Interview: Radiohead's Ed O'Brien on Creating "Earth"

Ed O'Brien. Used with permission from the artist.

Because he is one-fifth of one of the world's most consistently brilliant and successful bands, it's a bit jarring to hear that Ed O'Brien still needs to combat the idea that his songs are "shit."

That inner monologue will be familiar to many musicians or creative people working in any medium, an inner critic that tells you whatever it is you're doing isn't good enough. But, well, most of our inner critics have a bit more solid evidence to stand on.

EOB - Earth

All the same, to hear O'Brien talk about how he was able to silence his own long enough to make Earth, his debut solo album released under the EOB moniker, might just help others along their own creative journeys.

Conceived while living in Brazil in 2012, begun in earnest in 2013, and recorded in Wales and London with a cast of great musicians, Earth is a testament to an expert collaborator learning how to take control. But it's no singer-songwriter affair; it's a rhythmic album, with a pulse that beats even throughout its quietest acoustic moments and rises to festive, electronic heights.

In our interview below, O'Brien discusses the process of making the record as a revelatory and constantly humbling experience, not only from the perspective of songwriting, but also the lessons in arrangements and orchestration he learned along the way.

"I'm a novice," he tells us. "Really, I'm excited for the next one. I think every record that you make, you have to be learning, and you're only learning when you're out of your comfort zone, and I was out of my comfort zone the whole time."

To learn more about or purchase Earth, which was released April 17, visit Ed O'Brien's website here.

EOB - "Brasil"

When talking to Ezra Koenig on his Time Crisis podcast, you said that—being in Radiohead and having been surrounded by the band's songwriters—you found out, kind of ridiculously, that you didn't know how to write a complete song by yourself. So, what clicked?

I got out of the way, and that was the key for me. The moment I got out of the way of saying, "Listen, this is Ed O'Brien and this is what I'm gonna sing about"—I had to get out the way, and for me, I felt like I had to become a conduit for this thing. Have you read this book The Artist's Way?

I haven't.

The Artist's Way is great. It says—and I did this—you wake up first thing in the morning and you write, and it's like stream-of-consciousness. But you don't put your editorial head on. You don't put the head on that goes, "This is shit, you're shit," which is what a lot of us have. So I took down to music and I'm just going to have these bursts of whatever comes out—I'm not going to judge it, and I'm just going to follow my intuition. And the moment I did that, that's when it started to flow.

It was so compelling and it was so exciting, because I kind of didn't know what was happening. If you'd asked me how I wrote these songs, I've got no idea. I literally have moments when I go to the countryside and I might rent a cottage and I'd have periods of when I'd just pick up a guitar, make sounds, and sometimes go, Oh, that's good. And then I'd take them back to my home in London, and be in my shed, and five hours later I come out and go, Oh, I really love this. I don't know how I got here.

And then you have the editorial phase. You go, OK, I need to find a little bit of form here. It was the two: Knowing when to step out of the way and knowing when to put my head on and going, This is what I'd like to do.

Before the proper recording of the album, was this all demoed? Did you have a hard drive full of material after this process? Was it pen-and-paper?

There wasn't years of material. This was all from about summer of 2013 to summer of 2014. I also had to let go of the computer. I don't respond well to operating as I go along—whether it was Ableton Live or Pro Tools, and they're great software—but I needed to literally be lost in the moment and not have my engineering head on or whatever.

So it was: iPhone [mimics creating a Voice Memo], recording bits that came out, and then going into a studio. I had a great studio in Oxfordshire which are owned by Radiohead's management called Courtyard, and there's a great engineer-producer called Ian Davenport, who's worked a lot with Gaz Coombes. And that's when we started putting the ideas down onto a hard drive, onto Pro Tools.

EOB - Earth Album Trailer

In the album trailer you shot and released for Earth, it looked pretty much like a full studio but in a home environment. Is that your house, or, where was that?

[Laughs.] It's a house down the road in Wales. It's a big, beautiful, if you like, ancestral, home. I talked to Flood a lot—because you know, Flood and Catherine Marks produced [the record]; Flood produced all of it, Catherine was involved for some of it—and I talked to him a lot about wanting to capture the spirit of a place, and the spirit of this place in Wales, Lands, and to have a fully immersive experience. That we'd eat, sleep, and drink it.

