Philip Selway Remembers His Worst Radiohead Gig and the Negative Review That "Still Stings Now"

The Exclaim! Questionnaire

"Everybody was turning around and looking at me with utter shock on their faces"

Photo: Phil Sharp

BY Kaelen BellPublished Feb 23, 2023

It's been nine years since Philip Selway released a proper solo record — not counting his tender, searching score for Polly Steele's 2017 film Let Me Go — so one might expect the follow-up to 2014's Weatherhouse would find the legendary Radiohead drummer in his rightful place behind the kit, working his magic. Selway thought the same, but it turns out Strange Dance had other plans. 

"I fully intended to drum on this one. But I got about a day into starting that process in the studio, and it kind of wasn't happening for me as I wanted it to," Selway tells Exclaim! from his residence in London. "I'd been busily preparing all the tracks and trying to kind of fine tune the songs and everything before going into the studio, but hadn't really done any drumming. And drumming is one of those things that, if you haven't done it for a little bit, you can't — or I can't anyway — just leap in there and expect it to happen."

That kind of drummer's block might've thrown Selway for a loop, but instead he used it as an opportunity to lean further into the fluid, collaborative nature of Strange Dance, which features contributions from Hannah Peel, Adrian Utley, Quinta, Marta Salogni, Laura Moody and more. 

"I had fair but stern words with myself, then it gave me the chance to work with the incredible percussionist Valentina Magaletti," Selway explains. "She brought the songs to life, really. … I mean, technically, you can tell she's done a lot of work there. But it doesn't define her playing — there's something very instinctive and spontaneous about what she does. And so it's this huge personality there. At the core of the record is Valentina's playing."

Surrounding that clattering, free-moving core are opalescent pianos, great swathes of strings, itchy, dynamic guitars and Selway's weathered voice, guiding it all skyward. Strange Dance holds all the hallmarks of Selway's solo work, but it's alive with a distinct feeling of collaboration; each sound is coloured by its creator's individual flair, moving with unmistakable character. 

"I had that kind of wish list of dream team musicians, and they all agreed to do it," Selway says. "And so, when you have that, you kind of have to hand it over to them and give people the space to do what they do best."

Ahead of Strange Dance's February 24 release, Selway answered the Exclaim! Questionnaire, discussing his favourite Canadians, the time he nearly fell asleep on stage, and the 30-year-old bad review that still gets under his skin. 

What was the last book or movie that blew your mind?

That would be a book by a Scottish writer named Jenni Fagan — it's called Luckenbooth, and it's just an incredible book. It's set in a tenement building in Edinburgh, and it comes back to different residents on different floors over the course of about a century or so. It starts off with the central character of the devil's daughter, and you just get caught up in the whole psychogeography of Edinburgh. It's just so vividly and viscerally written. It's quite a dark book, but it's also ultimately quite a redemptive book, I think. I think Jenni Fagan is actually one of the best writers around. It's the kind of book you read and think, "Oh, wow, I'm actually around as that's being written" — it feels like kind of an immediate classic. 

What has been your most memorable or inspirational concert and why?

One of the most enjoyable ones I saw was at Osheaga in Montreal. I was doing a solo show there earlier in the afternoon and all my gear went down, actually, so that show wasn't without its technical hitches — but, fantastic festival. I had my family there with me, and my sons were just at the age where they're kind of really, really getting into music. And we went to see the Black Keys headline the festival, and they were incredible. It was just a really magical moment — they were on fire. All the audience were just completely caught up in it, and just being part of that, that event where you get the sense that you're part of this big crowd caught up in the same experience, that was wonderful. 

What has been the greatest moment of your career so far? 

I don't know if it's a moment so much, but I think it's the fact that with Radiohead, I can sit there on stage and think, "Oh my god, these are all people that I was at high school together with, and we basically learned to play our instruments together, been through these incredibly formative experiences and intense experiences together." We've come a long way as a band, but I can still place myself back in those first rehearsals. That is quite a remarkable thing to experience, really.

What advice should you have taken but did not?

Going back a while, this is another Radiohead-related thing: we were headlining a festival in Belgium, and it went on quite late. And somebody said to me at the time, because my bedtime isn't too late, "Do you fancy a cup of coffee, Philip? Just to keep you in it?" And I said that I'd be fine. And we went out and did the show and, literally, my body started going into kind of sleep patterns, and I couldn't play. It was awful! For about four or five songs, I think everybody was turning around and looking at me with utter shock on their faces. So yes, I should have had that cup of coffee.

What was the first song you ever wrote? 

