When the shortlist for the Oscars’ Best Original Song category was released in December, everything was in its right place, as far as Radiohead fans were concerned. Thom Yorke’s “Suspirium,” the opening and closing theme song for the much-debated horror remake “Suspiria,” made the Academy music branch’s cut for the top 15, rather than getting the hook (which, if you’ve seen the movie, has particularly unpleasant connotations).
That honor wasn’t a given: Yorke hadn’t done music for a feature film before; there were some previous Oscar winners who got edged out in the category; and the film itself, a new take by director Luca Guadagnino on Dario Argento’s bloody classic, proved polarizing, to say the least. (There’ll be further opportunities to debate it when the movie comes to home video Jan. 29.)
Although it’s nearly conventional by recent Radiohead or Yorke standards, “Suspirium” is definitely the most avant-garde song in the category. Can it make the Academy’s final five, facing the less unsettling likes of “Shallow” and tunes from “Mary Poppins Returns”? We’ll know soon enough. But Yorke could hardly be prouder of the music to which he devoted a year and a half… so proud that he’ll own up to relishing the possibility of getting an Oscar nomination for his work.
He’s more intrigued by that prospect, anyway, than Radiohead’s impending induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — which he reveals to Variety he won’t attend, citing a scheduling conflict. He and the band come by their suspicion of music awards shows naturally, out of sheer Britishness, he says. Yorke spoke with Variety about all these kudos, his recent and future projects, and why he’s cool with being this generation’s Mike Oldfield in a sit-down interview in L.A. over the holidays.
VARIETY: You’re kind of a natural fit for a movie that has some anxiety to it.
YORKE: I’m good at that. Yeah. That’s me! [Laughs.]
Your music has been used in films before. Were there were any uses of your music in films that you liked, or that maybe made you think, “Yeah, that was pretty cinematic. I can do this. It’s already been proven”?
There’s been a few that make me go, “I wish I wish we’d done that.” There was an old sequence in “Vanilla Sky,” where they used “Everything In Its Right Place” that we really liked. There was a use of “You and Whose Army?” in some independent movie — I can’t remember the name now — which had me in tears, it was so good. [Editor’s note: He may mean Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies.”] Generally, when it works, it’s the coolest feeling. I think my all-time favorite film now is “Children of Men.” They use a little tiny bit of “Life in a Glass House” during the Michael Caine sequence. I love the film so much, and then the fact that our music is in it is like “Wow, f—ing hell!”
Is scoring something you would have pursued on your own at some point anyway, or did it take somebody like Luca doggedly chasing you down?
When you make videos, you get into the idea of creating a sequence to go with your music, but there’s something much more pleasurable sometimes if someone takes it out of the context that you created it in and puts it into a new context. But I wouldn’t say that any of that led me to want to do soundtrack stuff. At the same time, I discovered that I’m very interested in the two things when they’re put together, and I guess I always have been. I do the artwork with my friend Stanley (Donwood), who I met in art college; as a band, we’ve made our own video visual sequences, and we were obsessively visual at certain phases of our career. But I’ve never gone the other way around, like Jonny (Greenwood) has. I’ve watched Jonny for years working with Paul (Thomas Anderson) and putting music to sequences, and thought, “That’s really interesting,” but never had the balls to actually do it until Luca came to me, because I didn’t really feel confident. And I felt like I had too much to do song-wise. But I had just bought my own studio, and I wanted an excuse to experiment, and an excuse to work to commission and sort of not be me.
Had you gotten a lot of film score offers before?
Mostly, they’ve gone to Jonny. A long time ago, they were trying to get me to do “Fight Club,” but I had no idea how to do it then. I know Ed Norton now, and we joke about it a bit. I was not developed enough. I think part of what attracted me now was Luca actually asking me to take full responsibility for the entire soundtrack. And that, I thought, was suitably nuts, because he knew I’d never done it before and that I had no idea what I was going to be doing. So there was a lot of entrustment going on there, which I was a little bit flattered by. But I also just thought, “You’re mad!” Which is good, you know.
Did you ever get any advice from Jonny, since he’s an old hand at scoring?
Oh, yeah. His advice was really sound and quite simple: “Don’t work too much to picture, because you’ll find yourself drying up. Work off-picture, and then put it onto it. Work as much as you can from impressions. And be selfish about your own experiments that you want to do” — which is very much what he does. He’ll come to things a lot of the time because he wants to try an experiment sonically or musically, and he finds that it fits with whatever he’s working on anyway. So I was doing a lot of that, just f—ing around using modular gear and using my voice in ways I wouldn’t normally do that I’d wanted to try for ages.
