Stanley Donwood: Unpleasant Nightmares

The Radiohead artist finds inspiration in bad dreams.


I think I’ll probably end up as one of those shouting old men in slippers in front of Newsnight yelling ‘Go on Paxman, grill him, he’s lying!’ Because ultimately these politicians are mendacious, lying fucking bastards — there’s no other way of looking at it — and I do spend a lot of time ranting about them.”

Stanley Donwood is sat at a table in his Bath studio working through an enormous pot of coffee, puffing absent-mindedly on an e-cigarette. The surrounding walls are laden with his work; images of Los Angeles succumbing to floodwater and battered by meteor showers, huge multi-coloured canvasses full of aggressive single-word slogans and eerie prints of mysterious woodland landscapes. At a table to his right are the beginnings of a new piece, “a giant picture of the Houses of Parliament having a very bad time” — the discussion of which has prompted his outburst.

After nearly two decades creating the album and poster artwork for Radiohead, a band notoriously vocal on the subject of their politics, he’s got a reputation for being outspoken about what he perceives to be a world in moral, political and environmental turmoil. It’s a preoccupation so large it’s necessitated an alter ego through which a daily barrage of doom and gloom can be channelled without taking over his day-to-day life. “The alias came about when we were doing The Bends. At the time I had really young children and the nappy-changing-washer-upper-putting-little-plastic-spoons-of-food-into-unwilling-mouths was very different to the person doing artwork about existential ruin. On the one hand I felt very happy to have little children and on the other I felt very worried about the world generally, so I wanted to separate out who I was.” And so Dan Rickwood became Stanley Donwood.

Since The Bends he’s created nightmarish Ballardian visions of suburbia for OK Computer, barren winter landscapes for Kid A, and for Hail To The Thief produced maps of cities associated with the War on Terror, composed from giant capitalist slogans borrowed from billboards in Los Angeles. It’s a pretty bleak body of work for someone who, in person, maintains an incredibly sunny disposition.

But these collections of images have served a dual purpose, providing both bold visual accompaniment to a body of music renowned for its innovation and serving as a kind of artistic therapy for Dan, allowing him to let go of preoccupations that weigh heavy on his mind. “I don’t think I could maintain that level of fury with any sort of degree of mental health,” he says. “I think I’ve kind of worked out that if I carve an enormous picture of the Houses of Parliament being destroyed by fire and flood, meteor storms and atomic explosions then I’ll feel a lot better about certain politicians and the general destruction of western culture, which is in a far more fucking shit state than it was when I was doing more overtly political work… anyway, don’t get me started.”

In a bid to move away from creating political images he’s spent the past five years doing something altogether more relaxing. “I’ve just been drawing trees to try and calm myself down. Just twig after twig after twig. It’s a bit like meditation.” The trees have formed two enormous bodies of work; one for Radiohead’s eighth studio album The King Of Limbs, and the other a collaboration between some writer and artist friends that focusses on the holloways of Dorset. His interest in trees was piqued while visiting the recording sessions for In Rainbows in Wiltshire — he lives and works alongside the band throughout the recording process in order to collaborate with Thom Yorke on album art. “There was this weird little book that we picked up which was an old visitors’ guide to Savernake Forest. Inside was a picture of this mad tree called the King Of Limbs — this ancient, ancient tree — and then things just kind of assembled themselves really.”

Hurt Hill, Giclee Print
Nether, Giclee Print

When he first started work on The King Of Limbs, Dan had the idea of creating full-face, oil portraits of the band in the style of Gerhard Richter. It would have been the first time a Radiohead album had included pictures of the full line-up, but the idea faltered early on. “It was a huge mistake because Gerhard Richter’s a brilliant painter; I’m not. He can paint very skilfully in oils; I can’t. In fact I’ve got no idea how to paint portraits either, so I started to get very depressed after six months of producing what was really terrible work.” But then he want to the studio to listen to the first recordings of the album, “and it kind of suggested a cathedral of music, as if the sound was bubbling up from the ground and reaching over. But not a white, Puritan, post-Reformation cathedral. A more pagan, Catholic, brightly-painted cathedral where the fluted columns are the trunks of the trees and the tracery is the branches, the twigs and the leaves.” So he went back to the studio and started painting luxuriously-coloured forests in oil, a medium he grew to love in the end.

After starting work on his first series of tree drawings Dan was invited to take a trip with writers Robert Macfarlane and Dan Richards, cycling down to Dorset to spend the night in a holloway, a sunken road across the landscape worn down by centuries of footfall and overgrown with hedges. “Rob had written about this book called Rogue Male, about this guy who goes and tries to kill an unnamed eastern European dictator, misses, gets caught by the Nazis, escapes, gets chased into England and hides in a holloway, which is described. I was so taken by this story that we decided to cycle down there and spend the night.”

On their return they produced a book about their journey, an elegiac volume of pictures and poems that paid homage to a fast disappearing landscape. “We did it all the old-fashioned way. We started out with lead ingots and melted them down to make the type for it. Then we printed 277 copies, a sort of arbitrary numerical thing; we kind of thought we’d end up with loads of these books left in boxes behind the sofa. Because who wants a book about a hedge?”

