SXSW 2017: An interview with Picture This
Picture This is an alternative rock band from the small town of Athy, Ireland. The duo, composed of guitarist-vocalist Ryan Hennessy and drummer Jimmy Rainsford, formed in 2015 and soon skyrocketed to international success and a major label deal with Republic Records. Their first single, “Take My Hand,” has amassed almost 1 million streams. The Chronicle spoke with the band during their tour of South by Southwest. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Chronicle: How did you form the band?
Jimmy Rainsford: We formed the band through a song that I heard Ryan play on Facebook, and I just texted Ryan and said “Let’s make a band.” That’s the short story. We can tell a long story but it’s really boring. That’s how it happened.
TC: How long have you been playing?
JR: We’ve been gigging for less than a year. We’ve been a band for a year and a few months.
TC: Before the gigging, it was just recording?
JR: Pretty much. Social media, videos and stuff like that.
TC: How do you guys engage with social media? I know it’s pretty weird to form a band in the new age and immediately have your content all over the place.
Ryan Hennessy: Social media was a big thing for us. As Jimmy said, we didn’t gig for a long time. We amassed a following. We are a rare band [in] that we are able to transfer that to getting people to actually come to our shows. Thankfully, we have good songs and good social media, so we can actually use social media as a key to get us where we are.
TC: What kind of audiences do you want to be appealing to with your music?
JR: We don’t have a general audience. Our music is very down-the-middle, in-the-box mainstream…everyone back at home and in the U.K. and in Ireland, it’s any age. Male, female. Mostly female, because we are young lads. We are stunningly beautiful young lads playing amazing music, come on! It’s of course going to be a big demographic. Our music is very general. Everyone can like it.
RH: We were surprised when we started doing shows that it wasn’t just young girls. It was young girls, young lads.
JR: It was people our age, in their twenties. That’s the biggest demographic. People in their twenties who want to follow a band who, like us, play real instruments.
RH: And you have older people who haven’t had bands for a long time. They’re kind of sick from the other stuff. They’re like, “Oh, they’re an actual band-band.”
JR: We play live. We play and we sing. We are good players; we don’t pretend to be good players.
TC: So what was recording your first EP like?
JR: Recording our first EP was…I don’t know.
RH: It wasn’t like recording our first EP, because we were doing it as we were going along. Jimmy was shooting. We would just be hanging out and record the song.
JR: Literally one day, we were like “We gotta put out an EP.” I went home to our computer and just scrolled through all the songs and I was like, “Okay.” We picked five and I just picked those sessions. I mixed them then and there, mastered them, and sent them to be pressed. That was it. That was how the EP happened. I don't remember recording. “Take My Hand” was recorded the first day in the studio. The newest one was probably “For You,” which was probably five months in. It was very…it spanned a long time. We weren't in the studio working it out, which we did recently. We were recording our album last week in Nashville, and we did sit down and work it out. Most of it was in my bedroom for five months with nothing else to do.
TC: Let's talk about “Take My Hand” a little bit. What was the recording of that song like? What was your process?
RH: Process was…I was actually kind of nervous. I haven't been in music that long at all. I sang for the first time at 18. I'm 21 now so I was actually kind of nervous because me and Jimmy aren't childhood friends or anything; we just kind of knew each other. So then, he was like “Come over the studio!” and I had never been to a studio before. But there's a magic to that song and that recording. That's why when we recorded this album, we didn't redo that song. That song is as it is because of that magic. The song was just me playing four chords and Jimmy took it and made it into what it is. I just came out and he was like, “Here it is.”
JR: Literally, that's how it was. I heard the song and I put loads of instruments around it and stuff. I had Ryan come out and sing his part. I used Hollywood magic. I made it into a big structured song and we actually recorded it for real then, properly, the next day. That was it. That was the song. We weren't a band. Then we thought we should actually start a band because the song was pretty good. That was it.
TC: Lyrically, what inspired you?
RH: I was looking for a song that depicted a summer romance just to listen to. I just wanted to listen to a song like that because it was the middle of summer. I was just bored. I thought, "What's a good song about summer romance?" And I couldn't think of one, so I wrote one. It didn't really come from an experience. I just wanted a summer romance song, so I wrote one. I suppose it does come from experience but not certain ones. Definitely being scared of a girl's older brother because you're dating a girl and her older brother's like a beast and, I don't know, I wanted a song about a summer romance, so I wrote one.
TC: What would you say your biggest influences are?
RH: I write best on moods, so I take moods just like that summer romance thing. “You and I” comes from me having a hangover. It's just a mood and I write a song. It's hard to say objectively who you're influenced by as in other musicians. I'm sure someone else can tell me who I'm influenced by. We listen to a large spectrum of musicians as well, from country music to heavy metal music to rap music which doesn't really come through in our songs as you can tell. So I don't know directly who we are influenced by. We are influenced by each other and I'm influenced by moods.
