Joel Veitch: A Rather Good Interview

This article ties in to a podcast I recorded with Joel Veitch, available here.

Today – in 2017 – we barely have a grip on what exactly the internet is. Its applications are only just truly coming to light, while the majority of us spend hours on social media trying to make sense of it. Sure, the internet has definitions, and we’re all quick to leap on YouTube and the exchange of free information as explanations for its use. Still, it’s a technology that was created ignorantly and has only evolved with incredible alacrity since. You can’t blame humankind for being somewhat perplexed by its implications. It’s something that allows for a freedom of expression, and expansive platforms for discovery. On the other hand, it puts an equal importance on cat memes, porn pop-ups and hashtags.

Before Twitter, or Facebook, showed their featureless faces, the internet was ruled by self-made communities. Instead of joining the social media conglomerate, you’d have to find something you like (usually purely by accident) and engage with it. You could do this through forums and message boards, but the most profound way was through creation. With early communities like Newgrounds and b3ta, the output of their various usernames was king. To the youth of the time, of the generation that would have once attached safety pins to tartan trousers pre-Sex Pistols gig, the aesthetic was special.

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Since I was approximately thirteen when all of this was kicking off, I can write with confidence on just how prophetic the formative works of David Firth, Rob Manuel and other contemporaries were. One of the most enduring, and memorable, of these creatives is Joel Veitch; the man behind Rather Good, who has more than a few connections to websites like b3ta. Through his hilarious animations, genuinely enjoyable music and otherwise creative use of the internet, Veitch has made his mark for close to twenty years. Finding a wealth of commercial work and larger projects off the back of his popular uploads, he’s made an admirable and reliable career from internet curation.

Speaking with Secret Cave this month about his career, influences and philosophies, he proved himself to be a man of deep thought and valuable insight. Some of the first works from Rather Good may not foster that image fairly. In its initial form, it was a site that hosted puerile, profane and oftentimes absurdist Flash animations and games. Funny though they were, it would be all too tempting to underestimate them. Yet, even in experimental founding years, Veitch had much to say about the nature of artistry. All quotes across this piece come from my conversation with him.

It started off as me just messing about; having fun for my own amusement. Obviously, it was never a professional thing. It kinda developed, back in the early 2000’s, into part of something which, I guess, was almost a movement. We used to call it “undesign” and have a few, kind of, catchphrases we used to keep coming back to like, “shit is good” and stuff; based on the idea that you were much better off just chucking a bunch of ideas out, rather than spending a very long time getting one idea perfect. It’s the idea that has merit, not the execution.

It’s an axiom you could see all across Rather Good in its original form. Fortunately, the Wayback Machine features many snapshots of the site in primordial times. Thanks to its widespread use of Flash, many of the founding animations and games still operate in archived versions. Sailing around these past iterations, such as 2003’s, is a perfect showcase of its variation. Many of the offerings are of consciously low production value but, as Veitch contends above, this does nothing to effect the ideas.

For example, in the video Mark Llama, Gerbil Farmer, would the comedy really have been accentuated by slick and painstaking production? Essentially, it’s not much more than some puns on celebrity names and some quality gags about Peter Buck‘s air rage incident. On a visceral level, it’s very funny. In actuality, the humour is probably helped by its animation. Any greater level of effort would be likely taking it too seriously, rendering its jokes as belaboured misfires. Packaged in the way that it is, we share more in that first spark of the idea. It’s similar to when we see comedians corpse (the practice of accidentally laughing during a performance).

That feeling, of the audience being somehow “in on” the act, is so powerful that it often sees itself contrived in modern comedy. Notably, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer have utilised it very intelligently across their career. When applied to the output of Rather Good, it’s inherent in the form. You can see, through the production values, the seed of the idea clearest. Veitch’s earliest videos present simple, but unique and amusing, thoughts in a context that places you in the room of its first conception.

With his short-form, undiluted content, Veitch was blazing a trail he might not have been able to predict. Much of the internet’s meme culture owes a lot to Rather Good, which itself had a fascination with cats. In self-made music videos, for songs like Gay Bar by Electric Six, he would cast cats as the musicians to create something refreshing in its punk-like subversion. Whatever it was, and however intentional it was, it was something brand new. To compound to that, for e-savvy youths of the time, it was also something that older generations didn’t understand.

It was an exciting time, because we had this whole new thing opening up which just hadn’t existed before. There used to be gatekeepers, you know? You had to get past the commissioning editors at the big channels if you wanted to get anything on TV. If you wanted to publish a book, it had to go through the agents and the publishing houses. If you wanted to get stuff in a magazine, you had to get it past the editors. Suddenly, you could just subvert the whole thing and do it yourself; put out what you thought was fun rather than what a commissioning editor at the BBC might want to see. It was brilliant! It was a really anarchic time and it felt like we were making it up as we went along.

