Phil Selway: Interview
Radiohead’s members seem to love a solo project. From Thom Yorke’s voyage into the digital soundscapes of electronica to Jonny Greenwood’s visceral and unnerving film scores, their work outside of Radiohead showcases the individual genius that has propelled the sonic experimentalists to the pinnacle of contemporary music.
Drummer, Phil Selway has always been the man at the back; using that space to drive the rhythm and give structure to the constantly evolving experimentation that has characterised Radiohead’s musical output. Now three albums in, Selway’s solo projects have been acclaimed for both their scope and ambition.
Let Me Go is Selway’s latest offering and acts as both a solo record and the score to the forthcoming film of the same name. Polly Steele’s adaptation of Helga Schneider’s memoir is an unsettling and moving portrait of family dysfunction and the butterfly effects of past traumas. The drama is revealed in the silences between the characters and it is Selway’s score that acts as a beautifully nuanced accompaniment to this emotionally charged modern tragedy.
We caught up with Phil to discuss his development as a solo artist, the challenges of working in Radiohead, political engagement in music and his early love for Lou Reed.
Q. Good afternoon, Phil. Paint us a picture and tell us what you have been up to today?
Well today, not a great deal. Let’s just say that I’ve been euphemistically 'de-dogging' the garden…and I’m not talking about ‘dogging’ in the shape of communal car parking!
Q. Your new album scores the film, Let Me Go - can you tell us a bit about the film.
The film is based on a memoir from a woman called Helga Schneider who is the central character to the film. The real Helga was abandoned by her mother during the second world war in Germany resulting in her being estranged from her mother for over sixty years. The film picks up when she is called back to Vienna to sort her mother’s affairs up as she has just been admitted to a care home. The film charts that meeting and through that the mother’s grim past is uncovered and you see how that past impacts on Helga’s family throughout the generations.
Q. You have previously produced a score for the Rambert Dance company but this is your first film score. Tell us a bit about your process and how you adapted to working with film?
It has always been one of my ambitions to write music for film and it was something I’d always seen as happening in the far-off future. I was conscious of gaining the requisite skills so I could do the projects justice.
Coming into the Let Me Go project there were certain constraints on schedules as a I was touring and recording with Radiohead and that coincided with key points in the film project. However, I found a process that worked – I drew on my experiences with Radiohead and how we worked together but also my work with other artists. It soon became apparent that the score for the film would also work as a fully rounded record and that they would complement each other as separate entities.
Fundamentally, my ambition was for the music to wrap around the film’s complexity and to offer another pathway into exploring the nuances of the story and the interpersonal relationships of the characters involved.
Q. This will be your third solo album, can you talk to us a bit about your original impulse to pursue a solo career - the reasons why and has it been anything like you expected it to be?
The writing side was always there but then it really came upon me in my thirties and I realised that what I was writing didn’t necessarily fit into a Radiohead context. There’s a particular way that we work in Radiohead which works and you don’t want to disrupt that. However, at the same time I felt there was a lot more I could do musically and then the natural progression is to embark on a journey which results in solo work.
We have been incredibly lucky in Radiohead in that we have learned how to play our musical instruments and find our musical voices together and played almost exclusively with each other for the first twenty years. That was brilliant because you create something which is undeniably particular to us five people.
However, it’s also healthy and useful to step outside of that dynamic and work with other people, other musicians and get other angles on how to write, on how to arrange and to also take on different responsibilities in the process. I really felt that to carry on developing into the musician I wanted to be then that would lead me into a solo career that would dovetail with my involvement with Radiohead – just like Thom or Jonny who have worked on a number of different projects.
Q. Starting out on a solo project must have been quite daunting as you came from behind the drums to centre stage behind the mic. Were you worried about the increased exposure and how did you adapt to it?
It’s definitely a process and something that comes with time. There are definitely waypoints along the way where there’ll be a particular recording where you listen back and think ‘oh yeah, my voice works there’ and you start to believe that you can contribute and create something on your own.
There’s a lot of self-doubt along the way but that’s also the case with Radiohead and I think that self-doubt is part of the process and it drives you forward. But there are points where I sit back and appreciate the work that I have managed to create.
