The Wave Pictures are an idiosyncratic, criminally underexposed rock band originally from the tiny town of Wymeswold in England. After nearly a decade in obscurity, self-releasing a string of cult albums, they relocated to London a few years ago and signed to the well-regarded British independent label Moshi Moshi. The label issued the band’s first two full-length proper records, Instant Coffee Baby and If You Leave It Alone, in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Those records were never widely available in the U.S., until April 27, when they were released as a specially priced double CD set, serving as an introduction to the band for stateside listeners.
This March, the group completed its longest North American tour to date, playing numerous dates at South By Southwest and touring the East Coast, Midwest, and Canada. We caught up with founder, principal songwriter and guitarist David Tattersall just before the Wave Pictures took the stage at New York’s Mercury Lounge for the final date of a whirlwind tour. We discussed what it’s like to be in a new and exciting band that’s been together nearly a decade, Bob Dylan, and why there are too many roads in America.
This is the most extensive tour of the states you guys have done so far. Any general reflections or highlights?
We just played in Canada. We had a good show in Montreal; before that we had a pretty bad show in Kingston, a small town in Canada and really nobody showed up. And before that we had a good show in Toronto. Before that was Chicago, which seemed like a really nice city but we didn’t get much of a chance to see it. We flew there from Austin and then we had to drive from there to Toronto overnight. Chicago seemed like a nice town. Austin I didn’t like as much as I was expecting too, actually.
The whole South by Southwest experience?
We were there for two days after South by Southwest, which was nice. We went record shopping. I was kind of disappointed in the city. I thought it would be somewhere nice to walk around, but it’s very unfriendly for walking around, which is what I’ve found of a lot of places I’ve been to in America on this particular tour. Which I’m sure isn’t true of everywhere in America. Chicago, you could walk around. Obviously Montreal and Toronto are quite nice to walk around. And New York’s great to walk around. Austin just seemed to be lots of big roads in a big grid.
As you get farther west, there’s more of a car culture.
London is a huge city but you can walk around any part of it. Lots of little villages connected by big roads, and the traffic’s gridlocked, but you can walk everywhere in London. I kind of didn’t like that about Austin. I also didn’t really like South by Southwest. It’s probably a good thing to do, but it’s not my idea of fun being at a really crowded, noisy festival. I know it’s just a part of what you have to do when you’re in a band, but it’s not fun for me. I don’t like crowds or noise or the stress of carrying equipment everywhere.
In Houston we played in a really cool place called the Orange Show. Apparently Houston’s not a nice town. I didn’t get to see much of it but the Orange Show is a really fun venue. It’s this shrine to oranges designed by this health freak guy who traveled the country in some capacity collecting objects he found, and then he built this weird public space that celebrates health. Very brightly colored with lots of things about how good oranges are for you. We played there outside; that was lot of fun. And before that we were in Florida, which was weird. Florida seems like a very weird part of the world.
I think even people in the states consider Florida to be an exceptionally strange place.
And last year we went to the West Coast; we went to L.A. I liked being in L.A. because I like Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler and L.A. writers and Hollywood films, and there’s a romantic notion of it that you have, which it lives up to. But again, it’s not a place to walk around. It’s very architecturally unfriendly and impersonal. We drove up from L.A. to San Francisco; we drove up the coast — Highway 1, via Big Sur — and that was really beautiful looking out on the ocean. Didn’t get to see much of San Francisco. I mean, you spend so much time traveling, especially a country as vast as America and especially on a tour as insanely routed as the Wave Pictures tour was — it was routed by a maniac. We played three days in in Florida, then New York, then Houston, Austin, Chicago, Montreal. It’s crazy.
Was the main impetus for this tour to do South by Southwest?
South by Southwest and the New York shows and then trying to find other things to link those together. Our album’s coming out here, as well.
A couple years ago when Instant Coffee Baby first came out on Moshi Moshi, you were doing a lot of press in the U.K. that sort of treated you like a new band even though you had been doing stuff for 10 years before that. Is that similar to America right now, with the record coming out domestically? You’ve been playing together for almost 12 years, and it’s still like, “Oh, you’re a new band!”
