Stanley Donwood: “I like staring into space and doing nothing”
There there, there’s no getting away from it. There was no hope in hell that an interview with Stanley Donwood would be concluded without mentioning Radiohead, the band whose music he’s so brilliantly illustrated since 1994’s ‘The Bends’. Since then he’s created some of the most iconic, dystopian, beautiful yet apocalyptic visions the graphic art world has witnessed, and all to inch-perfectly fit that band’s own sound, a collaboration which continues to evolve to this day.
That being the case, my interview with the visual artist did manage to cover other topics such as drugs, ageing, planetary destruction, and his own books of design and visuals which he seeks to ‘be understood by every human being on the planet’.
I understand you like a glass of white wine, hopefully you’re having one now.
Stanley, speaking as someone who is raging receder, when did you go bald and did you worry about it at all?
I went completely bald overnight when I was 23. I have not a single hair upon my person. I didn’t worry about it at the time and I don’t worry about it now. I think hair is stupid. And yes, I’ll have a glass of Picpoul, thank you.
In our first email exchange you mentioned you would be away in terms of being offline – do you need to be away from such things as the internet in order to work, focus, etc?
I suppose that putting a ‘vacation response’ on your email account is a modern equivalent of pinning a not to the door – ‘back after lunch’ or whatever. Being attached to the internet in its various forms has recently become very normal and seems mostly to be a positive thing; although it must be said that the effect of the internet on our public and private lives has yet to manifest itself entirely. It may be that it turns out to be inimicable to liberal democracy. Wouldn’t that be funny?
Pass. And for you?
I don’t need to be away from anything to work, or to focus (not that I’m sure I ever really do) or for anything really. Sometimes I go to places that don’t necessarily have easy access to electricity, so of course, things like the internet are much more difficult to use. Like most people I usually have a phone, but the battery runs down, and so that’s it. When I’m in places with no electricity I don’t really work very much, unless it’s just drawing or something like that, partly because when there’s no electricity there are lots of things that need doing manually and partly because I like staring into space and doing nothing.
Can the ‘planet be saved’ or what about civilisation? I’ve always had a notion that this thinking is our need to correct ourselves…
I’m sure that the planet will be absolutely fine; it’s just that we have made some small alterations that will mean the future of our civilisation is untenable. It really isn’t a battle at all; not something we can win or lose. It’s just a tragedy. But regarding the survival of our civilisation – yes, I am quite pessimistic; although for many species, if they can survive the relatively short and undoubtedly messy period of our demise, this may turn out to be a net positive. If we manage to destroy much more than we already have (and we have done it in such a very short time) then it isn’t only humanity that will disappear, but much else besides. It seems such a waste; planets that sustain life are so rare, and we are fucking this one up just for short-term gain. Just for social status or money or transitory pleasure, or for convenience.
How do you feel about ageing?
I don’t mind about my own ageing… or perishing. Well, actually I quite like it. I have no desire to be young again. I detest the idea of eternal life as promoted by various religions, and more scientific methods of prolonging or preserving life such as cryogenics send a shiver along my spine. I very much hope that death is nothingness.
What does age do to you, apart from the obvious?
I’ve become less grumpy and cross the older I’ve become. I’m certainly happier now than I was in my 20s or 30s. I’ve become more fatalistic but also more accepting of the futility of existence.
Age often comes changes in approach, which brings me to drugs. I understand you had a liking for magic mushrooms – when did you stop and why?
I used to be very interested in drugs and how they change your perceptions and emotions, how they can affect your mood and your senses. I haven’t tried everything by any means – new things seem to be conjured into existence all the time – and although I’ve had some unpleasant experiences I don’t think I’ve been damaged by any of them. And – I haven’t stopped taking magic mushroom; for me they’re very much a seasonal thing, and I’m a picker-and-eater, so I have to wait until late autumn and for when the weather is right, so lots of rain, but not too recently, a good drying wind, and I have to go somewhere where they grow. I moved to the south coast of England recently and I can’t find them anywhere. It’s not for want of looking. I think the soil is too alkaline or something. As for my other favourite, which is/was hash, I gave up smoking a couple of years ago which has completely screwed that up. I’m very familiar with the traditional tobacco/hash joint or spliff or whatever you want to call it, but without tobacco it’s very hard to judge what’s going to happen. I think maybe I’ve just got bored with it. I went through a while when I was very enthusiastic about MDMA but that seems to have faded too. I think I’m just getting old. I’m definitely buying more expensive wine these days.
