20 Years After The End Of The World
Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood on the dread at the heart of 'Kid A'
On a freezing night in the early 2000s, I stood in a packed crowd at Washington, D.C.'s legendary 9:30 Club with friends who were, like me, barely old enough to get past the bouncer. I don't remember the exact date, even the year. The band that brought me to the show has since drifted from my memory. What sticks with me to this day is a moment before the actual concert started, listening to the pre-show music. The glitchy synths popped through the speakers. The bass drum thump hit my chest. I stopped and listened intently, and everything else faded into the background as the song cast its spell.
"Who is this?" I asked. "Radiohead!" replied one of my friends, shocked that I didn't know. Radiohead? "Creep" Radiohead? "Karma Police" Radiohead? I turned my attention back to what I would learn was the song "Idioteque," from the 2000 album Kid A, and focused in on the lyrics. "I'll laugh until my head comes off. I'll swallow till I burst." "Here, I'm allowed everything all of the time." I recognized exactly what Thom Yorke, Radiohead's lead vocalist, was singing about. I knew that feeling. And I knew it might never leave me.
The very next day, I bought Kid A and its companion album, Amnesiac, on CD. The covers of both albums, created by longtime Radiohead collaborator Stanley Donwood, matched the music I had heard the night before. The images were eerie and haunting: digital snow-capped mountains dotted with blood, a hunched being looking claustrophobic in an all-red room. I listened over and over, until the discs were too scratched to play and I had to buy new copies of each. These albums were weird: They oscillated between harsh distortion and soft intimacy, held together by a sense of dread and alienation. But they were also hopeful, articulating feelings that felt complex and adult. They gave me language for things I was feeling, but couldn't express.
Like many other millennials, I spent the awkward transition from childhood to young adulthood in the years when the 20th century was becoming the 21st. For many in America, everything felt possible, yet very little felt right. We were told this new thing called the internet would revolutionize the world and improve our lives, yet we heard about the planet warming and genocides happening in faraway places. Wall Street soared while people worked more hours and made less money. All was right, we were told. Everything was getting better. Yet everywhere we looked, it seemed like our leaders were throwing coins in a wishing well.
Around the same time, a Polish philosopher named Zygmunt Bauman published a book called Liquid Modernity. His big idea was that the anxiety and unease people in the West were feeling in the late 20th century was due to the fact that technology was developing faster than culture: We could not keep up with the lightning-fast advancements in communication, transportation and entertainment. Radiohead captured that feeling in Kid A and Amnesiac. Maybe it's a testament to these albums' prophetic vision that 20 years later, they feel just as relevant. Maybe we still haven't caught up with that rapidly changing world.
This fall, Radiohead reissued both albums as the multimedia project Kid A Mnesia. And a few weeks ago, my co-host Rund Abdelfatah and I had the chance to speak with Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood about revisiting those works now, in a moment that in many ways feels oddly similar to the world of Y2K and Sept. 11. In our conversation, we asked what it was like trying to give visual and musical shape to turn-of-the-millennium anxieties in the face of fevered expectations, how that feeling of dread has been borne out in the two decades that followed — and whether they've found any way to fight it. —Ramtin Arablouei
This interview was conducted as part of an episode of the NPR podcast Throughline, about the making of Radiohead's Kid A at the turn of the millennium. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Rund Abdelfatah: As you were staring at the blank canvas that became these two albums, what were the things you were thinking about personally?
Stanley Donwood: It was a difficult time for many reasons. Some to do with the work, some more personal, and some to do with the fact that the clock was going to take over from the last day of the 20th century and the first day of the 21st. Each turning of a millennium has produced cults and strangeness and disturbances, and we were all part of that. It manifested itself in many different ways.
Thom Yorke: It was quite alarming to go through it all — to find all the old files of what we were writing, all the old notebooks — and see what our preoccupations were. On the face of it, they were quite internal: deeply, deeply suspicious of our own success, a strong desire to burn down everything we had created. And that somehow seemed to synthesize very well with these odd external preoccupations and a sense of dread. Which, looking back, feels odd. But at the time, I guess maybe not.
Donwood: Well, in some ways, it feels like that dread was vindicated — because at the time, there was a sense that we were commenting on and documenting the preoccupations that seemed to be overwhelming at the time. Something was coming, and that something was not good.
Ramtin Arablouei: One of the things James Baldwin wrote a lot about was, if you're having success, sometimes you adjust the way you look at the world to kind of justify why you're in that place. You talked about being suspicious of success; what is it about the group, about you two and everyone that was involved in this project, that made you all suspicious? To not internally take that bribe and just accept it?
