Ben James Wood
Artist, maker, tour manager, driver, other.
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I write articles, memoir, project profiles and travel journals

The jacket making business (Part 1)

Rummaging around in my parents' attic, some time in early 2010, I discovered a box of awesome rock 'n' roll history and decided to buy a sewing machine. Thirty years previous, my mum's love of rock music and adventure had lead her to escape an office administration job and begin a new life as a touring merchandiser. You just have to talk to people, be reliable and available, there's no trick to it. My mum was ready and through the late 70s and early 80s earned the opportunity to tour with her heroes. Thin Lizzy, Hall & Oates, Paul McCartney & Wings, you get the idea. On the Elton John tour she met my dad, which seems to have worked out as well. Different story, though.

Thin Lizzy 1980 world tour, crew jackets.

There's no point living an incredible life on the road if you don't share your stories and collect or log your memories. A little sober thought and foresight and a mild hoarding habit concur that the bits and pieces you find along the way are sure to be useful or mean something. Carefully folded and stacked inside this box were t-shirts, sweatshirts, pins and passes from all of those tours and loads more. The real prize pieces, though, were these stunning, embroidered tour jackets from Thin Lizzy's Chinatown and Black Rose tours. They're well worn but well kept, they carry all the stories from those months of travel, in them and on them and when they catch the light, you're right there. They're also absurdly hip, achingly authentic and there's absolutely no way I was allowed to wear them out.

I'd just gone to suspiciously great lengths to secure my first tour management job, with US indie pop group Darwin Deez. I definitely didn't have most of the experience I'd given the impression I had, but being on tour or at shows was pretty much all I'd done until that point. They were the most exciting and unique band I'd seen for ages and the coolest gang of oddballs. I needed a job and wanted to be in the gang so bad, if only I could carry an ounce of their cool.

Darwin Deez in the original EUROPE 2010 embroidered sweatshirt

On day one I turned up with five embroidered sweatshirts. I'd ordered the blanks online and gone over to my nan's house to sew a DARWIN DEEZ EUROPE 2010 logo, freehand on her sewing machine a few days before. It was the most I could afford and the extent of my sewing skills. Everybody was surprised. Surprised like when a child makes a painting of you and it doesn't look like you, but you're happy to see that they were uninhibited enough to try, so you smile and put it on the fridge. Three weeks later I found Cole's sweatshirt stuffed behind a seat in the back of the van. It wasn't cool.

My focus switched to keeping the job that I'd so unbelievably acquired and it wasn't until the end of the year that I got back to thinking about tour jackets again (I'd still been collecting, of course). The biggest headline tour yet was approaching and I hadn't made anything of my own, excluding tour books or accounting documents, for almost a year. With the money I'd earned I bought myself a high tech sewing machine with embroidery arm, a giant roll of blue quilted lining, some coloured satin, zips and thread. I brought in some expertise from my nan, some work ethic from my dad and I set about designing and making jackets for the tour. The very least I hoped for was to have a sweet satin jacket like the old Thin Lizzy ones, that I could wear and that actually meant something to me. I hoped it could also mean something to the other guys as well.

The Darwin Deez band fully jacketed, February 2011 (L-R: Miles, Andrew, Darwin, Greg)

Some pins got left inside, some embroidery got a bit tangled up, Miles found a dubious blood stain on the lining, likely the result of a speedy hand-sewing accident. I still had no idea what I was doing, but the DARWIN DEEZ European Tour 2011 jackets looked good! Better than bad, at least. The band wore them on stage to open every show. Nina Ribena, my friend and owner/designer of Bombe Surprise and We Are All In One, blogged about me. People in the audience wanted them, other bands wanted them and I couldn't wait to design more. Had I finally found the niche I'd been told I was looking for?!

Great indie rock bands are a bad target audience. Although they love beautiful things, they've already committed themselves to a lifetime of struggling to make ends meet and frequent disarray. When it comes down to it, they can't possibly justify the extravagance of embroidered tour jackets. I didn't want to get them mass produced or have boring designs made for bands I didn't I like, but I heard "I wish they be cheaper. Can't they be less delicate? We just want to have matching jackets, they don't need to be well made" in the tone of all enquiries I received once the tour was over. The Darwin Deez tour jackets were a hit, but the method wasn't reliable or cost-effective enough to be a business plan and in fact, that after the fourth or fifth time making the same jacket, I got tired and wanted to make something else.

I never wanted to start a business, money doesn't motivate me, I just wanted to make some rock 'n' roll history of my own.