From the performance side, going out and playing live is a different stage craft – especially being up at the front of the stage as opposed to playing drums. That has been a gradual process of learning and adapting which has been quite intense at times. The need to hit a certain standard in my head really drives things along and motivates me to improve and develop and adapt to the new challenges I’m involving myself in. The whole solo thing is an equal measure of scary and delightful!
Q. Adaptation has become synonymous with your work and particularly in Radiohead. The evolution in Radiohead’s sound – from album to album – must have been very challenging for you as the drummer?
I actually went back to college early on in Radiohead to advance my drumming skills. It was in the period between Pablo Honey and The Bends and I realised that there were aspects of my technique that were holding me back. As I was self-taught musically – in all aspects – it’s easy to pick up bad habits and I wanted to get rid of them. I did lessons for about 5-6 months and they gave me some fundamental principles that have helped me throughout my whole career.
In terms of Radiohead and the challenges that come with that, we have never ploughed one furrow. Radiohead has always been a restless thing, creatively. You just feel that you’re coming to terms with one aspect of your playing or a particular style and then it immediately moves onto something different. There’s a sense that we were always shifting our horizons and (hopefully) into territories that would produce good music.
There’s a difference between what happens in the studio and what happens in our live performances. For example, on Kid A, material that might have been put together and generated on drum machines or building up loops in the studio had to be replicated in our live performances. That process kept myself moving forward because I had to figure out how I would recapture these sounds playing live and that has always been the case in my work in Radiohead.
There’s also the point that some of the things we produce in the studio cannot be absolutely replicated in the live shows. That’s also exciting as there’s room in those spaces to create something else - where the songs take on a different atmosphere or a different character.
Q. Radiohead have been cited as a major influence on numerous bands and you have also been feted for your influence as a percussionist. However, can you tell us who you’re influences were growing up?
I’ve always wanted to have as an eclectic musical taste as possible. There is that thing initially – when I was a teenager when you are very tribal about music. You just have the one particular music that you like and start having the look and the friends that go with it. Ultimately, that’s not the most satisfying musical experience!
I was a huge Lou Reed fan as a teenager – Velvet Underground and his solo stuff. He produced such wonderfully crafted songs and he had this very particular voice behind them. I think when you’re trying to teach yourself to do something you look to people who have done it in a very singular way so, Lou Reed was very influential for me.
Q. There was quite a lot of press about Radiohead’s decision to play in Israel recently and it brought up discussion about an artist’s role in society. What are your thoughts on the role of the artist when it comes to political engagement?
I find preaching in music unappealing but if you are using music to highlight certain issues and allowing people to engage with it in a contributory way then that feels the most appropriate form of political expression in music.
Any art, if it’s comes from a heartfelt, well thought through place then it’s going to be powerful. A good example of that is what Sleaford Mods have been doing which is a sincere project delivered with passion.
CL. It can be quite a difficult path, artistically. Jason Williamson from Sleaford Mods has spoken about the danger of being pigeon-holed as the voice of the disaffected working class.
Absolutely, in terms of getting pigeon-holed and taking a singular take on a particular issue then I don’t think you are doing that subject any favours, ultimately – you just become a caricature of yourself and easily written off. That’s one of the dangers.
Q. Coney’s Island – we have whisked you away to a tropical paradise and left you there on your own. You can have any three things to make life more bearable; what are they?
Number one would definitely be a guitar with some form of recording equipment.
The next one would be a photo album – the whole digital vault – including loved ones and snapshots of all of the experiences I’d had. It’s possible that the photo album could be a form of torture but it would also be very motivating. I would look upon the faces of friends and family and then really set to work on getting off that island.
That segues quite nicely into my next item; a Swiss army knife. I’d have plenty of time to learn the craft of ship building and even longer to build it using a Swiss army knife! It would be fun to do. In fact, I bet people would love the chance to test themselves like that - it’s a channel 4 reality show waiting to happen!
Both the film and Philip Selway's solo album, 'Let Me Go' will be released 15th September.