Stanley Donwood is the artist responsible for every Radiohead album cover you’ve ever laid your eyes on. From OK Computer to In Rainbows, and all those explosions of type and colour in between, Donwood has penned them all. He took some time out from installing his upcoming retrospective in Sydney for Semi-Permanent, The Panic Office, to talk to us about his long-standing relationship with the band, burning boxes of keepsakes, and making a huge cock out of chicken wire.
Stanley Donwood: Hello.
How’s Sydney treating you?
Terrific so far. Lovely weather.
Great stuff. Let’s talk album art.
Have you seen anything lately as far as album art you’ve been impressed with? I was talking to the bloke at the local record store the other day and he was saying how vinyl is running out the door.
Apparently so. I don’t know off hand, I can’t really remember. I’m not good at retaining information like that. I’m bloody useless.
What’s your favourite and least favourite Radiohead album you’ve done?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t know, I kind of like them all at the time.
Is it like choosing a favourite offspring? You can’t really pick just one of them?
Yeah, you know it is a bit difficult like that. Which is my favourite, I don’t know – the other will get really upset. But I think I liked In Rainbows particularly because it came out so differently to how I thought it was going to come out.
In what way?
Probably better. Just the way that it was because it was a sort of abstract, fluid, organic, very colourful thing and my first intentions were to do something monochrome black, white and grey, with lots of perspective and hard lines. And that was something that changed completely during the course of the band making the record and listening to it, and it became apparent quite early on that my plans for the record artwork were completely wrong for what the music sounded like.
So you’re really involved with the musical side?
Yeah. It very much depends on what the record end up sounding like. So I normally have about six months of low level depression—fucking it up and doing it really badly.
Do you keep the initial works?
Yeah. There’s going to be a lot of that up in The Panic Office. Like, a lot. For this, I started in January and bought a big three terabyte drive and I went about collecting all my cd’s that had un-finished artwork. And zip discs. Just old stuff, old clunking hard drives and tried to put everything together. So it’s been pretty interesting, because I kind of don’t keep much from bands or OK Computer, because in those days memory was really—you know your computer would really start slowing down and you’d go ‘oh I don’t need that. Trash it.’ So I’ve trashed loads of stuff. But recently it’s very easy to just keep a version of everything.
An artist we interviewed a while back (Joe Castrucci) said this quote I’ve always admired: “I am never satisfied with anything I ever do.” That idea that there’s always room for improvement. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, this was a decision I came to very early on, when I was quite young. While I was in university I was studying the romantic poets and one of them was William Wordsworth, who wrote a poem when he was in his twenties called The Prelude. It was called The Prelude and it was intended to be a prelude to his masterwork, which he never got around to writing. What he did, he worked on The Prelude for years and years and years, until he was much older and it wasn’t nearly as good.
So I’m like, I’ve done it. Fuck it. It’s frozen at that time that it’s done. I don’t want to revisit it and make it “better” because I’ll probably just fuck it up.
Have you ever done work where the first idea you have is the one?
Yeah. OK Computer was what it was in the end almost right from the start. We just sort of made different compositions. But the style of it was the same.
Whereabouts are you looking for inspiration these days?
At the moment I’m sort of trying to let go of a very strong tendency I have to do artwork that is quite narrative and quite figurative. I’m trying to shift that and kind of reading a lot about yoga and stuff like that, more about being, and accepting things, and not trying to make everything perfect – just sensing an energy in the artwork and going with that. It’s quite a challenge for me because you know; I want to tell a story. If I were left to myself, I’d just do landscapes with stuff happening in them. That would be it.
How does the art translate into the packaging, it’s gotten quite complex of late?
S: It has, hasn’t it. When Radiohead were still with Parlophone, after a while I think they were being hit with downloads and music piracy and that kind of thing, so they started doing the standard cd and they’d do a special packaging. With Kid A I did a thick glossy children’s book, which just had pictures and writing, and I did more of an old library book thing that you’d find in a second-hand bookshop. And there was some sort of foldout map. But then when they weren’t with the label anymore, for In Rainbows, they were sort of like, ‘well what we’re going to do is – don’t say anything – we’re basically going to give the record away. We’re going to put it online and have people pay what they want for it’. It was like, right, OK. That’s good. We’re going to stop treating the people who buy music as potential criminals, we’re going to kind of put trust out there and say ‘look, you know, if you like it just pay what you think it’s worth’.
So I was like, ‘OK, that’s digital. Doing anything else?’ and they say, ‘yeah, we want to do a package that’s worth about 40 pounds. And I was like, ‘what the fuck?! Who’s going to pay 40 quid for a record, man?’
