In 2015 I sent a few hundred special objects out into the world, the product of two years’ development working with talented mates and colleagues. A unique Christmas release harking back to the storybook records of my childhood - Puff The Magic Dragon, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and others - Tinselsnakes, as it came to be called, is a 7” snow-white vinyl record, complete with glow-in-the-dark custom-made record adapter and full colour illustrated picture book.
My daily work is fast and furious, turned around in sometimes what feels like record time for demanding clients on urgent projects. Even the long ones don’t really feel like they have much time to ‘stew’. When I do get a chance at a personal project, they always feel like they take ages, or ‘too long’, when in fact what I’ve come to learn is this is actually just the length they should be, and with no-one but us telling me when something's finished, they really can be subjected to endless tweaking and furtling.
Two years seems a lot when you look at the small, full colour book that might have dropped through your door just before Christmas, but there is an awful lot in there, and here is why it took so long - and why it’s a good job it did. But why did we spend an incalculable amount of time and money on a thing I was just planning to give away? Because it was time, and my clients deserve nice, interesting things, especially at Christmas - and because I get a chance to make something personal and off the clock, for better or for worse!
Ed Garland’s worked with Inkymole for many years, contributing words as inspiration for, and the basis of, many projects over time. He was the voice of the Pendle Witches in ‘The Witches’, wrote Kaleidoscope Gloop for 2013’s Christmas project, and has made shout lines, short stories and paragraphs for all manner of projects, some of which have won prizes (which we sent Ed to collect on our behalf!) He’s published two of his own novels and writes every day, consuming books like hot whiskey-laced cups of tea on a freezing cold morning.
His writing is ornery, unpredictable, studiedly rough-textured and undulating, so he was the only person who could possibly write the dark little story I wanted for this project. We needed one story, told three ways - the 'Child's Story', which I would illustrate with pictures; 'Daddy's Story', which would be narrated, and 'Mummy's Story', to be read. It was also practise for him at writing in a child’s voice (though he’d done this before, as Jennet the treacherous nine-year-old Pendle Witch), and as both male and female characters. In January 2014, we met in a Bristol pub, and thrashed out the brief.
I also made Ed a little notebook full of pictures, photographs and sketches, ideas to steer the story, pulling imagery from my own library, drawings, collections and online bits. It took four or five more pub meets and conversations to reach the story that made it into the book, with the first version being fabulous and gory - I loved it - but way too murky for client consumption (I’ve saved it nonetheless, of course).
While the tracks were off being made into records, the final part of the job fell to me, making the storybook. Hm, scary. I had always known how the book would look, using the ink-driven, slightly unpredictable style I’d been working with for a few months prior and which utilises slices of inked paper and textures to create quite simple, atmospheric illustrations - a far cry from the line-made, heavily art-directed detail-filled work I’ve become so known for. This was not to be a typographically heavy book either - I wanted the images to speak for themselves and be more about the ‘feel’ of the story. So I went for it, ‘for better or for worse’, a large chunk of the illustrations produced in the grip of a perfectly-timed seasonal chest infection! (As we all know by now, the show must always go on.)
Once the story and pictures were honed, we needed someone to read 'Daddy's Story' aloud in classic narrator style to be captured on record. The perfect voicebox for the job was owned by B.Dolan, Strange Famous record label resident, Rhode Island rapper and spoken word poet who I’d worked with before on projects professional and personal. If you haven’t heard his deep, rounded chocolate tones, check them out on the recording - you can see instantly why Bernard was The Perfect Man For The Job. More used to terrifying booms of political and poetic resonance, here was no Jackanory presenter - but whether he could fit in our request in the middle of prepping and album and a tour was another thing. To our eternal relief, he liked the story, and made the time - I cried a bit with excitement when we played the initial digital file.
Just look at him - bedtime stories will never be the same!
