Escaping The Kit: An Interview with Radiohead's Philip Selway

Photos by Phil Sharp, courtesy of the artist.

A photo of Phil Selway.
Philip Selway. Photo by Phil Sharp.

When the drummer of one of the most consistent and critically celebrated rock bands of our time enters our Zoom meeting—precisely on schedule, it only figures—he wears stylish maroon glasses, a cozy-looking cardigan, and a grin that would conquer that of any average Cheshire cat.

Philip Selway comes off as friendly from the first. As we say hello, he compliments me on the studio space where I conduct interviews, and he later tells me he's visiting family in Oxfordshire, not far from the private school for boys where he first met and made music with his four bandmates nearly forty years ago. Be that as it may, we barely broached the subject of his band until well over halfway through our conversation.

In the five years since Radiohead last performed in public, each member has patiently pursued their own preoccupations: Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood formed the slightly sparser trio, The Smile, and not long after Ed O'Brien released his atmospheric, danceable debut album Earth, Colin Greenwood was seen sitting in with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's band. But what happens when the drummer steps away from the kit?

After recently relocating to London with his wife and children, Selway released his third record as a solo artist, Strange Dance. Much like the two albums that precede it, 2010's Familial and 2014's Weatherhouse, Strange Dance sees the pivoted singer-songwriter invite on a diverse cast of collaborators that include the likes of Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley and Mercury Prize-winning multi-instrumentalist Hannah Peel. It's a sensitive, soulful body of work that often walks the same tightrope between thick arrangements and nuanced songcraft that make his band beloved.

Over the course of our interview, we discussed collaborating with the brilliant Marta Salogni on the production of Strange Dance, what it's like to team up with other drummers, and his longtime love of Nick Drake and electroacoustic music. Eventually, we opened up the discussion to talk about old Radiohead lore and the prospects of the band getting back together.

Strange Dance is available on Bella Union's Bandcamp.

The official video for Philip Selway's "Picking Up Pieces", from his 2023 album Strange Dance.

You imagined Strange Dance as a collaboration between Carole King and Daphne Oram that you were invited to play drums on. Knowing what I know about Tapestry and Oramics, I find that framing to be quite fitting on the first few listens. There seems to be equal emphasis on sonic abstraction and traditional songcraft in its arrangements; both seem to be interwoven into the fabric of this record throughout. Where does this delicate balance begin? Does it start in the act of writing at home on the guitar or the piano, or is it something that really happens only once you bring the material to the studio?

I think where it came to life was imagining the musicians and the different musical textures that I wanted to work with. I had a very clear idea once I had that core of songs together. I felt that I'd honed them and I felt that it was on the road to the Carole King kind of side of the equation. They were all people that I built up musical relationships with in my solo work: people like Adrian Utley of Portishead, and Quinta, who is the musician I've worked with the most outside of Radiohead by a long shot. There are other musicians who had a big influence on me over the past few years, like Hannah Peel, and the drummer and percussionist Valentina Magaletti as well.

You have this group of musicians who are very experimental in their own way. It was bridging a gap between what I do and that world of electroacoustic music. Somebody like Hannah Peel does that so well. She just finds that sweet spot, where you can't really differentiate between the synthesized brass or strings and the actual instrument. I love that sense. It's not nailing your colors to the one mast—they're all these musical textures that can blend. I felt that those musicians together would blend in a really interesting and an emotionally resonant way as well. I hope they did. I think they did.

The interplay is definitely one of the first features of this record that I latched onto after first hearing it, no doubt. In terms of production, you had the brilliant Marta Salogni behind the boards, someone who never makes the same record twice. How did you come into contact with her?

I first met Marta while I was working on my second solo album, Weatherhouse. I'd gone up to a studio up in London called Strongroom to record my vocals, and Marta was there as the engineer on those vocal sessions. I found out after the fact that it was actually her first freelance engineering session. You just would never have known it, she was so on it. She just had that great knowledge of the sonics of everything and the engineering aspect of it all, but also it's the way that she runs a session. She very much listened to what I wanted to achieve from it. She made good suggestions and she just created this great atmosphere in the studio as well. At that point I thought, "Yeah, I'd love to work with Marta again." In between that session, which was… (pauses, laughs) Oh my word, that was 10 years ago…

Where does all the time go?