We’re new to being released, and we’re new to most people so I don’t mind that. It’s similar to the U.K. It’s a little different because when we were first treated as a new band in England, it was when we first started doing a lot of shows. Whereas seven or eight years prior to that happening, we had been students living in different parts of the country, meeting up occasionally. We had the name the Wave Pictures, we wrote songs and we performed and we sounded much the same as we sound today, but it wasn’t something we did very often. I would have primarily thought of myself as a student during those years, and then I left university and went to London and started doing the band all the time. It was new for us to be just a band. I think being in the Wave Pictures is quite like being in a lot of new bands, but it doesn’t feel that strange because we aren’t that known in the States.
You first started playing together and home recording around 1998 or so. Given how much the music industry has changed in the last 10 years, do you ever wish that you had fully gone for it as a band more 10 years ago?
That’s interesting, I never thought about it like that. That would be a sensible way of thinking about it. I tend to think of it like, It’s a shame that everything has changed. Like I said, I was doing other things that I was perfectly happy doing. It is a shame; there were a lot more independent record stores in the U.K. Music on the radio was better, more or less by virtue of having John Peel on a major radio station. All the changes the Internet has brought for me personally are largely negative. It’s harder to be a smaller band, because you sell less merch. It’s odd because you only ever hear about the downloading issue in relation to how it affects rich bands, which as is always pointed out is ridiculous, because those guys are fine. Britney Spears is fine, so who cares? That’s all people ever say.
A band of our size, 10 years ago could have made a much more comfortable living. There’s like no money in anything except for live shows. It doesn’t make me wish I had gone for it before. But the band, the career doing the band is just one thing, and I’m really glad I did a degree. I found what I studied, sociology, really interesting. And I’m glad that I did that first because I would find it really hard to go back to school now after having been in a band for a few years. I know people who went straight into bands, they missed out on university. I feel like that is a mistake. My parents were right, I suppose. They sort of insisted that I sort my degree out, and I’m glad that I did.
I don’t feel like we should have gone for it earlier, but I take your point and I do think that things are different now. I feel like 10 years ago there were more bands making a good living and having a good life staying fairly small. Playing clubs, selling a lot of merch at club shows, a bit of radio play. Now I feel like you’ve got to be the hyped new band and do very well, it’s harder to be independent.
I’m always surprised by how little even the bands that are all over websites and seem to have a fairly high profile are making off just the music, and they’re touring constantly. It’s different in the U.K., with the prevalence of independent record shops, the singles market, and NME. It’s a much smaller and more insular world for breaking your band. Whereas in America it seemed for a long time that there’s just a lot of bands. And there’s not a stranglehold on radio or TV. It just seems like there’s so many U.K. indie bands that have a hot single, and you don’t know what happens to them.
That’s quite possibly true. Quite a few of our friends who are American do more touring in Europe and the U.K. than they do in America. Because it’s easier, they get better shows, they get treated better. America’s such a large country — a lot of devolution of power, and one state is very different from another. It’s a strange, strange thing.
I don’t know for sure, but increasingly I have the feeling that it would be much more necessary now to have things in place to be able to pay the rent — to have industry things in place — which is the opposite of what people say the Internet has done. They say the Internet has liberated musicians from the industry, that there’s lots of ways of releasing things. It’s not really true, because if you’re not getting any money from recordings then you have to find ways of getting them from publishing or advances from record labels who want to be involved in the promotion of bands, the promotion of shows themselves. Labels don’t expect to make a lot of money from selling recordings. You take away that value, big parts of what a band relies on to live, that’s something that I feel like has to do with the internet. I don’t know for certain, but I feel like that’s the main change in the last 10 years.
In previous interviews, you’ve said that you write songs constantly and you don’t really believe in writer’s block. The last couple records have been studio records — more time in the studio, more takes to get things right. Have you ever wanted to write or record a song in the traditional method of really slaving over it, spending days reworking a single song or a single part?
It sometimes happens that a song is recorded and I’ll live with the recording and I won’t like it so much and I’ll change the chords or rewrite it. Something I do often is I’ll take two or three songs and chop them up, put them together as one song. And that can happen when I’m just living with a song before I’ve even played it to the guys in the band. And that can happen after the song is recorded, it can become a different song as long as it’s not released. I’d never do it with something that anyone else has heard.