Bernard managed to punctuate and intone the story in unexpected ways, bringing punch and clarity while somehow infusing the piece with a breathy holiday excitement, despite neither the words ‘Christmas' nor ‘Holiday' appearing anywhere in the piece. The ‘relentless prose’ (the feedback of a recipient) which begins with the words ‘Deranged I may be’ and ends with ‘a mutilated splendour’ was brought to fulsome ruddy-cheeked life in just 3 minutes 14 seconds (there’s a full transcript of the narrated story at the end of this blog).
Awesome (and I use that word in its classical sense) as it sounded on its own, the vocal needed the backing of some music to give it context, and for that Bernard's right-hand collaborator in music Buddy Peace was recruited. Prolific, charming and skilled, Buddy was also in the white-hot core of album production and tour prep, but put a lively, perambulating backdrop behind the narration with just the right placement of sparkles, twinkling bells and the sounds, somehow, of snow. We too were away in Baltimore by this time, busily working up a live-filmed mural for a hotel chain, so the whole exchange of back-and-forth creative honing was completed from iPhone to iPhone 3000 miles away.
The logistics of mastering were conducted by the same company who master the vinyl of one of my favourite electronic artists, and took much longer than you might expect - it’s a detailed thing, with track length to consider, playing speed, grooves in and grooves out, whether to ‘lock’ them, and what you want inside the space near the label. Much discussion was had about me travelling down to the masterers to hand-etch the centre space with illustrations, but the final word was that they were too nervous to let me do that. I protested hard of course! Scaredy cats.
With ink-drawn labels designed for A side (vocal and music) and B side (vocal only), and with the mastering approved by all, they went off to be squashed onto cobs of white vinyl and magically turned into records.
The book went to press with Jason, from a printing company auditioned from many to be just right the right people for the job, and we waited for the books and the records to arrive.
What happened next was the reason the project went into hypersleep for a year, and the reason I’m eternally grateful I made those little Christmas cards to send out ahead of time. Though sent to the pressing plant in plenty of time, our little record (500 copies) was, in actual fact, being shoved aside repeatedly for weeks while The Big Guys, unbeknownst to us, were placing orders for massive Christmas re-issues and Christmas-market releases. Having always believed the timeline to be generous, and not believing that such a culture of queue-jumping really existed, distinctly unseasonal bells started ringing when no news became bad news at the start of December. Apparently, this is a known phenomenon among record producers, and by all accounts there doesn’t seem to be a lot one can do about it, if you’re one of the 'little guys’.
Out went the ‘Announcing Tinselsnakes’ Christmas cards while we tried to get a final word on the delivery, and juggle printer’s questions about whether to deliver the now-printed items or not. Still no records. At some point we accepted the pressing plant had scuppered our project for the year, told the printer to store the books for us, and yielded to a disappointed gloom. Still, we thought, we have a year of knowing our 2015 Christmas project is already done!
On Christmas Eve 2014, at noon, the records arrived. I couldn’t bring myself to open the box as I was so furious about all our hard work - as I saw it then - being wasted. When Leigh eventually did, we found they’d been pressed without the holes in the middle for the specially-made adapters, and couldn’t therefore be used anyway.
This is how they SHOULD have looked:
To add to the pain of the initial treacherous delay, the faulty records were picked up by the pressing plant and re-pressed within the space of a week - further suggesting that we really could have got them in time to run the project if we hadn’t been bumped down the list. Up into the loft the finished records went, we took the website down, closed the shop, and carried on with our year, which proved to be unexpectedly busy and exciting.
In the late summertime of 2015, as planned, we took the project out of hibernation and re-examined the artwork, making some small adjustments to the book and its details; some dates needed to be changed anyway, so we took the chance to add and improve upon some things. After designing and printing some ‘Announcing Tinselsnakes’ postcards, sent in November to let people know what was coming, we made the little video in front of the wood-burner to show the beautiful white vinyl in action, re-designed a fresh website from scratch and re-opened the BigCartel shop.
