It’s Not Blueberry Pie: Phil Selway Talks About His Solo Album

Radiohead drummer Phil Selway tells Ben Hewitt about the making of his solo album _Familial_, professes his ignorance of chillwave, and dodges questions about the new Radiohead record

The Quietus is sat backstage at the Royal Festival Hall with Phil Selway, sipping on slightly tepid bottled water and discussing his decision to leave the safety of Radiohead’s drum kit behind to pursue his own creative impulses. His debut solo release, Familial, is out now; it’s a highly personal record that encompasses themes of family and friendship, love and loss, and life and death. Musically, too, it’s intimate and delicate, with Selway’s voice often no more than a gentle whisper above fragile melodies and gentle arrangements. Working on the record, Selway says, forced him drastically out of his comfort zone. He had to learn how to sing properly, something that his days of providing backing vocals in Radiohead didn’t prepare him adequately for. Writing lyrics was a struggle, too, as was adjusting to being the focal point of live performances. "It’s been good," he says, smiling. "But it’s been kind of a baptism of fire in many ways."

Ever polite and amiable, Selway took time off from his rehearsals to chat to The Quietus as we ask about the making of Familial and the democratic state of Radiohead, as well as trying to explain what chillwave and glo-fi are…

How long have you had the impulse to make a solo record for?

PS: I suppose, in terms of actually thinking ‘This is what I’m going to do’, it was probably three or four years ago. There have been ideas floating around for a while longer.

So you’ve thought about it for longer than three or four years, then?

PS: Yes. About seven or eights years ago is when the ideas started to filter through, and then get filtered out again. And gradually, I got to the point three or four years ago where I had a group of songs that didn’t feel appropriate to Radiohead.

How much of an issue was confidence? You said you started having ideas seven or eight years ago, so was it a case of not having the confidence to really see the ideas through until more recently?

PS: Absolutely. I had a few handicaps in the process; I didn’t really think I could sing.

Well, I know you’ve sung back up in the past, but I guess that’s very different.

PS: Absolutely. And the lyrics… there was the odd word or line here and there, but really, there was nothing – there was no substance to it at that point. So that took quite a while to find and develop, as did the voice.

Culturally, the British have a tendency to bottle things up, so it must have been difficult to just splurge everything onto a page.

PS: Hmmm, that’s interesting. Yes, in a way.

Or did you find it easy?

PS: No, I didn’t actually. I think you’re right. Culturally, we edit ourselves before we put anything out there, and that’s very much what I was doing for a lot of the lyric writing process. But you have to learn to trust in the process as well. It’s the whole circular thing; you need the confidence to do it, but where do you get that confidence from?

When you played the tracks to people for the first time, how did you find it? Were you nervous?

PS: It was very nerve racking, yes. Incredibly so. I made little demo’s of them, just me and the guitar, and basically at the time I hadn’t really decided if I was going to sing because I didn’t think I could do it at that point. So it was just me basically whispering the melodies over the top of it. But it was a big leap.

And how are you finding being the focal point now? Is that another big leap?

PS: Yes, it is. I suppose it comes in different little packages, doesn’t it? There’s the whole thing of talking as we are the moment… [although] that all feels quite familiar because I’ve been through that process with Radiohead so many times, although it’s talking about what I’ve done as opposed to what I’ve done as part of a group. But stepping up to the front of a stage… it’s been very exciting, but utterly bizarre and alien at points.

Did you get stage fright?

PS: I don’t get stage fright now, as such. There have been points where I’ve had it in the past in Radiohead, but I’ve learnt how to get around it now. You feel nervous, but not paralysed with fear.

You mentioned that the starting point for this album was having a group of songs you didn’t feel were appropriate for Radiohead. Does that mean that the writing process in the group is a democracy, and anyone’s free to bring ideas to the table?

PS: Um… I mean theoretically, everything is up for grabs.

How about in practice, though?

PS: To a certain extent, yes, but I suppose I can see there’s a dynamic that works for us. And I think you should play to your strengths.

