Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien: ‘There’s a common misconception that we’re miserable’

The guitarist reflected on his incredible career with the band in a Letter to My Younger Self

Music was my main preoccupation at 16.

By the time I was 17 I knew everyone in Radiohead and we were putting a band together. For me, it was like a bolt from the blue, suddenly the most important thing I had. I felt this incredibly strong pull – this is where I want to focus my energy. Like most teenagers I was chronically insecure and unsure and uncertain. So being in a band was brilliant because it was a cool thing for kids to do. And it was a cool thing for me, it gave me my backbone.

Growing up with my sister, we were a family for the first 10 years of my life, and then my parents split up.

When I look back on it, I always played it down but it was a big traumatic thing in my life. Back then people didn’t know how to handle divorces. It was all about the parents fighting rather than the children in the middle of it. Nobody said ‘How you feeling?’ My mum and dad were the people I loved most on the planet, so the fact that they didn’t love one another, didn’t even like one another any more, that really hurt. All my friends had really strong, loving families and my family wasn’t like that. I became very self-contained, I got very lonely. I found out how unkind people could be to one another. But that made me realise how I felt like kindness was really important. And I was very lucky… I found music at that time. Bob Marley, Blondie, Public Image Ltd, Burt Bacharach – they created this fantastical world I could escape into.

I had a kind of epiphany right at the start of the band.

I was walking across the school drive and Thom [Yorke, Radiohead frontman] came up. I asked him where he was going and he said he was going in to jam at the music school. And I promise you, from that day, I felt something like a sixth sense, a destiny, or whatever you want to call it. It probably sounds ridiculous because we just did a cover of She Sells Sanctuary by The Cult. If you’d witnessed it you’d just say, there’s no future there. But I felt something very, very powerful.

Sometimes the bad feelings you’ve previously suppressed bubble up when things are going really well.

After OK Computer was released [in 1997] our star was in the ascendancy, I got a beautiful little terraced house – basically I was 27, 28 and I was living the dream. But I didn’t feel better. In fact I became depressed. Because it didn’t fill the hole. I’d always thought in my heart of hearts that my problems would go away if I could be in this great band and people appreciated us. But instead the emotional stuff I’d felt since childhood, but never processed, all came out. Because it was not a happy family to grow up in, then my parents got divorced, my mother remarried and that wasn’t good either. So I just basically put a lid on my emotions when I was a kid. And I did suffer from depression for a long time. Then when all these things I’d always felt would fill the hole happened, and I didn’t feel better, that just made the hole bigger.

I’d like to go back and tell myself at that [unhappy] time that it was going to be the start of an amazing journey.

Because that’s when I realised, right, you need to sort your shit out. Nothing you can get out there in the world will fix this. I gave up drinking which really helped because… on the Irish side of the family there’s some very big alcoholic genes there. I came across some brilliant books which added to my understanding, and I had a kind of awakening. It’s like fighting an addiction. You’re thinking, I can’t get out of bed. I can’t talk to anyone. How can I start feeling better? So, bit by bit, you get rid of booze or drugs, all those kind of things, and you start to feel better. For me now the crises are… I had one in the last five years. It feels shit. A dark night of the soul when you feel utterly lost and you even think about ending it all. These are moments human beings have had forever. You can either let that situation get the better of you or decide to change what you need to change. And it’s amazing when you do that how things fall in your path, almost like the universe provides those moments to help you.

I really loved [having success in America].

When Creep was a big hit [in 1993] that was exciting but it felt like it could have been just a one-hit wonder thing. Success really came with OK Computer. I think it’s very different for the frontman, for Thom, because the audience is getting big and he’s the filter. It was incredibly overpowering and even overbearing at times for him. But for me, America was where all my favourite music came from, so it was kind of like a dream come true. There are some serious music heads over there. They will go on a musical journey with you. We’d go on stage and it would just reek of marijuana and you knew people were ready to have a proper full-on mystical experience. So I was just really happy.

If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be my grandfather, who I used to call Bunker.

I was his first grandchild. He died in 1984. In our house in Wales we’ve got the river at the bottom of the garden and he loved fishing and all his outdoor pursuits. And I was thinking about this the other day – I wish he was around. We’d sit out there and we could have a cup of tea and we’d be laughing. He had a wonderful sense of humour and a wonderful laugh. I still have dreams about it, and I’m ‘Hey Bunker! What the fuck are you doing here?!’ He was very important to me.

I never panicked when the other people in the band started doing solo projects.

I’ve never seen it as a competition. When Thom’s The Eraser came out [in 2006] I became a father for the first time around. I was like, this is what I want to do. I want to be with my kids. And maybe because of the family I came from, this was the most important thing in my life. So I never felt the need to do [a solo project]. And when it came to me suddenly and unexpectedly, this kind of songwriting wave, it felt like falling in love again.

The whole family went to Brazil.

I wanted to go because – and I know it might sound silly – because I could. We were never a flash band and for a long time I didn’t want to live in a big house in Primrose Hill because I thought it would alienate me from all my friends. It’s taken me years to get over the guilt of having such luck in my life. But 12 years ago I woke up and I had a kind of eureka moment: You’ve been dealt this incredible hand. You have an obligation to lead an extraordinary life. You think of Paul McCartney going off to a remote part of Scotland [McCartney bought a farm in Kintyre, Argyll and Bute, in 1966] – I thought, that’s what musicians do. I’m a musician, so why not? Good friends are not going to say Ed, you’re a wanker for doing this. They’re going to say, what was it like?

There’s a common misconception about Radiohead that we’re all miserable.

I can see how that happened. After the first album, Pablo Honey, we were all over the place and we knew we had to get our shit together. So we looked around and said, who’s the coolest band on the planet? And it was Massive Attack. So that meant, pull the blinds down. Don’t give away too much. Play it very straight. But behind the shutters my favourite moments have always been when the five of us were in a rehearsal studio, with no one else around, and we’re laughing. Yes, there have been times when it got a bit hairy. Like a family, you go through times when it’s really fucking hard and you’re not getting on. But when I’m on my deathbed what I’ll remember is all the laughter we’ve had.

Ed O’Brien’s debut solo album as EOB, Earth, is out now