In step with that was some level of controversy. Without said gatekeepers, Veitch didn’t have to bow to any imposed standards. While his output rarely, if ever, featured sexual imagery or extreme violence, Rather Good became known for its use of profanity. Whether it was in songs like Anal Seepage or Thinking About Your Axe Wound, the surprising variation of British swear-words was an undoubted focus of the site’s more embryonic days. While that may seem, on some level, inane and facile, it speaks again to the alternative it provided to televisual entertainment. Profanity may not have been uncommon on television of the time, but you’d have to rely on Veitch for colloquialisms like “spam-purse” or “scruttocks”.

I used to really enjoy swearing. I mean, I still do to an extent. There was a lot where the joke was that it was an incredibly offensive swear-word, or just a good way of swearing. We’ve done a lot of songs where there’s a swear-word in there just… not for any particular reason. Having children has made me regret some of those choices. Not so much the ones where the joke is the swearing, ’cause that’s the reason that exists; like, the Swear-o-Tron is just a thing that swears.

Just a thing that swears could be believably sneered at, though it would be difficult to keep a straight face when interacting with it. It’s something I remember as a fresh-faced teenager, attempting to share Rather Good with my father. Thanks to that generational discomfort, which is usually a good omen, he found it impossible to digest. Though Veitch’s influence is now easy to see, anywhere in the memesphere, there was a way to compel those of little faith.

As an accomplished musician, along with his brother Alex Veitch (who contributed to many Rather Good projects), his artistry in that department was clearer to see. Music was actually all over the site, in the form of drunken ditties as well as more carefully composed comedy songs. What really stuck out in this category of his content was 7 Seconds of Love, a ska and 2-tone band largely unconnected to the rest of the site. While Rather Good would host videos for music by 7 Seconds of Love, they were successful in their own right. They also helped show those with more traditional mindsets that Veitch had a creativity worth listening to. Now only playing on a sparse basis, they remain a key part of the Rather Good universe.

I’m rehearsing with the band tonight, actually. We’re playing the BoomTown festival this summer. We stopped several years ago now, because most of us have got children now, the bass player moved to Switzerland and the drummer’s moved to York. It all just became completely untenable, really. A couple of years ago we got back together for one reunion gig at the BoomTown Fair, which is this fantastic festival. It’s one of the more mental ones; it’s not family-friendly, let’s put it that way. But it’s brilliant fun!

Eventually, Veitch started to gain some recognition for his efforts beyond the community where it started. Plenty of his videos went viral before the term “viral” went viral itself; frankly I think he deserves credit just for inspiring that intriguing maze of a sentence. I can remember sharing his work myself, so my peer group would have something more interesting to do in secondary school IT lessons. His distinctive style, and its popularity, became a target for advertisers. Seeing dollar signs where everyone else saw animated cats, it wasn’t long before Veitch’s toil saw huge exposure through commercials.

In the UK, just about everybody saw his Crusha adverts. They were straight from the site itself in their feel. I remember their effect too, making a previously obscure brand a household name overnight. This was replicated in parts of America, when Subway competitor, Quiznos, employed Veitch for the same purposes. This time, they took their inspiration from We Like the Moon (posted below). With a reputation for “edgy” advertising strategies, they saw the screeching spongmonkeys as perfect new front-men for their brand.

That is something that I knocked out incredibly quickly. It’s a song that was improvised, it wasn’t even written, with my brother while we were really drunk after a night at the pub; we came home and knocked it out. [We were] just looking around the room to pick out lyrics as we went along, and then I animated it the next day in a few hours. That has been definitely the single most successful thing I’ve ever made. It was also one of the least amounts of work I’ve put into anything.

In a bold, and evidently clever, move, Quiznos put out a commercial that was practically We Like the Moon unadulterated. Of course, lyrics were changed to sing “We like the subs”, but that’s obligatory. It’s not something that many advertising executives would go for. Nevertheless, it was broadcast on an unprecedented scale for Veitch. Played at one point during the Super BowlRather Good‘s flavour became recognisable on a national level beyond the British Isles.

The way the agency won that pitch was, they showed the client (the Quiznos guys) some video of some students just cracking up, watching a screen, and said, “What are they watching? They’re watching your next ad!”. [They] showed them a mock-up, which I’d done for them, of We Like the Moon. They just reworded it to “We like the subs” and they took it on that. So, that was a great basis for it because, rather than starting with, “Here are these awful characters, these grotesque characters, and they’re screeching. Everyone’s gonna love it,” they started with, “Here’s some people really liking the thing, and this is what it is they were laughing at.”

