Ed O’Brien: Third Rock from The Sun

Mike Greenhaus on July 24, 2020
Ed O’Brien: Third Rock from The Sun

Ed O’Brien, Radiohead’s meditative peacekeeper, steps out on his own for the first time, with an enlightened global perspective and a newfound, quiet courage.

Ed O’Brien was just about ready to unlead his long-awaited first solo album, Earth, when he contracted COVID-19.

“I’ve been home with flu-like symptoms for a number of days now,” the Radiohead guitarist posted on social media in March. “It’s most probably the coronavirus… I’ve lost my sense of smell and taste and it’s been like a dose of the flu. I’m in good spirits and getting better.”

O’Brien’s not entirely sure exactly where he was exposed to the novel virus—he’s mentioned France as a possibility—but he’d spent much of the year promoting Earth around Europe and the United States.

“We’ve been so blessed—welcomed and so appreciated,” O’Brien says of Radiohead, during a busy press day in New York, a few weeks before posting his health update. “And, we were appreciated in America before we were in Britain.”

At the time of this interview in February, he’s sitting in a boutique hotel room in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, not far from clubs like CBGB and Mercury Lounge, where Radiohead played seminal gigs during their early American adventures. Radiohead’s artful twist on Brit-pop inspired many of the indie-rock bands that dominated the neighborhood’s hipster scene for the early part of the 2000s, helping revive an area of the city that’s become so trendy that it now struggles to support a creative ecosystem.

The Radiohead co-founder noticed the change when he returned to playing small clubs for the first time in years with his own international combo, which includes keyboardist Hinako Omori, guitarist Ross Chapman, bassist Dishan Abrahams and Dumpstaphunk drummer Alvin Ford, Jr.

Like Earth, which was released in April under the acronym EOB, his live show meshes Radiohead’s heady electronic and alternative sonic soundscapes with a global mix of jazz, funk, R&B and Carnival sounds. Those looser elements were key to his first proper solo project.

“Marc Allan is really steeped in that New Orleans scene,” O’Brien says of one of his managers, who looks after the careers of Aaron Neville, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and others. “It was a very intuitive thing. The rhythm section’s feel was important. It’s not always easy when you get musicians together. You’ve got to have a certain feeling about them. But [I’m working with] good people.”

O’Brien started thinking about what would eventually surface as Earth when he moved to Brazil with his wife and two children in 2012 for six months. “We went off the grid, which was good because we needed to do that as parents and human beings. Like most people, we live incredibly busy and active lives, especially with young children,” he says. “We were really disconnected from modern life, living in this natural, beautiful place in the rainforest—no Wi-Fi. And it was good for one’s overview of ‘What are we doing here?’ And, through that, came time to write. I’ve never had that experience before—this feeling where I’ve got something that I feel that I want to say.”

After returning to the U.K., the guitarist hunkered down in Wales for what he describes as “an intense writing phase” and continued to finesse and demo his song cycle while back home in London. But, then, he shifted his focus to Radiohead.

“I was all ready to record in 2014, and then we started A Moon Shaped Pool in the summer of 2014,” he says of Radiohead’s most recent LP. “It was a full-on, three-year cycle that became four years. I had to put the recording on hold until we had the first session in the fall of 2017. Then, we spent 2018 working on Earth, though there was a little bit of an overlap in 2017 and 2018 with the [Radiohead] tour.”

Throughout the recording process, he worked with producers Flood and Catherine Marks as well as an all-star cast: Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood, drummer Omar Hakim, bassist Nathan East, singers Dave Okumu and Laura Marling, Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, who happened to be living in Europe after his wife received a Fulbright scholarship.

