Ten Meets Stanley Donwood, the Artist Behind Your Favourite Radiohead Album Covers
How does Stanley Donwood perceive the relationship between music and art? “I can’t speak for anyone else, but I find that music contains almost every other art; pictures, poetry, literature and sculpture are hidden within it. I’m not a musician so I don’t know if it works the other way around.” And what does he hope people will take away from his recently published book with Thames and Hudson that personally and intimately tracks his career as an artist and visual collaborator with Radiohead since their inception? “That it’s possible to be both an artist and a failure…”
There Will Be No Quiet is Donwood’s seminal track record of his initial work with Radiohead and his subsequent artistic explorations, work posing questions pertaining to life, meaning, landscapes, the future, our world and its impression on us. With each chapter dedicated to a major work, we are taken on a journey into not only Donwood’s life, but also his subconscious. From his first forays into the possibilities art can offer, to his collaborations with writers such as Dr. Robert Macfarlane –we see a life not necessarily linear but spread laterally across differing means of expression.
Speaking of his time at art college and the conflicting sensations he underwent, Donwood speaks of how “it was hard to see how to join in with all of this, as it sometimes seemed as if everything – everything – had already been done and there were no new ideas left in the world… At one point I convinced myself that plagiarism was absolutely the best form of art, as surely there couldn’t be any more new ideas and it was my duty to reuse ideas other people had already thought of.”
‘London’, 150 x 150 cm (591⁄8 x 591⁄8 in.), acrylic on canvas, 2003 © Stanley Donwood
Having met Thom Yorke at university, Donwood entered into the world of Radiohead upon its inception, leading the band’s global visual identity through his collaborations with Yorke and deep dives into what the newly discovered internet had to offer. Donwood opened up their strange, multi-layered and in no way, linear music to the globe – using visuals and illustrations to further express their methods of thinking.
Together, Yorke and Donwood commenced the creation of Radiohead’s very own website: “We hadn’t ever had a medium like this at our fingertips. The only thing that resembled the chaos of the emergent internet was the content of our sketchbooks, which were visually random compendiums of newspaper cuttings, photographs and half-remembered ideas and drawings that revealed the manner in which they’d been assembled more than they formed any sort of considered narrative.” What this resulted in was not only a new and impossibly limitless opportunity to communicate a band’s visual identity but “the website enabled an emotionally and intellectually close relationship between the band and anyone interested in what they were doing. And it was free,” he says. What did Donwood admire about the internet when he first discovered it? “Everything.” And what about now? “Nothing.”
For the creation of OK Computer, Donwood’s exploration of the possibilities of the internet brought him to create the band’s third album cover, probing the theorem that white was the colour of death and refusing to use a computer’s “undo” key, believing that this is an option not available in reality. Instead, the belief that all mistakes leave traces would be signalled through images overlaid over one another or heavily scratched out in white. The resulting artwork? “It was a splintered collection of the unimportant and the overlooked, of the discarded and forgotten, the irrelevant and the pointless,” he explains. Donwood surmises the work as “the visual impression of a ghost language or the relics of a disaster.”
‘Amnesiac’, digital composition, 2001 © Stanley Donwood
The artist talks about how the ‘old hobo language of America’ that was painted on barns by train hoppers during the early 1900s played a role in the now globally identifiable visual of that album: the wonky star in the circle to signal “against demons”. Exploring the work of Basquiat with Yorke, Donwood was led to Henry Dreyfuss’ book Symbol Sourcebook, where these hobo codes were referenced. Donwood used the “against demons” symbol on not only the album artwork, but on T-shirts and huge posters slapped across cities for the band’s resulting tour. Did this now infamous design keep back the demons in Donwood’s own head? “I don’t know if this had any actual effect on demons, or if I had somehow calmed a temporary madness within my own mind. It’s difficult in retrospect to be clear about mental disturbance, and now I only remember the fear vaguely as a healed wound, a faded scar.”
These signs and symbiotic signals all play into one another: the hidden language, the symbolism of coding, the rise of the internet coming to interpret these ancient coded languages and claim it as its own. With OK Computer collated entirely digitally, but incurring signals of human error through its scratched out sections, overlaid with new, replacement imagery, we see ghost highways, wandering spirits, barren landscapes. Lives gone wrong.
