"It was a dark place, and we realised we didn't want to go back there": is Radiohead's King Of Limbs not just their most underrated record, but the one that helped save them?

Radiohead The King Of Limbs artwork
(Image credit: Radiohead)

It's hard to imagine what it's like inside the eye of the Radiohead creative process; it evolves, it mutates… the band wilfully questions and reconfigures their comfort zones and roles. They are the definition of what a progressive band should be in many ways, And it gets results, mostly. 

Few would name their eighth album, The King Of Limbs, as a top three, even five, Radiohead album, but in a 2021 video interview with The Coda Collection's Greg Kot, producer Nigel Godrich was able to give us an insider's perspective on the way Radiohead worked on the material with him. And elsewhere, archive interviews with Radiohead themselves reveal the album as part of a much bigger arc. One that was possibly essential to their survival as a band.  

"The record is really interesting because the instigation of a lot of the music is through mechanised things and that's a very, very important part of the creative process," Godrich said. "I think that people's criticisms of it initially, which were fair enough, were that it didn't feel like a band."

In that sense, it feels like the spiritual successor to Kid A a decade before, only with the integration of electronic equipment and the layered sound manipulation it offered taken further. Too far for some.

The band pushed forward with the use of looping and intricate rhythmic interplay on the record, with the musicians encouraging each other to explore new possibilities with gear they had "no idea" how to use. 

"We had an initial session of five weeks, and it was really like the kids in the kindergarten," guitarist Ed O'Brien told NPR. "It's really interesting because what it forces you to do is you had to simplify what you were doing, you couldn't do loads of ideas. Probably one of the most important things is you had to listen to one another. Believe it or not that's also something in a band that you can lose – you can get so wrapped up in what you're doing, you're not listening to what other people are doing. So Nigel was very keen that we start listening to one another, and it kind of helps when you make a record believe it or not."

"Yeah, I mean, it was an experiment," added Thom Yorke in the same chat. "I didn't think we really genuinely thought anything would come out of it, certainly not an entire record."

Radiohead live in 2011

Radiohead performing live on Saturday Night Live, 24 September 2011  (Image credit: Getty Images)

Opener Bloom's layered drums and bass elements revealed the results of Radiohead's new approaches. "Almost every tune is like a collage," Thom Yorke explained to NPR. "Tthings we'd pre-recorded, each of us, and then were flying at each other. You get to a point where you think, 'OK, this bit needs a big black line through it.' It's like editing a film or something. It was interesting – the melodies were there but so much was implied so when you did embellish it, it was like, woah. It would really come out of itself." 

Godrich's role cannot be overstated – his work with Radiohead on every record since 1995's The Bends (where he engineered alongside producer John Leckie) has seen him hailed as a sixth member. And the band concurs.

"I'd say there's seven members of the band – there's him and there's also [artist and Yorke's old college friend] Stanley Donwood," Thom Yorke reflected to Austin City Limits. "Basically, the most fun we ever have is when we're all together doing music… getting messed up and having a good time. That's the best and it's always been like that.

Everyone is trying to search for something new all the time – including Nigel

Thom Yorke

"What Nigel brings to it is basically the mirror to what we're doing," added Yorke. "Sometimes he'll say he doesn't get something so we have to force him through it, or sometimes he's right… you have to have someone on the other end of the speakers. 

"You can't be both heads – it's impossible. But we've kind of grown up together, and maybe for other people that might be a bad thing but actually for us it's a good thing because none of us is really thinking how wonderful we are. Everyone is trying to search for something new all the time – including Nigel. It's the best thing for all of us, I think."

While it may not have a high count of live fan-favourites in terms of songs compared to other records (Bloom is the most performed track from the album with 136 appearances in their live setlist, but is still only their 40th most played song), the relative scarcity of its material's performances could be down to the rhythmic demands of some of The King Of Limbs material.

It saw the band bring in a second live drummer, Clive Deamer (Portishead), during 2011. This delivered what drummer Phillip Selway described as some of the "push-and-pull" required to deliver Radiohead's most rhythmically ambitious material live with one drummer playing traditionally, and the other "almost mimicked a drum machine".

The record's use of samples and loops presented live performance challenges elsewhere, like the period following Kid A had done, too. 