So in that sense it’s not necessarily done super quickly. But I’ve never wanted to record in that pop way: multitracking, taking a long time to make a song one piece at a time. That’s for two reasons. One is that I’d find it boring, and the second is in terms of my taste as a listener. If you do things in that pop way of multi-tracking or spending days, it’s a way of guaranteeing you’ll get what I think of as second best. It’s perfectly fine, something like “Heart of Glass” by Blondie or “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen. You’re gonna get something if you work hard on a song in that kind of way, but the best of the best is something recorded spontaneously, when it just comes off. Like Blonde on Blonde is the best. If you go into the studio every time trying to do things in that way, live takes, something fairly spontaneous, you probably won’t ever get the best of the best, but at least you’ve got a chance.
That’s what I like to hear, musicians playing live — a few overdubs is fine — but the core should be something live. If I thought of my very favorite records, it’s all that way. Taking the time to work out what you’re gonna do is fine. It’s not all done super quickly, and it wasn’t even when we were recording at home. I can’t imagine ever wanting to do a day for tracking drums, then going in and putting the bass down for a day. I can’t imagine ever wanting to do that or being happy with the results, even though lots of great records are made that way. It’s just not what I really like.
When I first started listening to your music it reminded me of a lot of things I like, and I started reading older interviews and found that a lot of the reference points were more classic rock than I was anticipating. Like Bruce Springsteen, who you’ve mentioned; you did a track for a Springsteen tribute album. Or Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones. For me it was much more of a Vaselines, The Television Personalities, even the Field Mice. Were those kinds of bands were also an influence?
Not necessarily those names, but certainly stuff that is similar to that. Beat Happening, Violent Femmes, Herman Dune really influenced the way I think about things. Hefner was a band I liked growing up. Galaxie 500, Luna, lots of indie bands did. I think that as I get older I like less to listen to some of those things. My favorite things have always been the same. Bob Dylan is something you love for all time. You can always go back to it. I think those things are so far beyond, it’s not to say our records sound like that. But some of those things that made me think I could do it are the things that you carry on thinking are the best things.
I’m very influenced by classic things, mostly what I listen to and am copying: classic song structures, but singing them with my non-great singing voice and playing them quickly without being the best musicians in the world. But loads of indie things did influence us, yeah. But you get tired of people saying, “Oh you guys remind us of the Smiths or you guys remind us of Belle and Sebastian.” Two great bands, but it seems slightly lazy and not quite what we’re doing really. Television was a huge one. Not the Television Personalities — the Television Personalities are not a band I’ve ever really understood myself. But Television, the New York band, was a huge thing that I think you can hear when you listen to us.
In terms of songwriting, you write constantly and the Wave Pictures is your main gig. But you have done more solo stuff, self released CD-Rs or the Dan of Green Gables record, which is very different in style. Obviously the songwriting is distinctive, but in style it’s different. When you’re writing, are the songs mostly just for the band, or do you hide songs away for different projects they might work for?
Both are true. If I write something I could try it with anything, and it’s also true I write things like “this is for this.” Dan of Green Gables was specifically done to write an album in a week and record it. So it’s specifically like, “Let’s book it in. Dan’s gonna come play violin, Franic from the Wave Pictures is gonna play mandolin. And we’re gonna write an album and record it.” And that’s not something I’ve done before, and I really enjoyed doing it and really loved the result. The thing about it being very different is to do with the style, the way that it’s played. The actual writing I approached in exactly the same way. You write something when you pick up an electric guitar, or sit down at a piano.
I suppose with the Wave Pictures, particularly live, there’s more of a a driving thing with the drums that’s very loud, and when I’m just writing songs all the time, not as many of them are rock songs that I will then use for the Wave Pictures. There’s a limited number of slow, dark ballads I wanna do for the Wave Pictures. So I write a lot of those and one or two will get through to the band, and all of the rock things will get through to the band.
So there are differences, but they’re not in my mind when I’m writing stuff because I’m just writing stuff all the time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it gets used, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I’ll take a bunch of different songs and put them together in one song. And sometimes a song I thought wasn’t all that good will end up being a song that everybody knows and likes. That’s happened with some of the things I’ve done that are just throwaway: “Oh, I’ll sit down, have some fun, write a song,” that will become something very well known. Other times something I work very hard on won’t get passed on. John and Franic, they won’t wanna play it.
“Now You’re Pregnant” has become a signature song. When you wrote that, were you thinking it would become a cult sensation?
