Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood: ‘Instead of cocaine, hook me up with a recorder group!’

He has composed a Prom and scored Paul Thomas Anderson films. As he launches his own classical record label, the guitarist reveals how it all started with the humble recorder

Jonny Greenwood is looking well, all things considered. Theres a thin triangle of stubble on his top lip that the morning razor has missed and a slight bleariness around the eyes, but its unlikely anyone spotting Radioheads lead guitarist in the corner of this London cafe at 10am would guess that he hasnt been to bed for 24 hours. No, not really had any sleep, he mutters, running a hand through his shiny dark hair. Hour, maybe?

Hes here to discuss his new classical music record label, Octatonic, but at midnight he was taking a bow at the Albert Hall following a meticulously curated Prom. It was the culmination of his second life as a composer, a 16-year career that has seen him write for the London Sinfonietta, work as composer-in-residence for BBC Concert Orchestra, collaborate with the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and create remarkable scores for the films of Lynne Ramsay and Paul Thomas Anderson.

The Prom included three of Greenwoods compositions, plus works by Penderecki, Steve Reich and Heinrich Biber (That was well Radiohead! surmised two lads in the bar at the interval) and ended with the world premiere of Horror Vacui, his 36-minute piece for 68 strings and solo violin.

It was crazy, he says, of hearing the work performed in public for the first time. Totally different from recording with Radiohead. Youre planning for something thats going to happen just once. The focus is on 30 minutes of performance, and that focus lasts for nine months. Theres maybe 20 bars Id happily take out, but unlike a lot of things Ive written this felt like there was more successful stuff in it than not.

He is superhuman Greenwood with violinist Daniel Pioro at this years Proms. Photograph: Mark Allan/BBC

Greenwood is humble when talking about his music, and hell happily change the subject from himself to the performers (real musicians) and his star violinist, Daniel Pioro. Daniel is superhuman. I first saw him when he was performing this Gerald Barry piece, Triorchic Blues, and it was the last time someones played something that has given me this incredible physical response, this insane rush. Its a moment Im still chasing. Ive been obsessed with Daniel ever since.

That obsession is evident in Octatonics first release. Although the series will mainly focus on contemporary classical music, Volume 1 features Pioro playing Bachs Partita No 2 in D minor, one of the most beautiful but most performed pieces of music ever. Greenwood agrees. It has everything, and with Daniel it sounds like a fresh piece of music.

Named after his favourite eight-note musical scale (Yeah, I know nerdy) Octatonic also plans to focus on intimate works by soloists or small groups. Volume 2 features Oliver Coates performing Industry, Michael Gordons work for cello and electronics, and pianist Katherine Tinker playing Greenwoods Three Miniatures from Water.

The idea for Octatonic, explains Greenwood, came after a late-night visit to Bleep, the hip online independent record shop. I was looking for the classical section, he says, and I realised there isnt one. Its not that I thought thered be a massive interest in new classical music on vinyl, but I thought thered be something.

Music bursting its banks Radiohead play Sydney in 2012. Photograph: Mark Metcalfe/Getty

Somewhat controversially, given that classical music is one of the few genres keeping CD sales alive, Octatonic releases will only be available on vinyl and download. Most people I know stream their music, says Greenwood, and if they really like it, they might buy the vinyl. There is something about listening to it on vinyl you feel compelled to hear the whole thing. Its an event in itself. We use old tube mics, looking for warmth and musicality above detail, but other than that its all about the players.

Mica Levi is high on his list of new composers whose work he hopes to release. Shes amazing. In the rock world, theres lots of bluffers. It takes one to know one, right? But sometimes you see the real thing, and Mica is it. So is Edmund Finnis. Theirs is really good writing.

Isnt running a classical music label less exciting than playing guitar in Radiohead? People assume its this fuddy-duddy world, Greenwood says. But a violinist can do more with their bow hair than anyone can with a guitar or synthesiser. Then their left hand, each of their fingers a whole universe of sounds.

