O’Brien (with his Gibson ES-335) and Jonny Greenwood (with his mid-’70s Fender Starcaster) onstage at a 2010 benefit concert for Haiti at the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles. Photo by Lindsey Best
Rickenbackers have been a mainstay for a long time, too. What drew you to them?
I like the look of them! I mean, seriously—that was a big part. Also, they are iconic guitars, particularly in sort of the British lineage of bands, starting with the Beatles. For me, it was Paul Weller and the Jam, playing his Rickenbacker. That was a really iconic image. And Johnny Marr played a Rickenbacker in the earlier days. Then, of course, Peter Buck—that was his thing. I was a huge R.E.M. fan. Rickenbackers are expensive guitars, so when we got the record deal and I got the advance from EMI, I had a Squier Strat that I bought as a kid. We were all allowed to buy one guitar. Jonny bought his Tele Plus. Thom bought a Tele, and I was always going to buy a Rickenbacker. I used it a lot on Pablo Honey, The Bends, and I was still using it on OK Computer. “No Surprises” is the Rickenbacker with a capo. It’s a very distinctive sound—I still love it. I’ve been in the studio [recording] my own stuff, and I’ve still got a Rick 6 and a Rick 12 there.
Was your first one a 6- or a 12-string?
It was a 6. I have to be honest—I really struggle with the 12. The neck is so narrow, and it's a dog to play. I would love it if, someday, Rickenbacker did a 12-string that was actually really nice to play. I’ve got two 12s, and they’re just horrible. But they have a certain sound. It'd be really nice if they were nice to play and had that sound.
When you look back at your career—from the On a Friday days up to now—what strikes you most about your evolution as a musician?
I guess that I kept going, really. I literally learned to play my instrument within the band, so I started off very limited—and I’m still very limited. But I’ve been lucky, because I’ve been in a band that has not required you to be a virtuoso. It’s about doing something different. I think I’ve always enjoyed … I love sound. I think that’s the thing overall: I love sound. To me, as much as Brian Eno has been a huge influence, I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been allowed—within the band, but also with the amount of great gear that is available now—to do the things that inspire me and make me happy. I’ve been very lucky.
Longtime fans probably feel like they have a handle on the guitar dynamic between you, Thom, and Jonny, but what are the most salient differences from your standpoint?
If you want to reduce it to its simplistic terms, I think Thom is a great rhythm guitarist—an amazing rhythm guitarist. Jonny is a great lead guitarist. And I’m sort of in between. I’m the sweeper. I sweep up the shavings. I do a bit of rhythm, I do a bit of textural stuff. A lot of the time, if a song’s being written on guitar [by Thom], then there’s already a rhythm part there—there’s a whole lot of room taken up. If he’s written with Jonny, usually Jonny’s worked out some kind of part.
By the time it gets to the rest of us, there’s only a certain amount of room left. That’s been good for me—it’s been challenging. At times you go, like, “What the fuck am I going to do?” Ultimately, the band’s not a welfare state. If you don't come up with something that serves the song, then you’re not going to play on it. That’s the bottom line. It’s kind of ruthless in that respect. But that’s also a good challenge, because it keeps you out of your comfort zone.
Do you feel like your journey into pedal experimentation, particularly post-OK Computer, was a natural evolution, a result of an epiphany along the way, or more of a survival measure to find a place in the changing landscape?
It’s a bit of all of those things. Firstly there’s a hunger—I was always inspired by sound. There’s a bit of “that’s what the music needed.” There’s a bit of “that was my space.” And, to be frank, there’s a bit of “now I can afford to buy some pedals.” I remember when we made OK Computer … The Bends started it off a bit, but when we made OK Computer, I was so euphoric really, because suddenly all these things that I felt about sound and that I loved, I could bring into the music. And I think it served the music really well. It was definitely a natural evolution. A bit of inspiration, a bit of fear, a bit of everything.
When you guys were recording OK Computer, did any of you have any inkling what an iconic record it was going to be?
