After an intense, moving performance with Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur and a motley crew of 17 outrageously gifted Rajasthani folk musicians at the Mehrangarh fort, Jodhpur, as part of the World Sacred Spirit Festival (read more on page 25), Jonny Greenwood got off stage and headed to the restricted area there to unwind. We had an interview scheduled, but visibly overwhelmed and ever reticent, Greenwood grabbed his temples with both hands and told the coordinator his head is spinning; that he needs to relax and get a glass of wine and that he’s not sure.
Jonny Greenwood plays the guitar for Radiohead. He also plays the keyboard, piano, Ondes Martenot (an early electronic instrument), viola, glockenspiel, harmonica, organ, banjo, synth, tanpura […]. On Kid A’s National Anthem, he plays a television (!); on Climbing Up The Walls (O.K. Computer), he manipulates sounds from a transistor. He has composed bizarre, haunting, breathtaking scores for There Will Be Blood, Bodysong, The Master, Norwegian Wood and Inherent Vice, and is the composer-in-residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra. He had been living at the fort for three weeks, working on a record with Ben Tzur and 12 Indian musicians, encompassing Arabic, Indian and western music, culminating in a performance at the festival on 13 February. After his glass of wine, I finally managed to corner Greenwood for a brief chat about Radiohead and washing machines.
Q. Can you tell me a little about working with Shye Ben Tzur and Indian musicians?
A. We’ve been living here for nearly three weeks and recording an album here, in the fort. The Maharaja allowed us use of the fort, and we’ve basically been living here with 12 Indian musicians and we’ve made a record. It’s been great — they were the guys you saw on stage. Which is why the songs were [sounding] a little under-rehearsed. We’ve been playing them for recording, but this was our first concert.
Q. Compositional work, collaborations, interpretations, film scores, and Radiohead; how do you manage to shift gears musically each time?
A. I think it’s good to be a moving target… just keep moving and it also means you don’t get found out. I think everyone lives in fear of being found out, of being slightly fraudulent and kind of getting away with something. And so it’s good to keep moving; that’s partly why I like to do it. And there’s something — it’s been amazing, actually, working with Indian musicians. They have such a different energy and enthusiasm for music. It’s just, it’s part of life here, it feels, rather than just being an occupation. It’s different; there’s music everywhere. Like when we’re playing and recording or rehearsing with these musicians, when they take a break, they go and play more. That’s not true in England. We just take a break. It’s sort of a relief. But here, it’s just this urge to make music, and it’s really inspiring. Some of the musicians are so young, it’s great. One of the dholak players, he’s 16, and I just sit and watch him play and learn so much from how he thinks about music. He’s amazing.
Q. After playing your beaten-up old Fender Telecaster with Radiohead for years, you’ve recently been using a Gibson Les Paul. Is the shift permanent?
A. I don’t know; like I’ve been saying, guitars are like typewriters. It’s technology, it’s not something to be admired or worshipped. Like, oh, a washing machine or something. It does the job. You start seeing people putting them on walls as decorations and it’s just… it’s like putting a vacuum cleaner there. That’s really bizarre for me. They’re okay; they all sound the same, it’s the brutal truth.
“We’ve [Radiohead] certainly changed our method again. It’s too involved [to explain how]. We’re kind of limiting ourselves; working in limits. So we’ll see what happens. It’s like we’re trying to use very old and very new technology together to see what happens.”
Q. Radiohead has also started writing a new record, the follow-up to 2011’s King of Limbs? What direction is the music heading in; has the sound changed radically yet again?
A. We’ve done a couple of months of recording, and it has gone really well. We haven’t listened to anything back yet, so at the moment we’re all very happy. Now, I guess we’re going to go and listen to what we’ve done and see if we were right to be so happy. But we left it at a good place when we last stopped.
We’ve certainly changed our method again. It’s too involved [to explain how]. We’re kind of limiting ourselves; working in limits. So we’ll see what happens. It’s like we’re trying to use very old and very new technology together to see what happens.
Q. Would Radiohead consider playing in India? With Ben Tzur, what kind of a sound have you tried to arrive at?
A. I’d be very happy. I’ve been here three times now and I love it; I love being here. It’s very strange [to think of Radiohead playing here]. Maybe, maybe. I don’t know where we’d play, or who to or for. What’s funny is we’ve done lots of research for this project — on Indian music and how it’s put across or played and performed and what happens when western music meets Indian music. There’s Coke Studio, which is quite difficult to watch because it seems to be the worst parts of western rock music — it’s all over the place. It churns my stomach a little bit. That’s why it’s sort of difficult to play with Indian musicians and not feel like you’re ruining something by pinning things down with chords or making things more brutal or less ambiguous. What’s great about Indian music is how fluid melodies are, how they breathe and live. Rock music can be very rigid. And so, I don’t know, when I’m feeling optimistic I feel like this has got more common ground with James Brown, it’s that kind [of music]: Joyful and with dancing going on. It’s not really rock music. We’ll see how the record sounds.