Are they beneficial to your kind of work?
I’m not at all sure if drugs are an aid or a hindrance to creativity. On the whole I think probably they are a kind of benefit, but you also tend to come out with some dreadful bilge.
I’ve heard it said that being an artist isn’t so much an occupation, it’s more of an existence…
Well yeah, I guess so. It certainly is for me. I get kind of jealous of people with actual jobs sometimes – not proper envious, but just a bit. I would quite like to be able to go home and switch off. Or go on holiday and switch off. Or be able to meditate, or anything really. Just a break would be nice. But hey ho. I guess I should count my blessings.
You’ve wrote that ‘Everything you’ve done has been a disaster’ – don’t you think that’s a bit extreme…
A bit extreme! Yes, it is. I just exaggerate for dramatic effect, darling.
Can I ask about your recent illustration book ‘Bad Island’ – firstly I’m inclined to think it was partly inspired by Britain…
No, it’s not anything to do with the UK. The title came along a while after I’d started cutting the pictures from linoleum. An island is in many ways a microcosm, and I guess I was thinking of our planet and how it’s a very lonely, very tiny island in an unimaginably huge ocean of nothing. And islands are intrinsically intriguing, fascinating places; an island can be a kind of Petri dish where uniqueness can flourish. Or it can be a terrible prison. There’ve been loads of islands in literary history; Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, The Lord of the Flies, Web, The Island of Doctor Moreau and so on. It was partly inspired by Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, but mainly I wanted to make a book which could have been made at any time in the past or any time in the future and be understood by every human being on the planet.
And you’ve recently collaborated with writer and lecturer Robert McFarlane on ‘Ness’, what does he bring to your own work?
I’m hoping his standing in the literary establishment and the fact he teaches at Cambridge will confer a small amount of respectability on my sorry person.
Now onto … Radiohead… how did you first become involved with them?
I was trying to earn a living by hitch-hiking around the country and doing fire-breathing on street corners, and on one occasion my act was meant to be the support for a band called On A Friday who were performing in the upstairs room of a pub in Oxford called the Jericho Tavern. The band secured management that very night and a record deal shortly afterwards. I had been prevented from doing my act by the landlord who cited fire regulations, an act of callous sabotage my fire-breathing career never recovered from. Fortunately, the band renamed themselves ‘Radiohead’ and phoned me up, asking if I was any good at doing record covers. I didn’t know, but I thought I could give it a go.
I consider your work on ‘Hail to the Thief’ as a true masterpiece, enough so that I have hung on my walls. What’s your personal favourite work you’ve created for them?
That’s a hard one. I think maybe ‘In Rainbows’. Or ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’, perhaps. Neither of those ended up even remotely as I’d intended, which for me’s a good thing. I did like ‘Hail To The Thief’ too though.
What is the process like between the band working on an album, coming to you with the concept and you producing your final work – do they give you a brief?
No, there’s no brief or concept. Usually I started pretty much when they did, so quite early, when they’re rehearsing and making songs and trying out ideas. I’ve worked in the studio, or quite close to it. For ‘Moon Shaped Pool’ I was working in a kind of barn that was across a courtyard from the recording studio, and we had a wire running across and some big speakers installed in the barn. That was a great painting studio. It was in Provence and it was fucking brilliant. Beautiful countryside and lots of white wine. Sometimes Thom has some visual ideas that he’s tried to convince me of but then again, sometimes I have ideas too. Usually, we try to utilise our initial ideas, but they haven’t ever really worked. I suppose they’re a useful place to start. I frequently begin with a hollow sense of yawning emptiness and fear that I’ve run out of steam and my paltry abilities will be exposed to the harsh light of reality. It’s quite horrible.
Strange because your art seems to always fit perfectly with the feel or sound of what the band release…
Well, that’s always good to hear. I do try. It’s probably because I’m immersed in the music throughout.
Have they ever rejected or been unhappy something you’ve produced?