The guitarist—who took up meditation after becoming sober almost 20 years ago—describes his creative process as somewhat of a spiritual awakening. While Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and his fellow guitarist Jonny Greenwood always seem busy with a flurry of creative endeavors, and drummer Philip Selway has slowly chipped away at a solo career, O’Brien has—by and large— remained dedicated to his primary band. (Colin Greenwood has pursued his interests in the photography world.) His quiet nature and peacekeeper role has made him a fan favorite; yet his mindful guitar work, percussive flourishes and backing vocals have often been overlooked by the festival crowds that Radiohead has long claimed as their own. However, the understated musician has always sensed something deeper was missing and, with Radiohead taking some time off, he finally decided to step into the spotlight.

“I’m so blessed to be in Radiohead and do all this stuff,” he says. “But, if I’m honest, I always felt like there was a bit of a hole, and I realized it was songwriting. That’s what I was yearning for.”

You began thinking about Earth while you were living in Brazil. What led you to temporarily move your family to South America?

It was a love of the country and a love of South America. I love Brazilian culture—the people are just extraordinary. I love Brazilian music; I first came across it around the time of OK Computer. It touched me in this way where you just accept it; it goes straight to your heart. There’s a lot of rhythm, a lot of melody, a lot of beauty—a lot of love, power and joy. Even the Tropicália stuff, which essentially came out of a protest movement at theend of the ‘60s, has that. People had to leave Brazil and they were exiled in London. Despite their circumstances, there’s still a great joy in their music that I felt was important. It’s celebratory of the human condition. Brazilians taught the world how to play with beauty, skill, grace and power.

My wife is fluent in Portuguese and my kids became fluent because they went to a little village school. The nearest city, Sao Paulo, was 200 miles away; it was important for us to be in a rural place. We were surrounded by these beautiful, local people who live very simple, but not easy, lives. They opened their hearts to us. Most of them had never met a British person, so it was just a beautiful time. The love we felt there really had a profound effect on the music I made. I wanted to make a warm record—a deeply loving record, full of color—because I feel that’s important at this time.

Yes, a lot of shit is happening, but there’s also potential and so much good. The Brazilians were influential. Most Brazilians live extraordinarily hard lives—poverty and oppression. But when you go to Carnival, you see these people who radiate such love and warmth. It’s so inspiring. That’s the human condition—Carnival is the safety valve to society. I’m also a big soccer fan and, for most of us, Brazil is the mecca for football. Everybody there talks about football. You can mention music, but football is ubiquitous. 

Especially in the political realm, the world has changed dramatically since you first started working on Earth. Does the music still feel timely now that the album is finished?

It was funny because some of the lyrics started with a certain feeling. I’ve never written lyrics before, but what I found was that the lyrics made more sense after two, three or four years. It was almost like I was feeling this kernel of an idea and, three years later, that kernel had a greater weight. If I had been making an electronic record, it might have been different. That, to me, feels like the frontier of sound because things are moving so fast that they can get outdated very quickly. But I was trying to make a record that had universality to it.

Two pieces of writing were hugely influential: One was Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; I hadn’t really read that before and, when I was in an intensive writing phase, I was reading that daily. The other one was Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. My whole thing was to follow my intuition. My mantra was: “Get out of your head and into your heart.”

If you let your intuition be your guide and back that intuition up with your head, then your head will often say, “You can’t do this.” But your intuition can conceive the bigger picture, not just what’s in front of you. On a very simple level, my mind was saying, “You need to make an electronic album because you come from a place that’s all about you.” I did that for about six weeks, but I got nothing back from it. My heart was saying, “Pick up the acoustic guitar.” At that moment, I thought, “What’s my truth? What do I really want to do?”

Speaking of finding one’s truth, you started practicing meditation long before it was fashionable. What role does that spiritual exercise play in your creative process?

It’s amazing how many people are taking it up. When friends of mine are going through something, I always say two things: Eat properly, including eliminating sugars, and meditate. If I didn’t do that, then I would’ve been thrown about, which I was.

My meditation [practice] comes out of life crises, it comes out of depression—ill health, chronic fatigue, no energy. I started when I gave up alcohol 17 years ago. And, for me, it’s my daily foundation. I was thrown about by the slings and arrows of life, the fear and the media. So, meditation grounds you and it helps you to see the bigger picture.

