Ed O’Brien is a founding member and guitarist in Radiohead. After fans asking him what he would make if he made a solo album he said he would make “an existential dance record.” And he has finally released that record, it’s called “Earth.” And it is out now. EOB dropped off the grid for a while and has lived all over the globe in Wales, where we reached him, and in Brazil, which he wrote a song about on this record. He is a global thinker as well. In this interview he pulls back and talks about subjects as big as the meaning of life, but he also pulls all the way in and describes why he tunes at precisely 432 hertz and his obsession with Quincy Jones.
How are you doing? I heard you had COVID-19.
I’m well, thank you. I had the virus I think and I’m getting over it, but I’m all good. I feel like I’m coming out of it. I mean, it does hang around a bit, but I’m all right.
Yeah, I saw you lost smell and taste?
Yeah, exactly. And I was very fluey. I didn’t get tested because it’s very hard to get tested here. I don’t know how you do it. I didn’t want to turn up at a hospital, you know, there are far more deserving cases, with very few testing kits. I’m pretty set. My symptoms are the symptoms that New York Times said is COVID-19, right.
Well I’m glad that you are feeling better. You made this album and it’s called “Earth,” as we’re going through this thing and figuring out that we are a planet together now. What was the meaning of the album going in? And has that changed since we’re in this thing now?
No, not really. I wanted to make a record. When Radiohead fans would ask me what I was doing and I said, I’m making a record. What kind of record, is it going to be? And I said I want to make an existential dance record. And they were like, “Whoa.” And I’m like, “Yeah.” I guess fundamentally, I’m really interested in the bigger picture. I’m interested in the detail of life and the fact that people will feel lonely. We feel lost at times. We feel happy, we feel sad, but I’m always so interested in those questions that used to fascinate me as a teenager. And I think many teenagers, it’s like, hmm, what are we doing here?
And I love that photo that was taken of the planet from Voyager One spacecraft. It’s the furthest photo. It’s this tiny, little, pale, blue dot. And they call it the Pale Blue Dot. And the wonderful American cosmologist Carl Sagan writes these incredibly beautiful words that accompany this. It gives the pictures like this, this pale blue dot, this dust drifting in space. This is home. This is us. I was trying to sort of zoom in and out, so there’s a detail and the nitty gritty of life. But also I was trying to zoom out and go look, there’s a sort of wonder to life. There’s a beauty and almost a divinity that is very hard to see when you’re embroiled in the drama of, for instance, urban life, of living in a city and it’s busy. I’ve lived in London for like the last 25 years and everything is a hundred miles an hour. When you pull back and you look at nature and you look at this planet that we live on and you really, you wake up. You’re awakened and it’s an extraordinary thing. What we’re all doing here. It’s not all great by any means. We’re going through a terrifying phase where things are being reduced at the moment because life has changed immeasurably in the last few weeks. But there’s also a bigger story there. And so that was where I was coming from. I wanted to look at the nitty gritty of life, but I want to see the bigger picture because there’s real beauty there and there’s light and also there’s light in daily things in our lives that are providing light. That’s what, that’s what inspires me.
I love that we ask those questions and I think it’s so important to think of that. What do you think that we’re doing here?
That’s the big one. I mean, what are we doing here?
We’re having experiences.
I resonate a lot with a lot of Eastern philosophies, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and that whole idea of we have many lives on this planet and the human spirit lives on after our physical body dies and we come back and we’re here to have an experience, to have experiences in certain lifetimes.
The way that I made sense of the depression that I had for years, was coming from almost seeing it from a higher place. I was like, “Well, I can carry on drinking, doing drugs, falling in with the same kind of people and what am I learning?” I’m learning it makes me unhappy and I’m depressed. So I have a learning here.
My learning is how to find peace of mind, how to find happiness. For me that feels like one of my journeys.
One of the things that I have to do on this planet for me. I think as a planet, as a whole, we have to get to a place which is not where we currently are and where we haven’t been, but we have to move to a place of respect, kindness for one another for the planet and we have to find a system that embraces that. Because the system that we have, and I’m not an anticapitalist or anything, but it doesn’t work for the planet and it doesn’t work for most of humanity. It pits you against one another. So we have to find a system that works. People go, “Well, what system is that? There’s gotta be a better way.” I fundamentally felt like in a thousand years, human beings are going to look back on this time and we who in the past, before this pandemic, of being all powerful or mighty, look at these incredible buildings and these things that we can do and aren’t we brilliant? I’ve always thought that people will look back on this time and go, “You know what? They had their heads up their asses, they really couldn’t see the wood for the trees.” And I really fundamentally believe that.
I think what’s interesting is, so many people think that now. The conversations we’re all having now, there’s a shift in consciousness and there’s a shift that’s happening and I don’t know how you explain that, but there’s something happening and for all the horror and the fear of what’s going on in pandemic at the moment, to me fundamentally feels that this pandemic is part of that shift, that’s part of the necessary shift that we have to get to, to fully awaken. That’s what people are doing. They’re fully awakening about the fragility and the importance of life and being on this planet and all those people who’ve been undervalued in our country and probably in America, the health workers, the key workers. Whereas we’re in societies that worship the billionaires, the Warren Buffetts of this world, the Jeff Bezos, these are people to aspire to. They don’t mean shit at times like this.
It’s the ordinary person.
The person who’s delivering your groceries who is risking getting Coronavirus and dropping. It’s the postal worker. It’s the people working in our health system. And that’s the positive stuff about this time.
When we come together, we can be an incredible force for good.
I do want to talk about music as well, on the album. I think the songs that are eight minutes on this album are always going somewhere, and they’re always moving. What did you want that movement of those big long songs to be?
