Arts

Ed O'Brien: Radiohead has been going 30 years. This is me taking a different road

Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien has spent nearly a decade working on his debut solo album. He tells Alex Green about the LP as well as nature, the seductive perils of Los Angeles, and being starstruck by David Beckham at Glastonbury

Radiohead guitarist Ed O'Brien takes inspiration from the surroundings of his home in rural Wales

EACH morning, as Ed O'Brien wrote the music for his first solo album, he would wake, make a cup of tea and hike to the top of a hill beside his cottage in rural Wales.

There, looking down on the River Wye, he would read the poetry of Walt Whitman and William Blake, and wait for nature to inspire him.

After some 30 years as Radiohead's guitarist and "safe pair of hands", O'Brien has stepped out of the shadows, releasing the LP, titled Earth, under the moniker EOB.

Written over eight explorative years living in Brazil and Wales, Earth is as much inspired by the quiet joys of family life as it is by the explosive colours of Rio de Janeiro's famed Carnival, or the intensities of life in a touring rock band.

"I have all these very good intentions when I'm living in London," he explains from self-isolation in Wales. "I want to read. I want to learn from the classics – the really important literature – and I really struggle with it in the city.

"Out here, suddenly the words become three-dimensional and there's a spirit in these places that's unquantifiable.

"I guess that's why people seek out these wild places."

O'Brien turned 52 in April, which begs the question: why now?

His aspirations as a songwriter date back to 1996, during the recording sessions for Radiohead's seminal OK Computer.

He planned to put forward material of his own but folded, deferring to frontman Thom Yorke and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood.

It was only some 15 years – and four Radiohead albums – later that his ideas took flight.

"The Radiohead path has been going for nearly 30 years. This is me taking a different road," he expounds.

"It's completely compelling, because there's so much I want to do. There's so much I want to express now, and there's so much I want to improve on.

"I've just started singing and the more you sing, the richer it gets. So that's what I'm..." He tails off. "This will definitely be at least a trilogy," he adds unprompted.

O'Brien is holed up with his wife and teenage children in Wales, having recovered from a suspected bout of coronavirus.

Around 2011, he and his family left England for Brazil, living for a year on a farm, before upping sticks to Wales.

He is one of very few musicians not to push back their album – "I feel like there's no finer time to release – music is about service," he explains.

But the lockdown placed his solo career on hold after only a handful of gigs, just as he was finding his feet as a frontman.

"One of the things I was actually looking forward to was hitting the road and really paying my dues," he admits. "It's very different from Radiohead now. Certainly the last tour, I feel it was probably some of the best playing we've done together.

"You get the nerves beforehand but it is very relaxed. We've been doing this a long time. Thom would carry the weight of a gig, as the front person does, and I have realised that, doing my own shows, it's a very different dynamic."

Earth features a menagerie of sounds: a Celtic-sounding ballad with Laura Marling, folktronica, and beats reminiscent of Primal Scream's rave-tastic Screamadelica.

It features a roll-call of musical friends: Radiohead bass player Colin Greenwood, Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche.

O'Brien's writing process involved immersion in nature, time to experiment and "copious cups of tea".

"I could talk to you about nature on and on," he chuckles. "Because I don't know what's going on, but I'm just responding to myself as a human being, but also as a songwriter. These are the places I feel inspired in."

His travels have also prompted him to think about how a place – natural or artificial – can affect the music created there.

"If you make an album in LA, which Radiohead did with Hail To The Thief in 2003, you get seduced by a sound and by the place, and it has an effect on you that's very powerful. It's similar to being in the countryside, but then you have to mix it.

"You have to take it back to the city, to London, which is a bit grittier and gnarlier, to realise that 'Yeah, that doesn't work'."

One song, Shangri-La, was written days after Radiohead's eclectic, experimental headline set at Glastonbury 2017 – their second time at the top of the Pyramid Stage billing.

"My wife and I, and our friends, go every year – whether Radiohead play or not," he says. "And in a funny kind of way, I actually prefer it when we don't, because I can fully immerse myself in Glastonbury and the carnival of it all."

Even after their triumphant performance, O'Brien was the one star-struck by a chance encounter.

"Last time we played the festival, it was a different beast from when we first played in '97," he recalls.

"Backstage, it used to be Portakabins and now there's this great big green room and there's dining – because if you get Jay-Z and Beyonce in, you need to look after them.

"Glastonbury attracts a lot people – there's Brad Pitt and there's David Beckham. I'm a big Manchester United fan, so Beckham for me is the number seven. He's not the Beckham of celebrity – he's the footballer. He came over and said how much he enjoyed the gig – and I was a bit of a fanboy.

"Glastonbury is a bit like your World Cup final, your Champion's Cup final – it's the biggest show you will ever play."

:: Earth by EOB is out now.

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