Some solo projects are unexpected, and then Radiohead's drummer unveils his debut album 20 years after that band first formed. Given his main occupation, you might expect wailing vocals, abstract noise and fractured funk (not unlike Thom Yorke's own solo effort, The Eraser). Instead, Philip Selway delivers hushed vocals and gentle acoustic reveries, actually played by the guy usually holding the sticks.
It is a sound more in keeping with the surroundings of Radiohead's headquarters, facilities Selway co-opted for his album, Familial. They are near a south-Oxfordshire village of thatched cottages by the Thames I am sworn not to reveal, to keep its location secret from the band's more rabid followers. Looking dapper in an unbuttoned waistcoat, Selway meets me in a pub beer garden looking like a contented family man who's wangled an afternoon off work.
Unused to being the centre of attention, he is an occasionally hesitant, if thoughtful, speaker, though the story of the creation of Familial is convoluted, as you might expect from someone who waited until he was past 40 before he went solo. The story takes in a side project with Crowded House's Neil Finn, but sadly also involves the sudden passing away in 2006 of his mother, Thea, to whom Radiohead dedicated their last album, In Rainbows. Selway certainly recognises the oddness of the situation. "You learn to write songs when you're a teenager, or when you're in your twenties, so you have a particular slant from those experiences," he muses. "Coming across a new songwriter who's starting in his late thirties, that's a different slant on things."
Before concentrating on drums, the Radiohead founder had written lyrics as a teenager, but when the group started he found himself overshadowed by Yorke's intense style of composition. "When we first started as a band, I'd bring stuff in, but there's no dearth of material there," he smiles. "So I didn't really write anything for a good decade and a half." Selway began composing again about seven or eight years ago, starting the process of inching towards his own musical and lyrical voice.
It was three years ago, on the verge of entering his fifth decade, that Selway took his songs more seriously. "It was now or never, that thing of looking at your list of life's to-do's. It had been in there for a little while, but those big changes, like my mum dying, those things shake everything up and lyrically everything came out of that sense of taking stock." Given the album's title, family ties are an important lyrical inspiration, though Selway is far from a dear-diary kind of writer. Indeed, a key similarity between his solo work and Radiohead is a tangential quality to the writing. He admits that in the first song where he found his voice, the stately "Broken Promises", with its beat that sounds like a grandfather clock, he directly addresses his departed mother by reminiscing about his own youth.
"I got to the end of it and thought, 'that rings true'. It gave me the confidence to believe I could bring all these scraps of lyrics together, without thinking too hard about them. Throughout the songs, there's a warmth to them, but I didn't want them to feel mawkish or over-precious. So there's an honesty in that one, about the process of working through grief and being at that point with your own children where you look back at your own childhood. It actually makes you a lot more generous-spirited about it all; you understand the complexities."
Selway quietly laid down some demos, but was not sure he should actually sing them in public until he collaborated with Finn. He had appeared behind the drum kit on the Crowded House frontman's 7 Worlds Collide, the 2001 album for the charity of the same name. Then he returned for its tardy follow-up – a studio project written and recorded over a fortnight in New Zealand during January 2009. In the august company of Johnny Marr and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Selway contributed two numbers, "The Ties That Bind Us" and "The Witching Hour", both of which have been reworked on Familial.
Even when he turned up to work on The Sun Came Out at Finn's Auckland studio, the drummer had no intention of contributing his own lyrics, but Selway fell under the spell of the Kiwi's optimistic can-do outlook and the venture's generous spirit. "There was so much going on in the studio, an explosion of creativity and activity, I just found my spot in there. I took up residence on Neil's staircase and hadn't sung to anybody before, but something felt right. People started picking up on it as they walked past me and suddenly this band fell into place very quickly."
The Sun Came Out was released later that year, a low-key release by Selway's standards, but a handy place to find solo direction. Moreover, he was able to call on some of his Auckland collaborators to record Familial: veteran solo artist Lisa Germano, former Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg and two members of Wilco – drummer Glenn Kotche and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Sansone.
While the core of its creation involved a two-week stint when he reconvened his bandmates, the whole recording process has taken place over a couple of years, as Selway fitted in time around Radiohead duties. An intriguing side-effect of outside work is that he feels more positive about his regular band and the idea of recording another album, a feeling that Yorke must share himself. After In Rainbows, he suggested the band would not make another album, though that outburst has been forgotten. "We say that after every record, don't we?" Selway laughs, though he admits that side-projects help.
"We have our fairly defined roles within the band and you try and develop within them, but they are fixed. Working outside the band, you always gain a broader view and you get stuff out of your system, which prevents some frustrations coming into the process of working together. And you appreciate what you've got."
Selway has not managed to coordinate the schedules of his original collaborators in order to tour the record, especially since Wilco are currently on the road themselves. Instead, he has hired three members of Bat for Lashes' backing band (Natasha Khan has supported Radiohead) and nu-folk stalwart Adem Ilhan, making it a much younger generation of musicians. "A different clique of musicians brings out different aspects of the songs," the band leader agrees. "And it's fun. When I was recording it, I could hear different ways it could go, so it's trying to keep that space and warmth in there, but bringing in musicians with defined personalities and seeing where it takes the material."
Selway jokes that while he was the only British artist recording Familial, this line-up is "a very English band." When pressed on the differences, he quickly backtracks, but it seems instructive that he picks out the nationalities rather than generational gaps – Ilhan and co are a fair bit younger than he is; but while his lyrics may be mature, as a solo artist Selway is happy to remain young at heart.
'Familial' is out now Bella Union Records