11:44 AM GMT 21/05/2013
Radiohead's The King Of Limbs is the best-selling vinyl album of 2011, latest figures confirm. Moreover, the record's premium format - its "Newspaper Edition" - is MOJO magazine's favourite music "package" of the year.
Comprising, amongst other fascinating stuff, two 10" transparent vinyls, a Radiohead-themed blotter sheet of the sort that, "back in the day", one used to find impregnated with brain-warping chemicals, and the titular Newspaper, where the "stories" extrapolate surreally on the album's themes of dislocation and arboreal weirdness, it's fun for all the family.
Radiohead bassist Colin Greenwood and longterm art director, artist Stanley Donwood, join us in the latest issue of MOJO magazine to outline their thinking behind the format, part of a comprehensive Best Of 2011 supplement.
But Donwood had much more to say than we could fit in the mag, so here's our director's cut, essential reading for any admirer of Radiohead, their attitude and their aesthetic.
MOJO: Stanley, what was the thinking behind the Newspaper edition of King Of Limbs?
Stanley Donwood: I've never been able to have much of a plan for anything - more of a collection of vague notions and half-formed ideas. But I knew from quite early on that I didn't want to do another big box of records. Everyone's doing that now. As soon as something becomes popular I think it's probably time to do something that has a chance of being unpopular. In some ways the packaging for In Rainbows in 2007 felt very definitive; there was the record, in a kind of massive box, all shiny and heavy and a bit like a coffee table book. It was almost like a complete forensic file: all the evidence, all the data, extra CDs with more material...
Of course, I really liked that package, but the same approach was entirely wrong for The King of Limbs, which to me felt like a snapshot of where the band were musically. It's more like a report on how the things are, rather than a statement; this is how this situation looks, at this moment. It's not definitive, it's not final, it's in a state of flux. News doesn't stop when it's printed; just because there's a sports section there's no intimation that sport has somehow ended; the world politics section simply stands on the margins and takes a snapshot. The King of Limbs, I thought, was like that: an extended, captured frame of a section of time. You can't put that in a box.
What did you use for reference points?
An unknown person left a big stack of '60s radical newspapers at Colin's house; in the garden, I think. There were dozens of copies of International Times, a few copies of Oz and some weird magazines from the '80s with flexidiscs on them. Because of their age, these newspapers had acquired a sort of value, an archivable quality that was surely far from the minds of the radicals who had produced them with the aim of documenting and advertising the activities of revolutionaries.
And I was reading a newspaper one sunny summer morning around the same time, and after a while I left it on the bench where I was sitting. A few hours later I came back to the bench, and the newspaper had started to curl, get brittle, and go slightly yellow in the sunlight. This, to me, was very appealing; here was a medium that was like a speeded-up version of our own bodies, something that was mirroring the inevitable decay that comes with being alive.
I was already really interested in newspapers, having been producing them on a solar-powered milk float at various festivals for years. So that was that, and I started looking for fonts. I found this group called HPLHS, which is an American historical society concerned with the works of HP Lovecraft. They make all sorts of printed ephemera for their rituals, and to further this end they have produced a series of fonts, which are traced from 1920s and '30s American newspaper typefaces. These were a perfect fit for what I was trying to do, especially as we are now into another Great Depression. The word 'depression', incidentally, was coined as a euphemism for 'panic'...
At the same time I had started to paint the woods and forests of the Northern European imagination, and the odd creatures who dwelt inside. These scenes were starting to emerge from the music that Radiohead were making, or at least, I thought that they were. Many of the themes we were all exploring found their genesis in time we had spent living in forests.
What were the design and production challenges?
They were many and various. When I was in America I picked up a lot of newspapers; their broadsheets are a different shape to ours, and when they're folded in half they're square, and almost exactly the size of a 10" record. So the task became to make a 32-page newspaper in US format, including a perforated sheet of blotting paper, two 10" vinyl records (and a CD in a very boring wallet; this format is deceased... it is an ex-format...) all wrapped in the kind of plastic packet that you find in weekend broadsheets. Except we wanted to use biodegradable polyethylene. It wasn't a simple production; I think it ended up being more complicated than the record box we did for In Rainbows.
We love the blotter sheet, but wonder, What would Radiohead/Donwood acid do to your brain? What would you start seeing?