10 years ago… anyways, before the productsion of Strange Dance, quite rightly her career took off. The fact that she agreed to make this record with me was a huge shot in the arm and felt like a real endorsement. What I wanted to achieve musically felt quite ambitious, there was a lot of scope in the soundscape in terms of bringing together all those different musical elements. But I felt confident with Marta at the helm that we'd be able to do it and that it would ultimately all make sense. She's amazing. As you said, she doesn't make the same record twice. Björk, Dream Wife, she's just done a Depeche Mode album…You'd get a lot of exercise walking around the record shop looking in all the different genres that make up her work.

I instantly thought of the Black Midi record that she produced last year. It's very maximal in comparison.

Yeah, that's an amazing record—but when you think about it, very much at the opposite end of the musical spectrum from Strange Dance. She was working on that album at the same time she was working on mine, and she very easily slipped between those two worlds.

No small feat.


Earlier you mentioned the fact that many of your collaborators occupy the realm of electroacoustic music, and Marta has historically been a big proponent of the practice of using the tape machine as an instrument. How much of that made its way onto this particular record?

Quite a lot actually. One song in particular jumps to mind, "Picking Up The Pieces". That started from building tape loops of my guitar, and then taking the actual tape loop itself and leaving it outside on a washing line for about a week and a half before coming back to it. All the artifacts that it built up in that time immediately gave it a particular mood from the outset. There was something that felt very unique to that method.

In the control room, Marta would also have the tape machine set up in there so that when people were performing at the time, it would be running through the tape machine, so you'd have a separate channel feeding that back into the mix as well. It was a constant part of the process, it took the source material and shone this new light on it. She is so good with that.

I went to see a performance that she did with Valentina Magaletti, who did all the drums and percussion on the record. It was Marta with the tape machines, Valentina doing drums and percussion, and they also had a harpist and also a violin and viola player.

That sounds ideal.

It was just the most incredible thing, just this kind of back and forth, particularly between Valentina and Marta. It almost felt like auto-generative music. It's really exciting to watch that dynamic between the two and I was lucky enough to have that dynamic happening in the studio for Strange Dance.

Valentina truly offers some angular, earthy, down-in-the-dirt percussion to this music. I want to talk a little bit more about the overall drum production: as you step away from the kit and you defer to another drummer's decisions, how do you work together to arrive at the desired sound? How much direction do you give? How much freedom?

A lot of it's giving them freedom and having absolute faith in Marta as well, in terms of the sounds that she captures in there and how she treats them in the studio. I wasn't in my drummer mindset at all during the recording of this record. Once you step out of that, it's very easy to stay back. I was able to focus on how I was responding to the drums musically rather than I was thinking about the technical aspects of Valentina's playing, and more on the sound and the performance. That was a great place to occupy.

It was very interesting for me because I started off drumming in the sessions, but I got a day and a half into it and it just wasn't happening really. I got bulked down in the technical aspects of it and that wasn't the right headspace to be in. So to have Valentina come in was incredible. She works incredibly quickly. Within about six or seven takes of hearing the track, she's built up these amazing percussive soundscapes that have a sense of spontaneity to them because they're still very freshly created. She builds up this focus and a sense of narrative running through the drum part. It all happened so quickly. Watching her work, there was part of me as a drummer thinking, "Oh, I'm not a drummer."

That's a very interesting predicament for Philip Selway to have. Another drummer that you've invited to play on past records is Wilco's Glenn Kotche. I'm curious about your working relationship.

Glenn is incredible. We first met each other working on a project that Neil Finn from Crowded House put together, the second 7 Worlds Collide project. I worked on both, but it was the second one where I met Glenn. For that project, Neil gathered a lot of musicians together down in his studio in Auckland to write, record and perform an album in the space of about two and a half weeks. I'd gone down as a drummer, but contributed some songs to the project as well.

