Words by Anthony Thomas
Twisted. Striking. Brilliant. The work of Stanley Donwood is all of those things. Rising to notoriety as the visionary behind Radiohead’s visual identity, his imagery is immediately recognisable and maintains a rarely seen degree of relevance. No Cure had an entertaining email exchange with Stanley for this issue and unwittingly discovered his preference for psychedelics over psychologists.
Creative partnerships as lengthy as Thom Yorke and yours are rare in today’s ADD culture. What’s the secret to maintaining a successful dynamic between the two of you?
We both have ADD. No we don’t. Or do we? To be honest I don’t know the answer to your question. I don’t think that there’s a secret; there is no advice I could suggest, no method, no manner. We started working collaboratively in 1989 and we last worked collaboratively in 2013. In many of the years in between we did too.
It kind of goes like this: I do something and give it to him, and he fucks it up, then gives it back to me, and I fuck up what he’s just fucked up, then he fucks that up, I fuck it up again, and so on. Eventually we agree on it and that’s the end; that’s when it’s finished. We don’t argue, we just fuck up each other’s work. This can go on for a long time. I actually prefer it when he fucks up my work to when he doesn’t. If I just work on my own then there is no one to blame.
I do spend quite a lot of time just working alone and this is quite hard. I am a really savage internal critic and editor, and I find it incredibly difficult to tell whether what I’m doing is either good or shit. (There are no intermediate states that artwork or writing can be, in my opinion.) Where I work there are a lot of builders around, and they give me quite unembellished appraisals. If they like something they say so, and vice versa. This can often be very helpful. Thankfully, for fans of Radiohead, I stay well away from the music.
At a recent conference here in Australia, Nick Cave spoke about collaborations and he didn’t seem to think they should be ongoing long term. It didn’t seem very sustainable nor to facilitate the best results from the partnership. Do feel the work you have done with Radiohead is so prolific because you have been there every step of the way?
I’m not about to argue with Nick Cave. He could well be absolutely right. I don’t know. Every band is a collaboration though, surely? Actually, come to think about it, every sort of partnership is too, whether it’s artistic, financial or sexual. Fuck, maybe I am about to argue with Nick Cave. It’s an interesting question though. Perpetual renewal through association with the unknown and untested, or continual development through transforming the known into the unknown?
I suppose it depends on what kind of person you are, what sort of artistic methods you choose to work with, stuff like that. I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years; some I work with repeatedly and some are just pretty insane so I just leave it as a one-off. Although, to be honest, I have worked a lot with some of the insane people too. I’d like it noted here that I do not consider Mr. Yorke or Mr. Cave to be insane.
Is your process for creating the artwork as dynamic and “experimental” as the music?
I have not a fucking clue.
How many times do you listen to a record before ideas start coming to you? How far down the track does execution occur?
Hmm, I’m not sure I understand this question. However, the battery on my computer just ran out and as a consequence the program had to ‘recover’ this document so some syntactic scrambling may have occurred, because I totally don’t understand what “How far down the track execution typically occur?” means. But the first bit is okay. How many times do I listen to the record? I don’t know exactly but it’s a lot. Many, many times.
There is a blurred but definite moment when I start to see the pictures that the music is making, and from that point things become a little easier. I remember a certain point during the recording of both In Rainbows and The King of Limbs when this occurred, and in both cases I realised that I’d previously got the wrong idea, and from then on I had the right idea. I don’t really know what the ideas that I have are, and I’m not even sure if they come from me or the music, or if perhaps the music stirs up some sort of swamp inside my mind until bubbles of marsh gas start rising to the stagnant surface of the pools of pity in my brain, triggering off some sort of synaptic spasm. I have not investigated these matters very far; it’s a very impenetrable place and I think I’d start sounding like even more of a prick that I do already if I tried.
I’m happy to say that having a family has made very little difference to my proclivities as regards to substances commonly proscribed by governments. Drugs are very important, as every human society and culture that has ever existed on this planet can attest. Personally, I am a great fan of psychedelic fungi, which I take every year as a sort of mental check-up. The problem with psychedelics, in my limited experience, is that the visual hallucinations are dreadfully clichéd; basically, those artists who did all that ‘psychedelic art’ in the 60s and early 70s nailed it. There’s not that much left that they didn’t cover, so unless you resist that, any artist who relies on drugs will produce the same kind of work as that which is already associated with drugs. Which might be, you know, kind of fun, but it’s also quite boring for anyone who isn’t off their head.
On the other hand, (and I find this to be the case quite often with cannabis) sometimes it’s worth writing down impressions or ideas whilst under the influence. Most of the time when you go back, say, the next day, to read over what you’ve written you’ll find that some kind of lunatic has been scribbling in your notebook; but amongst the garbled bollocks there are sometimes some useful fragments. Sometimes even an emergent insight. I would probably say that most drugs (all that I know personally, which isn’t actually all that many) are best used recreationally, for fun, to relax, that kind of thing. Don’t do a load of drugs and expect to turn into a genius. It will not happen.
The artwork for Amok has so much energy but so little colour, brilliant stuff. What did you respond to?
It has no colour as far as I remember, apart from silver foiling. I started that artwork in Los Angeles near to the beginning of the recording of the album, and essentially it’s an eighteen-foot long linocut of Los Angeles being destroyed by fire, flood and meteor storm (in a quasi-Mediaeval style). I didn’t plan the thing at all, so I just added to it and added to it until it was finished. It was an absolute fucker to print; it was so long it had to be hand-burnished to get a print from it. And when I exhibited the print it was so long I had to commission a special curved wall to display it.
In many ways it is a continuation of the work I did for Thom’s first solo record, The Eraser, which was a long linocut panorama of London being destroyed by fire and flood (in a quasi-Mediaeval style). Both were initially influenced by some poorly-done woodcuts in a book first published in 1492, the Liber Chronaricum. This book was published in Nuremburg and purported to be a history of the world. My resulting work is, in some ways, a sort of warning.
What did you think of the video for Before Your Very Eyes?
I think it’s fucking amazing. I saw it ‘in development’ and it blew me away. It’s like the best sandcastle ever constructed.
You obviously have a practice outside of your work with Thom. What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a new edition of JG Ballard’s novels. There are 21 books in the series that I’m repackaging, and I’m working in various university science laboratories to produce the artwork. It’s a very complicated process involving many branches of structural biology, biochemistry and also some explosions, but I hope it will all turn out well. We shall see.
I’ve also got a book of short stories coming out in May (I think), and because of that I’ve been encouraged to write some more for another book. So I’m writing again after having stopped for at least five years. It’s really hard to find the time to do it because during the last five years I seem to have got really busy with art. It’s kind of annoying because although I’m doing all the things I always wanted to do, I’ve got hardly any time to just sit around or go for a walk or go to the pub. Still, that’s hardly a cause for complaint. It’s not as if I’m being chased across a war-torn Europe by Nazis.