Would you be more inclined to come forward with ideas now?

PS: If something came along that I thought would make an appropriate Radiohead song, then maybe I would bring it along now – with no expectation, other than just saying here we are.

You’ve previously said that the drummer coming to the rehearsal room with a song he’s written is a "cardinal sin".

PS: Oh it is, yeah. Unless you’re in Kaiser Chiefs, otherwise you wouldn’t have any songs.

Did you fear a similar reaction when you announced you were working on this album?

PS: Yes, I suppose there’s the slightly neurotic side of you that feels like you’re much more likely to be a soft target for any criticism that could come along. But I suppose because I wasn’t approaching it from a drummer’s point of view, I was able to put the whole drummer thing to one side. Initially I’d contemplated not having any kind of drums or percussion on the record at all, but then working with Glenn Kotche [drummer] and just seeing what he brought to it… drum parts that I couldn’t hear myself, but he came up with them.

Apparently you decided it was the right time to make a solo album because you realised you were the same age as our Prime Minister.

PS: And the Deputy Prime Minister.

So what are the responsibilities of being an elder statesman of rock?

PS: Oh my word…. at whatever stage it’s finding an appropriate voice for finding your point of life, really. I suppose when you’re a band in your 20’s, there’s a lot up for grabs. It’s very exciting and a lot of good comes out of that, but it can also be a rather fraught place to be. I suppose that’s really not where I am now, and trying to reflect that in how I work and how I work with other people. Beyond that I don’t know if there’s a responsibility for it.

Radiohead have a reputation for being politically switched on. What are you making of the Coalition?

PS: Um…

I ask mainly because David Cameron’s previously said how much he loves ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, and I was wondering if the band had ever talked about that.

PS: [Laughs] We’ve not talked about it, really. [Long pause]. Peers…


PS: We’re peers. I mean, we’re the same age. I suppose you grow up listening to the same music, really, which is very bizarre, when you hear the Prime Minister say you’ve written one of his favourite songs.

Oh, right. When you said ‘Peers’, I thought you’d meant you’d covertly been inducted into the House Of Lords.

PS: [Laughs] Oh well, that’s the long term plan of course.

More specifically about Familial, then; the title suggests, obviously, a focus on family relationships. And that’s very much the main lyrical theme.

PS: Yes, very much so. I suppose it’s significant relationships, and as it comes through, immediate family or very close friends and colleagues, and how that all feeds into the person you are. And what you hopefully get a bit in return as well.

I think it’s interesting, because I know the comparisons are unfair – and also inevitable – with Radiohead, where the lyrics are pretty opaque. Whereas yours are very personal, very heart-on-sleeve…

PS: It just felt natural to me. But also, you get to 40 and you’ve probably got a better sense of yourself as well, and I suppose I had this sense that I wanted to do this because there is a side to me that probably doesn’t come through in Radiohead.

What kind of side?

PS: [Long pause] The side that’s come through in the record, really. What I’ve been able to contribute to Radiohead over the years I’m very proud of, and what we’ve all done together, but I suppose personally it’s not been the complete picture for me. [Another pause] I’ve forgotten your original question now.

So have I. But was that a conscious decision, then – to make something so personal?

PS: Yes, it was. And I suppose because the nature of the music felt very intimate, it would have felt disappointing not to do that.

Yeah, again, with Radiohead there’s a reputation – perhaps erroneously – for being quite ‘difficult’…

PS: Although In Rainbows – that’s right back into full focus, isn’t it?

Oh, yeah – I was thinking more about the tag attached to Kid A or Amnesiac. But did you want to create something that was a more honest representation of you?

PS: God, it sounds so hideously egotistical, doesn’t it?

That’s probably more the way I worded the question.

PS: [Laughs] No, I think you’re right. I tried to cut it back as much as possible. I mean, I do think there’s a lot of complexities in there. If you scratch away it’s all there. But a lot of it was built around what came out as my singing voice – the voice which worked for getting these songs across. It shaped the arrangements around it. When I first started working on stuff, before I had a greater sense of what I do vocally, the arrangements were much larger. And I tried to sing on top of that and it was just all wrong.

