There are bands you hear talked about, band you hear on the radio and bands you come across by chance.
On a dreary evening in Islington a matter of weeks ago, I shuffled into the Academy having been dispatched to review the headliners but instantly shelved that notion as the opening band, already onstage, unexpectedly blew every cobweb out of my mind and clutched itself around me like a Venus Flytrap.
The instant they departed the stage, I wanted to see them play again. I chain watched them on Youtube but it wasn’t enough, I needed a fix of the real thing. Mercifully I had not long to wait as they were already booked to headline Camden’s Barfly on 19th May.
The Picturebooks hail from Germany but are soaked in Americana right through their sweaty t-shirts. On guitar and lead vocals, Fynn Claus Grabke tosses his wild locks and exorcises the spirit of a frontier serial killer while his accomplice Philipp Mirtschink pounds on the drums, sometimes with his bare hands.
As I join them in the band room above the venue, Fynn is singing the praises of the local cuisine, having just sampled the market’s falafels.
Are you vegetarian?
F: Yes, for my whole life. I’ve never had meat. My parents made me choose as soon as I was able to but meat is just like dog food to me. Being vegetarian is much easier in Germany than here. They’re into the whole organic food thing so it’s super easy. On the road in America is easy too, especially if you go to Mexican places, they use real ingredients.
Are you vegetarian too, Philipp?
We have a room of vegetarians (the photographer Carl, Fynn’s dad Claus and I also being veggie). Talking of veggies, I heard that one of your favourite bands is The Smiths. Favourite album?
F: I have all of the albums but I’ll go with The Queen Is Dead.
Neither of you listened to music for two years before recording this album….
F: The problem is that if you’re listening to a band you really like, you go into the studio and try to sound like them. We got inspired by a lot of things – being in America, in the desert, and hanging out with people there, motorcycles and all that stuff.
How difficult did you find not listening to music?
P: It wasn’t that difficult.
F: We did listen to the radio. It was a relief; it wasn’t hard. The first days were difficult. You want to put on some vinyl you like but we just didn’t do it. We listened to jazz radio stations, something completely different to what we’d listen to usually.
Which books and films influence you?
F: Kubrick and David Lynch films are an influence. I steal some of their lines and make lyrics out of them.
I’ve never read a book in my whole life. I had to read one book in school, well maybe two but I remember this one. I didn’t read the last page because I told myself never to read a whole book, so I read everything except the last page. Then we had an exam and all of the questions were about probably the last page because I didn’t understand a word of what these questions were about.
P: I don’t think I’ve ever heard that story before!
Your dad is well known in the worlds of skateboarding and music, did you struggle to find something to rebel against?
F: I tried but it never worked out. I even remember having a fight with my parents when I said that they should punish me because if I did something wrong, they would just make me feel about it. They wanted me to feel bad because I knew it was bad, not because they were telling me. In the end it was the best thing that could happen. I basically grew up on a tour bus and I want to tell everyone who’s having kids who’s in a band to do it because it’s the best thing ever, there were lots of people around and I loved it so much. Of course, it was the first “fix” and I was like, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do this! I even told the teachers that. It definitely changed my view of the world.
You met each other through skateboarding. What age were you when you first met?
F: Well he’s six years older than me.
P: I think you were 12 or 13. The funny thing was, I didn’t know that. I thought he was the same age as me. Some years later when we celebrated his 15th birthday, I was like, oh shit; I’ve been hanging around with a kid! But he was never like a kid. It was like we had a brother relationship from the first day.
F: Where we grew up in Germany, there was no scene, there was nothing. All of a sudden you’re in a skate park and you see this fucking weird dude and you find you both like David Bowie, The Cure, Velvet Underground, The Smiths. We had so much in common. We were the only ones who listened to that kind of stuff. Other people would be, oh look at these fucking idiots in tight pants, are you a boy or a girl? I was like 12 or 13; you were 18 or so. We didn’t know any other bands around there. To this day, I don’t know how to play a guitar chord. I’ll do something with the fingers but I don’t know whether it’s a real chord in a book, it’s just like something I invented.
So how did you decide which instruments to play?
F: They were the only instruments that we in my attic. My dad had a studio and there was a weird guitar and a guitar amp. We were skating and didn’t know what to do after skating. We were going to the pub after skating all the time but that got boring and we were like, we’re into the same kind of music, let’s try it out, let’s try something. We were working our way through all these songs we liked and then at some point we thought, let’s try our own stuff and it turned out to be a very unique sound that we’d never heard before. We recorded that song and then we got a label in Germany when I was 17. It sounds easy but it was hard work.
You had a bassist in the past, what made you go with the band as a two-piece?
F: We had a bassist but he tried to Yoko Ono us. It was the best thing that could happen and we always thought that day would come. I always wanted it to be just the two of us. It was a duo at the beginning but we thought that a band needed to have a bassist so we got one. It was the best thing when the bassist left the band. We decided to forget about press and deadlines and to just go with the flow. We got rid of Phillippe’s cymbals, he has no cymbals on stage, got huge drums and percussion instruments and tried to invent something completely new.
