Hello Mr. Donwood! Its an honor and a privilege to be speaking with you. Thank you so much for taking the time out to do this interview. I am not worthy.theroyalmagazine
Q: Would you be able to tell us a bit about your background? Fine art and graphic? How did the relationship between you and Radiohead develop?
I was born in Essex, a typical English county north of London, and I became a typical representative of that bleak region. Essex is essentially a flat land that slopes almost imperceptibly into the grey waters of the North Sea, and the people of the county can frequently be seen standing on our crumbling sea defences, staring silently out at the mudflats. It is not a place that the Tourist Board mention often in their paens to the variegated beauty of Britain.
When I was quite little I vaguely remember drawing pictures of flat horizons, drawn again and again on layer after layer of tissue paper, and then glued together. These ended up looking like a sort of foggy nothingness. And I drew huge housing estates on lengths of discarded computer printout paper. Later, I managed to bluff my way through art college mainly by staying out of the way of the tutors. I didn't much care for art, but it was definitely preferable to most of the other options available to a teenager from Essex. I think any graphic sensibility I might have dates from an afternoon when I ate a quantity of liberty cap mushrooms and had a sort of vision.
I first met Radiohead when they weren't called Radiohead and they were sharing a small house in Oxford. I was hitch-hiking around England with a mate called Jim, and we were busking a fire-breathing show. We had a plan to support the band at a pub they were playing in, the Jericho Tavern, but the landlord prevented us. He was worried about the fire risk, which was a pretty reasonable concern. Firebreathing is a terrible way to make a living really; you risk getting pleurisy, setting fire to your clothes, and your breath smells like an oil refinery. I'm glad I gave that up. Anyway, some time later (years? I don't remember) Thom phoned up and asked if I wanted to try making a record cover for a single, which was called My Iron Lung. It took months to do it, because I didn't really know what I was doing, at least as far as the technology went. Since then I've got quite a lot better. At least, I like to think so.
Over the years that have passed I've worked rather closely with the band; and I've seen the recording process and how it works in different locations. Place seems to have a profound effect on how songs are filtered. Recently we've been working in a derelict stately home in Wiltshire; I'll be listening closely to see if that place has any perceptible effect on the recording.
I listen to a record a lot whilst it's being made and I'm making the artwork that will accompany it. It's hard to make art in silence. Well, it is for me, anyway, and the music has a pronounced influence on how the images end up, the sort of energy used to create them, composition and so on. My hope when making artwork for a record is to create something that weirdly enhances the music, something that affects the way you hear it. I stress the word 'hope' in this case.
Q: Influences? Social? Political? What are your biggest influences? What inspires your art?
This is such a hard question that I've made a cup of tea to help concentrate my thoughts, and to possibly help me recover memories buried under the sludge of my lifestyle. I was greatly influenced by the Left wing in Britain in the 1980s. Leftwingers are pretty much like liberals in the US; you know, pro-choice, antiracist, antisexist, environmentally concerned, dismissive of money, openminded... A lot of the socialist-leaning spectrum of politics appealed greatly, and most of it still does. Although it has all got extremely complicated of late. I became aware of politics at about the same time that a vindictive harridan named Mrs Thatcher began her rule over these islands, and resistance to her and her ilk (and political successors) became a vital task.
I became aware of Peter Kennard's work for CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, before I knew anything at all about art or artists. He took the photomantage techniques pioneered by John Heartfield in the 1930s and 40s and updated them for the 1980s. He 'appropriated' John Constable's famous painting of The Haywain, which is this bucolic 18th century oil painting of a hay cart crossing a river, and stuck cruise misiles in it. Fucking brilliant. It'll be on the web somewhere.
A bit later on I discovered the work of Gee Vaucher, who did all the artwork and graphics for an Anarchist band called Crass. She used mostly just black and white, and the results are spectacular. More recently she's done a grand print of the Statue of Liberty, but with Liberty's face in her hands.
