Behind the art of Radiohead: An interview with Stanley Donwood

Published in FasterLouder, 25 May 2015

Stanley Donwood’s name is actually Dan Rickwood and he is not, he insists, a defacto member of Radiohead. The 46-year-old artist has produced every piece of Radiohead’s visual ephemera since 1994; every record sleeve, tour poster and special edition booklet is by his hand. His lino cuts grace the sleeves of Thom Yorke’s solo albums and the Atoms for Peace record, and in recent months he has been busy making artwork for Radiohead’s ninth LP, expected to drop at some point in the very near future.

In other corners of the art world, you would call Donwood Radiohead’s Artist-in-Residence. A friend of Thom’s from his days at the University of Exeter school of fine art, he was recruited when the band saw their record label wasting huge amounts of money on something that “amounted to a picture of the letter R.” Donwood was in Plymouth at the time, making artwork both legal and illegal. “I’d done quite a lot of work printing and pasting stuff up. Thom said, ‘Come to Oxford. Just bring over what you’ve been up to.’ So I caught the train up to Oxford and just started hanging out.”

Yorke and Donwood began experimenting with a computer (purchased with funds from Creep) and a rudimentary form of Photoshop. “We spent a long time making the most disastrous artwork – the sort of thing that newbies using Photoshop for the first time get stuck into – ‘Look at all this stuff we can do!’ You end up doing it all and you end up with all of these sick pixels,” Donwood smiles. “But we got something quite restrained in the end. We did something by filming something off the telly, they playing the video, then taking photographs of that and putting the photographs into Photoshop and making them worse.”

Their collaboration ended up on the cover of the My Iron Lung EP in 1994 and Donwood became a fixture in the life of the band. Every time Radiohead went back into the studio, they invited Donwood to come with them. His idle fuck about with a college mate turned into a full-fledged career – one that Donwood views with gratitude and deep trepidation. He is a published author of darkly comic fiction, a printmaker and a one-time record label owner, but Radiohead is his principle work.

Why do you think Thom chose you to make art for the band? Why did the band choose you for the next twenty years?

I honestly don’t know! I spend my time thinking, ‘I wonder if they’ll want me to do the next record?’ We don’t have a contract or anything. They call me when I’m needed.

As an outsider, it seems like there’s a sense of family or community around Radiohead that is very tight-knit.

Yeah, I would say so.

And I would guess that once you’re in, you’re never out, so to speak.

Yeah, I guess so. A lot of the crew has been working with the band since the beginning. They’ve had the same managers. It’s a brilliant bunch of people. It’s an impregnable fortress. Well, it’s actually more like a monastery when we’re all working there. It’s very male and everyone’s working away at their particular thing – Colin’s over there dum dumming on his bass, Ed’s got all his effects pedals, Thom’s banging on the piano, and I’m doing whatever I’m doing with a pencil or a stick. It’s a bit like a monastery, without the god bit.

I’ve read your previous interviews where you’ve denied this notion that you’re the sixth or seventh member of Radiohead…

Oh yeah, fuck I hate that.

Yeah, it must be terrible. But actually, you’ve got Thom to blame. He did an interview in Austin a couple of years ago where the interviewer was talking about Nigel as the sixth member of Radiohead and Thom says, ‘Actually there are seven of us, including Stanley Donwood.’ And Ed O’Brien is sitting next to him nodding sagely in his bowler hat. They talk a lot about the recording environment they work in now, where you work on a mezzanine level above the sound booth while they are working on the album.

Oh really? I didn’t know that, I haven’t read a lot of interviews with them.

I don’t imagine that you would.

It’d be weird, wouldn’t it.

I’m can report back to you that you are officially in the club.

Even the mezzanine is known about!

And Thom imitates you shouting down from above, ‘I know nothing about music, but this is fucking awesome!’

Jesus, ok. And there’s me trying to be all reticent and hide the truth behind a veil of half-truths.

Donwood is happy to admit that there is a resonance between the work he creates and the music that Radiohead makes, a product of their shared political and cultural sensibilities. Like Yorke and his bandmates, Donwood grew up in the 1980s, amidst the imminent threat of nuclear war and a powerful women’s movement. It was a far more politicised and serious culture than he perceives around him today. “We were all feminists. If you were on the left, you were a feminist and against the bomb, and vaguely anti-consumerism although you didn’t really know what it was because the world was very different then,” he explains. “We came from that quite rigorous cultural aesthetic, very politically correct. Still now, any conversation that was recorded in the studio, no minority could be offended at any time, you see what I mean? That’s our ideological and intellectual foundation.”

