Arts

Radiohead's Ed O'Brien on designing his 'dream' Fender guitar

Radiohead's Ed O'Brien talks to Sherna Noah about questioning his future, juggling music and parenthood and taking note of his dreams.

Radiohead's Ed O'Brien with his Signature Sustainer Stratocaster guitar, created with Fender.

IT'S not a subject stars usually get into, but Radiohead's Ed O'Brien is sitting in a recording studio discussing his dreams.

The guitarist, ranked one of the best of all time, thinks society misses a trick by "dismissing them as flights of fancy" and failing to grasp their true importance.

"Do you ever wake up and feel compelled to do something? Or you've had a dream so real it feels it's happened?" the Oxford-born musician asks.

His latest project, designing a Sustainer Stratocaster guitar with guitar makers Fender, only came to fruition when he woke one morning and decided he had "to act".

"I woke and thought, 'This has to be made'. If I'd ruminated on it, I'd have forgotten about it. I acted on that impulse," he says.

The 49-year-old believes "you can almost make the things that you form in your head" happen.

"I like dreaming at night and dreaming during the day. I always tell young musicians and students, 'Don't be afraid to dream'.

"Old civilisations took great importance from dreams. Dream time is an important part of my life," says Ed, who is known for creating new sounds by stretching his instruments to the limits.

It is 26 years since Radiohead's debut single, Creep, made waves in 1992 and 21 years since they released their groundbreaking third album, OK Computer.

The band, who formed at school in Oxford in 1985, have continued to enjoy critical and chart success ever since.

Their last album, A Moon Shaped Pool, topped the charts in 2016, and in 2017 they headlined Glastonbury – their "spiritual home" – for a third time.

But Ed says that at one point he questioned his future with the world-famous quintet, fronted by Thom Yorke and also featuring drummer Philip Selway and brothers Jonny (guitars/keys) and Colin Greenwood (bass).

Then, the answer didn't come in a dream, but in the form of some sound advice from two musicians – and his wife, Susan Kobrin.

The father-of-two "struggled when the kids were little", juggling fatherhood with going away on long tours.

"I come from a split family, so the most important thing in my life has always been making amends for that, wanting to have a family and stay together and to create an environment where the family didn't fall apart.

"Going away from long periods doesn't assist that," he says with refreshing honesty.

"So when the children were born I had that and an incredible biological primal pull just to be there."

His second child, daughter Oona, was born in 2006, at around the same time as a six-week tour of America.

"I was like, 'I don't think I can do this anymore. I don't want to do it anymore anyway'," he says.

"But I was very lucky because I had two role models in Johnny Marr and Neil Finn (Crowded House) and I saw how they were with their families."

They put things into perspective, telling the musician to remember that when he is with his family, he is really there.

"Neil said, 'When your kids are 14 or 15, they're not going to thank you if you leave Radiohead to bring them up. They'll be like, 'What the f*** are you doing?' I thought that was very good advice."

And he adds: "My wife said, 'You don't want to do that, and I don't want you to do that!'"

While life on the road can be testing for any band, Ed has respect for those doing a far less glamorous job.

"Motherhood is the most taken-for-granted job on the whole planet and most men have no idea," he says.

"The easiest thing is to go out to work. Obviously people have challenging jobs, but the emotional needs of some other being, that is the hardest thing."

The treatment of women in the film world dominates the headlines, but Ed criticises what he perceives as "a fundamental disrespect for women everywhere", from advertising to the music industry.

"There's an incredible imbalance in the world at the moment and, largely, I think it's because of a gender imbalance," he says.

He has been reading up on a tribe in north America, where a council of older women had all the power, because they "were far less likely to go to war".

"I was fortunate that I lived with my mum and sister, my parents split up, so I was very aware of the strong female," he adds.

We speak as it is announced that a Canadian coroner will investigate the sudden stage collapse that led to the death of the band's drum technician Scott Johnson, hours before a Radiohead concert in Toronto in 2012.

Ed says the band are determined the development will finally lead to answers and that the delay has been "disgraceful".

"We're not going to let this go away. You want to make sure that somebody is answerable to what happened," he says.

"This shouldn't have happened and should never happen again and somebody lost their life. Scott's parents need some answers."

The band's guitarist and vocalist has been recording his carnival-inspired solo album, his first record outside Radiohead, after living with his family in Brazil for a year.

He will be back in the studio in the new year, just over 10 years since Radiohead surprised their fans by asking them to pay what they wanted for their latest album, In Rainbows.

They announced online: "It's up to you" – and then added: "No really, it's up to you", causing shock waves in the music world as it grappled with declining revenues.

Ed says the music industry is "clawing its way up" from its lowest ebb, now that it is starting to make money from streaming.

Sound quality suffered as the industry "got hollowed out" during seismic changes which saw cash drain out of the industry and recording studios lose some of their best engineers.

He is positive about the changes which have come with streaming, saying: "One of the things I really like now is that everything's in and nothing is out.

"People are into all sorts of stuff. There just isn't the tribal ghettoising of music that there was when I was growing up."

As for Radiohead themselves, they are planning a tour to South America.

He says the band have a "deep friendship, a deep bond" and are "like family".

"You do it as long as it feels good. It's not always felt good but that's the nature of things.

"But there's a deep love and a deep appreciation of what we all do, individually and collectively."

:: Ed O'Brien has launched his Signature Sustainer Stratocaster in collaboration with Fender. Full details visit Fender.com

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