Tuesday 28th January through to Sunday 2nd February is Independent Venue Week. Set up to celebrate and commemorate the importance of independent venues and promoters in the development of artists at the earliest stages of their career, Independent Venues Week brings together 18 participating venues hosting their own night over the course of six days. Founded by Sybil Bell in conjunction with PRS For Music and BBC Introducing, Independent Venue Week's ambassador for 2014 will be Radiohead musician Colin Greenwood.
Having started out in the mid 1980s performing in many of the UK's smaller venues (prior to Radiohead's later worldwide success), Greenwood is only too aware of the necessity for independent venues in the development of up and coming bands. His passion and enthusiasm shines through when reminiscing about the band's early days while eagerly asking for recommendations of new artists he ought to check out (DiS gladly offers him April Towers and Hookworms respectively). Although officially on an extended break with Radiohead, it's clear Greenwood is as excited as their most ardent fans when the conversation turns to their "next adventure" as he describes it...
DiS: How did you first become involved with Independent Venue Week?
Colin Greenwood: I became involved through a friend of mine, Sybil (Bell), who's been putting together the Independent Venue Week programme for the past year. She knew that I wasn't very busy with Radiohead at the minute and wondered whether or not I'd be up for getting involved.
DiS: So what exactly does your role as Ambassador entail?
Colin Greenwood: I think my role consists of things like talking to you, checking new bands out, and also putting stuff up on our website, which I haven't done yet. It's always been a guilty pleasure of mine checking out new things that are going on. It's a massive deal for me, and possibly the favourite part of my career in music so far, other than making records.
DiS: I remember seeing your band for the first time at Leeds Duchess Of York in October 1992 when you supported the Sultans Of Ping. How important were small venues in Radiohead's development?
Colin Greenwood: I was always grateful to local independent promoters like Andy at the Princess Charlotte in Leicester, Paul at Hull Adelphi and obviously Mac at the Jericho in Oxford for giving us some of our earliest gigs. There were a lot of bands around Oxford during the late 80s/early 90s but it wasn't just about the bands, it was about the scene itself that Mac probably created through his bookings at that venue. I remember a gig at the Charlotte and we played a song called 'Creep' for the first time in front of about seven people. Fortunately for us, the head of marketing at Parlophone just happened to be one of them.
DiS: What year would that be?
Colin Greenwood: 1991 I think? I remember the venue more than the date as it had a sliding garage door to the side and a manky sofa in the dressing room upstairs! It was quite a large room actually, probably the whole upstairs area of the pub. Anyway, I remember asking Andy (the promoter) who the loudest band he'd ever booked were, and he replied with "Sugar," only to say, "No, I meant Husker Du." And I thought that was so cool that we were going to play on the same stage as both of those bands as I was a huge fan of Bob Mould. So I was always grateful for the support of promoters from venues like that for giving us the opportunity to play those shows, even if it was only in front of seven people.
DiS: And then a month later I saw you play at Nottingham Trent Polytechnic with Kingmaker. Was it crucial at that point to get on as many bills as possible in a support slot? If only to spread the band's name to a wider audience even?
Colin Greenwood: It was absolutely crucial. We bought an old LDV 45 van off a guy in Oxford, fitted a load of plywood in the back and converted it into a splitter so we could put all the gear in the back. We put some car seats in the front and used to stash a load of beer behind them, and then we'd drive up and down the country in it to wherever we were playing. We were all living in this shared house on Oxford's Cowley Road at the time so often we'd get back at about 3 or 4am, and our sound engineer used to record the shows, so we'd be listening to a cassette of that night's show on the way back, picking out what we thought was good or bad so were always fully concentrated on improving the set for the next one. The support of the headliners at a lot of those early shows was also crucial to the success of the group, because we learned how to play. When you're a support act, you get to see how a big band does it properly. The only downside is you don't get paid as much as they do but there's more advantages in learning from them and if you're focused enough it's up to you to take it from there to the next stage.
DiS: Which bands did you learn the most from at that time? Were there any you particularly built a good rapport with?
