Sunday, September 5, 2010
I sat down with Stanley Donwood this past week to expand upon our first interview we did in 2007, when we had never met and the entire piece was done via email. Now, as Stanley is in San Francisco for his Over Normal exhibition at FIFTY24SF Gallery, we took a drive around the city, ended up in Haight-Ashbury, and found out that Stanley was far more influenced as a child with the Summer of Love than I could ever have concluded on my own. Of course, Radiohead album cover art and band identity and Summer of Love imagery don't really have a lot in common from what I can detail.
Posted by Evan Pricco in Untagged
We took a few minutes out of our Sunday to visit UK-resident, Stanley Donwood, as he and John Matthias prepared for both a visual gallery experience (ie, paintings and prints by Mr Donwood) and sonic experience (ie, sound by Donwood and Mattias) in the FIFTY24SF Gallery. I didn't want to intrude too much, so I just snapped a quick few pictures and didn't ask about Radiohead.
Made my way down to Mark Ryden's book signing for "The Snow Yak Show" at the SFMoMA last night. It was a madhouse! In a good way. People came from far and wide to see Mr Ryden and get a little something signed, whether it be book, sketchbook, or magazine. And, not sure if Ryden staged it, but their was so hardcore conceptual fans who came out dressed up and in performance art mode. It really added to the ambiance.
In the second part of my discussion with Stanley Donwood in conjunction with his exhibition opening at FIFTY24SF Gallery tonight, it becomes quite clear that I’m fascinated by England, and Stanley is fascinated by California, both for the same/opposite reasons. We talk about the after effects of 1960’s counter-culture movements, the anti-history of the USA, and the maze that is London.
Evan Pricco: What do you think about San Francisco? How does it compare to Los Angeles, which you have been to before? Is it different to you?
But that is the interesting part about California; it’s like a mini country. San Francisco is very California, and LA is very much still California.
Yeah, but so is Death Valley. Its like Scotland to England, where LA is London and SF is Edinburgh, right? But yeah, it’s very different. I love Victorian architecture and the ornate-ness to it, the pointless decoration. Really brilliant, and its everywhere here, and all made of wood. This is architecture that was supposed to be carved from stone and here they have done it, but out of wood! Its like making models, and all the homes are different and they are not meant to go together. The small gaps between the houses, its almost like why don’t you ask your neighbor if you could borrow a wall, because it is nearly like your wall is there wall. But no, there is that gap that nobody can get through except for a mouse.
But San Francisco is great. The trees are great, the trams are great, and the bikes are great. That whole fix-ey thing is great. But the coolest thing I saw today was a guy going down Fillmore on a skateboard wearing a suit and hat. It was possibly the coolest thing I had seen all year.
That is kind of San Francisco in a nutshell. Its interesting to me, growing up here, growing in Northern California, is that when I step back and look at art and culture in California, its always going back to counter-culture: underground comics, skateboarding, Haight Ashbury, all the Silicon Valley tech movements that have shattered the norm, drugs, music, its all based on that idea of “experimentation.” And Hollywood has glorified it for better or for worse. But then you look at San Francisco as the place that was founded during the Gold Rush, and this whole “I’m going to strike it rich by moving across the country to mine for gold, and I’m staying in SF for awhile on my way.” That concept was a bit counter-culture and a bit mad at the time. So you have all these very absurd but very individualistic creative energies that basically founded the place. There was no blueprint, it was just absurd, but it worked.
Right, going out to find gold, what are the chances of that? But there is that a chance.
I learned today that Google was founded here by Stanford students, and that Stanford was founded by a railroad baron, Leland Stanford and it’s home to the right wing think tank, the Hoover Institution. I picked up this map today done by the SF-writer, Rebecca Solnit, and she made this map called the “Right Wing of the Dove.” It’s the Bay Area as the conservative military brain trust, and it goes from the north where there is the Bohemian Grove, then to Travis Air Force Base, Chevron, Bechtel, Wal-Mart, Stanford, Hoover Institute, Robotex, Lockheed Martin, and it goes on… but its astonishing, a recommended read.