Yorke: I'm trying to imagine, firstly, what it would look like if we totally bought into the idea that we deserved our own success. But that's going to make me laugh.
Donwood: The previous record had been very successful. And I think on a lot of levels, the record company would have loved another one of those. I got asked to recreate the artwork for OK Computer several times. And we had no interest in those things.
Yorke: And also, people want to go in different directions. It wasn't like everybody was on board with moving off into uncharted territory — because it's scary. But going back a bit, I would say that there was something fundamental in the way that we had grown up. which I think maybe is peculiar to our sense of Britishness: We were always taught that any success, you have because you've cheated. This is an accident, right? Obviously you didn't mean to create this stuff. Which is what we internalized, because that was the attitude of the press. If you're in the Sex Pistols, you're just a victim of their manager, right? Even an actor — an actor is essentially an idiot who gets filled with the ideas of somebody else.
Donwood: I think that has changed now, for the better. But there was a sense that if you were, like, an actor or an artist or a or a photographer — anything that was creative — if you do these things, it's not proper work.
Yorke: So the ones who can't handle it, they do the next best thing — which is go berserk, trying to work ahead and preempt any of their own mistakes: just producing and producing stuff all the time, not thinking about it, because that's their response to a situation that they can't compute. And that was us.
Arablouei: We grew up here with the opposite ethic: Here in the U.S. we were raised to think, "If you're successful, you deserve it." And perhaps that's what part of the underlying appeal of the album was for Americans, is that it does kind of poke at that.
Yorke: I keep thinking of this phrase I kept writing in one of my books, which was, "I have born a monster." And that became something that ran through a lot of the cartoon work that [Donwood] was doing: that somehow we'd mutated and it was not necessarily a good thing, that progress is not necessarily a good thing, our success was not necessarily a good thing. You know, pulling the rug out from underneath ourselves. [Pause] We were great fun, honestly.
Arablouei: So much has been made about that being a difficult time for the band, and for all of you. And I'm sure it was, but when you listen to the record, you're also clearly having fun.
Yorke: Yeah, making this and going out on tour as well. I mean, I don't know if you've seen the Saturday Night Live performances we did around then. It was so much fun, like the kids are being given the keys to the sports car — that's how it felt to me, because we'd gone through the difficult bit, you know? We couldn't figure out what the hell was going on until it finished up.
Arablouei: Is there some reaction you saw during that time that particularly sticks to you — like from a fan or a peer, saying something about the album resonated with them?
Yorke: Well, at the beginning of those tours, we were really nervous. I didn't quite know what was happening in the U.S., but in the U.K., Kid A got absolutely panned in the press. They destroyed us.
Abdelfatah: Really? What were they saying?
Yorke: "Oh, they just want to do f****** Aphex Twin."
Donwood: "Where's the next OK Computer?"
Yorke: "Where's the hit? Where's the acoustic guitars?" What, you mean all the things you didn't like in the first place? But at the same time it was quite exciting, because if we're getting that level of reaction, it's sort of, "Well, we might have done something really, really wrong or really, really right."
Anyway, there was this moment, I think, before the first show. I was just sitting in a room with everybody else in the band who'd read [the reviews], and they were like, stone faces. And then we walked on stage and it was such a buzz. We were all over the place — we weren't very tight yet, we didn't know what we were doing. But there was this energy to the fact that we were already ahead, we'd had this hugely successful record. And then suddenly, we put this thing out and the British press was chewing glass, they can't handle it at all. It was so exciting.
Arablouei: When you look at the cover art for Kid A and Amnesiac now, what kind of emotions do those evoke for you?
Yorke: When we worked on those images, we worked in the context of a record sleeve. But at the same time, it became this frenzied activity thing. We were just generating material of all different types — paintings, characters, bears, sharp teeth. Just developing this whole weird language. I don't think we were really necessarily standing there saying, "We are creating art."
Donwood: During the making of [Kid A], we talked about this sense of dread. Thom would put these lyrics together that were sort of amalgamations of, you know, almost banality. So a phrase like "Where'd you park the car?" becomes infused with this sort of immense melancholy and a sense of desolation that I think was our palette. But it was a very cathartic process to use that palette, so when the record was done, I think it might be the one I'm the most proud of — because it was so difficult.
Abdelfatah: I see that desolation in the mountains, and the color scheme, even, because it's much darker than OK Computer. And with Amnesiac, obviously it's very red, which makes me really feel a sense of violence.
