Thomas Edward "Thom" Yorke (born 7 October 1968) is an English musician, singer, and songwriter. He is the lead vocalist, lyricist, principal songwriter, guitarist and pianist of the bands Radiohead and Atoms for Peace, known for his falsetto singing style. A multi-instrumentalist, he mainly plays guitar and piano, but also plays synthesiser, bass guitar, and drums among other instruments, and makes use of electronic equipment such as samplers and drum machines; later Radiohead albums credit him with playing "laptop". In the 1990s, Yorke was known as a rock musician, but the 2000 Radiohead album Kid A saw him expand into electronic music. In 2006, he released a solo album, The Eraser. Outside music, Yorke is notable as a political activist on behalf of human rights, environmentalist and anti-war causes.
In 2002, Q magazine named Yorke the sixth most powerful figure in music, and Radiohead were ranked number 73 in Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Artists of All Time" in 2005. In 2005, a poll organised by Blender and MTV2 saw Yorke voted the 18th greatest singer of all time, and in 2008, he was ranked 66th in Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Singers of All Time" list.
Yorke was born on 7 October 1968, in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. Yorke's father, a nuclear physicist and later a chemical equipment salesman, was hired by a firm in Scotland shortly after his son's birth and the family lived there until Yorke was seven. He was born with a paralysed left eye, and underwent five eye operations by the age of six. During this time Yorke had to wear a patch over his eye. He has stated that the last surgery was "botched", giving him a drooping eyelid.
Yorke's family moved frequently; Yorke moved from school to school, where classmates teased him for his eye. The family finally settled in Oxfordshire in 1978. Yorke received his first guitar when he was seven; his earliest musical inspiration was guitarist Brian May of Queen. By 11, he had joined his first band and written his first song. He attended the all-boys public school Abingdon in Oxford, where he met future band members Ed O'Brien, Phil Selway, and brothers Colin and Jonny Greenwood. They formed a band named On a Friday, named for the only day they were allowed to rehearse. In this early line-up, Yorke played guitar and sang. Speaking about music's influence on him as a schoolboy, Yorke said: "School was bearable for me because the music department was separate from the rest of the school. It had pianos in tiny booths, and I used to spend a lot of time hanging around there after school."
After leaving school, Yorke took a gap year, during which he worked in a few jobs and was involved in a car accident that made him wary of any kind of mechanised transport; this informed the lyrics of several Radiohead songs, including the Bends B-side "Killer Cars" and "Airbag" from OK Computer. In late 1988, Yorke left Oxford to study at the University of Exeter, which put On a Friday on hiatus aside from holiday break rehearsals. At Exeter, Yorke worked as a DJ at Guild nights in the Lemon Grove and played with the band Headless Chickens. He also met his partner Rachel Owen, and artist Stanley Donwood, with whom Yorke later collaborated to produce artwork for Radiohead albums and promotional material.
On A Friday resumed activity in 1991 as the members were finishing their degree courses. They signed to Parlophone and changed their name to Radiohead. Around this time, Yorke said he "hit the self-destruct button pretty quickly"; he drank heavily, which resulted in him cutting his hair off and being too drunk to perform onstage. Radiohead gained notice with the worldwide hit single "Creep", which later appeared on the band's 1993 debut album Pablo Honey. Yorke admitted later that the success had inflated his ego; he tried to project himself as a rock star, which included bleaching his hair and wearing extensions. He said, "When I got back to Oxford I was unbearable ... as soon as you get any success you disappear up your own arse and lost[sic] it forever."
By the time of their second album, The Bends (1995), Radiohead had attracted a large fanbase and had begun to receive wider critical acclaim. After the album's release, the American rock band R.E.M. picked Radiohead as its opening act for the European leg of their tour. During the tour, Yorke and R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe became close friends; Stipe gave him advice on how to deal with the demands of being in a famous rock band. During the production of the band's third album, OK Computer (1997), all five members of Radiohead had differing opinions and equal production roles, with Yorke having "the loudest voice", according to guitarist Ed O'Brien. OK Computer was heralded as a landmark album by nearly every publication that reviewed it, establishing Radiohead as one of the leading alternative rock acts of the 1990s. But Yorke was ambivalent about this success. Some of these concerns were voiced in the 1998 documentary film Meeting People Is Easy, which followed the band on their OK Computer tour. Yorke has explained that he dislikes the "mythology" of rock music and the media's obsession with celebrity.
