Perfect Porridge

An entire book on Radiohead’s Kid A: Interview with author Marvin Lin

Any fan of Radiohead and their groundbreaking album, Kid A, must buy and absorb Marvin Lin’s detailed account of the band, the fans, the media and the music. Everything is truly in its right place.

I’ve been reading the new book in the Continuum’s 33 1/3 series about one of my favorite albums OF ALL TIME, Radiohead – Kid A, By Marvin Lin.

Upon its release in October 2000, the world inhaled a collective gasp at the blasphemy of the Kid A‘s concept (no guitars), inaccessibility compared to its commercial rock counterparts and Thom Yorke’s refusal to abide by the stereotypes impressed by the media elite.

Like my parents remember JFK’s assassination, I remember the exact moment and place I was the first time I heard the dulcet tones of “Everything in Its Right Place,” and Kid A is still one of very few albums in my collection I reach for time and time again.

Marvin’s Lin’s account transports the reader back to a time before Kid A, covering the state of the music industry at the time of the release, the back story of the band’s mental state of mind during recording and the impact of post-apocalyptic, politically charged lyrics and artwork, both then and today.

At first I couldn’t put the book down. And then I couldn’t stop listening to Kid A over and over. It’s a heck of a book, and I’ve found myself telling others nuggets I’ve taken from the book at strange times — like while microwaving food in the office kitchen with no good reason to be discussing a decade-old album.

For example, did you know Thom Yorke may have used Dada Poetry — where the user cuts out words or phrases from a newspaper article and then picks them randomly to assemble lyrics — to write or at least inspire some of the lyrics on the album?

From the book excerpt:

It wasn’t surprising, then, when I discovered that Radiohead had actually posted Tzara’s instructions for a Dadaist poem on their official website in the fall of 1999, roughly a year before Kid A’s release. It also wasn’t surprising to find out that Thom in fact employed a similar poem-making technique during the Kid A sessions to combat a two-year case of writer’s block. As he stated on a Dutch television show,

“What I’d went off and tried to do with the writer’s block thing was just basically have all the things that didn’t work and stopped throwing them away, which was what I’d been doing before, and keeping them and cutting them up and putting them in this top hat and pulling them out.”

If one of the benefits of the Dadaist poem is the removal of personality and the distancing it provides, then randomly drawing cut-up lyrics from a hat seems like a reasonable reaction. With this new lyrical technique — influenced in part by David Byrne’s like-minded approach to Talking Heads’ Remain in Light — Thom was able to mount a critique that couldn’t be mistaken as autobiographical, couching his lyrics in obfuscation and ambiguity in order to distance himself from rock’s self-important mythologies. It was a lateral technique that provided links, however tenuous, to Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, to John Cage and the I Ching, to Guy Debord’s Mémoires. “The vocal parts are really interesting,” said guitarist Ed O’Brien, “because it’s the first album that we — as a band — haven’t been aware of what Thom’s singing about. He didn’t talk about his lyrics.”

As Marvin states, “Although still purposeful and full of meaning, Kid A’ lyrics were anything but clear and concise. In fact, they often read like Dada poetry. On “Morning Bell,” Thom sang: Where’d you park the car? Clothes are all alone with the furniture / Now I might as well / I might as well / Sleepy jack the fire drill / Running around around around around around / Cut the kids in half.”

So that more or less explains “Sleepy jack the fire drill,” which is what I wanted to name my dog, but my wife wouldn’t allow it.

I had the opportunity to interview Marvin about the book, the band and the art of musiking.

Perfect Porridge: Can anything warm up the speakers and soul like those first dulcet of Everything in its Right Place? What emotion do you feel when the record starts?

Marvin Lin: It’s an amazing intro isn’t it? Because I’ve already lived with the album for more than 10 years, I sometimes get a sense of nostalgia when I hear it. Not like a sorrowed pining for some idealized past, but it sparks up situational (and usually cliche) memories, like driving with the album on or listening with headphones in my bedroom. Other times, I get really bored with it. I’ve heard it so many times that I sorta get in auto-pilot mode and don’t really concentrate on it too much. That said, I’m still making new associations with the album. In fact, the title track is a perfect song to calm my son down when he’s being fussy (he’s only a few months old), and despite its lyrics and despite any past associations, it’s exciting to know that I can still hear it with new ears. I put the song on a mix of his recently.

I wasn’t previously familiar with Dada poetry, an approach Yorke used for lyric writing on Kid A. Have you ever tried it?

I have, yes — not in a very serious way though, just screwing around. But I was in a music group a few years back that took a Dadaist approach to music. We didn’t have any instruments — we just improvised with our voices and would come up with sometimes the most amazing, but also sometimes the most embarassing stuff (making animal noises, squealing, mumbling, even harmonizing, gibberish, etc.). The project was sort of a short-lived extension of what I had done with the band that I mention in the book.