As it turned out 15,000 people wanted a book about a hedge and Faber stepped in to satisfy that demand. It’s not the first time the publisher has seized upon one of Dan’s strange personal projects either. In the late 1990s, while wrestling with a plague of terrible dreams he began to write a series of short stories as a means of purging his nocturnal fears. “I was having a lot of very unpleasant nightmares and I found out almost by accident that if I wrote them down the power of the nightmare would be reduced. I was particularly worried about them returning on consecutive nights, like serialisation; episodes. I wasn’t sleeping well at all because I was worried about what might happen if I were to get killed in my dream and whether that would mean I’d die in real life.

“It got to the stage where I was writing ‘devil’ backwards on the inside of the chimney because I’d read that if the devil comes down the chimney and sees its name backwards it’ll think it’s in a mirror world, not the real world, and go away.”

So he typed his dreams out and started sending them off like mail art to people he knew, “which is slightly unfair of me, but I thought that if you send them out to loads of people it becomes like homeopathy. It’s harmless. The more it’s dissipated, the more it’s broadcast, the more thinly this stuff is spread the less harmful it is. And then I met this bloke in the pub who’d read them and asked me if I wanted to make them into a book. Now it’s going to be published by Faber.”

Even with the backing of a mainstream publisher, it’s easy to question Dan’s sanity when confronted with work that stems from such deep-rooted fears, and reading his stories doesn’t help to allay those concerns. Some deal very specifically with the aforementioned devil (though he appears at a window and not through the chimney), others focus on zombie attacks at suburban dinner parties, one of which leaves the protagonist tragically impaled on a length of trellis as he tries to escape. One particularly concise tale begins with the line, “I had what I thought was a good idea,” and concludes, “My idea was to reach down my throat with my fingers, grab hold of my insides, and pull them out of my mouth.” Does he ever worry he’s losing the plot?

“I had an exhibition in Holland a few years ago and the guy who ran the museum asked me to show a friend of his round before it opened. He was this big, older Dutch guy and we were sat in this dark room having looked around the show when he turns to me and asks, ‘Do you have mental health problems?’ I explained that everything he could see on the wall was outside, it’s no longer in my head. My mental problems are now somebody else’s problem.

“Later on I was talking to the museum director and he told me that his friend was one of the most famous psychiatrists in the Netherlands. I don’t know whether that made me feel better or worse.”

Hollywood
Mobil

When he’s not preoccupied with his inner demons, Dan’s more than happy to exploit more traditional ones to fuel his work. For Radiohead’s 2001 album, Amnesiac, he turned his attention to the minotaur, the half-man, half-bull of Greek mythology — a story he recounts with glee.

“I got to thinking about the character of the minotaur as being this poor abused child who’s never know anything but repulsion, fear and loathing. He’s banished to the labyrinth and fed every seven years on teenagers so he’s not going to be the most well-adjusted character by any means.” It’s a character that he feels is analogous to the whole human race — an army of hateful beasts living in a labyrinth of our own construction — and an idea he’s still seeing evidenced many years after Amnesiac’s release.

When the Faber edition of Holloway was published, Dan’s collaborator Dan Richards returned with a sound recordist to the original spot in Dorset where they had created the book, intent on capturing 24 hours of spring sounds. When he arrived the holloway was gone; the hedges had been hacked down, the pathways destroyed by four-wheel drives and then filled in with rubble. The whole inspiration for their book had become a wasteland. “And that’s just a little hedge in Dorset. But when you extrapolate that out it becomes an area the size of Wales every year in South America. And that’s what we’re doing to the world, what the monsters in their maze are doing to their garden.”

But these strange mythologies also provide Dan with more lighthearted entertainment. A couple of years back he and some friends who worked as guides on Bath’s tour buses produced a selection of fake archaeological pamphlets to distribute around the city. Dan assumed the persona of a crusty professor of archaeology and interspersed genuine historical facts with flights of pure fantasy. “I found this story about Ludd, the legendary ancient king of London who travelled with pigs to Bath, but I exaggerated it so he became this bloodthirsty Iron Age chieftain who built these camps on all the hills around the city and caused a massive cannibal holocaust.”

I invented archaeological evidence that all these headless skeletons had been found and fabricated these complete lies. I was just mucking about with history and confusing tourists. I love the idea of these things being taken back to all the far-flung corners of the world and people being like ‘Jesus! Have you heard about this flesh-eating pig?!’”

Between teasing tourists, penning stories and painting trees, Dan still maintains a contempt for the people pulling the strings of western civilisation; which is unlikely to change however many government buildings he destroys in a single linocut. But he’s adamant his work isn’t motivated solely by contempt, and even his most destructive works only focus on places he really cares about. “I wouldn’t do any of it if I didn’t really like the place I’m destroying,” he says. “It has to be of consequence to me otherwise there’s no point. It would be hard to expend this much energy on somewhere like Swindon… or Billericay.”

L.A.

Originally published in Printed Pages Spring 2014

Portrait by Jake Green.