Old backbone
Thom Yorke – ‘An old giant’s backbone buried in the rocks’

Thom Yorke, musician, on his picture of a rock formation in Cornwall – ‘An old giant’s backbone buried in the rocks’.

GB Tell me why you chose this rock formation:

TY I think it’s beautiful because of it’s scale and force. Sheets of slate folding over as easy as the folds of your bedcovers.

The power in the movements of the earth, happening beneath us ready to move at any time, a supreme force beyond anything I can understand.

I’m no geologist but I think this resulted in a clash of plates in the earth’s crust or something. They clashed and lurched out of the ocean and became this. Whether this happened very quickly, or over thousands of years I have no idea. I like not knowing. It’s everywhere in this area in Cornwall.

GB I love that you see the backbone of a dead giant in it. It’s like a huge Rorschach ink blot test. Did you see anything else while you were photographing rocks?

TY I’ve spent a lot of time trying to draw this formation and others around here, at least get the sense of the lurching and jerking like the earth spasming or something. It’s very musical to me.

After a while with this one I started to see a backbone yes. I think a lot about the fossils and extraordinary creatures that could have been brought up from the ocean floor from times we know nothing about.

Other times I get obsessed with the way the water from the rivers cuts canals down the cliffs and through the sand to the sea for example. When I walk the cliffs around here I see all sorts of crazy shit. Not just in the rocks.

There are wild goats that live around here with satanic eyes, they stink of death and fight at dusk by charging at each other like stags, believe me you don’t want to meet them by accident when walking the cliffs.

GB Is this a place you know well? And do you know much about the history of the rocks?

TY No I don’t know much, I have one little booklet about it but I’ve forgotten what it says. I know you get students with hard hats on examining the formation. It’s a place I know well yes, I go work there on my own sometimes, pack sandwiches and a flask of tea and a big coat and walk the cliffs all day. Or go onto the moors.

Sometimes I shelter in rock formations or broken bits of the remnants of houses when the horizontal rain comes in against me!

Sometimes I feel I can hear the voices of those who have walked before. I know that sounds daft. I at least sense an older presence that I don’t fully understand.

The oddest thing can be falling asleep and dreaming in this landscape then coming to. At times all this has stopped me going crazy, brought all the atomized parts of the inside me back into one thing again. It brings me back into myself, and part of that is how aggressive and tumultuous the landscape is.

GB Do you think that nature is a higher form of beauty than man-made things?

TY They are too different to be compared. I reckon some of our ideas of beauty from the man-made world could be too self-referential and do us no favours. Too much time spent in cities you know? Surrounded by our own image, and our own intentions, our edifices to our brilliance. Having said that, the other thing I was going to suggest for a thing of beauty was a sports car.

When you are lost in a landscape mentally and physically your ‘human’ awareness can be wiped clean and you are simply part of your surroundings. A kind of meditation I would say, but your mind is not empty or clear, it is full of what is around you. The landscape is beautiful in the sense that it simply does not require you, it exists in its own right and it is not there wishing to be admired. I guess on the other hand the best art, human made, comes about the same way. It happens, it was like it was always meant to happen.

GB Do you think about beauty when you’re making music? It seems as though you do but maybe the beauty is a bi-product of the emotion you’re expressing?

TY I don’t think about much when I’m making music, when I’m writing I’m searching for something, but at the same time being open to what may happen. A lot of the time I cannot evaluate it until afterwards, or someone else will tell me. Beauty to me in music can be violent, ugly or fast or urgent, not necessarily slow or pretty. The reason to make music to me is because I’m looking for something I can’t find – that I feel like I might have heard in a dream or something. In a way though, the most beautiful things that come are the simple ones, the ideas that come and sit on your shoulder and don’t piss off, but could be so obvious you might miss them unless you’re looking.

GB You work with Stanley Donwood on your artwork. Is the visual aesthetic of your records important to you?

TY Hell yes! In my brain it’s all part of the same process, the two things are inextricably linked. One informs the other. The most fun the two of us have when working on stuff is when the music is somehow going on at the same time in the studio. My favourite times though are when we make some sort of break through, after scratching around for a while experimenting, we find a simple idea that leads us through. I guess to me creatively, beauty comes from the simple things you find that hold shit together, that seem like they’ve been here all the time. But they haven’t.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

TY A kind of naturalness, like a force behind it, something bigger has helped it come into being. And a lack of self-awareness perhaps.


  1. A force behind it, not an obvious, necessarily see-able, force. I think of it as the magic of life, of living, of existing in this world!

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