Colin Greenwood: We supported loads of bands back then. I do remember we seemed to get booked with a lot of Irish bands around that time for some reason, which was great even though sometimes I had difficulty understanding what they were saying!
DiS: Power Of Dreams being one. I also saw you support them around that time.
Colin Greenwood: Bloody hell! I've been trying to remember the name of that band for years. I remember hearing their records when I worked in Our Price. A lot of Irish bands got signed post-U2. I think that was around the time when a lot of majors started buying out and subsidizing independent labels as well. I'm pretty sure the first show on that tour was at the Joiners in Southampton, and I remember they turned up with this massive articulated lorry... at the Joiners, which must be one of the smallest venues on the UK circuit. It's still one of my favourite venues to this day because it has so much character. Same as the Adelphi in Hull, which was a converted house. The front room was made into this small club which had a snooker table in it, and I remember Paul (Jackson) the promoter having a deaf dog that would sit next to the speakers while you soundchecked. And it also had the same entrance and exit as the punters, so while you were loading out there'd be people coming in and out of the venue. We used to get really well looked after there too. I remember Paul ordering in this amazing Thai food one time we played. Then on the Kingmaker tour, we stayed in the same hotel as this male strip troupe called The Chesterfields I think, so were kept awake all night by the sound of middle aged housewives outside clucking and screaming outside. And they had another support on the bill who was a juggler called Flat Cap, and he crashed on our floor. So it was quite special that those venues weren't only serving local bands from their own community, but they were also bringing in bands from outside of that community as well. That aspect was so important. At the Jericho Tavern, you'd have American bands come and play, which was a really big deal and eventually maybe even get to support one of them. I remember supporting a band called A House, and we borrowed their backline and it was the first time I'd ever used an SVT bass cab. I thought it was fabulous, almost like being inside a sonic immersion tank or something! I was so grateful to them for that, but if it wasn't for Mac at the Jericho offering us the support in the first place it would never have happened. It was great for local bands to have a platform on which to hone their skills, and also bringing bands in from out of town that served as an inspiration.
DiS: It must have been an exciting time being a band from Oxford when Radiohead first started out, with people like Ride, Swervedriver and The Jennifers (later to be Supergrass) also on the scene. Were you all supportive of one another or was it quite competitive back then?
Colin Greenwood: It was quite competitive but not in a negative way. Everyone got on with each other. Gaz Coombes was about fourteen years old it seemed for the next ten years! It was great to be a part of it, and that's the most important thing. When you have a local scene and you're working in a record shop like I was at the time, you'd see all these bands doing well and it makes it seem possible for you to succeed also. It makes things accessible when you have a local scene like Oxford had. It makes it seem like it doesn't only happen to a fortunate few on the other side of the world. You can have success on Walton Street in Oxford, just because it's there down the road from you. It gives every local artist a purpose, some form of ambition even. Recognition and validation as well.
DiS: Would you have been able to play as many shows at the time without the investment of Parlophone through EMI?
Colin Greenwood: Probably not, no. Their investment was also pretty crucial. We had a fantastic agent who we still work with called Charlie Myatt and he got us out loads, but also we wouldn't have been able to do it without the financial support from the record company, which eventually we had to pay back. That enabled us to pay the LDV van, our own drumkit and various other bits and pieces. It also meant that promoters like Andy at the Charlotte didn't lose any money even though there were only seven punters, because the shows were being subsidized by Parlophone.
DiS: What do you make of all the corporations that now own a lot of venues and promoters? And all the money that swills around from brands? Is it good for music or purely something that helps prop up a lack of investment from major labels that once upon a time would have invested in an artist's live career?