Faces at the window, wraiths in the corner of your eye, doppelgängers in the woods. Razor-toothed demons crawling uncomfortably down your chimney. Plagues of carnivorous toys emerging from the ceiling. Oh yeah, and cranes, pylons, dams, volcanoes, locusts, lightning, helicopters, Hiroshima, show homes and ringroads. That's mine. I don't know about Radiohead acid. You'd need to ask them.
Part of what we love about vinyl is the "canvas" it gives to visual artists to add to the music. Do you hold a torch for the album as holistic statement?
Yes I do. The record shop was a democratic art gallery; there was one in every town, anyone could go in, it wasn't intimidating and young people hung out there making friends and smoking cigarettes. The ruffling of the air as 12" sleeves were flipped in their stacks created an irresistible esoteric pheromone, and each 12" vision was a new picture that meant different things to everyone who saw it. Records were taken home and listened to in bedrooms by boyfriends and girlfriends whilst we played inventive sexual games.
You're not keen on CDs, are you? What don't you like about them?
They are atrocious. Human invention has made some serious errors, the private motor vehicle being chief among them. Compact discs are not in that league, but they are still extremely annoying; and in a few years they'll all be landfill. No-one has any serious love for them; they look cheap, and promise much that they cannot deliver. They merely allowed the bloated 'music industry' to continue for a few more stolen years whilst millions of people bought music they already owned in this new, hideous format. And those 'jewel cases'! What a waste of our hydrocarbon resources. I will not mourn them.
The graphic references - Ragnarok, Urpflanze - seem to combine the apocalyptic with the botanical... They leave you uneasy, in a way not so dissimilarly from a "conventional" newspaper. It's still about what's happening but in a more impressionistic way...
We had been drawing pictures of trees with eyes, with mobile limbs, and mouths and familiars for a year or two, initially influenced by the grotesque creatures found in the marginalia of Mediaeval illuminated manuscripts, but quickly becoming the denizens of an imagined world that owed something to the forests of the imagination - the places where European folklore collides with a kind of Animist pantheon. We made dozens of pictures of creatures that couldn't exist, or if they did, they would be crippled or unable to function. I think if people are presented with something open-ended it's much more useful for the imagination. If you look up Ragnarok, Urpflanze and the rest you will find things that may interest you.
Your visuals are so well-matched with Radiohead's music. Do you use the music to guide you, or do the images evolve separately? Do they just work because you think sympathetically?
Often I listen to the music so intensely that I can't play it again by the time the record is released, but this time, with The King of Limbs, I tried not to. Mostly I worked in my shed painting trees, but occasionally I wandered over to the studio to hear what was up. The music made me think of immense multicoloured cathedrals of trees, with music echoing from the branches whilst strange fauna lurked in the fog. Thom was doing a lot of drawing as well, and we collected as much text as we could for material for the newspaper. The music was very present, as is usual, as is vital.
What's your personal favourite album cover design, from the history of the form?
I don't have a favourite album cover in particular, but I liked Vaughan Oliver's 4AD covers and Gee Vaucher's covers for Crass, and I liked a lot of The Designers Republic's covers, but some of my favourites are the covers of records I listened to for the first time as a teenager: the first and second Tubeway Army albums, Dirk Wears White Sox by Adam and the Ants, Jamie Reid's Never Mind the Bollocks, most of David Bowie's records and many Bauhaus records. I very much liked the cover of PJ Harvey's White Chalk.
There is a very interesting label called Touch, which I think is run by Jon Wozencroft and they sell downloads accompanied by photographic prints, and many of them are very beautiful. For restrained and beautiful sleeves I think that modern classical label ECM is really good. But then, what about Winston Smith's covers for the Dead Kennedys? And the best, most recent addition to my record collection is the cover for the Jamie xx/Gil Scott Heron collaboration, We're New Here, done by Phil Lee. It's impossible to choose. I have many favourite record covers; to be frank, record covers were my introduction to art.
What's the best thing you've heard all year? Musically, that is?
The Boy 8-bit remix of Mad Again by South Rakkas Crew. Closely followed by the Radioclit remix of Township Funk by DJ Mujava. Zomby's Dedication is also very fine.
Interview by: Danny Eccleston
Stanley Donwood's Household Worms, a collection of darkly comic and darkly dark fictions, all haunted by looming disaster, is out now. "Ideal as a Zmas stocking filler for the slightly deranged."
Posted by Ross_Bennett at 9:30 AM GMT 29/11/2011