Early in 1999, Radiohead began to size up the task of what to do next after 1997’s acclaimed OK Computer. “It’s quite difficult now to explain this, but we were deeply suspicious of any level of success that we’d earned,” Thom Yorke recalls. “We’d gone on this trajectory, and then suddenly there we were with this massive, ridiculous amount of expectation — but at the same time sort of frozen to the spot. As the flashbulbs erupted, we were just paralyzed.”
The sessions for what would become Radiohead’s fourth and fifth albums stretched on for more than a year of challenging work at studios in Paris, Copenhagen, and their hometown of Oxford, England. “We were trying to chase ourselves away and run as fast as we could in another direction,” Yorke adds. “Trying to get away from wherever the fuck we had found ourselves to somewhere new.”
As the creative tension mounted, Yorke took refuge in the visual imagery he was developing with Dan Rickwood, a.k.a. Stanley Donwood, an old friend from their days studying art together as undergrads at the University of Exeter. They’d created all the artwork for Radiohead since 1994; now they found themselves exploring new techniques in tandem with the advances the band was making in the recording studio.
“What it meant was embracing the artwork as artwork for the first time,” Yorke says. “When we did OK Computer, we were working with a scanner, and it didn’t make any mess. We could be in the corner and be polite, and we got something from that. But then suddenly we’re in our own space, and Dan could create a perfect studio with dust on the floor and rats and a nice little fireplace, and we could go skin up and listen to the music. There was an air of chaos suddenly, and that was really fun.”
By the end of the process, Radiohead had leapt into a new universe beyond rock’s horizon on 2000’s Kid A and 2001’s Amnesiac — accompanied by a rich world of eerie, dreamlike visual imagery that mixed painting, drawing, and digital design. Now, as they look back with a pair of art books (the hardcover catalog Kid A Mnesia and the chapbook-style Fear Stalks the Land!) and a deluxe reissue of the two albums, Yorke and Donwood hopped onto Zoom to talk about those heady, experimental days.
“When we went through the multitrack tapes of Kid A and Amnesiac, the music and the artwork ended up becoming something a little bit more transcendent,” Yorke says. “Trying to embrace some sort of future, even if it’s a nightmare. We were trying to scrape hope out of the dirt somehow.”