There was an instance when I wanted to make giant topiary cocks out of chicken wire and astroturf for the record that became Hail to The Thief, but usually things have been pretty chill. You can read about this, as well as various other indignities in a book I made called There will Be No Quiet. Thames & Hudson, twenty-five quid. A bargain, that’s only 50p for each year of my life.
Obviously you listen to Radiohead, night and day. Are there any other artists you think ‘yeah, I’d do a good job of creating their artwork’?
I hardly ever listen to Radiohead normally. I think I overdo it while making the artwork. Well, I definitely overdo it. I kind of wish I’d done a cover for David Bowie. A lot of his later record covers were a little questionable. But then, maybe mine are, you know. It’s all extremely subjective.
What is your own favourite creation?
My favourite thing out of everything might be Hell Lane or February Holloway. And in 2007 I made a series of photographic etchings I was very happy with. Oh yeah, and I made a load of drawings for an as-yet unrealised project called Modernland. I used some of them on Thom’s record that was called Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. They were very serious, quite threatening pictures which were meant to be documents from a destroyed world. Messages from the future.
Are you dark by nature?
I’m a pussycat. Ask anyone.
Who do you steal from the most?
I’ve really done that less the older I’ve got. I used to nick off anyone, but I think particularly Robert Rauschenberg. ‘OK Computer’ was directly inspired by his work. And I tried to steal from Gerhard Richter although that was a disaster; not only was I incapable of painting like him I was also useless with oil paint. It was a humiliation, and well-deserved. But lately, not really anyone. I’m very, very into 19th century Russian landscape painters, but my own skills are negligible so it’s just a romantic dream to be able to steal from them. It’s not actually possible.
Are you still involved in the nuclear abolishment movement?
I’m involved still, I guess; if you consider making films about nuclear weapons to be ‘involved’. But I’m not a member of CND or anything like that. Along with many people my awareness of matters atomic had been kind of off the boil in recent years, but when I got asked to art direct the film ‘the bomb’ by Eric Schlosser and Smriti Keshari my deep fear came flooding back. There is no question that nuclear weapons are a truly terrible idea for a species as aggressive and idiotic as our own. It’s not if with these fucking things, it’s when. We should absolutely do everything we can to get rid of them.
What’s been your own experience of Lockdown?
Well, I’ve got quite fit because I’ve taken up long distance running. It’s quite slow running and the idea is that if you can’t talk and laugh while doing it you’re going too fast. Also I’ve been swimming a lot because I moved to the coast. Most of my paid work was cancelled or delayed or postponed so there are vast holes in my financial universe. I started a new project called The Lost Domain to try to refill the holes and also to give some work to people I know, and to raise some cash for charities, as they’ve been really hit by the consequences of the virus. So I’m working much more locally, and also quite a lot less. Essentially there are good things as well as bad that have come out of it, as far as I’m concerned. But of course, peoples’ experiences differ wildly.
Tell me about your next projects?
I don’t have anything to promote really. I’m a bit tired of working and tomorrow I’m going to go away to a place with no electricity. But eventually I will have to return to the modern world and immerse myself once more in the tepid bathwater of earning a living. To which end I’ve been working on some new screen prints. It’s taken ages because, basically, of the pandemic. During the lockdown me and my partners in the screen printing business started turning the studio into a self-contained printing workshop, which took much longer than we’d anticipated. So now, about six months later we are pretty much ready to go, and we’ve been working on some of the pictures from Bad Island; photographing the actual inked linocuts themselves, rather than the prints taken from them. So we’ll be able to show all the cut marks and so on. They should be ready in September. I’ve also been painting, although quite why, or what for I don’t really know. I guess I want to show them in a gallery, but I can’t think how at the moment.
Whats the latest with the Thomas Hardy stuff?
Yes, I’m working on a load of pictures to illustrate the poetry of Thomas Hardy, lately of Dorchester, England. He’s been dead for a long while, so he can’t object to my interpretation of his oeuvre. The edition will be published by the Folio Society, so it’ll be well fancy.
Theres something you cant talk about, it’s ‘utterly secret’. Obviously this is a new project with the greatest talent in the world – with Dear Thom Yorke – please tell me something…
I cannot tell you anything. I myself have deliberately forgotten about it until after I’ve had a bit of a holiday.
Stanley, Dan, thank you.