But like most people, I try not to be too 'influenced' by anything in particular or any one person or idea. I suppose that I go through phases of enthusiasm or engagement, each of which passes fairly quickly. In the last few years I've been influenced and inspired by Giovanni Piranesi, Japanese packaging, Hieronymous Bosch, A - Z street maps, Samuel Palmer, chromatography, Edward Munch, directional signage, Iain Sinclair, grafitti tags, Paula Rego, pylons, Peter Ackroyd, Scandinavian printmaking, Edward Hopper, Los Angeles advertising, and so on and on and on.
Q: I love the mixture of digital and analog methods to some of your work. For example, the Kid A album cover - Can you give us a short synopsis and process of that work?
That was painted, originally, on big canvases, 170cm square. It was the first Radiohead artwork project that was done off-computer. The whole of OK Computer and all the singles that went with it were all done with an aging beige PowerPC and a stupid fucking mouse. I pretty much hate computers. Anyway, all these paintings were made, and obviously a CD is really small, so I had to find someone who could take high quality photos of the paintings so I could scan them and squeeze them into a computer. There's a whole load of writing about the circumstances behind the paintings on my website, if anyone's interested. There was a 3D program around at the time that allowed you to take a high-contrast version of a section of a painting, transform it into a bumpmap and then drape the full colour version of the painting onto it, and then 'fly' a camera through the canyons that the painting was turned into. Unfortunately I couldn't figure out a way of getting the results off the computer except for taking a screengrab, which explains why so much of the imagery is pixellated. I like that, on occasion. The packaging for Kid A turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. Before I started on the project I took a CD jewel case apart and I realised that there was a gap between the CD tray and the back panel, so I thought that I'd design a second booklet to go in that 'secret' space. The booklet for the usual space, ie., inside the front panel was composed of multiple foldouts, bits of tracing paper and hidden images of devils. It was very hard to design, and apparently a complete bastard to manufacture.
Q: Dr. Tchock? Tell us a bit about this fellow...ha. If I'm correct, that is Thom Yorke's alias. Tell us a bit about collaborating with him in a fine art setting. He is a musical genius. How does that correlate into your collaborations?
Thom Yorke's alias? Yes, I've heard that too. Stanley Donwood is one of his other names, according to some people, so perhaps you're interviewing him. The best way that I can put it is that Dr Tchock isn't Dr Tchock and Stanley Donwood isn't Stanley Donwood. The reasons why we have adopted these pseudonyms has nothing to do with being on the wrong side of the law, being on the run, or attempting to avoid paying tax.
Working with the Doktor is okay. What happens is, I do some artwork and then he fucks it up. But then I fuck up what he's done. Then he fucks up what I've just done even worse. So I try to completely fuck up what he's done. In the end we sort of agree to disagree. Over the last year or so I've realised that I am a perfectionist whose natural inclination is to make things neat. I detest this tendency within myself. I have also noticed that Dr Tchock has tendency to smash things up, throw them around the room and then regret his rashness. I think that together we ameliorate the worst in each other.
Q: If you are at liberty to say, are you going to be working on the cover for Radiohead's new album? If so, any hints you can give us as to the direction of the piece? Digital mixture like KID A or straight fine art like HAIL TO THE THIEF?
I have no idea what the cover will look like yet, but I'm using wax, hypodermic syringes, ink, copper plate, needles of various sorts, bitumen, nitric acid, and paint.
Q: Whats in store for the future?
Oh boy. Assuming that we don't find ourselves in some variety of terminally dreadful war, with aggrieved nations all over the planet loosing off nuclear warheads at each other, I imagine that a combination of rapidly accelerating climatic change coupled with the unavoidably awful consequences of the end of our hallucinated hydrocarbon-based economy will trigger off massive human migrations, water shortages, crop failures, infrastructure collapse and death on a truly apocalyptic scale. It's not an uplifting message for your readers, I agree. Happy new year.
Thanks so much for your time Stanley! Appreciate it so much. Keep inspiring us!
INTERVIEW BY: NIGEL DENNIS / ELECTRICHEAT.ORG