Philip Selway is the drummer for one of the world’s greatest and most famous rock bands. But when it came to making his third solo record, Strange Dance (due Friday), one of the first orders of business for this founding member of Radiohead was to replace himself behind the kit.
“I started off drumming, and I got about a day and a half into it and realized it wasn’t happening,” he explains during a recent Zoom call. The problem is that he hasn’t been playing drums all that much lately, as any Radiohead fan can confirm. (The band has not toured since 2018.) Fortunately, the album’s producer Marta Salogni recommended a worthy replacement: Italian percussionist/composer Valentina Magaletti.
“Valentina breathed this whole life into the record,” Selway enthused. “She works really quickly, and there’s a richness in her playing, and there’s kind of a narrative and a precision in it. But also at the same time, because she works quickly, there’s this real spontaneity about it. It’s almost improvised in a way. So, yeah, I think that was one of my better decisions, to kick myself off the drum stool.”
Strange Dance is the latest example of a Radiohead band member making music outside of Radiohead. Ed O’Brien produced his first solo effort (under the moniker EOB), Earth, in 2020. Last year, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood teamed up in the well-regarded side project The Smile, forming a power trio with jazz drummer Tom Skinner. Also in 2022, Colin Greenwood started playing with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
During the promotional campaign for Strange Dance, Selway has hinted that Radiohead might reassemble this year, sparking hopes for their first new album since 2016’s A Moon Shaped Pool. But when I spoke with him, he seemed less committal, suggesting that the band is now a collective of sorts in which solo projects fall under “the umbrella of Radiohead.”
Very curious! What’s going on here? In our interview, along with speaking at length about how he made Strange Dance, Selway discussed the current status of Radiohead and shared his memories of making Hail To The Thief, which turns 20 in June.
Looking at your solo records, there’s an obvious progression in terms of musical sophistication. Does that reflect a growing sense of confidence working on your own?
When I first started on my solo work, I had it in mind that I would do three albums and see what ground I could cover. I knew there was a lot to learn. I felt I could write songs, and I felt I could do something that would connect with people, but it was almost like starting over again, really. It’s really expanded my musicality, in ways that I wouldn’t have expected.
Wait — you set out to make three solo records? What happens now?
That’s it. I’m going to start drawing my pension now. [Laughs.] No, it needed to feel manageable when I was setting out to do it. But I’ve got to this stage now and it’s the end of the first stage, and so that opens up a lot of possibilities beyond here. As long as I’m writing, and the ideas are coming, then I will carry on making music. So I haven’t dried up quite yet.
You’re in a band with a pretty phenomenal singer. How did you develop your own voice? Have you always been a vocalist?
When I started out, my main impulse was to sing. Because I couldn’t really play an instrument at the time, so singing was where any musicality came out. Then puberty happened and I sounded like a drain for quite a while. Once Radiohead was signed, my focus became drumming, and trying to get that up to speed and up to the standard that was required of what we were doing.
I am still very much finding my singing voice. I can look at it over the course of records and see how it’s developed. Like with this record, I’ve found that actually singing in a lower register really suits my voice. It’s a much more expressive register for me to sing in.
You said earlier that you wanted the sessions for this album to go quickly. And it made me think about how Radiohead albums are notoriously difficult to make. I wonder: Is part of the attraction for you guys making music outside of the band is that, in a way, it’s easier?
With Radiohead, every step of the way we’ve been learning the next stage, if you like. It’s not like we’re coming in with all our chops and saying, “Well, I had this piece which I’ve done before, and I think it’ll work really well in this.” Everything’s bespoke as we’re going through, so you’re having to learn how to do that each time. That’s partially why it takes a while to make a Radiohead record. There’s quite a natural struggle in that.
With this album, the bits where it was a personal struggle happened for me before I got to the sessions. It was a lovely process making this record. I mean, really, really enjoyable. I don’t know if it was easy. Well, it certainly wasn’t. I mean, it’s a lot of hard work doing it.
Let me ask the question in a different way. And feel free to dismiss this if I’m just being a music critic projecting an idea on to your work.
But everything that Radiohead does is endlessly discussed and scrutinized. And I wonder if working outside the band allows you guys to make music that doesn’t have all that Radiohead baggage automatically affixed to it. Does that make sense?
