Thomas Edward "Thom" Yorke (born 7 October 1968) is an English musician best known as the singer and principal songwriter of the alternative rock band Radiohead. A multi-instrumentalist, Yorke mainly plays guitar and piano, but also plays instruments including keyboards, bass, and drums, and works extensively with synthesisers, sequencers and programming. He is known for his falsetto vocals; in 2008, Rolling Stone ranked him the 66th greatest singer of all time.
Yorke was born in 1968 in Northamptonshire. His family moved often before settling in Oxfordshire, where Yorke attended Abingdon School and founded Radiohead with his schoolmates. After he graduated from the University of Exeter, Radiohead signed to Parlophone; their early hit "Creep" made Yorke a celebrity, and Radiohead have gone on to achieve critical acclaim and sales of over 30 million albums. Their fourth album Kid A (2000) saw Yorke and the band move into electronic music, often manipulating his vocals.
In 2006, Yorke released his debut solo album, The Eraser, comprising mainly electronic music. In 2009, to perform The Eraser live, he formed a new band, Atoms for Peace, with musicians including Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich; they released their first album, Amok, in 2013. In 2014, Yorke released his second solo album, Tomorrow's Modern Boxes. He has collaborated with artists including Björk, Flying Lotus and PJ Harvey, and has composed soundtracks for documentaries and theatre. With artist Stanley Donwood, he creates artwork for Radiohead's albums.
Yorke has been critical of the music industry, particularly of major labels and streaming services such as Spotify, which he believes cannot support new music. With Radiohead and his solo work he has pioneered alternative music release platforms such as pay-what-you-want and BitTorrent. He is an activist on behalf of human rights, environmental, and anti-war causes, and his lyrics sometimes address political themes.
Yorke was born on 7 October 1968, in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. He was born with a paralysed left eye, and underwent five eye operations by the age of six; according to Yorke, the last surgery was "botched", giving him a drooping eyelid. Yorke's family moved frequently. His father, a nuclear physicist and later a chemical equipment salesman, was hired by a firm in Scotland shortly after his son's birth; the family lived there until Yorke was seven, and he moved from school to school. The family settled in Oxfordshire in 1978.
Yorke received his first guitar when he was seven; his earliest musical inspiration was guitarist Brian May of Queen. At 10, he made his own guitar, inspired by May's Red Special. By 11, he had joined his first band and written his first song. In Oxford he attended the boys' public school Abingdon, where he met Ed O'Brien, Phil Selway, and brothers Colin and Jonny Greenwood; they formed a band named On a Friday, named for the only day they were allowed to rehearse. Yorke said: "School was bearable for me because the music department was separate from the rest of the school. It had pianos in tiny booths, and I used to spend a lot of time hanging around there after school." After leaving school, Yorke took a gap year, during which he held several jobs and was involved in a car accident that influenced the lyrics of later Radiohead songs, including the Bends B-side "Killer Cars" (1995) and "Airbag" from OK Computer (1997).
In late 1988, Yorke left Oxford to study at the University of Exeter, which put On a Friday on hiatus aside from holiday break rehearsals. Yorke said he had wanted to apply to St John's to read English at the University of Oxford "because that's what everybody did. But I was told I couldn't even apply – I was too thick. Oxford University would have eaten me up and spat me out. It's too rigorous." At Exeter, he worked as a DJ, performed experimental music with a classical ensemble, and played with the band Headless Chickens, performing songs including future Radiohead material. He also met artist Stanley Donwood, with whom he collaborates to produce artwork for Radiohead releases, and printmaker / Italian scholar Rachel Owen, with whom he was in a relationship for over two decades.
On A Friday resumed activity in 1991 as most of the members were finishing their degrees. Ronan Munro, editor of the local music magazine Curfew (now Nightshift), gave the band their first interview while they were sharing a house in Oxford. He recalled: "Thom wasn't like anyone I'd interviewed before. He was so focused. He was like 'This is going to happen… failure is not an option.' I really took that away from it. He wasn't some ranting diva or a megalomaniac, but he was so focused on what he wanted to do."
