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Philip Selway Personal Best header

Philip Selway's Personal Best

14 March 2023, 13:00

To mark the recent release of his third solo album, Strange Dance, Philip Selway takes Lee Campbell on a journey through the five most defining songs and performances of his career.

Since 1985, Philip Selway has been the unorthodox, rhythmic heartbeat of one of the world’s most influential bands, Radiohead.

After 25 years, he bravely stepped out from behind his drum riser to introduce himself as a solo artist with the intimate acoustic reflections of 2010’s Familial – a gentle start, and the beginnings of what he calls his “trilogy.”

Selway says he always had the idea to complete three albums on his own and see where the cards fell after that. “I’ve been a big Nick Drake fan, and he made three albums, so that felt like a good number,” he explains. “Strange Dance feels like the conclusion of that initial plan. It draws upon everything that I’ve learnt including all of the musical relationships that I’ve built up over a decade of solo material.”

Those relationships include Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley, multi-instrumentalist Katherine Mann (better known as Quinta), cellist and composer Laura Moody, and Emmy and Mercury Prize nominee Hannah Peel. But perhaps the biggest surprise is Vanishing Twin’s Valentina Magaletti, who Selway brought in to do all the drumming and percussion. “I started to drum during the sessions, but it wasn’t happening quite as I wanted it to,” he explains.

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Having changed direction early on in the project, the decision to bring Magaletti on board provided Selway with the freedom and perspective that he needed to really drive the album forward. “It was liberating,” he says. “Valentina came at it from a different angle, which brought all this life into the material."

“Instead of scrutinising the drum tracks, as I would if I put them down myself, I was able to respond immediately to the marvellous rhythm tracks that she was putting together, without the anxiety of thinking, ‘I must do better.’ To me, that felt much more in the spirit of me being in the overview role on the record.”

Selway compares his music to the kind of supportive conversation you might have with a close friend. “I wanted Strange Dance to have this intimacy, but also this soundscape so that you could wrap it around you,” he says. “I wanted the vocals to almost sound like pillow-talk. It’s a one-to-one conversation in a big orchestral hall.”

When considering which songs he feels are the most defining of his musical world, Selway goes as wide as possible, including his soundtrack work, a life-changing experience playing with Neil Finn and his 7 Worlds Collide project, his major role in the upcoming Lanterns on the Lake album, and, of course, the drumming masterclass of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song”.

"Strange Dance" by Philip Selway (2023)

PHILIP SELWAY: I remember the conversation with Valentina quite vividly. When the song came into the sessions it was a piano ballad, so I thought perhaps it could be like a Tom Waits track, somewhere around “Closing Time”. Then the Tom Waits conversation developed and we landed on something more like “Bone Machine”. We thought it would be good if it had that rhythmic feel.

Within about seven takes Valentina had put together this incredible sounding rhythm track. Adrian Utley prepared his guitar and put some sort of fork implement in amongst the strings to give this almost delayed sound on there. That really gelled with what Valentina was doing and provided that bed to build up all of those other sounds on top of it.

Hannah Peel then came in and found this discordant, ethereal vocal line going through there. Hannah works extremely quickly. Her work over the past few years really fed into how I’d been thinking about music, so it felt like coming full circle to have Hannah there, making her magic. That then tied in very beautifully with what Laura Moody was trying with her string arrangements.

I also worked with a choir leader called Juliet Russell, who I did my degree with actually, way back. She helped to pull in those choral elements. For me, this song really showcased bringing in all of those different musical voices together. The way that they meshed together sounded like a very unique musical soundscape. It really represents the philosophy behind the collaboration. I’m so made up about how it turned out, because it’s a long way from where it started as a song.

I had a handful of lines in there coming into it like the couplets on the chorus, but a lot of it was just a mumble. The title itself was the final element that came into place. Once that title was agreed, it then pulled in all of these other lyrical ideas together. It made sense of the whole album.

BEST FIT: So the title track is almost like a microcosm of the album as a whole?

Absolutely yeah, just that sense of trying to marry up all these seemingly irreconcilable elements in your life. But you can find a path through that, and it’s about the contortions that you go through to find that path.

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"Pyramid Song" by Radiohead (2001)

PHILIP SELWAY: I remember the day of that session. It’s a stunning song that Thom [Yorke] brought in.

I was having real difficulties with it at first. I was trying to figure out the count, what kind of kick textures should be in there. There was a lot of scrambling around to try and find a way into it. But once I had disengaged that side of my brain and was just responding to Thom’s piano, to his singing, to the pushes and pulls, the drumming pattern then started to fall into place.

Compared with the start of the session where I just felt like I was the most clueless player on the planet, a couple of hours in I could really feel something starting to emerge. Yeah, I guess I clutched victory from the jaws of defeat [laughs].

