On a quiet night in early November, the shrill ring of the telephone almost sends me into cardiac arrest. On the other end of the line is Radiohead drummer Philip Selway.
On a quiet night in early November, the shrill ring of the telephone almost sends me into cardiac arrest. On the other end of the line is Radiohead drummer Philip Selway. The eldest member of the Oxford quintet has recently released his debut solo album, Familial , and is taking time out to chat in between recording sessions for Radiohead’s eighth album; yet, the remarkably humble musician is expressing his gratitude for my time. Despite being a member of the world’s most revered and innovative band, Selway converses with an endearing air of modesty and vulnerability. Gentle, polite and amiable, the 43-year-old’s deep English brogue exudes a calming cadence that’s imbued with a refined experiential wisdom and selfless maturity. He searches deeply for the right words and addresses me by name, as if we were already well-acquainted.
Radiohead have always been more than a ground-breaking rock band. Their emotional and philosophical potency has always run parallel to the group’s artistic merits. Having played music alongside alternative rock’s most mind-bending perfectionist in Thom Yorke and one of modern music’s great virtuosos/composers, Jonny Greenwood, for over two decades, Selway has undoubtedly acquired a rare scope of musical understanding. However, his gracious nature reveals that the Radiohead drummer remains as indebted to music as he was from the very beginning.
As exemplified by his work in Radiohead, there is an infinite sense of music and art being vital…akin to a higher force, even – and, therefore, intrinsic to the belief that making music ought to become more vital with each record.
“I think it should be,” Selway agrees, before pausing for thought. “You hope that with each record, you have more musical tools at your disposal. I think when you’ve had a certain level of success, I suppose you can say ‘well we’ve done that now… we’ve played that place’, but they were never the driving impetus. Because everything that you do, it really does become stripped back down to actually thinking, ‘this is what I do… this is my main way of expressing myself’. I think it does become more vital to you,” he muses, before adding that – in Radiohead’s case – it has, fortunately, stayed as vital to them.
“You always go into a new project feeling slightly out of your depth,” Selway continues, “so that’s fulfilling in itself.” Feeling out of one’s depth is a vulnerable place to be, but it drives ambition into an inspired realm. Radiohead have always made music like their lives – sanity and well-being – were dependent upon it, so walking the plank is nothing new for Selway. Unsurprisingly, his debut solo album is sonically divergent to that of his full-time devotion.
Several musician friends contribute additional accompaniment/harmonies to Familial, including Lisa Germano, Sebastian Steinberg, and Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, Patrick Sansone, and Jeff Tweedy. Selway leaves most of the drumming duties to Kotche as he engages with the role of acoustic guitar-armed singer/songwriter – a proposition that, undoubtedly, proffered vulnerability.
When it came to his Radiohead band mates, however, the most difficult part was simply presenting the record to them. “They’re still talking to me, which is good,” says Selway with a self-depreciatory laugh. “I didn’t really play anything to them until I finished the record, and then I just, you know, subtly handed out a copy in one rehearsal. They’ve been very positive and very encouraging about it, so I couldn’t really ask for more than that.”
Having met and formed the band (initially named On A Friday) at Oxford’s Abingdon Boys School, Selway affirms that the way in which the five members have grown up together has allowed for such a supportive environment. Although the only other band members to have released solo records are Thom Yorke (2006’s The Eraser) and Jonny Greenwood (film scores for 2004’s Bodysong, 2007’s There Will Be Blood and more recently, Norwegian Wood), Jonny’s older brother Colin contributed to Woodpecker’s film score, and O’Brien – alongside Selway – was involved with Neil Finn’s 7 Worlds Collide project.
To his surprise, Selway has been highly sensitive towards the reception of Familial. “I’d trained myself not to read Radiohead reviews, but I’ve read reviews of Familial and the live stuff. I’ve been surprised by how affected I’ve been by that,” he asserts with a chuckle (his laugh is of a particularly goofy but heartening inclination).
