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…