Avatars Of The Unconscious: Stanley Donwood Interviewed

Dan Richards speaks to Radiohead and Thom Yorke artworker, Holloway collaborator, friend and fellow hedge enthusiast Stanley Donwood about the blurred lines between sleeping and waking life, keeping demons out of his house and the big red non-spiders on the front of his new book, Humor

It is autumn and raining hard in London. I am late to an important meeting, so I run down the escalators into the underground and breathlessly jump aboard the first train I see. But as it accelerates away into darkness I realise with horror that I am on the wrong line and travelling in the wrong direction.

When I finally reach my destination I am flustered and flushed but, determined to present an unruffled, professional front, I stop to smooth my hair in the reflection of a shop window, breath hard and stride masterfully into the bar where the meeting is to be held. It is empty.

I’m here to meet Stanley Donwood and interview him for The Quietus. I’ve known him for several years — co-authored a book about hedges with him, in fact — and so am in a good position to ask hard-hitting questions about books and things and generally put him through a Frost/Nixon style wringer.

When Stanley eventually arrives, we shake hands like firm friends and descend to a concrete bunker below the main bar to talk about his new book, HUMOR. 
He has a new suit on and looks very trim so I compliment him on that before turning on my dictaphone and asking if he considers himself a massive shyster.

In retrospect, he did look rather crestfallen at this opening gambit but I think it was fair enough because, in many ways, HUMOR, whilst a funny, harrowing, macabre book — tactile, gorgeously made, available in both a standard hardback and super deluxe hemp paper version — also holds a dark, dark secret…

Everything in HUMOR has been published before. Do you feel like a fraud?

Stanley Donwood: That’s what my brother called me. Yes, it’s been published before. It’s been published in the form of small pamphlets which I sent out to my unsuspecting friends 20 years ago.

20 years ago.

SD: Yes.

It’s taken you this long to find a publisher…

SD: … rather than a bloke I met down the pub, yes.

So this is the collected pub pamphlet opus.

SD: Yes. A compilation of everything I wrote until Faber first said, ‘Can we publish your book?’ And then I was encouraged to write some new things but I thought, ‘I can’t put the new things in the old book’… because I have warned people not to buy it if they’ve bought my previous book or if they’re one of my friends I sent the pamphlets to… or if they’ve read my website which has most of it on as well.

I see.

SD: Am I allowed to swear, by the way?


SD: The Quietus is written down, right?

That’s right.

SD: So you can edit all this out?


SD: Right. Okay.

This isn’t going out live. We’re not on the radio.

SD: I did an interview with the radio yesterday.

Which one?

SD: I don’t know, ‘the radio’ — it was up from here at the BBC and I had to talk into a massive red microphone… it was Mary Anne Hobbs but it wasn’t her, it was a producer — basically, what they were constructing was a tissue of lies. To start with, I didn’t speak to her, I spoke to her producer but he wasn’t even there, he was in Manchester or something… and I did swear. Once I got into a flow of talking and then, at the end, I had to say — I might have dreamt this but I think I had to say — ‘Hello Mary Anne’ or something so they can put that at the beginning.


SD: I know. And I had to say ‘Rubbish, Garbage, Trash & Detritus’ so they could put those in where I said ‘Fuck Shit Cunt Wank.’

Blimey. So you were describing the book to Mary Anne Hobbs in those terms?

SD: No. I was talking about something else.

Did you use the phrase ‘tissue of lies’ in relation to the book?

SD: I’m not saying my book’s a tissue of lies. It’s not a tissue of lies.

At least you’ve wrapped it up in new artwork which is new.

SD: Kind of…


SD: It hasn’t been wrapped up in this particular artwork before. It’s now wrapped up in artwork that was only finished a year ago.

I remember you painting them, yes. I remember the big red spiders.

SD: Big paintings. They took a very long time… they’re not actually spiders.

Well, either way, they weren’t specifically painted for this book.

SD: Not overtly.


SD: I don’t like the way this interview is going. Can I have a new interlocutor?

I know too much, is that it?

SD: Can we start again and pretend we’ve never met?

I think it’s too late now, we’re 17 minutes in.

SD: Every minute a gem.

You were saying, about the spiders on the cover…

SD: They’re not spiders! They haven’t got enough legs. They’re more, just… stuff.

A gem right there!

SD: I was just warming up with the stuff business. Right, they’re, um… Avatars of the Unconscious.

SD: They are! Have you ever been in a forest at night!? Full of bloody terrifying shit isn’t it? And that’s what I’m saying. That’s what they are.

They explored this recently in Dr. Who.

SD: What?

Dr. Who.