I've been very fortunate in Radiohead—you know, the first time we did that was with OK Computer—and we've done this, this has been a tried and tested route. And what happens is, you kind of get the soul of the record, and you get it in the early stages.

We were lucky, we brought in a full mobile recording studio. We in fact tracked 16-track. We went 16 track onto 2-inch tape, which gave the bass and the drums so much more headroom and power. Nathan East—who's obviously been playing for years—the bass sound that he, Flood and Catherine, and Cecil the engineer were getting, he was like, Oh my god. Because it was important—bass and drums and rhythm were really important on this record.

So we basically just got a mobile setup and did three weeks there, and then went back to Assault & Battery Studios in Willesden in North London, and that's where the craft element of it took place.

I know some of your inspirations behind this album—Primal Scream's Screamadelica, that you were brought in players like Nathan and Omar Hakim because of their work with Daft Punk. When you were writing, did you have these rhythmic elements in mind? Did you know you wanted to bring this pulse to these songs?

Yeah, you know, I started off with the pulse of the songs. For me, one of the ways I actually wrote was—I'm really interested in tempos, almost like sacred tempos. EDM at the moment seems to revolve around the 127, 128 bpm. Back in acid house—which was a big movement in Britain in the late '80s—it was all 120 bpm. And samba in Brazil, it's a lot faster. I can't remember exactly but I think it's like 147. It might be even faster. But what is it about—there are certain bpms that just kind of unlock us. And for me, that was part of finding that pulse.

I can't play drums—but I love playing percussion. Very Brazilian, like, playing shakers and tambourines, you know, all sorts. When I was demoing, for instance, with Ian, Daft Punk, "Get Lucky," Random Access Memories came out. And I was just like, "Imagine, on this song, if we got Omar Hakim on drums and Nathan East on bass." Not for one moment imagining that, four years down the line, that I'd be working with these guys.

But it's all about dreams. And that's where the possibility, the potential of the songs—you're dreaming up in your head during the demo phase, and it's so compelling and so exciting. You know, you're dreaming up and you go, My friend David Okumu and This would be amazing, Adrian Utley from Portishead. And when it comes to actually committing to the record and recording it, you've already had these dreams. And you go, Well, I guess, can I ask them?

I'm fortunate that I'm in Radiohead, which means most musicians will take your call if you're intrigued—they're not going to slam it in your face. And so, I meet Daft Punk's manager, and he says, "Oh, they're great guys, I'm sure they'd love to. Do you want me to put you in touch?" And I'm like, you know, "Does the pope wear a funny hat? Of course."

I had a wishlist, and I knew that, in order to fulfill the potential of these songs, I needed to honor that wishlist. My intuition was right on this. And hell, why not? To play with Nathan East and Omar Hakim—it's like a dream.

It really sounds like you all melded well. It sounds like a band. It doesn't sound like bits and pieces on the album.

That's good, because it is bits and pieces.

[Laughs] Well, good, you tricked me.

It's Flood. He's the great gluer.

EOB - "Shangri-La"

In the album's most rhythmic moments—like on "Shangri La"—obviously there's the percussion, and maybe a sample loop, but there's all these percussive guitars that are contributing to the rhythm too. Can you talk a bit about these layers of guitars? And maybe some of the specifics of recording them?

My basic kind of setting is Audio Kitchen amps' Little Chopper and the Big Chopper. So that was one rig. I also had a Fender Bandmaster, a reissue one, which is great. And I had a Lazy J 20 amp, which is a boutique amp from over here in Britain—I think he modelled it on Neil Young's Fender Deluxe. They brought in a [Roland] JC-120, which I'd never used before, so I got over my JC-120 slight doubts, because they're fantastic for recording clean and making everything kind of present and 3D. So there was that.

