The last of the 3-part interview with Stanley Donwood, we start to discuss more the specific functions and process behind the Radiohead artwork, collaboration, and that its okay to have your friends make you cry.
The entire “Over Normal” exhibition at FIFTY24SF in San Francisco is on view until October 27, 2010.
Evan Pricco: Was there anything that stood out in your travels to London for the Amnesiac work?
There was a piece of graffiti on the train when you go into London from where I live, a long piece that had been there many years, and it was painted with a brush, old school style, and it said “Far away is close at hand in images of elsewhere.” No one knew who it was, but how many commuters must have seen this? And it was there for years, years and years, and then the building it was on was knocked down.
But a new building was constructed, and somebody went and painted it again… “Far away is close at hand in images of elsewhere.” It doesn’t really mean anything but it sort of hints that there is another possibility, another way of looking at the world. And just about the time I started doing all these trips into London, someone, some graffiti artist, I think it was probably their tag, did a beautiful piece that was over the top of this bit that just said the word “Myth’” in huge letters in wild style graffiti. And that was like “Yeah! That was the dream, but it’s a myth.” The streets began to talk to me in this way. And I began reading them in this very personal, slightly mental slightly kind of crazy way . . .
I wonder everyday when I see graffiti, because I know a few graffiti artists and occasionally I know their intention, I know what they are doing, but wonder if another person that has no idea about who writes their name and historical lineages looks at graffiti and thinks “oh that’s cool,” or, “oh I get that, I get what they are doing.”
Yeah, that is one of the few moral things that I have taught my children: graffiti is a good thing. It’s not vandalism, it’s art. People kind of have a gut reaction, or gut response that graffiti is bad, but that isn’t their response, they are not saying that, some fucking fascist has told them. What was that fucking zero tolerance bullshit, Rudy Giuliani’s Broken Window theory? Some wanker in some right winged university came up with this idea that from a broken window, you get urban decay. From graffiti you get urban decay. Zero tolerance, so you can have huge advertisements saying buy these underpants, or buy these shoes, or buy this car, and that’s visual pollution as far as I’m concerned. But you can’t just write your name? What’s wrong with that, with saying I live here? People have been carving stuff in walls for a long time.
How much do you collaborate on the Radiohead album artwork with Thom Yorke? (Editor’s note: for those of you under a rock, he is the lead singer of Radiohead)
A lot. We kind of talk rubbish together. It depends on the circumstances. For some records we worked together much more closely than others. That’s all depends on how much time we’ve got and how the music is going, because, obviously, the music tends to come first.
Do they ever call you and ask how does this sound and you say this sounds like shit…
Occasionally I will shout “That’s fucking brilliant.” Only positive comments. If I’ve een silent for a while then they might get a bit worried…. Ha ha! But no… I’m pretty much tone deaf when it comes to that so I don’t really know much about music.
In terms of artwork, we collaborate. We do quite a lot of paintings, and we have a number of them on the wall and we kind of move them around because Thom has a very immediate response to paintings when we are doing them. I’m this kind of “ne ne ne ne ne” person… I don’t know anything about if the star signs are kind of real or anything, but I am a Virgo, born September 11,1968, just after they did that kind of hippie thing. I’m always trying to neaten things up and that sort of thing. And that in a way is quite good. It’s a great collaboration because if it was just me. it would be quite finicky.
So you like the collaboration?
Yeah. We have a painting or we have some artwork on the computer and then Thom comes along and basically fucks it up, makes a real mess and I’m like “Okay I’m going to fuck it up even more”… and then he’s like “You fucked up what I’ve done.” Basically it goes like that, and we just keep fucking up each others stuff until we are happy.
I re-read the interview we did in Juxtapoz in 2007 today, and looked back on our email exchanges, and intentionally did it in email form because we wanted to almost make it as informal as humanly possible. And it read really well. One thing that you said that became really interesting a few months later was you telling me you were about to go burn some wax. And you were doing became that artwork for In Rainbows. I have the special edition box set and its really beautiful, stunning work, especially looking at it in that large format. Where did the wax idea come from?
We were in a ruined stately home, I don’t know what the equivalent to that is in America, but it looked like Buckingham Palace only slightly smaller. But it was completely derelict and for reasons that probably escape me, we were all there recording what would become In Rainbows. The place was so fucked we couldn’t stay in it. So the band was staying in a load of caravans outside and I was staying in a teepee on the grounds of this stately site.
How do you guys not get bothered when you do something like that?
Bothered by ghosts?
I guess those, too, but I mean bothered by superfans?
Well this is in the middle of nowhere…
I know but still… Radiohead doesn’t have fans that show up at the store when they are trying to record? Like psycho fans?
