Meeting Ed O’Brien is easy — even under extraordinary circumstances. Belying the gloomy image of the band he co-founded 35 years ago, the 51-year-old Radiohead guitarist is a friendly and inquisitive conversationalist who seems to crave human connection. His sunny demeanor is not even dimmed by our current worldwide crisis, which has affected him personally.
“Well, I’ve got the virus but I’m getting over it,” he said matter-of-factly from his home in the UK when reached Monday by phone. “For someone like myself, this is just a bad dose of the flu. I’m not in any way in danger. I basically sat outside all day because the weather is glorious. It’s the first sunshine we’ve had this spring. It’s not a bad place to be.”
As O’Brien confirmed via his Instagram account on Monday, he has been sick for nearly two weeks with flu-like symptoms that he says are consistent with coronavirus. (Though he has not been officially tested.) He believes he fell ill while promoting his first solo LP, Earth, due April 17 under the moniker EOB. Instead of playing concerts and meeting fans, O’Brien has been stuck at home in Wales in self-quarantine away from his family.
And yet, during our interview, he did not appear to let his own health or the troubled state of the world get him down. He was instead happy to talk about Earth, an album that slowly took shape over the course of the ’10s as O’Brien warmed to the idea of finally working outside of Radiohead, the band he joined in his teens.
The resulting work is about what you might expect from the guy in Radiohead who is still enamored with the emotionally direct, guitar-centric rock music that the band made in the ’90s. This is not to say that Earth merely apes the sound of The Bends and OK Computer. Instead, it takes inspiration from the ecstatic energy of massive communal events like Glastonbury (which O’Brien has often attended as a fan when he’s not there as a performer) and Carnival in his adopted home country of Brazil. O’Brien at his best as a solo artist specializes in big-sounding, groove-centric anthems that evoke the stadium-sized scale of ’90s U2. (One of U2’s key sonic collaborators of that era, Flood, is Earth‘s co-producer.) Elsewhere, he delivers acoustic mood pieces reminiscent of Meddle era Pink Floyd, thanks in part to his lovely and surprisingly effective tenor vocals.
O’Brien’s plans for a solo tour have temporarily been put on hold, though he does hope to reschedule once the pandemic — and his own health — improves. In the meantime, he talked about what he’s doing to stay sane during these insane times.
I find that I’m listening to a lot of music these days. It’s very therapeutic. Are you doing that as well?
Well, I’ve been ill, so I haven’t wanted to do anything. It’s literally the first day I sort of got a little bit of a spring in my step. It’s funny, because I’ve been asked tonight to choose my 12 favorite albums. I feel like my music taste is changing. I want to listen to a lot more classical music. The times are sort of differentiating quite drastically what I want to listen to. What are you listening to? What’s making an impact on you?
The last few days I’ve been listening to a lot of Lou Reed, which isn’t necessarily the most optimistic music, but there’s something about it that’s been reassuring to me. I haven’t listened to The Velvet Underground in a really long time because it’s so elemental and it’s sort of ingrained in you after a while, but to actually go back and listen to those records again has been comforting.
Because it comes from a place that when you first listened to those songs, you were younger and it’s all part of your musical and emotional framework. You go back to these things that kind of give you a grounding, they’re rooted in something, right?
Yeah. I think there’s something about music, especially if you love music and you’ve been listening to it your entire life, where it at least has the illusion of permanence. It’s as if it’s fixed in the ground, even when everything else feels like it’s changing and maybe falling apart a little bit.
The amount of classical music that I was exposed to — because I learned an instrument and I was in the choir when I was a kid — that for me is the place that I’m going back to. And I’m rediscovering all this classical music that I know really well, like a Beethoven piano concerto. There’s something for me really reassuring and deep and kind of elemental as well. And that’s all I kind of want to listen to at the moment, really.
It’s very soothing.
Yeah. But it’s also dramatic. I remember my mom, she was very good at making dresses and she’d be on the floor cutting it out and there’d be the record player and one moment there would be Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and the next, there would be Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf, that kind of thing. I think it was a really lovely time. I was very lucky. I was very blessed to be exposed to a lot of music. And Peter And The Wolf scared the fucking living shit out of me. I couldn’t listen to it that when I was young, it was such a dramatic piece of music.
I have to tell you that I wrote a book about Kid A that’s coming out in September. And one of things I write about is how Kid A has soundtracked so many traumatic events in the past 20 years: 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Katrina, the financial crisis of the late aughts. I’m sure people are playing it now during this crisis. There’s something about that album that feels like the end of the world. This might be an awkward question for the person who helped to make it, but: Why do you think Kid A has that sort of resonance?
Gosh. Well, I know that it was made at a time within the band when there was a massive unease. I remember that one of the winters — because it took about a year and a half to record, I think it was the first winter — when we had the foot-in-mouth disease in Britain, and they literally had to kill millions of cattle because they were worried about a pandemic. And there was a lot of rain, there were lots of floods everywhere. And I remember feeling very bleak when we recorded it. I just remember we recorded a lot of it during winter where there’s a lot of nighttime, a lot of dark hours.
I don’t want to speak for Thom or for anyone else, but I know for me, I was suffering from depression quite majorly around that time. I’m not saying that everyone was suffering from depression, but I would say that there wasn’t a lot of hilarity or fun. So maybe there’s something in the music that’s made at a time of darkness. But that was our musical response and Thom’s lyrical response to the time of being in a dark place. Maybe that resonated.
