other people and it does make you think about arranging or producing and that’s a really healthy process.
Can you describe what is the first day is normally like when the band meet up again, is it catch up time or is it straight down to business of creating music?
Probably a bit of both. First half hour will be cups of tea but we’ll be very keen to get on with the music as well. That’s what we’re getting back together for, because we want to make music again together, that is what is going to drive it all along.
Is there any exchange of musical ideas or discussion about the band’s creative direction between albums?
When we get back together then we’ll discuss what we’ve got and where we want it to go. Even from there we never know where we’ll end up with the record.
It’s been just over 21 years since Pablo Honey came out, are you as excited and passionate about music and playing in a band now compared to when Radiohead were first starting to make inroads?
It’s different levels of naivety. Going into Pablo Honey we were incredibly naive, we all were and I think we’ve retained a lot of that as well, bolstered by a bit of experience along the way. It’s healthy, you get to this end of it, or this middle of it or whatever it is and you get a sense that you’ve built up a body of work and that body of work is bound up in a lot of memories like recording, what was going on at the time or what you were playing for those particular records. When you grow up with particular records they weave their way into the fabric of your life… these have for us. It’s like a timeline in a way. Every time I go back to start a new project I have that sense of “I don’t know what I’m doing, oh my god” so I guess the naivety is still there as well.