Together with his band mates in The Maccabees, frontman Orlando Weeks earned a cult following that seemed to grow with every release from their 2007 debut album Colour It In. Their third record, 2012’s Given To The Wild, saw their critical acclaim matched by growing commercial success, reaching #4 in the charts and earning the quintet a prestigious Ivor Novello award. That rise continued in 2015 when their final album Marks To Prove It went straight to the top of the charts.
As the band’s shows grew in scale, especially throughout the touring for Marks To Prove It, Weeks rediscovered his passion for illustration and storytelling.
“Bigger venues have bigger dressing rooms. These sometimes have flat surfaces to work on and occasionally even a window. So in downtime – waiting before a show, or hanging around hotel lobbies – I’d commandeer a spot and do some sketching or write stories on my phone.”
Music remained a vital interest for Weeks and when The Maccabees disbanded, those three creative endeavours (songwriting, storytelling and illustration) converged. After Weeks wrote a song about a seasonal hero, he was compelled to continue to explore the song’s protagonist in much greater depth.
“I thought there was something in this character, so I started linking him to more music by writing songs from his point of view or in a style that I felt he would enjoy,” he explains. “The more that I did that, the more I felt he needed a story to explain the songs, and then I wanted to flesh him out further by trying to figure out what he might look like.”
That creation became the focal point of Weeks’ debut book The Gritterman, which blends the title-character’s economically elegant monologue with his creator’s artwork. An ice-cream man in the summer months, The Gritterman’s true love is his other seasonal job: to secure the safety of treacherously icy roads at the height of winter.
“A lot of people’s work goes unrecognised and this is one of those jobs where that’s the case,” says Weeks, his voice suggesting a love for The Gritterman that’s akin to that of a wise old relative. “To just go about your business and not need thanks is a very attractive quality, and he finds comfort in that sense of purpose.” It’s a quiet type of dignity that’s rarely celebrated in reality or fiction.
The turning point comes early in the narrative when the local council writes to tell The Gritterman that his services are no longer required. After this revelation we follow our hero on his final night of doing the job that he loves. It’s tempting to think of this as simply a tale about retirement, but it possesses a charm that elevates it, and that will allow it to have a cross-generational appeal for children and adults alike. Like The Gritterman himself, it’s refreshingly devoid of any cynicism.
That charm is matched by our hero’s ability to offer low-key insights into everyday human nature in a manner that’s both matter-of-fact and unusually lyrical. “Being alone and loneliness aren’t the same thing at all,” being a succinct example.
And what of the practice of illustrating a full book?
“I think drawing is a muscle,” says Weeks, “and my drawing muscle was pathetically weedy to begin with. ”
Weeks exercised his previously withered drawing muscle and The Gritterman’s visuals began to fall into shape. Echoes of his heroes Raymond Briggs, Eric Ravilious and Edward Ardizzone are prevalent throughout the book’s 80 pages, which were mostly crafted with colouring pencil alongside occasional watercolour and some ink outlining. As the story develops, the style of the illustrations follows suit. The palette shifts from lighter tones to darker blues, which reflects the timeline as evening fades into night.
The book is accompanied by a companion album which was also written entirely by Weeks. Interwoven with the narration and foley effects, the eleven compositions delve deeper into The Gritterman’s inner thoughts and allow his feelings to be conveyed romantically and poetically – a contrast to the sincere candour of his spoken word.
But who could voice The Gritterman?
Actor and comedian Paul Whitehouse was a dream choice.
“The Gritterman is kindly and light hearted but stoic at the same time and Paul was able to strike that balance perfectly. Funny but thoughtful. He’s been a joy to work with.”
The album’s fragile and atmospheric music, both sung and instrumental, perfectly complements the wintery images of The Gritterman book. But the multi-disciplinary nature of the project makes it difficult to find a comparison or to align it with any particular genre. However, within the music there are nods to singer-songwriters like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson and Bill Fay.
“The music is an essential part of The Gritterman project. It’s both the sonic backdrop to the story and the drawings and also an alternative insight into how The Gritterman character thinks and feels. The emotional and romantic flip side to the practical and unfussy image he tries to project.”
To complete the record Weeks called on the expertise of Grammy-winning producer Markus Dravs (Bjork, Arcade Fire, Florence & The Machine) and pianist David O’Dowda.
Although best known for music, Weeks was first drawn to art. He studied Fine Arts at the Camberwell College of Arts but decided that the framework of a subsequent degree in Illustration at the University of Brighton better suited his personality.
“I was very lucky that the band took off,” he admits, “because friends of mine who were far better illustrators and far more diligent than me, struggled to find work, so I would’ve been well and truly stranded.”
The early days of The Maccabees allowed him to continue working on art, albeit on disparate projects such as gig posters and t-shirt designs. In recent years Weeks straddled the worlds of music and illustration, notably with the Young Colossus project for which he wrote the story and music, while Robert Hunter worked on the illustrations.
The Gritterman feels like the beginning of a new chapter for Orlando Weeks. “I’ve got such fond childhood memories of listening to story tapes in the car or whilst going to sleep, and this feels like one of those just with extra music,” he states. “I really hope it’s something that kids and parents can enjoy reading or listening to together.”
And could it be developed into animated form too?
“I’d love it to exist as an animation. But who knows…
Arts Club, Loft
City Varieties Music Hall
The Stoller Hall
Norwich Arts Centre
St Bartholomews Church