San Francisco — LAST year, Thom Yorke was supposed to unwind. Radiohead, the band whose decade-long ascent has turned the singer into pop's definitive reluctant visionary, was on hiatus after a protracted cycle of recording and touring. Yorke was savoring the retreat from what he wryly calls "making RECORDS, in big capital letters," and the chance to reacquaint himself with his Oxford home, his longtime partner Rachel Owen and two young children. But instead of clearing a space for calm, Yorke found himself up to his neck in new thoughts.
"At my house, there's a room about this size," Yorke said, gesturing at the spacious suite in San Francisco's Clift Hotel where he sat discussing "The Eraser," the album he's releasing on July 10. "The entire room was just covered -- the whole floor, with notes and scraps of paper. A friend of mine came by just before we started recording, and he was just looking through it, laughing his head off, saying, how are you going to piece this together?"
Yorke's workroom mess, mirrored by the sonic "bits and bobs and shreds of all sorts of random chaos" on his laptop, gave him a sense of freedom he'd momentarily lost within Radiohead, which lands in L.A. for two nights at the Greek Theatre starting Thursday. In league with two longtime collaborators, the visual artist Stanley Donwood and producer Nigel Godrich, Yorke enclosed himself amid these fragments, shutting out other influences. "That's how you get that thing where a project has its own universe," he explained. "You say, well, everything in this room, that's all there is, that's all I've got."
The fruitful little island of disarray contrasted radically with the high-stakes mood surrounding Radiohead's most recent chart-topper, 2003's "Hail to the Thief," which left the band seriously in need of some elbow room. Made quickly, during a time when Yorke was becoming deeply involved with the environmentalist group Friends of the Earth, "The Eraser" is a return to focus for Yorke, whose energy had flagged under the weight of his band's outsized reputation.
"It was done in the context of Radiohead," he said, adding that he initially dreaded telling his bandmates he'd embarked on the effort. "The best thing about it was that it wasn't a problem. Of course it was fine. Why wouldn't it be?" That the band dynamic "is a liquid thing is very important."
On its current tour, Radiohead is playing a wide swath of favorites plus some exciting new material, perhaps enriched by the confidence Yorke says he's regained by making "The Eraser," which will be released on the super-hip independent label XL. Radiohead is one of pop's highest-profile free agents, having parted with EMI, the conglomerate that released its previous seven albums. "The Eraser" could be viewed as part of a larger move toward independence.
Asked whether Radiohead would consider distributing its next album independently, Yorke unhesitatingly said yes. "We have two or three options, and that's one," he said. "Once we finish whatever we think is good enough to put out, then we'll start thinking about it. We haven't discussed it a great deal. I would love for us to drop a chemical weapon within the music industry. But I don't see it as our responsibility, either."
In the meantime, there's "The Eraser" -- a project the labelresistant Yorke hates to label "solo." What began as a side trip into the abstract electronic music he loves became, to the singer's surprise, 40 minutes of remarkably powerful and direct music. Sure to be one of the year's critical and cult favorites, "The Eraser" is an evocative portrait of life made slippery by urban sprawl, murky political alliances and global warming -- and given hope through individual and communal resistance -- with the blips and bleeps of Yorke's laptop excursions coalescing into soulful, politically charged songs.
"It started out with loads and loads of beats and la la la," Yorke said, mocking his own obscurantist tendencies. "It was pretty intense and very, very heavy." Yorke's busman's holiday gave his producer a chance to highlight Yorke's poignant tenor and melodic sense. "In the midst of it all there were two or three things that made Nigel and me go, ooh, there's something really direct here. Someone might even understand it the first time around."
"In the band he's always finding ways to bury himself," Godrich said in a phone interview. "Being a big fan of his voice and his songs, I wanted to push that. It would have been sad if he'd just made an oblique record. But because it was predominantly electronic, I had a really good excuse to make his voice dry and loud."