To be honest, all Radiohead songs are challenging in their own way. That’s the nature of how we work as a band. Each song is like a puzzle. You have to learn something more or new to be able to do it. It’s different when you’re a session player and you have every fill and groove at your disposal. With Radiohead, you’re always trying to figure out how you are gonna do it. There are always key lyrics in the song that I will pick up on, such as the “black-eyed angels” lyric in “Pyramid Song”, which is really powerful. That one, for me, was something I could respond to in my drumming.

It’s really difficult to single out a Radiohead song. It could have been a number of them, really. I feel that “Pyramid Song” is what people think of when they think of a drumming voice from me. It’s a reference point for people. It feels very much me in that drumming.

The music of Radiohead is always there, it’s a constant to me, as I think it is for the others. It’s so central to who I am musically and feels very close to my heart.

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"The Likes of Us" by Lanterns on the Lake (2023)

PHILIP SELWAY: I hadn’t drummed for a while but within the space of a week last August I had two phone calls. The first one was from James Yorkston with The Second Hand Orchestra asking if I would deputise for their drummer on a UK tour. Then Lanterns on the Lake got in touch to see if I would play on a new record that they were working on.

Playing with The Second Hand Orchestra really reignited my love of playing drums, and I think the enthusiasm I felt coming off that tour really fed into my playing on the Lanterns record. We had done shows together before, and they are labelmates on Bella Union. They were brilliant to work with. They gave me a very open, creative brief. They just said, “Be yourself on the tracks, because that’s what we would like.”

I think it’s an absolutely stunning album. It comes out in June. Sometimes you come across artists at a time when they’ve really hit their stride. That’s what this record feels like. It was a wonderful project to work on, and I’m looking forward to going out to do shows with them later on in the year.


"She Will Have Her Way (Live from 7 Worlds Collide)" by Neil Finn & Friends

PHILIP SELWAY: This show was incredible. Prior to this, for about 15 years, the only musical experience I had was in Radiohead. We had played exclusively with each other up until that point, so this was a total crash course in working with all of these different musicians, including Johnny Marr, Eddie Vedder, Lisa Germano, Sebastian Steinberg, Tim Finn, and of course Neil Finn. I remember being quite overwhelmed for the first few days.

BEST FIT: Were there a lot of egos in the room?

Actually, everyone just checked their egos in at the door. It was a very supportive atmosphere. That in itself felt like a real learning experience for me. Neil fosters this very collaborative atmosphere in the rehearsal room and in the studio. It was a big learning curve, but it planted the seed for me to start thinking about my own solo material, even though it was still very nascent at the time.

At the second Seven Worlds Collide project in 2009, which involved time in the studio, Neil heard me playing some of my songs around the studio and said that I should record them. So I did. I recorded two tracks for those sessions, and that was a huge leap forward for me that then formed the basis of me recording Familial. Lisa Germano and Sebastian Steinberg both worked on that album with me and were incredible.

The Seven Worlds Collide projects just opened up my whole world, musically. I will be forever grateful to Neil Finn for that. For me, it’s never been about being a ‘solo artist’, but more about writing and performing my own songs.

When we played “She Will Have Her Way” live, it all came into focus. There was something that happened suddenly between all of these musicians, and there was a real joy in playing it. In the space of only a few days of playing together, we felt we had a real identity, and you can feel that coming across in the recording.

We referred to it at the time as “player’s favourite.” That whole time in New Zealand was one of the finer experiences in my musical life.


"Let Me Go (Live for Eid Global Celebration)" by Philip Selway (2020)

PHILIP SELWAY: I’d started talking with a film director called Polly Steele and a producer called Lizzie Pickering. Polly had been writing the screenplay for this movie, Let Me Go, for a decade and they were ready to go into production. I was initially in a kind of music supervisor role. Then, further down the track, they asked me if I would consider writing the score for it.

I had never done that type of work for a film before, so I was a little nervous about getting involved. I initially turned it down a couple of times as I was petrified of doing it. However, eventually I thought I would give it a go, and it was a brilliant experience to be able to respond to all the different disciplines that go into making a film.

I found it to be a really rich, creative experience. The music started to flow – a mix of instrumental pieces and songs, one of which was “Let Me Go”, which features as an instrumental in the film itself. Working on the soundtrack also strengthened some of my musical relationships that I had, particularly with Laura Moody, who worked with me on the string arrangements.

This particular version was for an Eid celebration in Oxford during lockdown in 2020. It was online, so I went into Evolution Studios in Oxford [to stream it]. Interestingly, previously I’d felt that I had been singing in too high a register, and singing in a lower register felt much more grounded and expressive for me.

Putting this song into another key opened up a whole other aspect of the performance side of it, and really informed where I went vocally when it came to recording Strange Dance.

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Strange Dance is out now on Bella Union Records. A European tour starts 5 May in Paris, France.

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