As the above video shows, the Quiznos campaign with Veitch received some backlash. Admittedly, that was part and parcel of what they were actually going for. They certainly got their name out in a way that people would remember. For the man behind it all, the sheer volume of reaction was overwhelming. In our conversation, he commented on how surreal it was to be labelled the “Quiznos Guy”. Optimistically minded, he could see that its effect was widespread, rendering people’s opinion on it somewhat moot. After all, being divisive has been shown, over time, to be a generally good thing.

When we put it out, it caused absolute mayhem. Like, it really did cause total mayhem, because it’s completely mental. It’s easy to forget how mental that was for the average guy sitting in the bible-belt, watching the Super Bowl, when that popped onto his screen. It’s, culturally, completely alien to a large portion of America. What happened was, all around the edges, everybody absolutely loved it and thought it was the best thing ever. Then, in the middle and the south, people thought it was probably the worst thing they’d ever seen, which I thought was perfect really. Everybody was going crazy, either pro or anti.

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Presumably with some of the money made from commercial work, Rather Good began to expand. It started taking on bigger and loftier projects, branching out into other areas. Outside of commercials for places like Quiznos, Veitch started taking some commissions for his animation. This saw him collaborate with many people on the same level as him. One such example is a video he directed for our previous podcast guest, Professor Elemental. Widening horizons seemed a natural move for Veitch, whose artistry was always sincere.

He had explored narrative storytelling, at an albeit small scale, in his legendary Blode series. As a representative of Veitch’s first approach, the Blode animations were mere teasers of what was to come. Proof eventually came with the release of such episodic, and more carefully produced, shows as Roadkill. Playing, at times, like a Rather Good variety show, it also features brilliant dialogue, written characters and a stronger dedication to higher production values. With puppets that evoke the oldest animations from the site, the whole affair feels like an evolution. Back in 2003, he used the tools available to him to his greatest advantage. As his utility belt added a few notches, the effect could be seen in his work.

I’ve been much more interested in proper narrative, storytelling and character based stuff over the last few years. I moved away from stupid, one-minute screech-fests for a bit for that reason as well. So, for a bunch of different reasons, I concentrated on doing much more carefully considered and written things. Not all of them [are] in the public domain; of course, there’s a great deal of writing that’s still under wraps and it’ll probably never get out I suppose…

Something that comfortably makes my point for me is Dinosaurs: Terrible Lizards. The whole production couldn’t be any more polar opposite to the thirty-second jokes of its predecessors. For a start, its attractive 3D animation is a far cry from Veitch’s first stabs at Flash. The whole thing screams of care and detail, narrated professionally by Veitch himself. By this point, Rather Good was quite a different beast. It shows how much he cares about his craft; it was important for him that it grew. It’s just a shame how much money these things can burn.

That is lovely. I love working with that style. It’s so much effort to do, compared to 2D. It’s not the kind of thing that we can just make for YouTube, for ourselves. You know, it’s not something we can continue to make; [we] have to look around and see if we can interest anyone in buying into the idea. You can’t make stuff at that level without some kind of funding.

This kind of undertaking, besides being expensive, also eats a lot of time. Where Veitch could once post something quickly, and on a whim, Rather Good‘s shift in focus has meant that things have slowed a little. That’s to be expected with more developed material, but there was always a lot to be said for his more prolific days. Things like Dinosaurs: Terrible Lizards are deeply rewarding, in equal measure to their difficulty to make. However, Veitch certainly perceives the quiet that inevitably follows.

I feel like I haven’t put much out in the world lately. The stuff we’re working on most of the time is not high-volume, get-it-out-in-the-world stuff. We’ve done an awful lot of writing and development on much bigger narrative projects, and serialised projects. We’re doing a short at the moment with Frederator, the guys who do Adventure Time, and that is very close to done, but that’s just a little, five-minute short. It’s supposed to be a pilot. We’re all hopeful that we’ll get a series out of it. They seem to be very positive, but you don’t know do you?

Then, just a day before I recorded my conversation with Veitch, he uploaded this to Rather Good‘s YouTube:

I, for a long time, sort of neglected the thing which I used to enjoy so much, which was just chucking stupid crap out into the world to make myself laugh. I’ve just recently thought, “Hang on a minute, I used to really enjoy doing that. I should be doing some more of that. That was good”.

Within seconds, just how much it harks back to 2003’s Rather Good is astounding. In fact, it was the whole point. While Veitch is assuredly proud of his more expanded work, there was always teeth to the idea that “shit is good”. Like with Mark Llama, Gerbil Farmer, its humour wouldn’t be any better with months of post-production. Again, it’s probably to its benefit that the animation had been cobbled together quickly by its creator.

