From unsung gems to certified classics, DIY’s Hall of Fame has a bit of everything. When we’re talking revolutionary gamechangers, though, few records can touch the latest inductee, Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’. Back in 2007, when Thom Yorke and co. decided to let their fans pay what they wanted for an album, it was unprecedented. People initially thought they were off their rockers - the band’s close collaborator and long-time arty bloke Stanley Donwood included.
Still, putting unwavering faith in Radiohead’s experiment - and their innate ability to shape and “fuck up” his artwork - Donwood set up shop in the band’s dilapidated mansion, and set about mucking about with syringes full of wax, and generally flinging paint everywhere. As Radiohead’s music moved towards something multi-coloured and organic, so did Donwood’s artwork. The result was the wax-splats of ‘In Rainbows’ - flung joyfully across the front cover like a freeze-frame of unbridled creativity flying straight onto record.
After taking an in-depth look at the massive ongoing influence of ‘In Rainbows” release, we got in touch with Stanley Donwood to take a look back on the iconic Radiohead album. We also asked the close-circle collaborator a few questions about that probably-imminent new Radiohead album, LP9, while we were at it. Well, it would have been rude not to, really.
Consistently, you work on Radiohead’s album artwork at the same time as the band work in the studio. Why?
Simply put, it’s because I rely on Thom’s ability to fuck up whatever it is that I’m painting. He’s very good at it. Aside from essentially taking turns to destroy each other’s paintings, we talk about how we could start to approach tackling the record. So, for instance, some time ago we were talking about how to remove the human being from art-making. We came up with the idea of creating a sort of ‘painting dalek’, only instead of screaming “exterminate” and shooting a laser or something, this one would be like when daleks go mad and spin around. Our dalek would spin around shooting paint, after I’d made a kind of cell for it out of large square canvases. That was the idea.
I’m still a bit sad that this didn’t happen, but the way of thinking led in a different direction - and I ended up using the weather to make paintings. Even this didn’t go how I thought it would.
And to complicate matters, I try to distill a sense of what the music conveys into the texture of the artwork - I try to see what the music looks like. By being in the studio, or at least very close by, I can hear the evolution of the songs and then attempt to figure out what the visual equivalent could be. So I guess I’m trying to see the music, and Thom has an eye for when that starts to happen. To be honest, sometimes it takes ages, other times it’s much easier.
Talking about ‘In Rainbows’ artwork specifically; it took you from shopping mall cathedrals, to experimenting with wax and syringes. At all times, did the changing direction of the band’s music influence the direction of your art? How?
Yes, that’s an example of what I was just talking about. What happened that time began by me cycling across southern England to this derelict stately home [Tottenham House] where we were going to be working. I’d read a deeply pessimistic and depressing book just before, and it had filled my head with images of malls as sacred buildings, of desolate endless suburbia and a kind of debased future that looked like a very low budget Mad Max film. At the same time I’d become interested in the idea of paint or ink moving at high velocity before striking a flat surface. So I’d got hold of a load of syringes from a friend of mine who’s a doctor with the aim of emptying the contents of paintballs, refilling them with black ink, and firing them from a paintball gun. That idea (along with many!) didn’t work, but it did mean that I had a load of syringes with hypodermic needles and lots of ink.
It was during the recording of what became ‘In Rainbows’ that I was drawing with the hypodermic needles instead of a pen, that I accidentally spilled wax on the piece I was working on. Ultimately, the combination of hypodermic-squirted ink and molten wax became the dominant motif of the artwork. This happened as I was realising that my very graphic, technical drawings of cathedral-like shopping malls and carparks were increasingly at odds with the trajectory of the music, which was becoming more organic and ethereal. The trickled ink and the effect upon it of the wax was a more intriguing direction.
“I rely on Thom’s ability to fuck up whatever it is that I’m painting. He’s very good at it.”
— Stanley Donwood
‘In Rainbows’ was given away on a ‘pay what you like’ basis - an unprecedented move. How involved were you in that decision? Was there a confidence within the band that it could work?
When I first heard about this idea, I took a few hours of persuasion that it wasn’t completely crazy. It was presented as - “We’re going to let people choose what they want to pay for the record, and we want to make a special edition for a physical release that will cost forty quid.” This was before the era of boxed sets of anything, and I was kind of nervous about trying to sell what was basically a record for forty quid. Seemed like a lot of money to me. But we got there - not easily, I’d add. In the end it turned out incredibly well, and I think that the idea of trusting fans was a far better tactic than the attitude of the music industry towards music-buyers. They seemed to treat them as potential criminals, which was clearly idiocy. So people did pay what they liked, and we did make a package for the record that was worth forty quid. As regards to confidence - well, it was an experiment. Confidence doesn’t really come into it.
What is your favourite Radiohead album, and album cover you have designed for them? Why?
I’ve just had a think about this and I think it’s the one that no-one’s seen yet. It was made by the strong warm winds of southern France.
“[The new Radiohead album is] a work of art.”
— Stanley Donwood
So, Radiohead have been in the studio. They’ve announced a world tour. Everyone thinks there is a new album on the way. Is there anything at all you can tell us about what to expect?
It’s a work of art.
Have you heard a new Radiohead album? Is it done?
I have. Is it done? Not yet…
And have you finished the artwork?
Not yet. There’s quite a lot I still have to do.
One final cheeky question - can you just give us a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ regarding whether there’s a new album coming this year?
(This interview was conducted via e-mail. Questions were sent in February and Stanley Donwood sent answers back on 19th March)
For all the rest of DIY’s Hall of Fame coverage on Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’, head here.
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