I’m in some kind of spacey galaxy. The planet’s milky mould-green and lilac comets and bright canary yellow stars are flying all over the place like plankton. I draw a couple of squiggles and they burst into strange deep-sea caterpillars like Polychaete worms. A red dot appears and I chase it until this world explodes and I’m into some kind of dark underworld. The sun is dead. I don’t like it. I find the red dot. Phew. I’m in a surreal rose-coloured forest with bulbous trees. It feels calming and happy and the circles I draw enlarge and dissolve. The next world’s blood red with trees that scrape the sky. It’s a bit like that bloody scene in Watership Down. All the time ‘Bloom’ from ‘The King Of Limbs’ is playing, its strands mutating and dismantling with each different environment. This is Polyfauna, a new app created by Radiohead, Stanley Donwood, Nigel Godrich and Universal Everything.
Two tips: don’t play it on a tube unless you want funny looks, and a revolving swivel chair will help you get around the different worlds. Writing about the app at Dead Air Space, Thom Yorke explained it as “an experimental collaboration between us (Radiohead) & Universal Everything, born out of ‘The King of Limbs’ sessions and using the imagery and the sounds from the song ‘Bloom’. It comes from an interest in early computer life-experiments and the imagined creatures of our subconscious.”
He posted instructions on how to use the app, writing: “Your screen is the window into an evolving world. Move around to look around. You can follow the red dot. You can wear headphones.” You can get it here.
To get a bit more info about the app and what it’s all about I spoke to Matt Pyke, founder of media art/design studio Universal Everything.
NME: How did it come about?
Matt Pyke: I got an email from Thom Yorke a couple of years ago saying that he wanted to make an app that’s more of an abstract audio-vusual thing rather than a traditional band app. I knew their music really well and designed record covers for Warp artists (Aphex Twin, Plaid, Boards Of Canada) and made music videos. We met up with him and Stanley Donwood and started talking about creating this atmospheric world where it’s not just a music video, it’s an exploded view and echo-fragmented version of ‘The King Of Limbs’ session. They went back into the studio with Nigel Godrich and pulled apart all of the sessions from the ‘Bloom’ track and turned them into these really long stems. As you move through the world you experience different echos and memories of the track, you recognise fragments but in a really abstract, atmospheric way. We talked about how we’d use a non-linear way of creating an interactive world and how the music can be non-linear too. Each time any person uses the world they get a completely new journey through the environments and nature and sound too. There’s lots of hidden bits to be discovered.
NME: Like what?
MP: New live forms, and strange structures like big pyramids or little samples that don’t occur very often. There are no hidden singles or anything like that but now we’ve built the world there’s definitely potential for that kind of thing which would be really nice. There’s no discussion about that yet so we can’t lead anyone on.
NME: What was the process like?
MP: Donwood makes loads of pen and ink drawings in his sketchbooks when he goes on field trips. We worked together to figure out how to translate these analogue drawings into a digital world. We used a lot of mathematical geometry formations because there’s a big link between mathematicas patterns and patterns seen in nature. The way trees or coral grow, or the weather, is effectively a math formula. We used a lot of programming to actually grow similar things to what Stanley would grow but we did it digitally rather than with a pen. We worked on it a couple of times in the Radiohead studio in Oxford.
Radiohead are super inventive in how they produce music and disrupt the music industry and that’s something we’re interested in too. They were totally humble and had a massive understanding about radical, interesting ways of composing music which isn’t just a linear chorus/verse way of doing things. They were totally interested in using the medium of tablets and iphones as a new canvas. It was like being at an art school again. That’s the best way of describing in terms of how they are and how the process worked.
NME: How long did it take?
MP: About nine months over all. They didn’t intend it to be this thing that was released straight after the album. They wanted it to gestate and be released over time.
NME: Why was the track ‘Bloom’ chosen? How did it fit with the technology?
MP: One thing we were talking about was having really extreme weather that triggers different emotions. Really rainy sections and really glaring sun sections and ‘Bloom’ was the most evocative track with that intense weather vibe.
NME: What kind of experience do you want the user to have?
MP: It’s nice when people get completely absorbed in it and it’s like stepping into a different world. And that people get a sense that the one journey they’ve done isn’t the only journey and people across the world are having different journeys. The screenshots are going straight on to the Radiohead website. We’ve had about 140,000 photos taken overnight. It’s a bit like David Livingston travelling around Africa and capturing butterflies in his butterfly net.
NME: How many worlds are there?
MP: We built a vast map which is one big huge country with loads of different environments and terrains and weather and colours. Each time you open the app you land in a different point in the world so every person who uses it will land in a different place. The amount of combinations is almost infinite.
NME: Because you have to follow the red dot which gets you to the next ’round’ it feels a bit like a video game.
MP: There’s a bit of a game sense but there’s no end result or anything. It’s a really loose, open-ended thing, there’s no goal.
NME: What was the early computer life that influenced you?
MP: There’s a programmer from the early 90s called Karl Sims. He did this really beautiful pioneering stuff called Evolved Virtual Creatures in which really simple primitive rectangle blocks would join themselves together using code and grow themselves into these little walking or flying life forms. It was a beautiful way of seeing how life as we recognise it was emerging from code. It was like watching this new species evolve. It brought this inanimate, cold technology to life.
NME: What are the “imagined creatures of the subconscious”?
MP: There was a lot of weird creatures in Stanley’s sketchbook. Stanley and Thom had talked about going snorkelling and all the weird and crazy abstract stuff that’s totally beneath the surface and totally alien. It’s a parallel universe. There are a few surprise creatures like big red and sparkly electric eels that chase everything away. There’s a few things with different personalities to them. There are also creatures based on Karl Sims that are crawling along and trying to struggle up the mountains. There’s this word called emergence which is often used when your start seeing behavioural patterns emerge in nature and code. Some creatures chase other things and some things follow other things. You throw it onto the screen and loads of interesting behaviour emerges.
NME: Plans to use other songs?
MP: Not at the moment but this is the first step so we’ll see what happens.
NME: How did Doig and Turner influence you?
MP: Turner was one of the first landscape painters to just paint atmosphere. Because of the perception of it you’ve got these really hazy atmospherics and you can just about make out a ship in the distance. He was the first painter to use the science of how your eyes work and how you can perceive things through the fog and so that was very interesting in terms of how we would express the weather. Doig creates these fantastical landscapes almost like film stills and the colours are really beautiful and there’s that tension between it being super abstract but you can also recognise a lot in it. They’re two pioneering painters who use landscape as a subject but are really pushing the abstract type of thing too. Turner’s Snowstorm (above) and Doig’s The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (below) were particularly inspiring.
NME: Have you got plans to work together again?
MP: I hope so. We’ve been emailing back and forth about the chaos unfolding today, all the fans blogging about it. I’m really pleased with how positively the reaction’s been considering the fans might expect a new single and it’s actually an abstracted version of ‘Bloom’. It’s great to see how open-minded the fans are.
NME: I assume you looked at past apps from Björk, Lady Gaga, Brian Eno…
MP: There was one called Thicket that me and Thom were looking at it which was really nice and interesting. The Gaga one was quite interesting but with this we really wanted to create a piece of audio visual digital art rather than just represent an album of songs. It’s a thing that stands on its own.