Read any piece of tear-sodden writing proselytising the brilliance of The Maccabees following their recent split and you’ll see the same point crop up time and time again. More than just a group with an undeniable set of tunes, the quintet had a rare and audible heart. And at the centre of it, penning lyrics on compassion and life’s small curios with this distinctive world view, was frontman Orlando Weeks.
Now, with the confetti fully swept away following the band’s final shows, Orlando’s turned his hand to a largely different type of creative output – his first, fully illustrated book and accompanying album, ‘The Gritterman’. And though the medium may be different, the narrator of this charmingly low-key tale following a seasonal road gritter as he quietly goes about the business he loves for one final time, feels familiar to the one who once eulogised the wave machine in a South London leisure centre all those years ago. “I think the world sometimes feels like it needs to be big and fill the space, but you can tell grand stories in these very small vacuums,” he notes. “The small stuff can tell the big stories and I think they’re better at doing that in some ways.”
The seeds of ‘The Gritterman’ were first sown back when Orlando was still in the throes of his former day job. Growing restless from all the “dead time” in windowless dressing rooms, he began writing stories down as a means of keeping his mind active. “It just helped me feel like I was doing something. I love making stuff, and if I’ve got to the end of the day and I haven’t really done any of that then I feel like I’ve wasted the day,” he explains. “I’ve got a little stockpile of stories now, and I don’t really mind if they never find the light of day, but they were a very nice way of passing time when you’d just be sitting in places where you can’t necessarily draw or play guitar or find somewhere to just be quiet.”
“You can tell grand stories in these very small vacuums.”
In mid 2016, just ahead of the band’s split, Orlando moved to Berlin for a prolonged period and there he began to flesh out one of these stories into something bigger. Having tested the waters with previous project Young Colossus (an EP and accompanying illustrated story, drawn by friend Rob Hunter) and Sleepless George – a spoken word track released as part of the band’s ‘Toothpaste Kisses EP’ back in 2007 - ‘The Gritterman’ quickly began to take shape as a fully-formed, multi-faceted idea, bringing together the singer’s love for drawing, songwriting and storytelling together into one cohesive whole. “I didn’t really know many people [in Berlin] so my routine was self-contained. I’d be drawing in the morning and then go for a walk or whatever, then play piano in the afternoon and write in the evening,” says Orlando. “I just knew I wanted to make something at my pace and the way I wanted to make it, and I loved spending time doing each of those things.”
Narrated by comedian Paul Whitehouse and influenced in particular by the simple charm of Snowman creator Raymond Briggs, ‘The Gritterman’’s most appealing quality is its smallness. Boiled down to a headline, its story would probably state ‘Man Does His Job, Well And With Pride’ – hardly something likely to set the Twittersphere alight in 2017, but it’s this quiet dignity and lack of sensationalism that feels both comforting and refreshing. “You watch something like The Royle Family and the reason it’s brilliant and funny and heartbreaking is because there’s no grand [event]. It revels in its compactness,” agrees Orlando. “I like that normalness of it. It allowed for the music to do the other side of it; the more normal I kept him, the more I felt like the music could be that escapism.”
The music, written on piano and featuring some of the most gut-wrenching moments the singer’s crafted to date, will of course be a welcome treat for those pining for the old days. Having bowed out in such a celebratory way, The Maccabees’ final, moving goodbye shows are clearly still an emotional memory for Orlando too (“I thought it was pretty beautiful,” he says softly. “It felt very rare and special; it was pretty extraordinary stuff.”) But, while Orlando’s not ruled out the possibility of finding a way to take ‘The Gritterman’ to the live stage, for now he’s content, writing and drawing and sitting at the piano, enjoying these “nice ways to pass the time” and coming out, as he always does, with something really quite special at the end of it all.
‘The Gritterman’ is available now via Particular Books.
Taken from the September 2017 issue of DIY. Subscribe and read online below.