We talked to the former Maccabees frontman about his latest multi-disciplinary project.
When Orlando Weeks’ time with indie rock darlings The Maccabees was coming to an end, he decided to channel his creative energy into something else entirely. The product of this decision, fuelled in part by an urge to fill dead time while on his final tour, is “The Gritterman“, a multi-disciplinary masterpiece whose eponymous character is an old widow, gritting the snowy roads at Christmas time.
This is a multi-layered project, and one much unlike the slew of cartoon and animation that seems to be being perennially released. A wonderful melange of hand-drawn illustration, hauntingly beautiful music and voicing by Paul Whitehouse, “The Gritterman” is a refreshingly un-pushy Christmas project. It breaks away from the commerce-driven, purchase-incentivised undertones that pervadee anything Christmassy in 2018, focusing instead on the important themes loneliness, stoicism, and taking joy in the little things.
With animation potentially on the horizon, and a second run of concerts this December, we chatted to Orlando about the project, his inspirations behind it, and the virtues of being content in one’s own company.
I know you studied illustration at Uni, had you written fictional narrative before?
It’s the first thing that’s ever been published. For the last 3 or 4 years of touring, I’d realised that one of the ways that I could use the down time (of which there is quite a lot on tour) in a productive way was to sit on my phone and write – short stories, poems – that kind of thing. I could do it anywhere; if you’re on your phone, it just looks like you’re on your phone, so there’s less pressure of people being like ‘what are you doing?’, you know?
You’ve said that the project was born out of you writing when on tour, while you’d otherwise be waiting, I think that’s something that people can really learn from, being creative in spare time. Would you recommend more people try projects that might be slightly outside their comfort zones?
I would never tell anyone how to do anything, because it’s not for me to say. From my experience though, the thing that gives me really good peace of mind and takes me out of thoughts or an atmosphere I’m not enjoying is making things. I guess people are doing it all the time: if you’re doing Sudoku, or something like that, you’re distracting your brain and working that muscle. My equivalent is sitting and drawing, or writing something. It means that I feel like I’m achieving something, and that gives me peace.
Is The Gritterman taken from or inspired by anything in particular, or is it totally fictional?
I was being lead by a couple of songs. I had one song called Seasonal Hero, and that lead me to think that this could be larger, and I could develop it. The way that the songs were sounding directed how I ended up visualising him, and then seeing how he looked meant that I started to think how he might talk. I wanted the lyrics to the song to be like his internal monologue, and if that was the case then that freed me up to be really matter-of-fact with his narration. He could be so plain in his speech that, when you put that up against his expression through song, there’s a nice juxtaposition.
Like you say, his speech in the project is quite stripped back and Laconic, and sometimes the sketches, and songs, reflect that. How important was it for you to keep this simple?
I definitely knew I wanted to make something that I could start and finish, that could be very self-contained. That worked to an extent; I mean I needed my publishers, and Markus Dravs to produce the record, and so it wasn’t entirely that. But, I wanted to be able to turn up to those meetings and say ‘I’ve got everything. It’s all finished.’ I really I gave myself the brief of making something very self-contained, completable, ribbon on the top type thing.
Who is this project aimed at?
We didn’t feel like we needed to bend it to anything in particular. We liked the character, the visual, the music – everything seemed to sit together nicely. That said, when I was making it, one of my hopes was – and still is – that it would end up as an animated thing. Once that happens, I think it will explain itself to an observer better than it currently does, because I think it will be more appealing to a broader audience. Currently, I think the music feels too grown-up for children; the visuals are harkening back to an aesthetic that I recognise from children’s books when I was a child, but then the story isn’t really geared towards children. I did consider seeing if I could make animation be my first port of call, but the reality is that it is such a big machine, and it moves really slowly. I’d been in a machine that moved at it’s own pace, and I wanted to make something where I felt like I could finish it, and not rely too heavily on other people.
Loneliness seems to be a big theme in the project. That quote – “Sometimes it feels like I’m the only person awake in the whole country…being alone and loneliness aren’t the same thing at all…” – I thought that was lovely, and wondered if you could expand a little on it?
I think just that. Being alone needn’t mean that you feel lonely, and, at the same time, you can feel very very lonely surrounded by people. It feels lyrical, because of the proximity of the words…you have to double back on it slightly. I like the thing of him being the only person you see in the whole book, yet he only feels alone when he thinks about someone he loved, not by actually being alone. Being comfortable on your own is a very nice state of mind, something that I get when I’m making work, and I really enjoyed that isolation. But feeling lonely is horrific, when you really really feel it, it’s very very upsetting.
In ‘Seasonal Hero’ there is a mall poem about remembering his wife, and it’s really quite emotional. Was it an emotional task for you at all, writing the project?