What about when he went back to “normal” lyrics with Hail to the Thief?

Actually, I think Thom adopted the same Dada technique for Hail to the Thief’s lyrics. It might’ve seemed more “normal” though since he didn’t manipulate his voice to the extent that he did on Kid A. Plus, the music is more “conventional,” relatively speaking.

How long did it take you to write the book? What was the process like?

It took me roughly a year from start to finish, but I was so busy with other things in my life that I ended up writing in clusters, not throughout. Unfortunately, I didn’t really get to reflect on the concepts as much as I wanted to, because I was adamant about having it released during Kid A’s 10-year anniversary. I regret that a little bit. I would’ve loved to have spent more time on it — I cut quite a bit due to the deadline and had other ideas for uniting the chapters that I didn’t really get to try out — but the experience was enjoyable overall, especially the editing process with my friends/colleagues/editors. I learned a lot about my writing too, which was great since I’m typically editing other writers’ works.

How did you force yourself to listen with fresh ears, especially given the hype around getting the album 10 years back?

Honestly, I could’ve written the book without hearing the album again. I could “play” the entire album in my head without a hitch; it really was that kind of album for me back when it was released. For the purposes of writing the book, it wasn’t so much as listening to the album with fresh ears as approaching its subject matter with a more inquisitive mind, trying to make connections that go beyond the music itself.

You cite many disparate reviews of Kid A (CDNOW, Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, Chuck Klosterman). Was it disheartening to do that analysis and realize at a certain point reviewers just masturbating in the mirror (my metaphor)? Is there still a role for the rock critic in a world where all the metaphors have been written?

Well, I did include a silly quote from my own review of the album back when it was released, intending to show how much mirror-masturbating I did too. I’m actually still very pro-criticism; I think it’s just as important as the music itself. Reading back on those reviews was actually very illuminating. Speaking very generally, I think listeners have changed a lot since then, and it was great to see how this shift in taste played out from the very first, visceral reviews to the more recent decade lists. While criticism has been in a rut lately, I still have a lot of faith in it. There are some reviews that really change the way I think about music, sometimes even more aggressively so than the sounds themselves.

If I find anything to be disheartening, though, it’d be Mark Beaumont’s recent reassessment of Kid A in The Guardian. He probably wrote one of the most vitriolic reviews of the album back in 2000 (for Melody Maker), and after all these years, he’s still showcasing exactly what I find wrong with criticism in his new review. I’m not disheartened because he still doesn’t like Kid A; I really couldn’t care less about his personal opinion of the album. But I’m disheartened because he has absolutely no critical/analytical skills, staying on the surface by trying to reinforce his aesthetic biases through silly rhetoric, and yet he’s still able to get this published in The Guardian. I know some really amazing writers who’d love to have a platform like The Guardian, but that probably won’t happen anytime soon.

You write about how music isn’t something to be purchased or owned but rather to be played and about how the listener is actually the one who justifies the act as music. One isn’t playing music but instead is musicking. It was really fascinating. Has that notion changed your music consumption?

I concentrate more on my temporal reactions to music now, rather than figuring out exactly which attributes I believe make an album “worthwhile” to listen to. I still of course take into account the typical elements in music that move me, like harmony and rhythm, but I don’t care as much now about repeatability or hummability as I used to. It’s helped me think of music more as a living organism rather than some dead artifact. It’s an experiential thing, inevitably, and I do believe music that’s not heard by the general public has an indirect effect on mass culture that can be as substantial as, say, mainstream pop. The effects just aren’t as immediate, clearly pronounced, or easily quantified because they don’t follow the typical avenues of exchange and communication.

Let me bait you a bit….Does the average American Idol-loving, radio-listening, award show-watching music fan even conscious that they are contributing to the horrible genre of top 40 pop?

This isn’t something I can speak to really. I don’t really think of top 40 pop as horrible, even though I don’t listen to it. Sure, in casual conversation, I might say something sucks, but it’s all within a certain context. I love the fact that someone can be obsessed with a top 40 pop song as much as I might be obsessed with some weird experimental album. I listened to plenty of top 40 too in my younger days too, and I’m not ashamed.

What albums have come out in the last couple of years that have Kid A qualities – experiential, album-approach to tracklisting, groundbreaking, all-encompassing feel?

