As the drummer with Radiohead, Philip Selway headlined Glastonbury, was in the first band to sell out Coachella, and saw the band inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This December he’s playing The Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh as part of James Yorkston’s Tae Sup Wi a Fifer, reinterpreting songs from his third solo album Strange Dance for guitar and piano.
You’ve played some of the biggest stages in the world. When you’re going into smaller venues, like Mareel in Shetland or Eden Court in Inverness, is that a skill you have to relearn?
I guess it’s been part and parcel of learning the stagecraft from a different part of the stage anyway, for me. Thinking back to when Radiohead started, the kind of venues that we were playing then are very similar to what I’ve been doing these past few years with my material. That’s where you have that very immediate connection with the audience; you’re fast-track learning your craft there, I think. And you see what works and what doesn’t, so for me, that’s been a really invaluable experience. And they’re just lovely venues. Each venue has a very distinct personality, and that grows out of a handful of people who do everything there and bring out the best in those performance spaces, and the community that builds up around them.
I love playing in those venues, and The Queen’s Hall as well – wow, I’m so looking forward to that. I was delighted when James suggested it. It’s steeped in some fantastic history, that place. You kind of soak that up when you’re in venues like that.
You’ve reinterpreted the songs on Strange Dance for Live At Evolution Studios with string quartet Elysian Collective, and now again in an even more minimal presentation. Does this process help you get to the essence of them?
Yeah, absolutely. I think also, having spent so much time in that world this past year and in its different guises, that I understand the material a lot more now. I know it sounds bizarre when you’ve kind of written the material in the first place, but I think it really takes time for that to all filter through and for you to really get an insight into what you’ve done. And actually there’ll be songs, they’re making sense as you’re writing them, but in some instances it takes about six or seven months of living with them in their finished form.
When I started out making Strange Dance, I wanted the starting point to be having confidence in the songs in their bare-bones versions. And with this show, it’s allowing it to come back to that starting point but at the end of the process, which feels lovely, actually.
You made the decision not to play drums on the album. How did you go about finding Valentina Magaletti?
I started out playing drums on the record and it just wasn’t happening. I gave it about a day and a half, but I hadn’t been playing that much and my head was very much in the overview of the arrangements. I kind of knew how I wanted the drums to sound, texturally. So speaking with Marta [Salogni, producer], she’d been doing a lot of work with Valentina and she said, actually, what you’re describing is Valentina’s playing. Ah, she’s just the most incredible player. She comes from that experimental jazz background, orchestral playing; she’s got a really versatile range in what she does, but at the core of it there’s this very distinctive voice as well. So, yeah, I’m glad I wasn’t up to the gig myself, because I’d have missed out on Valentina.
I really loved your interpretation of ‘Fly’ on [Nick Drake tribute album] The Endless Coloured Ways.
I couldn’t quite believe it when I got the invitation in the first place. Nick Drake is one of those artists that has been very important to me. All his albums, his music, I’ve internalised it a lot. It means a huge amount to me. It was quite daunting because I chose a song I love; it’s one of my favourite pieces of music. Suddenly you feel this real responsibility to the song and to the memory of Nick Drake as a songwriter. But I got over that, once I started thinking of it as okay, so if I’d written this song, how would I approach it? So with that track I approached Valentina again; it’s a lot of the key people that I’d worked with on Strange Dance. So Adrian Utley and Quinta and Laura Moody. It is a pinch-me moment, being invited to do something like that.
You’re an ambassador for the Samaritans. What led you to that?
I’ve been involved with Samaritans one way or another since 1986, when I went to do my degree at Liverpool Polytechnic. There was something about it that really resonated with me, and so I became a listening volunteer with Samaritans and Nightline up in Liverpool. And when I came back to Oxford, I retrained there and I was a listening volunteer there for about 15 years. It’s the most incredible set-up and the most incredible people who are there. Just that sense of complete privilege, of being invited into people’s lives with that level of trust.
I think back to 1986: it was quite a big year for me, with hindsight, because at the beginning of it, I joined On a Friday, which became Radiohead. Come the autumn, I became a Samaritan, and it’s also where I met my wife. So these three big influences on me as an adult, they all happened in that year. That was a powerful time. And Oxford United won the League Cup as well.
Philip Selway plays Tae Sup wi a Fifer at The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on 1st December, with James Yorkston, Nina Persson, and Marjolein Robertson. Tickets here.
The album Live At Evolution Studios is out on 8th December.