SD: I don’t know. I don’t have time to watch Dr. Who — because it is a children’s programme. I don’t have time to watch children’s programmes.

No, you’ve very busy.

SD: I am very busy!

You’re a Faber author!

SD: I am!

Although the authorial content of HUMOR occurred before you were signed up by them.

SD: Yes. I know.

So, at best, you’re a ‘Faber-edited’ author.

SD: Well, no, because since then…

… Oh god, you’ve not told them about that novel, have you?

SD: Yes! I have. And I mentioned that on the radio to a Polish man — a different interview. I had another interview with a different person in the same place.

So you’ve got to write a novel now.

SD: Yes, I know. That’s how it works. I can’t do anything, ever, unless I tell a load of people I’m going to do something and then I have to do it. And I only do it because I’m so embarrassed that if I don’t do it then I’ll look like a complete idiot.

What’s the best thing about HUMOR, then?

SD: That it’s been published by Faber & Faber! … No?

It’s not the greatest answer, if I’m honest.

SD: Oh, I don’t know, then. I’m not the person to ask.

Any redeeming features at all?

SD: No.

Would you describe it as upbeat?

SD: Opinion is divided about this matter. Some people find it quite funny. Me, I’m not so sure. I don’t think it’s funny at all. In fact, none of it was written with the intention of being funny and when one of my friends — who I met down the pub — read some of it, he was really laughing and I thought, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you!?’ It made me feel quite disconsolate because I thought he was reading some of the most depressing parts but he found it fucking hilarious.

Did you write these stories with the goal of making a set of really harrowing, depressing stories?

SD: No. It was a solution to a problem that I had. When I was in my 20s I became convinced that the dream-life was equivalent in importance and effect to waking-life… I think I went a little bit mad. I don’t know why but I’d had the same chapters or episodes of the same dream, annually, from quite a young age until I was about 20, each picking up from the one before… if you sliced up The Omen or The Shining or something like that into ten minute sections — ten minutes one year and then, a year later, the next ten minutes, and then the next… but much more terrifying.

I reached a point where I couldn’t actually go to sleep anymore because I was too scared when this happened.

Was it always at the same time of year?

SD: Roughly speaking, yes. And I got very, very, very scared and I tried to stay awake and, of course, when you try to stay awake it’s like jet-lag — you go even more mental than if you were waiting for a horrible dream to happen — so I wrote down the whole thing and that seemed to do something, it seemed to stop it or at least annul its power. Because it felt like I was going to die when I was asleep and I was convinced that if you’ve dreamed you’ve died — or been killed, in this case — then, in real life, you won’t wake up because you will be dead.

So, yeah, I started writing them down. And I sorted out the big bad dream in that way but it was a massive bit of writing — like a fucking book or something — everything that happened. You know, everything that happened. But most of all I needed to find the name of my personal demon, you know ‘psychic tormentor’ and by finding his name I was able to have an element of control in these dreams. After I’d figured out its name, I could call it: in my dream — it was like lucid dreaming.

Invoke it?

SD: I could invoke it! So things have switched round from me being a passive victim to a more active participant in this horror.

You’ve spoken to me before about writing things in a fireplace, backwards.

SD: Yes, well, that was an experiment because I’d read somewhere that — this is how mad I was — I’d read somewhere that if you write the word DEVIL backwards, so LIVED, in a fireplace, The Devil will come down the chimney — I did actually believe this — and see the word DEVIL backwards and think that it had come into the wrong dimension, that it was behind a mirror instead of being in the real world so it would go away again. So that was a way of tricking devils to go away from my house.

I remember ‘Against Demons’ featuring on OK Computer’s artwork.

SD: Yes, that was Radiohead’s first big tour and they launched the record in Barcelona and I’d basically made these massive bill posters that fly-poster gangs, paid by the record label, would paste round cities all over the world; pasting up these massive hexes which I’d got from a book — all tramp signs, hobo signs, apparently; a star in a circle with jagged barbs in it and, if you put that up in enough places, they can’t cross the threshold; demons. They can’t get in.

Like vampires.

SD: Exactly. So I managed to do that… so that dealt with Mephistopheles or whoever he was… I can actually remember his name now, which is probably a good thing… So, anyway, all of the nightmares, I wrote them down… because this is the thing about dreams: when people tell you they’ve had a dream, you think ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake… really. Did you. How interesting.

Unless it’s Martin Luther King.

SD: Very true, but I think he was using the word dream in a more metaphorical sense.

So, you’re not equating…

SD: No, I’m not equating myself with Martin Luther King.


