The Wave Pictures look a bit out of place on a bustling Saturday afternoon in Camden. Ignoring the staggering, wristbanded indie kids amassed for the Crawl, David Tattersall (guitar, vocals), Franic Rozycki (bass) and Jonny Helm (drums) offer firm handshakes, hold doors and thank everyone in sight.
After being kept waiting for an hour they take the stage to soundcheck, uncomplaining, and run through hilarious, wistful, surreal songs that take in cystitis, unpredictable ejaculation and girlfriends who puke in the street. The Kinks’ and the Modern Lovers’ legacy of sharp, unsentimental wordplay is clearly alive and well, right down to the classic 1960s four-five-ones that underpin it. Like most people, you may have missed the first nine years of The Wave Pictures’ quietly prolific career, which has taken in European and American tours and collaborations with Herman Düne, Jeffrey Lewis and Darren Hayman. Now you can catch up with their first major album release, Instant Coffee Baby (review).
DrownedinSound shadowed them round London for a few days, catching up on tales of small-town youth, Argos guitars and good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll.
I read that you recorded the new album in two days. It sounds pretty marathon.
David: No, it was slower than that. It was about eight days in which we did about 26 songs. Some days we didn’t record at all, we’d just do overdubs and mixing. Some days we’d just get one song and other days we would get six. You just play until it sounds pretty tight and until Simon [Trought] has got the sound roughly right and then you stop.
Have you never been interested in really polished sound?
David: I can be. Some of my favourite records are made that way. I love ‘Born to Run’ by Bruce Springsteen. He worked on just that song every day for six months. But it’s not natural in any way. My heart isn’t with that. I really couldn’t do it. I mean, all that production work is insanely boring. Bands that do that don’t enjoy doing it. They might enjoy the end result, but they’re miserable. I don’t know why they put themselves through it. It’s like work, or exercise.
Jonny: It’s just the way that we’ve always done things. We don’t rehearse a huge amount. Lots of those songs were written and played and worked out in the studio the same day that they were recorded.
You recorded it in the basement at the Duke of Uke [ukulele shop in Spitalfields, east London]. It seems like such a nice little musician’s hub.
David: Yeah. It sounds a little cliquey but they were very welcoming to us when we moved to London. You know, you never find cliques cliquey when they let you in. And we know a lot of people who come in the shop and they would come down to the studio. When we were recording, Darren [Hayman] and Pete from the Dulwich Ukulele Club came down and sang. Simon is our mate, we play pool with him, so it’s nice for him to be the person who recorded us.
So who’s the best at pool?
David: I beat Franic 10-3 yesterday.
Is that a typical result?
David: No, I’d say me and Franic, we’re even stevens.
Jonny: I’m the worst.
You can’t be worse than me.
Jonny: (sorrowfully) I’m the worst.
David: Definitely all three of us are better than Simon. You should put that in. Simon really struggles.
Franic: Oooh... that’s gonna hurt.
David: No, Simon’s very good. He’s probably the best.
Video: 'I Love You Like A Madman'
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Chatting to them is more entertaining than a Woody Allen film. Jonny is easygoing and quick-witted; Franic thoughtful and a touch shy. David is indisputably the boss, intensely charismatic but never entirely relaxed. David and Franic grew up together in Wymeswold; Jonny is from Huddersfield. Jonny and Franic met at art college, where Jonny did "hardcore performance art about bodies and physical space" and Franic did sculpture and animation. Franic adapted one of his pieces for the cover of the album’s first single, ‘I Love You Like A Madman’, which shows him gradually turning into a bearded, check-shirt-wearing cat. It is well worth purchasing this 7” for the artwork alone.
In the beginning, did you find it hard to stand up on a stage and play in front of a crowd?
David: Well, I started doing it when I was really young, like nine or ten. I played in folk clubs, doing guitar instrumentals and things, and I used to be really terrified, very nervous indeed. It got a little easier over time, but I still get nervous sometimes. But did you mean because of nerves?
Well, if you’re not someone who loves the idea of standing in the spotlight and having people shout your name, it must seem slightly uncomfortable.
Jonny: Ha! That’s still never happened to us. So it’s not a problem yet.