In 1991, when Yorke was 22, On a Friday signed to Parlophone and changed their name to Radiohead. According to Yorke, around this time he "hit the self-destruct button pretty quickly"; he cut his hair and drank heavily, often becoming too drunk to perform. Radiohead gained notice with their debut single "Creep", which appeared on the band's 1993 debut album Pablo Honey; the song rose to number two on the US modern rock chart, entered the lower reaches of the top 40 pop chart, and reached number seven in the UK Singles Chart when EMI rereleased it in the UK in September. Yorke said that the success inflated his ego; he tried to project himself as a rock star, which included bleaching his hair and wearing extensions. He said: "When I got back to Oxford I was unbearable ... as soon as you get any success you disappear up your own arse."
By the time of the release of Radiohead's second album, The Bends (1995), Radiohead had attracted a large fanbase and began to receive critical acclaim. After the album's release, the American rock band R.E.M., a major influence on Radiohead, picked them as their support act for their European tour. Yorke befriended R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, who gave him advice about how to deal with fame.
During the production of the band's third album, OK Computer (1997), all five members of Radiohead had differing opinions and equal production roles, with Yorke having "the loudest voice", according to O'Brien. OK Computer achieved critical acclaim and strong sales, establishing Radiohead as one of the leading alternative rock acts of the 1990s, but Yorke was ambivalent about their success. Following the OK Computer tour, he suffered a mental breakdown, and said: "Every time I picked up a guitar I just got the horrors. I would start writing a song, stop after 16 bars, hide it away in a drawer, look at it again, tear it up, destroy it." In 2013, he recalled:
|“||When I was a kid, I always assumed that [fame] was going to answer something – fill a gap. And it does the absolute opposite. It happens with everybody. I was so driven for so long, like a fucking animal, and then I woke up one day and someone had given me a little gold plate for OK Computer and I couldn’t deal with it for ages. I moved down to Cornwall, went out to the cliffs and drew in a sketchbook, day in, day out. I was allowed to play the piano and that was it, because that was all we had in the house. I did that for a few months and I started to tune back into why I’d started doing it ... I remember having nothing in the house, except a Yamaha grand piano. Classic. And the first thing I wrote was 'Everything in Its Right Place'.||”|
Yorke began to listen almost exclusively to electronic music, including Warp artists such as Aphex Twin and Autechre, saying: "It was refreshing because the music was all structures and had no human voices in it. But I felt just as emotional about it as I'd ever felt about guitar music." He and Radiohead took these influences to their next albums Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001), processing vocals, obscuring lyrics, and making heavy use of electronic instrumentation. The albums divided fans and critics, but were commercially successful and later attracted widespread critical acclaim; at the turn of the decade, Kid A was named the best album of the 2000s by Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.
In 2003, Radiohead released their sixth album, Hail to the Thief, a blend of rock and electronic music; Yorke wrote many of its lyrics in response to the War on Terror and the resurgence of right-wing politics in the west after the turn of the millennium. It was the final album recorded under Radiohead's contract with EMI. In 2007, Radiohead independently released their seventh album, In Rainbows, as a pay-what-you-want download, the first for a major act; the release made headlines worldwide and sparked debate about the implications for the music industry. In 2011, Radiohead self-released their eighth album, The King of Limbs, which Yorke described as "an expression of physical movements and wildness". The album was promoted with a music video for the track "Lotus Flower" featuring Yorke's erratic dancing, which became an internet meme. Radiohead released their ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, on 8 May 2016.
Solo work and Atoms for Peace
Yorke released his debut solo album The Eraser in 2006 on the independent label XL Recordings. Composed of mainly electronic music recorded during Radiohead's 2004 hiatus, the album was produced by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and features artwork by Donwood. Yorke said: "I've been in the band since we left school and never dared do anything on my own ... It was like, 'Man, I've got to find out what it feels like,' you know?" He stressed that Radiohead were not splitting up and that the album was made "with their blessing". The Eraser reached number three in the UK in its first week, number two in the United States, Canada and Australia, and number nine in Ireland. It was nominated for the 2006 Mercury Prize and the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album. An album of remixes by various artists, The Eraser Rmxs, was released in 2009.