The best way to create a sound is to get rid of stuff. In the studio, it’s a professional studio and you can have anything you want, you can have the sound of an orchestra playing and all these tricks but if you do that, it kind of kills the creativity. So you have to get rid of things to create something new. The whole new album was recorded in a garage with just two microphones 12 feet away from us. We got rid of the carpet. All of the reverb that you hear on the album is the actual reverb of the room where it was done, there’s no artificial reverb.
Did you do any of the songs on the album in one take?
F: Yeah, pretty much all of them. Also for about 50% of the album, the lyrics are improvised just in the moment. That’s the good thing – you’re hanging out there, building choppers, freezing outside, in there having tins of beer and talking bullshit, then we’re, ‘Let’s record something’.
So is the recorded version the definitive version or do the lyrics change when you do them live?
F: I try to be correct about the lyrics but I’ll often mix the order, have the second verse as the first verse, that kind of stuff happens all the time. But it’s good, I can improvise something in the moment. Our shows have lots of space for improvisation so if you come to a few shows you will see that the songs are always a little bit different.
It must make it much easier to improvise given your close friendship….
F: Yeah, that’s the thing. We’ve seen some duos where you can see their private relationship is being a band member. For me he’s not a band member, he’s my fucking best friend that I hang out with every day even if I’m not on tour. This relationship translates onstage. I know that he knows what I am doing next and I know every step that he’s doing. I know if he wants to go crazy then I can leave him to it and I know how long exactly he’s going to do it. Stuff like that, it’s just about understanding each other without talking.
Your stage performances are well known for their energy. Do you find live performances cathartic?
F: Yes, I couldn’t think of us on stage like the bassist of The Who, much as I like them, but we couldn’t express ourselves that way, as if it’s just a little jam session. We’ve never talked about it, about how to perform, but the day we went on stage – that was our expression. Afterwards we were looking at each other, soaking wet and we were like, OK, this is going to be a tough one if we really want to do this every day!
Are you completely drained afterwards?
F: Oh yeah, we’re fucked! Right now, both of us, our bodies are fucked. But touring is the best thing ever.
Do you get a chance to go skateboarding and motorcycling on tour?
F: We had a week off recently so that’s what we did right away. At home, we’re like, let’s meet at the gas station in five minutes and fill the tank. With skateboarding, we don’t want to get hurt so we try to avoid it but then we’ll be, oh there’s a skateboard and there’s nobody watching, let’s go! But Phillippe got hurt, he fell on his wrist and he almost couldn’t play that night but he did it and it got worse and worse and worse. So there’s a no skate rule on tour.
What type of bikes do you ride?
F: Harleys and old Yamahas. It started off with Vespas to be honest.
Do you customise your bikes?
F: Yes, we build our own choppers. I don’t want to brag about it but it happened – I won two of the biggest chopper custom contents with my bike and that was very cool. It didn’t expect it. I rode my bike there and I didn’t know there was a show. It was super-dirty and rusty. Then I got drunk and I remember someone screaming, you’ve won best bike!
There has been some negative press about bike gangs lately. Do you have any involvement in bike gangs in Germany?
F: First of all, we’ve got nothing to do with motorcycle clubs, especially not in Germany because it’s not motorcycling any more, they’re just all about drug dealing and being a gangster. I know it’s different here (in the UK) and in the States and we always get people from all types of motorcycle clubs at our shows and they’re super-cool. We don’t mind them at all but we don’t want to be in it, as fun as it looks from the outside. It’s not like the ‘60s or the ‘70s; the spirit of it has completely gone and it’s about completely different things than motorcycles.
Where did the name, The Picturebooks come from? Was it due to you not reading books, Fynn?!
F: Yeah, good one. I did think about making up a super-fancy answer but actually what happened was we got offered our first show and the guy called me and asked the band name. We just said The Picturebooks because we’d been talking about that name the other day and to this day we’ve been stuck with it.
So what’s next for you?
F: We’re going to the USA after this. This will be a month long tour and we’re playing The Governors Ball Festival in New York, which is one of the biggest ones and a lot of stuff on the West Coast so we’re really excited about that. After that it’s festivals and stuff like that. As festivals are at the weekend in Europe, we’re going to set up in the studio and do new material. This will be in July, August, September and we’ll try to get as far as we can with new material. Then our first European headline tour starts and then we’ll be back here too.
Things come full circle as the band’s rider arrives. There is much bemusement as Philipp discovers that the band room’s small fridge is actually warmer than room temperature and not a suitable place to store the beer. Meanwhile Fynn is overjoyed to find a pot of houmous has been provided. Chickpeas are the new rock ‘n’ roll.
Interview copyright Sarah Corbett-Batson; images copyright Carl Byron Batson. Not to be reproduced in whole or part without express prior written consent.