I didn’t know how to write [when I started Earth] and the writing became almost like a form of meditation for me. I’d get up, meditate, take the kids to school and then go to my shed. When I’d come out four or five hours later, time had zipped by. The moment you let go, you surrender to what you feel. You also have to shut down your phone—no emails—and think, “This is where you are. Treat it with the respect that is due.”

I read this book called The Artist’s Way, which was very helpful. It’s about having discipline—each morning you know you’re going to start at 9:30 a.m. The artist is fluid, but there’s also discipline that’s involved, and that’s certainly worked for me. You hear stories about The Beatles; they’d be in the studio by 9:00 a.m. and work until 5:00 p.m., and they made great stuff during that time. They knew when they were going to get together and rehearse. So, the moment the songs were written, it felt like it wasn’t about me; I’m just diving into this frequency and seeing what comes through. It was about letting go and surrendering.

Around the time of OK Computer, quite a lot of music was coming out, but I’d never written lyrics. I didn’t know how to get from that initial phase, where you have a lovely riff or motif, to the phase where you build a song around that. But that’s the craft—you have to have the confidence to do that.

What was your initial vision once you realized that it was time for you to make a solo album based around your guitar?

My initial vision was that I wanted to make a big, peaceful record. I wanted to have moments of power and moments of real intimacy. I wanted melody in there and I wanted rhythm in there. The first thing was getting a producer and, in my world, the bar is quite high. My problem is that I’m pretty fussy with sound and I needed to work with someone that I could entirely trust.

Flood is my favorite producer. He was on board and then I thought, “Now, I’ve got to find the musicians.” I’m very lucky that, where I come from, I can just make the call. I felt instinctively that I wanted to work with a drummer like Omar Hakim and a bass player like Nathan East. I was interested in that soulful, jazzy, funky place that’s just in these guys. A song like “Olympik” needed Omar and Nathan to pull it off. It had to be glorious, beautiful, epic, exquisitely played and have a groove. I was intrigued by the idea of [mixing that groove] with Flood’s sensibilities—and my sensibilities—which are more about European sonics.

The process of making an album was an awakening. About halfway through, I realized it wasn’t sounding that good. That’s because I was semi-leading it, but I was deferring to Flood. But, of course, he didn’t know how I was feeling—what I thought was right or what I thought was wrong. The moment I took the reins, everything changed. It was a new thing for me to step up. I don’t take the reins in Radiohead; Thom takes the reins. It’s a collaborative thing, but I’m there to support the music with sounds and ideas.

Was there a specific turning point while you were working on Earth where you had this awakening?

It mainly came from a place of, “Fuck, this sounds like shit.” And Flood told me why it sounded like that. He said: “You’ve got to lead this.” It was like a slap around the cheeks. The last Radiohead tour was in 2018; we toured for four weeks. Then, I went to Holland and listened to what we were working on and it got me really fucking worried. I spent all this money, utilized these incredible people— their time and my time. I spent a couple of days going, “Shit.” Then, I went back to each verse, in each song, and went, “What is moving me here? What is good?” And having the courage of my convictions was really important.

The moment I did that, we went back into the studio, finished the tracking and basically changed all the songs entirely in six weeks. It was a daunting realization—you put in all this energy, you’re tired and you’ve got to redo all these songs. What was great, for me, was that moment, that awakening; it was a very powerful thing. We can all kid ourselves with obfuscation, delusion. When you say, “What is the true thing?” you’re getting right to the heart of it. Then the album opened up, and we went into hyper-speed and we knocked everything out. That’s the main thing I learned— the courage of my convictions.

Even after the mixing started, we had one song that we hadn’t got quite right. It was supposed to be a celebratory moment right before Christmas, and I turned to Flood and said, “We haven’t got ‘Brasil’ right yet.’” He was like, “I know,” and that’s what’s great about him. I can say something, and we feel the same way. We know when something is done and when it’s not done, so we’re not arguing or pretending.