The layering thing—I'd never really done that before. Because, of course, in Radiohead, you can't do that [laughs]. You can't, Oh, I'll do this, this, this… It's all everybody just grabbing a bit of space for themselves really. So I guess that was part of the joy of it. And Johnny Marr—if you grow up being a teenager when The Smiths come out and a budding guitarist—he's everything as a guitarist, and as a human being he's amazing. But I've always loved the way he layered stuff. So it was a real chance for me to really just go for it.

I used different guitars. I used my Sustainer Strat that I did with Fender. I used one acoustic a lot—this Martin 000-18 I've got, I think it's a 1959—all the acoustics are that. I had a really nice Custom Shop Tele and a really nice Custom Shop Les Paul, like mid-'90s, that I used. That's about it.

But pedals, you know? I've got a lot of pedals. And of the other things… There's a great company over here called Soundgas. They rebuild and sell old echo units like the Space Echo, the Binson Echorec. So Flood and I did a recce down there before we made the album and bought a Space Echo, Korg Chorus Echo, and a Binson Echorec, which was amazing. I understand that bits of gear have a huge effect on the sound of your record.

Were you using the echo machines just on the guitar or all kinds of instruments?

Basically, all of them. My pedalboard wasn't a massive pedalboard. I had a Memory Man in it, a Whammy's always in there, Kingsley Page Overdrive, a fantastic Catalinbread Belle Epoch delay. All these things. Everything from my Roland Juno-60… everything kind of went through this stuff if we needed it. Vocals went through my pedalboard as well, sometimes. It was all kind of whatever's needed.

It was good. Because it's not like in a Radiohead session, where there's so much gear. There wasn't time. In Radiohead, if I'm not tracking or whatever, I like to immerse myself and go and find new sounds. I didn't have time to do that. I was singing, I was trying to arrange all this stuff. So I had what was in front of me that I knew really well, and whatever it was—bang, we worked very quickly.

Just because Earth has such a complex and layered sound, and that you were responsible for so much of it, did you learn lessons about arrangement and orchestration through the process of making the record?

Yeah, hugely, massively. I mean, the whole time. And I'm a novice—really, I'm excited for the next one. I think every record that you make, you have to be learning, and you're only learning when you're out of your comfort zone, and I was out of my comfort zone the whole time. That's what we're here on the planet to do—constant learning, new experiences, right?

EOB - "Olympik"

To reference your interview with Ezra Koenig again, you were talking about wanting to get to this area with the live show where it's going to be kind of Phish meets rave. Get away from the tight arrangements and see what the songs could become. When you can get back on the road, is that still a mindset you're trying to get at with these songs?

Yeah, for sure. I knew of Phish because one of my managers manages them, Coran Capshaw [of] Red Light Management. So I'm aware of Phish and I've seen the gig. They're a very American phenomenon—that whole jam band thing, that's not a phenomenon over here. We saw them at one of their Halloween shows in Vegas a few years back. I walked into this MGM Grand Arena, and I'd never experienced a vibe like it in an arena. Everybody's just up from the first moment.

And then I listened to this podcast, Long May They Run, about them. And it's like, they're just the bravest band on the planet. They're more like jazz musicians, where they change it up. They are willing to take it for that moment of transcendental beauty—they're willing to go through seven or eight minutes of hmm, not sure, and I think it's extraordinary that a band and its audience recognize that. It's one thing as a band doing that, but an audience following you?

That backs up what I've always said of American audiences. American audiences are so musical, and they allow you to go on these journeys, and that's the place that I want to go. Because I don't want to play the songs the same way every night. I'm excited about that place, where—music is a spiritual thing at its greatest, it's a spiritual thing and it's magic—and that's the place where I want to reside with the music. And in order to do that, you cannot be bored, you have to be out of your comfort zone, and you have to have the intention…

At a gig, at like a Radiohead show, people will come up and say, you know, the last five years and go, "Oh, you guys are amazing." And it's like, "No, you're amazing." As a performer, what you do is you strike the match. But then it's like this energy that you get into. It goes back-and-forth and it's a really amazing thing. What I want to do is to be able to almost respond musically to the energy in the room. And let's face it, that's what jazz musicians do every night. But I don't want to be in a situation where we play the same songs in the same way every night. I want these songs to evolve and flow. The recording is the starting point for them.

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