Yorke and the band adopted a more radical approach on 2000's Kid A and 2001's Amnesiac, processing vocals, obscuring lyrics, and departing from rock for a more varied musical landscape including electronic, jazz and avant-garde classical influences. The albums divided fans and critics, but were commercially successful, and later established wide critical acclaim; at the turn of the decade, Kid A was named the best album of the 2000s by Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. In 2003, Radiohead released their sixth album, Hail to the Thief, a blend of rock and electronica that Yorke described as a reaction to the events of the early 2000s and newfound fears for his children's future, though he denied political intent. The band has continued to tour, and in 2005 they undertook recording sessions for a seventh album, In Rainbows, released as a digital DRM-free download in October 2007. In 2011, Radiohead released their eighth album, The King of Limbs, which Yorke described as "an expression of physical movements and wildness".
Yorke released his solo album The Eraser in 2006. Produced by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and featuring cover art by Stanley Donwood, it was released on the independent label XL Recordings. Yorke described the album as "more beats and electronics" and denied that it meant he was leaving Radiohead, saying, "I want no crap about me being a traitor or whatever splitting up blah blah... this was all done with their blessing." The Eraser received positive reviews, and reached number 3 in the UK in its first week, number 2 in the United States, Canada and Australia, and number 9 in Ireland. It was nominated for a Mercury Prize a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album. On 21 September 2009, Yorke released a new double-A side single, "Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses / The Hollow Earth". In 2012, Yorke contributed music to a Rag & Bone fashion show.
Yorke rarely plays as a solo act, and has never embarked on a solo tour. He has sometimes played short acoustic sets of Radiohead songs in the band's webcasts and television appearances, and occasionally on his own at rallies. In 2006, he performed stripped-down versions of several songs from The Eraser ("Analyse", "The Clock", "Skip Divided" and "Cymbal Rush") on radio and TV programmes, has performed "Cymbal Rush" as an encore at some Radiohead concerts. In July 2009, Yorke played a solo performance at the Latitude Festival in England.
Atoms for Peace
In 2009, Yorke formed Atoms for Peace to perform songs from his solo album The Eraser. Alongside Yorke on vocals, guitar and keyboards, the band comprises bassist Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, drummer Joey Waronker of Beck and R.E.M., percussionist Mauro Refosco of Forro in the Dark and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich on keyboards and guitar. In February 2013, Atoms for Peace released their debut album, Amok, to positive reviews. Answering a fan question on Reddit, Yorke wrote that determining whether new songs were for Radiohead or Atoms for Peace was "a grey area. getting greyer. obviously depends on who is being sampled."
Yorke has worked with producer Nigel Godrich on every Radiohead album since The Bends, as well as his solo album The Eraser and the Atoms for Peace album Amok. Beyond production and engineering roles, Godrich helps Yorke arrange and edit his songs. Describing their collaborative process, Godrich said: "I know, from years of experience, that what he does is he just bats things around, and comes up with fragments of things. They usually find a context in time." Yorke said: "[The Eraser song] 'Black Swan', back in the day, was a six-minute load of crap. Except for this one juicy bit, and [Godrich] goes past and goes, 'That bit. Fuck the rest.' Usually it's something like that."
Yorke has worked with artist Stanley Donwood to create the cover art for every Radiohead album since The Bends, as well as The Eraser and Amok. The two met as art students at the University of Exeter. Yorke wrote: "I met him first day at art college and he had a better hat and suit on than me. That pissed me off. So I figured I'd either end up really not liking this person at all, or working with him for the rest of my life." Donwood said his first impression of Yorke was that he was "mouthy. Pissed off. Someone I could work with." Yorke is credited alongside Donwood under the monikers "The White Chocolate Farm", "Dr. Tchock", "Tchocky" or similar abbreviations.
