Christopher ORiley isnt nearly as famous as the things he does. In fact, hes probably most often described in casual coffeehouse conversation as that Radiohead piano guy. I mean, thats who he is. Hes the guy who plays earnest, classically inspired renditions of Radiohead songs on the piano, which you may have heard on NPR. (See his 2003 release,True Love Waits,
and the newHold Me To This
.) Hes also the guy who does the public radio showFrom the Top,
which spotlights young classical musicians from around the country. Hes also an L.A. resident, an accomplished soloist on the classical circuit, a voracious rock & roll fan and a Comedy Central devotee. Hes darn near a postmodern Renaissance man, gently but relentlessly promoting a worldview and approach to culture that rejects received boundaries of definition: ORiley judges Tears for Fears and Shostakovich by the same basic yardstick, and has no shame in his pop-cultural obsessions. (He lovesSouth Park,
detestsI ♥ Huckabees.)
Hes the best kind of historian and musician: a lover, a student, a geek. (Hes even published transcriptions of his Radiohead arrangements in book form, okay?) In short, Christopher ORiley is the ultimate anti-snob.
Most recently, ORiley has been obsessing over Elliott Smiths entire recorded output bootlegs, B-sides, concerts and all and will perform at a tribute to Smith next week. I wanted to check in and see what was turning ORileys crank these days, what its like to work with Elliott Smith, and what he wants played at his own funeral.
L.A. WEEKLY: To be blunt, does it make you sad spending so much time with Elliott Smiths music?
Yeah, it does. I never met him. Ive listened to 60 live concerts, and the big difference between him and Radiohead [is that] you can listen to five live versions of Paranoid Android, and none of them are much better or worse than the others. But as emotionally available as Elliott Smith was, he gives every performance a different flavor. As a performing artist hes still incredibly alive youre hearing the permutations, and its as if he never left. And on the last record (From a Basement on the Hill),
he doesnt sound like a dying man.
Are you focusing on any particular era or album?
I think Ive done a pretty wide cross-section more than my share of the B-sides that a lot of fans wont know about. The early version of Pretty (Ugly Before) . . . one of the first songs I did was Roman Candle, and Not Half Right was something he played solo early on? but was a Heatmeiser song.
I take it theres an extra challenge in your task attending to the difference between his studio and live recordings.
His live performances are sort of a straining at the boundaries of possibility he was a great guitar player, but oftentimes trying to get more ideas across on guitar than [he really could accomplish live]. In the studio hes layering tracks and beefing it up in very sophisticated ways, layer upon layer its musically draining [for me to re-create], and were not even talking about the emotionally draining content of his lyrics, and trying to put them across. Some songs are going to be a lot harder to do the chorale feeling of the a cappella I Didnt Understand kind of wrote itself that one I finished in a day. Coast to Coast is going to take me a long time to do. Speed Trials was the first song I heard, and Ive played it through a couple times and hated it and come into something else.
After spending so much time with his music, what would you say to him as a musician if you could?
Its gonna be okay is what Id try to tell him, but he wouldnt listen. I wouldnt know where to begin.
What other music are you into right now?
Blonde RedheadsMisery Is a Butterfly,
The Arcade Fire, Guided By VoicesHuman Amusements at an Hourly Rate.
GBV fans will berate me for liking a greatest-hits, but everybody else will thank me. Ive got a 30-gig iPod with a good 60 Elliott concerts, about 30 Radiohead gigs, all the Beatles Kinfauns recordings demo-quality homemade tracks of all the White Album stuff and whats great is hearing them as guys instead of icons.
What was the first record you bought with your own money?
Beethovens Symphonies Number One and Nine, with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra. I was in third grade. My sister bought me the Beatles. Theres probably more of a connection there than Im aware of although probably not that much. In fact, the Beatles were better melodists than Beethoven was. And they were much more folk-based, and Beethovens folk-based music sucked.
Any guilty pleasures?
I did time with an Emerson, Lake & Palmer phase please! I think Keith Emerson contributed nothing to the ongoing evolution of music.
Any secret influences in your music?
Probably. Theyre hidden. Elliott would brag about his reverence for the Stones, yet his only directly Stones-influenced song is How To Take a Fall. For me, its Prokovievs Second Piano Concerto everything I ever wanted to do on piano is in that piece, all my pianistic bag of tricks. I find that more and more, because Ive had my fingers around it for so long, those shapes fall naturally to my hands. Its a fertility thing what will work, what will give me the best sense of power at this point in a piece. Prokofiev really knew how to make the piano ring. There are some pretty nice solutions Ive come up with [playing Radiohead] that have a lot to do with that piece.
What do Radiohead think of your work?
I only met Colin and Thom once a few months after the first record came out. I introduced myself, and Thom immediately said, Were all so excited about what youre doing. He wanted to know what the classical listeners thought about it, and the influence of classical music on [my renditions]. It wasnt my task to make a Debussy version of Subterranean Homesick Alien, but my hands have been shaped by certain composers. Thom was infinitely self-deprecating at every turn he said How To Disappear Completely is a mediocre song.
Any other bands youd like to do?
Other than Elliott Smith and Radiohead, I cant imagine doing a whole album of anyone. I dont set out to make records, but I happen to do a lot of Radiohead songs. It looks like my Nick Drake songbook is growing, so theres a possibility there. Sometimes I think I could do something with the Beatles, but theyve become so much part of the collective consciousness they were the first to get played in elevators.
What do you want played at your funeral?
Street Spirit (Fade Out) by Radiohead my version of it. Someones going to have to learn it.
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Christopher ORiley performs the music of Radiohead and Elliott Smith on Thursday, May 26, at UCLAs Royce Hall.