You’ve talked about how attending Glastonbury in the UK and Carnival in Brazil were inspirational for you as a songwriter on this album. Obviously, at this time all in-person communal events are being put on hold. You also aren’t able to tour behind this album as you planned. How significant is that loss?
I need those great communal events. Because we’re typically fed a diet of how miserable and how destructive we are to one another and how we are to the planet and it’s pretty relentless, isn’t it? I had to give up the news. When I was in the heart of my depression, I basically stopped watching the news for seven years. I’d been a news junkie, having studied politics and economics at university. But what you realize is it’s a barrage of how fucking awful we are. The trouble with that is it gets magnified, as if that’s how all human beings behave and it’s just not true.
Human beings in really difficult situations can actually be enlightened, and they can be incredibly creative. For me, those communal gatherings are moments when you come together, and you’re reminded of how amazing humanity can be and how supportive and how loving and how constructive it is rather than destructive. There’s so much fear out there. And I get it, because we’ve been bombarded with all this shit. This is where music, I think, has actually a really important part to play. A great gig is almost like going to church. It’s spiritual. The older that I get, it’s felt more and more important.
Are you still hoping that you’re going to be able to tour behind this album?
I am hoping that I will be able tour. Whenever that will be, we will do it. I definitely feel it’s important to get out there and for people to connect with one another. One of the things that I’ve always loved about what we do is talking to people afterwards, meeting people and genuinely connecting. I’m a human being, you’re a human being. We’re all just shooting the shit after a gig or whatever by the gates at the venue. We come from different places in the world. I really want to get out there, play music and connect with people.
Let’s talk about Earth. You’ve been working inside of a band for so long that I imagine the experience of working on your own record must’ve been really gratifying in a lot of ways, but also uncomfortable and maybe even a little scary.
I feel like when I started the record, I was almost asleep. By the time I finished the record, I was fully awake and present. About halfway through the record, it wasn’t sounding very good. I came back off a Radiohead tour and listened to it and I just went, fuck. I wasn’t used to stepping forward and going, what do I really feel? I’m still kind of used to working in a group dynamic. And what it forced me to do is it was like an awakening. It sounds quite dramatic, but it was quite dramatic to me. What is your truth? If you don’t fully step into your truth, then it’s not going to sound good. Whatever you are doing is not going to be good. You have to step fully into it. And you have to ask yourself, what do you really feel? And that, for me, was like a massive jolt. For me, it is the greatest part of the journey. Once I stood within that place, suddenly, the album was finished within six weeks, bang. I absolutely loved the whole process because I feel like I’m a different person at the end. I really am.
Three of the other guys in Radiohead already have active solo careers. Why was this the moment for you to do something yourself?
When these songs started to come about in like 2013, my kids were 9 and 7, so they were out of the little children phase. When my kids were born in 2004, 2006, I wanted to be a present and committed father and because I come from a split family. And also biology kicks in. It’s like the love bomb going off in your life. Suddenly it’s like, oh my God, this is all I want to do. It wasn’t all that I wanted because Radiohead is what I wanted to do as well. I didn’t have any other time. Around 2012 they were no longer little children. They didn’t need that kind of super vigilance and hands on and all that stuff.
And there’s also the other side, which you can’t quantify, that you can’t understand. If you’d asked me 10 years ago whether I want to make a record, I was like, no I’m completely creatively satisfied with my life and what I do and being in this great band. And then something happened and suddenly it becomes the important creative outlet in your life. It’s like falling in love. It was totally like that. It was like when you’ve fallen in love with somebody and it just happens. You weren’t expecting it.
My immediate impression of Earth is that it’s the most direct-sounding music to come out of anyone associated with Radiohead in a long time.
Definitely. Absolutely. Because to me, that’s the challenge. It was the hardest thing. It’s so hard when you’re used to making music that is impressionistic, that has all these tones. When this music started coming out, my analogy was like Radiohead is sort of like this beautiful impressionistic painting, and I wanted this record to be direct like Kobra, who’s this amazing Brazilian graffiti artist. It’s this really warm, sort of magical, dense, colorful, lots going on, but it’s not impressionistic. It’s very direct. Always, as an artist — I think we’ve done it in Radiohead — you react to what you’ve done before.
Your role in Radiohead has always been complementary. You’ve talked about how Andy Summers of The Police was an early influence, and he was essentially a textural guitar player who acted as a buffer between two very big personalities in the band. How do you go from being that sort of “glue guy” in Radiohead to a bandleader?
I think you’re right with Andy Summers. I hadn’t thought about it, but he filled the space and he complemented Sting’s songs and Steward Copeland’s style of playing. I didn’t realize until later what an incredible, multifaceted guitarist he was in terms of all the skills. Stewart Copeland and Sting are very, very forceful characters and they could be obviously quite abrasive at times. And Andy’s someone who’s much more of an emollient. He probably oiled the parts and, I don’t know, but he may well have been the glue in that band.
You look at Bowie and the way that he works with people and all the stories you hear. He was a great collaborator, he was fun, he had a sense of self, but he was also kind. In the studio, I wanted to help create an environment where there’s no fear. I don’t think you need to become an abrasive, dictatorial kind of character.
Earth is out on 4/17 via Capitol Records. Get it here.