And so that was the challenge with that. I mean the artwork was one thing, but then designing the packaging… You know that record book? It’s got different sized pages and all that kind of thing that took quite a long time of just mock-ups with no artwork on them. How could I make something that’s worth 40 quid? ‘Cause I’ve never paid 40 quid for a record—well I have nowadays, but I hadn’t then—and then Ed was saying it costs 40 pound to go see a premiership football game. I thought, you have to pay 40 for a ticket just to go see a football game? So I did it and we made this thing, and it sold very well. After that people were bringing out box sets that were like 20000 dollars. Ridiculous amounts of money. So really I shouldn’t have worried at all. It was like this coffee table thing, it was heavy. You could actually, probably batter someone to death with it.
Quite solid then.
And then with the next one, we kind of wanted to do the opposite, because that’s the kind of packaging that will last forever. I’d left a newspaper out on a bench and forgotten about it, and gone and done something else – painting or something. And I came back to it at the end of the day, and already in a day it had wrinkled and started going curly and yellow and was like, ‘that’s it! I’m going to wrap a record in something so shit that it will fall to bits!’ Then I was in San Francisco. There are lots of newspapers, you know you pick one up, they’re free and they’re square. I think, fucking hell, this is good, and they’re the size of a 10” record. So we could print a load of newspapers that fold around a ten-inch record. So we did that. And the record sleeve was printed on this plastic, this biodegradable plastic that if you leave it out it will start to disintegrate. Also, you had to tear open the front cover to get to the inside. I kind of like that. So if you really look after it, it will last.
Have you ever come up with stuff and the band’s just said no?
Only once, which was right in the beginning of doing Hail To The Thief. We went out to LA, and the idea was that we were going to record the album in two weeks and I was going to do the art in two weeks. This of course didn’t happen, but you know, the intention was there. I’d got really obsessed with topiary, where they have hedges and shapes. So the summer before, I’d joined an organisation called the National Trust in the UK, which looks after old stately homes and these beautiful gardens with topiary. I’d been cycling around photographing all this stuff. I was also interested in how the land intersects with the sky, so my plan was to take lots of photographs of clouds in the sky and rotate them by 90 degrees so the clouds were going vertically, and sort of horizontally. And I was going to construct a massive cock out of chicken wire and cover it with AstroTurf and go and place it in locations with topiary. The idea was ‘the cock of the land was fucking the cum to the sky.’ When you turn the clouds around that way they can be quite vulva looking.
S: But yeah, that ended up turning out brilliantly. Because I can’t drive. I’m always the passenger in a car. In Los Angeles, we’re driving a lot. I had my little notebook and I was writing down what all the signs said. Writing, writing, writing. Then the first sort of sketchy paintings I did were just those signs, because I wrote down what colours they were. I realised in LA that because everyone is driving, all of the signs have got to go Bam! You’ve got to read them straight away, so there’s no subtly. There’s these bright plastic colours, so I went and bought bright acrylic Liquitex paint. So I bought that and used the brightest colours straight out of the tub. Then I got all these words and cut them up and that’s what the cover was. Again, completely different to how I had intended it to turn out.
I wanted a big grass cock fucking the sky, and I got loads of words from LA and bright colours instead.
OK Computer was really computer based but now it sounds like you’re doing things a lot more by hand?
Yeah, that’s kind of how things turned out. When I left College, like everybody, I didn’t have a job or any money, so I was just pretending to be a student at the University in my town to print stuff out. I didn’t have a painting studio, I didn’t have anything while we were doing OK Computer. We were doing it all with a light pen and monitor and I felt there was a big disconnect between our bodies – we’re physical creatures, our bodies remember gestures. Say if you had an injury when you were a child and later you go to see an osteopath, the osteopath might do something and you go argh! – Because you’ve got a memory in your body. Well all of that’s been lost, it’s just hand eye co-ordination. I’m not even drawing on the thing I’m looking at, I’m drawing down here, just clicking a mouse. So for Kid A, I rented my first painting studio, which was almost supernaturally cold, and it had a view over a car park where they kept dozens of lorries that clear out sewerage drains. It was not the most salubrious place.
Very inspirational stuff I’m sure.
I got these huge canvases and I set up some rules. No brushes, I’m going to use knives and sticks and my sleeve and just make big gestures. I did these big, big paintings that were almost two metres square and then I had to figure out how it is you get them photographed. I mean I still use computers a lot, but a computer’s just another tool. I don’t really like artwork that’s just made on a computer, although there are exceptions.