Yorke: I mean, that was the case with the lyrics as well. I was very, very deeply affected by watching something on the Hutus and Tutsis ... and then the Kosovo war. We saw a lot of violence.
Donwood: And it was a strange time because, as we say, it was the turn of the millennium — but this was a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Cold War that had defined history for half a century had come to an end, as — I can't remember his name, who wrote that history was over?
Arablouei: Francis Fukuyama?
Donwood: That's right. So history is over and neoliberalism is the dominant ideology now, and everything is going to be "fine." But it wasn't. Everything was fraying at the edges. Europe was rent with the worst kind of inter-ethnic violence. At the same time, we're living in this world where for the first time we had a Labour government that was doing things like banning handguns, just a little bit of social good. So, you know, difficult times to process, because we were young adults, and very young parents.
Yorke: Yeah, very, very young parents, or just about to be. And that changes you very fast, the simple choice of choosing to go into a studio and work when you have young children.
There was something I was going to say about the fire and ice in the landscapes and what that meant. Because yeah, it was really dark, but there was also a kind of hope in the aesthetic of what we were trying to do. There was a lot of rejection of the violence, or the violence was happening at a safe distance at least. ... The cover of Kid A is a fire on top of a snowy hillside, but there also the very ultra-modern shapes in the front, this weird, twisted sort of technological perspective on things. And that was the same with the music: A lot of the stuff leading up to what the lyrics [became] was way more violent. It's like I went through indulging in all this violent language, but very little of it actually remained in the final thing.
Arablouei: There's a phrase called "liquid modernity" that this philosopher Zygmunt Bauman came up with, which was that in the late 20th century, progress — like scientific and capitalist progress, whatever that means — was happening faster than culture's ability to catch up with it.
Yorke: Yeah, exactly. I felt like everything we were doing — the cartoon genetically modified bear thing — was exactly that. One of our many preoccupations was the idea of genetic modification.
Donwood: Yeah, the mouse with the ear on its back. Dolly the sheep.
Arablouei: Did it make you feel lonely? Did it make you feel disassociated from the world at all?
Yorke: Oh, that's what I specialized in. [Laughing] I'm a little bit better now.
Donwood: But not much better!
Arablouei: But you know, you're a person living in the world. It was objectively a weird time.
Donwood: It was a strange time. Every generation that had come before us, in some way, lived a life that was recognizably the lives of their parents: Everything around them would have been relatively familiar, in one shape or form, to that of their own parents and their grandmother. We definitely felt as if we were living in a world that the previous generation just wouldn't have got. "What is this thing? How does this work? Why have you got this? What's happening with that?"
Yorke: Also, we were the children of the end of the Cold War. The four-minute warning was no longer something that we were scared of — that sort of fundamental fear of childhood had gone away.
Abdelfatah: The nuclear bomb being dropped, right.
Donwood: When we were growing up, that was the fear that you had. And then that was theoretically removed in 1989, 1990. Although those weapons are still there — they're just slowly decaying in their silos, or have been sold or stolen.
Yorke: But when that wall comes down, you're still left with this fear: Who is making decisions, and why are we not involved? Because especially our generation at that time — I'm thinking of, like, New Labour in the U.K. — we were about to have children, were having children. We had some place in the hierarchy of things, we had some success. Those important ethical decisions about, how does society look after it's weakest? How does our society see itself in connection with the rest of Europe or Kosovo or Africa or whatever? Who's deciding, and why the hell aren't they asking us? For the first time, I think we were all realizing that we did not have the ear of those people who are going to make those decisions. And that was a nasty shock.
Donwood: Yeah, because we're the grown-ups now. Hold on.
Yorke: When G7 met, I remember a friend of mine went to Genoa. Came back and told me that he'd seen Italian police planting fake protesters into the crowd to cause trouble, which at the time was the most shocking thing I'd ever heard. "You mean the police sent people in to cause a fight? "Oh yeah, they always do that now." ... Friends of ours are sending us photos from Seattle [during the 1999 WTO protests], going, "Why are they firing tear gas on the people who have got the right idea?" So this moral order that we had grown up with as left-leaning art students or whatever, assuming that we had the potential to change the world — there's a lot of anger at this idea of progress, the idea that now that that particular problem is solved, we can move to a more harmonized capitalist model. That's where we were at.
Abdelfatah: I mean, one thing that's so striking is that after the album comes out, after all those things you were starting to see trickles of, you've got 9/11 — and suddenly there's a new enemy.