Colin Greenwood: I think it's really difficult to make generalisations about such things. Everything's become so fragmented now in terms of musical tastes and styles. There are still labels that fund touring but then there are also bands that choose not to do that. Because everything's so fragmented, it's difficult to quantify. I know there was a move towards live music by the industry in the wake of Napster and file sharing because it seemed a more viable way of artists being paid. I don't want to start slagging off places that have been bought by a big company because more often than not, it is serving a purpose. It's like the O2 in Oxford. At least the upstairs room is still there and local bands still have the opportunity to play it. The only difference is the branding. I just think it's important to support your local venues and promoters and all the stuff feeding off that like local music publications. I remember speaking to Ronan Munro the other day who did our first feature for Nightshift, a local fanzine from Oxford. It's still going, and I believe those with a passion for and are good at what they're doing will always be around in one capacity or another. Not just because they're good, but also because they attract other venues, promoters and bands as well. So I guess that's why I'm still really optimistic. But going back to the original question, I don't really know if nationally owned venues have a negative effect on independent venues when it comes to having a greater weight in terms of booking artists. In my head I'd like to think they have some kind of mutual arrangement as it's to the benefit of all parties for there to be a thriving and vibrant local music scene.
DiS: Do you think local authorities should be doing more to support small venues within the community? So many venues have closed down in recent years after complaints about things like noise - Manchester's Night & Day Cafe the latest to come under threat only this week.
Colin Greenwood: We had a recent case in Oxford where the local music shop was going to be closed as a major hotel chain wanted to build a motel nearby on Cowley Road. They complained to the council about noise but the campaign to keep the shop open was even stronger to the point where the council quashed the planning application and saved the store. I think that's a good example of where a city council has recognised the needs of the local community, because it's not just a music shop. It's also a place where people go and meet.
DiS: Do you think the Internet is partly to blame for the dilution of live music? Not so much from a quality perspective, but certainly for prospective punters who can now find new music via pressing a key rather than venturing out to their nearest venue.
Colin Greenwood: I don't know. I don't think you should ever underestimate curiosity. People will always want to go out, get together and do something. That will always happen. There are cases where planning and building has conspired to make people more alone. The other great thing about venues is they're an ideal place for congregation, and that's something which will never go away because we're all curious social animals. Things might come along much easier via the Internet, but it's the curiosity about finding things in the first place that has a real lasting appeal.
DiS: I saw over 1000 bands last year. For me there's nothing better than discovering a band live I've never heard before and watching them develop onto bigger and better things.
Colin Greenwood: Absolutely. I did a show for 6Music recently about South African artists. I knew nothing about South Africa's music scene until I started doing some work for this charity over there, and I discovered this amazing framework of music which I never knew existed beforehand. The reason I found it was purely down to just checking a few places out of an evening. It's almost become a structure for me, to check new music when and wherever possible. When you think about it, everything's in place already. The bill's already been set so you know who's playing when. The only decision left to make is whether you like the music they're playing or not. And it's so nice to have those kind of options rather than being algorithmically pandered to like you are on the net. It's so regimented. Being recommended music based on your previous clicks. It's the accidental that's much more exciting. Not knowing what's going to happen is what makes it more attractive. Whereas everything on the Internet is designed to make the experience as predictable as possible. And also the sonics as well. I remember seeing Slowdive at the Zodiac which is now the O2 and being blown away by the sheer depth of sound. Just the physicality and visceral thwack of it. That's a pleasure which shouldn't be denied. Watching people work the stage stood 2 metres away and 3 feet up. It's the best.
DiS: Comparing places like the Jericho and Adelphi to the kind of stadiums and arenas Radiohead are used to playing nowadays, is there a part of you that still yearns to play those kind of intimate venues again?
Colin Greenwood: Yeah, but then I think we'd also piss a lot of people off. We did play 93 Feet East in London about seven years ago when we were working on In Rainbows and it was kind of fun, but at the same time really difficult. Changing scales is hard. You have to do things differently, play in a different way when you're in front of 100 as opposed to 20,000 people. It was still an amazing experience though. It reminded me of the first time we played at the Jericho Tavern in '87 or whenever it was. And I can extend this conversation to include pretty much every small venue we played during the early years of the band. We were very privileged to go on a small club tour of America. We played some really famous places. Probably my favourite was the 09:30 Club in Washington. A lot of the straight edge and hardcore punk bands came out of there, and that was just a brilliant show. It sounded incredible. We played the same club as people like Black Flag, Minor Threat and Fugazi had played, and the engineer said it was the best sound he'd ever had. And it was round the alleyway where Abraham Lincoln got shot. Again, it was all independent local promoters who created that scene. My wife grew up in Pennsylvania which has the Chameleon Club that was also pivotal to the punk scene, and it's still there.