David: Well, it’s interesting, because it is an attention-seeking thing. At a party, I always want to get away from being the centre of attention. I never wanted to be the centre of attention in a crowd. And I definitely know you didn’t, Franic! So I guess it is a funny thing to do.
What about you, Jonny?
Jonny: My mum wanted us to play an instrument, so I did Grade 1 piano, but I didn’t like it very much. And my dad used to play the drums in church, so I started playing the drums in church too.
David: Drums really seem less fun to me than the piano. There’s no tune! It’s an instrument that doesn’t play a song! And it’s the only one! Look at all the instruments there are that you can play a tune on.
I suppose if you had six timpani or something...
David: This guy wasn’t looking at six timpani.
Jonny: No, I was definitely looking at a drum kit. And I liked what I saw.
David: I’m glad that there are people like you in the world. But people like us will never understand people like you. We need each other, but I don’t really understand the thinking behind it at all. You could have played the harmonica.
You could probably play both.
Jonny: Drums and harmonica. Um, yeah.
David: (enthusiastically) Yeah!
You could put it on a little stand.
Jonny: That’s gimmicky though, isn’t it. No one wants to see a harmonica-playing drummer.
David: But maybe when you were on your own. At least then you’d have a tune.
Jonny: (reluctantly) Yeah.
David: Or a kazoo.
Jonny: That’s just rubbish.
Video: 'We Dress Up Like Snowmen'
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On the walls of the Kilburn pub are framed black-and-white photographs of rock’n’roll musicians. The Wave Pictures are studying Hank Williams, who sports a white cowboy suit with extravagant fringing on the sleeves. David pronounces the outfit "stupid". Jonny mumbles something. "Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers? They were even stupider," David says sadly. "They could have just worn a nice check shirt and some jeans and looked a lot less stupid. And saved themselves a bit of money."
Do you guys ever come into conflict when one of you wants something, sound-wise, that nobody else wants?
David: Yeah, with Jonny.
Jonny: (sadly) My kit’s devolved slowly...
Did it start out with more items in it?
David: Four toms... five cymbals...
David: Two kick drums...
Jonny: He’s being ridiculous!
David: It was really a hard rock drum kit. We had lots of arguments about it.
Jonny: He’s joking. I did have a crash cymbal and a ride cymbal, and a really little cymbal as well, but they all went.
David: I don’t mind cymbals on a record, where you can mix them, but the cymbals were really getting me down when we toured Spain. I was stood right by Jonny’s cymbal and some nights it would be the only thing I could hear. And it sounds really unfair but I did make him get rid of it because it drove me crazy. And after we made him get rid of it – which was very mean – I thought that you drummed a lot better, Jonny, because you used more fully the potential of each bit of your drum kit. So that’s partly why I never wanted it back.
What about you, Franic? I guess there’s a limit to how fancy you can go.
Franic: Um, I’ve got an amplifier now. I got it the other day. That was nice. On the drums I agree with David. Jonny’s got more...
Jonny: Less virtuoso!
Franic: He has to work harder.
David: More virtuoso!
Jonny: Less virtuoso!
David: Like, what is your idea of virtuoso? Doesn’t it mean doing more with your skills? Anyways, I think you’ve got much more virtuoso.
So David, what about your guitar? It’s a Yamaha Pacifica, isn’t it?
David: (warily) That’s one of them.
Er, I guess it’s just not the most rock’n’roll...
David: Guitar? I have a Gibson SG too. Which I really like.
Jonny: Was the Yamaha your first guitar?
David: No, but it was my first proper electric guitar. I had an Argos electric guitar or something.
Do Argos make electric guitars?
David: It was an Encore guitar. You get them, like, not from a guitar shop.
Jonny: Yeah! They do electric guitar starter kits, where you get a guitar, an amp and what else? Anyways, I used to work at Argos and I remember having to put them away. We didn’t treat them very well... well, we didn’t treat them like musical instruments.
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David’s lyrics have attracted a lot of attention. They’re clever and frank and so specific that people tend to think they’re pure confessional. There’s plenty of joyous, frustrated, exquisitely phrased detail about being a teenager in a small town, with nothing to do but drink, smoke and fall in love. But listen to ‘We Come Alive’ and you’re warned, "Everyone who knows me knows I make up all these stories".
