Jonny Greenwood: ‘I’m still arsing around on instruments like when I was a kid’

Jonny Greenwood: ‘I’m still arsing around on instruments like when I was a kid’

Jonny Greenwood is in the studio in his Oxfordshire home, surrounded by a cornucopia of weird and wonderful instruments. He almost trips over a stray autoharp while walking around the room on a video call, showing me his pianos, his ondes Martenots, his recorders of different sizes, his guitars, a tambura, a steel-strung harp and any number of stringed instruments, including a secondhand cello that he has named Steven Bennett (after a previous owner, who left his school name tag on the instrument).

“This room is my teenage fantasy come true,” he says. “As a kid I’d go past music shops and wish I could own every instrument there and play them whenever I wanted. I’m lucky enough to be in that position now.”

His latest obsession, however, is one instrument that doesn’t fit into this studio: the church organ. His fascination started when visiting churches around Le Marche, the region of Italy where Greenwood, his wife and their three children live when he’s not making music in Oxfordshire. In 2016, not long after he moved there, an earthquake destroyed many buildings across central Italy, and Greenwood became involved in charity campaigns to rebuild them. He was lucky enough, he says, to befriend a local mayor, who invited him to visit churches around the region to explore what needed repair.

Performing with Radiohead in 2017.View image in fullscreen

“There were many ancient church organs that needed restoration,” he says. “I was able to actually play some of these amazing medieval instruments. The internal parts – what they call the ‘brain’ – are these incredibly complex pieces of technology. These huge machines, created centuries ago, were tackling the same challenges of synthesis and sampling and sound reproduction that we struggle with today.”

It has inspired Greenwood’s latest commission, a church organ piece premiered next week at the Norfolk & Norwich festival. Of course, this being Greenwood, there’s nothing straightforward about it – he’s written an ambient, drone-based piece that’s eight hours long, and sees organists James McVinnie and Eliza McCarthy playing in shifts. On this occasion it is called 268 Years of Reverb, but the number of years changes depending on the age of the church in which it is being performed.

“I love the idea that these ancient churches have centuries of sounds that have almost soaked into the walls and the organ pipes,” says Greenwood. “Just looking around those Italian churches, you saw organs that summon up remarkable histories. Some of them have double sets of black keys, so the F sharp and the G flat keys are slightly different – as it would be in natural temperament. Some have keys which play percussion. One church in Comunanza, near the Sibillini mountains, has an organ with a little water tank that enables the organist to make this burbling noise that imitates birdsong. There was another church where Mozart is supposed to have visited and played the organ, so we were all rubbing the keys excitedly! Every church organ on Earth will have years of history embedded in it.”

Radiohead photographed in New York 1997: (l to r) Phil Selway, Colin Greenwood, Thom Yorke, Ed O’Brien and Jonny GreenwoodView image in fullscreen

Greenwood is talking to me from the room where he writes and arranges for Radiohead, and where he’s worked on dozens of film soundtracks – since 2007, he’s become Hollywood’s go-to guy for tense psychological-drama scores, working extensively with the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Lynne Ramsay and Jane Campion.

What makes Greenwood such a fascinating musician is not only that he works in so many genres, but that each seems to inform the other. In recent months he has completed an album with the Israeli-Arab bandleader Dudu Tassa, written string arrangements for the Pretenders, and released an album with the Smile, his extracurricular trio with Radiohead bandmate Thom Yorke and jazz drummer Tom Skinner.

He has also been exploring the Carnatic music of India, something that has fed into his organ project. “A friend has been teaching me about Indian melodies. He explained that when a Carnatic soloist plays an improvised melody, they’ll start with one note, then bring in a second, and play the two for a long time, so the arrival of a third note is a huge breaking of tension. It’s not about being meditative or relaxing, there’s a real sense of excitement. That’s what I’m trying to do with my organ piece. The organ is serving as a tambura, the drone instrument in Indian music, but unlike the tambura, it’s constantly shifting.”

Four of the films Greenwood has scored: clockwise from top left: The Phantom Thread, Spencer, There Will be Blood and The Power of the Dog.View image in fullscreen

The score requires the organist to play to a stopwatch, playing and releasing notes at specific points. Notating eight hours of music required an unorthodox way of writing music. This isn’t unusual for Greenwood’s compositions, which often require intricate graphic notation to explain the microtonality and improvisation he embeds into his scores. A piece he wrote in response to his hero Krzysztof Penderecki’s Polymorphia, for instance, saw him placing an oak leaf on a musical stave and plotting a musical part by using the veins on the leaf, while his celebrated score for the 2007 film There Will Be Blood saw him write subtly different parts for all 20 violinists in the orchestra.