You once described your role in Radiohead as the “mom of the band” and called Thom the “dad.” Is that still an appropriate metaphor?

It’s always been that way. My role within Radiohead is often making sure people are OK, making sure Thom is OK, making sure everybody is happy, keeping everyone communicating.

Earth is also your coming-out party as a lead vocalist. Did you always intend to sing these songs yourself?

I still struggle with confidence in my voice. I never sang as a lead vocalist so, when I was conceiving the songs, I thought that possibly someone else would sing them. The engineer I was working with said to me: “You can sing them.” And I was like, “No.” I thought he was just being kind and encouraging, but he meant it. I said, “Maybe I’ll ask someone else—maybe I’ll ask Thom,” and he looked at me and he was like, “You can do this.” We had a session in 2014— late in the summer—and, for the first time, I heard something in my voice.

I continue to have singing lessons and I have a great teacher. What you hear through your ears can be very different from what comes out, so I was trying to understand the different sounds. Flood always said, “You can do this,” and he’s worked with all these incredible vocalists. 

When Radiohead recently started releasing archival live performances through the Radiohead Public Library, you signaled out the band’s 2006 performance at Bonnaroo. What made that show so special for you?

We’ve done quite a few American festivals. In Britain, we’re very fortunate to have Glastonbury, and Bonnaroo felt the nearest to that. It’s in the countryside—it’s a pilgrimage. It takes effort to get there. When we heard that we were doing this jamband festival, we saw that we had a three-hour slot and our set at the time was probably an hour and a half. On that tour, we were playing a number of new songs—songs that would eventually be on In Rainbows—but we also had to play some other things to fill our time spot. It was one of those magical nights, a warm Southern night. We played really well. The heat helped—we relaxed. It felt low-key. It didn’t feel like a heightened headlining festival appearance; it felt like there was a lot of love and support in the air.

The second time we played Bonnaroo was in 2012. I still really enjoyed it, but there was a different energy. In 2006, Bonnaroo felt like it was an alternative thing and, by 2012, it had that more mainstream vibe to it. So, I’d say, 2006 felt like it was an independently promoted festival and 2012 felt like one of the big corporate promoters was involved. It was still great, but it didn’t have the same soul.

Speaking of the jamband scene, you have discussed your appreciation for Phish recently and there is a famous photo of you and the band backstage at their Halloween show in 2016. What led you to that concert?

That was extraordinary. We have the same management as Phish. I was on a road trip with my family—Joshua Tree, Sedona, Phoenix, Grand Canyon—and thought we’d do Vegas for one night on Halloween. Phish were playing the MGM Grand that night and Coran Capshaw, their manager, asked me if we fancied seeing Phish. It was unbelievable. I knew of Phish—the photographer Danny Clinch is a good friend, and he is good friends with the Phish guys. He always talked about them in the ‘90s—these weekends they would do on an Air Force base. And when we started walking into their world, I saw that there was so much love, joy, warmth and happiness in that place. We’ve played arenas, but this was on another level.

Ezra Koenig [of Vampire Weekend] has also been talking about them a lot in interviews recently. And I learned that one of the few times Trey [Anastasio] played a guitar that wasn’t one of his own [Languedoc guitars], he actually played my signature Stratocaster. [Anastasio used an Ed O’Brien Stratocaster during Phish’s set as Kasvot Växt on Oct. 31, 2018.]

I can’t say I know a lot about Phish’s music, but it feels like you don’t need to know a lot about their music. The show I saw was also the night they covered David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, and we got to say hello to them briefly after. It’s easy to put them into the Grateful Dead bracket; the British might compartmentalize them like that because we don’t have those kinds of bands. British fans are great, but we don’t have a culture of letting go. In America, fans are willing to go on a journey. For me, growing up, jamming was something you never did whereas, here, there’s a lot more understanding and acceptance of jamming.

