Three months ago, Thom Yorke followed up his debut solo record, Eraser (2006, XL Records), with the most computer-based full-length album to date: Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. It came as a surprise to everyone. Media kind of snubbed it; maybe they took offense being treated like everyone else, since they didn’t get their advance copy. In fact, the album came exclusively for download through BitTorrent, on September 26, and I didn’t even hear about it. Vinyl copies went for pre-sale at once, but no CD copies. A new bonus track was published three months later, the day after Christmas, for name-your-price only at a new BandCamp page, a free platform that utterly famous artists do not typically publish with.
BitTorrent is even more strange a platform to work with. In fact, this is the first time any recording artist had done it. BitTorrent is a software that you can download for free which connects you to media files on other people’s hard drives–such as your own if you leave it on after a download–and thus bypasses who Yorke calls the “self-appointed gatekeepers,” who wish to give his music away for free while collecting subscription fees, for a pittance of a royalty.
Thom confronts the problem of music publishing in the twenty-first century head on with what he calls “an experiment,” working with the community that actually pirates media, offering an affordable BitTorrent download, legally. Legal downloads of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes alone reached 4.5 million. If that were a commercial record album, it would be multi-platinum. Boosting that figure is a free single including the music video. And we are not clear how many opted to unlock the whole download with a payment. But to suggest that even 10% of those downloads were paid, we know Thom has grossed seven figures.
The album went into immediate reissue because vinyl copies had sold out. Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes appears to be self-released on the Land Grab label, catalogue #001. Thom tumbled photos of the vinyl copy and its freshly printed artwork. You can pay upwards of $48.00 to purchase this neatly packaged record. It is more expensive than some Radiohead albums that came with more frills, so the price-point is too high. It might not be for the 1% but it is definitely for the 10%. Granted, the white 180-gram vinyl is choice, the artwork is attractive, and static-resistant packaging (the kind used for computer hard drives) is sure to maintain copies for decades, as collectors sit on them.
Taken as a commercial enterprise, it is hard not to see that Yorke is thinking about much more than a package of personally crafted art-pop songs. He is a creative person in the business of post-modern music and art publishing. He is worth almost $40 Million dollars, but this is not what defines the recording artist’s true success.
The critically acclaimed icon of “alternative rock” has become one of the most successful contemporary electronic music producers on the scene. The music competes with anything happening right now across the genre—just don’t confuse his music with Electronic Dance Music, or as the kids call it, EDM. The music inside Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes should widen expectations for people who haven’t yet moved on from ROCK. It could also be welcomed by those who enjoy the floor-thumping pulse of popular EDM.
Thom Yorke formed the Atoms for Peace band with famous Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist, Flea, originally as a back-up band to promote The Eraser. Yorke and Flea worked well in a collaborative context and recently toured their own debut record, Amok (2013). Much of the record’s structure was owed to long-time collaborator, the famous producer, Nigel Godrich. In fact, every full-length release since 1995, solo or with a band, has been produced by that electronic music guru.
Meanwhile, of course, Yorke continues as the frontman for Radiohead, an act that has continued evolving for more than twenty years, eight full-length records and several albums-worth of obscure content. Hailing from the era of grunge rock, they became famous in part for massive three-guitar orchestrations, epitomizing rock & roll forever in songs like “The Bends” and of course their 1993 hit, “Creep”.
As a front man, Yorke seemed like a geeky punk rocker while the others just stayed out of trouble. They didn’t idolize the rocker persona for long. Yorke quickly discovered the emptiness of fame, booze and drugs, and steered his own band into relative obscurity, to avoid the hassle. The Bends (Capitol, 1995) was pivotal for the group artistically, but they were no longer making very many MTV appearances. They had found a comfortable spot just out of the limelight. A tour opening for R.E.M. helped maintain iconic status without associating them with the bands that were dominating airwaves at the time, like Bush, No Doubt, and Sublime.
I had the opportunity to see Radiohead in 1995. It was a benefit concert for The Rape Crisis Center, at the Santa Barbara County Bowl. Toad the Wet Sprocket headlined with Soul Asylum in support, and Radiohead was to open for that line up. Sounds absurd today. Moreover, Darius Rucker of Hootie and The Blowfish appeared for a tune with Toad. Sadly, the forthcoming megastars were ripped off. I recall seeing a story as told by Kurt Loader on MTV that Radiohead’s equipment was stolen and their appearance in Santa Barbara would be cancelled. The show went on, I was only modestly disappointed because I was interested in Soul Asylum. I was thirteen and it was my first personally chosen concert.