You don’t often hear people say, “Oh, I loved that theme song from that horror movie so much.” There aren’t a lot of those to compare this against.
“Suspirium” itself was a response to an early conversation me and Luca had, where I had just got the script and he was saying, “There’s an air of melancholy in this film, which is not really horror in the normal sense.” I ran with that in my head, and as I was reading the script I was getting this feeling of sadness — a desperation to cheat death, an awareness of impermanence, and the idea of memory and past and future all being at the same place, and this idea of the dancers in the script trying to perform a ritual that means that they escape their own physical being. … Sometimes words for me take months and just drive me insane, but this really came out from the simple line “This is a waltz, thinking about our bodies” — and that’s a terrible opening line! But it led me on to the rest of it. … I just kept thinking, “Okay, this doesn’t really have the normal horror thing in it. The chords I’m using, the way I’m singing — none of it.” Except maybe the way the flute comes in. But weirdly, because none of it has that at all… I don’t know why you can feel (the portent) in the background. It’s f—ing weird! You know, it’s like I’m choosing to do absolutely nothing related in any way to a horror movie at all, and that’s what’s making it a horror movie, you know. [Laughs.]
The closest analogy I can think of to what you’re doing with that song, in some ways, is “Tubular Bells” from “The Exorcist.”
Exactly! And that was my reference, because “Tubular Bells” is a relatively sweet thing, but as soon as you taint it with the visuals that come, you never hear it again in the same way.
Lately you’ve kind of been Mr. Electronica. So it’s surprising to hear you working with just a piano and flute in the theme song. But the electronic stuff figures into other parts of the score.
The “Volk” dance piece is the absolute opposite, yeah. It’s actually really complicated, both melodically and electronic. But the simplicity of (“Suspirium”) was what I thought what was frightening, weirdly. There’s an innocence to a waltz on piano with a single voice and the flute, and that innocence is frightening. My normal instinct would have been to embellish it and put it on a sequencer, and my grubby hands would have torn that apart and built it into something else. But I sent it to them on the phone and they responded to that version of it, so I realized, okay, it works as it is. Great. Next. And that’s what led me on to use piano a lot throughout the score in a really, really simple way, because it was like a an anchor, like something with quite a lot of humility to it which is not trying to say anything in particular, but because of that, you could then have license to do crazy shit around it.
The score is unsettling but definitely not built on: How can I help the director goose the audience into being terrified?
To Luca’s credit, and Walter (Fasano), the editor, they were trying to resist the temptation to do any of that. Because it wasn’t really what the film wanted to happen anyway. I’d be interested in doing a film like that, but it absolutely wasn’t appropriate for this. It was more… well, not exactly operatic, but you’re not doing — as my kids call it — jump scares.
Did you get spoiled by Luca? It might hard to repeat this experience with the typical director.
I have no idea. It was a long and difficult process making the soundtrack to this, because the film was maaaad. I mean, Luca freely admits the whole process was completely insane, and that was kind of the best bit about it for me in some ways. I have no idea how it would be working with someone else. I haven’t ruled out doing it again, but to be involved in a project where I’m not in charge was quite weird for me anyway. Not that I’m a control freak, but yes, I am.
As a control freak, had you prepared yourself for what if Luca came back saying, “No, this is totally wrong”?
Oh, yeah. I was fully expecting that, every time. And he did, sometimes; there’s certain sequences where I tried stuff and they threw it out. And I’d come back to it later and go, “Yeah, fair enough.” Part of the fun and challenge of it was steeling yourself to be prepared for anything to be dispensed with. But I would say to myself, “It doesn’t matter, because I’ll put it in the soundtrack.” [Laughs.]
Do you feel like the soundtrack counts as one of your solo albums?
Yeah. But not one I would have chosen to have made. [Laughs.] Well, elements of it. I was really f—ing surprised, because my hands were being moved on the table by someone else, but then at the end of it, when we sequenced it to make it into a soundtrack of its own accord, it’s obviously me. But I was shocked how dark it was. My anxiety about it was: Will it stand together? And it does. Realizing that was in some ways the best moment for me.
You said something earlier about how you wanted to use your voice differently than you normally would. What was that about?