Yorke has collaborated with several musical artists outside Radiohead and Atoms for Peace. For the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine, Yorke formed Venus in Furs with Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, Suede's Bernard Butler, and Roxy Music's Andy Mackay, and recorded covers of the Roxy Music songs "2HB", "Ladytron" and "Bitter-Sweet". In the same year, he co-wrote "Rabbit in Your Headlights" with DJ Shadow, which appears on the UNKLE album Psyence Fiction, and dueted on "El President" with Isabel Monteiro of Drugstore. In 2000, Yorke duetted with PJ Harvey on "This Mess We're In" and contributed backing vocals to "One Line" and "Beautiful Feeling" for her Mercury Prize-winning album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. In the same year, he appeared on Björk's soundtrack album Selmasongs, singing on the Oscar-nominated song "I've Seen It All". Yorke and Björk worked together again in 2008 on the charity single "Náttúra". In 2009, Yorke recorded a cover of the Mark Mulcahy song "All for the Best" with his brother Andy for the compilation Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy.
Yorke has provided vocals for two tracks by the electronic musician Flying Lotus: "...And The World Laughs with You" from Cosmogramma (2010) and "Electric Candyman" from Until the Quiet Comes (2012), and three tracks by the German electronic act Modeselektor: "The White Flash" from Happy Birthday (2007), and "Shipwreck" and "This" from Monkeytown (2011). He has also contributed music and production in collaborations with electronic and hip-hop artists including Modeselektor, Burial, Four Tet and MF DOOM.
Yorke lives in Oxford with his partner, Rachel Owen, whom he met at university. Owen studied fine art printmaking at Exeter and painting at the Accademia di Belle Arti of Florence, and completed a PhD at the University of London researching the illustrations to Dante's Divine Comedy. She and Yorke have two children, son Noah, born in 2001, and daughter Agnes, born 2004. Yorke's only sibling, brother Andy, is the singer of the band Unbelievable Truth.
As a singer, Yorke is recognisable by his distinctive tenor voice, vibrato, frequent use of falsetto and ability to reach, and sustain notes over a wide vocal range. In 1994, the band watched Jeff Buckley in concert; Yorke later said the concert had a direct effect on his vocal delivery on "Fake Plastic Trees". However, Yorke has said, "It annoys me how pretty my voice is... how polite it can sound when perhaps what I'm singing is deeply acidic." He has often adopted other styles of singing, such as an aggressive shouting style in the middle section of "Paranoid Android" and a semi-spoken style for 2003's "Myxomatosis" and "A Wolf at the Door".
Aside from vocal duties and writing lyrics, Yorke's musical contributions to Radiohead include guitar, both acoustic and electric (usually rhythm, with band member Jonny Greenwood handling lead), piano, including Rhodes piano, and synthesizers. He also plays bass guitar on occasion (the bass lines for "The National Anthem" and "Pyramid Song" were recorded by him) and live with Radiohead he plays bass on the b-side "The Amazing Sounds of Orgy". At solo shows and with his band "Atoms for Peace", he would play bass for "Harrowdown Hill" from his album The Eraser. He is also capable of playing drums; during the 2006 and 2008 tours he performed percussion on stage in tandem with drummer Phil Selway on the track "Bangers + Mash".
Yorke, unlike the other members of Radiohead, has never learned how to read music. He said, "If someone lays the notes on a page in front of me, it's meaningless... because to me you can't express the rhythms properly like that. It's a very ineffective way of doing it, so I've never really bothered picking it up."
Since Kid A, Radiohead, and in particular Yorke, have incorporated many elements of electronic music into their work. As a result, Yorke has taken an increased role in programming beats and samples and has been credited with playing "laptop" on recent albums. On a radio show in 2003 to publicise the release of Hail to the Thief, Yorke remarked that he would rather make a record just with a computer than with only an acoustic guitar. His solo effort The Eraser featured piano, bass and guitar, but was built primarily around electronics.