When it’s easy for you to write a song, do you feel like you’re getting away with it?
David: No, but I can imagine Gordon Gano writing ‘Blister in the Sun’ in exactly the same spirit as I write songs. He’ll just steal something from here, and then he’ll play some riff, and he’ll use the obvious chords. And it’ll turn out to be really good. I love ripping off poetry. It’s so easy and fun. Morrissey does it, Bob Dylan does it. Lou Reed does it.
It’s pretty unique when you find something that stands on its own away from the tune. You can sing pretty much anything to a perky tune and it sounds all right.
David: Yeah, it’s true, but I don’t really get it when people do that. So many songs seem to be… unnecessary. They’re not trying to be funny or interesting – they’re not even trying to avoid cliché. Gordon Gano is a really good example of how completely easy it is. ‘Blister in the Sun’ has got like, eight lines in the whole song. And the chords are the most obvious thing you would do. It’s still the most famous and popular Gordon Gano song. And yet what he’d actually done was so completely effortless – it was like piracy, like theft. Like it was nothing and it required nothing of him.
Maybe most people aren’t as clever as him.
David: Even Noel Gallagher, his lyrics are pretty bad, but at least he’s gone to some kind of effort to rip off something. With a lot of bands, you can’t see how they’ve gone to any effort at all. Even Noel Gallagher’s taken five minutes out of his day to write down some sentences from books and magazines and television. I can’t understand, with most lyrics, why they bother.
Video: 'Without Feathers' (with Jeffrey Lewis)
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That night at Luminaire, they play a tight, energetic set. David is remote and beatific, staring into the distance as he sings. Franic looks at the floor with a small, secret smile, like a bearded Buddha. People shout out requests. "Now You Are Pregnant!" someone screams over and over. David mock-sighs. "You write a song in half an hour, it haunts you for the rest of your life." "Half an hour?" obliges straight man Jonny. "Ten minutes for the verse, ten minutes for the chorus, ten minutes for the bridge," he shrugs. After the show, he’s glowing yet strangely still, speaking softly and intently, eyes sparkling under droopy lids. Across the room, Franic’s girlfriend Becca packs up the unsold merchandise. I pick up a T-shirt. It’s a large – they’re all large. She says there are none at all in small. "They didn’t like the idea of the band name being stretched across girls’ breasts." She giggles. "Some people would have started a rock’n’roll band just for that!"
So how has being in the band changed since the early days? There must be a huge difference between being a student and being able to do it just because you love it, and all of a sudden having to use your music to pay the rent.
David: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been strange for us. Before, we only ever did anything for fun, and now we work much harder, and we do things that we wouldn’t do, if it wasn’t in the interests of, like, the money. That sounds very cynical.
Franic: We’re not actually making any money.
David: Yeah, we haven’t made any money yet. We’re managing to do this because Franic and I get housing benefits as self-employed musicians and Jonny works a full-time job. If that makes any student bands feel better.
You must be influenced by the way the record industry works; that’s got to influence how you as a band work.
David: The main difference is that you just get bombarded with everybody’s opinions about what you should do. People are telling you what they think you ought to do all the time. Literally. You get up and someone tells you how you ought to have got up. All the time. You just have to try to ignore it. It’s easier doing things in isolation. It’s easier writing songs when you know nobody hears them. I think that’s why a lot of bands’ best stuff is their early stuff.
Do you reckon?
David: I think there’s a reason why the best songs would be the ones you’ve written when no one was listening, when you have no audience. But we just try so hard to ignore those voices. And we’re kind of getting known as the band that’s not like other bands. The band that’s weird, the band that records live. We’re kind of getting known as the band that we are.
Jonny: We’re a band that’s not like other bands? No. We’re a band that’s very much like lots of other bands. Just not bands who are around today.
16 London Battersea Arts Club
22 London Not In Kansas Anymore @ Ginglik
1 Barcelona Primavera Sound
2 LondonThe Luminaire
12 London The Social
29 London Brixton Jamm
3 Ergusund Ergusund festival
26-27 Butterley, Derbyshire Indietracks Festival
28 London The Windmill
12-14 Larmer Tree Gardens, Dorset End of the Road Festival