It’s a very small thing that illustrates perfectly a much bigger point, I think. When you get to a certain level of production as your default level of production, it starts making everything much harder to actually do because, y’know, it’s much easier to do a small job than to do a big job. The bigger the job is, the less likely you are to ever start it. So, Beetroot and Trousers was a stupid, little one-minute gag. I mean, I’ll probably do some more stuff for those characters to be honest but, in its original form, it’s a stupid, little one-minute gag. Having written it and voiced it ages ago, it’s been sitting there for god knows how long because I just couldn’t really face putting the time aside to animate it properly.

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Then I just realised, a few days ago, it’s not gonna make it any funnier and it’s not a commercial proposition. There’s no reason for me to be putting that level of barrier to getting stuff done in front of myself. I might as well just make it old school. In fact, when you start to embrace that again like I used to, it becomes part of the joke, you know? That, instead of trying to finesse every shot perfectly, it’s more a process of deliberately screwing with the form, which is hilarious and easy to do! When you deliberately make the cuts jar, and you deliberately screech the audio and peak the levels, and you don’t worry about what angle you’re seeing things from – you just make it part of the joke – it makes it a joyful experience again.

It’s good to see Veitch back on the territory that first brought him attention. That’s not to denigrate his more fleshed out works, which are just another enjoyable branch from the Rather Good tree. Across the years, it can take you by surprise just how many branches that tree has grown. From Flash animations and games, through music videos and commercials, to narrative projects and more, this kind of variation is becoming increasingly synonymous with internet curators like Veitch.

With the opportunities available to attempt almost any art-form with relative ease, why should a talented individual limit themselves? We spoke about just that recently, using the myriad talents of Doug Lussenhop as a jumping off point. Veitch is very similar. As a man of varied interests, that’s going to come across in his work. Of late, he’s even dipped his toe into the world of Twitter bots:

It’s an experiment in how to do a bot. So, I’ve been really interested in these for ages. I started playing with the logic of it, the syntax and how to make it just talk nonsense. It’s called @PleaseHelpMeArgh, and it’s alleging that I’m being assaulted in all kinds of very unlikely ways, by celebrities.

Despite being a bot, it retains Veitch’s carved-out brand of humour. It’s one of the funniest things he’s ever come out with, making its small number of followers quite criminal. In common with much Rather Good material, it would be doing it a disservice to disregard it as silly. While, on the surface, it is, there’s a tangible layer of commentary and depth to its make-up. Along with madcap wordplay, the way it uses hashtags is more than an abstract gimmick.

I hope I’m not offending anyone, because I’m aware that people misunderstanding other people’s uses of language can just come across as being a dick. The hashtag thing… I can see a use for hashtags, in certain contexts, but they seem to be used in this wildly unuseful way; everybody putting multiple hashtags, which just… why are they there?! Nobody’s gonna go, “I wonder how many people have hashtagged SlightlyBurntCrumpets today? God, I really need to get involved in that conversation!”.

When speaking to Veitch personally about his bot, I was taken aback by how much he knew about the subject. With eloquent dissections of DeepMind and the like, it’s an area he gladly gets into. Luckily for us at Secret Cave, that dovetailed all too well into some of our own obsessions. His intellect is calmly keen and practised, which carries over into his releases. Veitch’s catalogue is a juggernaut, and it doesn’t take much of a leap (more of a hop) to connect his stuff to massive swathes of modern-day internet culture.

Even the quotes in this companion article are just a small sample of much grander thoughts, which can be heard in my full podcast with Veitch below. As an internet creator myself, and one of the founders of Secret Cave, I found much of what he said to spurn me on in my own endeavours. We may not know with perfect certainty what the internet precisely is, or the nature of its true potential.

What we do know is that, without it, we wouldn’t have the work of Veitch and thousands of his contemporaries to enjoy and champion. Now internet curation is here to stay, it’s seeing a far greater respect and audience than its gatekept cousins on television and in our films. Since he was one of the first to light that particular fire, Veitch’s appearance on our podcast was an extremely entertaining honour.

Most of the people who I have genuinely a great deal of respect for are just, really, doing their own thing; or, at the very least, started off doing their own thing, and that’s how they got to where they are. It’s the internet that’s made all of that possible.

Make sure to follow Veitch over at Twitter, and check out Rather Good itself! This link will take you to @PleaseHelpMeArgh. Click here for their official YouTube channel, too! You can find regular updates about our podcasts and content on our own TwitterFacebook and YouTube.

British fellow consumes media and regurgitates back what you should think about it.