Donwood: No, that really changed things. You know, there was the Patriot Act, a lot of what you could charitably call kneejerk politics, straight after that. But it was definitely coming. You know, the '90s now look like some kind of, almost, Victorian era when everyone was just dancing around and smiling. But it wasn't like that for everybody. 9/11 was a sharp reminder that all was not well and it has not really recovered.
Arablouei: I want to get a sense of the awareness of climate change in Kid A and Amnesiac. How did you become aware of it yourselves? Where were you inspired?
Yorke: The U.N. climate change report was 1994, is that right? I think we would have read that, probably. We certainly read the ones after that. It was there in the middle pages of the press, and us being us, we picked up on it. That was exactly the sort of neurosis that we would have tapped into straight away.
Donwood: It's just — it's not possible to ignore something as important as that. It was already old by the time we wrote it down, and that's 20 years ago.
Yorke: After Kid A and Amnesiac had come out, I was sitting at my kitchen table with my, like, 1-year-old son. The BBC had this policy at the time, which they took far too long to change, where every time someone would come on to talk about climate change, they would bring on someone else to ... to ...
Donwood: Oh, yeah. "Balance."
Yorke: And that's when I decided to get involved [in campaigning against climate change], because I just couldn't take it anymore: I cannot deal with the fact that they are digging out these lunatics who are obviously being paid for by the oil industry to trot out some nonsense, non-scientific guff to fight what is clearly the consensus in the scientific community.
Abdelfatah: Everything you're talking about points to one of the lines in "Idioteque," where you say, "We're not scaremongering / This is really happening." It's sort of like trying to shake the world and say, "Hey, pay attention to this."
Yorke: Yeah. I'm not sure that's what I meant when I did it; I'm not sure why it came out like that. God knows. The way I was working at the time was very much, lines would go into a hat and get taken out, and when they worked, they worked. So I can't tell you if I was trying to write a song about global warming — I very much doubt it. I think probably it was more like I was writing down my neurosis. While I was listening, someone may have said, "We're not scaremongering," you know? Maybe I picked someone up on the radio saying it, or whatever. It gets absorbed and then comes out. But it's not like an intentional, "I must write a song about global warming," because imagine what that would sound like.
Arablouei: Being a young parent myself, it sounds to me like the anxiety of someone who is looking at a number of possible futures and feeling some fear for their own children.
Yorke: I could be creating this in my head, but I also think that what was deeply worrying was that there was no questioning that this was our path, this is our trajectory. There is no questioning of the concept of economic growth in this way. There's no question that progress looks like this. There's no question that we must feed the monster, because the monster has clearly won. You know, it sounds really daft when I say it like that, but honestly, to me, there was a whole area of debate that simply evaporated.
Donwood: I think that's still the case. There's a lot of talk about trying to be more ecologically responsible, but there's still no serious questioning of the idea of economic growth.
Yorke: No, there is — there absolutely is. But it's only within universities. It's not being accepted within politics, because it's too painful when you have a political system like you do in the U.S., where influence can be bought like you can do here. The last thing on the agenda is going to be, "Do we need to take everybody with us on this?" No, we don't. F*** 'em. Excuse my French.
Abdelfatah: I wonder what it feels like for you now when you revisit these albums. Are you looking ahead at another precipice of what's to come?
Yorke: I don't necessarily think of it like that. I try and retain some level of hope that we're going to find a way through this, because I think you have to. It's sort of like I'm still back there with my 1-year old, realizing that unless you find the language to express an alternative point of view, unless you provide a way forward for that language, it won't happen. So the more you internalize this sense of dread, the more you allow the naysayers space.
When we were working on Kid A and Amnesiac, there were two sorts of shifts. There was the dread of the millennium coming up, but there was also a shift which was sort of saying, "Everything's already been decided. Progress is what it is; there's nothing you can do." I felt it was necessary at that point to show pictures of fire and ice, to try and immerse yourself in this kind of weird anger and resistance. Don't internalize this. You've got to get it out.
Donwood: It's like trying to create beauty from nightmares. You've got to weave some beauty because you can't live in dread. No one could do that; it's like death.
Yorke: But the moment where we're at, this particular fulcrum right now, where dread and division has become an economically useful, uh, algorithm — whatever you want to call it — like, we've developed this new form of interacting with each other which is a form of sickness. And now finally, it's being talked about. And as soon as it's named, its power will rescind, because that's what happens if you want to. If you want to take something's power away, you have to name it.
Donwood: Name it, and then ridicule it.