Radiohead artist Stanley Donwood has spoken to NME about his new exhibition Sacred Cartography, as well as his hopes for the future of the band.
Sacred Cartography, which opened at London’s Jealous East gallery yesterday (Thursday November 24), is a selection of screenprints showcasing Donwood’s fascination with maps and landscape, as fans first would have experienced in the artwork for Radiohead’s 2003 album ‘Hail To The Thief’.
“I’ve always been interested in very old stuff,” Donwood told NME. “When I was a kid, I was fascinated by all the old burial mounds and chalk figures and strange unexplainable stuff littered around the landscape – the relics of people from a long time ago. Like Stonehenge where you just don’t know why they did what they did.
“I started working on the ideas of maps a long time ago around 2003. I ended up using these very bright colours to paint abstracted maps for a Radiohead record [‘Hail To The Thief’]. I’m still using the same colours to do this work; which are all derived from the petrochemical industry. So what I’m doing is a weird conjunction of the ancient and the modern.”
To create the work, Donwood explained how he started off with Ordnance Survey maps which show all details of a landscape, photocopied them, then used correction fluid to “excavate them” by removing words, numbers then anything from recent centuries.
“I go back and back to find myself digging into the oldest parts of the landscape, which are usually field boundaries, hedges and old track lines. I end up with this ancient patchwork of old routes from when we were physically attached to the rest of Europe,” he continued. “So I’ve got my map with a favourite feature like a stone circle or a hill fort, then I use these really brash colours.
“I’m really interested in the relationship between the land and the sky as well because I think the people back then had more of an animism than a religion. They probably looked to the sun, the stars and the moon, so I’ve tried to connect each field with the infinite blackness space by letting the colour leak.”
The artist explained how this exhibition, much like his sleeve for Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood’s new band The Smile’s acclaimed 2022 album ‘A Light For Attracting Attention’, shows off his more more “cheerful and colourful” rather than “the more melancholy, gloomy, black and white stuff” of his other work.
“I’ve tried to move away from that,” he explained. “The world hasn’t gotten any less dystopian or depressing; it’s gone the other way. After the coronavirus situation, I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, the world has enough to worry about without me adding to it with a load of depressing pictures of doom’. So I’ve tried to lighten the fuck up a bit, but it’s difficult to shift the habit of a lifetime. People like colour. I recently wrote ‘colour sells’ on my wall.
“I’ve been doing for a long time with these landscapes that leak colour into the sky, but The Smile stuff is very different. Thom and I were working in a very small studio and ended up working on the same painting at the same time. It’s a lot more egalitarian now. It’s not very combative and seems to work quite well. He’s very good at the hills and I’m very good at the sea.”
Donwood has made the artwork for every Radiohead and Thom Yorke record since 1994.
Asked what it is about his work that’s so tightly spiritually bound to the music of Thom Yorke and Radiohead, Donwood replied: “I don’t know, Jesus! I don’t know anything about music, which might help. ‘I like the sound of that’ or ‘I don’t like the sound of that’ is about the limit of my musical understanding.
“For a long time, Thom and I would work alongside each other or almost despite each other. We’d work on the same thing for a while then we’d take turns on a picture. I’d usually win and take over and it became mine because he doesn’t have as much faith in his abilities as an artist as he does as a musician; which is fair enough because he is quite good at the old music!”
And what is his favourite Radiohead or Thom Yorke related artwork that he’s created?
“I don’t know,” Donwood replied. “I always prefer the latest thing, so I really like The Smile stuff at the moment. ‘In Rainbows’ was also quite nice because it was the opposite of what I was intending to do. I like how it all worked out in the end, even though it wasn’t going to.
He continued: “It was the first thing we did post-record label. We could do what we wanted, and it was this crazy idea of making a package that was worth £40 – which I thought was a fucking crazy idea at the time but now that’s the thing. There are all sorts of expensive versions of releases coming out now.”
With The Smile currently in full swing, drummer Phil Selway set to release a new album in 2023 and guitarist Ed O’Brien having enjoyed success with his acclaimed solo debut ‘Earth’ back in 2020, many fans are curious about when or if the band might return. Earlier this year, O’Brien said “there’s no Radiohead at the moment” and that future activity “might happen” or “might not”.
Asked if he knew if Radiohead might return in the not-too-distant future, Donwood said: “I don’t know. Nobody tells me anything! I’m just down here in Brighton staring at the sea, waiting for their two-tone limo to start driving along the coast road for me to get in and do whatever they need me to do. I wouldn’t want to speculate.”
Is there anything he’d still love to see Radiohead do?
“The only thing that I always thought would be amazing would be a live record, but the problem is that they’re never all been happy enough with the same live recordings,” said Donwood. “I really liked the live records I’ve had of other artists like Bowie. They’re so nice because you feel like you’re there! I don’t know what we’ll do next.”
So we won’t see a 20th anniversary celebration of ‘Hail To The Thief’ next year?
“Jesus Christ, no!” answered Donwood. “The 20th anniversary of ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ was the killer. If we kept doing that we’d be on a treadmill, then you’d do the 40th anniversary, then you’d be dead. It would be too grim. I’d rather do something else.”
Away from Yorke and Radiohead, Donwood’s work has also become synonymous with the posters and merchandise of Glastonbury festival, and he told NME he’s keen to get started on the imagery for 2023.
“The first time I went to Glastonbury wasn’t for the festival,” he said. “I cycled down from Essex to Glastonbury, which took weeks, and then camped on the side of the Tor and met all these travellers and witch-type people.
“I’d known about Glastonbury Tor and the mythology of it all before the festival, then I went to the festival as a student underneath a mattress in the back of someone’s van.”
Donwood became friends with the Eavises via chance meeting through a family friend before he starting making t-shirts for the Worthy Farm bash back in 2002; allowing him to try out new ideas.
“It’s very different from most of the work that I do because it’s not depressing!” he said. “The one from last year is in this exhibition, of Glastonbury Tor and with all the field patterns that the festival takes place on. That was going to be the artwork for 2020’s festival, but then that didn’t happen.
Looking ahead to Glasto 2023, he revealed: “I’ve got an idea of what to do this year, but I’m not sure if it’s going to work. I’ve been very lucky with my so-called career because I’ve never had to work to a brief and I just do what feels right at the time.
“I haven’t seen the line-up, but with every year that passes I know less of the people on the line-up! I have to check if I’ve got the spelling right or if they’ve got weird accents on them. I used to know all them but know I’m like, ‘Who? What?’”
Donwood’s new exhibition Sacred Cartography runs at Jealous East in London until December 23. Visit here for more information.