Oh god. It was with my first band at school, so I'd have been about 14 or 15. At that point, I'd learned my first two chords, so I had the verse — I think it was called something like "Seems to Me" — which then prompted me to learn another chord so there could actually be a chorus. There is a recording of it somewhere, just done on a little tape recorder. God knows where it is now, but yeah — I was pleased with myself.

What do you think of when you think of Canada?

Just for Laughs. I mean, it's a great festival, and it's made its way over to the UK now. So much great comedy has come out of that. Comedy is one of the finest forms of entertainment around, and that's a great festival. 

What is the meanest thing that anyone has ever said about your art?

This goes back to another Radiohead-related one, I'm afraid. Just after we were signed, we did a show in London. It must have been around the time we released Pablo Honey, or just before that, and a journalist came along. And we read through the review afterwards and he called us a "lily-livered excuse for a rock band." It's one of those criticisms that really struck home at the time, and the fact is, I think you could probably ask any member of the band and that one is just kind of imprinted on us. It still stings now! There are days where you're feeling insecure about what you're doing, and generally the negative comments seem to key into those insecurities as well. On those days, it can be a bit difficult to see. But then again, you probably shouldn't be so egotistical, reading everything about yourself.

What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?

I was nine years old, and I'd gone out to buy an Elvis Presley record. And I got to the shop and found out that I didn't have enough money for an Elvis Presley record, so I went through the bargain bin instead. And there was a record called The Early Years of the Beatles, and I thought, "Oh yeah, I know them from mum and dad listening to them." It was from sessions that they'd recorded when they were playing at the Star Club in Berlin, so before everything took off. It's kind of them playing with a backing band through an artist called Tony Sheridan at the time, and it's the recordings from when Pete Best was still drumming for them. So that was my first record.

What was your most memorable day job?

The one that I probably liked the most was my day job just before [Radiohead] got signed. I was in publishing — I was a copy editor and production assistant, but it was the copy editing side of things. I was working for a company that published medical journals, and I had no medical experience whatsoever, so god knows why they let me get past that. But I really enjoyed the job. I felt kind of legitimate doing that job.

If you weren't an artist, what would you be doing instead?

I might have been quite happy carrying on with that job, to be honest with you. I mean, I wouldn't have given up on the music. I wouldn't give away that experience for anything. But if my life had carried on down that route, I still think it would have been a good life. 

What's the best way to listen to music?

My favourite way at the moment is on vinyl. Either sat down on the sofa or doing housework in the room. I just love that connection with vinyl, really. That whole process: you carefully select what you're going to listen to get out of the sleeve. There's a whole ritual to it. And you're committing to listen to 20 minutes of music. I always feel there's kind of a greater sense of connection to the artist with that experience. 

What do you fear most? 

Very enclosed spaces. They freak me out. Yeah, claustrophobia — some days it can even be the idea of it rather than the actual physical confinement. I can set myself off on a little anxiety attack sometimes just thinking about it. It's a good barometer, as well, for where I am in emotional well-being terms, because if that stuff starts hitting home with me, then it means I'm probably carrying around a lot of stress from other stuff. So it's always a good warning sign to just stand back and reassess things.

If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?

I won the lottery a long time ago, being able to make a livelihood out of music. So yeah, I'd have to give that away if I ever won the actual lottery. That would be too much good fortune for one person to carry around for life.

What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?

Not strange so much, but one that sticks out. Again, it's kind of based in Canada — we'd been playing a show in Vancouver, and I went to the afterparty afterwards and I was talking to somebody. She was really nice, just talking and chewing the fat about the show, and she was talking about her day job and everything. And I just thought, "Oh, okay, that was a really pleasant conversation." And we went our own separate ways, and I walked over to somebody else in the touring party and they said to me, "So what's Gillian Anderson like?"

What would be your ideal dinner guest living or dead? And what would you serve them? 

Joni Mitchell. You might notice that I'm going with some Canadian themes on this; some of the best people come from Canada. And what would I serve her… Do you know what? I'd want her to come back and see me again, so there's no way I'm going to cook for her because I'm a bit of a disaster in that respect. So I think we'd have to go out somewhere, and I would do my homework ahead of time to find out what her favourite cuisine was. And I would do everything I could to ingratiate myself.

What is the greatest song of all time?

That is probably the hardest question. Okay, so I'm going to carry on down the Canadian route here — I'm gonna go for "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. Even beyond Shrek, that song kind of just connects with everybody, doesn't it? And there's so many incredible versions that have been recorded, and it's a lyric you can lose yourself in. I'm still trying to figure it out. It's like a great hymn, isn't it? There's kind of a common experience in that song, which all great songs should have. So, that's why I choose it.

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