Q&A with Stanley Donwood, The Sixth Member of Radiohead

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In the late ’80s, Stanley Donwood hitchhiked around England, busking a fire-breathing act. He stopped off at Oxford to visit his friend, a fellow University of Exeter fine-art student named Thom Yorke. Today he’s known as the sixth member of the band and has crafted virtually every piece of Radiohead artwork from The Bends, where he morphed a photo of a medical dummy with Yorke’s face; to the lava lamp-esque In Rainbows album cover, which was created using wax and hypodermic needles. Tomorrow San Francisco’s Fifty24SF presents Stanley Donwood’s first ever showing in the United States — Stanley Donwood: Over Normal — featuring pieces inspired by his work for Radiohead’s sixth album, Hail to the Thief, and the color of California freeway signs. We sat down with him to chat about it.

Why did you choose the alias Stanley Donwood?

I have collected a number of aliases and pseudonyms during my time here. Stanley Donwood is the one I’ve used for making artwork and writing a certain type of story. I have another for gutter journalism, one for historical research and ghost hunting, one for pulp fiction, and several others that are interchangeable depending on the circumstances. One of my favorites at the moment is an antiquarian and guerrilla archaeologist called Sterling Bland.

Why is your website called “Slowly Downward”?

Partly because one of my names is Stanley Donwood. “Slowly Downward” started off as the title for a collection of very short stories I wrote at the end of the last century; when I decided to put them up on the internet it was the obvious title for the web site. It is a nice title too, I think… slightly sad, but slightly inevitable, an inevitable acceptance.

How and when did you first meet Thom Yorke?

I’m afraid that as we reinvent ourselves as weary middle-aged former hipsters the accuracy of memory tends to get a little compromised. In brief, I can’t remember. I was too much of an arrogant little fucker to take much notice of anyone else.

What was your first impression of him?

I believe he may also have been an arrogant little fucker. Again, I may be wrong.

How would you describe your collaborative process with Dr. Tchock? And why did Thom choose the pseudonym?

Hey, it’s not a pseudonym. Dr. Tchock is a well-known artist. Our collaborations differ in degree, according to how intertwined our ideas of the current project become. It’s modeled partly on the military and strategic stasis of the Cold War; Mutually Assured Destruction. Whatever one of us does, we can be assured that the other will destroy it. This may go on for some time. From the paint-strewn ruins of this painful annihilation come strange forms we could not predict, which we then treat carefully and nurture into functioning artworks.

Why did you choose to experiment with lino-cutting? How long did it take to cut the 13-foot-long piece that was used for The Eraser album artwork?

Lino cutting produces a strange effect as everything has to be drawn backwards (so it comes out the right way round when you print it). Essentially, when I print a lino cut that I’ve made it doesn’t look like my own work. This in itself is great; I’m sure all artists get sick to fucking death with their own work. And I wanted to do something that looked a lot like the hack wood cutting art of medieval artists, as the work for The Eraser/London Views was partly inspired by a book called the Liber Chronaricum which was published in 1493. I’m not sure how long it took to cut that one. I don’t really keep a record. I started in the middle and worked outwards… maybe about six months? Maybe less. I find lino cutting very compelling and hard to interrupt, so it is possible for me to work consistently for quite long periods. Not like with painting.

What was your technique for creating the In Rainbows artwork? How did wax and hypodermic needles come into play?

That started with an accidental spillage of wax from a huge candle I had to illuminate the murky ruin I was working in at the time, and developed from there. I was using hypodermic needles to draw with, as they have a quite scratchy and slightly unpredictable ink flow. I wanted to draw in a spasmodic, injured sort of way, and the needles and syringes were ideal for that. A big church candle overflowed and poured molten wax over my drawing, suggesting a vaguely sexual accident. From this happenstance came a series of works using almost industrial quantities of wax, in many colors. Needles are quite hard to get hold of; I asked a doctor friend to get me a large number, which he did. Although his passing me the bag of needles in a school playground whilst we waited to pick our kids up was a disconcerting moment.

How did you come up with the concept for the work in your new show?

Yes, this all started in 2003 when Radiohead were recording what became Hail to the Thief. I was embroiled in my topiary porn idea, but it quickly became apparent that another idea was required. I can’t drive, so I spent some time in the passenger seat of cars, noting down much of what I saw. Los Angeles seemed to be a vastly beautiful mirage, an El Dorado of hydrocarbon-derived plastic sliding elegantly into the Pacific, its vibrancy bleeding out into the ocean as thick black tar. We went out to the Joshua Tree park, and I wrote down nearly every word I saw on the journey. It looked like a doomed, scrawled poetry, a call for some sort of help that wasn’t really required.

Is this a return to the Hail the Thief artwork? Will Pacific Coast be showing?

I was in California last January, and automatically I used what I’ve called my California palette. To my eyes the advertising materials used at the roadsides here are by necessity very bright and vibrant, designed to attract the wandering attentions of the motorist; they have to be bold and they have to almost clash. So white, black, yellow, red, green, blue, orange. The OVER NORMAL work is based around email spam, and how I think it’s like a pure form of advertising. Naturally, I need to advertise in the way that works best, and that’s by using the California palette.

No, Pacific Coast will not be in the show. It’s there as a spirit ancestor, if you like.