“I don’t mind interviews, especially at this point where I’ve only done two or three about the project,” declares Orlando Weeks in the heart of Shoreditch House. Although a hot day blazes outside, we’ve gathered inside the East London haunt to talk about the artist’s new project The Gritterman.
His first foray since The Maccabees disbanded, it’s a carefully crafted story filled with Orlando’s illustrations too, running alongside an accompanying album – all in all a poignantly touching and heart-warming journey to find yourself lost in. “It makes you evaluate, it does a lot of unpicking for you,” he says of the promotional process, but how long will this optimism last? “I’ll text you and give you an out of ten rating during the day,” he jokes, “but I think I’ll feel good, I predict a good feeling.”
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Was it always an obvious choice to have Paul Whitehouse narrating the character of The Gritterman?
Yeah I think so, we met and then really quickly I felt as though we’d have a nice time together and I also knew that he could do the job. There was a programme he did called Nurse and in that there were some really touching performances that were funny but the character had a sweetness to it and I thought that’s what I needed for Gritterman – a twinkle in the eye and a positivity that was going to stop it from becoming sombre. I knew it needed to be gentle and kindly and not become grim.
It also meant that I got to hang out with Paul Whitehouse which was a treat and continues to be a treat.
With the story itself, did you have the themes in your mind when you began writing or is it something that developed more over time as the character developed?
All of the aspects helped to make decisions for me. It started with a song and then the song felt like it could have a character and then that character felt like I could spend more time with it and I was going to enjoy trying to flesh that out. Part of that fleshing out was giving the character a back story, giving him a world to sit in, so I liked getting to know all of the things. There was a harmony between the elements and that was nice.
The other positive thing of that was that it meant I never got stuck on any of the things, so if I was struggling with a song I would leave it and work on edits or I would draw for that afternoon or morning, and that would help to take some of the pressure off of that. It was a really useful way of me not getting stuck and still finding pleasure in the different elements.
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I knew it needed to be gentle and kindly and not become grim.
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Did you have a target audience in mind when you were creating it?
I probably should have more. I don’t know if there’s a totally realistic possibility that it falls between things. I’d like to think that there’s something in it for everybody, but then people can either go, ‘oh there’s something in it for me?’ Or they think, ‘that means it’s not for me.’ And in which case it falls between the gaps, so I don’t know. I really do think that there’s something in it for everybody [laughs].
I think if I’d followed people that I’d spoke to about other things I’ve written they would have said, ‘well if you want it to be a success in this world then you have to have a child protagonist for a start,’ but my story hasn’t got that, and I didn’t then change it to be that.
It wasn’t an easy thing to convince Penguin that I was making an album of music and there wasn’t going to be an audio book in a conventional sense, it’s an album that includes the narration from the book. I could have made my life a lot easier if I had stuck it more firmly in some of those camps but I felt quite confident that I was happy with this thing, and with the character and the world I was making.
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It also meant that I got to hang out with Paul Whitehouse which was a treat…
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When you were recording the audio, did you bring any traits from The Maccabees recording process into the project?
Being ok with throwing lots of stuff away that’s something that we did, we would be very strict with ourselves and that’s a discipline that I have from that time.
Do you think this is going to lead to more story projects like this?
I hope so, I like giving myself a brief; this is a thing that I think might work and I can sort of imagine the end product in a way but I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to get there and I mustn’t be too precious about that end product because it’s more than likely that by the time I get there it will have changed a lot. I like writing in a voice of someone else, I like trying to use whatever songwriting I can muster to sit in that world and feel appropriate to that atmosphere.
I love that I can do a bit of this, not get stuck there and if I am stuck move onto another thing and try and use those different areas to act almost like collaborators. In a way my drawing head will be able to critique my writing head or my music head, which all sounds very dangerous psychologically, but it works. I really enjoyed making it, so I can’t see why I won’t do it again.
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I like trying to use whatever songwriting I can muster to sit in that world…
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It’s a good process to have…
Yeah and there’s no luck in that I like all of those things. I have friends that I love and I can see how clever they are and how hard working they are but they haven’t found their thing that they want to put their effort and their intelligence into, they’re caught between places a little bit. I feel so lucky that I know what I want to put my efforts into.
Did you read a lot of stories when you were younger?
I read stories but I listened to a lot of audio books and lots of story tapes, that’s what I would have called them.
What were some of your favourites?