Although most fans heard the Radiohead drummer sing lead vocals for the first time on Neil Finn’s 7 Worlds Collide compilation, Selway began playing guitar and writing songs around the same time he began drumming – at the age of 15 – but it only lasted for a few years as he devoted himself to Radiohead.
The yearning to write a solo album has manifested gradually over the past seven years; however, the ideas only began to resemble songs three years ago. While there’s a great fluidity to the album’s songwriting, Selway found the process of writing lyrics extremely challenging.
“In some ways, that was the hardest aspect of putting the record together – having not written any lyrics for a good 15 years,” notes Selway with a giggle, “I was trying to find a voice in there that was appropriate for somebody who was turning 40 at the time. Initially, there’d be words and phrases in there which felt appropriate but didn’t make any kind of overarching sense. But after whittling away at it, gradually, something that felt convincing to me started to emerge.”
The result is a strikingly intimate folk-inclined album, permeating in sparse arrangements that reveal gorgeous subtleties amidst its raw and pensive melancholia. Although Selway wasn’t purposely tapping into the folk tradition, he admits to the influence of Juana Molina, Lisa Germano and Will Oldham.
The personal and intimate potency of Familial is harnessed by its themes of family dynamics and close human bonds, but it wasn’t fully realised until the record’s completion. “I was having the record mastered and at the same time, the artwork for the record was coming together,” Selway explains. “I was working with a couple of artists called Lisa Busby and John Harries, and they were very drawn to this family portrait and embellishing that. It really touches on, as you say, those bonds that exist between very significant people in your significant relationships; with your family, with friends and colleagues, and just how they shape you.
“Familial feels like quite a direct record, really… something that rang true for me.” Selway has dedicated a Radiohead album to each of his three children (Kid A to Leo; Amnesiac to Jamie, and Hail To The Thief to Patrick); In Rainbows to his late mother Thea, and Familial to his wife, Cait.
It took a while, of course, for Selway to engage with the idea of being the voice of the music. “Very much so,” Selway asserts with a hearty chuckle. “Just in terms of initially trying to find a singing voice and then taking it beyond that to perform the songs and actually be the person at the front of the stage was a hugely fascinating thing to do. [I was] feeling very vulnerable doing it but also feeling that I’m learning that kind of stagecraft. It stretched me, this year, it definitely has… but very positively so. I really feel that it’s moved me along as a musician so much, these past few years.”
Meanwhile, every loyal fan understands that the surprise and mystery element of a new Radiohead album is an essential part of the journey. At the time of our interview, Selway confirmed that the recording process of Radiohead’s eighth album is “still ongoing; we’re very much in the thick of it at the moment”.
Melbourne fans can derive some comfort in knowing that Selway remains very mindful of the heart-breaking cancellation of Radiohead’s second Rod Laver Arena show on April 27, 2004 (due to Yorke’s throat infection). “It was really unfortunate that we had to cancel one of our shows in Melbourne,” says Selway with a palpable air of regret. “They were really great shows in Sydney and the one that we did in Melbourne, so we’d love to come back and do some more. We need to finish the record and then we’ll sit down and decide what we’re going to do live. We haven’t been to Australia now for six or seven years, so it would be lovely to come back. Personally, I’d love to.”
No modern band has reinvented and transformed the rules of rock ’n’ roll in the way that Radiohead have, and the Oxford quintet have no plans to change that. “In terms of Radiohead, we’ve covered so much ground,” Selway reflects, “and every time we move on to something else, it’s a whole new challenge.”
“You have to remain inspired,” he emphasises. “It has to remain inspiring because I suppose that’s the gut reaction that we get off it. If we’re not getting that sense that ‘actually yes, this is moving us on; this is exciting us’, then that would be when you think that it burns itself out. Fortunately, we haven’t hit that point yet…may we never.”
PHILIP SELWAY’s solo album Familial is out now through Shock.