Last year, you and Philip Selway were the only members of Radiohead to attend the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. David Byrne, who inspired the band’s name, introduced you before you went onstage. What were your takeaways from that night?

I don’t think we had a conversation about anything deep with David, but he’s such a gentleman. He loves Brazilian music so I’d like to talk to him a lot more, but I was so nervous. It was a deeply uncomfortable place to be. However, I’m very pleased that we were there and that we did go because it felt important to say thank you to the industry. At my table, there was me, Philip, our managers and David. We were all nervous—all of us felt a deep discomfort in that place. It’s very show-biz, very TV. For all of us, that’s not our natural habitat. But everybody does it.

All the members of Radiohead have been busy working on solo projects recently. What’s next for the band?

I don’t think we know what lies ahead because everybody is doing their own thing. We’re in the earlier stages of figuring out what happens next. All I can say is that one of the great things about our band is that we’ve been very lucky. Since The Bends, we’ve been able to make the records we want. Since OK Computer, we’ve been able to make them when we want. I’d say that OK Computer and Kid A gave us breathing space. Now, we make a record when we want to. Everybody is doing their own thing and, when there’s a collective will to do it, it will happen.

But also, we’ve been in a band for 35 years, and we’ve only made two albums in the last 10 years. Naturally, you seek inspiration in new things. And though Radiohead has been a big part of our lives, we know how it works. As a musician, you’re always seeking different experiences. It’s no coincidence that, in the last 10 years, people have sought inspiration outside of Radiohead. 

EOB Meets Mike

O’Brien has been talking up Phish every chance he can in interviews while promoting Earth. Below, Phish bassist Mike Gordon recalls his time with the guitarist.

Ed has described Radiohead’s 2006 set at Bonnaroo as one of the best gigs the band ever played. What are your memories of that performance?
Their Bonnaroo show was part two in my three steps to falling in love with the band. Part one was seeing them at Madison Square Garden. I was just sort of noticing the different instruments and textures. Thom Yorke was moving from station to station—often with a camera on his head aimed back at his face—playing various kinds of keyboards.

At Bonnaroo, it seemed to gel into a trance of sorts. I was far away in some back bleachers a lot of
the time, but I was starting to get transfixed, carried away by the ebb and flow of their sound. I love when a band carries me rather than just “coming at me.”

It was the Hollywood Bowl show that fully wound me up and captured me. It was an experience
unified in its look, its sound, its emotion, its motion—utterly unique and innovative, yet also
strumming the heart strings. I was so surprised when each song/trance ended after a few minutes,
but that was OK.

Are there any elements of Radiohead’s music or visual aesthetic that you have aimed to bring into your own band?
When I saw that Hollywood Bowl show, I was stunned at how captivating the visuals were. It was
the tour when they hung hundreds of translucent poles over their heads, using three-dimensional space like I had never seen. They had the tastefulness to use that gigantic installation in minimalist ways—projecting the look of raining sparks onto those poles, through the middle of them and onto a large LCD screen behind the band.

Years later, I still tell people what it was like to see the lights raining down while similar lights blasted sideways against the back, and it certainly matched their palpitating sounds. Electronic rhythms were never so organic and warm, while that flowing legato voice sailed above it all. My band dove deep into moiré patterns, with multiple layers of screens behind us and screens backlit within our guitars. And within the interactive pieces, we used to allow our audience to play along some of the time.

Ed attended a 2016 Phish show in Las Vegas and there is a famous photo of you and Trey Anastasio with him backstage. What are your takeaways from your time with him?
Ed was talking about being a huge Bowie fan, and that was one factor that had lured him to our show. And he and his family were doing a vacation trip around some natural sites in the region. He was very friendly and said some nice things, but I guess I didn’t realize that the way we stretch songs out so far in improvisation made an impression on him. So, it’s quite an honor that someone already known for creating these trance states with a band’s music has been saying that we moved him in that way.

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.