NPR ‘Throughline’ interview with Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood on ‘Kid A’

20 Years After The End Of The World

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood on the dread at the heart of ‘Kid A’

Radiohead circa 2000. Singer Thom Yorke (second from right) says that as much as the albums Kid A and Amnesiac channel the dread that loomed over their moment, they are also full of hope that another world is possible. Tom Sheehan/Courtesy of the artist.

By Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah; original story on NPR Music and the NPR podcast Throughline

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

Read more on NPR Music, and hear the interview with Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood on the NPR podcast Throughline.