The Smile made a surprise appearance at a special screening event at London’s Prince Charles Cinema last night (Thursday January 18) – where the trio spoke about their creative process on new album ‘Wall Of Eyes’, working with director Paul Thomas Anderson, whether they felt any influence of The Beatles working at Abbey Road, and shared advice for struggling creatives.
The event in the capital was to spotlight the band’s creative relationship with Anderson, and saw the premiere of a new silent film of never-before-seen footage of the waking of the band’s second album and new video ‘Friend Of A Friend’, as well as a full surround sound playback of the record. Anderson’s music video for ‘Wall Of Eyes’ was also screened, along with his short film ‘ANIMA’ made for Thom Yorke and a selection of videos made with Radiohead.
After the full billed programme was complete, Yorke along with fellow Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood and drummer Tom Skinner (formerly of Sons Of Kemet) then took to the stage for a Q&A session helmed by DJ and presenter Edith Bowman. NME was in attendance, as the band opened up about their chemistry and work on the follow-up to acclaimed 2022 debut ‘A Light For Attracting Attention’.
‘Wall Of Eye’s was recorded with producer Sam Petts-Davies at London’s iconic Abbey Road Studios, as made famous by The Beatles. Asked if they felt any influence from the Fab Four, particularly when working with an orchestra, Yorke replied: “We fucking tried not to! I mean we were in Abbey Road, but it’s like, ‘Let’s not do that, eh?’”
He continued: “The fact that we chose to do a tuning-sweep thing halfway through ‘Bending Hectic’ was just because it wanted that to happen rather than, ‘Hey, let’s do a Beatles song!’
“That’s the weird thing about Abbey Road, it’s the best fucking studio in London – but there’s this tourist-y element where people go in just to say that they’ve been at Abbey Road. For people like us who’ve been working there on-and-off since the ‘90s, it’s a bit depressing, because it is a fantastic place.”
Greenwood agreed that The Beatles’ influence is “often a reason not to want to go there” – but spoke highly of Abbey Road, its staff and facilities.
“We had to clear out one weekend because some business people wanted to come in and record a song at Abbey Road… but then studios are really struggling and it’s tough, so anything that keeps it going – frankly – is amazing,” he said.
Yorke then added: “Which is mental because they’re the best trained [people] in the best studio.”
Another highlight of the chat came when an audience member asked the band about overcoming anxiety to share one’s work in the creative sphere.
“You have to stand up in front of people, even if it’s difficult, because it has to become real,” Yorke replied. “You have to share it with other human beings because it’s a form of communication, you know? However you figure out communication, you have to be comfortable doing it. You don’t work for yourself.
“We’re human beings, we’re social creatures, and you’ll be surprised – I think always – what you’ll get back from people. If you’re in a good place, bad feedback is useful. If you love what you’re doing, it has to be able to withstand that process.”
Yorke added: “At art school, I was kicked out of painting just because everyone said, ‘You’re shit, get out!’ – which was fair enough, I really was. I went AWOL for three months and came back better because of it. It was like something I had to go through.
“If you’re choosing to work in the creative industry, you have to be able to stand up and show what you do somehow. Otherwise it’s just something that’s in [your head], which is no good for you and no good for anyone else.”
After the eight tracks of the album were played – accompanied by visuals of the artwork made by Yorke with designer and longtime collaborator Stanley Donwood – a message came up on the screen, reading: ‘What’s this then?’ before a lush and orchestral ‘hidden’ track was played, later revealed by Yorke to be called ‘Tiptoe’. However, it was not revealed if this would be part of the album or see a later release.
They did, however, promise that fan favourite live tracks including ‘Bodies Laughing’, ‘Colours Fly’ and ‘Just Eyes And Mouth’ would eventually see the light of day.
“The ones that we haven’t released, we either just haven’t recorded yet or we’re working on,” he said, with Skinner admitting: “There are more songs but those eight just sort of fit together. It wasn’t a really conscious thing, they just all seemed to work together somehow. Sam helped us to see that.”
Asked about his lyrical approach to the album, Yorke compared himself to “a really bad sculptor who doesn’t really know what they’re doing”.
“They put stuff up and it doesn’t look right so they take it down and they just keep doing that over and over again until it looks right and they say, ‘It’s OK, I can stand in a room with it now – just about’. There’s a lot of that, really,” he told the audience. “When you go to record it, that’s a different thing again. Nowadays I often turn up with options and see what falls out.”
He described the way that the musical elements come together in a similar way, revealing: “I turn up with a bunch of phone recordings; doodles that are not even edited or formed and are fairly shapeless. We put them into shape then this thing appears that has this momentum.”
Opting for a sense of deliberate sense of “scale” on this record with a “stupidly large” orchestra to accompany the trio, the band explained how the full-bodied sound of ‘Wall Of Eyes’ came about with producer Sam Petts-Davies – rather than Yorke and Radiohead’s usual go-to of Nigel Godrich.
“We had a lot of short hand with Nigel, but we knew Sam very well,” said Yorke. “Sam had worked with Nigel and we’d both worked with Sam, so there was already shorthand there. I think it’s really difficult to explain what happens. Each band and artist is different in what they need from a producer.
“We had a lot of fun, basically.”
Greenwood continued: “I remember once with Radiohead, we tried out a producer in the early days, just once. He took me into a room on my own and said, ‘Listen, I want you to be amazing on this record – you’re gonna take off and it’s going to be amazing! Just go for it! Don’t be scared!’ “Of course, that just made me even more like, aware of what we don’t need.”
Skinner explained how ‘Wall Of Eyes’ revealed how far the chemistry of the band had developed from the early days of touring.
“We’ve developed a lot of trust along the way; that’s a really important aspect of any band, really – especially this combination of people,” he said. “That’s been developed over the last five years and we’ve done quite a lot of playing together. Touring the first record really solidified the chemistry that was already there, but playing live every night just takes it to the next level.
“Going into this record, we just wanted to build and expand on that.”
Yorke added: “Skinner’s got a lot of experience doing lots of very varied stuff, which I felt was very important. He’s got taste calls that we wouldn’t make.”
After describing Paul Thomas Anderson as a visual “obsessive” who’s “really fun to work with”, the trio were also asked about their favourite films by the director – with Yorke choosing There Will Be Blood, Skinner opting for Liquorice Pizza and Greenwood for Punch Drunk Love. Elsewhere, the band were quizzed on what music they’d been listening (with Yorke and Greenwood choosing composer Steve Reich’s biblical-inspired ‘Tehillim’ project) before the frontman shared his favourite author at the moment.
“Benjamín Labatut – I just finished his new one, The Maniac,” said Yorke. “It was totally excellent. I can’t even begin to describe his books, other than they were a really heavy influence on the paintings that we do. I can’t explain why.”
On the subject of his paintings for the album artwork with Donwood, Yorke spoke of how the visuals – much like the music – are about an automatic expression of “joy” as well as tension and release.
“The first record was done during the pandemic, and a lot of that energy of that and the second record is, in some ways, still knock-on from that period of the joy of actually being in the room with someone and having a creative conversation. Woohoo! Deciding to paint like we were painting by swapping canvases and wiping each other’s work out was just because we were having a laugh,” he said. “It was fun, it was a celebration of something. ‘I can’t believe we do this for a living’, etc.”
Yorke added: “I think it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”
The Smile release ‘Wall Of Eyes’ on January 26, before touring throughout 2024. Visit here for tickets and more information.