Q&A: Radiohead Drummer Phil Selway On Why He Made A Solo Album (And Why It Came Out On A Plain Old Record Label)


Almost exactly a decade ago, the purring electronics of Kid A threatened to marginalize real-life Radiohead drummer Phil Selway’s role in the band he’d initially co-founded in name of alt-rock–the sort of alienated-by-technology lament you’d expect frontman Thom Yorke to write a song about. But Selway persevered, and now, with his first solo album, Familial, he’s fallen about as far from that tree as possible. He hardly touched the drums at all this time, instead outsourcing that task to Wilco drummer and occasional abstract-percussion space cadet Glenn Kotche, and gingerly stepping into a new sort of spotlight as an acoustic-wielding singer-songwriter. Elliott Smith’s influence runs strong on these delicately strummed tracks, Selway’s quiet whisper cooing over songs steeped in striking sentimentality.

Radiohead has, of course, consistently demonstrated their unmatched mastery of the balance between organic and synthetic, and nobody’s as worried about Selway’s continuing place in the band as he might have been himself circa 1999. But if the machines had won, Familial shows that he’d eventually have found his way to another artistic life, one less about pulses and structures than about asymmetrical and thus very human expressions of love and fear. Because that’s one thing that computers can’t do. Yet.

What is it about this material that struck you as being inappropriate for Radiohead?

In Radiohead, you have a very strong voice. It’s a very powerful voice, but it’s just very recognizable and very personal to Thom. These songs felt very personal to me. I don’t know that it would have been a comfortable place for Thom to come to.

Did you share the material with him or with the other guys while it was in progress, maybe ask for feedback or suggestions?

Not really, no. I wanted to be finished and happy with it before I played it to the others. I had it mastered, and I listened to it for a couple of weeks, and then after rehearsal one day I passed it around as everybody was leaving. I felt that it needed to be as I wanted it to be before I played it for anybody else.

This is almost a complete inversion of your role in Radiohead, because not only are you playing guitar and singing, you’re also explicitly not playing drums. How did you come to the decision to turn that over to Glenn?

I didn’t actually hear any drum parts in my head. That was the chief thing, really. The way that Glenn approached it, it’s almost like this percussion school, and it’s very particular to Glenn. He’ll find these sound effects out of the kit and ends up with these parts which, if you take them in isolation, they sound like they’ve been programmed, but they’ve just got this wonderful feel running through them. And if you tried to program them, it would take you ages, and you probably wouldn’t get there. Glenn is doing all that in real time through doctoring the kit and preparing it in particular ways. And actually watching that, it just felt completely in tune with the music–every layer that went on there was just trying to find something that was quite delicate, but also slightly scuffed things up as well.

Your enthusiasm for Glenn’s approach–is that something that you expect will pop up in your own playing?

I wish! [Laughs.] I wish I could play like Glenn. Watching anybody leads you to inevitably sit there with your notebook and think, “I must try that.” But they’re also things that are very particular to Glenn, and I’d probably find it quite difficult to pull them off.

Would you be alright with it if your primary audience for this project ends up being Radiohead fans?

Hmm, that’s interesting. I mean, I wouldn’t want to push it as a Radiohead record, but I think people who are into Radiohead seem to have very eclectic music tastes. I would hope it would strike a chord with some people who are into Radiohead, but at the same time, I’d really like it to stand up in its own right as well.

Why does Phil Selway need a record label when Radiohead does not?

I found a good home. In the U.K. I’m with Bella Union, and in the States I’m with Nonesuch, and they just felt like labels that were very in tune with what I was doing. Simply that. For where I’m at with my own stuff at the moment–very much at the start, and an unknown quantity–it just felt the appropriate place to be, really.

One of the common comments about In Rainbows is that you guys were only really set up to do something like that–initially release it yourselves on the Internet–because you had spent so many years as a primary project for a major label first. Is the way that you’re releasing your solo album sort of an acknowledgement of that?

It hadn’t really crossed my mind, to be honest with you. I certainly wasn’t thinking about it on that political a level. I just wanted the music to be released in a way that I felt happy with. There wasn’t any great intellectualization behind the process, really. And in some ways, the same could be said about how we released In Rainbows–it was just something which, at the gut level, felt very exciting, and that’s kind of what we were led by.

Have the discussions you have about songwriting changed over the years, as Thom and Jonny and now you have introduced solo projects?

You broaden your musical experiences, as hopefully we’ve always done through all this, but in particular with working with different musicians, which for a long time none of us did. We were purely Radiohead when we made music. Which was brilliant, and that was fantastic in developing a very strong musical identity, but then I think that it’s been very healthy to go off and for all of us to do these other projects. Even though I suppose you don’t radically overhaul the dynamic that exists within the band, you’re constantly developing yourself as a musician. So that inevitably moves things along.