In July 2009, Yorke performed solo at the Latitude Festival in England. On 21 September 2009, he released a double-A-side single, "Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses" / "The Hollow Earth". In the same year, Yorke formed a new band, Atoms for Peace, to perform songs from The Eraser. Alongside Yorke on vocals, guitar and keyboards, the band comprises bassist Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, drummer Joey Waronker of Beck and R.E.M., percussionist Mauro Refosco of Forro in the Dark, and Godrich on keyboards and guitar. Yorke said: "God love 'em but I've been playing with the same band since I was 16, and to do this was quite a trip ... It felt like we'd knocked a hole in a wall, and we should just fucking go through it." The band played eight North American shows in 2010.
In 2010, he performed a surprise set at Glastonbury Festival with Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, performing Eraser and Radiohead songs. In February 2013, Atoms for Peace released an album, Amok. It was followed by a tour of Europe, the US and Japan. Answering a fan question on Reddit, Yorke wrote that determining whether new songs were for Radiohead or Atoms for Peace was "a grey area. Getting greyer. Obviously depends on who is being sampled."
In September 2014, Yorke released his second solo album, Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, via BitTorrent. It became the most torrented album of 2014 (excluding piracy), with over a million downloads in its first six days. On 26 December 2014, Yorke released the album on the online music platform Bandcamp along with a new single, "Youwouldn'tlikemewhenI'mangry". In 2015, he performed with Godrich at the Latitude Festival in the UK and the Summer Sonic Festival in Japan.
For the soundtrack of the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, Yorke covered Roxy Music songs with the band Venus in Furs. In 2012, he contributed music to a Rag & Bone fashion show. In 2013, Yorke and other artists contributed music to The UK Gold, a documentary about tax avoidance in the UK. The soundtrack was released free in February 2015 through the online audio platform SoundCloud.
In 2015, Yorke contributed a soundtrack, Subterranea, to an installation of Radiohead artwork, The Panic Office, in Sydney, Australia. The soundtrack is composed of field recordings made in the English countryside, and plays in the installation on speakers at different heights playing different frequency ranges. The Australian radio station Triple J described the soundtrack as "closest in tone and style to the more ambient moments of Tomorrow's Modern Boxes", with some digitally spoken sections similar to "Fitter Happier" from Radiohead's OK Computer. There are no plans to release the music.
Yorke composed music for a 2015 production of Harold Pinter's 1971 play Old Times by the Roundabout Theater Company in New York City. The play's director described the music as "primeval, unusual ... the sort of neurosis within [Yorke's] music certainly has elucidated elements of the compulsive repetition of the play."
Yorke has worked with producer Nigel Godrich and artist Stanley Donwood on every Radiohead album since The Bends, as well as his solo work and work with Atoms for Peace. Describing his collaborative process with Godrich, Yorke said: "[The Eraser song] 'Black Swan', back in the day, was a six-minute load of crap. Except for this one juicy bit, and [Godrich] goes past and goes, 'That bit. Fuck the rest.' Usually it's something like that." Yorke wrote of meeting Donwood at university: "He had a better hat and suit on than me. That pissed me off. So I figured I'd either end up really not liking this person at all, or working with him for the rest of my life." Donwood said his first impression of Yorke was that he was "mouthy. Pissed off. Someone I could work with." Yorke is credited for artwork alongside Donwood under the monikers "The White Chocolate Farm", "Tchock", "Dr. Tchock" or similar abbreviations.
In 1998, Yorke provided vocals for the Unkle track "Rabbit in Your Headlights", recorded a cover of the 1975 Pink Floyd song Wish You Were Here with Sparklehorse, and duetted on "El President" with Isabel Monteiro of Drugstore. In 2000, he duetted with PJ Harvey on "This Mess We're In" and contributed backing vocals to her album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. In the same year, he appeared on Björk's soundtrack album Selmasongs, singing on the Oscar-nominated song "I've Seen It All". In 2004, he and Jonny Greenwood contributed to the Band Aid 20 single "Do They Know It's Christmas?", produced by Godrich. In 2008, Yorke sang backing vocals on Björk's charity single "Náttúra". In 2009, he recorded a cover of the Miracle Legion song "All for the Best" with his brother Andy for the compilation Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy.
