The Wave Pictures – Beer In The Breakers (Moshi Moshi)
by Lewis G. Parker
This month, long-time friends and collaborators The Wave Pictures and Herman Dune both released new albums. Here we asked David from The Wave Pictures to write us an account of how the bands became friends and the legacy of his hero, John Peel. We also have an exclusive mp3 of a track from a Peel Session David recorded with Herman Dune in January 2003: a Wave Pictures song called ‘Dust Off Your Heart’, which can be heard here.
I first heard Herman Dune on the John Peel show and I remember being completely captivated by them. They had beautiful, interlocking, twangy electric guitars, and sang melancholy, simple songs. The sound was stripped back, and clear as a bell. I think it was the only time in my life that I ever bought a new album, based on one Peel Session. Buying an album new costs as much as buying two or three second-hand, so I very rarely did it. The album was Turn Off The Light, an album that I still love 10 years later. Me and my friends in Wymeswold used to listen to it almost constantly. Right before I left home and moved to Glasgow, we drove to see Herman Dune play at the Leicestershire Arts Centre. The audience, maybe 20 people, didn’t know their music at all, or at least didn’t seem to have any real respect for it.
They were an extremely odd band to see back then. David stood stock still, looked very nervous, and sang these somehow very moving, very naive songs. They were simple and startlingly original. It was something very honest, I thought. He was French but singing in English, so he would get little phrases wrong and sometimes create poetry inadvertently as well as intentionally because of this. He didn’t have a single song that was not moving. While David sang, André would wander all over the room, smoking and drinking beer. Occasionally he would appear behind the microphone and sing a backing vocal. Once or twice in the show, he sang a whole song. André’s songs were darker and more traditionally constructed than David’s. They were more direct and a touch more cynical and world-weary sounding. They were so similar to one another, of course, being brothers, but they had a different style, a different world-view from one another. They were both clearly master songwriters. I had never seen a band before that sang so many songs that weren’t on their album. Normally you go and see a band and you already know all the songs they are going to do. But not with them. They wrote thousands of songs. A morning cup of coffee could be song. Anything could be. It was an education to me. And they played those beautiful guitars too. It’s still my favourite band that I have ever seen live. I can’t think of anyone who could so constantly surprise me and move me nor who seemed so completely genuine.
I was 18 and very nervous. I think my hand was shaking, but I managed to give André a CD-R of some songs that we had recorded on a 4-track in my parents’ kitchen in Wymeswold, Leicestershire. This was years before we had met [Wave Pictures drummer] Jonny Helm. The Wave Pictures at that point was me and Franic with my older sister’s boyfriend, Nick Bott, on drums. Anyway, I gave André the CD. Nothing ever comes of giving people your CD. Nobody ever contacts you. This is the only time it ever worked and I have long since given up doing it. This also happened so long ago that I was yet to have an email address. So I had put the landline number of my parents’ house on the back of the CD. I got a phone call from André about two weeks after the show. He called me from a pay phone somewhere on the road and he told me that the CD I had given him was the greatest album ever made. He may well have been the only person in the world who would have felt that way.
We stayed in touch. I opened my first email account and moved to university. At some point Herman Dune were in New York and they asked me to send as many copies of the album as I could make to their address there. I did, and they gave our music to all of their New York friends; to Jeff Lewis, Prewar Yardsale, The WoWz, Turner Cody, Adam Green, Kimya Dawson and about 10 others. In the end, it meant Franic and I could go to New York and play a show in front of 20 or 30 people when we couldn’t draw a crowd of 10 people in a room in Loughborough. It was the very first time that somebody completely unrelated to the band had shown any interest in what me and Franic were doing.
They invited us to play a festival they were curating in Paris, which is where I recorded one song with John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. They took me on tour with them. I recorded an album called Streets Of Philadelphia with André. And they invited me to record a Peel Session. The generosity on their part was enormous. I was a pretty awkward kid. They were very kind to ask me to join them for these things.
On the day of the Peel session I was incredibly excited. I got to see Herman Dune in the studio and play guitar with them, which was thrilling enough. I had never been in a studio before. The Maida Vale studio is a pretty good one to start out with. It’s huge! I remember the engineer, Simon Askew, was a very funny man. He was an amazing engineer. I remember him being quite keen to get it all done as quickly as possible, so he could leave and go and ride his motorbike. It was very friendly, and very laidback, recording there. I have since learned that the people working behind the scenes in radio are almost always very nice, and that BBC engineers in particular are very good at what they do. It’s a nice world, the radio world.
We recorded five songs. Herman Dune were nice enough to do one that I had written, called ‘Dust Off Your Heart’. We did a cover of one of my favourite Jonathan Richman songs, ‘The Neighbours’. And we did three Herman Dune originals. Laura Hoch was singing with the band at that time. They had picked her up in New York. She had a beautiful, sexy, American voice. And I was so happy to be playing with that band. To join in with the guitars that I had loved so much. They were very keen on my guitar playing, very supportive and enthusiastic. Generous in every regard. I would say it wasn’t until the Peel session that I really became friends with André and David. I’m pleased to say that we are still good friends.
It’s still pretty exciting to me that I got to do a Peel session. As for so many people, his show was extremely important to me growing up. It made me sad when he died because I felt that his life’s work was terribly misrepresented in the media and by the BBC in particular, in order to promote an agenda that those people have that Peel in reality always stood in opposition to. Everywhere you would read that he was the man who discovered Led Zeppelin or The White Stripes, as if you judge the merit of a DJ by how famous the people they play become, or the merits of a band by how many records they sell. That Peel occasionally played someone who went on to be popular was an accident. What was important about Peel was that his show subverted that kind of thinking, not endorsed it. He would play something that had no chance of getting on the radio otherwise, simply because he liked it. He thought for himself and got himself into a position to be able to play exactly what he wanted. Many of the things he played he only played once. You had to sit by the radio with a pen and a piece of paper, to quickly write down the name if you heard something you liked. It might be a rare 50s recording by Gene Vincent, followed by some white label house music, followed by something some guy recorded on a tape machine in New Zealand, then some African pop. It was completely free-spirited and had nothing to do with A&R men or the charts, or the music press, which by and large he thought was conservative and small-minded. Since he died, the BBC, which constantly tried to marginalise Peel by moving his slot to later and later in the day on a week day, put out adverts everywhere with Peel’s face and The Undertones’ line ”Teenage dreams so hard to beat” written on it. Whilst this advert for the BBC was running, they gave Peel’s slot to Colin Murray, and created BBC6, where actually most of the DJs have to work to a playlist and play mainly very mainstream indie music.
At Glastonbury, there is now a stage called the Peel Stage, which, I am fairly confident in saying, never has a single act perform on it who Peel would have been remotely interested in. Again, it’s just medium-sized indie and occasional hip-hop acts on their way to bigger things. It’s very interesting to see what has been done with Peel’s legacy, because it is a very good example of the way that the mainstream will absorb anything that threatens it, and repackage it in a more commercially-friendly form.
It’s fair to say that John Peel was a hero of mine. We all went out for dinner with him and his production team after the show. It’s one of the few times in my life that I have been so nervous as to be unable to speak. I was happy to listen anyway. He was everything you could hope that he would be. Charming, funny, exactly as he was on the radio. I still remember it as one of the best days ever.