Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood On The Music Of 'Phantom Thread'

Feb 26, 2018
Originally published on February 26, 2018 6:57 am

Lots of kids dream of growing up to be rock stars. Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood was no different — though his interest was less in the glory and more in the intricacies of craft.

"I was obsessed with bands," the British multi-instrumentalist says, "and would always listen to my favorite records wondering, 'How do you write that kind of music?' more than, 'How do you play guitar solos?' It was all about how you arrange music."

As it turned out, he's learned to do both (in one of the world's biggest rock bands, no less). But beyond his many years with Radiohead, in the past decade Greenwood has quietly made a name for himself as a composer, most notably of scores for the films of Paul Thomas Anderson.

His latest score, for the movie Phantom Thread starring Daniel Day-Lewis, is up for an Oscar next Sunday. In a conversation with NPR's Rachel Martin, he explained that classical music has been a parallel passion since he was a kid. Hear the radio version — including a note on playing the recorder as an adult — at the audio link, and read an excerpt of their conversation below.

Rachel Martin: Let's talk about how this project took shape. Paul Thomas Anderson, the director — you've had a relationship with him for a long time. What ingredients does he give you? Do you watch the whole thing without music? How does it work?

Jonny Greenwood: It's a slow process of teasing, in a way. He'll send me clues of what he's about to do or currently writing, and then it's script, and then bits of footage. It's a real dialogue: We'll talk each other out of each other's ideas until we get some kind of consensus. And then I start sending him recordings of piano music.

The film is set in 1950s London. How did you think about the place in conjunction with the sound?

It's strange, 'cause lots of British music in the '50s is quite twee. And if there's anything this film isn't — or at least the lead character, Reynolds Woodcock, he's not twee in any way. So instead, we started thinking about what music he would listen to, and that kind of led me to things that are little more austere.

Also, I'm a big fan of all of these really over-the-top baroque recordings from that era, where they didn't care at all about what was authentic, and so they would have enormous romantic orchestras playing Bach and Vivaldi and stuff, and it sounds glorious. It's not how they do it anymore.

What was that push and pull like with Paul Thomas Anderson? How did he push you in directions that perhaps you didn't anticipate going?

Well, he kept asking for more and more romance, and "give me more strings." He even used the phrase "big-ass strings."

That's a technical term.

Yeah. I just put that in Italian and wrote it at the start of every score.

There's a piece of music in Phantom Thread that comes and goes; it's like this leitmotif throughout the film. Was that an assignment that he gave you? "I need one piece of music that I can put into all kinds of places."

I sent him an iPhone recording of me playing that on the piano, and he just looped it and put it throughout the film — to the point that it was driving everybody crazy. And he said, "Can you make this longer? Arrange it for strings?" That's the weird thing about recording string orchestras for film music: You do all this preparation for months and months and months, and then you just have four hours to actually record it and hear the real thing. So until then, no one really knows that it's going to come off the paper and turn into music. It's a really exciting day.

There is a scene when Daniel Day-Lewis' character is ill and he starts seeing this vision of his mother. It's a beautiful scene, and those high notes [in "Never Cursed"] are so interesting.

That was written around the sound of the viola playing in its highest register, and there's just something about the sound of the viola hitting those high notes. You can hear the player, who's amazing, struggling slightly, and that's a really nice human emotion to hear in music.

Did you direct her to do that, or was it just something she performed in that moment?

She gave me a very level look when she saw the part, and saw how high the notes were. So I couldn't look her in the eye. It was a bit awkward.

You just leave the score and walk out of the room.

It is a little bit like that, quite often! But classical players are so polite. I'm very happy in their company.

Radio producer Dave Blanchard contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Lots of kids dream of growing up to be rock stars, and the British musician Jonny Greenwood was no different.

JONNY GREENWOOD: I was obsessed with bands and would always listen to my favorite records with the goal of wondering - how do they do that, how do you write that kind of music? - more than, how do you play guitar solos? It was all about how you arrange music.

MARTIN: Well, he learned how to do both. Today he is lead guitarist and the guy who writes most of the arrangements for one of rock's biggest bands Radiohead.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIRBAG")

RADIOHEAD: (Singing) In the next world war, in a jackknifed juggernaut.

MARTIN: They've been going strong since the '90s. And on the side, Greenwood has been steadily carving out another niche for himself as a composer. His latest film score, "Phantom Thread," is up for an Oscar next Sunday. It's a far cry from Radiohead.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "PHANTOM THREAD III")

MARTIN: When we spoke, I asked him about his other passion as a kid, classical music.

What was your gateway into that world?

GREENWOOD: It was probably playing the recorder.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GREENWOOD: Yeah, I know. It's something you're meant to play when you're 7 and stop playing very quickly.

MARTIN: I shouldn't snicker, but (laughter) that's not the answer...

GREENWOOD: Well, yes.

MARTIN: ...I expected (laughter).

GREENWOOD: Yeah, you see, instead of, you know, hanging out in pool halls and going out drinking and stuff, I ended up playing recorder really seriously well into my teen - in fact, I still play the recorder.

MARTIN: Do you?

GREENWOOD: So - sure. I just kept playing it and was lucky enough to be in recorder groups. In fact, I've joined one recently in Oxford, and we've got our first practice next week.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GREENWOOD: I'm pretty excited.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "PHANTOM THREAD II")

MARTIN: Let's talk about this film, "Phantom Thread," and how this project took shape. Paul Thomas Anderson, the director - you've had a relationship with him for a long time. You've worked with him before. What ingredients does he give you? Do you watch the whole thing without music? How does it work?