My solo stuff was still very, very nascent at that point in time. I'd done some demos but I was still looking for its direction. To then be able to go into those recording sessions and record those tracks with people like Glenn and Pat Sansone, as well as Lisa Germano and Sebastian Steinberg… it was kind of my first take on it. As with Valentina, Glenn's got a very unique voice and he's an incredibly versatile player. The way he prepares and doctors the kit are so innovative.

That's his wheelhouse.

Absolutely. But just with that as well, he's found that sweet spot because he does everything that you could imagine a session player can do. He can play in any style, but he takes it beyond that. He's got all that knowledge but it's almost like he then unlearns it as well when he is playing. He tries to take it apart and put it back together. It was incredible watching him. I do end up having these feelings of inadequacy working with these amazing drummers. I love working with them and it is just so inspiring. There's part of me sitting there going, "Oh my word, they are so good."

The official video for Philip Selway's "Check For Signs Of Life", from his 2023 album Strange Dance.

It's incredible to hear about your perspective outside the kit. Compared to your other albums, Strange Dance ups the dosage of synthesizers, processing, electronics. Do you mind laying out a few highlights of the backline involved?

What have we got on there… a Prophet-12, a Solina, a Minimoog, what else… Adrian brought a few lovely pieces along with him. It was probably the least techy piece of gear in the synth department of this one, but Quinta brought on one of the original Yamaha sampling synths. We had about four seconds worth of sampling on there, and it produced some of the most amazing textures across the record. There's my 808 and 909 in various points, and the Moog DFAM as well… that's actually on a track that didn't make it onto the album yet but it'll be coming out at some other point. I'm very lucky because as a band, Radiohead has built up quite a collection of gear over the years. So all five of us have access to that "gear library", if you like.

You've spoken before about the struggle to compartmentalize work with Radiohead with your own projects when you first embarked on your solo works. As you've gotten more acclimated to moving back and forth between these two contexts over the past decade, have you found that they compliment each other? Now that you're three records deep, what aspects of the band's process can you say you bring back to the work that you make on your own?

(long pause) I think when I come back into working with Radiohead I have a very specific role within that and that is for drums and percussion. I'm still very much working in my native musical voice In Radiohead, but outside, you're picking up these ways of working from these incredible drummers as well, so I think I draw from that. Working on my own solo record and the soundtrack work that I've done has allowed me to explore that side of my musicality. It allows me to fully focus on that drumming role in Radiohead, and not feel as though there are unexplored avenues for me. I'm trying to work out which one's my alter ego: my drumming self or my solo self. I'm not entirely sure yet.

The Gear of Strange Dance

I love that something like that remains an unanswered question for you. Speaking of uncharted territory, another aspect of this record that I'm drawn to are the string arrangements that run pretty thick throughout. The title track in particular has this very compelling Scott Walker energy about it. As you started to mention, you got your first taste of writing for strings through your film soundtrack work, starting with Polly Steele's 2017 film Let Me Go.

With that score, it was a mixture of my arrangements and working with Laura Moody to flesh those out alongside contributing her own ideas. With Strange Dance, I handed the string arrangements and brass arrangements over to Laura, the string arrangements and the brass arrangements. Coming into it, I felt there was a very good understanding and a very good synergy between the two sides of what we did. I really wanted that to find its own space. Laura is an incredibly inventive arranger and I felt it was good to give her free rein on that side of things.

Other than Daphne or Carole, are there any other formative influences of yours that seeped its way into the sound of this record? I know you've repeatedly expressed your love for the work of Nick Drake over the years.

It's interesting with that one. In terms of my songwriting and where I hear my singing voice as well, that sense of connection to Nick Drake is deeply rooted in me. I even got to do a Nick Drake cover, which will be coming out later on this year. So I've just done a project called The Endless Coloured Ways where it's about 20 artists revisiting the Nick Drake catalog. I did a version of "Fly" for this record. It's one of my favorite songs, and to be allowed to have free rein on that was amazing.

