From their music to their carbon footprint, Radiohead continue to do everything differently. As they prepare for tonight's BBC radio gig, they talk to Craig McLean
Portishead are about to release their next album, 10 years after the last one. So are Massive Attack, which will be only their fifth album in 17 years. The good ship Oasis is hoving into view: they've just completed the Los Angeles sessions on their seventh album, the follow-up to Don't Believe the Truth (2005). After some delay, the successor to Coldplay's X&Y is also looming this summer.
Radiohead took a long time to finish and release their current album, too. Four-and-a-half years passed between the appearance of Hail to the Thief and the (initially) download-only In Rainbows last October. But, unlike their totemic peers in modern British music, only Radiohead spent a huge chunk of that time thinking. Not dithering, indulging, fretting, or spending their rock-star millions. Thinking.
"You wouldn't believe the amount of meetings we've been having," singer Thom Yorke notes with a dry chuckle. He looks wearied as he says it. Taking nothing for granted, reimagining how bands - especially big bands - operate. It's clearly taken its toll.
But he's also buzzing with ideas and enthusiasm. Radiohead have been buoyed by the runaway success of the In Rainbows "initiative" - not only in terms of sales, but in terms of the music-industry shift engendered by their pay-what-you-think-this-is-worth moment. Not forgetting the crucial fact that Radiohead's seventh is a beautiful and stunning album.
For these devil-in-the-detail artist-thinkers, the revolutionary "honesty box" idea was only the start of it. Radiohead then agonised over the bit rate (which affects the quality of the sound) at which the downloaded album should be made available.
"We spent about six hours talking about the bit rate, looking at graphs and listening to various CDs," says bass-player Colin Greenwood, 38. "With velvet blindfolds," he adds - for comic effect. Radiohead are, true to legend, earnest. But they're not that earnest.
His brother Jonny, 36, recalls that the band and "sixth member" producer Nigel Godrich decided they wanted the sonic quality to be "better than iTunes and not as good as a CD. So we kind of split the difference and chose a bit rate of 160 instead of 128."
The younger Greenwood is the most technically gifted and sonically adventurous member in this band of boffins. His recent score for There Will Be Blood, compiled in part from compositions Greenwood recorded with the BBC Concert Orchestra when he was their composer-in-residence, was every bit as sensorily staggering as Paul Thomas Anderson's epic movie.
More prosaic concerns demanded similar cogitation, such as which songs should be left for the bonus disc.
"We'd get a running order together and suddenly you notice that Nude isn't on there,' says Jonny, "and you think, 'that's insane.'?" Indeed: not only is the ambient future-blues of Nude Radiohead's new single (released yesterday), but, for the band's legions of web-savvy disciples, it's a hallowed "lost" song dating from the OK Computer period. But, having thought about how to record it for almost 10 years, Radiohead finally nailed Nude for In Rainbows.
Already we are in a post-In Rainbows world, where the boundary between artist and fan has been dismantled. Last autumn, In Rainbows was available to buy only nine days after the band announced its existence. Last week, Jack White's band the Raconteurs rushed their new album into the shops, just three weeks after completing it, wrong-footing industry and media alike.
"With us, the history element [of Radiohead] gets endlessly rewritten," says Yorke, 39. "It was nice to just dispense with all that and go straight to, 'If you wanna hear it, here it is.'?" He thinks "it's nice to have the privilege" of being able to connect directly and immediately with fans.
Consider, too, their upcoming world tour. It started, in a fashion, in January: Radiohead announced on their website that they would be performing in an east London record shop - that evening. By the time the band arrived at the Brick Lane branch of Rough Trade eight hours later, there was chaos on the streets and plans were swiftly remade. Radiohead's smallest gig in a decade eventually started two-and-a-half hours late in a 200-capacity club around the corner.
Last week, the ostensibly like-minded REM launched their new album in similar style, with an intimate show - at the Albert Hall.
The Radiohead Live '08 experience picks up again today. The band are performing in the BBC Radio Theatre, with the show being broadcast live on Radio 2 at 8pm. It will be preceded by interviews and guest slots on Radio 1, Radio 2 and 6 Music. Even for a band who have previously curated a week of BBC radio programmes (on 6 Music in 2003), with a singer who has guest-edited Radio 4's Today programme (in December 2003), this is an impressive array of pan-BBC activity.
Radiohead's world tour proper kicks off in Florida early next month, returning to the UK at Victoria Park, London, at the beginning of June. But it won't be taking in this year's Glastonbury: Yorke is worried that Glasto audiences might be sick of the sight of them.
That said, Radiohead are touring differently. "We're trying to keep the gigs as much as we can, to [venues] where there are facilities for public transport," says Yorke.
Early last year Radiohead commissioned a report from Oxford sustainability consultancy Best Foot Forward: Ecological Footprint & Carbon Audit of Radiohead North American Tours, 2003 & 2006.
For Yorke, an active member of Friends of the Earth's The Big Ask campaign, it made for intriguing reading. "One of the big hidden factors that we hadn't looked at," he says, "was the way people travel to the shows. So we need to try and address that."
Thus, to reduce the carbon generated by fans driving to gigs in large out-of-town arenas, Radiohead will be, wherever possible, playing in city-centre venues, or locations with good public transport links.
"We also looked into how we travel around," says Yorke. "I was all for going on ships everywhere, but actually that's worse." Crossing the Atlantic, "the engines would be roaring for so long. It takes five days to get [to America]."
Nonetheless, Radiohead will be transporting their equipment by sea (it's 93 per cent more efficient than air-freight) and travelling as little as possible by air between shows and countries.
But let's not get too bogged down in the nuts-and-bolts of how CDs are distributed and the mechanics of how concerts are staged. Ultimately - and at base - Radiohead are one of the best live bands in the world, thrilling and moving in equal measure. Experiencing them perform the glorious songs from In Rainbows will be one of the highlights of this summer, and (if you tune in to Radio 2 tonight) of this new spring.
While he's on stage, giving it his jittery all, Yorke certainly won't be fretting about the carbon dioxide generated by crowds' over-enthusiastic dancing.
"There's an important element, too, of people getting together for a common purpose at gigs," says this reluctant-but-iconic showman with a grin. "It's not just about the band. There's a benefit there, [so] you can justify the action of doing the gig. That's how I think about it. If it's important to people, not just us, then we should do it."