Philip Selway
Photo by Phil Sharp

Philip Selway: “Allow yourself to be in the moment”

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Short Profile

Name: Philip James Selway
DOB: 23 May 1967
Place of birth: Oxfordshire, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Musician, singer, songwriter

Philip Selway's new album Strange Dance is out 24 February 2023 via Bella Union.

Mr. Selway, after over 30 years as the drummer for Radiohead and several successful solo albums, how would you describe the place you’re in as a musician today?

I would say simply that musically, I’m in a position that I'm enjoying probably more than ever before. I have an awful lot of outlets at the moment and each project that I've been involved in draws on something different, musically, from me and satisfies all the different musical itches that I have. I still have this sense of being far from finished, like there's still a lot to learn and a lot of music to make as well. And that's a great feeling, because otherwise you would just shut up shop and do something else, wouldn't you? It feels like a good place to be.

Do you think you would ever have felt this creatively and artistically fulfilled if you’d stayed just a member in a band?

I think you need to take the two together. That's what makes up my full creative access, because these projects are such different experiences. When we come back to Radiohead, I love doing that as well, but I’ve realized that drumming doesn't have to offer me absolutely everything, musically.

“There isn’t an instrument to hide behind. You’re singing, and it can feel quite vulnerable. But you also gain a greater understanding of yourself, and what you can bring to that role.”

Drummers are also often seen as being a bit more in the background of the band, even though for a project like Radiohead, the percussion elements are really foundational to your sound.

Sure, I mean, it’s a lovely position to occupy when you're on stage in the shows, because you're not center stage. You get that sense of connection when you're playing, but you’re also one of the background figures, you can observe what's going on around you and how the audience is responding. And that feeds back into my playing. It's been really interesting over this past decade making that transition from being at the back of the stage to the front of the stage.

I can imagine. What do you remember about the first time you went on stage as a solo artist?

I was petrified! (Laughs) And I think that kind of fear stays with you for quite a while because it's a whole different kind of stagecraft that you've got to learn. There isn't an instrument to hide behind. You’re singing, and it can feel quite vulnerable. But you also gain a greater understanding of yourself, and what you can bring to that role.

Did you also feel some pressure to meet the expectations of Radiohead fans?

Coming from Radiohead, of course that brings some expectations with it. Even with Radiohead, we had to deal with those expectations until we got to a point where people accept that you’re a band that can go anywhere. Each record was kind of a reaction to the last one, and we got into a very luxurious position where our fans understood and encouraged that in us. I'm very grateful to how people take on music in that way. So yes, there definitely can be those pressures that you're talking about, even more so as a solo artist. I remember those initial shows, going out and thinking that people have this impression of what a member of Radiohead should bring to this. And that was really scary. It was something that I really wrestled with.

How did you get through those fears?

The only way of doing it is by going out to do it. I kind of tried to hold my nerve with it and stuck with it. It’s kind of trusting in your process now, knowing that I’ve done this enough times where it has been really scary, but something does emerge from the darkness of self-doubt. I do feel more confident in that now. Self-doubt doesn’t ever go away, I think you just learn how to work alongside it.

Is that also how you approached things like singing and songwriting for your solo project? Was there an adjustment period there as well?

Yes, very much so! Coming into it, I knew I could sing in tune. But I didn't feel that my singing voice was at the same point as my drumming. I had a very distinctive drumming style, and that’s what I wanted to find in my singing — but I had a lot of doubt over whether that was even attainable. I remember on my first album, Familial, I sort of tried impersonating Beth Gibbons, you know, from Portishead? It started to gel more, it was like the first rung on the ladder, and that’s where my singing grew out of, I developed it from there.

“For me to find some kind of space where these songwriting ideas bubble up in me as they’re doing in Thom and the others… It’s really been an amazing process for me.”

You eventually decided to forego drumming entirely on your most recent album. Is that because you wanted to focus more on that development?

I'd actually started off drumming at the beginning of the sessions for Strange Dance, and I realized it just wasn't happening in the way I wanted it to. I'd spent a lot of time crafting the songs and getting them to that point that I hadn’t really thought about drumming to be honest with you. And as a consequence, I hadn't really been drumming myself either. I felt a bit off pace, my musical mind was focused elsewhere. I knew the textures that I wanted to be in there rhythmically, I had this idea that I wanted to make a record with a big soundscape to it, that is tall and broad, and that would accommodate many musical voices. I ended up asking the incredible drummer Valentina Magaletti, and she dropped this whole energy and life into the songs which I would have missed out on otherwise. It was kind of a blessing in disguise.

It must also be great to have this kind of creative control; where you can make decisions entirely on your own without needing to consult with bandmates.

Having that freedom, it’s kind of scary because it’s all coming from you. In Radiohead, it’s definitely a different process because I'm responding to what everybody else is doing, and then I'll bring drum ideas into the mix. It’s very much part of that collaboration. I think the way that we work in Radiohead is that Thom is is the principal songwriter, and he's amazing. So for me to find some kind of space where these songwriting ideas bubble up in me as they're doing in Thom and the others… It’s really been an amazing process for me. And then that feeds back into it when you go back into the band set up, it informs how you approach those projects.

It sounds like you’ve really found your ideal way of working, where songs are coming out very naturally.

Oh, absolutely. And the ideas that resonate the most are often the ones that have just bubbled up when you've been looking the other way, you know? Suddenly, you have an idea! That's brilliant. That's how I work, really, I don't sit down and think, “Right, I've got to write something today.” That doesn't produce the goods for me. It’s funny, I’ve been back on tour recently and I started to try and prepare a few things to say in between songs, but when you actually get on stage, it becomes a monologue instead of a dialogue. So instead, I’m trying to just relax into it more, to plan it less and let it bubble up in that same way. You have much better ideas. It feels like a much better process when you allow yourself to be in the moment.