No, obviously not. You can never know how a culture’s going to judge it. But I do know that, when we were making it, I felt like we were making something really magical. There were some challenging times, but overall the sounds were in alignment on that record. When we were making it, some of the takes we did, like “Let Down” and “Climbing up the Walls,” were pretty much live takes. There were these moments when we were like, “Oh my god, did we just play that?”
Of course, you never know. You hope that other people feel that magic that you feel. Obviously the reaction, how it was received, was off the scale, really. It was interesting, because it was like that straight out of the doors. I remember the last time I read a review, it was an NME review, and it gave it 9 out of 10 and said it was an extraordinary piece of work. I thought, well, this is the last review that I read, because I don’t like the way it has an effect on me. It’s pumping up my ego and our collective ego. I think I’ll just quietly not read these anymore. It was extraordinary the way it was received. But, you know, a lot of it’s timing.
A notorious pedal collector, O’Brien says the stomp that’s “just blowing my mind at the moment” is Hologram Electronics’ Infinite Jets, which tracks dynamics, samples your playing, and “reinterprets” it via two channels of infinite sustain.
Do you have any favorite pedal recipes that you’ve come up with—combinations that are the most fun for you to play—or does that change over time?
It changes. I think we’re lucky. We’re living in an era of extraordinary pedals. I have a basic pedalboard that I love. I’ve got a Cali76 compressor [by Origin Effects]. I’ve got a Kingsley boost called the Page. I’ve always got a DigiTech Whammy. I’m big into delays. Catalinbread has done an amazing job with the Belle Epoch Deluxe. It’s [a replica of] the [Echoplex] EP-3. It sounds so great. I also really like what Joel [Korte]’s doing at Chase Bliss Audio. He’s doing some really, really great stuff.
It’s tweak-o-rama with all those DIP switches, huh?
Yes, bonkersly deep. But the one that is just blowing my mind at the moment is the Hologram [Electronics] Infinite Jets [Resynthesizer] pedal. Do you know that?
Oh my god! You have to google it. It’s an extraordinary pedal. Just brilliant.And they’ve got another pedal [Dream Sequence]. That one is off the scale. I’m really getting to enjoy digging deep on that. I also wanted to mention one other thing I’m using, apart from the pedals. I’m using these Audio Kitchen amps by a guy called Steve Crow in London, and they are truly extraordinary. I’ve used them on the road, and they’ve been amazing this last year. I’ve been using them in the studio, and they are extraordinary beasts. Amazing. I’ve got the Little Chopper, the Big Chopper, and the Base Chopper—Nathan East was using that on my session, and he loved it.
Are you using those in addition to the Fender Vibro-Kings you’ve been using since 2011 or so?
Well, our soundman complained about the Vibro-Kings, because they were so loud. I was forced to find an alternative. In doing so, I found these Audio Kitchen amps. Obviously the Vibro-Kings are extraordinary amps, but you know how guitarists are. We like a change sometimes.
Last question: Stereotypically, at least, guitarists are infamously obsessed with gear, technique, “holy grail” tones, and other technical minutiae—I suspect that’s at least partly why you, Jonny, and Thom haven’t been super eager to talk to guitar magazines over the years.
Yeah, totally. You’re right.
If you could collectively grab these kinds of guitarists by the shoulders, give them a bit of a shake, and offer them a bit of advice, what would it be?
Just do your thing. Be original. And be inspired. All the great stuff comes out of inspiration, doesn’t it? A lot of guitarists like to play blues: If you’re going to play blues, dig deep. Try and do something different with it. We were always inspired by people like Sonic Youth—the way they kind of mutilated their instruments, the retuning. We were lucky that post-punk had the golden era of guitarists. People like Johnny Marr, John McGeoch [Magazine, Siouxsie and the Banshees], the Edge—all these people were doing something really, really different and unique, and not necessarily playing the blues. So be different. Be yourself.
Ed O’Brien and his Oxfordshire mates work their way through “Airbag,” one of OK Computer’s most adventurous guitar tracks, live in Milan, Italy, in June 2017.