A true polymath, Ste McGregor’s career spans everything from animation for Skint records and TV ads for major brands through to web design, international DJing sets, graphic design and as the recording artist, Kidda. Most recently he has released a new album, Ten, Ten as Soft Melt.
Ste lives in a little cottage oasis, tucked away in the heart of bustling Brighton. He shares his home with his wife and daughter, and I want to know how he creates such a huge and varied output of work within such a small, but beautifully formed home.
1. Where-abouts do you work in your home? I work in the back area of the front room, it drives my wife up the wall 'cos she would rather it was a proper dining area. But we tried that and it just never worked. I always needed a space to work for my animation or music and so I used to end up doing it on there. We always ended up eating on the sofa anyway.
2. So when did you manage to agree on turning it into your studio space? Well we had a bit of a shuffle about and we got rid of some stuff and then I said if I put everything here and make it look tidy then I can work here. My argument has always been at least it’s a functioning space with a use, not just a space that looks nice.
3. So do you find it an energising space that you look forward to going to? Yes – I think it looks great and I use it a lot and I also see a lot of potential in it because I know I’ve got everything I need to do whatever it is I want to do. Although it doesn’t look like a lot, it’s taken me a long time to get to the point that I’m happy with the set up. All it needs is that desk to be a foot wider on each side and I’d be fine.
4. Is there one thing (besides the bigger desk) that would make it better? (Long pause) A comfy chair and I’ve always fancied a rug. But I don’t really worry about it, cos when you start working and you’re in the zone it all goes out the window. You always think it would be better, but then you’d only find something else.
5. What do you like and dislike about working from home? I used to have a studio down the road and I quite like the idea of going to work. The situation of having breakfast and then in two steps sitting down to work – I’ve always had a bit of problem with that and especially when does the domestic stuff stop and when does work start?
AB: But that is the friction of working from home. You can’t just separate yourself completely and go to work. So how do you create a space that works as part of a family home yet allows you to get into the headspace you need to create and work? Especially creatively, when you don’t work 9-5.
Yes, I use my headphones most of the time but only ever get to use the monitors when I’m home on my own.
6. Does that mean you have a routine, so you can do stuff at certain times when you know you won’t be disturbed as much? No not really – but I do always take the opportunity if I do get a chance - that’s a good thing about working from home. That you can just get on with it straight away.
7. What items do you like to have around you? My Cheech Wizard, I got that off a friend years ago. He’s a cartoon character that was created by this hippy fella in the 60s, then used in America in the 70s by the graffiti crowd. I found out about it in the 80s, thinking it was contemporary, but then discovered that it had been around for twenty years. It’s just a daft character thing, but it has been around all my life.
I was involved in this sampling event as part of the Great Escape Festival earlier this year – about 20 of us were all given a stick of samples and we spent all day in this room and then had to present the track we’d made in the end. We had to take laptops and the stuff we work with but I thought I’ll take that because it just makes a difference to me. In fact, they filmed me getting him out of the bag with all the headphones and stuff.
It was really interesting, because there was just these 20 blokes on headphones with laptops in this grand ballroom in a hotel and in terms of how you work and where you work – that was it completely stripped down. You realise how you work, because you’re out of your usual environment. And there was a lot of pressure because you knew you had to deliver something.
8. How did you feel about having your peers around you and that level of interaction? It was OK, people were in it for the right reasons. There were winners, and I don’t know how you judge music, but I think people did like seeing what people came up with. You felt like you were with other creative people doing their thing. It was cool and interesting to see how other people work. A bit like a show and tell.
AB: Did that affect how you felt about coming back and working here? Did it make you think about maybe working in a group environment again?
Kind of – other people were swapping numbers and stuff but I’m just not very good at collaborating. I’ll get people in, like a singer if I need something. But I just like doing my own thing. I’ve always been like that. I don’t think I’ve got far enough with what I want to do and my own development. Whether its animation or art or music. I always feel I need to go back and refine things.
AB: Are you afraid to compromise?
Maybe, my manager is always saying I should be collaborating with so-and-so but I always feel like it’s a bit diluted. I’ve just never really got it. Not yet anyway….
9. In my opinion some people get into music because they want to be in a group or gang - but with a fine art background you must be used to working alone on your own ideas. Yes and it’s about finding your own voice, not literally, but its saying this is me and what I do. Not what WE do.
For the first album I collaborated with a couple of singers because I thought that’s what you do. But then I found I was much more fulfilled when I wrote the tracks, and the lyrics and the melody. So on the 2nd album I wrote everything (except one verse).
10. Can we talk about the animation you do as well? You work across so many mediums. Do you start with a message and then find a medium to transport that? Or do you get excited about the process and its possibilities? It’s the process. I first got into animation through computer games, and thought how great it would be to be able to make this stuff. I was always trying to work out how they would make a hazy sunset for example and at the time with relatively lores equipment. Something like Pixar has always been beyond me, and now computer games are more like that but at the time they seemed a lot more do-able. But as soon as I tried to create these things it would lead onto something else and the urge to create something out of it, like narratives and stuff. And I was quite happy with that.