I mentioned earlier that as I was leading to the record, Hannah Peel's soundtrack had a really big impact on me at that point. There's a record that she did with the writer and poet Will Burns, Chalk Hill Blue, where she composed musical settings to his writing. There's such a richness in her composition, but there's also that other aspect of what she does where you could almost imagine it as her being in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop back in the day. These electronic soundscapes that emotionally tie into his writing. That was a big influence on me.

Radiohead performs "Weird Fishes / Arpeggi" at The Hospital Club, London in 2008, on their episode of From The Basement.

Let's branch out and talk about your band. When you were once asked about Radiohead's collective composition process, you said that your favorite aspect is when everyone shows up with their ideas and each one of you adds something that takes a song in a completely unexpected direction. Can you point to a song or two in the discography where you happen to be the one that rocked the boat, so to speak?

One that jumps to mind most would be "Morning Bell". Wait… is that Kid A or Amnesiac? I get mixed up between those two.

It's on both, isn't it?

Yes, that's right! (laughter) There are two versions! Very good.

Which one came first?

The one in 5/4 on Kid A. Wait… no, no, that came second. The first one was the version that ended up on Amnesiac.

So the initial feel was in 4/4?

I was the one who suggested we did that one in 5/4, I had the pattern for it. It became a different song really in some ways even though the core of it was still there.

Despite virtually coming from the same source material, they feel like two separate compositions in terms of their arrangements.

Exactly, and that difference was lovely. When all of us have brought something to it, it alters the way that everybody else then reacts to the song. You get that ripple effect. I think that's very much where we forge our identity as a band, really.

As a band you are no strangers to taking your sweet time to develop a song. It famously took two decades from its live debut for a studio recording of "True Love Waits" to manifest, and according to Ed, "Knives Out" was worked on every day and took over a year to complete. How do the five of you stay patient throughout a track's many permutations as it constantly evolves?

That's sort of the advantage of having five of us, on top of working with Nigel (Godrich). You'll have your different tolerances. Some days some people have got more patience than others, but you pass the bat on between you. Generally you'll find somebody who's still got the energy to forge ahead with it, although it's not always everybody at the same time.

I would love to ask you about site-specificity when it comes to the recording process. Over the years, the band has recorded everywhere from antiquated manor houses in Bath to Drew Barrymore's house in Los Angeles. I'm curious how the five of you and Nigel have gone about determining locations, and which of these places has stuck out to you the most over the course of the past three decades?

I think one of the significant places that we recorded in was our studio just outside Oxford. We don't have it any longer, but we had it for two decades. That gave us a lot of flexibility because it meant that no matter where we went, we'd bring that material back into that studio and that's where we would finish developing it. We had all our gear and artwork from across all the albums in there, and it was all being developed in there at the same time. That was the grounding aspect of it, and then that would give us the ability to go and start up a project somewhere else. Like with Hail to the Thief, we went to Ocean Way in Los Angeles—

Which are closing their doors, if I'm not mistaken.

Did it?!

Yeah, it may just be a rumor, but I read some people making the rounds about it on social media last week.

You're kidding! That's like Abbey Road closing!

I know. I hate to be the bearer of bad news.

What an amazing place. Such a beautiful sounding studio as well. Wow.

You were beginning to talk about recording there for Hail to the Thief?

Yeah… particularly after Kid A and Amnesiac, we really wanted to reconnect playing as a full band in a studio together again. Ocean Way definitely felt like a departure in terms of where we would play. Up to that point, everything had been very much UK-based. Wait… had it? No, no. We went away for Kid A, didn't we? We went away to Paris and Copenhagen on that as well. Anyways, it was about that kind of experience of recording in the sunshine over in the States. It felt as though it was a new context to play in. When we go off to the other locations, it's to be in a new environment to get the whole process started.

With Kid A as well, we started off in a studio in Paris in the middle of winter, and later to Copenhagen. The season is very much in that record. That was a good spot for that to come out of. When we go off, we'll go off about two or three weeks somewhere to get everything started along, and try to form that initial identity for a record. But then, to be able to bring it back into our own studio, it gave that continuity in the sense of it being for one band. I think that came from having that studio, really.

