Radiohead drummer Phil Selway is marching to his own - very different - beat on his new solo project, he tells Eamon Sweeney
My instructions are to ask for Mr Black, as the Radiohead drummer has checked into a New York hotel using a Reservoir Dogs-inspired alias. The polar opposite to a hit man in a Quentin Tarantino film, Selway is a delightfully laid back and pleasant raconteur, speaking in a friendly Home Counties accent that exudes good manners and breeding, which isn't exactly what you'd expect from most drummers.
Phil is the latest member of rock's biggest and most influential quintet to stick his head above the parapet with a solo album. Thom Yorke authored the acclaimed 2006 album The Eraser and formed an ad hoc band called Atoms for Peace featuring Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Meanwhile, the classically trained multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood released a soundtrack album entitled Bodysong in 2003 and also scored the Daniel Day Lewis-starring movie There Will Be Blood.
An Oscar nomination for Greenwood was officially withdrawn by the Academy when it transpired that it broke the strict rule that previously written or recorded music was ineligible. Incidentally, the Oscar that year was won by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova for Falling Slowly from Once.
Selway's solo debut sounds absolutely nothing like Radiohead. It's a gentle, comforting, whisper-in-the-ear sort of album with pleasing echoes of Nick Drake. "I certainly wanted that kind of intimate warmth," he agrees. "It's almost like a pillow-talk record. The way the songs were written was a very private process for me.
"It was under the radar that I was doing it anyway. I did in the privacy of my own room, so I think that lends itself to a very intimate sense of a one-to-one conversation. I've always liked a record that wraps you up in its own little world, such as Master & Everyone by Bonnie Prince Billy or Heaven or Las Vegas by the Cocteau Twins. I wanted this to have a similar effect. There is an underlining warmth and tenderness, but I didn't want it to be overly sentimental. There are certain elements of it that are off-kilter and slightly stuffed up."
Selway made Familial with a cast of collaborators that includes Lisa Germano and Glenn Kotche from Wilco. "They were amazing people to work with," he gushes. "We all came together through a project Neil Finn put together called Seven Worlds Collide a couple of years ago. We wrote and recorded a record in a couple of weeks called The Sun Came Out. I went into that project as a drummer, but the songwriting side of things started to emerge more for me through that process. It was very natural and I've been extremely lucky. I'm just amazed they made the space for it really."
Familial didn't interrupt the activities of Selway's mainstay band. "From a Radiohead point of view, we're constantly going along, but we'll work in short, concentrated and intense activity and then we take time off from it so we come back with fresh ears," he reveals. "It leaves spaces in between that means all of us can go off and work on other projects like Atoms for Peace (Thom) and Johnny with his soundtracks. All these things flex the musical muscle and feed into each other in a good way and feed back into Radiohead very positively."
Familial begs the question whether Phil has been sitting behind the drum kit for the past 15 years itching to be in Thom Yorke's position, although he has chipped in an occasional backing vocal. "I started playing guitar and writing songs when I started drumming in my teens," he explains. "The song-writing side of things went on the backburner in the period when we were building up to being signed and I decided I wanted to completely focus on drumming. I suppose about seven or eight years ago ideas started coming together. I kept up guitar all along, but only as a bedroom noodler. Three or four years ago, I felt there was a collection of songs there and it would be appropriate to do my own record, but I didn't know how I would make it or who would sing. I had to get my head around writing lyrics again which I hadn't done since I was a teenager."
At 43, Selway is the oldest member of Radiohead.
Ed O'Brien recently said that the eighth Radiohead studio album might well emerge before the year's end. I ask Philip if it's going to schedule and he laughs out loud. "It's alright but we're certainly not finished yet," he says. "We're still very much in the middle of it, but it's downtime for Radiohead at the moment."
In addition to his famous percussive role, Phil Selway is well known as a committed champion of Samaritans and has worked as a volunteer for several years. He also once confessed that he originally signed up to impress a girl when he was in college in Liverpool!
"Unfortunately, I'm not in a position to be a Samaritans volunteer at this point in time," he says. "You need to make that time commitment and that's what makes the organisation work. I've been able to do it for nearly two decades and I sincerely hope that it's something I can return to later in life. Right now, I don't feel I can make that kind of commitment to the level that it's needed to do the job properly."
According to one fraudulent online biography, Selway left an early incarnation of Radiohead called On A Friday to move to Ireland. "I spent time with friends in Bangor, let's say a lot of one single summer, so I'm not sure if that qualifies as living there," he says. "Wikipedia can be like a version of your alternative life! Well done, you've picked up on the biggest inaccuracy that's in there. I have looked at it, but then again you can't get too pedantic about it. But no, I didn't live half my life in Ireland prior to Radiohead!
Despite not being a fully fledged long-term Irish resident, Selway loves our little island and some of his favourite career moments occurred on Irish soil.
"The time around The Bends and OK Computer was a tipping point for us as a band," he says. "Two shows from that period that really stand out for me were when we played in Galway. It was one of the best responses we ever got anywhere and in hindsight it's one of our favourite shows we've ever done. When we released OK Computer, we played the RDS with Massive Attack and Teenage Fanclub. It was the weekend before we played at Glastonbury and there was a real sense that things had suddenly moved on.
"We were driving to those shows and it was like driving to a football match or something because we had these immense crowds for the first time ever. There was a sense of a shift in how people viewed us. We also had some great shows in the Olympia too. Funnily enough, we seemed to get most of the Leinster rugby team in there one night."
Hence, it comes as no surprise that Philip is very excited to be Electric Picnic bound. The question remains that with three fifths of Radiohead working on their own bat, when will Colin and Ed follow suit?
"I'm not going to start spreading rumours," he laughs. "We'll see."
'Philip Selway plays Electric Picnic, Familial is out on August 27
The good samaritans
In 2004, Philip Selway fronted a volunteer recruitment drive as numbers had reached a 30-year low in the UK. Incidentally, Irish Samaritans Director Suzanne Costello has noted an upturn in volunteer numbers in Ireland since the economic downturn began.
Other notable Samaritans champions include:
- Danny McNamara, Embrace
“I remember contacting Samaritans when I was about 19. I was feeling really low, and knew that I needed to talk to someone. At the time the idea of talking about my feelings seemed like the most difficult thing in the world. Samaritans helped me through a really tough time and after contacting them I was able to make some major life changes.”
- Ruby Wax
Comedienne Ruby Wax backed a recent Samaritans campaign by making three online films about the charity's work. Wax brilliantly profiles the organisation with her trademark humour and sharp wit and also makes a mock call to give viewers a flavour of what exactly Samaritans do. The films can be viewed on the BBC Headroom site.
- Jeremy Paxton, broadcaster and Samaritans supporter
“Like it or not, the media has a huge influence on the way people feel about mental health issues. Many of us will experience a mental health problem in our lifetime and yet it is still so poorly understood by the public. I think that is because it is not terribly well reported.”
- Other celebrities and musicians who have supported or publicised Samaritans include Ash, Iron Maiden, the late Stuart Cable (Stereophonics), Meatloaf, The Prodigy, Bullet for My Valentine, Placebo, The Hoosiers, McFly, Russell Howard, Ken Doherty, Tinchy Stryder, Omid Djalili, David Baddiel, Charlton Athletic Football Club, Anna Daly (TV3) and Senator David Norris, just to name a tiny few.