Yorke provided vocals for the Modeselektor tracks "The White Flash" from Happy Birthday (2007) and "Shipwreck" and "This" from Monkeytown (2011), and for the Flying Lotus tracks "...And the World Laughs with You" from Cosmogramma (2010) and "Electric Candyman" from Until the Quiet Comes (2012). In 2011, he collaborated with electronic artists Burial and Four Tet on the tracks "Ego" and "Mirror". In the same year, Yorke, Greenwood and rapper MF Doom collaborated on the track "Retarded Fren". In 2012, Yorke remixed "Hold On" by SBTRKT under the name Sisi BakBak; his identity was not confirmed until September 2014. In July 2015, he joined Portishead on stage at the Latitude Festival to perform their 2007 song "The Rip". In 2016, Yorke contributed vocals to and appeared in the video for the track "Beautiful People" on Mark Pritchard's album Under the Sun.
Yorke is the primary songwriter in Radiohead. A typical Radiohead song begins with a sketch from Yorke, which is then harmonically developed by Jonny Greenwood before the other band members develop their parts. Yorke is a multi-instrumentalist; his main instruments are guitar and piano, though he has performed using instruments including synthesisers, Rhodes piano, bass guitar and drums. Explaining why he turned down a request to play piano on the track "Mr Bellamy" on Paul McCartney's album Memory Almost Full (2007), Yorke said: "The piano playing involved two hands doing things separately. I don’t have that skill available. I said to him, 'I strum piano, that's it.'"
Yorke has worked extensively with electronic instruments such as synthesisers, drum machines, and sequencers, and techniques including programming, sampling and looping. Nonetheless, in 2015 he said: "Really I just enjoy writing words sitting at a piano. I tend to lose interest in the drum machine." Unlike Greenwood, Yorke has never learned how to read sheet music, feeling "you can't express the rhythms properly like that. It's a very ineffective way of doing it, so I've never really bothered picking it up."
As a teenager, Yorke's favourite artists included Queen, Joy Division, R.E.M., Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bob Dylan. He wrote that Mark Mulcahy of Miracle Legion had affected him "a great deal" at this time: "It was the voice of someone who was only truly happy when he was singing ... it changed the way I thought about songs and singing." He has cited the Pixies, Björk and PJ Harvey as artists who "changed his life", and in 2006 he told Pitchfork that Radiohead had "ripped off R.E.M. blind for years". He cited Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante as an influence on his guitar playing for In Rainbows. In 2013, Yorke named the electronic artist Aphex Twin as his biggest influence, saying: "He burns a heavy shadow ... Aphex opened up another world that didn't involve my fucking electric guitar ... I hated all the music that was around Radiohead at the time, it was completely fucking meaningless. I hated the Britpop thing and what was happening in America, but Aphex was totally beautiful, and he's kind of my age too."
Based on his recorded works, Yorke has a vocal range spanning E2 to E6. He is known for his falsetto, which Paste Magazine described as "sweet", "cautious" and "haunting". Rolling Stone described his voice as a "broad, emotive sweep" with a "high, keening sound". The Guardian described it as "instrument-like" and "spectral", and wrote that it "transcends the egocentric posturing of the indie rock singer stereotype". He has often manipulated his vocals with effects, transforming his voice into a "disembodied instrument".
In 2006, Yorke said: "It annoys me how pretty my voice is. That sounds incredibly immodest, but it annoys me how polite it can sound when perhaps what I'm singing is deeply acidic." In 2013, he said: "Whenever I'm building anything, whether it's on a laptop or drum machine or whatever ... there's always a vocal going in the back of my head. It's almost impossible for me to listen to a dance tune from beginning to end without picturing a voice."
In 2005, readers of Blender and MTV2 voted Yorke the 18th greatest singer of all time. In 2008, Rolling Stone ranked him the 66th, writing that "by the turn of the century ... Yorke's voice had made him one of the most influential singers of his generation," influencing bands including Muse, Coldplay, Travis, and Elbow.