They don’t sell that image to you about the liberal Bay Area at the airport, and its very much an interesting point that Glenn Beck, or Bill O’Reilly would chastise the Bay Area for being this liberal bastion while this is very much a powerful conservative industrial complex here. I think conservatives here love that buzzing distraction from the talking heads.
And we were in the Haight Ashbury today and in my mind I’m thinking, “This was where you could show up in Golden Gate Park and take your clothes off if you wanted to, years ago, and how far is that away from Bechtel?” But it’s actually only about two miles away in this small geographical area of the world.
Did you know that Radiohead was the first band to play in Golden Gate Park at night? It was for the Outside Lands Festival in 2009.
Wow, I didn’t know that. Ever? Wow.
That’s a bit far from the spirit of Bechtel as well, 60,000 people singing “Fake Plastic Trees” together in the Park that was the capital of the counter-culture movement in this country.
(Laughs). Its funny how that counter-culture thing has turned out. All the hippies have grown up and made a little money, and now the counter-culture is coming from a completely different direction.
I don’t even know where the counter-culture is anymore. I want to know, but I couldn’t tell you.
Its disparate now, isn’t it? There isn’t that sort of “one kind of youth movement” at the moment. There isn’t one kind of adult culture at the moment, either. But you can tell who’s who, can’t you? You can walk around San Francisco and you can sort of see people who are on your side. I had that happen to me today, where some guy just sort of nodded at me on the street as in some sort of confirmation. I felt like a regular.
I think you could live here, just meeting you for a few days it seems like you are enjoying it.
There is a lot I like about it here, but there are a lot of things I like about Barcelona, Amsterdam… but its that sort of English gloom, gray depression that makes me say, “Ah, I could live here, I love it here… but wait, it’s too great! I’m having too much fun! I need to go back to England where its really shit.”
How come you don’t live in London?
Because there you can’t get out. You can’t see the countryside. It’s too flat. I grew up in Essex County and it was very flat, and very close to London. Funny enough, though, London is my favorite city in the world. In a fucked up way, though.
I’m really into the history of a place, and the first thing I do when I’m in a place like San Francisco is say, “How did all this stuff get here, and what was here before?” And a lot of American history has been erased, a lot of the Native American culture and history destroyed. But in London you get a full history of things. People have been writing about it for 1,000 years. When I wander through London, I feel like I’m drifting through the autumn leaves of the past.
London is probably dying as a city, it probably won’t last another 100 years in terms of economic and political influence. The influence is waning. So I walk through this faded city, and everywhere I go, every name of a street means something, there is a story. And you can picture very clearly how everything in London looked 100 years ago, 200, 500… its all there. It’s all written about. That is why I love London.
And that is what all the artwork I did for the Radiohead album Amnesiac is all about: London as an imaginary prison, a place where you can walk around and you are the Minotaur of London, we are all the monsters, we are all half human half beast. We are trapped in this maze of this past.
So Amnesiac was a London album?
For me it was. The work I did on Amnesiac was done by me taking the train to London, getting lost and taking notes.
And that was sort of what the album was about, wasn’t it? Like finding all these historical documents in someone’s attic from a hundred years ago. Nothing sounds like it goes together, but there is this voice that links it all together, verifying that its from the same culture. That’s an amazingly underrated album.
We wanted it to be a like a book. And someone made these pages in a book and it went into drawer in a desk and was forgotten about in the attic. And the attic was then forgotten. And visually and musically the album is about finding the book and opening the pages. And that is why I wanted to make that physical book with the album that we did.
I love that the research for the album was about London.
Yeah, I kept the receipts from the train pass and used it as a business expense. ‘What have you been doing today?’ Well, I went to London and got lost…
Part 3 coming soon…
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 Amnesiacwork?
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’ttheir 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 . . .