As the album Kid A was recorded, Donwood made up stories for his young children – bears that grow to become angry at their abandonment by their owners entering adulthood and returning to eat them. These stories infiltrated his continuous illustrations – the icon of a grinning bear with the pointy teeth came to fruition. With Radiohead intending the album to be treated as a whole piece of music rather than a collective of songs, Yorke and Donwood created “blips” – very small films that were soundtracked with scraps of music from the record. These grinning bears were brought to life and came to carry that distinct association of Radiohead the band. We see here how Donwood’s own lives and personal explorations were informing the band’s impressions too.
‘Lucky’, digital composition, 1997 © Stanley Donwood
The title of his tome of sorts, There Will Be No Quiet, came to Donwood as a subconscious brain scrawl as he explored London’s ancient past and overlaid this upon his fascination of the metaphor of the Minotaur, which would come to play a keen visual role in Radiohead’s album Amnesiac: “there will be no quiet, there will be no peace” he found written in his notebook. Completely unaware of writing it himself, the phrase was a knee jerk reaction to his experience of the loud, dirty, unforgiving city.
In more recent years, Donwood’s work has enlightened the covers of some of Dr. Robert Macfarlane’s books, the multi-award-winning writer whose works explore landscape, nature, place, people and language. Macfarlane notes on talking to Donwood about the meaning of his work Nether, which would come to grace the front of Macfarlane’s seminal novel Underland: “I remember asking Stanley about the image when we were together one day on Orford Ness, the shingle spit off the Suffolk coast where nuclear weapons were tested in the decades after the Second World War,” says Macfarlane. “‘Nether’, Stanley said then, ‘isn’t the sun. It’s the last thing you’d ever see. It’s the light of a nuclear blast that has just detonated. When you look at Nether, you’ve got about 0.001 of a second of life remaining, before the flesh is melted from your bones.’ Oh.”
There are points in Donwood’s book where the impact of his dreams, or more correctly, haunting nightmares, takes over his waking life – insidiously plaguing his childhood and onwards to his young adulthood. One specific nightmare involved the facing of his own personal demon: a manifestation of the most horrible sense. What frightened Donwood the most about his own personal demon was the sensation of real danger moving closer, a build-up to something spectacularly monstrous. The climax, strangely enough, was the recitation of that said demon of a shopping list – what Donwood recalls as terrifying is not the list itself but the fact that it didn’t end, that it would continue for all eternity. This sense of eternal hell was only exacerbated by the fact that after awaking from this nightmare, he found himself only in another one: relieved to find himself in his own bed, only to see his demon open the door, smile and walk in. Waking up and noting the whole experience down, Donwood notes that this seemed to effectively vaporize the nightmare, which has never returned to him since.
‘In the Maze’, digital composition, 2001 © Stanley Donwood
Subsequently, his frequent visitation of nightmares would be noted down immediately after. “Instead of tolerating them as the dark side of an otherwise perfectly normal life, I wrote them all down, detailing their strangely manicured landscapes and uncanny level of detail, their everyday mundanity and the inexorable sense of looming disaster they all seemed to convey,” he says.
Speaking to the Director of Jealous Gallery in London, where Donwood has exhibited, Louise Fitzjohn notes how she experiences his artistic approach as “quite varied, but consistent. By that I mean, whichever medium he turns his hand, you can see it is from him. He has built a style that is instantly recognisable as his own, while not remaining the same – his work feels fresh and exciting with every new work.” The interconnectivity of Donwood and Yorke throughout their lives is resonant.“It is very important when he is creating work for Radiohead and Thom Yorke,” continues Fitzjohn. “The work he creates for their album and single artwork is all made in the studios while they are recording the music. So the work is created in direct response to the music, with no prior planning at all.”
How does Donwood see the interaction of Radiohead’s music on his work? “It affects what I do quite directly and yet obscurely, and in ways that I find hard to articulate. I often start with one idea and the music requires that I discard my idea and start again. I work whilst the music is being created and developed – I presume that the artwork and the music acquire their own various integrities over the process of making.” And what about his own relationship with Thom Yorke, a partner weaved throughout his artistic life? “Platonic. Peripatetic. Permanent.”
Top artwork: ‘OK Computer’, digital composition, 1996 © Stanley Donwood. ‘There Will Be No Quiet’ by Stanley Donwood is available to purchase now.
‘PETER BLAKE CULTURE’, approx. 29.7 x 21 cm (113⁄4 x 83⁄8 in.), collage, 1993 © Stanley Donwood