Inside the shared studio of Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood

MUSIC AND art have an entwined history. Nat King Cole sang of his appreciation for Leonardo da Vinci’s painting in “Mona Lisa”; Don McLean wrote the song “Vincent” after reading a biography of Van Gogh. (For his part, the Dutch artist hoped to use his work “to say something comforting in the way that music is comforting”.) Some performers have picked up a paintbrush themselves. Bob Dylan creates colourful scenes of Americana. David Bowie’s neo-expressionist canvases have fetched $80,000 at auction.

Artists and bands have frequently collaborated, too, lending each other some extra cultural cachet. In the 1960s Andy Warhol designed album covers for The Velvet Underground and Peter Blake worked with the Beatles; today artists from Cindy Sherman to Banksy have invented iconography for pop stars. Thom Yorke, the main singer and songwriter for Radiohead, and Stanley Donwood are longtime collaborators and two new books, “Kid A Mnesia: A Book of Radiohead Artwork” and “Fear Stalks the Land!”, chronicle their unique creative partnership. (The volume of the first book takes its title from two records, “Kid A” and “Amnesiac”, which are being re-released to coincide with the publication.)

Mr Donwood and Mr Yorke met when the pair attended art college in the late 1980s. After graduation they went their separate ways until Mr Yorke got in touch in 1994 and asked if Mr Donwood would design the record sleeve for “The Bends”, Radiohead’s second album. Though he wasn’t much fond of the band’s output—preferring rave, techno and electronic fare to rock—“I was very happy to do it because I was on income support at the time,” Mr Donwood says. “The whole idea of music with guitars struck me as almost Victorian, but there was potentially a couple of hundred quid in it, so I was up for it.”

As the relationship developed, so did Mr Donwood’s appreciation for the band’s compositions. “I got more into their music when they were doing ‘OK Computer’ [in 1997] and then much more when they were doing ‘Kid A’ [in 2000],” he says. “OK Computer” was a turning point, as Radiohead invited Mr Donwood to work on his ideas in the recording studio. The album was also a critical and commercial triumph, selling more than 7m copies worldwide.

Success on that scale had a debilitating effect on Mr Yorke’s ability to write music. After completing the tour, “whenever I tried to write something, whenever I sat down in front of any instrument, I sort of froze,” he has said. Turning to another artform helped. “When he’s in a log-jam with the music it’s really good to go and paint and draw,” Mr Donwood says. “We both make art almost compulsively all the time, whether it’s to do with Radiohead stuff or not.” The pair created a vast body of work together during the recording of “Kid A” and “Amnesiac” (2001). Mr Donwood occupied a mezzanine space in Radiohead’s studio so Mr Yorke could join him during breaks.

The prolific output is displayed in the pages of “Kid A Mnesia” (“Fear Stalks the Land!” collects the pair’s writings). Messrs Donwood and Yorke channelled frustrations with New Labour, fears about climate change and indignation about war crimes in the former Yugoslavia states into eerie landscapes. They also fashioned minotaurs, sharp-toothed teddy bears, pylons, pyramids and labyrinths, rendered in scratchy pen drawings and maniacal Robert Crumb-style cartoons. Some paintings pay homage to Hieronymous Bosch, with gibbets, flaming mountain tops and blood-filled swimming pools.

Text plays a key role in the imagery too, and scenes are emblazoned with corporate jargon and political soundbites. “We were both into Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Victor Burgin at college,” explains Mr Donwood, referring to three living artists who use slogans in their work. In their final submissions “we both did image and text, so it was there right from the start.”

To this day, matching the musical and the visual is a long, drawn-out process. Mr Donwood and Mr Yorke worked on one series of large paintings for months before choosing a design, scanning it and putting it on the cover of “Kid A”. It is a method not unlike the one Radiohead uses to produce music, though the band spends longer, on average, honing their songs. One track, “Follow Me Around”, was written in 1997 but has just been released, a mere 24 years later.

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