Got It Covered
Cover artist Stanley Donwood creates apocalyptic visions of London for Radiohead album covers. Colette Meacher dares to take a sneak.
CM: How did you come to work with Radiohead?
SD: I've lied about this so many times that the truth, such as it is/was, has been deleted. How about; I was working as a farm labourer, grading potatoes, when Radiohead drove past in their stretch limousine. "Him, he'll do," came the sound of five unanimous Oxfordshire accents.
CM: Which albums of Radiohead has your work been cover art for?
SD: 'The Bends', then 'OK Computer' then "Kid A' then 'Amnesiac' and then "Hail to the Thief'. I didn't do 'Pablo Honey' though so that one is not my fault.
CM: Do you hear their albums before you make the cover art?
SD: To the degree that I can't listen to them any more once the record has been released. The artwork and the music have a symbiotic relationship, tending towards the parasitical. The music being the host and the artwork being the leech. I usually have several ideas of varying appropriateness, most of which are discarded pretty quickly. Listening to a record take shape is a good way of attempting to adhere the pictures to the songs.
CM: How does the process of collaboration work? How much compromise is involved? Do you typically produce more than one image before you reach an agreement with Dr Tchock and the other band members?
SD: I suppose if I did something that the band really, really hated and I couldn't even talk them around to my point of view I'd probably reconsider. But it doesn't happen like that; I'm very open about what I'm doing, they're open about what they're doing. I work a lot with the Doctor, and we sometimes disagree about what things look like, but largely we share the same gloomy tastes. And yeah, loads of pictures get made; painted, drawn, computed, and a lot of them are still languishing in the gulag of dusty sketchbooks, obsolete hard drives and spider-infested barns. I was trying to make some room in my miniscule warren of a house the other day and I found a massive amount of work that I'd completely forgotten about. This was stuff from years ago, loads of never-made T-shirt designs, various versions of pictures that ended up on the record, and a series of weird images of extreme piercing that I can barely remember doing.
CM: What is it about the music that appeals to you and how does the art reflect their music?
SD: I've got to like their music more and more as time has gone on; I don't know anything at all about music, but often Radiohead make music that makes something close to my stomach squirm and twist, like an odd vertigo. It's the beauty of abandoned factories, of lines of pylons marching to the horizon. It makes pictures in my head, movement and landscape, solitude and sadness, like watching someone you love leaving the house and wondering if today is the day that they'll never come back.
CM: Do you listen to music whilst you are working? if so, what?
SD: While I'm working on what would probably end up as Radiohead artwork I'll listen to whatever music it is that I'm trying to package, repeatedly, as I said above. Otherwise, well, pretty much anything. Whatever CDs I have in the studio. I've got quite a lot of repetitive beats, some Arvo Part, Sex Pistols, Missy Elliot, Alfred Schnitkke, Philip Glass, Gogol Bordello, Scissor Sisters, Tubeway Army, Magazine... or Radio 4.
CM: Who is your favourite band of the moment?
SD: I don't have a favourite band. I tend to listen to music until I'm bored of it. Currently I am listening to Goldie Lookin' Chain and Crazy Frog.
CM: Have you made cover art for any other bands or solo artists?
SD: I've done a few record covers with Matthew Herbert, most recently his 'Plat du Jour' project. I did chromatography with food dyes for that, and the results were surpisingly beautiful. And I did Jonny's solo record, Bodysong, which was the soundtrack for a very strange film. I've done a few others over the years, but I can't really remember. That's terrible, isn't it? I've heard that smoking hash fucks up your short-term memory, so perhaps I'll have a clearer recollection of all this when I'm old. Oh yes, there was Thom's record too. 'The Eraser'. I did a thirteen-foot long linocut for that.
CM: What is your artistic background?
SD: Compulsive drawing from an early age. Useless at pretty much everything else. I went to college, and then I went on the dole. When I was little I wanted to be an architect, an archaeologist or an artist. Or a pirate. Piracy still appeals, but archaeology and architecture seem to demand a great deal of intellectual and academic rigour. I'd recommend art to anyone.
CM: Where do your ideas for the artwork come to you?
SD: That's a very awkward question to answer. Everywhere, I suppose. I work a lot at night, when it seems the brain is a bit relaxed, a bit more open and suggestible than during the day. Train travel is good for letting your mind wander, but recently I've been getting really depressed on trains. Or maybe I'm just noticing it more; I don't know. But broadly speaking, the ideas are almost all derived from the modern world. I'm about to start on a new project that's largely to do with suburbia.
CM: What lies behind your recent apocalyptic visions of London? You would seem to be anticipating London flooding as a consequence of global warming?
SD: This work started after the floods in Cornwall back in 2004. That was an astonishing thing to see, and then a few months later there was that horrible tsunami. I was fiddling about with images inspired by the woodcuts in the Nuremburg Chronicle, and after a while my desire to combine techniques of gilding and illuminating with modern cityscapes resolved itself into a far more graphic take on flooding. It was really good fun to make the images that were shown first at Lazarides and then on the cover of 'The Eraser'. Honestly, it was fun. Linocutting is ace. I guess London is going to flood eventually, and we'll have to abandon it. They're having to raise the flood barriers more and more often, there are more and more aeroplanes and cars, the ice is melting, the permafrost's going... it's going to be very ugly, as this impending ecological disaster is going to be concurrent with the oil running out. I could go on and on, but I won't.
CM: Would you say there is an implicit but somewhat dark romanticism in your work?
SD: All romanticism is dark at its heart. Romance is to darkness what sex is to death.
CM: Is German Expressionism an influence? You would seem to transpose Caspar David Friedrich's solitary landscape gazer into the urban metropolis - are you suggesting a romanticism that comes out of destruction?
SD: Ha, I first heard that as 'solitary landscape geezer'. Yes, the weirdly attractive introspective romanticism of painters like Freidrich compels me; I don't know why. I like going to parties and then quietly walking outside to look and listen from the darkness of the garden or the yellow light of the street, and I like waiting for a train and then not getting on it, and watching it leave. This kind of harmless melancholia is what I find in Friedrich's paintings; it's a variety of Victorian sentimentality I think. My images of destruction are usually pretty clichéd; it's quite obvious that I take a certain delight in hackneyed visions of awfulness. I'm always trying to make the dreadful look beautiful.
CM: Is the art of album covers fine art?
SD: Absolutely not. It is commercial art, designed to shift units and add to the wealth of record-company shareholders. But then I suppose that fine art itself isn't really that morally respectable either. Paint pictures for an advert or for an ad-man. You decide.
CM: Which artists inspire and influence your own work?
SD: I could make a big shopping list here, if I had a better memory. Um, there are some obvious people; Peter Kennard, Peter Blake, Gilbert & George, David Hockney, Andy Warhol... and some that are perhaps less obvious; Paula Rego, John Constable, Anna Maria Pacheco, Arkhip Kuindzhi, Edward Hopper, and the people who did the illustrations for Ladybird books in the Sixties.