Radiohead Artist Sanley Donwood Discusses ‘King of Limbs’ Artwork

Donwood talks about his otherwordly newspaper visuals on Radiohead's latest release.  

Johnny Firecloudby Johnny Firecloud


When Radiohead's latest album The King of Limbs was released, one purchase option included a "newspaper" version of the album, which naturally sparked quite a few questions as to what the hell that actually meant. 


Although the street date for the deluxe package version of the album isn't due until May 8, a few fans have gotten their sets early. Included in the album package are "two clear 10" vinyl records in a purpose-built record sleeve," "a compact disc," and "many large sheets of artwork, 625 tiny pieces of artwork and a full-colour piece of oxo-degradeable plastic to hold it all together," according to the band's website.


Jon Severs of PrintWeek sat down with the band's longtime artist Stanley Donwood to discuss his designs for the unusual packaging, which he conceptualized and executed while Radiohead was piecing together the music for what would become The King of Limbs. Working alongside the band as they worked their creative juices, Donwood was privy to a fan's dream of watching the songwriting process unfold – but the experience also played a vital part in cultivating the atmosphere of the artwork.

Read some excerpts from the interview below:

Jon Severs: Was this newspaper concept driven by the music?

Stanley Donwood: [laughs] I haven't heard the album yet– not properly, not finished, not since it was being made. I'm waiting for the record company to send me a 12" version! But when I was listening to it being made– because I work alongside the band when they are making the music– I loved hearing it emerge. I was hearing these shufflings and bangings becoming this sonic space that you can almost walk into. As I listened, I had this vision of these old churches where you had these huge ceilings of overarching, intertwined colors, and this led me to painting all these colored trees.


JS: So the newspaper album concept is something that the band inspired?

SD: The whole idea of this album was to have something that was almost not existing, so we chose clear vinyl and the newspaper format. In Rainbows was this big, heavy, substantial thing– if you were determined, you could have killed someone with it! It was very much a definitive statement, and that isn't where the band are at the moment. Where they are now is more transitory. When a newspaper comes out, that doesn't mean news stops, what you have is just a snapshot of how things were at the moment that newspaper was printed. And similarly, this album shows where Radiohead are at the moment the record was released. The music is a continuing thing. And we wanted to make the album representative of that.

I also really love newspapers. They are disposable. They are recyclable. They fall apart so easily. They are not like iPads or Kindles that can't be disposed of and end up on some third-world shore. And I love the heritage of them, the whole history of mass communication. Newspapers changed the world from being a really class based, feudal system to people being able to cheaply get information that informed them.


JS: Is the old look of the newspaper deliberate?

SD: We took the fonts from 1930s depression-era U.S. newspapers that had been collated by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society of America. So all the fonts are from the last big depression. They call it the "credit crunch" now, back then they called it a "depression" because they didn't like the connotations of a slump. It's all this use of euphemistic language.


JS: Do you think digital music robs you of something then?

SD: I guess it robs you of the context of the music, though that wasn't in my thinking at the time. The packaging for music has now become a sort of King James Bible, where it elevates the contents to something more spiritual. This is something else that drove me to a newspaper format. I thought, "Let's put it in a newspaper, to get away from that spiritual thing." You don't want to elevate music to something it isn't. Music is something you hear in your head, that's all, we shouldn't give it more than it is.

JS: Speaking of which, there's one bit of artwork, a piece made up of more than a hundred tiny squares of art printed on blotting paper, should we read into this one?

SD: Ah! I wonder what people will make of it. There is a guy who recently died, Augustus Owsley Stanley III, who was one of the most famous creators of LSD in history, a very wealthy American. He set up a laboratory making very cheap, pure, good LSD. In theory, someone could dip them in something, they could do that. I don't think that's been done as a marketing ploy before– not that I am encouraging such activities.


Read the full interview at PrintWeek.