I felt very invested in him. I like him, I wanted people to like him. One of the reasons I was so lucky to get to work with Paul Whitehouse was that he’s able to walk that line between a twinkle in the eye and a sort of wistful…
It’s almost a gravitas.
Exactly. I didn’t want to let it down; I still don’t feel like I want to let him or it down. I feel very optimistic about it evolving as a project, but I’m only ever going to do that if I think it’s going to be the best way we can do it.
Saying all that though, there is also a streak of humour throughout the project, which is the twinkle in the eye that you mentioned Paul Whitehouse doing so well. Was it important was it for you to have that element, and not make it a sort of Christmas tragedy?
Yeah. It’s one of the ways in which he comes across to me as a very British character, that stoicism through humour and levity. When I read about, or watch documentaries and films about, things like the Blitz spirit, that always seems to be the thing: a kind of gallows humour. There also needs to be that lightness so that then I can get away with having quite sombre music.
I was on the tube the other day, and a heard a woman talking to a little boy about jobs, saying that the person who cleans surgical tools is just as important as a surgeon, and no one job is more important than another. The Gritterman is a perfect example of someone who loves their job and is proud of it, was this something that you wanted to get across?
Yeah. I think the mechanisms that keep us all ticking require the respect that it sounds like was the point of your story. I have a really odd memory of being somewhere on holiday or something, and there being a harvest festival that my parents took us to. The vicar, who was doing the thing – maybe it was even a fete, or Clapham Common, I can’t remember – but the vicar was blessing all of the things you’d expect, all of the pastoral clichés. And then he said: “also, let us think about the people who work in the canning factories.” I was probably ten or something, and it just had never even crossed my mind, I was like “oh yeah, someone’s got to put that in there!”. The Maccabees did big gigs by the end, and we’d often arrive at the venue as it was opening, and be around at somewhere like Alexandra Palace, and watching them build the entire stage from nothing, you become so conscious of how many moving parts there are to anything.
The project is also an interesting look back at someone from a different generation, a generation which doesn’t get that much of a look in in fiction now, compared to the endless supply of teen dramas etc. What prompted you to look at someone who wasn’t your age, and was from a different time?
To begin with, I wasn’t trying to make it in any way contemporary. I think I – probably naively – romanticise an era of industry, of things before, built in obsolescence, of manufacture, and the good life – all of that. Now we’re moving towards something that means that – in general – everyone will probably have a better quality of life than then. But, there is something about the hand-made-ness that we all still really like. You’ll see in clubs or restaurants that there are things which have been distressed to look hand-made, so it must be something that we all feel a connection with. But, like I say, it probably neglects the man hours that actually were required to do that. Also, if you’re useless at computers, you’ve got to hold onto something, so if I can convince myself and others that that hand-doneness is actually a selling point, that’s great too! (laughs.)
Was it a different experience to writing a conventional album, writing a soundtrack of sorts, albeit to something you had created?
If I had a more structured or reliable way of writing songs, then it would have been a different thing. The more hours I sit and spend on something that will help me write a piece of music – piano mostly for this – the more likely I am to be there when something comes along. I’ve heard to accomplished artists or songwriters talk about songs landing in their lap and, while I would like that to happen more often, it’s is playing the odds. If you’re there more often, you’re more likely to get something that feels like it’s something. Also, all of the mediums informed each other; there were loads of drawings that I did of him dancing with snowflakes, before thinking that that actually wasn’t right for the book, because everything in the book is realist. But, then those drawings made me think of the dance going on between the viewer and the snowflake. A fantasia-esque animism, giving each snowflake a character, and suggesting that the reader is dancing with it in a sense… So everything was playing off each other, and sometimes the thing that gave me the idea for the thing that made it to the book and record was lost, but nothing really was lost, because I’m recycling.
With the project, you are entering the fray of Christmas albums, though yours is very different. Why did you choose a time like Christmas for this tale to be set?
Writing on the piano for the first time when you’re not very good at the piano…twinklieness becomes a bit of a go-to. The further you get into using the piano as a writing tool, the more you notice that it’s that time of year again. I think that played a part. I thought about it being across seasons, but I have a graphic designer friend who says ‘whatever you’re doing, make sure you only have three colours over it’. And so dark blues, whites, and reds became my colour pallets, and the most successful drawings for me were the ones in which there was the most negative space left, where I left the most white.
Do you plan on releasing more works in the Gritterman universe? Or something else entirely?
I’m still working with people to make a moving image version of the Gritterman universe. As I said, the Venn-diagram doesn’t quite close, and I think if you’re watching it with music, Paul Whitehouse, and animation, then suddenly I think it’ll be more self-explanatory than I am able to be for it, or it is able to be for itself. Then, I’m writing another book, and I’m finishing a record that’s separate, and that’ll come out next year.
“The Gritterman” will be performed live at Union Chapel in London on December 10th and 11th, and at the Albert Hall in Manchester on the 12th. Buy your tickets here.