Yorke's early lyrics were personal, but from Kid A he experimented with cutting up words and phrases and assembling them at random. Pitchfork wrote that Yorke has deliberately used everyday clichés "to suggest a mind consumed by meaningless data"; the Kid A lyrics, for example, "alternate between honeyed violence" and "clichés and hum-drum observations twisted into panic attacks". On Radiohead's ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, Pitchfork felt his lyrics were less cynical, conveying wonder and amazement. Many critics felt the album's lyrics might address Yorke's separation with his partner of more than 20 years.
According to Yorke, many of his lyrics are motivated by anger, expressing his political and environmental concerns, and written as "a constant response to doublethink". The lyrics of the 2003 Radiohead album Hail to the Thief dealt with what he called "the general sense of ignorance and intolerance and panic and stupidity" following the 2000 election of US President George W. Bush and the unfolding War on Terror. Yorke's 2006 solo single "Harrowdown Hill" was written about David Kelly, a whistleblower who allegedly committed suicide after telling a reporter that the British government had falsely identified weapons of mass destructions in Iraq. In a 2008 television performance of "House of Cards", Yorke dedicated the chorus lyric, "denial, denial", to Bush for rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty to reduce greenhouse gases. Despite Yorke's political concerns, in a November 2015 interview with the activist and writer George Monbiot, he said: "In the 60s, you could write songs that were like calls to arms, and it would work. It’s much harder to do that now ... If I was going to write a protest song about climate change in 2015, it would be shit. It’s not like one song or one piece of art or one book is going to change someone’s mind."
Yorke told The Guardian that Michael Stipe of R.E.M. is his favourite lyricist, saying "I loved the way he would take an emotion and then take a step back from it and in doing so make it so much more powerful." The chorus lyric of "How to Disappear Completely" from Kid A was inspired by Stipe, who advised Yorke to relieve tour stress by repeating to himself: "I'm not here, this isn't happening." Yorke credited Neil Young as another major lyrical influence.
Music industry views
Yorke has been critical of the music industry and has pioneered alternative release platforms. Following Radiohead's 1993 Pablo Honey tour of America, he became disenchanted with being "right at the sharp end of the sexy, sassy, MTV eye-candy lifestyle" he felt he was helping sell. The 1998 documentary Meeting People Is Easy portrays Yorke's disaffection with the music industry and press during Radiohead's OK Computer tour. After Radiohead's fourth album, Kid A (2000), was leaked via the peer-to-peer filesharing software Napster weeks before release, Yorke told Time he felt Napster "encourages enthusiasm for music in a way that the music industry has long forgotten to do. I think anybody sticking two fingers up at the whole fucking thing is wonderful as far as I'm concerned."
After Radiohead's six-album record contract with EMI ended with the release of Hail to the Thief (2003), Yorke told Time: "I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say 'Fuck you' to this decaying business model." In 2006, he called major record labels "stupid little boys' games – especially really high up." In 2007, Radiohead independently released their album In Rainbows as a download for which listeners could choose their price; Yorke said the "most exciting" part of the release was the removal of the barrier between artist and audience.
In 2013, Yorke and Godrich made headlines for their criticism of the music streaming service Spotify. In July, they removed Atoms for Peace and Yorke's solo music from the service. In a series of tweets, Yorke wrote: "Make no mistake, new artists you discover on Spotify will not get paid. Meanwhile shareholders will shortly be rolling in it ... New artists get paid fuck-all with this model." In October 2013, Yorke called Spotify "the last gasp of the old industry"; he accused it of only benefiting major labels with large back catalogues, and encouraged artists to build their own "direct connections" with audiences instead.
In a press release announcing Yorke's second solo album, Tomorrow's Modern Boxes, released via BitTorrent, he and Godrich expressed their hope to "hand some control of internet back to people who are creating the work ... bypassing the self-elected gatekeepers." Asked if the release had been a success, Yorke said: "No, not exactly. But I wanted it to be an experiment ... I wanted to show that, in theory, today one could follow the entire chain of record production, from start to finish, on his own. But in practice it is very different. We cannot be burdened with all of the responsibilities of the record label."
