For Ed O’Brien, stepping out from his role as Radiohead guitarist and finding his own groove spurred in the ecstasy-drenched streets of Brazil and nourished in the British countryside, the eight years it took to deliver his debut solo album have been entirely worth the wait.
“This is who I am; this is my truth,” O’Brien says of Earth, which he drops under the moniker EOB Friday (April 17) on Capitol.
The album’s release has been preceded by several tracks that reference his roots but make clear this is a different party — one that’s immediately accessible, musically and emotionally immersive, and given to the possibility of prolonged jam sessions.
There’s the anthemic “Shangri-La,” a tune about vibing with your people O’Brien penned after attending Glastonbury in 2014; the expansive “Brasil,” which flows from the melancholy to the sublime and was released in tandem with a nine-minute sci-fi film; and the undulating “Olympik,” a palpable showcase of his collaboration with producer Flood as well as David Okumu of The Invisible, bassist Nathan East and drummer Omar Hakim.
Billboard caught up with a contemplative O’Brien by phone as he was recovering in Wales from what he suspects was coronavirus. He shared his drive to create “open-hearted” music, his experience finding his legs as a frontman, his fascination with Phish, and his take on Radiohead’s future.
This album has had a long gestation. What’s it been like to carry these songs around for so long?
The writing phase started in 2013 when me and my family went to live in Brazil. I was very influenced by Brazilian culture. We experienced Carnival in Rio and that’s just the most extraordinarily huge celebration of being a human being walking on this planet. It’s this beautiful kaleidoscope of rhythm, melody, life, love, open-heartedness. All the good stuff. And that triggered something in me. It was a bit like falling in love. Suddenly this music starts to come out and it was one of the most powerful feelings I’ve ever experienced. It was totally absorbing and it’s taken over my creative life.
You had this personal and creative epiphany, but then based on the timing, you returned home and got right back to work with Radiohead.
So that happened, and then the Radiohead cycle for A Moon Shaped Pool started in the summer of 2014 and that went through three years pretty full-on. In the Radiohead cycle there’s no room for extracurricular activities. It’s very musically and emotionally absorbing. I had to put everything on hold so really it started up proper in fall of 2017, recording the record, and then Radiohead did a North American tour and a South American tour in 2018. So there’s been a long gestation period, but actually when you come down to the amount of time we spent writing and recording, it actually hasn’t been that long.
What was the most striking difference about creating music as a solo artist?
Everything was different apart from similarities of the creative arc. There’s a friend of mine, Lizzy Goodman, who wrote Meet Me In the Bathroom. She gave me the six stages of creativity… and it’s a very familiar arc. It’s what I went through on this record and what almost all Radiohead records have gone through. The worst stage is when you start doubting yourself. But you have to hold on. We all have those moments in our lives when we go, “How am I going to get through this?” It’s the human condition. But you turn up each day and you do your practice, and it’s almost like an endurance test. By virtue of the fact that you do turn up each day, it’s enough to get you through.
What parts of your Radiohead persona did you deliberately leave behind to create Earth?
I wanted to make a really warm, open-hearted, direct record. Having been involved in making music for quite a long time now, there are a series of reflexes, if you will, and one of those reflexes was, “I wonder what the others would think?” I had to let go of that completely. That wasn’t so easy, but I had to let go because these songs are very, very different from Radiohead. With Radiohead, a lot of our work is like an impressionistic painting. It’s not so direct. But for my body of work, it had to be direct. If I was going to sing “I love you,” I had to say “I love you.” I’m not going to mask it. That was hard. That wasn’t my default setting, the way I’d been brought up and coming from Oxford. That’s why going to Brazil was so important.
A completely life-changing experience…
You know what us Brits are like. A lot us are so zipped up. That’s why we’re a nation of passive-aggressives, there’s so much that goes unsaid. I’ve been lucky because I have American family. My grandmother was born on the Texas-Mexico border. I’ve got a lot of family in America, particularly in Texas, and I’ve spent a lot of time in America…. For me, the whole process of making this record, and my journey of the last 18 years—giving up alcohol, giving up all these things that were meant to help me be emotional, because under the cover of alcohol you can be all, “I love you man”—but I wanted to get to the point where I didn’t need to have a load of alcohol in my body. I wanted to walk this planet with an open heart. Going to South America helped a lot. By fully living there it really opened our hearts in a way that was so powerful, and I wanted my record to be like that. This is who I am; this is my truth.
