A band like Radiohead needs no introduction. They are - without exaggeration - among the most influential and important musical acts in history, certainly within anything that can be considered rock music. This would make one of their members an ideal candidate to create a new guitar, which is precisely what bandmate Ed O'Brien has done with a little help from Fender.
O'Brien has teamed up with the legendary guitar purveyor to create the EOB Sustainer Stratocaster, an instrument far more intuitive than its name might suggest. Initially finding inspiration for the guitar in a dream, it's a project that ultimately finds a few sonic roots during the creation of Radiohead's legendary 2000 album Kid A.
And all of this while the band continues to embark on a mammoth tour in support of their last record - 2016's A Moon Shaped Pool - and a recent 20th anniversary re-release of their landmark OK Computer. Not to mention the fact that O'Brien is also putting the finishing touches on his debut solo album, due out sometime this year.
Highsnobiety Music caught up with O'Brien to discuss this myriad of projects, the way in which Radiohead's iconic earlier albums continue to inform his work today and how he takes his toast in the morning.
How did the collaboration with Fender come about? And for those of us not familiar with the lingo, what exactly is the instrument you've made?
Well it started about four years ago when I woke up. I had this dream - I can’t remember the dream, but I know whatever was in the dream propelled me to fire off an email to the one person I knew at Fender about the idea. I felt that this guitar I had been playing… it would be very cool and exciting if they started manufacturing what is basically the guitar I’ve been playing for 13 years.
When we made Kid A, our fourth record, we kind of threw away our proper instruments - guitars and stuff went out the window - and because I had played guitar I was searching for something that might replace it. I was aware of this thing called the ‘infinite guitar’ which came to musical consciousness on U2’s The Joshua Tree. So when we were looking for other instruments to use I thought of this infinite guitar. We decided to basically install the sustainer unit into my guitar at the time, and I loved it - the only problem was that it sounded great in sustainer mode but didn’t sound that good in guitar mode. So I went to Fender and asked if we could make a guitar that could, with the flick of a switch, become a sustaining unit. And they were up for it, which is amazing. It’s been a thorough but really fun journey to where we are now.
Wait, you thought of all this in a dream but you don’t remember what the dream was?
All I remember from the dream was - it wasn’t one of those extraordinary bizarre dreams, not like mine from the night before last which was very bizarre - it was a dream that propelled me. It was almost like this thing was out there made; it’s a dream that’s a forerunner to the waking world. You wake up and go ‘oh it’s already been made. Oh no, it hasn’t, but it will be.’ You wake up and feel the inevitability of it being made. Then you get together with friends and make it happen and work out the finer details of it all.
And you’re using this guitar on your current tour?
Yeah I use it for the majority of the songs we play live, which is unheard of for me. What I was beginning to tire of was changing your guitar every song, that can really stop the flow. So this one has been great, it’s a lot more intuitive to play.
Have there been any songs from your catalogue you’ve found particularly challenging to play live?
There might be a song we do off the new record that requires more - but it’s not going to distract me or anything. I can’t really play things off The Bends or OK Computer - they have such a distinct sound and you can’t really replicate it unless it’s from the same instruments. There are a few that are hard to do, but most I can do on the new guitar.
Are songs from A Moon Shaped Pool better suited to playing?
Not necessarily. Doing it live - an album like that - you can’t be true to how it sounds in the studio. So much of it is sonically assembled in the studio, so you’re doing a different version live. That’s where the guitar comes in so beautifully, as you can be more textural.
How are you feeling about A Moon Shaped Pool now that we’re nearly two years removed from its release?
I haven’t heard anything off it, truthfully, since probably the mixing meeting. Once you’ve made a record you don’t really listen to it. To be honest with you, when you’ve finished making a record you kind of never want to hear it again.
The re-release of OK Computer this past year for example, I hadn’t really heard it for 20 years. We obviously are familiar with the songs because we play some of them live, so you are connected, but you forget about the sounds of the record. For instance, OK Computer was really lovely to hear; the sound of it takes you back to that time completely. It will be interesting to come back to A Moon Shaped Pool in 15-20 years time and go ‘oh yeah, that was this stage in time.’ I don’t really have an opinion of The King of Limbs, or the last three albums really. I like them obviously. But there are moments, I heard on the radio for instance... off In Rainbows... God, I can’t remember what it is. It was our first single. Wow, this is really embarrassing…
Was it “Reckoner”?
No, it wasn’t that. God, what was it?!
Let me look it up… “Jigsaw Falling Into Place?”
Yes! “Jigsaw!” That’s the one. Anyway, I heard it on the radio and that felt amazing - when you haven’t heard something for a while, it pushes up all the memories. I guess all bands have that, otherwise they wouldn’t do it - have a moment of going ‘this is really great.’
I feel like I’ve read reams of musical criticism that is focused on the time you were just discussing - of radically breaking from Radiohead’s sound during the creation of Kid A - and the reaction from fans and critics alike was polarized. Did you notice this around the time of its initial release?
Not really, no. With all due respect - I mean that properly, not where I say ‘with all due respect’ and I don’t actually respect you - I think that’s the difference between American and British tastes at the time. In terms of what middle class kids in Britain in the mid ‘90s were listening to, a mix of electronic and rock got embedded in our DNA. In Britain we’re slightly ahead of the curve.
James Murphy [of LCD Soundsystem] was doing the same thing, but that was slightly after we made Kid A. I don’t think in terms of the hoopla about it, and hindsight is always different, but I remember thinking that around the time of its release that we had made three albums and were following one trajectory, like many other bands who built a following and made better and better records. So after OK Computer we thought ‘hang on a sec, maybe we don’t want to go down that path.’ It felt like a very Bowie move honestly, a British Bowie move. He was the inspiration, he had done it way more than us. I was thinking about this this morning actually, as I was making my toast.
How do you take your toast?
I just have it with butter, I don’t do jam. I don’t do all that sugar stuff, just good old butter. And a nice cup of tea, of course.
Let’s talk a bit about your nomination for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame… you guys were vocally against it and even have a show scheduled for the night of the induction. Can I ask what all the fuss is about?
Well firstly, that show has been on the books for the past year. I hope people don’t think we’re disrespecting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s obviously an honor people would choose you for that.
I can’t emphasize this enough: we’ve never been a band that understands award ceremonies. We’re grateful, and I’m hugely respectful of it; there’s some incredible people involved in that. It’s not that we’re snobbing it, we just don’t fully understand it. We would do it if we lived in America - and if we weren’t on tour and we were actually around. We’ve always been a band that plays for our audience first and foremost, so that’s what we’ll do. It’s not at all a thumb up at the Rock Hall, nor is it a touchy subject.
You’re also in the process of making your first solo album… what’s your headspace like on that project?
My headspace is good, I don’t know how to quite express it just yet. We’ve got some fantastic musicians on board and now we're in the stage of putting it all together. It’s quite different - I’m writing the lyrics which is new for me. It’s a journey that can be frustrating, but on the whole I’m really, really enjoying it. You can’t make a record unless you have something you want to put out into the world, and I have that, but I won’t speak too much on it until it’s out. I’m right in the middle of it now and it wouldn’t be appropriate to say too much. But you'll see very soon!
For more like this, read our interview with Charlotte Gainsbourg on her new album 'Rest' right here.