Politics and activism
Yorke is an activist on behalf of human rights, environmentalist, fair trade and anti-war causes. He said reading Manufacturing Consent (1988) by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky after university was a "formative moment". In 1999, he travelled to the G8 summit to support the Jubilee 2000 movement calling for cancellation of third-world debt. In 2000, during the recording of Kid A, he became "obsessed" with the Worldwatch Institute website, "which was full of scary statistics about icecaps melting, and weather patterns changing". He said he became involved in the movement to halt climate change after having children and "waking up every night just terrified".
In a 2003 Guardian article criticising the World Trade Organisation, Yorke wrote: "The west is creating an extremely dangerous economic, environmental and humanitarian timebomb. We are living beyond our means." In the same year he was a key speaker at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rally in Yorkshire, protesting the British government's support of the American "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative. In 2005, he joined an all-night vigil for the Trade Justice Movement.
Yorke is vegetarian and has criticised the meat industry. In a 2005 film for the animal rights foundation Animal Aid, he said: "Society deems it necessary to create this level of suffering in order for [people] to eat food that they don't need ... you should at least be aware of what you're doing rather than assuming that that's your right as a human being to do it."
|“||At first I told Friends of the Earth that I was absolutely the wrong person to be associated with their campaign. I've based my life on touring, and the rock industry is a high energy-consuming industry. But they persuaded me that that was exactly why it was a good idea for me to be involved; that they didn't want to present a holier-than-thou message. Initially, I attracted some criticism, but you just have to accept it, drink some cold water and get on with your life.||”|
In 2006, Friends of the Earth asked Yorke to meet prime minister Tony Blair to discuss climate change. Yorke wrote on Radiohead's site that "I have no intention of being used by spider spin doctors to make it look like we make progress when it is just words", and told the NME that Blair had "no environmental credentials as far as I'm concerned." He later told the Guardian that Blair's advisers had "wanted pre-meetings. They wanted to know that I was on-side. Also, I was being manoeuvred into a position where if I said the wrong thing post-the meeting, Friends of the Earth would lose their access. Which normally would be called blackmail."
On 1 May 2006, Yorke and Jonny Greenwood headlined the Big Ask Live, a benefit concert in aid of Friends of the Earth's campaign to persuade the government to enact a new law on climate change. In 2008, Radiohead commissioned a study to reduce the carbon expended on tour; based on the study, they chose to play at venues supported by public transport, made deals with trucking companies to reduce emissions, used new low-energy LED lighting and encouraged festivals to offer reusable plastics. In the same year Yorke guest-edited a special climate change edition of Observer Magazine and wrote: "Unlike pessimists such as James Lovelock, I don't believe we are all doomed ... You should never give up hope." In 2009, he performed via Skype at the premier of the environmentalist documentary The Age of Stupid. In December that year, he gained access to the COP 15 climate change talks in Copenhagen by posing as a journalist.
In 2010, Yorke performed a benefit concert at the Cambridge Corn Exchange for the British Green party, and supported the 10:10 campaign for climate change mitigation. In 2011, he joined the maiden voyage of Rainbow Warrior III, a yacht used by Greenpeace to monitor damage to the environment. Yorke was one of several celebrities who endorsed the parliamentary candidacy of the Green party's Caroline Lucas at the United Kingdom 2015 general election. In December 2015, he performed during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris at a benefit concert in aid of 350.org, an environmental organisation raising awareness about climate change. His performance and others from the event were released on the Pathway to Paris live album in July 2016. In June 2016, following the Orlando nightclub shooting, Yorke was one of almost 200 music industry figures to sign an open letter published in Billboard urging the United States Congress to impose stricter gun control.
For 23 years, Yorke was in a relationship with artist and lecturer Rachel Owen, whom he met at the University of Exeter. Owen studied fine art printmaking at Exeter, painting at the Accademia di Belle Arti of Florence, and completed a PhD degree at the University of London, researching the illustrations in Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. She and Yorke had a son Noah, born in 2001, and a daughter Agnes, born in 2004. In August 2015, the couple announced they had separated amicably "after 23 highly creative and happy years". Owen died of cancer on 18 December 2016.