Covering Radiohead’s landmark 1997 album OK Computer would be a daunting task for anyone, but the Portland Cello Project took a unique approach.
The ensemble at first ignored Radiohead completely and only reimagined the material it felt it could pull off, says arranger Doug Jenkins.
“I think for us the philosophy was to only do things if they were going to be really high quality or else we knew it would burn out like a Roman candle,” Jenkins says.
“Radiohead was a really big part of that. Radiohead’s programming and repertoire is so important to so many of us in the group. Their sense of orchestration is already there and their palate is naturally going to be much larger than a bunch of classical instruments. It’s because they aren’t held back by any of those restrictions. So really the initial inspiration was just not do it, like, ‘Let’s never touch Radiohead.’”
Eventually, however, the tides turned for the classical ensemble, which formed more than a decade ago, and in 2012 the collective celebrated the 15th anniversary of Radiohead’s album. Portland Cello Project only tackled the behemoth when a woodwind quintet, The City of Tomorrow, and a men’s choir jumped on board.
“That’s how it came about. ‘Let’s do OK Computer because it’s just been off limits for so long, but let’s put the right energy into it and do it correctly,’” Jenkins explains. “And since then it’s really just evolved. We take it seriously.”
He adds, “A lot of the musicians in the group who hadn’t heard of Radiohead have really grown a connection to the group and the rest of us who really have and love the group have just treated it as kind of our meditation, I guess.”
Though Jenkins says the group had an “extreme and ambitious goal” to not cover songs more than once – in doing so building up an arsenal of more than 1,000 pieces of music – six more years have gone by and the ensemble is keeping its interpretation of OK Computer alive. Portland Cello Project’s lineup frequently changes, and with it the songs’ arrangements to compensate, so no one performance is alike.
When the group stops by Musical Instrument Museum at 7:30 p.m. Friday, January 18, Jenkins says the Portland Cello Project will be equipped with cellos, brass, a full rhythm section and vocals. On vocals is Patti King of The Shins and on percussion is Tyrone Hendrix, who has performed with the likes of Prince and Stevie Wonder.
The shows are generally two 50-minute sets. The second is always OK Computer in full, while the first set always changes and is determined from a variety of considerations. Does the audience already know Radiohead? Is it a traditional classical or jazz audience that needs to be eased into OK Computer? Do attendees have other suggestions, whether it’s Kanye West or Taylor Swift? And in the case of Phoenix, Jenkins won’t commit, because he can never truly know what will happen in the moment.
“It’s different every night, which is kind of the nature of this group, too, is we’re always kind of trying to fit the community and it kinds of makes it fun for us, too,” he explains.
Jenkins estimates 100 arrangement changes since his act started the Radiohead project. Sometimes songs are done with vocals; sometimes without. It depends on which musicians are on deck.
“We keep it very recognizable, but we try to just grab the elements of the music that are really special, and we play with it and meditate on them,” he says about formulating arrangements.
“We’re going to pull out some different stuff that you’ve maybe been overlooking or forgot about and we’re going to try to make it special and new.”
He says Portland Cello Project’s version of “Airbag” is nothing like the original, while he only became satisfied with their rendition of “Let Down” this past fall. He feels King is the perfect vocalist to cover their very different rendition of “Climbing Up the Walls.” “Paranoid Android” is extended and performed instrumentally and its B-side, “Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2),” which only comes out on occasion, is rhythmically weird and appealing to their drummer. As for the musique concrète “Fitter Happier,” well, interpreting that to a classical ensemble doesn’t make any sense, Jenkins says.
Its 1,000-song catalog has garnered positive feedback from the artists Portland Cell Project has tackled. Beck and Jay-Z have acknowledged the collective, and Jenkins says it would be cool to get Radiohead’s thoughts, too. However, recognition isn’t a motive.
“To have it would be amazing,” he says. “That’s not a big concern or a thought even. I mean we’re doing it because we love it. If I were them, I’d probably not care.”
He lets out a laugh.
“When we’ve gotten the feedback from other stars, it felt really good. Even when we’ve collaborated with amazing people in the past, it’s felt really good, but that’s not really why we do it. It’s really about just good musicianship, and doing something special for our audience.”
Portland Cello Project: Radiohead’s OK Computer, Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 E. Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix, 480.478.6000, mim.org, 7:30 p.m. Friday, January 18, $38.50-$48.50.