Philip Selway: Drawn to the light

Philip Selway main press shot_webWhile touring his second solo album, Radiohead’s Philip Selway discusses his distinctive and ever-inventive style, finding his own voice, and what it’s like to relinquish the drum throne and become the front man

Words: Samuel Pert  Images: Andrew Ogilvy Photography

How does the drummer in one of the world’s most famous bands find the time to release two solo records? When we speak, Radiohead’s Philip Selway is between the European and Stateside legs of his tour, modestly excited with the reception that his second album Weatherhouse is garnering, and eager to take that momentum across the pond.

Selway’s debut album, Familial, was a beautifully understated and nuanced record, with a subtle blend of percussion and harmony, featuring Wilco’s Glenn Kotche on drums: “He’s an amazing drummer, and a lovely man,” says Philip, always quick to sing the praises of his fellow musicians.

Where Familial may have left some drummers wanting more full-frontal kit playing, Weatherhouse bursts in with an instantaneous rhythmic punch, rich in its sonic textures and deeply woven with the distinctive groove that we have come to know so well from Selway: “I approached the drums on Weatherhouse as I would a Radiohead drum session. If I listen to those drum tracks, they could be Radiohead drum tracks.”

Selway is joined on stage by Adem Ilhan, Quinta and Chris Vatalaro on drums, who he proclaims as, “a joy to watch every night, and very inventive.” Selway is up front, and relinquishes his sticks with an openness and trust that comes easily to a man who’s no stranger to band etiquette. “Each drummer has their own particular voice,” he continues, “their particular take or that intrinsic groove to them – and you work with that. I’ve got a very distinctive style myself, and that works for me. Chris Vatalaro also has a very distinctive voice and is an incredibly accomplished musician. You then get all these musical voices in the band, as we have in Radiohead. The exciting part is how those voices then blend and that’s what I think people are really responding to.”

The band utilise a Xylosynth through the set – “a midi controller disguised as a marimba” – to trigger samples and effects. It’s tidy, but as Philip says, “behind the scenes it’s quite an involved set-up and gives that richness of sound, always driven by performance rather than playing to sequenced tracks or backing tracks. It’s all happening there and then. It’s true to the material of Weatherhouse on the whole, but we then wanted to take that sound-world and apply it to the first record as well. So Familial has been reworked quite extensively. We had a couple of weeks’ rehearsals but it was almost like writing an album in that time. I love the way Familial sounds as a record but bringing something new to it for these shows has been great.”

Philip started the process of working on his own material over ten years ago, and Familial was released in 2010. We asked why he kept us waiting so long…

“From when Radiohead were signed, up to the end of touring OK Computer, and into Kid A as well, I just really wanted to focus on my drumming. You go from that point where you’re in a school band – admittedly with quite a bit of potential – to being a signed band, and you feel that there’s a lot of ground to cover so that you feel convincing as a professional musician. There came a time when I felt that I had accomplished some of that, and in my down time would tinker away with song ideas. It got to the point where there was a critical mass of ideas and me doing those songs myself felt like the most appropriate way of approaching them. That was a bit of a leap of faith… I was jumping in with both feet and hoping for the best.

“I took a couple of different approaches to it, and there were other things happening along the way, like going to be part of Neil Finn’s Seven Worlds Collide project down in New Zealand, where I met Glenn and Pat Sansone from Wilco, and got to work more with Lisa Germano and Sebastian Steinberg. I had gone to be part of that project as a drummer but was able to contribute a couple of songs to the album that we made, and that gave me the sense that my songwriting and ability to perform my songs stood up in that context, and in the middle of a lot of people I admired. That set me up with the core of musicians that then made Familial. Those years were an apprenticeship of sorts.”

When you’re such an integral part of a band whose songs people know inside out, how do you go about finding your own style within your own music?

“On Familial, I was very conscious of anything that I could see was ‘Radiohead-ish’ and I felt I had to establish myself as my own musical voice, in my own right. If anything identifiable with Radiohead was coming through, I’d move away from it – that felt important to me at the time. With Weatherhouse, I came in to the record a bit more reconciled to those Radiohead elements of myself. That’s a big part of what I do musically and if those elements felt appropriate for the music, I went with it this time rather than fighting against it.

“I was very open to Adem and Quinta’s ideas in the studio. There’s a different slant, depending on who you’re working with; it’s important to have that musical dialogue going on, otherwise the drumming feels unconnected to the music. You’re working towards a common goal at the end of it.”

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