I used to listen to lots of P. G. Wodehouse stuff, all of the Blandings Castle and Jeeves and Wooster, a lot of Roald Dahl. I used to read the Commando comics and all of the Blackadder tapes, I had those, that kind of stuff. I had a little brown Fisher Price tape thing that had four buttons on it and I had that for years and years.
I think when you’re into something like that so young it never really goes away, does it?
Yeah, it’s really funny suddenly an episode of that kind of thing comes on and I know it word for word from the tape, so that’s still in me, you’re right you’re stuck with it.
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The Gritterman celebrates people that don’t often get celebrated even though they should, were there any other occupations you thought about including in the story?
From the start that wasn’t the motivation for making it but it ended up being that thing. What I wanted to do was find someone that was on their own and that did something that meant they would be in worlds that would be fun for me to try and create. There’s not a single other person in the book, you don’t see anyone else, I wanted to keep it isolated but once I had settled on that I did start wondering how many people do things that are not recognised.
Gritting is one of the ones where they get a harder time because people see them as making traffic jams, but the reality is that these are people that can get a call out at any time and do a pretty thankless job in the least appealing conditions to most people. The thing that is nice for him is that he loves it and in the purpose he feels comfort and it’s so apart from what I do.
In some respects if people don’t like what I do or don’t pay it any attention then you could say it’s unsuccessful but with what he does, if you don’t notice it then it’s been successful.
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If it’s all doom and gloom then there’s nothing in it, there’s not really any point to it…
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There’s a stark juxtaposition; the loneliness can make it sad but it’s also touching because of his love for his job, was it a conscious decision to have a juxtaposition so striking?
As I got to know him a bit more I would leave something in the writing for a while and then live with it and if I came back and it bugged me I decided that meant that it wasn’t him and anytime I would have him have a moment of petulance or cynicism then it just felt wrong.
I think the reason it works, and I’m really pleased that you recognise that thing, is that if it’s all doom and gloom then there’s nothing in it, there’s not really any point to it, but because he loves what he does you forgive the more sombre elements because he’s empowered. He would never say it out loud but he recognises the luckiness of his situation.
It feels like there’s a lot of potential for the story to go on to be an animation, the kind of thing all the family would sit and watch at Christmas, and there’s a lot to gain from it morally, is that something you would like to happen?
It would be a total dream come true if someone wanted to make it into an animation, I would love it. I used to do animations all the time, I was a massive Wallace and Gromit fan and I made stock frame plasticine animations all through school. They were all terrible but I loved it and for my type of brain it’s very useful doing a tiny bit, stopping, taking the picture, my brain reacts quite well to totally repetitive tasks.
I didn’t really get into music until my late teens and the thing that I was really into was TV and those kinds of animations were so key, so to answer your question it would be a real pleasure to see it move.
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He would never say it out loud but he recognises the luckiness of his situation.
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Did you have to do a lot of research about the gritting trade?
You’ll notice that in it there’s not a lot of specifics, I read some articles about heroic gritters and I watched some YouTube things where local councils put up videos of ‘wonderful boys doing a great job keeping the roads safe.’ They always put some funny electronic dance music to go along with it and then I think maybe I pitched my musical world all wrong. There was not a lot of method in my research [laughs] I haven’t been out with the crew or anything.
Is that something you would do if you got the opportunity?
Have a go at the night shift… Yeah I reckon so, I would totally do that. It’s a funny thing to do go and work a night, I’ve done funny things with touring where you’ve been awake all night because your connection flight is in the middle of the night and played gigs where you’re not on until three in the morning but it’s not the same at all.
I would definitely go and do it, it would be fun, but I would be totally exposed that I know nothing about gritting, I’m sure there’s all this terminology that I’ve missed that would have been really nice to have put in. I wonder how many people actually quite like the solitude of it? They wouldn’t want an overtired laymen sat next to them asking annoying questions [laughs].
To finish things up, going back to your previous job slightly, what was that feeling like on the last night at Alexandra Palace?
It was a funny mix, a lot of pride, quite sad and an amazing feeling. It was almost exactly a year since the announcement and then knowing that there would probably be a gig but not knowing when or how many people would be there, it was not a relief that it was over but it was a relief from the pressure. It’s an odd thing to have a final moment of anything so definitive and clean cut.
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'The Gritterman' is out now.
Words: Shannon Cotton
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