Photo by Wendy Lynch

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, 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, detests 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

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?

O’RILEY: 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

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?

Propellerheads’ Decksandrumsandrockandroll, 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 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. 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.

LA Weekly