DiS: You played your first solo show during Paris Fashion Week last year. What was that like and how did it compare to playing with the band?
Colin Greenwood: It was fine. I did it for a friend of mine, Patrick, who I've known for a very long time. He asked if I'd be up for doing it and I said yes straightaway. I'd seen Cindy Blackman do something similar on drums for a menswear collection show. I watched it back afterwards with my manager at his house, and it was really good. It went a bit noodly at the end but everything else seemed to work quite well. Because it was for someone else it was a little scary but then at the same time there wasn't the same amount of pressure as doing a Radiohead show either.
DiS: What do you make of Four Tet's £5 gigs? Would it be possible for Radiohead to do something similar? Has it made you think about ticket pricing at all?
Colin Greenwood: No. I love Keiron (Hebden) dearly. The Brixton show he did was very much in the same vein as the straight edge gigs Ian Mackaye used to put on with Fugazi. My wife wrote a book on West Coast punk rock a few years ago. I met up with Ian when we were in Washington and we talked about all of that. With Keiron and Four Tet, the main reason he did that was to try and get kids to come along as well. It was an all ages show and the idea was there would be no lighting budget, so just the house lights would be on instead. It reminded me of the all ages shows we used to do at the Zodiac where you had parents standing at the back, and eleven-year-olds doing what they think they're supposed to do at a rock concert. Standing at the front and pogoing, jumping up and down on the spot with their arms pinned to their sides. It was incredible to watch.
DiS: Is that a possible way forward though? Reducing the costs of additional expenses like lighting to bring ticket prices down for the punter without impacting too much on the overall live experience?
Colin Greenwood: I don't know. Some people think there's a vicious spiral where bands and management are solely concerned about making money. So with a live show comes a production and with a production comes lighting and so on and so forth which ultimately means charging the fans more money. But at the same time, because artists aren't generating the same amount of revenue from traditional outlets like record sales the live show isn't just about supporting that one gig. It's also about supporting the making, writing and recording of their music and possibly subsidizing the next record too, if not the entire creative future of the artists you've paid to see. That's how it should be, not just about paying for the gig and buying the CD. That's why you're seeing more bands spending more time on tour. It's the only way they can operate, which I'm not saying is a bad thing, but it's a completely different environment now to when we first started out as a band.
DiS: Finally, moving onto Radiohead, are there any plans for a new album in the foreseeable future?
Colin Greenwood: I don't really know. It's all up in the air at the minute. Thom's just come back from touring Atoms For Peace and he's having some quiet time. I'm sorry to be vague but we're all just taking it easy at the moment. Just enjoying being at home and hanging out really. But at the same time, the vibe is very much Oxford and all good! It's like that. I wish I could say we were going to start work and put something out then spend twelve months on the road touring but we're just enjoying being at home right now. We had the best time when spent the last two years touring The King Of Limbs. We all really enjoyed that. It was a really positive time. We definitely want to do it all again but we've just got to give it some time for the dust to settle.
DiS: Are there any new songs ready for the next record? I read that you'd recorded a couple of tracks in Jack White's studio last year.
Colin Greenwood: I don't know. I think we'd have to revisit them and finish things. I think generally we work best when we're all together for a long period of time. But then I say something like that and think back to when we recorded 'Lucky' in under a day at some studio in South London so I don't know... What I'm trying to say is everyone's very happy and positive and looking forward to the next adventure.
DiS: Hopefully that next adventure will be sooner rather than later.
Colin Greenwood: Absolutely!
Independent Venue Week runs from Tuesday 28th January through to Sunday 2nd February.