When Donwood and Yorke came to make the artwork for the groundbreaking, career-defining album OK Computer, that ideological framework was still very much in focus. “We were working kind of like a little box. I remember Thom bought a house around this time. We were in the big time! Semi-detached house in east Oxford! Anyway, we were sitting there in this little box room, working on the record and I looked out the window and all I could see was a post-nuclear explosion landscape, just white nothingness with charred bits of trees. I was very interested in white – I think I misread somewhere that white was the colour of death in this particular religion because it was the colour of bleached bones. It was a very death-infused vision that I was trying to get across, just with a tablet and a light pen.”

The detritus of modern life that appeared on the album – airline safety cards and ads for better living – were pulled out of Donwood’s pockets. “I used to pick up just anything, you know, bits of litter, and scan it and use it. It was all the discarded stuff from our world and I wanted to make it beautiful again, but in a deathly way.”

The band invited Donwood back to work on 2000’s Kid A but he was convinced his creative well had run dry and he would have to find a job in a supermarket. He overcame his anxiety with paint, applied with sticks and knives, creating glacial landscapes and scary bears. For the Amnesiac release in 2001, Donwood unearthed a forgotten book in a dusty attic that inspired the now-iconic crying minotaur gracing the album cover.

Then, just as he would appear to have found a rhythm, Donwood went rogue. “I had an idea for the next one, but it was not appropriate,” he smiles. Obsessed with manicured hedges, clouds and the boundary between land and sky, Donwood’s original concept for the Hail to the Thief cover was a giant penis made of chicken wire and covered in astroturf, thrusting towards a bank of clouds shaped like a vagina.

Radiohead were in Los Angeles to make the 2003 album. “Thom and I were sitting – this is very rock’n’roll, this bit – we were sitting on the balcony of the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard and Thom asked if I had any ideas for the artwork. I explained my idea and there was a sort of silence. Thom said, very slowly, ‘I don’t think that’s gonna work.’ No problem, I thought, it’s a brilliant idea, I’ll use it for something else.”

Donwood spent his time in Los Angeles watching the band record and riding around in the passenger seat of cars, idly scribbling down the words he saw on LA’s ubiquitous signage. “There’s always a moment when I’m listening to the music when I suddenly know what it looks like. I’d been in LA for probably at least half of the two weeks they spent recording just doing funny stuff like montaging grass on the photographs of freeways before I said, ‘I need some paint! I need some canvasses! I’ve got all these words and I need to paint them!’ LA suddenly made sense. ‘It’s just about bright plastic colours and shouting and words!’”

The alchemy of Donwood’s creative practice is difficult to explain, but immersion is key. Recording is a long and arduous process, he says, full of mistakes and false starts; ideas change from their original form. “It’s like carving a statue,” he says. Donwood hears the songs unfold slowly from this mist and then he sees them, landscapes and places that previously did not exist. “When we they making In Rainbows [2007], I was downloading software on how to design carparks, looking at building schematics. But the music wasn’t about that at all. Something else emerged. But it took quite a long time for it to move from this very hard-edged, monochromatic perspective stuff to almost galactic compositions made with molten wax and and hypodermic needles filled with paint.”

Notoriously, Donwood’s first efforts for 2011’s The King of Limbs were abandoned – portraits of the band members done in oils. “Disastrous!” he hurrumphs, “I’ve learned my lesson.” Artwork for the forthcoming release is heading in a similar direction. Since last September, Donwood has spent roughly five weeks in the studio with the band and while he definitely can’t comment on the progress of the new album (“Radiohead Official Secret Act”) he’s also very reluctant to talk about the new album cover. “I probably shouldn’t talk about it. It’s not going very well. Disastrously, in fact. I’m trying to do something I haven’t done before, which is to disregard my innate propensity to tell stories and work figuratively. I’m trying to shed all of that and work with colour, form, energy, all of that. I’ve been talking about qigong and yoga as a way to understand how to let work be itself and not force it to be what I want it to be. Away from politics and into energetic flow. But it’s not working,” he sighs. “It will work. Nothing works to start with. That’s the thing, you just have to keep going.”