Not good?

PS: No!

This is obviously a difficult thing to talk about, but it’s been said that the loss of your mother was a big influence on Familial.

PS: Well, probably not a lot of it it, but there’s one song specifically on there which is ‘Broken Promises’. But I think that process of losing a parent, that’s what fed into stuff. Especially at a time when you’ve got your own kids, it’s just that sense that you’re moving on, and naturally it shakes things up a little bit. So I suppose that’s how it fed into it – it’s a very transitory period, which can be… quite creatively futile.

Well, I guess loss and emotional stress can be quite cathartic. Especially if, like you said, you were finding it hard to write lyrics to begin with.

PS: Yes, I suppose it is quite cathartic in a way. It’s good when you can get something that’s affected quite strongly and you can hear that emotion in what you’ve done. You’re almost just putting it to one side – that’s what’s at the heart of all catharsis, I suppose. [Long pause] This brings us full circle to the English bottling-it-in culture, doesn’t it?

Parenthood is a big theme on the record. Obviously you have children now, which is evident in tracks like ‘The Ties That Bind Us’. But I imagine having children makes you re-asses your own childhood, so even if that song is ostensibly about your children, can you see a link with your own childhood as well?

PS: Yeah. That’s the process you go through when you have kids; you recognise that dynamic from the other side, if you like, and it makes you much more accepting and appreciative of a lot of aspects of your own childhood. It slightly takes the petulance out of it all.

Do you think there’s a danger that making a record mainly about family and relationships could be seen as…

PS: A bit blueberry pie?

Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. I mean, there are hints at depression and anxiety, too. But did you ever worry that it would be too blueberry pie for people?

PS: That never came into it for me, because I knew it was coming from a very different place. For all of us, those significant relationships are what sparks off the most powerful emotions, and that’s what I was writing about. And I think actually listening to the record without any kind of preconceptions as to what it’s going to be about, I don’t think the blueberry pie side is there.

So, Familial isn’t blueberry pie, then?

PS: [Laughs] I don’t think it’s blueberry pie at all. It’s more death by chocolate.

Is it true that ‘Witching Hour’ is about Ed O’Brien’s stag do?

PS: Oh, it’s just a reference in there.

I have to ask, what’s a Radiohead stag do like?

PS: We went camping.

Was it very civilised?

PS: It was a good weekend.

Are your lips sealed on this one?

PS: Of course.

The band have a reputation for having their finger on the musical pulse, so what have you all been listening to?

PS: I couldn’t speak for the others. But I’ve been listening to that Gil Scott-Heron record, that’s fantastic. I’ve been doing some backdated listening, because I’ve been listening to Flying Lotus, but I’m a little bit behind on that one because there’s a new one out. I’ve been listening to Beach House…

Have you heard much chillwave or glo-fi?

PS: Er… no. You’d have to explain it to me. What kind of bands and artistes does it involve?

Well… people like Washed Out, or Memory Tapes. Very dreamy, very hazy, very lo-fi. I guess you could…

PS: Ben, suddenly I feel very old.

That’s OK. I know everyone is going to ask you when the new Radiohead album is finished, and I imagine the answer will be that you don’t know. But can you tell me what it sounds like?

PS: We don’t know until it’s finished.

Right… is this a no-go area?

PS: [Laughs] No, it’s just one of those things – we literally don’t know until we’ve finished. We get to a certain point and we stop, and completely review everything. And then we reach a point where you think that’s probably as close as to how we want it to be. But things can change quite rapidly.

OK. Earlier, though, you were saying how In Rainbows was a move back to the more open and direct territory, so do you think it will be a continuation of that sound? Or will it be more similar to the sound before that album? Or some new, forward direction?

PS: Always going forward.

Always going forward… but to nowhere specific?

PS: [Laughs] Well, it will be something specific when we’ve finished it. But we haven’t finished it yet…


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