The Maccabees are over. One of the saddest music moments of the decade, but we’ve said goodbye, we’ve mourned, and it’s time to move on. And what better way to do so than catching up with front man Orlando Weeks about his newest project, story book and accompanying album, The Gritterman.
The Gritterman is the story of just that – a man who’s job it is to grit winter’s icy roads to keep them safe. An ice-cream man in summer, gritting is The Gritterman’s true love, and Weeks’ book follows this seasonal hero on his last night in his winter job, after the local counsel tells him that his services are no longer required.
I wondered whether this was an idea that had been in Orlando’s head for a long time, or whether it was a fairly recent creation. Being almost a year to the day that The Maccabees announced their split, he said, he hadn’t really thought about it until he realised he would have that year between the announcement and the actual end to do something productive. “I thought, I need to get my head stuck into something, and I wanted that thing to involve lots of different things, not just music, so slowly this story started coming together and I built it around that.”
But what came first, the album or the book? Orlando has an art degree, and explained how he’d always liked the process of making an album into a physical object. “It felt like my degree in illustration hadn’t been entirely wasted,” he laughed, “with physical records, all the stuff you’d looked at one computers or helped with drawing of or had meetings about has become that physical product, and I had always loved that.”
And this isn’t his first foray into book writing either. In earlier Maccabees downtime, Orlando made a graphic novel and accompanying music, The Young Colossus, but only had time for the musical and writing side, leaving the illustration to friend, Rob Hunter. “I was thinking, there must be a way of extending the pleasure of receiving that physical object… so this time I thought “I’ll do all the things”, all of them give me pleasure to do.” With so many different sides of one project, it must be a lot of hard work. “It really meant that there weren’t moments where I got stuck,” Orlando explained. “If the songs were doing my head in I could stop that and do some writing for a while, then and if writing came to a dead end I could move to the illustration that needed doing, and keep going back and forth. Not getting stuck with those things meant that they all remained a pleasure.”
But after 10 years in a band, how is Orlando finding it writing solo? He has to be stricter with himself, he says, “but I get to write at the pace that suits my brain, I like being able to blast away for a while but give myself headspace when I need to.”
Harking back to early Maccabees days, Orlando did the artwork for debut album Colour It In and has always done t-shirts for tours. “I like doing that,” he tells me, “but we were all invested, not just me. The Maccabees was always about team. It only became “Maccabees” if it had been through the Maccabee filter, which was about involving everyone and everyone’s opinion being heard and trying to avoid anyone feeling left out or over compromised.”
I wonder how much Orlando’s work with the band has influenced The Gritterman. He explains that everything has been formed by writing with the boys in The Maccabees, but especially “it’s made me aware of how I want to write,” he says. “Music that I wanted to contribute to The Maccabees would have sounded very different to how it ended up sounding on record, and in the same way The Gritterman is not me finally figuring exactly the music I want to make and will continue to make.” Having a set brief for this made it easier, he says because “I was the judge jury and executioner rather than it going through the band. But I feel like I got very lucky getting to do my apprenticeship and beyond with people that love and know a lot about music, that care desperately about making music.”
It seems odd that Orlando has ended up the ex frontman of one of the UK’s biggest indie bands after studying art at university, and I wonder how he got there. “I suppose I got lucky!” he laughs, “There were so many people in brilliant bands at art school, but as is the way, our band caught the breaks. I’m not taking anything away form the work that we did but there is a lot of right time right place in the beginnings of a band, and we had very good people around us.”
Moving on to more specifics about The Gritterman itself, Orlando describes the protagonist’s character. “He’s pretty un-fussy, and I think he is good. I think he is a good man. He is gentle and kind and an enthusiast, and doing that thing that lots of people do where the best way of coping with the things that they feel, if they’re not pleasant, is to deny them.” Orlando explains that the character’s economical expression meant that “I could apply a little more poetry with the song and have some more romance there. As long as the Gritterman kept it brief, I could afford a little bit more floweriness in the music.” The main character of The Gritterman is not inspired by anyone in Orlando’s real life, but he “kind of formed himself, in a way. I would be writing, and he might say something more cynical and I would read it over in my edits and just think “this isn’t right”, and I liked him.’ I ask why? ‘ One of the reason is because he’s un-cynical and he recognises pleasure, though he doesn’t necessarily find it in the places that I would find it or that most people would find it.
“Also he has purpose, and I know so many people who are brilliantly talented or clever or capable but because they haven’t found their purpose they flounder.”
But does Orlando see any of himself in the character he’s created? “I think I’m very lucky that I feel like I know what I want to do and I can put my efforts into it, so I recognise that in him. I’m not devoid of cynicism, but I do have purpose and share that with him, and feel lucky to be doing what I’m doing and would be sad if it got taken away from me, just like he does.” This sounds a bit familiar, but Orlando explains that even though he’s lost The Maccabees, “I haven’t had to say goodbye to making and doing things, and I’m still doing those things that I love. As sad or as big a moment as all of The Maccabees stuff is, it’s not the source of The Gritterman.”
The Gritterman has just come out, but it’s not been long since The Maccabees farewell tour. I ask Orlando whether it was a struggling juggling both. “It’s coming out now because that’s when Penguin wanted to bring it out, and they know best!” He laughs, “It will be a year and a month since the announcement that The Maccabees were calling it a day, and it has been a rush after those final gigs to finish the album and make sure the book was right and ready. But I think it was really good for me to get my brain completely into hard work after those shows.”
I was at The Maccabees last ever show, and even though we’re talking about The Gritterman, I have to ask – How did The Maccabees ending feel? “I felt immense pride, actually, in all of us boys in the band and everyone who’s worked with us. Our manager and label that have been the same the whole way through, we’ve worked with the same team the whole time we’ve been a signed band.” The band were doing multiple gigs back-to-back and as front-man that can be a tall order. “I felt relief that I was able to sing, I got really paranoid that my voice wasn’t going to hold up for the whole thing because we hadn’t done any gigs for a year. But I didn’t lose it so I felt relief just getting to that final gig.”
I chat about the reaction of the fans, telling him how one of my friends was in tears from start to finish. “Since the gig’s finished, I’m amazed that people have told me and sent messages saying how much it affected them and how emotional they had found it. I was blown away and humbled by that. When you’re in it, you don’t see that side so much. I was so touched and it’s so nice to think that all of that work we put in has found homes and I still feel very proud of that and will always feel proud of that and proud of all of us.”
And Orlando’s not the only one moving on to new things, and it’s is exciting for fans to see them all still creating and doing what they love, I tell him. “I agree!” He says, “I love listening to Felix’s Radio X stuff and all the stuff he’s doing with YALA Records. All of the stuff Hugo’s been working on is amazing, I love that Matt Maltese stuff! Everyone’s doing good stuff and it’s all positive and forward looking.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself. We may have had to say goodbye to the indie dreamboys we’ve grown to love, but the future is bright. Welcome to a new world of multimedia Maccabees. I, for one, can’t wait.
The Gritterman is out 7th September