So then I went to Skint records and asked if I could make some videos. They said Yep and that spiraled into more animation and then an agent.
So then I was working to briefs. They massage your ego and tell you how creative you are and how amazing your ideas are then say ‘Here is the character we want you to use, this is what they do, how they do it and this is the storyboard and palette you need to use. But we LOVE what you do, you’re SOOO creative.’ So you end up completely compromised…. but for a helluva lot of money.
But I was able to find a balance where I was working on the two things at the same time. This one is paying the bills and this is doing what I love.
AB: Yes and there is a certain creative freedom in that.
Yes, and then we hit the recession so I ended up stopping the animation and took up an opportunity I had in music.
12. So whats the relationship between the animation and the music? Which comes first? The music has always come first. I did it before the animation. But I’ve always done drawings,
13. Do you still draw? Occasionally if I get the inclination, I like to draw in biro. Because you can’t rub it out. My sketchbooks were always full of things I’d made up in my head. All these different characters and stuff – mad illustrative ideas.
14. Is there anywhere else you like to work? Not really, If I get some sort of block, then I’ll just work on something else. If I reach a dead end musically – or have a crisis because I’ve heard something amazing and feel like giving it all up then I’ll work on something else, like a logo. I can start to see it happening now as well and know that in a couple of weeks I’d have forgotten all about it anyway.
AB: I think you’re unique in that respect. You can shift into using different parts of your brain. Between the sound and visual. Most visualisers, such as designers and artists have to change their physically surroundings, and their view to get inspiration. But you change your medium.
15. I think you’ve already answered this one - but choose one person (alive or dead) to collaborate with. (after a struggle, Ste’s wife, Sez interjects with The Beastie Boys). Well, yes I did remix 31 of their tracks one summer. But no, I think to me it would have to be with someone completely different. For example a choreographer friend asked me to come up with an animation that would become part of a dance performance. So that’s something new that I’d like to explore. I was asked once to collaborate with someone pretty major , but I turned it down. It just doesn’t interest me.
18. Are you good at starting things - do you get excited at the beginning of something? It's really hard making stuff and sometimes I do get bored. I start and then think I’ve done that. Years ago I started a website about pixel characters. I wanted to create a pixel art website and create this narrative. I created some nice little things and thought oh well no ones ever going to see it, but I’m quite happy with that.
I’ve got better at finishing stuff. Music is the hardest cos there are so many opportunities to just piss around from the arrangement to the mixing. I remember when I was in the studio down road. One guy spent 6 months mixing the same track.
AB: But this is why some people need a manager or an editor, because they just don’t know when to stop. Certainly with painting it happens all the time. I’ve nailed it in the first 15 minutes – but because I’ve got 45 minutes remaining in the pose I’ll keep going and it’ll end up a complete dogs dinner.
Oh god yes I remember that!
19. So one of the talents we have to have is knowing when to stop. As being an artist there may not be a deadline, or a client saying yes that’s great. So do you ever bring in people to discuss your work? No. With music you can say it has to be between 3 and 4 minutes. Or 30 seconds – which is what I’m currently into.
20. So finally, can you describe your perfect studio? I really like the idea of Bill Gates’ cave as a place.
AB: that sounds solitary.
God yeah, it would have to be solitary. I’ve always quite liked the idea of an annexe. Like a purpose built sound proofed super shed, I think it’s a really nice idea to walk up the garden path and go there to work. And everything’s in there, the internet and the keyboards and stuff and its nice and warm. My mate had one and you could go in there and have a drink and you were in a creative bubble…. and he had a rug.
AB: For me it's finding a balance between that sanctuary as somewhere to feel relaxed and no one is judging you and you can make mistakes, but also being able to tap into inspiration and people when you need it. Personally I need people to help formulate ideas and stop me getting lazy.
I’m less like that as I get older. The majority of stuff I do is pretty self referential and it’s about my relationship with whatever I’m making. Obviously I listen to other music and sometimes think I want something to sound a little bit like somebody else’s track but it never works out like that because its you and that thing that is you.
AB: Isn’t that also an age thing? When get older you become more confident in your own voice. Whereas in your twenties you’re exploring and experimenting and learning.
Yes, we’ve done our Art History.
AB: To use a Caitlin Moran analogy - It’s about nurturing that pearl within - taking a bit of grit and helping it grow and gradually stripping down the layers until maybe one day it’ll hopefully…
It pays you a living wage?
Finally, Ste's wife, Sez joins us and sums it up. Its also important for the kids. It's good for our daughter to see her Dad working every night on something he is passionate about. And she has learnt she is not allowed to touch it and she can sit here and work on her own stuff. It’s a good thing for them to see. He puts the hours in and has earned that space.