It’s a bit like a trance.
You get into that trance, that hypnotic state and it’s a combination of the tempo, the rhythm, and also the melody.
I love music like that. It was interesting living in Brazil, and experiencing Carnival because Samba at Carnival’s very similar to that. You get into a trance. They’re an hour and a quarter and it’s this revolving, hypnotic. I love that. There’s something very powerful about that. So on a song like Brazil, there’s an argument that says, once the vocal is finished at the end, that’s it and it’s out. But I’m like, no, you need to have the other three and a half, four minutes at the end. It’s like tapping into a very primal and also quite a cosmic side of being and dancing.
I’m fascinated by exploring different tempos.
So a lot of the songs we’d only really been focused when I found that tempo. What I realized was that tempo, it’s like a pulse. And as a human being, you resonate. There’s a reason why dance music coming out of Britain in 1989 was all at 120 BPMs. And similarly, now a lot of EDM is like at o127-129. It’s because there’s something about those tempos. There are tempos that you have that really worked well. So a 123 doesn’t work, but at 120 or 127, it’s like it’s in focus. You just feel it so much more. It resonates. So I’m really fascinated. I’m exploring tempos. And that’s what I did and that’s what I want to get into a lot more as well.
And also I do this whole thing with tuning the music. So the music is tuned down, slightly standardized tuning is at like 440 Hertz acres. I tune at 432. Most of my music, not all the songs, but some of them are tuned at 432 and there’s a whole thing where, again, music and the science behind it, that resonates. Tones resonate more at 432 and they do at 440.
How did you find that out?
It was at Glastonbury Festival and I was told about this old scale called the Solfeggio scale.
So music, in the middle ages a lot of it happened in churches and it was before churches became too sinister. So the music they believe that came there didn’t just uplift, but it had a kind of a healing quality. And they talk about music being 432. So of course you Google it and the beauty of the internet is you get this whole, it’s like entering a parallel universe and then you’ve got the conspiracy theorists who jumped on and said music only went to 440 in the 20th century and it’s slightly out and it’s meant to be at 432 and I did this whole thing. You can read about it, but there’s nothing like trying it out. So when I demoed, I demoed a song at 440 Hertz, which is standard, slightly flatter at 432 and then slightly sharper at 444. I did a blind test and then I said to the engineer, just play me the things and I’ll tell you which ones resonate. And I said 432, I was like, “What is that one? That’s the one that I feel it.” And he said that’s 432. It’s pretty cool. Listeners might want to investigate that. There’s a friend of mine who’s a musician in LA and he does a lot of work with children who are in comas. He does a lot of sounds. And I said to him, Joe, have you ever considered re-tuning? And he said, “My tuner to 432 Hertz?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “All the music that when I work with these children, there’s something more powerful and more resonant about that.”
That is fascinating. The life sciences of music like that is just so, it’s so incredibly interesting. It’s just as magical as it feels. I feel like once you get into the science and the technicality of music, there’s a group of people that kind of feels like that takes them out of it. Like kind of knowing that. But I think that that being there is just as wild.
And you’re not actually removing the magic because actually what happens when you make the music, you scientifically change it.
It’s like that’s part of the craft. How can you optimize the magic because what you’re doing there is you’re optimizing magic.
I’ve always loved being inspired by people like Quincy Jones.
I love that whole West Coast thing that they do. And you have this in America, you kind of try and get to the science behind the magic and the craft.
He talks about the theater-wave states, the brainwaves you go to in sleep, he said that’s where creativity comes out of, that wave state. So he’s really interested and that.
There’s lots of stuff out there now, you can get these little kind of binaural apps you can listen to and the brain slows down to get to that state. And that’s the state that also a lot of athletes get to when they visualize. It’s almost like you visualize and you feel you make contact and then then you sort of awaken and you step into that in a way. I’ve always loved that.
America’s so good at this, Americans are so good at taking the creative process and like, How can make it better? How can we make more money from it? How can we optimize it to make more money?
What is brilliant about Quincy Jones?
He’s obviously an extraordinary human being. He’s just got a knack of seeing and feeling great songs and how you get there and the process. There’s one thing, understanding. It’s one thing taking a band, but how do you maximize the potential of that song? And I think Quincy Jones is a master of that. I became obsessed with Quincy Jones for about 10 years. I would devour every interview. I’d go online and see everything, I’d read. He works so beautifully. He has his team. When he was making the Michael Jackson records, he’s got his engineer, Bruce Swedien, who’s a key component. He’s the best engineer, and then he has his musician. So he has his keyboard player and I momentarily forget his name. He’s a British guy and he’s a keyboard player. And I’m going to be crucified now for not remembering. He has his team and he involves everybody and he brings a lot of love. But he brings a lot of science. He brings up craft. He brings up musicianship. His whole mantra is, “I’ve got to work with the best,” and that’s what he does. He also creates an environment that works really hard, but they’re really supportive and it’s really open. It’s really creative. And it’s not judgmental. It’s not like, “Oh, that’s a shit idea.” He understands the bigger picture. And he always has a lovely phrase, someone would ask him, “Well Quincy, why is it that take four was better than take five or whatever?” And his description of it, he says it’s that, that’s the moment when God walks through the room. And that’s the magic. And that’s the divinity. That’s the magic and the godlike quality that happens in that music. I love people like Quincy Jones.
He’s like the Buddha of our industry.
He’s the wise old sage now.
What’s a favorite Quincy Jones track?
He produced The Brothers Johnson “Strawberry Letter 23.” That’s just a beautiful production. It’s the cover of the Shuggie Otis song. It’s brilliant.