SD: So, what I did was write down all the dreams but without the beginning and without the end. Just the middle — because dreams are just middle, as far as I can tell. I wrote them down and I had a group of between a dozen and 20 friends who I’d send these little stories to, these exorcised dreams. So I sent them to all these people with the idea that, if you broadcast it, if you spread something more thinly it less concentrated, less powerful…

Like demonic Ribena.

SD: Exactly. If you dilute Ribena, it’s fine. Ribena, without water: fucking horrible.

It’s too much. Right.

SD: Really hectic.

More like merlot.

SD: Exactly, but not as nice… So the first time I sent them out to 20 people. Definitely helped. And then, in about 1994/95, the internet happened and I put them on the internet so loads of people could read them — I didn’t know who they were and that made it even better! And then I met the bloke in the pub who put them into a book so even more people read them… and then, well, I’ve put them on Radiohead artwork, in booklets with records as well to, rather selfishly, get this away from me.


SD: And now, with this Faber & Faber book, a different audience again will read them! Which is brilliant but the thing is — the bad thing, in a way, is that this method or treatment for the horrible nightmares has been almost too successful because I now have no dreams, really…

Not at all?

SD: Not really, no… Well, I mean, I’ve been a bit anxious about this book coming out so I have had a few strange dreams, which is a bit unusual…

Why are you worried about that?

SD: Oh, it’s like having a private view when you’re doing an art show or something, just that feeling that people will be… because it all starts off very private; it starts off in your head and you end up broadcasting or publishing or…

But you you’ve been doing that for years!

SD: I know!

Is it because it’s words rather than artwork this time around?

SD: No, it’s the same with the artwork.

Do you get nervous before albums come out?

SD: No, because that’s a Radiohead thing… I mean, I do a bit but that’s sort of alright because it’s slightly mediated because when Radiohead or Thom puts out a record, the first thing anyone’s going to talk about or think about or notice is the music, so the packaging is of secondary concern. And also, with Radiohead records and with Thom’s stuff, we work together so it’s not entirely my fault. We’ve both agreed that this is okay. But when I’m doing an exhibition or putting a book out, like this, then it’s all my fault… because it might actually be shit. I don’t know. I think it’s probably not shit but I’m not sure.

What would convince you it wasn’t?

SD: I don’t think anything would convince me… I mean, when you can’t sleep at night and you’re lying there and you’re thinking ‘Oh fuck. It’s shit! It’s terrible. What have I done? What have I done!?

Do you still worry about this with things you’ve done in the past?

SD: No. No, once things are further away they become less harmful… like, when we were writing Holloway, we didn’t know how many books to publish!


SD: We were going to letterpress these books and it was obviously worth doing a bunch of them otherwise it’s a lot of hassle to make five books but we didn’t know how many to make. 277 was a fairly arbitrary number, taken from the height of Pilsdon Pen.

Pub numbers.

SD: Exactly. Pub maths. But we didn’t want a box of 500 books sat behind the sofa for the rest of our lives. We’d just spent a night in a hedge. Three men in a hedge. Why would anyone care?


SD: Mmm.

So who’s your reader for HUMOR?

SD: Do I have a reader? I don’t know. What do you mean?

When you imagine it going out into the world, do you picture a person reading it and, if so, who is that person?

SD: Oh, well, weirdly, it’s me.


SD: Yeah, I had a very strange moment — which I think was quite a cathartic moment — when I got sent a first copy of the book by Faber, as it is, dust jacket on, all that — not a proof copy: the book. No one else has got it, no bookshops — it’s on its way to the warehouse… And I was reading it and it was almost as if someone else had written it. It wasn’t me. It was far enough away. Perhaps it was something about how they typeset it or the fact it was in hard covers and had Faber & Faber on the spine.

Because 20 years ago…

SD: I’d never have imagined! What an amazing thing!

Look how far you’ve come!

SD: Exactly. And I decided then that I don’t want to do another collection of stories because it feels like that’s done. And that’s why I was a bit cavalier about mentioning writing a novel.

Which they jumped at?

SD: Oh yeah.

I’m sure the bestselling book about the hedge helped.

SD: Undoubtedly.

What’s the novel going to be about?

SD: Murders. Well, not just murders… but some.

I see.

SD: Do you have enough to write something, do you think?

Probably, yes. Perhaps they’ll put one of the stories at the bottom of the article to round things off.

Sky Sports.

One day I found out that my urine was acting like a powerful foaming agent. I thought that I could take advantage of my ability by hosting piss-centered foam parties in the pub toilets, but the landlord wasn’t keen. He didn’t think people would be interested. In fact, he thought it was a disgusting idea. I said I’d rather go to a piss foam party than watch the fucking football, but he said that I’m in a very small minority and that the big screen stays.

Humour is out now, published by Faber & Faber

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