There was one thing in particular called “The Choir of One” which I’d always wanted to try, which is like a microtonal shifting thing, sort of loosely based on ideas that I had had with Johnny that we’d never seen through, and based on a Ligeti choir piece and lots of different things. And I finally figured it out in my studio in a laborious, cack-handed way, and it’s like this nine-minute sequence of just voices shifting, pitch change; it’s a full choir but it’s all my voice. And when we did the red carpet in Venice, Luca wrote to me the week before saying, “Darling, they’re asking for some music to play for the red carpet as we walk through for the photographers.” And I was like… [He rubs his hands together, greedily.] And it was f—ing hilarious, because literally as we walked up to the red carpet — and I was terrified, I didn’t want to do it, and my partner Dajana was like “Come on, we’ve come this far, we’ve got to go through with it” — the music started up, and then f—ing thunder and lightning started going as well. It’s like, you are kidding? You’re joking! And the lights were going down, and there’s a lightning storm going on, and “The Choir of One” is playing deafeningly loud as we all walk in front of the firing squad, as I call it. That was a proud moment. [Laughs.]
You just finished a tour in December, but you didn’t include “Suspiria” music in the shows, except to encore each night with “Suspirium” or one of the other songs from the film.
Yeah, the simple ones, and that was really nice, at the end of a complicated evening of electronics, to sit down in front of the piano. (For the rest of the score) I couldn’t. I’d love to take this stuff on tour, but because of the nature of the way I made it, it would take me six months to figure out how to physically do it, and a ton of musicians. Luca said to me, “Do you want to do like a live performance of the score?” And I said I’d love to, but I know how many processes sonically things went through, and some of it’s really simple — yes, you could do it — and other bits are like, oh my God, I’d have no idea.
Did you think of this tour you just did as touring behind “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” — which you did include as the tour title, even though that album came out four years ago — or was it more like touring behind your next album? Because you did about a half-dozen unreleased songs on the tour.
Basically, that started as an experiment, what I’m doing (on stage) with Nigel (Godrich) and (visual artist) Tarik (Barri), and then there’s a record that sort of formed out of it, which we keep trying to finish and get distracted from. We were hoping it would be finished before this tour started, but that didn’t happen, so we’ve got to finish it when we get back. So, as usual, I’m doing things the wrong way around, upside down, back to front.
But the new songs people just heard in concert should be on a record in 2019?
Yeah, they f—ing well should. They really, really better be. [Laughs.] Really soon. I’m desperate now. … I expected to have done it all (in the fall), and it just didn’t happen like that. I’m going to stop beating myself up about it. It will happen.
So for the next year, people who are looking forward to something from you should look forward primarily to the solo album?
There’s that, and then I’ve written a couple of piano pieces for Katia and Marielle Labèque. Which is hilarious, because I can’t read music. That’s happening soon. And then… I’m not sure after that. But I don’t really tend to stop anymore. I do stop a little bit. I used to enjoy stopping. Now I hate it.
Is that just a stronger worth ethic as you go along?
More like a sense of urgency. There are a lot of things that I just want to get done now. It’s too much in the fire. I wake up every day and I want to just finish stuff. I guess maybe it’s because I’ve hit 50. Time is running out. [Laughs heartily.] Who knows?
It’s the clock.
Yeah, the clock, mate. The clock!
You’ve gotten a couple bits of recognition lately, and one is being shortlisted for the Oscars for “Suspirium.”
I know, right?
And the other is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
So does either one of those mean more than the other?
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame… we’ve always been very blasé about that stuff. So we don’t want to offend anyone. We just think that we just don’t quite understand it. We’ve had it explained to us, so it’s cool. But we don’t really understand it as English people. I think our problem is essentially that every awards ceremony in the UK stinks. We grew up with the Brits, which is like this sort of drunken car crash that you don’t want to get involved with. [Chuckles.] So, yeah, we don’t really know what to make of it. But the Oscar thing makes a bit more sense, I guess, because I’ve had it explained to me a bit more. I mean, I hope it gets nominated. That would be great, because it was a year and a half in my life, and I worked bloody hard on it. So, you know, sometimes it’s nice to be recognized. Sometimes, if you understand what it means.
It was not necessarily a given that you’d make the shortlist for the song, because someone might have thought that the music branch of the Academy would favor their own people who are longtime veterans at doing this kind of thing.
Yeah, which is fair enough. That’s happened to Jonny. I mean, people do this stuff for a living, so it’s a fair cop. … I mean, it’s fascinating, I have to say. I have no idea about how any of it works.
We should just ask: Do you think you’ll go to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony?
I can’t. I know I can’t, because of these piano pieces that I’ve written. There’s the Paris Philharmonic, so I have to be there for that. [The piece he wrote for Katia and Marielle Labèque premieres at Philharmonie de Paris on April 7, nine days after the Hall of Fame induction.]
Well, we hope to see you at the Oscars.
Oh, yes, of course! [Laughs.]
You’re not booked then?
When is it?
Okay. Well… I’ll make a note! [He laughs loudly.]