Music

Radiohead legend Philip Selway takes us on a Strange Dance

Radiohead's Philip Selway may play drums for one of the world's biggest bands, but when it came to his new project he sacked himself

Philip Selway

Philip Selway. Photo: Phil Sharp

You’re the drummer in Radiohead, one of the biggest and most critically acclaimed rock bands in the world, heading into the studio to record your latest solo album with a coterie of talented fellow musicians – what’s one of the first things you do? Sack yourself.

“I wasn’t match fit when I got in there,” concedes Philip Selway, the man who has been keeping metronomic time for Oxford art-rock demigods Radiohead since their inception in 1985. “It’s a lot easier to admit that to yourself than to somebody else,” he laughs.

“I’d originally planned to drum on the record,” Selway elaborates, “but I got into the sessions and I wasn’t in the right mindset. Also, I hadn’t drummed for a while. So that physical side wasn’t happening as quickly as I’d have liked.”

Instead, he enlisted the services of drummer, percussionist and improviser Valentina Magaletti to help shape the rhythmic backbone of Strange Dance, Selway’s immersive third solo album. She joined a “dream team” on a highly collaborative record that also features Hannah Peel, Portishead’s Adrian Utley and Marta Salogni among others.

Relieving himself of drumming duties freed Selway to focus on songwriting and shaping the broader sonic sweep of an album for which the loose starting point was “a Carole King record if she collaborated with pioneering electronic composer Daphne Oram”. Leaving space for others to throw in ideas comes naturally to Selway. It contributed to a set of songs much greater than the sum of its parts, Selway’s hushed vocals orbited by an expressive swirl of strings, synths, pianos and guitars.

“I guess that’s been a feature of my musical life,” he says of his appetite for collaboration. “If you like, Radiohead, that’s a collaboration that has gone on for decades. There’s something very rich in finding those musical relationships.”

Selway met the other four future members of Radiohead in the mid-’80s while attending Abingdon School, an independent school for boys in Oxfordshire. They signed a recording contract with EMI in 1991 and rapidly tasted success with the 1992 single Creep; by 1997, with the eight-million-selling OK Computer, Radiohead had made a record widely hailed as one of the greatest of all time. Across six further albums, their sound has evolved in ways impossible to predict, with Selway ever-present in the drum stool – the unstarriest of drummers in the most idiosyncratic of bands, tapping out intricate beats with motorik precision.

Radiohead are currently on a pause while the members pursue other projects – singer Thom Yorke and lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood have started a new band called The Smile, while guitarist and backing vocalist Ed O’Brien is working on a second solo album and bassist Colin Greenwood has been playing live with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. “Colin has beaten us all hands down,” Selway jokes. “The coolest gig, full-stop.” 

“Everybody’s very much working on their own projects at the moment,” he says, “but we get together. We’ve been together, and just kind of pondered next steps. We’re still a band.”

Writing his own music is something Selway has done since well before Radiohead existed, and while it may take a back seat for long spells, it’s an impulse that never goes away. He released his debut solo album, Familial, in 2010, followed by Weatherhouse in 2014. In 2017 he composed the soundtrack for the film Let Me Go. “It’s kind of how I relax, I guess,” he says, of songwriting and composition. “It’s a mood stabiliser. I can lose myself in doing it.”

Selway is set to tour Strange Dance around the UK and Europe, in what promises to prove a trip down memory lane as he returns to playing the sort of intimate venues Radiohead haven’t visited since the early ’90s. As an ambassador for Independent Venue Week – the annual celebration of independent live music and the network of pubs, clubs and small theatres which keeps it going against increasing odds – he remains a great champion of what he calls “the lifeblood of music”. 

“They’re where all new talent is nurtured,” says Selway, “but they’re not just a springboard. They are an end in themselves. They have a particular kind of cultural value. From a performance point of view, they’re such rich environments to play in. You’re very close to the audience, so you have that kind of immediate feedback and connection.”

Outside of music, Selway is a passionate supporter of Samaritans, a charity close to his heart since he first got involved with them as a student at Liverpool Polytechnic in the late ’80s. He volunteered as a telephone listener on and off for years, even during the peak of Radiohead’s success. “It’s a privileged position to be going in at a very intimate level, a very open place, a very trusting place,” Selway reflects, of conversations with vulnerable people who can have had little idea it was a Grammy-winning rock star anonymously lending a caring ear in their hour of need. “There’s no artifice there. It probably kept my sanity in that period as well.”

Have his skills as a listener come in handy during more fractious moments at the heart of one of the world’s biggest groups? “Radiohead, like any creative relationship, is a very intense relationship,” Selway responds, with finely tuned diplomacy. “When it’s working at its best, we’re all very open to what we have to say, and we’re all very keen to find an outcome we all agree on. I think when that happens, and it happens, it makes for a very powerful dynamic.”

Strange Dance by Philip Selway
Strange Dance is out on February 24 via Bella Union

Philip Selway is touring the UK from January 30. For a full list of dates visit philipselway.com

Malcolm Jack is a freelance journalist

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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