It’s hard to conceive of a show going on without them, or the likes of that particular line up happening again, after their third record, OK Computer (1997, Capitol), launched Radiohead into a position of world-wide recognition and acclaim, breaking through rap-metal and boy-band saturated mass media with a blue firestorm. Even the band was taken by surprise, remarking that it was an incomplete mess. The beautifully shot and edited tour documentary, Meeting People is Easy, helps illuminate numerous anxieties and outbursts that Yorke went through during that time of sudden, massive success. You see him standing alone in a room while a massive party tumbles outside, as if locked inside the prison of his own mind.
Although their string of hit singles stood in deep contrast to other hit rock groups of the time, they seemed to bridge a gap. One of my closest friends in high school (this is Tucson, Arizona now) would drive us around in his Volskwagen with massive trunk subs, thumping Korn, Insane Clown Posse, and if I was lucky, Tool. But if “Karma Police” came on the radio, he blasted Radiohead as if Fred Durst was busting another shitty rhyme. And when I saw them perform on “Live from The Ten Spot” on MTV, simulcast on my local alt-rock station, KFMA, I flipped. I had radios all over the house running it, tape-recording as well. I became obsessed and declared that Pearl Jam had taken spot number two on my best-bands-of-all-time list.
Time has proven that Thom Yorke steered the band toward an electronic pulse. Computer generated effects and digital workstations revolutionized their sound with the band’s joint release of Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001, Capitol). By this time, it seemed that the band was actively abandoning guitars for a new, collaborative approach. It was the beginning of the twenty-first century, and in retrospect, the albums are an ode to all that happened musically throughout the century. They employed the techniques of John Cage, Louis Armstrong, and Michael Stipe, all in one package. This was the tour that I saw them live for. I waited overnight at the Santa Barbara Country Bowl, then a young man with a job, living on the coast again.
In Meeting People is Easy, Thom reveals that he desired to produce a record that would imprint itself on your heart, because he felt that way about R.E.M during the eighties. It was this period from 1997-2001 that he accomplished this. And I am willing to tell him that he did that to me.
Yorke’s newest record further defines him as a songwriter that outgrows every box built for him. His capacity to remain current is due to an impatience for mediocrity as well a naturally rebellious attitude. He increasingly pens lyrics aligned with political issues, especially war, peace, and climate change. His sound remains fringe by experimenting with new recording techniques. He’s earned a great deal of respect from the industry while rebelling against it.
Without strong relationships with several close friends that came to him as a young man, Yorke might just be another crooner with a guitar, pedaling coffee in London. His childhood is marked with perpetual “new kid” status, due to the professional needs of his father, so it is a sign of personal vigilance that he maintained long-term relationships when he finally could.
In the school yard, he was also shamed for that famous lazy eye—something he pins on botched surgery. Perhaps Thom began shifting from defensive to offensive when the soul mates he discovered in high school boosted his confidence. They formed a rock band and continued to play together until eventually becoming Radiohead.
He associates with people that inspire him. Visual artist, Stanley Donwood met Thom in class at University of Exeter, competing for the grooviest apparel. Donwood has provided the cover art for Thom’s latest release, as well everything else since The Bends. Thom also met his life partner and the mother of his two children at university, Rachel Owen. She is a fine artist whose education is extensive; her PhD was earned in print-making.
Although looking scrappier than ever, Thom radiates a mature vibe on and off stage, now aged forty-six, half of his life lived as a professional musician of world fame. As a performer in the early years, he seemed more like a conduit for the song’s true waveform nature. Wiggling with the guitar, sawing at it like so many singer-songwriters, crooning his way through R.E.M. influenced power-pop, Thom Yorke now dances in his own seductive-geek way, while his voice softly drapes over sparse textures, synthesized and sampled. Verse and chorus are just about removed from Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, replacing it with non-linear orbits around tonal centers. It is melodic. It is infectious and goes down like good absinthe.
Writing as a long time fan of Radiohead and as a musician who abandoned the guitar in favor of synthesizers—even abandoned Radiohead in favor of esoteric music—I have since come back full force as a serious fan of every individual in the group–not just Thom Yorke. And as someone who listens to a lot of new electro, the new record to me signals a new era where music is heard as nothing other than music and electronic is just how it is.