“I love the fact that one violinist can get thousands of sounds out of a note, just from how they finger it, how they bow it, how they phrase it. You multiply that by two players, or five players, and it becomes an exponential thing of complexity, even if they’re playing something quite simple.

“The first commission I got from the BBC Concert Orchestra, I remember getting the names of the players, and writing them above my desk. That helped to personalise things. I thought, right, this is a band now, not 12 faceless violin players and 12 faceless viola players and so on. And I think that encouraged me to write for all of them individually.”

Conversation with Greenwood about music will shift from one genre to another with ease. He explains how he listens obsessively to every new Bach release on Apple Music; he remembers how, in preteen years, he and his brother, Radiohead bassist Colin, annoyed their older sister by playing her copy of X-Ray Spex’s Germfree Adolescents 20 times in a day; he explains how his introduction to jazz was hearing Courtney Pine’s second LP in his mid teens; he evangelises about the genius of Dennis Bovell’s reggae pioneers Matumbi, and laments how their 1980s EMI releases are, scandalously, not available on any streaming services.

At the 2018 Academy Awards, where his music for Phantom Thread was nominated for Best Original Score. (l to r) Maya Rudolph, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jonny Greenwood and Sharona Katan.View image in fullscreen

Greenwood sees himself as incredibly fortunate to have received free music tuition from his local education authority (“all long wiped out by cuts, of course”), and draws upon his musical training in everything he does. But, at the same time, he hates any attempts made to privilege any one genre of music over another, and is wary of education being “associated with insincerity or coldness”, or untutored music being seen as “authentic”.

“I think a lot about that Sex Pistols album, Never Mind the Bollocks. How carefully it was recorded, how precisely it was arranged. Chris Thomas [the classically trained violinist who produced the album] was obsessed with placing mics in the right place, recording cleanly, and getting the band constantly to keep their instruments in tune. Even something that is supposed to be the embodiment of heads-down rock’n’roll is actually something incredibly precise.”

Greenwood’s own work has always seemed to draw inspiration from a post-punk sensibility that exploits deliberate mistakes and imprecisions, something that chimes with the experimental edge of contemporary composition. “I remember having violin lessons at a primary school in Abingdon, where one young teacher started a lesson by asking us to make a sound out of our instrument, ‘but not the one you know how to make’. This might have baffled some of the kids, but it really worked on me. I remember putting the bow under the strings and playing the G and E string together, and thinking this was amazing. I’m still arsing around on instruments in a similar way today.”

In Radiohead, Greenwood would create his own Heath Robinson-style drum kits using yoghurt cartons, boxes and bells, or he’d rig up electronic kits using white noise for hi-hats. While performing Everything in Its Right Place, he sampled Thom Yorke’s voice in real time and manipulated it using a Kaoss Pad. For his soundtrack to Jane Campion’s 2021 movie The Power of the Dog, he picked up a cello and started playing it like a banjo. On the remarkable soundtrack to the same year’s Spencer, he recorded himself playing a harpsichord, but compressed the sound so heavily that the ambient clicks and echoes were as loud as the notes.

Press shot of Jonny Greenwood with his face resting in his hand, behind him wood veneer wall covering.View image in fullscreen

Yet Greenwood’s work is certainly not always wilfully avant garde. His Oscar-nominated score for 2017’s Phantom Thread featured some unashamedly romantic arrangements for strings and piano, much of it borrowing from techniques learned from Nelson Riddle’s manual for arranging. One of them, the heart-tugging House of Woodcock, has even become something of a TikTok and Instagram meme, used to accompany nostalgic reveries or footage of luxury locations. Greenwood sounds surprised to hear this. “That’s hilarious! It was written without guile. It’s not supposed to be a pastiche – those soaring strings are unashamedly beautiful, and one can’t help but find the music very affecting. Although even saying this makes me feel terribly pink and stiff and English.”

What other plans are there? Greenwood wants to revive his contemporary classical vinyl label Octatonic Records, with a release later this year from the cellist Oliver Coates. He will soon be starting a mammoth tour of European arenas with the Smile. And he’s already started work on the next Paul Thomas Anderson film (rumoured to be starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Sean Penn and Alana Haim), which will be their sixth collaboration, as well as another film with a different director. “I’m incredibly lucky that Paul indulges me and gives me so much time to experiment and compose,” he says. “That’s not usually the case in Hollywood, where the soundtrack writers are often very far down the food chain, and are sometimes given only a couple of days to bash out a complete score.”

And as for Radiohead? “Well, the Smile are on tour, Ed is making another solo record, Colin is playing bass with Nick Cave – they’ve just done five sold-out nights at the Sydney Opera House – so lots of music is being made. Just not as Radiohead. We’re still talking all the time, we just need to make a plan and get some time together sorted out in advance. I’ve never been very good at that. Too busy dicking around in this studio.”