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Radiohead's Cover Artist Stanley Donwood on Spam, 'In Rainbows,' Fire Breathing and His First U.S. Show Tomorrow Night at FIFTY24SF

photo by Ambrose Blimfield

For his first-ever U.S. show, Stanley Donwood, the man behind each of Radiohead's iconic album covers, chose to touch down at FIFTY24SF gallery in Lower Haight. The show, which opens tomorrow night, will feature Donwood's iconic art, as well as a crazy sound installation called the "Overnormalizer."

Over several cups of tea and cigarettes, I sat down to talk with Donwood and his collaborator John Matthias (a physicist and instrumental songwriter) about their obsession with spam emails, the "Overnormalizer" and of course, working with Radiohead.

You obviously have a disillusionment with consumer culture. Is America in need of the kind of message your art conveys? Or since you find spam to be kind of a pure art form in itself, would you prefer to just let it be?
It’s everywhere. When I first came to California, I loved all the signs. I was really fascinated by what everything said. So I started writing it down — pages and pages of what they said.

And when I got back to England I cut them all up as single words. I noticed which colors were predominant, and I got my palette of seven colors. 

I wanted to combine them all into a very pure form. So you could look at how beautiful it was without it meaning anything. Then they're just innocent words that on their own mean something else. You read them in a different way.

Can you talk a bit about your appreciation for spam?
Yeah! It’s great. I’ve got an email account with quite a good spam filter so I don’t really get spam in my inbox. I look in the special spam folder and go 'Ah Look! I’ve got 50 spam emails!' And they’re brilliant!

So, the "Overnormalizer" is based on neurons firing in the brain each time you hear a word or sound? Can you explain it more?

John Matthias: We wanted to combine the sad beauty of spam with the idea of the neuron, which really brings it to life for me. This machine has a kind of melancholic beauty to it I think.

Where did you get the idea?
Matthias: The neuron idea started off when I was a researcher at the University of Plymouth. I wanted to make a musical instrument using a complex system like neurons.

Donwood: It's an audio analogy of what happens in the mind when you’re either looking at or reading the artwork. 

Why was it important to include?
Donwood: For the first show in America, I wanted to do all new stuff.  The Overnormalizer is just really just two different ways to explore the same ingredients.


Much of your work - and Radiohead's music- involves visions of dystopia. How do you feel like these visions have evolved with changing current events? Or do they ever feel like premonitions?
I’m not quite as depressed as when we were younger…actually that’s bollocks. I guess I’m just less surprised. When I was younger I was just AMAZED that the people who run things weren’t slightly less dumb, but now I realize they really ARE that dumb. And that’s why things are like they are. And I’m sadly more resigned to it than maybe I was.
 

Did you play a big role in Radiohead’s "pay-what-you-want" model for In Rainbows?
When they first told me about it, I was a bit like, ‘You’re gonna do WHAT?’ That was my first impression of it. But the music industry has been treating buyers of music like criminals, and they only want to listen to music! Since when was that a bad thing? So if you just said, ‘What do you reckon? Five pence? Five quid? Up to you!' It was amazing to do. When they expained that bit, I just went, 'Yeah that’s fantastic!’

With Radiohead it’s just art project after art project after art project. So next time, it will be something else. That just fit in with how they felt at the time.

Did they let you have free reign with the artwork?
Yeah. I think if I did anything really shit, they’d say it was terrible. That hasn’t happened yet. I did have one idea for Hail to the Thief  though that didn't work out. I’d been cycling around the English countryside taking pleasure in topiary, which is where they cut hedges into shapes [laughs]. And I had the idea to make pornographic topiaries. I was going to construct pornographic sculptures with chicken wire and cover it with fake grass. Thom [Yorke] was like ‘Well ... I’m not sure that’s gonna work quite right.’

How did you meet Radiohead?
I met the the band when I was hitchhiking around England fire breathing. At that point, Radiohead was still called On a Friday. In Oxford, we saw a poster for them and said 'Look, that’s On A Friday!' We’ll go see if we can be their [fire breathing] support act!’ They were playing at a pub called the Jericho Tavern. And so we were like 'Hi, look at what we’re doing! Can we be your support act?' And they said 'Yeah that would be fantastic!' But the pub owners were like 'What are you talking about! Are you insane?' So we didn't end up doing that. But I think that was the night the band met the guy who became their manager, so they had a good time and we had a good time. But we had to go out and do our show the next day….on the street.

What a bizarre past life!
Yeah, well, we were really poor. But if I hadn't been in that place I wouldn’t have met the band.  And fire breathing's very bad for you as well. It’s not recommended.

 

'Over Normal' will be on view at FIFTY24SF through October 27.