He insists this enthusiasm isnt only about the superiority of classical instruments to electronics: Ive seen bands set up by plugging a lightning cable into an iPad and thats the show. And modern electronic music can feel like that to me sometimes. Wheres the effort? Whats at stake? It seems to be lots of men, standing around watching another man, and no ones dancing and theres not much joy. I dont think classical music is old-fashioned at all, especially when 20-year-old kids are doing it. I havent played with musicians like this since school days. Its so exciting.

Like so many children, Greenwoods first instrument was the recorder. Unlike many of us, however, he fell in love with his. He played baroque music in teenage recorder groups, then joined Thames Vale Youth Orchestra, where he developed a love for Sibelius and Messiaen. But the power of the humble recorder never left him.

Oh I could easily talk for an hour about the recorder! he says. One of the great joys of playing American sports arenas with Radiohead is their amazing communal showers. Ill get to the venue early, seek out these rooms that smell of Deep Heat and jockstraps, get out my recorder, play one of Telemanns canonic sonatas and just be swamped in this flattering reverb. I have fantasies of putting demands on the rider. You know, instead of cocaine and call girls, hook me up with a really good amateur recorder group. Its sick, isnt it?

Greenwood joined Radiohead when he was 14, to play harmonica. He has subsequently been the groups guitarist, keyboardist and arranger, with a freedom to incorporate everything from banjo to harp into their sound. It is Greenwoods love of Penderecki that inspired the Mellotron on Exit Music for a Film, and his decision to employ Messiaens favoured keyboard, the ondes Martenot, on How to Disappear Completely.

Thats still my job, he says, turning up with some new and exciting instrument. The only difference between the guitar and the ondes Martenot is that you end up playing one more often because of touring.

Unnerving trailer for The Master, scored by Greenwood

Greenwood also showcased his love of the ondes Martenot in 2005, when he premiered a 20-minute work, Popcorn Superhet Receiver, with the BBC Concert Orchestra. It caught the attention of director Paul Thomas Anderson, then working on There Will Be Blood. I hadnt seen any of his films, says Greenwood in a stage whisper, but he sent me some clips and I thought, its going to be nice to be in a band with this person!

His music for Andersons 2012 film The Master is brilliantly unnerving. He saw Anderson at the Prom, he says, throwing out a hundred film ideas A horror film was something we discussed. He pauses. But I suppose There Will Be Blood is horror in its own way. Even Phantom Thread: the innocent village girl brought to the evil old mans house at the top of the hill. But when you sit and watch PTs films with him, you realise theyre all comedies. Hes literally chuckling away through the whole thing.

Greenwoods work as a composer has greatly benefited his working relationship with Radiohead. Im less fearful of getting strings in now, he says. With Burn the Witch, I finally had the gall to say, lets leave this completely unfinished and let the strings finish it. In the past, I wouldnt have had the brass neck.

As for future Radiohead plans, there are none. Since June, when the group released MiniDiscs [Hacked] 18 hours of material from their OK Computer recording sessions activities have been quiet. I dont know what were doing, he says, with an apologetic smile. We dont tour until weve got new music and new music doesnt happen until we get together and that doesnt happen until everyones free.

Returning music to intimate places Greenwood. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

The group donated the profits from MiniDiscs [Hacked] to Extinction Rebellion. Greenwood agrees that environmental awareness has improved since the early 00s when Radiohead began campaigning for Greenpeace, but is reluctant to see the group as a standard-bearer. Are you saying our legacy will be, We warned you it was going to be terrible, and now it is? Wow. Good times.

He also thinks criticisms of campaigners, such as Radiohead, who regularly use air travel to work, are often deployed to distract from the bigger picture. Yes, this person is a hypocrite because they flew. But if picking holes in someones green credentials is all you need to convince yourself theres no climate change problem then youre kind of an idiot.

As we leave, a Julia Holter track is playing over the cafe speakers amid the clatter of brunch. There was something Alan Bennett said, says Greenwood, as he puts on his coat, about music having burst its banks. It used to be in these little confined spaces where youd seek it out and have an experience. This music playing now was recorded by people concentrating on it. But were just kind of talking over it. One of my hopes for Octatonic is that its a way to hear people playing closely, create that little space, and the next time youre walking past a poster for a concert in a church, or some solo violin music, you might want to pop in and seek out the real thing.

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