In interviews Yorke has cited a variety of personal musical heroes and influences, including jazz composer and bassist Charles Mingus, Neil Young, Miracle Legion, singer Scott Walker, electronic acts Aphex Twin and Autechre, and Krautrock band Can. Talking Heads, Queen, Joy Division, Magazine, Elvis Costello, The Smiths and Sonic Youth were early influences on Radiohead and Yorke. In 2004, at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, Yorke mentioned to the crowd, "When I was in college, the Pixies and R.E.M. changed my life", and he has often mentioned both bands as influential examples. He is also an admirer of Icelandic singer Björk; he called her song "Unravel" his favourite song ever, claiming "I'm trying to get Radiohead to do a cover because I think it's one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard." In November 2007, the band covered the song as part of a live webcast.
Yorke has been outspoken on various contemporary political and social issues. Radiohead had read No Logo by Naomi Klein during the Kid A sessions ("No Logo" was also briefly considered as the album title) and all the members were reportedly heavily influenced by it, though Yorke said it "didn't teach him anything he didn't already know". Yorke's activism in support of fair trade practices, with an anti-WTO and anti-globalisation stance, garnered significant attention in the early 2000s. Yorke had previously referenced maquiladoras in the title of a Radiohead B-side in 1995, and decried the International Monetary Fund in 1997's "Electioneering". Yorke is also a professed fan of Noam Chomsky's political writings, and is a vegetarian.
Yorke is also notable as a political activist on behalf of human rights, environmentalist and anti-war causes including Jubilee 2000, Amnesty International and CND, the Green Party of England and Wales, and Friends of the Earth's Big Ask campaign. Radiohead played at the Free Tibet concert in both 1998 and 1999, and at an Amnesty International concert in 1998. In 2005, Yorke performed at an all-night vigil for the Trade Justice Movement. In 2006, Jonny Greenwood and Yorke performed a special benefit concert for Friends of the Earth. Yorke made headlines the same year for refusing prime minister Tony Blair's request to meet with him to discuss climate change, declaring Blair had "no environmental credentials". Yorke has subsequently been critical of his own energy use. He has said the music industry's use of air transport is dangerous and unsustainable, and that he would consider not touring if new carbon emissions standards do not force the situation to improve. Radiohead commissioned a study by the group Best Foot Forward which the band claims helped them choose venues and transport methods that will greatly reduce the carbon expended on their 2008 tour. The band also made use of a new low-energy LED lighting system and encouraged festivals to offer reusable plastics.
In December 2009, Yorke gained access to the COP 15 climate change talks in Copenhagen, posing as a member of the media. In the same year he lent his support to the 10:10 project, a movement encouraging people to take positive action on climate change by reducing their carbon emissions.
Relationship with celebrities and the media
Yorke has had an uneasy relationship with other celebrities and the media. Following Radiohead's 1993 Pablo Honey tour of America, Yorke became disenchanted at being "right at the sharp end of the sexy, sassy, MTV eye-candy lifestyle" he felt he was helping to sell to the world. The 1998 documentary film Meeting People is Easy portrays Yorke's disaffection with the music industry and press during the 1997-8 "Against Demons" world tour.
A number of celebrities have been upset by Yorke's alleged rudeness. In 2001, Kelly Jones, the lead singer of the Welsh band Stereophonics, referred to Thom Yorke as a "miserable twat", a comment he later retracted. In 2002, Jack Black claimed to have approached Yorke to congratulate him on his solo show at the Bridge School benefit concert in San Francisco, only for Yorke to ignore him and walk away. Referring to the incident, Black stated in an interview: "I heard later that he's famously cold, and it wasn't just me that he despises, but the whole world." After completing a trek of Kilimanjaro in 2009, Ronan Keating was asked by an interviewer which celebrity he would most like to throw off a mountain. Keating named Yorke, and referred to him as a "muppet", stating that Yorke was once rude to him. In the same year, Miley Cyrus and Kanye West also complained about Yorke's alleged rudeness. In 2010, it was reported that Yorke would be covering Peter Gabriel's song "Wallflower", from Gabriel's fourth solo album Peter Gabriel 4 (Security), with Gabriel claiming, "Thom wanted to do a version of Wallflower, which I'm very curious to hear. I think that was an important track for him when he was 14." However, it was subsequently reported that Yorke had withdrawn from the project and had not informed Gabriel why.