Stanley Donwood has been creating all the artwork for Radiohead since ‘The Bends’ in 1995. I spoke to him about the extraordinary relationship he has with the band and the process of working together. Here are all the stories behind each album sleeve.
The Bends (1995)
Donwood – or Dan Rickwood as he was then called – met Thom Yorke at Exeter University and then the rest of the band when they were called On A Friday. A few years later he would embark on a life-long working relationship, starting with ‘The Bends’. “Thom called me and said ‘Do you want to have a go at doing the record sleeve?’ I was so poor I’d have done anything, after a series of disastrous low paid jobs,” Donwood remembers. “I got a CPR mannequin and filmed it on an old-fashioned video camera with a video cassette in it. It all went a bit mad after the success of the album but I’d had a baby daughter so that eclipsed it a bit. I was 24 at the time and the first person I knew to have a child.”
OK Computer (1997)
Donwood describes the relationship he has with the band as “harmonious.” He starts working with them very early on in the recording process and develops the artwork over most of the time it takes for the record to be made. At the time of ‘OK Computer’ Yorke spoke about how important the artwork is to the music. “If I’m shown some kind of visual representation of the music, only then do I feel confident. Up until that point, I’m a bit of a whirlwind”. Aiming for a colour scheme of “bleached bone”, the artist tried out a new technique. “We did ‘OK Computer’ on a computer with a tablet and a light pen. We had this rule when we couldn’t erase anything. It was great,” he says. “I’m trying to write another book and I’m going to do that on a type writer because then I can’t delete it.”
Kid A (2000)
“We did very well with Kid A considering what was going on,” says Donwood. Along with pressure to live up to ‘OK Computer’ and extreme fame, the band were also adjusting to different musical styles. Following the sparse method of ‘OK Computer’, Donwood let rip on ‘Kid A’. “I got these huge canvases for what became ‘Kid A’ and I went mental using knives and sticks to paint with and having those photographed and then doing things to the photographs in Photoshop. The overarching idea of the mountains was that they were these landscapes of power, the idea of tower blocks and pyramids. It was about some sort of cataclysmic power existing in landscape. I was really chuffed with it.”
“’Kid A’ was for me a fucked up phone call whereas Amnesiac felt more like someone had left a really, really long answerphone message,” explains Donwood. The limited edition of the album came with a hardback book. “I wanted it to be like something that was found. I had this idea that there an empty house and you go up the dusty stairs without a carpet, go into the attic and there’s an old knackered chest of drawers, and inside there’s a box and inside there’s the book”. And the minotaur? “It’s a horrible creature that I felt sorry for because it knew nothing but how to be a monster. So I wanted this little creature to be in tears.”
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Hail to the Thief (2003)
Radiohead moved to LA with both Donwood and producer Nigel Godrich to record ‘Hail To The Thief’. It is normal for the artist to work in the same building as the band with each band member bringing different ideas to the table though Yorke is the most involved in the group’s visual identity. For ‘Hail’, Donwood was inspired by sitting as a passenger in cars – he can’t drive – and observing the words and colours of signs and writing them down. “They have these signs on people’s front lawns which say ‘Armed Response’ which is like way further than keep off the grass isn’t it? It’s like, what? If I go on your lawn you’ll call the…? Oh my god!” Donwood started to see the same bright colours over and over again. “There were using this incredibly limited palette of black, white and five colours and they looked great. I wrote all the words down then cut them up and put them together in rough maps. The artwork were maps of cities that had some relationship with the war against terror. Manhattan, LA, London, Grozny, Kabul.”
In Rainbows (2007)
“I’ve gone in the wrong direction a few times,” says Donwood. “With ‘In Rainbows’ we got to this decrepit stately home in Savernake Forest, Wiltshire and the music was in the early stage and I’d read this very depressing book about what happens when civilisation runs out of oil. I had this idea that I was going to do drawings of shopping malls as cathedrals surrounded by suburbia. But the music took a different direction and became much more organic, sensual and sexual so I started working with wax and syringes. While they were staying at the stately home they found the bath used by George III. “It used to have Mad King George in it and now it’s full of dead flies. Really weird, very haunted,” he says.
The King of Limbs (2011)
The artwork for The King Of Limbs totally changed from the original idea. Donwood was originally going to paint each member of Radiohead. “I said, ‘We’ve never had your portraits on the record’ so I thought I’d do portraits in oil in the style of Gerhard Richter’s blurred photo-realistic work. The problem was I’d never painted with oils before and I’m not Gerhard Richter so it was just a series of painted disasters”. When he went into the studio to hear an early draft of the album, it made him think of forests so he painted over the Richter portraits with colourful trees. Will we ever see the portraits? “They aren’t worth X-raying “he says. And which member is behind the main cover? He doesn’t remember. Perhaps we’ll see portraits of the band on the next record.
While working on each album sleeve, Donwood listens to Radiohead’s music constantly. “It gets under your skin and becomes like oxygen. I listen to it a lot, almost to the extent I need a breather by the time it comes out.”
He’s also designed the artwork for ‘The Eraser’, Yorke’s solo record, and Atoms For Peace’s ‘Amok’. “Atoms was a continuation of ‘The Eraser’ where I’d done London destroyed by fire and flood in a quasi-medieval style. For ‘Amok’ I bought this massive bit of lino and cut it to 18 foot long”. How is the process different to working with Radiohead? “I work quite hard to avoid cross-pollination because I don’t want one going into the other they are very different things”.
And what’s Donwood’s favourite album cover? Throbbing Gristle’s ’20 Jazz Funk Greats’.