This all happened against a backdrop of weeks of forensic checking on my address book, buying glitter and enough tinsel to decorate every tree in Hinckley, which left ‘just’ the hand-writing of the specially-made accompanying Christmas cards and all of the wrapping and posting to be done, a third of which were destined for foreign shores.
*Do*not*ever* underestimate (as I annually do, like the proverbial forgetful goldfish) the time involved in hand-writing over 700 cards with every recipient’s name, hand-tying the same amount of tinsel, hand-glittering all those covers, hand-stamping 700 board envelopes (and setting up three different versions of the type blocks beforehand) and applying stamps, stickers and labels. The project took over the entire ground floor for weeks, and turned us into factory-floor workers with awkward social lives and, yes, sore hands.
3 parcels Fedexed to the US, 23 sent to different parts of the globe and the rest flung into the furthest reaches of the British Isles, and the job
We hope you had a lovely Christmas!
If you didn’t get a Tinselsnake but would like one, you can still get one here.
'Deranged I may be, but sober as a hammer and nearly as useful, these days.
Having enlisted the help of people who’d left the pub but didn’t really want to go home yet, tipped-off the local news that something unlikely but believable was about to happen near the river, and warned the family at home to tune in while they decorated the walls, I glued the silver tinselsnakes to my eyebrows and got to work.
Now the word “warned”implies a level of threat that I didn’t intend to bring about. I wanted them to think of it more as a hearty recommendation. But as I watched them swallow their questions I thought “they’re taking this more seriously than I’d like”. And I suppose I have this history of announcing projects that never come off, but two weeks ago I’d bought a van, and started sticking eyebrows to my face every morning, before work, looking in the hall mirror and telling our watching spawn that “equilibrium starts in the face.” Being a tinsel-eyed man in a van asking shiny-faced and whooping people to come and help me do something worthwhile, I was surprised by the amount of shiny-eyed and whooping participants I was able to gather. Maybe it’s the way you ask them. They didn’t seem threatened. They seemed drunk, sure, but so does everyone whenever there’s no friction on the pavement. They asked what exactly it was I was planning to make. I said “proof”.
So when we got to the hill, most of them were out the door before I’d stopped the van. The people who were already on the hill kind of scampered away, towards the bridge, which was closed to vehicles and full of stalls and lit up like an emergency service. “But what’s this proof going to physically consist of?” someone chirped. “A reindeer head”, I said. “Of a decent stature. Think magnificent.” Immediately two bare red glistening hands moulded a snowball, and rolled it through the knee-deep white, and were joined by other hands, up and down the hill until the ball was like a small car wrapped in freezing fluff, and came to a rest looking at the bridge and the gorge and the river below.
They stopped and turned to me and asked “now what?”, and from the back of the van I took my saws and sticks and scoops, and set to work on the lump, pretty pleased with myself because they seemed impressed by the speed I was sculpting and were passing round a hip flask and didn’t mind when I realised I’d forgotten the ears. Two of them went off and ten minutes later came back with two flat lumps looking like small warped televisions, mounted on thick sticks, which they thrust into the head at almost the right locations. I’d forgotten the novelty of having people take my suggestions on board.
I didn’t notice the camera people arrive. One of them was awfully inquisitive. I said a lot of I-don’t-knows and maybes, gave the family a shout out, pulled a serious face and got back to directing the nose details, which were being finessed by a sparrow-handed lady in what looked like diamond gloves, while a man with a lion’s beard settled two black bowling balls into its eye-sockets.
We stopped. It stared at the bridge and grinned every time a passing car’s lights swept its eyes. Its constructors took pictures and began to leave. We didn't intend the head to be so big: we didn't think the snow'd be so abundant.
Just as the camera crew departed, the right eye slipped out of its socket, rolled through the downhill snow, hit a rock at the edge of the gorge, and sailed like a lacquered comet into the river. It was out of sight before we heard the splash, and its absence lent the sculpture a mutilated splendour.'