GREENWOOD: It's a slow process of teasing in a way. He'll send me clues of what he's about to do or currently writing. And then it's script and then bits of footage. And it's a real dialogue. He'll have ideas, and we'll talk each other out of each other's ideas until...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GREENWOOD: ...We get some kind of consensus. And then, yeah - then I start sending him recordings of piano music.

MARTIN: The film was set in 1950s London. How did you think about the place in conjunction with the sound?

GREENWOOD: Yeah, it's strange because lots of British music in the '50s is quite twee.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GREENWOOD: And if there's anything this film isn't - or at least for the lead character, Reynolds Woodcock, is he's not twee in any way.

MARTIN: Right.

GREENWOOD: So instead, we started thinking about what music he would listen to. And that kind of led me to things that are a little more austere. And also, I'm a big fan of all of these really over-the-top baroque recordings from the era, where they didn't care at all about what was authentic. And so they would have enormous, romantic orchestras playing Bach and Vivaldi and stuff. And it sounds glorious. And it's not how they do it anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "HOUSE OF WOODCOCK")

MARTIN: What was that push and pull like with Paul Thomas Anderson? How did he push you in directions that perhaps you didn't anticipate going?

GREENWOOD: Well, he kept asking for more and more romance and give me more strings. He even used the phrase, big-ass strings at one point.

MARTIN: Big-ass strings?

GREENWOOD: Yes, that's what he kept asking for.

MARTIN: That's the technical...

GREENWOOD: 'Cause - yeah.

MARTIN: ...Music term.

GREENWOOD: I just put that in Italian and wrote it at the start of every score.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE JONNY GREENWOOD'S "HOUSE OF WOODCOCK")

MARTIN: There's the strings.

GREENWOOD: Yes, you see.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

This is a piece of music that comes and goes. It's like this leitmotif throughout the film. Was that an assignment that he gave you - I need one piece of music that I can put into all kinds of places?

GREENWOOD: OK. So what happened is I sent him an iPhone recording of me playing that on the piano. And he just looped it and put it throughout the film, to the point it was driving everybody crazy. And he said, can you make this longer and arrange it for strings? And so - well, that's the weird thing about recording string orchestras for film music is you do all this preparation for months and months and months. And then you just have four hours to actually record it and hear the real thing. So until then, no one really knows...

MARTIN: Right.

GREENWOOD: ...You know, if it's going to come off the paper and turn into music. So a really exciting day.

MARTIN: There's a scene when Daniel Day-Lewis - his character is ill. And he starts...

GREENWOOD: Right.

MARTIN: ...Seeing this vision of his mother. Let's listen to this moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PHANTOM THREAD")

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) I miss you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "NEVER CURSED")

DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) I think about you all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "NEVER CURSED")

DAY-LEWIS: (As Reynolds Woodcock) I hear your voice say my name when I dream.

MARTIN: It's a beautiful scene. And those high notes are so interesting. What do you hear in that when you hear that married with the dialogue?

GREENWOOD: Well, that was written around the sound of the viola playing in its highest register. And there's just something about the sound of the viola hitting those high notes. You can hear the player, who was amazing, struggling slightly. And that's a really nice human emotion to hear in music.

MARTIN: Did you direct her to do that - or it was just something in how she performed in that moment?

GREENWOOD: She gave me a very level look when she saw the part - saw how high the notes were.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GREENWOOD: So I couldn't look her in the eye. It was a bit awkward.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GREENWOOD: But yeah.

MARTIN: You just leave the score and walk out of the room (laughter).

GREENWOOD: Yeah. It is a little bit like that quite often. But classical players are so polite, though. These people have no ego. It's unbelievable. I'm very happy in their company.

MARTIN: Speaking of company, what are you most looking forward to about your new recorder group?

GREENWOOD: This is a very good question. Well, I'm wondering what the other players are going to be like, what we're going to do...

MARTIN: Are you nervous?

GREENWOOD: Well, I'm going to be playing treble, so that's in the middle of the register. I'm hoping that's going to hide any bum notes that come out. But as long as I've warmed it up and everything - funny, I have to drive there with the recorder tucked under my arm just to warm it up so - it makes it less squeaky, as I'm sure you know. I'm sure you...

MARTIN: Yeah, I definitely know that.

GREENWOOD: Sure.

MARTIN: Do they know that you're Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, Or they're just, like, that's the guy who plays treble?

GREENWOOD: It's a different world. Well, it's - don't knock the recorder. It's a great instrument. I mean, I can hear it.

MARTIN: I'm not knocking it.

GREENWOOD: You're knocking it.

MARTIN: I am not knocking it (laughter).

GREENWOOD: In fact, there's an amazing recorder show that I always go to whenever in Chicago. It's like a pilgrimage. I go every time. So I know that recorders are big in America, too. Pretty sure.

MARTIN: Maybe bigger after this conversation. Maybe bigger.

GREENWOOD: Maybe.

MARTIN: Jonny, it has been so fun. Thank you so much for making the time.

GREENWOOD: Thank you very much, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD COMPOSITION)

MARTIN: Composer Jonny Greenwood. His score for "Phantom Thread" has been nominated for an Oscar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.