Trains, Paints and Elephants – An interview with ‘Trains Are Mint’ creator Oliver East

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Probably more well known to the majority of people for the artwork that adorns the cover of Elbow’s album Seldom Seen Kid, Manchester based artist Oliver East has been writing and drawing a series of books based around his walks which for the most part see him sticking close to  train lines. Capturing them in his distinctive ink washes featuring beautiful country landscapes and muted modern urban scenes, populated with impressionistic human figures and both rendered with equal love and attention. Simplistic and almost childlike his work often picks up on seemingly small and inconsequential details. Whether it be the railway stations on his walks or the buildings from his Manchester stomping grounds, his art invites the reader to pause upon and reconsider them. The pages and panels delight in the unnoticed or the ordinary.

The trains are Mint books are truly something unique. Started with 2008’s Trains are..Mint, followed by Proper Go Well High and concluding with 2010’s Berlin and That, they began as an art project in school, born from another failed project and a looming deadline. The work of someone with no previous comics background with scant regard or interest in sticking to any conventions of the medium, and brilliantly so. All of his work is pure East and like nothing else, making him a truly unique voice even in the small press world. They’re thoroughly refreshing with his experiential panel layouts, painted pages with his loose, easy going conversational tone running throughout that makes them equal parts travelogue, map and personal musings.

It’s perhaps the perfect combination of walking, trains and his home town of Manchester that have characterized his work to date that has lead him to his latest project “Take me back to Manchester”. Commissioned by the Lakes International Comic Art Festival and Manchester Museum, East walked the 200 miles covered by famous elephant, Maharajah and his keeper Lorenzo Lawrence who were Forced to walk from Edinburgh to Manchester after Maharajah smashed up the train they were to travel. East undertook the journey under his own steam and will be creating a new comic detailing the journey, to be published to coincide with the festival in October.

Marfedblog: Berlin and that is my favourite of your books, but also your last in that series. Is there even a temptation to do another? If so which train line and country would entice you?

Oliver East: Thanks, man. Glad you like it. I did do another.  In 2014 I walked 140 miles from Arnside, in Cumbria, to Carlisle, following the coast hugging train line the whole way. It took ten days and I made a twenty-page comic for each one. The series is called The Homesick Truant’s Cumbrian Yarn. It was commissioned by The Lakes comics festival.  I had a ball walking that one. I nearly died when I almost got swept off a levee near Ulverston. Fun times.

MB: Have you always been drawn to trains or is it something that developed more and more with the TAM books?

It’s more the romance of travel.  Trains and train stations are just fun things to draw while I learn how I do draw. I love a train line though. Walking next to or along train tracks, I feel very relaxed. They take the decision of where I walk out of my hands and I’m free to just walk.It’s a giving over of responsibility. Kind of my version of a high profile judge that likes to be treated as a baby in his private moments.

MB: You’ve also mentioned on a few sites that in your early books you were learning to draw and finding your “drawing voice” so to speak, do you think seeing you develop is part of the appeal for people who enjoy your work, rather than seeing a polished product?

I hope so. I mention it in interviews as much as possible because it is important. I change the way I draw often while working on the same book. It’s exhausting. I wish I could just pick a style and stick with it. I’d certainly win more readers. But I’m more interested in drawing and that process than I am in story telling and, you know, making any money from comics.

MB: Picking up your books by chance I still had the niggling feeling I’d seen some of it before, realising you did artwork for Elbows singles and albums, id there any other band or musician you’d like to work with or think your artwork would fit?

I’d like to go walking with a musician and produce something for them that way. Collaboration. I love the most recent Ought record cover. I always liked the Pavement covers. I’d like to work with Kate Tempest though.  Maybe some local Manc rapper. They have rap battles at The Whitworth Art Gallery some nights.  I’ll show them my comics maybe.

MB:You draw mostly from memory and notes, have any pages or missed details ever made you want to break your own rule and take photographs, or is the recall from memory an essential part of your process?

I don’t like to draw from photographs.  Feels like cheating. They’ll be long stretches of A road monotony that, if I had photos of, I could make look like that particular A road, which would be great. You might think “that well looks like so and so road”, But if I draw from memory I’m not just drawing that A road, I’m drawing them all and you’ll recognise something in there.

MB:One of the aspects I like about your work is which detail you pick out of areas and stations, like a personal landscape of what strikes you at the time. Are there any certain aspects you’ll recall more then others?

Fences. I like those steel fences you get around building sites.They create living comics of the waste ground behind for you as you walk along their length. Any indie petrol station will make it into a book, they’re so rare.  Big fan of cruising graffiti.

MB: Having said you don’t read many comics, do you think this contributes to you having quite a distinctive style and not sticking to “the rules” as much?

I don’t know how comic artists can afford comics. I do like a few artists but I don’t read much due to alcoholism sucking up most of my disposable income.  When I started making comics I hadn’t read any since I was a kid, so I didn’t know any of the rules. I’m going back to learn them now. I certainly don’t share the obsession with line quality that most comic artists do.

 MB: Is there anyone else in the moment in the UK in terms of small press or indie comics whose work you enjoy at the moment?

Breakdown Press are the boys. I’m hoping to make it to Thought Bubble next month and find someone new.  Check out Simon Moreton

MB: Would you work on any larger gallery/warehouse show in the future?

Sure. Comic books take forever then no one buys them. I have a show at Manchester Museum from April to September next year. I’m coming to the end of my new book and starting to think about the next project. This book has broken me so I might take some time off long form work I’ve been giving drawing workshops to kids all year and found I respond well to kids with special needs and, likewise, they dig my weird drawing exercises. I’m trying to learn French.

MB:I’ve seen you mentioning that you sometimes “react rather than respond”; do you often find yourself readying yourself to do this with a lot of comics readers being rather rigid in what they think of as comics?

I get so little feedback on my work; I really have no idea what people think.  Apart from a paltry collection of tumblr notes and instagram likes, the world is keeping its council on my work.  As I type, I’ve been drawing all day and I’ll draw all day tomorrow, with no need for a day job in-between, so I’m doing something right.

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