Do you tend to put rules on yourself a lot? When you go into a project are there certain things you try not to do?
Always. Always. When I was doing the huge print for Atoms for Peace, an 18ft long piece of lino, there were things I had to do with the waves to make it work visually.
If you’ve got a weekend off, what sort of stuff do you like to do? Is there such a thing as a weekend off?
Not really. I mean, I’ve got a family so obviously I spend as much time with them as I can, but in terms of work I’ve got my own little projects going on. At the moment I’m creating this world called Modernland,which is all grey and monochrome with maybe some tiny bits of red. But it’s the sort of world, if you can imagine a communist, eastern European Soviet satellite, where an authoritarian dictatorship has been taken to its logical extreme and all of the troublesome people have been re-located. They’ve all been deported, there’s nobody left. There’s nothing in this world apart from shadows of ghosts and all the trees have been cut down, just acres and acres of tree stumps. And there’s other parts of it where there’s nothing but just holes in the ground. And there are other parts with really high white poles, and the skies are very tormented and black. I’m doing that with a lot of graphite. But I’d like to do some very big paintings of that world. When I’ve got time, I’m doing that.
You also write a lot. Do you include a lot of that in your paintings?
No, not really. I don’t use my own writing, but I quite often use Tom’s writing in my paintings or artwork generally. I did a bit between Kid A and OK Computer that was using my writing that will be in this show as well. But you know, I had a proper book come out in the UK, called Humour, and it was stories that I had been writing for twenty years. It was quite nice to get that out and published.
Is there some anxiety with a retrospective show like this?
In a way. It took me until 2006 to even have an exhibition at all, because I didn’t really like the idea. I’ve done a few now and it’s alright. Once I get to the viewing and have some wine and smoke lots of cigarettes, I can deal with it. In general though, I don’t really like them. But with this one it’s been quite interesting, the timing of it, because in the studio where I work with the band, my area had become pretty disgustingly messy and dirty. It had never been cleaned. So I thought, it’s time I clear this thing out. I went through, I had piles of faxes we’d been sending to each other since ‘98, there was just so much stuff. I had to pick up every single piece of paper and look at it and go, ‘do I keep this, or do I throw it away?’ I had a big box of ‘keep’ and a big box of ‘throw away.’
It took about a week and then I went home for the weekend and went ‘fuck, what have I put in the throw away box?’ So the next week I had to go through the throw away box again.
Then I ended up with the throw away box—definitely going to burn this—on the bonfire, gone. I did the same thing in the painting studio. I’m 46. When I was younger, I was like ‘fuck copyright, fuck archiving’, it’s all ephemeral, it’s just packaging, and I’ve been doing this for twenty years, this has been my life. It’s quite interesting; it’s like going through old photographs.
Like moving house.
Exactly. ‘Oh that used to be that colour’, ‘look at that terrible old sofa we used to have’ – all that kind of thing. So it’s been quite nice. Doing this, because the focus of it is ‘The Panic Office’, most of it is the stuff I’ve done with Radiohead.
So I guess next, after the show, you’re doing the new album?
There’s no schedule for that. There’s things going on, but I don’t know what they are. I’m trying to assemble my brain so I’m able to know what my starting point is when it’s time to do that.
Are you given a call?
Um, not really. I mean normally when the band are working in the studio, I’ll come up and hang out and listen, and fluff around and see what comes to mind. That’s probably what I should be doing now, but I’m selling myself in Sydney and putting up a massive exhibition instead.
Do you think there will be a time when you don’t want to do a Radiohead album?
No, no. I really like the way they work and I don’t think there’s another band like them. When I’m working with them it feels like it’s got all the best things about being at art college, without any of the annoying things; such as people telling me what to do.
It’s probably one of the longest relationships, as far as an artist and a band goes.
Yeah, it’s been a long time now hasn’t it? There’s just so much work. It’s astonishing. Going through the archives, for every image that gets used in a packaging, there are probably 20 that don’t.
I like the idea of seeing a finished album and then the trail leading to it.
Yeah, there are loads of record sleeves framed in the exhibition. But it won’t be like ‘preliminary sketch’, ‘working diagram’; it’s a lot more random than that. Hopefully, if people want to spend time, they can work it out and see earlier versions of record sleeves and stuff like that.
I imagine a few will.
Let’s hope so.
(Panic Office images: Toby Peet)
Semi-Permanent presents Stanley Donwood’s retrospective, ‘The Panic office’ at Carriageworks, Eveleigh, NSW from 21 May – June 6