Photo by Wendy Lynch

Superfan Strikes Again!

Christopher O’Riley isn’t nearly as famous as the things he does. In fact, he’s probably most often described in casual coffeehouse conversation as that Radiohead piano guy. I mean, that’s who he is. He’s 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,
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and the new

Hold Me To This

.) He’s also the guy who does the public radio show

From the Top,

which spotlights young classical musicians from around the country. He’s also an L.A. resident, an accomplished soloist on the classical circuit, a voracious rock & roll fan and a Comedy Central devotee. He’s darn near a postmodern Renaissance man, gently but relentlessly promoting a worldview and approach to culture that rejects received boundaries of definition: O’Riley judges Tears for Fears and Shostakovich by the same basic yardstick, and has no shame in his pop-cultural obsessions. (He loves

South Park,


I Huckabees.)

He’s the best kind of historian and musician: a lover, a student, a geek. (He’s even published transcriptions of his Radiohead arrangements in book form, okay?) In short, Christopher O’Riley is the ultimate anti-snob.

Most recently, O’Riley has been obsessing over Elliott Smith’s 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 O’Riley’s crank these days, what it’s 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 Smith’s music?


Yeah, it does. I never met him. I’ve 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 he’s still incredibly alive — you’re hearing the permutations, and it’s as if he never left. And on the last record (

From a Basement on the Hill),

he doesn’t sound like a dying man.

you focusing on any particular era or album?

I think I’ve done a pretty wide cross-section — more than my share of the B-sides that a lot of fans won’t 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 there’s 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 he’s layering tracks and beefing it up in very sophisticated ways, layer upon layer — it’s musically draining [for me to re-create], and we’re 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 Didn’t 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 I’ve 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?

It’s gonna be okay is what I’d try to tell him, but he wouldn’t listen. I wouldn’t know where to begin.

What other music are you into right now?



Blonde Redhead’s

Misery Is a Butterfly,

The Arcade Fire, Guided By Voices’

Human Amusements at an Hourly Rate.

GBV fans will berate me for liking a greatest-hits, but everybody else will thank me. I’ve 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 what’s great is hearing them as guys instead of icons.

What was the first record you bought with your own money?

Beethoven’s Symphonies Number One and Nine, with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra. I was in third grade. My sister bought me the Beatles. There’s probably more of a connection there than I’m 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 Beethoven’s folk-based music sucked.

Any guilty

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. They’re 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, it’s Prokoviev’s 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 I’ve had my fingers around it for so long, those shapes fall naturally to my hands. It’s 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 I’ve 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, “We’re all so excited about what you’re doing.” He wanted to know what the classical listeners thought about it, and the influence of classical music on [my renditions]. It wasn’t 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 you’d like to do?

Other than Elliott Smith and Radiohead, I can’t imagine doing a whole album of anyone. I don’t 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 there’s a possibility there. Sometimes I think I could do something with the Beatles, but they’ve 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. Someone’s going to have to learn it.

Christopher O’Riley performs the music of Radiohead and Elliott Smith on Thursday, May 26, at UCLA’s Royce Hall.


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