No, that song was written in only slightly more time than it takes to sing. Some songs take years start to finish — not working on them every day, God forbid — but you go back to them, change something. But for that song, I wrote out the words — which it sounds like because all the sentences flow on from one another — and then I was like, “Oh I’ll try this,” and I had a song. And it doesn’t have a conventional verse-chorus-verse structure. The chord sequence changes, and the thing that’s the chorus at the end is a ridiculous chorus that I wouldn’t have chosen if I’d thought about it any length of time.
Or if you knew you’d be playing it at every show.
That’s just the end part of the story. The girl says, “Johnny Cash has died but it’s not like Elvis, though is it?” When I was playing the guitar I had to repeat that so I had a chorus at the end. Now I like that song; we do that song a lot and we enjoy it. I’m not by any means the best judge. I have my opinion but it’s very rarely the one the majority would agree with.
In terms of the live show, is it true that you’ll sometimes do an all-request show?
Do you make a set list?
What’s important is that we never use a set list. It’s important that we really don’t know when we walk on. Sometimes I’m even standing there and I’ve tuned my guitar and I realize we’re supposed to start and I haven’t picked the first song, and then I have to pick a first song. Sometimes someone will shout out a request and we won’t do it, and sometimes we’ll play things that are not the thing things that people want to hear. And people come over, “Why didn’t you play this? Why didn’t you play that?” and they’ll be grumpy. Sometimes we’ll just do the things they want to hear or if there’s requests we’ll do requests. There’s not a rule to it. The main thing is to not know when we first start. I imagine it works out pretty good most of the time for people, because things we can remember are probably the things that are popular too. It’s not like I can remember the words to everything.
Between the CD-Rs and the proper albums, you probably have 100 or 120 songs that people can theoretically request.
You get weird requests too, that’s the fun thing. We try to keep as big a repertoire as possible and try and do a different set every night. Someone comes over and says, “Why didn’t you play such and such? Do you not play that song live?” They don’t know that maybe we played it live the last 10 times. It’s unusual because what I didn’t know is that a lot of bands play the exact same set every single night, and we really won’t do that. If it ever happens twice in a row it’s a coincidence. It’s always different; it’s a way of keeping it entertaining, like actually what a live show should be like. People are seeing something happen right in front of their eyes, rather than a recreation of a recorded thing. That, to me, is the value of a live show. People are seeing something a bit spontaneous and unrehearsed.
Have you thought about a live album?
I’d be happy to put out a live album if there was some way of doing a good recording of the band live. And I’ve seen films of us playing live, and that’s good. There’s lots and lots of films of the band now on YouTube that are varying degrees of quality, but they’re there. A live album would be a nice thing to do if there was a right way of doing it or if there was a time where we didn’t have lots of other studio things we were waiting desperately to get out some way or the other.
We always get booked up with having more things to release than time to release them. Of the 2-CD set that’s coming out in America, the first album, Instant Coffee Baby, we made that and in the same sessions we did 10 other songs that aren’t on the album and from that, eight months later an EP was released in England. By the time that EP had come out, we’d already recorded another album. Then after that EP came out, we recorded the If You Leave It Alone album. So there was this other album that never came out, which is an EP in the U.K. and a vinyl in Europe. It must be three and a half years since we actually recorded Instant Coffee Baby, so there’s a lot of other stuff. You’re trying to find some way of getting things out, so I don’t know how we could fit a live album in, but I would if we could. If there was a demand for it I would do an album a month.
Jamie Stewart of the band Xiu Xiu did a subscription series where he did a release every month; he would send out a new album of improvised material. Would that be something you’d be interested in, in terms of how prolific you are?
It’s hard to say. What we could do is put out an album every 12 or 13 months that was listened to by a decent amount of people. A kind of classic-rock productivity, just like Dylan in the ’60s: Highway 61 and Bringing It All Back Home in ’65, Blonde on Blonde in ’66, John Wesley Harding in ’67. That seems reasonable. An album a year. People get a nice thing, and they can listen to it. It gives you enough time to not just be putting out throwaway things, to at least have some time to think “Is this song worth keeping or not?” Because you don’t know immediately when you’ve written it. The tendency is to like everything you’ve just written, and maybe six months or a year later you find out different things are better or worse. That’s probably what it is, to be able to do an album a year. And we’ll have caught America up when this 2-CD comes out.