Where else have we been? OK Computer was in the old manor house just outside Bath you mentioned. And then In Rainbows, again, it was an old stately home not too far from Oxford. Very dilapidated building that had these amazing natural reverbs in as well. And so that's it. You can go into these different places and you're responding to the spaces themselves and their acoustics. On A Moon Shaped Pool, we went to La Fabrique in the south of France, which again, had a very distinctive sense of season and location.

It seems like you're a band that really naturally responds to your environment. A few months ago I spoke with Daniel Lanois about his work with Neil Young. He talked about Neil's preference to record only at night when there was a full moon: they'd set up the studio, track in the moonlight, and stop for however long the lunar cycle took before returning to track again. What you say about seasonal affect reminds me a lot of that.

That's cool. I'm not sure I would've been of any use in that session.

You're not a night owl?

Not a night owl. We split on that as well in Radiohead and we all respond to different times of day.

Who are the nighthawks of the band? I'm assuming you're the morning person.

I'm a definite morning person, yeah. When we're recording I think you've got the two ends of the daytime spectrum. You've got me at one end, then Nigel is very much a night owl in his work.

Radiohead performs "Let Down" at Madison Square Garden in 2016.

That certainly tracks. I want to ask you about preparing for tours, specifically about revisiting old songs. Here's a personal anecdote: I'm a New Yorker, and the last time that I saw you guys play was at MSG in 2016 around the release of A Moon Shaped Pool. That run of shows was a situation in which you fully played to the crowd, which you don't always do, and you were firing on all cylinders. You started an encore section with "Let Down"—if I'm not mistaken, it was the first time you all played that in over a decade—and from the audience's vantage, it seemed that you were all looking amongst yourselves during the opening bars as if to say, "Are we doing this? I guess we're doing this."


When you're engaging with an older song again after that much time, how much of it is muscle memory? Or it's a sense of breathing new life into the thing?

With something like "Let Down", it had been so long since we'd played it that you couldn't rely on muscle memory really. It was interesting going back to listen to that song again and trying to reconnect with the head space you're in when you originally recorded it. It's an interesting process coming back to material—at the time of the sequence of touring that we were doing from 2016 to 2018, there was quite a sizable back catalog there. You can always find these songs that you can go back to, and you don't reinvent them as such, but you find new relevance in them to how you're playing now. The ones that actually then make the grade in terms of reintroducing them into the set list quite frequently are the ones where you can actually feel that they... They do feel relevant at that point to where you are. You're not being a tribute band to yourself.

It really keyed into the spirit of what we were doing live at that point. If a song wasn't working, we didn't feel like we had to force it because there would be other songs that we felt we could commit to convincingly. With some songs you go there and much as you might love the song, it just doesn't sit well at that particular point. I think we played "Just" maybe once or twice over the course of that touring from 2016 to 2018.

I mean, you all were very young when you made that particular record, so that makes sense to me.

I suppose so! Bizarrely, either way, it just didn't sit well.

When speaking with SPIN earlier this year, you hinted at the prospect of the band getting back together at some point in 2023. I'm going to abstain from the music-mag cliché of asking for an update on that, but still, I am curious: when you reconvene after time away, do you find that the projects the five of you pursue outside the band strengthen your sound and the way that you play together?

I hope that's the case. It is going to be interesting when we get back together because that will be the longest we've gone without playing together. I'm sure we're all going to be quite a mixture of excitement and trepidation. We started at school, so you kind of take that kind of playing dynamic for granted. We have to make sure we're doing it for the right reasons when it happens. I have to say though, I always have that kind of feeling of the first couple of days where we all sound like a high school band again, which is sweet. No doubt we will have that next time as well.

That just about covers it for me as far as questions go. At the risk of breaking journalistic character, my formal introduction to Radiohead was when I was 10 years old, right around when Hail to the Thief came out. I haven't really been the same since that summer, so it's been wonderful to share this space with you 20 years later.

I've really enjoyed talking with you, Nick. I have to say Reverb is a very dangerous place.

I will treat that as an endorsement!

It is very much an endorsement, yes!

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