No, it’s pretty quiet. How would anybody know that 2 miles off this tiny rotted track is a decayed home in the middle of one of the biggest forest in England where a totally fucked stately home where some musicians are trying to record an album?
In America, when you guys recorded earlier this year in LA, it was all over the blogosphere and people found out about it.
That was a bit of a problem. But that is LA, what else is there to do? People go on tours to see where famous people live and that’s just fucking beyond belief… who gives a fuck where people live?
So we were there for a long time at this decaying home, more than a month, and had no problems. I lived in a teepee until the end of October. It got kind of cold but I had a little fire in there.
At the time I was very interested in the idea that the end of the world is near and the suburban experiment, exemplified by California, interestingly enough, was a massive mistake and we’ve poured all of our resources into a petrol based economy and it’s got no future. We are going to run out of this stuff, it’s getting more expensive all the time, and basically in nutshell, we are all going to die.
Anyway, I’ve read all these books about this, and I was kind of like, alright, okay, I’m going to do the artwork for the next Radiohead record. I’m going to do all of these drawings of these massive kind of empty dead shopping malls, surrounded by car parts, surrounded by endless housing that goes on and on and on. And so I was doing all these architectural drawings of houses and stuff…
All of that work ended up in the Juxtapoz feature …
Right. I was doing all of this and I realized quite soon that the way the music was going was way more organic, more sensual and sexual, and not rigid or architectural at all. I was doing all these drawings and the illumination in this rather decrepit, once stately grandeur room that I was in had these big church candles on the mantle piece of the fireplace. I kind of pushed this old school desk up against where I was working on the drawing board and wax had fallen and gutted out and ran all over the architectural drawing. And my first instinct was “Fuck! Fucking I don’t believe it!” Then I looked at it, and the way it kind of sat, and the way that wax dries, obviously it starts off transparent and it dries opaque. And the spattering of the oils and the wax that had soaked into the paper, and I was like… “ooooh, that’s quite interesting what’s happened there.”
I went through to the next decrepit room, and once the wax was dry, scanned it and it turned out really nice. Because there was some marks I’ve made from rubbing something out with an eraser on the thing and kind of inverted it and fucked around with the thing in Photoshop with the wax. And was like, again, “Ooooooh, this is very interesting.”
At the same time I was drawing with hypodermic needles, you know syringes. I had a friend who was a doctor and I got a load of hypodermic needles and was drawing with them. If you draw with a syringe, the point of the needle is quite far from your hand, and you have to keep a gentle continual pressure with your thumb on the plunger on the hypodermic to push the ink out just a little bit. You draw, and the needle is so sharp it scratches the paper, so you have to draw in this slightly spasmodic way, but you get this lovely effect when you’re drawing. Its sort of the drawings you get when someone who had been tortured or something, and when I was drawing, I got these occasional spurts and splatters when you can’t quite control it, from the tiny little air bubbles. And you get all these accidental splatters, tiny little splatters, so I was trying to draw this endless field patterns with this, and it’s a difficult thing to do. And that mixed with the wax and then played with in Photoshop became a very interesting. The nicest ones I used for the record.
Did you come up with all the color palettes for In Rainbows?
That was something Thom found from this weird account on some meteorological website. We were looking at all these meteorological websites that had satellite pictures of ice blocks at the poles. We had all these images, and one of them was a screen grab that Thom grabbed and it just had some meteorological data and it was written in those colors. They were absolutely beautiful. I got the screen grab and converted it to CMYK and got the CMYK values off each one and used those colors. And that font is one of the fonts used for US highway signage.
It’s a great font. I’ve always like it because it seems so direct. Not to go too far into it, but what’s your favorite song from that album?
“Videotape.” It makes me cry every time I see them play it live. I’m reduced to a blubbery wreck. It’s fantastic. If I died I’d want that played when I was dead. It’s the most awful, saddest song I’ve ever heard in my life.
We were doing the production of the record, and we were sitting in the studio in London and Nigel Godrich (producer) played it and we both just cried sitting there on the sofa. I couldn’t help myself.
What’s with you Radiohead guys and crying? I’ve read stories of Thom crying.
(Editor’s note: Crying is fine, Radiohead members crying is fine, maybe even this editor has cried to a particular song before…)
I found it very embarrassing that my friend could make me cry by singing. Its not like he kicked me in the head or something. I think it was “Exit Music” that used to do that to me as well.
You are invested in the music…
I didn’t like that sort of music when I first started working with them.
But they were just young kids!
I know. I was into that kind of techno music, that acid house, ecstasy kind of thing. Rock music… why would I listen to rock music? They play it with real instruments… we’ve got machines that can do that now! And so you know, but I liked a couple of things on The Bends, and I like a lot of things on OK Computer, and I liked almost all of Kid A, if not all of it. And I’ve gotten more and more into their music… well maybe they are just making better music now . . .