Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien on going solo: “If I don’t do this, a part of me will die”
Ed O’Brien‘s debut solo album has been in the works for eight long years. The initial spark of inspiration came when he was getting loose to Primal Scream‘s classic ‘Screamadelica’ and soaking up the carnival vibes while living in Brazil at the end of 2012. Overtaken by a groove and with newfound confidence in his own songwriting, O’Brien started putting some songs together in between long stints of recording and touring with Radiohead.
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After some friends and his wife shared their approval of his work, the guitarist knew he was on to something. “That’s when I realised that I had to do this,” O’Brien tells NME. “If I don’t do this, a part of me will die.”
The compulsion took hold, and the result is his soulful new album ‘Earth’, released under the moniker EOB. It’s journey into rave, electronica, scuzzy guitars and tender folk, all bound together by O’Brien’s zen outlook.
With O’Brien back by a four-piece band, it’s a bold debut, featuring guest appearances from Laura Marling and Portishead‘s Adrian Utley. Years of creating his dream solo record had paid off. Then on the run-up to releasing the album, the world went into lockdown, with O’Brien himself falling ill with coronavirus (“I’m on the mend now,” he assures us. “I never worried”).
He considers ‘Earth’ a fitting soundtrack for these trying times: “A theme on the record is that in spite of the darkness and challenging times that we live in, humanity can do amazing things when they put their mind to it. Look at what’s happened in the last couple of weeks: a new hospital has been opened up within six days, people have been looking out for the vulnerable and standing on their doorsteps en masse to clap and appreciate our NHS workers.”
Plus the Tories have suddenly adopted some pretty socialist policies. “Yeah!” he agrees. “Now they suddenly seem to care for other people, not just big companies and their own wealth.”
NME caught up with a reflective O’Brien over video call to talk about him finding his voice, the beauty of Glastonbury, how Daft Punk shaped the record, his love of Johnny Marr – and what’s next for Radiohead.
How did it feel to put so much of yourself personally on a record for the first time? [‘Sail On’, for instance, is about the death of O’Brien’s cousin]
“I’m like any other human being – I don’t think there are any writers that have anything totally new to say. It’s just the way you frame it. There is a universality to human experiences. What I’m saying in ‘Sail On’ is a personal thing, but it’s about death, dying, the soul and the spirit. My feelings on that are as old as the wind. If you decide that you have to make music or art, then you’re looking for the truth, not perfection.”
Speaking of perfection, ‘Shangri-La’ would have been the ultimate festival anthem this summer – if only we were going to have a summer…
“The song was written about four days from coming back from Glastonbury in 2014. Shangri-La at 4am with your people is a glorious place to be. You feel so happy and at peace at Glastonbury, so the song was about that as well as the journey of trying to find peace of mind in your own life and coming together to celebrate that. When Glastonbury does happen next, it’s going to be amazing.”
Would you describe ‘Earth’ as a party album?
“The song ‘Brasil’ is the record in a nutshell. It’s got this melancholy and intimacy at the start of it, but then goes into this joyful, beautiful, colourful place. There are moments of loneliness, sadness and withdrawal on there, but there are times of celebrating being a human being. I didn’t want to make a record that was just melancholic. Melancholy is somewhere that you can slip into quite easily, whereas joy is the hardest thing to do on record. It’s hard to have fun. It isn’t something you can fake.”
The live shows look like a lot of joy. Have you always been itching to dance on stage?
“Thom [Yorke] wasn’t dancing in Radiohead until 12 years ago on the ‘In Rainbows’ tour. It’s a process. I know what I want my show to be, but I don’t want to force it.”
Have you asked Thom for advice on how to be a frontman?
“No, I haven’t. How do you ask one of the best frontmen for advice? I probably should the next time I see him! It’s funny – I don’t think any of us have sought advice from each other on our external projects. We just do our thing.”
It must have been great to really rock out on guitar again in a way that Radiohead doesn’t always allow for?
“Oh, for sure. In Radiohead I’m fitting into something – and it’s a great thing to do – but this time I loved playing all over it. I really want to put more keyboards on my next record. I’m good friends with Johnny Marr and I always felt that, as a guitarist, he’s a supreme layerer. I’ve always been slightly envious of how he can do that.”
Johnny Marr loves a collab. Maybe you should ask him to be on your next album?
“I love working with Johnny and would love to collaborate again. When we played together on 7 Worlds Collide [Neil Finn’s 2001 charity supergroup], our styles really complemented one another. I was weened on The Smiths and I was always trying to do something as good as the sounds on ‘How Soon Is Now’.”
How did you end up with such a great cast of collaborators on this record?
“Getting Nathan East [bassist] and Omar Hakim [drummer] was something I fantasised about. ‘Random Access Memories’ by Daft Punk came out in the early days of making the record [in 2013]. I watched the footage of them rehearsing for the Grammys. You had the robots, Stevie Wonder, Pharrell, Nile Rodgers – who are all phenomenal, but it was Nathan on bass and Omar on drums who caught me. I always felt that they would be out of my reach, but then Radiohead were on tour in America and I got to know Daft Punk’s manager. He told me that they were such lovely guys, text them and put us in contact.”
So your dream line-up just fell into place?
“When I had one of the greatest producers in the world on board with [British rock producer] Flood, I knew that I had to have the best musicians. If you asked me, ‘If you could have anyone, who would you choose?’ I would have said: Nathan East, Omar Hakim, The Invisible’s David Okumu, Adrian Utley and Laura Marling. I’m very fortunate that people were happy to talk to me. It’s not like I’m in S Club 7 and they’re not gonna take my call. I’m in Radiohead, so people are curious if you’ve got a project.”
What drew you to Laura Marling?
“She’s just an extraordinary artist and an extraordinary woman. I would love to work with her again in the future. She’s constantly moving and evolving. When she emerged, people called her ‘the new Joni Mitchell’. There are definite parallels there in terms of serious music artistry and development – but she’s Laura Marling. Future generations will say ‘Laura Marling and Joni Mitchell’.”
Have Radiohead been talking about future plans?
“We’re an ongoing band and have online meetings – there was a Zoom call recently. We’re talking about stuff, but for the foreseeable future everyone is doing their own thing. When it feels right to plug back into Radiohead, then we will.”
Will you guys be doing anything to mark 20 years of ‘Kid A’ and Amnesiac’ this year and next?
“Due to the nature of it, I can’t fully reveal anything – but there have been talks about ways of doing something. Everything gets thrown up in the air with coronavirus, so a lot of ideas are being mooted. It would be nice to honour it, but then there’s the struggle – how can you get that excited about an album that came out 20 years ago? I can’t. I’m thankful it was a moment and know that it means a lot to people, but it was a long time ago.”
So you’re only concerned with the present and the future?
“We’ve had different chapters in Radiohead life. Up until the end of ‘OK Computer’ was one chapter; ‘Kid A’ through to ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ was another chapter. We’ve sort of drawn a line now and are wondering what the next chapter will be. That’s what we’ll figure out next.”
Ed O’Brien releases his debut solo album ‘Earth’ as EOB on April 17.