I am an artist and I make art about music. I also write about music. Out of all the art forms, music is my first love. So why not just make music instead of making art about music? When people ask me that, my answer would somehow involve Kid A, and this essay is a summary of how I got to where I am.
Before I started working as an artist, I aspired to be a musician. Like many teenagers, I got into rock music in high school, and Radiohead was a band my friends and I shared a love for. OK Computer was released in my first year of high school, and the CD remained lodged in my Discman for months. In Radiohead’s honor, I named my high school band Subterranean Homesick Aliens (although I admit we sounded like a very, very bad U2 rip-off).
When we talk about “influence” with regards to a musician, it usually means what or who a musician sounds like. For example, people describe Nirvana as a blend of Beatles-inspired songcraft and Black Sabbath’s metal riffs; or how Sonic Youth’s noise rock draws from The Ramones’s blitzkrieg punk and Merzbow’s sonic assaults. In other words, “influence” is about a band’s sonic aesthetics, and a certain sort of musical lineage.
Kid A did make that kind of impact on me. Otherworldly electronic textures, cut-up vocal samples, dissonant horns ... I was blown away by all the things one never expected from a Britpop band. Kid A wasn’t just rock music; there were traces of so many genres of experimental music. The four-note opening sample on “Idioteque” made me seek out the compositions of Paul Lansky, while the horns on “The National Anthem” turned me on to Miles Davis. I studiously delved into the parts that made up the sum of Kid A—the Warp catalogue, Brian Eno, you name it.
Consequently, I embarked on excursions into various forms of experimental music—free jazz, modern composition, IDM, noise music, and so on. Kid A inspired me to make music, to go as far out as possible. I spent my early- and mid-twenties as an experimental laptop musician.
And yet, after some time, I realized that like many “experimental” musicians, I was merely reproducing established subgenres of experimental music. In the end I thought I had to ditch being a musician altogether, because I realized that to be truly experimental, I would have to embrace the spirit of experimenting rather than reproducing the aesthetics of experimental music. It was then that I decided to make art about music, so I could stand outside music while being close to it.
On second thought, the impact of Kid A on me was not so much an aesthetic one; I was in fact more motivated by its ethos. Kid A to me represents a heroic and triumphant reinvention following times of despair. At the end of touring OK Computer, Thom Yorke had fallen into depression, unable to write any songs. The Kid A sessions were monumentally difficult, and in one instance Yorke turned to Tristan Tzara’s Dadaist manifesto for inspiration on how to write his lyrics. Some of the lyrics on Kid A ended up adopting a distant, cryptic tone that most probably bear Tzara’s influence.
Radiohead had always betrayed an allegiance to other forms of art, such as literature, visual art, and film. OK Computer sounds like an aural interpretation of George Orwell’s novel 1984, while their album art from The Bends onwards consistently (and brilliantly) complement the themes of the music. I remember also how Thom Yorke mentioned in an interview that “Exit Music (For a Film)” was inspired by Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.
I moved across disciplines partly to escape what I felt was a creative dead-end, and partly to explore new territories and approaches to music. It’s not much different from making music or writing about music; it’s just another way of thinking about the subject. I felt extraordinarily handicapped because I had no background and understanding of visual art, but it was also strangely liberating.
Recounting my journey, I cannot help by recall the lyrics from “I Might Be Wrong”, and how appropriate they are as I stepped out: “open up / begin again ... have ourselves a good time ... never look back”. Somewhere within me, I feel secretly proud that even though I don’t make music like Radiohead, I can claim some affinity to what they do.