In the summer of 2016, Radiohead released its ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool. The album was greeted, somewhat unsurprisingly, with glee from critics and music fans, but also caused excitement for fans of design and even (whisper it, this is Radiohead after all) marketing. For alongside the respect the band has garnered over the decades for its music, it has slowly built another set of followers, who are keen to see what a new Radiohead album will bring in terms of artwork, music videos and other unexpected promotional fun.
The band has long been known for its distinctive album artwork, created by long-term collaborator Stanley Donwood (alongside contributions from Thom Yorke) and its music videos. And in recent years, we have seen Radiohead leading the way in terms of experimentation with digital technology and unconventional album releases. In 2007, the In Rainbows album first appeared online, on a website with a ‘pay what you want’ model, and for The King of Limbs in 2011, the band again initially released the album via their website, before physical releases followed in later months.
The arrival of A Moon Shaped Pool caused another stir, with Radiohead signalling that something was coming by dramatically removing all the content on their website, Twitter feed and Facebook page in the week before the album dropped. The erasure caused a media frenzy – a far greater impact than the band had predicted, according to Stanley Donwood.
‘Radiohead erases itself from the internet’ That was another of those ideas that you have down the pub that turned out to be really much more effective than we thought
“That was another of those ideas that you have down the pub that turned out to be really much more effective than we thought,” he says. “Honestly, we did not expect people to go quite so crazy. It worked really well; really it was a way of getting rid of all of what had gone before; it was a practical solution to what seemed to be a complicated problem. Quite a simple solution: just stop everything for a bit.
“I thought the reaction was weird: ‘Radiohead erases itself from the internet’,” he continues. “What a strange thing to say, cause you can’t. But the reaction was great, it was fantastic, it was really exciting. It was like being some sort of evil Bond villain or something, in some lair, pressing buttons. Actually more like the Mike Myers’ version of an evil Bond villain. It was creatively brilliant fun.”
While the band has caused debate and excitement with its digital playfulness – which also included the release of a series of filmed ‘vignettes’ on Instagram for A Moon Shaped Pool – it has also shown an ongoing commitment to its physical releases.
Since In Rainbows, Donwood has created vinyl and CD covers as well as deluxe box sets for every album. They exhibit typical artistic flair: The King of Limbs box set came with a newspaper featuring text which slowly disappears on exposure to sunlight, and for A Moon Shaped Pool, Donwood has produced an ‘album’ – inspired by the albums that housed 78rpm shellac records – to hold the two vinyl records alongside 32 pages of artworks. Clipped around the album is a piece of original master tape from a Radiohead recording session (according to the band’s website, this could be “from any era in the band’s recording past going back to Kid A. You may have silence, you may have coloured leader tape, you may have a chorus…. It’s a crapshoot.”) b It is a beautiful physical product, for fans of both the band and design alike.
Donwood works alongside the band while they record, meaning that the artwork is always closely connected to the music, and reflects the themes and ideas that come up as the albums are made. For A Moon Shaped Pool, Donwood set up a studio in Provence where the album was recorded.
From the outset, he and Yorke wanted to try something different for the artwork this time. “It’s normally about two years to make a Radiohead record,” explains Donwood. “The first things we were talking about were trying to get away from narrative and figurative art, to try and do something that was more to do with chance and happenstance. I had this idea of a painting Dalek that instead of exterminating people would squirt paint…. But unfortunately our technical skills weren’t up to the job of constructing a Dalek. So we started messing around with what we could do with the weather and paint, and what happens with large quantities of paint and wind.
“As usual, I made an enormous mistake to start with,” he continues. “I did some experiments with pools of water and paint and wind on quite a small scale and it seemed to work in quite an interesting way. So I thought ‘well this will be great, I’ll just scale up’, so I bought a ridiculous number of large canvases and paint and we all went down to Provence, just south of Avignon to where they recorded. A place called La Fabrique, which is a really lovely place, an old mill where they used to make the red dye for Napoleon’s uniforms.
“All of my experiments on a small scale, when I tried to replicate them on a large scale were, well, really depressing. It was really, really bad. And of course I didn’t have a plan B or anything. I tried to remedy the situation by using brushes, trying to fix what was wrong with them, and really it was more fundamental than that.”
In the end, a bit of time away from the studio helped Donwood find the solution. “I went back to the studios there and one of the canvases I’d done that I’d overlooked was like ‘wow’. It was really that my palette was too broad, so I ended up working with just black and white. It was fantastic, I suddenly started having fun.”
To sum up crudely, when we’re working together, I do something, then he fucks it up, then I fuck up what he’s done … and we keep doing that until we’re happy with the result.
Donwood left the huge canvases out in the open so the extreme weather at the time in France – which included “warm wind and incredible thunderstorms” – could go to work on the paint. “We almost removed human agency from the painting process,” he says, “it was like setting up an experiment and seeing what happened. Some of the canvases were rubbish, so we just painted over them with white and started again. But, by and large we ended up, through a process of editing, with a body of work we were really, really pleased with.”
They continued the weather experiments back in Oxfordshire in the winter months, “and the results are completely different”, before then beginning digital work on them. “The record was recorded on tape, the whole thing, so I decided to go totally analogue, hence paint and all this large-scale stuff,” says Donwood. “But then of course it’s got to end up as a product.”
To get to the final artworks that we now see in the album, Donwood engaged in some creative sparring with Yorke. “We had them all photographed and started cutting things up in Photoshop,” he explains. “Me with my slight tendency towards Virgo-like detailing and perfectionism, and Thom’s completely opposed, fucking everything up. It works really well, we’ve been doing that for a long time. To sum up crudely, when we’re working together, I do something, then he fucks it up, then I fuck up what he’s done … and we keep doing that until we’re happy with the result. It’s a competition to see who ‘wins’ the painting, which one of us takes possession of it in an artistic way.”
The wider idea for the box set design was prompted by Donwood’s discovery of a treasure trove of vinyl stored in the mill used to create Napoleon’s dye. “After it was a factory for Napoleon’s red dye, it was this big repository, a library of vinyl, of classical music,” he says. “Wax cylinders, 78s, there was even a huge library of VHS tapes of classical performances, just slowly decaying. There are thousands, hundreds of thousands of items.
“They had these record ‘albums’ on these shelves and they were really nice,” he continued. “I figured out that must be where the word album comes from – because when you bought a 78, you’d get it in a little paper sleeve and that’s all. Then you’d buy these albums to put them in, like a stamp album, photo album. They have these pages in them where you put your 78s in and then you write out what they all are. They were really nice things.
“So I was like, ‘I’ll do that’. I took loads of photos of these old albums and thought I’d do a really modern version of that. So that’s what we’ve ended up doing, something along those lines.”
The special edition of A Moon Shaped Pool is available from radiohead.co.uk, priced £60