You gathered your own village for this project—Laura Marling, Adrian Utley, Glenn Kotche and Radiohead bandmate Colin Greenwood. How did you determine your dream list of collaborators?
The first thing you have to do is get a great producer on board. Flood is a friend; our kids went to the same school and our families have been on holiday together. And it’s a beautiful, no-bullshit thing that happens when you’re with your kids. Then musician-wise, the first three musicians who came on board were David Okumu [of the Invisible], who’s an extraordinary singer, producer, songwriter, guitarist in the south of London. I met him at a party 10 years ago and it was like meeting a long-lost brother. The same thing really with Nathan and Omar. All of these people are extraordinary musicians and producers. And that was very important, but it wasn’t enough. I wanted them to be the best human beings as well. And that’s what Nathan and Omar and David are.
Where did you record the album?
We rented a big house in the country in Wales, and brought in mobile equipment and we all lived, ate, slept under the same roof. We did that for three weeks and then went back to London and me, Flood, Catherine [Marks] and the engineers were left in a studio in North London called Assault and Battery. Laura Marling came in for an afternoon. Glenn Kotche of Wilco came in for a couple of days; he’s a good friend. And then we decamped back down to Wales in March of the following year and that’s where Adrian Utley of Portishead came and played.
Aside from working with Colin, did you consult with any of your other Radiohead bandmates about the album?
Colin came and played on the demo back in 2013 and initially I thought maybe some of these songs might be Radiohead songs for the next album. In 2014 we started A Moon Shaped Pool and for that first session, there was a little bit of ambivalence of everyone getting back together again. So I said, “Why don’t you come and play on my songs.” I spoke to [producer] Nigel [Godrich] about it and he thought it was a good way of getting everybody back together again. The first day we worked on “Banksters.” And I knew, after that first day, I knew it wasn’t right. My songs helped get everybody back together but I think we all realized, I certainly realized, it’s a different energy.
Not the Radiohead aesthetic…
Radiohead works in a certain way. The roots are deep. Radiohead is about the communal, but it’s also about serving the songs of Thom. It’s not set up to serve the songs of me. It was very obvious. I was a bit crest-fallen at first, but I’m so glad. I had to make this journey without my brothers. This is another journey for me. It feels like a really important phase of my life I’ve stepped into and the only way I can do this is by going out and doing this thing on my own.
You’ve done a handful of live shows so far. What’s it been like stepping to the front of the stage?
You have to just get your head around the fact that you are the boss. But I don’t want to be the boss in an autocratic way. I want to be a boss that inspires and leads by example. At first, it was a bit like an out of body experience. It was very familiar, but completely strange. When you’re a guitarist stage right, your wings are clipped because you are serving the front person. In Radiohead, I’m serving Thom. That’s my job. When you’re the frontman, you are the conduit. So for me the process has been a bit like stretching out, getting my full wing expansion. At each gig you can feel your wings opening up a little bit more. It’s deeply uncomfortable at times. I feel insecure about my voice at times. But you’ve just got to do it and build up your muscle. Obviously at the moment everything is on hold, but what I’m looking forward to once we do get to hit the road is taking this music to such different places. We’re going to get into having some of these songs have different endings each night because we’re just up there jamming.
I saw you shouted out the ultimate jam band, Phish, at one of your shows.
I’m really influenced by Phish. I think they are just so fucking brilliant and they’re not on the radar here in Britain. I’ve just got so much respect for where they go musically. It’s like a jazz band; they are willing to take risks for a moment of musical transcendence. That’s what I’m after—I want to tap into that. I don’t think anybody opens up for Phish anymore, but if they were to do a festival, I’d love to be on their bill.
Are there any Radiohead plans in the works?
We’ve had some meetings about potentially doing some shows, but I don’t know when. The great thing about Radiohead is there’s always been an authenticity and that’s meant when we’ve made records it’s because we wanted to make records. We’ve spent most of our adult lives together, and we’re at a time when all of us are doing different things. When we do get back together and go into the studio, it will be because we want to, not because we feel we should. I’m not sure when that will be but I’m not worried. We’ve got the rest of our lives.