"We didn't have a clue how we were going to play a lot of it," Yorke admitted to NPR. "And then, like, learning to play it allows you to back into it in another way as well, especially after the initial sort of, 'What the hell is that thing?'

"So, I mean, and in some ways that's one of the ways we move on musically. It's quite interesting, like, having to force ourselves to learn this thing. It's like a backwards process but it really exists then in another way."

There's no better insight into the new life The King Of Limb's songs would find in the live environment than when Radiohead appeared on Godrich's own From The Basement series. The band, including Deamer, performed the album's eight tracks, as well as the songs Staircase and The Daily Mail that were released as a separate double A-sides, likewise the song Supercollider (released with The Butcher). 

The whole kind of arc and the way everything worked was perfect because they went away and worked out how to play it.

Nigel Godrich

The hour-long performance doesn't just showcase of the musicianship that defines Radiohead's reputation as one of rock's most beguiling live acts, it elevates the King Of Limbs material with a new urgency and emotional impact. 

Radiohead tackle the challenges of performing the material headlong – on a stunning performance of opener Bloom, Selway, Deamer and Greenwood are on drums. By this point the Electro-Harmonix Hog Octave Generator had become a key part of Greenwood's guitar rig, and used as a vital element of the song Separator. 

"The whole kind of arc and the way everything worked was perfect because they went away and worked out how to play it, took it on tour for a bit and then we could go back in a room and play it," Godrich told The Coda Collective. "So to capture that band version of it… I think it was a really great way of doing it actually. And also reflected very well on the show, From The Basement, because it really showed the strength of that."

The Daily Mail is a song we had kicking around since 2005.

Ed O'Brien

The brevity of the recorded album and the need to play a longer set Basement show actually prompted the recording release of The Daily Mail and Staircase, too. One argument amongst fans is that The King Of Limbs would have been enhanced with those songs in the tracklisting (or even other 2011 double A-side Supercollider / The Butcher) but they simply weren't finished until after the album was recorded. 

"We got Staircase together, which was a song that we jammed and worked out during King Of Limbs but we didn't take it from its basic stages and develop it into a full-blown song," Ed O'Brien told Reactor FM in 2012.  "The Daily Mail is a song we had kicking around since 2005, and it hadn't worked for whatever reason, and then literally within ten minutes that song was worked [out]." Instead, all four songs remain strong outsiders – akin to the work The Beatles would leave off their albums. 

The idea that The King Of Limbs is Radiohead's 'weakest' album is obviously subjective and relative, then, reminding us of the standards the band set themselves and our own expectations of them. Moreover, the album was part of Radiohead's salvation - the sight of Thom Yorke dancing while wearing a bowler hat in the Lotus Flower video may have been jarring for those who didn't realise the band had a lighter, more carefree side, but inside the band the changes on that side of things had been much deeper.   

Wth OK Computer we entered this quite dark space, this quite dark era.

Ed O'Brien

"We always keep moving," O'Brien told Mexico's Reactor FM while on tour in 2012, "and I think what happened was, with OK Computer we entered this quite dark space, this quite dark era – it was like being in a tunnel. And we were in that tunnel for OK Computer, Amnesiac, Hail To The Thief... we thought we were out but we weren't, and [for] In Rainbows part of the struggle was getting out of the tunnel. 

"Once we released the album we felt like we were out of that tunnel, and it was dark – it was a dark place, and we realised we didn't want to go back there, because we'd been there a long time and it can be very, very creative, but it kills you as a person. It's very hard. It takes it out of you. It's not a good place to be, and musically it gets boring as well because you make a certain type of music. We are now in a much lighter place. It's different and it's flowing."

It's about love - it's about joy and love and lightness.

Ed O'Brien

In this context, the making and touring of The King Of Limbs were crucial to the transition required for Radiohead to continue as a band.

"In order to be where we are now, we could have only been in the darkness [to] appreciate it," O'Brien said. "So this is like a new era of Radiohead, and it has been for probably the last two years or so."

This was the start of Radiohead Mark 3. "Mark 1 was Pablo Honey to OK Computer," explained O'Brien in the same interview. "Mark 2 was Kid A through to the recording of In Rainbows. And then Mark 3 has been a transition the last two years from where we were in Mark 2, and now we're not in the heart of it but it's about love - it's about joy and love and lightness. And that's where we are in Radiohead Mark 3."

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.