Here are some albums from the last decade that have particularly moved me and/or changed the way I think about music. They’re not really that much like Kid A, but I feel compelled to mention them:

  • The Music Tapes – For Clouds and Tornadoes
  • nmperign – This Is nmperign’s Second CD
  • Lightning Bolt – Wonderful Rainbow
  • Hecker – Sun Pandamonium
  • Matmos – A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure
  • Mu – Afro Finger & Gel
  • Dirty Projectors – The Getty Address
  • Black Dice – Beaches and Canyons
  • Fantomas – Delirium Cordia
  • Oren Ambarchi – Grapes from the Estate
  • Graham Lambkin – Salmon Run
  • Kevin Drumm – Sheer Hellish Miasma
  • King Geedorah – Take Me To Your Leader
  • Talibam! – Ordination of the Globetrotting Conscripts
  • Major Organ & the Adding Machine – Major Organ & the Adding Machine
  • The Microphones – The Glow pt. 2
  • Animal Collective – Sung Tongs
  • Orthrelm – OV

What were your favorites of 2010?

  • Zs – New Slaves
  • DJ Roc – The Crack Capone
  • Sam Prekop – Old Punch Card
  • Dirty Projectors + Bjork – Mount Wittenberg Orca
  • Graham Lambkin & Jason Lescalleet – Air Supply
  • Swans – My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky
  • Kurt Weisman – Orange
  • Keith Fullerton Whitman – Disingenuity B/W Disingenuousness
  • Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh
  • Oneohtrix Point Never – Returnal
  • Kemialliset Ystävät – Ullakkopalo

You write about how Stanley Donwood’s album art was certainly a statement of the period — the cover artwork influenced by the war in Kosovo, hidden symbols in the special edition booklet,e tc.. Kid A came out during a time when people still purchased physical music and associated album art with the music. When I think of In Rainbows, which I’ve listened to hundreds of times, I honestly can’t even picture the cover art. Is this a tragedy or just the way things are? Why?

I kinda feel like it’s just the way things are/have become. I tend to avoid placing value judgments on things like this. If you think about the history of album art, one could conclude that introducing a visual in the first place might be a gimmicky way to get consumers to purchase their music (not that I necessarily believe that). Sure, I love how Donwood’s art for Kid A has influenced how I listen to the album, but there’s plenty of visual art out there that’s saying much more than album covers are anyway. Even though album art doesn’t have the prominence it once had, we’re lucky that there’s no shortage of captivating visual art out there.

I see you’re from Minneapolis. Still live here? What do you do?

Yes, I do. I work on my webzine Tiny Mix Tapes full time. Wasn’t too long ago when I was delivering mail in Plymouth and selling vinyl in the basement of Cheapo.

Are you still musicking?

Not in the sense of that band I described in my book — that is, within the context of an improvisational group — but I still do in the sense that my life revolves around this idea of ‘music’ every minute of my life!

Radiohead dropped a new album on us last month, King of Limbs. What were your first impressions?

It’s an okay album. I really loved “Bloom,” the first track, and then got really excited for the rest of the album. But aside from “Feral,” the album didn’t really grab me and hasn’t really since. I do like how the album is understated though, how it doesn’t have the dynamic thrust of all their other albums. But yeah, I think I need to spend more time with it, more so to negotiate my reaction to it than to acclimate to it. To expect a life-changing album like Kid A isn’t really practical at my age and my disposition. Kid A, in my life, had a lot to do with timing. I just turned 30, and perhaps I’ve changed too much for Radiohead’s music to really effect me the way it used to (not to mention the fact that Radiohead seem uninterested in releasing any game-changing albums). That said, I’m still captivated by the band and am always eager to hear new music from them. The band’s in my bloodstream now.

Did you buy it on vinyl/cd/digital for $53 without listening? I did.

Yeah, I bought the “newspaper” version and downloaded it as soon as they released it last Friday. Still curious why they chose to release it a day earlier than they said. Perhaps they had a good reason, but if it was a marketing thing… weird.

Were you surprised it was only 37 minutes? How does a band go from cutting down two albums worth of material for Kid A and Amnesiac to releasing the equivalent of a long EP?

Honestly, I didn’t really notice how short it was until fans started complaining, maybe because I’m not too hung up on length or how it should be classified. I actually like the shorter length. And I think it’s clear at this point that Radiohead are into experimenting with mediums and formats. They’ve even expresssed how they’re interested in shorter releases in order to get their music out quicker. So yeah, it didn’t really surprise me, but I could see how it might bug some fans.

Some compare KOL to Thom’s solo work, which was more down-tempo and electronic. Do you think Radiohead will ever record another guitar rock record? Why?

I think their albums will continue to use guitar (personally, I’d like to see them do away with guitars), but I don’t know if they’d ever release another album that anyone could classify as a “guitar rock record.” I hope not at least! It’s so removed from their aesthetic now that it’d seem disingenous. Who knows though. It’s Radiohead. They have the luxury of doing pretty much whatever they want, whenever they want, which is why it’s exciting to follow them.

Okay, last question — do you still get a little excited when you see the Radiohead bear sticker on people’s cars?

I haven’t seen the sticker on a bumper for awhile, but last year, a good friend of mine gave me the bear sticker I gave him back in college as a present. It was one of the best presents I’ve received, and I’m the one who originally gave it to him!