Meet Radiohead’s Secret Genius
He's the man behind Radiohead's artwork and this issue's free art prints: the mysterious Stanley Donwood
Free with this week's NME you’ll find three posters of classic Radiohead album artwork: the collage of scratched-out humans and dislocated motorways that makes up OK Computer's cover; Hail To The Thief's painted LA roadmap `Hollywood, with seething words and political phrases instead of buildings; and
the disturbed cartoon 'Everything in Its Right Place, from the Kid A booklet.
The creator of this startling, mysterious, downright odd artwork is the enigmatic Stanley Donwood. Not much is known of him; legend has is it that Stanley Donwood isn't his real name, that he met Radiohead at university and has collaborated with Yorke - working under the name 'Tchocky' or 'Dr Tchock - on all the artwork from The Bends onwards.
Donwood's stated in the past that the music and art have a 'symbiotic' and parasitic' relationship, but since his work complements their music so perfectly you could easily see him as integral to Radiohead as a whole.
Granted a rare interview with Donwood, NME tried to find out more about his relationship with the band but, befitting the smoke and mirrors that surround him and his work, his answers came more in the form of cryptic clues. From here on in, make sure you leave a trail of crumbs behind you and always remember that '2+2=5'.
NME: How did you first start working with Radiohead?
Stanley: "I saw an advert in the window of a newsagent's in Oxford; 'Wanted - artist for new band, own material, major label interest. Apply 01865 XXXXXXX:"
The first thing you designed for the band was the My Iron Lung EP. How did that come about?
"Well, after phoning the number on the ad in the newsagent's I went round to this horrible squat the band had round the back of a cinema. A really tall bloke, Ed [O'Brien, lead guitar], I suppose, explained that they were in a spot of bother. They had a single out in a week - did I reckon I could sort them out? Of course I said that I could. No point telling them I'd failed my art course."
What is your work inspired by?
"The usual things; rage, bewilderment, cynicism, boredom, paranoia, confusion, security guards, pylons, ring-roads, out-of-town supermarkets, petrol stations, fury, suburban lawns, pig farms, government installations, anger, decommissioned atomic sites, primetime TV advertising, volcanoes; you know."
How closely do you work with the band when you're designing artwork?
"Typically, I camp in the nearest woodland and try to forget who I am. Occasionally I stumble through the muddy fields to whichever derelict mansion they're recording in and make a few sketches and notes. Sometimes Colin [Greenwood, bass] notices me, skulking in the rain, peering in through the broken windows, but mostly I wander like a ghost."
Are you given a brief or can you do what you like?
"I don't know what a brief is, although I suspect I would start screaming if I ever got one."
What's the Radiohead angry bear (above) all about?
"It isn't angry; it's hungry. It's all the toys you used to play with when you were little. I first drew it for my daughter when she was about one. It was part of a story about how forgotten toys wake up in dusty boxes and go and eat the adults who abandoned them."
What do you think of the way Radiohead decided to release In Rainbows?
"Everyone's got an opinion, hey? I reckon it was the only thing to do. What else? Major label? Free CD with the fucking Daily fucking Mail? Covermount on Q? Give me a break."
Has the band ever said, 'No, that's crap, can you do something else?'
"They did once, when I wanted to make giant topiary porn. Just as well, really. Though I don't think they said it was 'crap'. I would have remembered and held a grudge for decades."
Are there overall themes to your work which perhaps dovetail with some of Radiohead's obsessions?
"It's not beyond the realms of possibility. Though I imagine those 'themes' and 'obsessions' are common to a fuck of a lot of people. But do you know what? NME exclusive: I'm even more of a miserable nihilist fucker than they are:'
What do you think is your own best piece of work and why?
"I don't know, but I got sent this quote this morning, which somehow seems quite apposite: 'You do not have to believe in yourself or your work. It is not your business to determine how good it is, how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. But it is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly to the urges that motivate you - Martha Graham [US pioneer of modern dance]."
How important do you think artwork is when it comes to forging the identity of a band?
"Well, if the band is no good it doesn't matter how good the artwork is, but if the band is great then the artwork can be shit and no-one’ll care. I'm quite repelled by the notions of marketing, brand identity and so on, but I grew up in the '80s so was continually exposed to the sort of corporate fuckwittery that gave us the insulting consumer-orientated client-state we inhabit today. This relatively sudden embrace of the power of 'graphic design' - formerly know as 'commercial art- undoubtedly had an effect on the music 'industry', paradoxically allowing me to rant about consumerism on record sleeves. And in music magazines:'
Could you explain the images on the posters we're giving away?
"Explain them? Not really; that's why they're pictures rather than monologues I bore people with at the pub. I'm a bit worried that if I 'explained' them they'd just kind of die, like tropical fish in the aquarium at the dentists'."--
Thanks to Withnail for the transcript.