It does make sense. I think for all of us, that baggage comes with you regardless of what you’re working on. Because the first thing people will say in an interview or a review is, “Philip Selway, better known for his work in Radiohead.” So you’re aware of that. And I’m sure it must be the same for all the other band members as well. I mean, that’s a particular pressure that we put on ourselves in the band from even before we were signed. That’s just part of how we function.
When I made my first two records, Familial and Weatherhouse, I was very aware of Radiohead. With Familial, I made an album that couldn’t have been more different to Radiohead in some ways. Because I really felt, “Well, I’m doing this outside of that context, it should be something very different.” But for Strange Dance, I’ve had this sense that the reference points for it have been these musical relationships that I’ve built up over this past decade. So that sense of being in Radiohead was much more in the background for me. But it never goes away, which is a good thing. I mean, God, that’s a massive presence in your life. One I’m quite happy to have.
I’m fascinated by how bands operate. Especially a band like yours where you’ve not only been in a band together for decades, but you’ve also been friends since you were kids. And it’s the same five people, which is such a rare thing. Do you feel like the opportunity to make your own records, and the other guys making their own records, has added to the longevity of the band?
I think it’s been essential, really. We’re all aware that Radiohead works in a particular way, and that’s a really effective way, and are really proud of what we’ve done with that. But when you’ve been making music for 40 years, there are going to be avenues that you want to go down which don’t necessarily fit in that mold. I think it must be the same for all of us. For me, back in Radiohead, you really value what’s there. But you also really get a greater sense of who you are as a musician in your own right.
Did you see that Beatles documentary Get Back?
I did, yeah.
In that movie, The Beatles were back at work on a new album less than two months after the release of The White Album. And it made me think about how those guys never really said, “Let’s take a year or two off, make our solo albums, and then reconvene.” That’s something you see long-running bands do all the time now. I feel like one thing bands learned from The Beatles is how not to burn themselves out.
Yeah, I mean, there’s a big difference in that we’re in our 50s now. The Beatles weren’t even out of their 30s at that point. What they did in that decade, less than a decade, is just unbelievable. But it feels like they had to step out of that to find their lives beyond it. And, I guess, we have been luckier, that actually our lives outside of the band have been able to develop at the same time.
But The Beatles, I mean, that’s just such an exceptional circumstance, isn’t it? What they were doing musically, just in terms of being this global phenomenon and ubiquitous and just kind of fetishized, all of those different things. Then you watch that documentary and you see the poise that they handled it all with. And you just think, “Oh my God.”
I could not have done that at 30 in their place. At that age, we were just about to release OK Computer. It was hard enough doing that without all that history you had already accumulated, and without all of the expectation on what you were doing. I’m glad we’ve been able to spread it out over a number of decades rather than sorting it all into one.
Have you ever brought your own songs into Radiohead?
When I first joined, I brought material in. But actually, it’s really been about Thom’s songwriting in the band, and then how we interpret that and where we all take it as the five of us.
You’ve said recently that Radiohead expects to work together in 2023. Do you know when that might be?
We get together quite regularly, and we talk about what we might be able to do. But we also talk a lot about our own projects that we’re working on at the moment. Right now, it feels like all of those different projects are where our attention needs to be placed. Ed is making a solo album at the moment, and it’s going to be great. And Thom and Jonny are doing more work on The Smile, and it’s been brilliant watching that this past year. And then Colin kind of beats us all hands down, working with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
Radiohead hasn’t toured in five years, and the band hasn’t put out a new album in seven years. Is it just assumed that you’re always going to be a band? Or has there ever been any doubt about that?
With all the other projects that we do, I look at it and think that it all falls under the umbrella of Radiohead. That’s the richness of what we do. And I still very much identify as a member of Radiohead.
So you’re like The Wu-Tang Clan at this point?
[Laughs.] I wouldn’t make that claim for ourselves, that might sound a little bit inappropriate for us. But there is that kind of collective sense of what we’re doing, yes.
Hail To The Thief turns 20 in June. What are your memories of that record?
Looking back on it now, it’s a very good bridge between Kid A, Amnesiac, and In Rainbows. It’s almost like two records in one, actually, which I guess is what Kid A and Amnesiac were. But very much there was the core of the band at one point in the Ocean Way sessions. Then you had tracks that are much more electronic, if you like. So you have the two hemispheres of the Radiohead brain coexisting in that record. And there are a lot of tracks on that record.
Wasn’t the original idea to work quickly after Kid A and Amnesiac took so long?
We started quickly. Then it … had more requirements.