JR: Yeah, I think that's a good thing. We are influenced by each other. We listen to very different bands. I grew up with very heavy metal music. Ryan grew up with bigger kind of pop stuff that was iconic. I was more into bands that weren't as big. When the two of us got together it was just like I had listened to so many bands that Ryan hadn't who are my favorite bands. We got influences from everywhere else then when we got together our music that we're making has nothing to do with the people we listen to at all. It's just literally Ryan has a mood, writes lyrics based on that mood and then I write things around it to make sure it enhances that mood. I'm not thinking about wanting a song like that. It's just if you hear something and it has to be that way, that song has to sound like that because the mood is that way. We weren't like, “Oh we want to start a pop band." Just with “Take My Hand,” those lyrics just sounded that way and the music stands around it because it's a masterpiece summer romance tune. That was it. And the song wrote itself, the band made itself and the music genre and everything we do just kind of made itself because of the lyrics mainly.
TC: What are your upcoming releases going to sound like? Do you have plans for an album?
JR: Yeah, well, the album is going to come out. We just finished recording. It will come out in summer. It's more of the same, but on a bigger scale. I think the songs are very, very big. They are very—it's crazy to say, but they are fresh-sounding because it's a band and we actually played all of the instruments on the album. So it's actually us playing and they are very real and direct songs. Every song was written in maybe five minutes, max. It's pure us.
TC: So what has it been like marketing yourselves in Ireland versus globally?
RH: In Ireland we didn't really have to do anything because Ireland is so small, but we just put the song on Facebook and everyone is just, “We love this.” We don't really have to do any marketing, so to speak. You'll never look on our social media and see "Please share this." We don't care. If you want to like our music then like it, and we are really appreciative if you like it. If you don't like it, then I don't care. We just signed with Republic, and they're going to do a lot of American social media, but social media is very important to us. We are very smart on social media. Our fans feel like they know us.
JR: We aren't planning it. We aren't setting out to brainwash the nation. It's just that we enjoy the social media part. We love making the content and posting and getting the reaction because that's what everyone on Facebook does. The only reason anybody posts a selfie of themselves is to get a reaction and to boast to people. So we are doing that on a huge scale. We are like, "everybody, we are in a band, this is what we do!"
RH: We just have to try and make sure because in Ireland, everyone feels like they know us because we constantly talk to people on social media. At the start we used to Snapchat all the time. We can't anymore because there's too many people. We always talk to people and interact with people. It's trying to keep that personal feeling with our fans and bringing it to a larger scale as well. We still haven't figured out how to do it. We're trying to be as personal as we can, but it's getting so big.
JR: We are very personable people. It's not like, "Oh, get away from me." We're normal lads. We come from a normal background. Extremely normal conditions.
RH: It'd be ridiculous for us to be like that because we're not like that. A year and a half ago I was on social welfare. I was getting 100 euro per week in Ireland to have any money, anything to do. So I'm not going to sit here now and be like, "I don't want to talk to that person" because I have more than 100 euro in my pocket. We are people before anything.
JR: When people get excited about our music, we're like, "Yeah!" We are on the same level as you. We're in this situation and we are doing it for them and that's what I get from a lot of our gigs, is that we know a lot of people by name in the audience. Just fans we know on social media. That's how it is supposed to be. That's what made bands so big back in the day. I hate the separation thing. It can be cool in certain ideas, like it's an entity you can't touch, and it's amazing. Certain bands do that very, very well. But for the kind of music we are, it's personal music and it relates to everybody and everyone deserves a chance to know that we are normal people and these normal experiences can come from them as well because they are the exact same as us. It's not like we're a God-given talent that's put here to write pop tunes. Pop tunes! Four chords.
RH: It kind of subliminally inspires people as well because they're like, "These are normal people and look where they are. I'm a normal person so I can easily do that as well." So we don't mean to do it, but it does inspire people. Even in the town that we come from, not that there's ever really come from a town because it's so small. Now there are young lads I know coming up who I used to play football with, thinking "he's in a band, and he's as SXSW. I don't even know what SXSW is but he's over there and I want to be there."
JR: It's good because it's a positive message to people, positive message to normal people, and there are bands coming up in the town where we are from now. Loads of bands are appearing. And we are like, "Yeah! You should because that's what you are supposed to do." You're supposed to do what you want to do and not worry about what other people think. We could rant all day.
TC: I think it’s good to inspire people at a group level and on the individual interactive experience. So on SXSW, how long have you been here?
JR: We have been here a day.
TC: And what has that day looked like so far?
JR: Grim. We've been in Nashville for two and a half weeks. We've been just chilling out. Nashville is so chilled out. We are recording and it was just really cool, amazing. Then we get here and it's so many people and we are just out of our comfort zone. We are a bit homesick.
RH: We just slept all day yesterday. We were thinking, "No, f*** this."
JR: I didn't leave the bed. I moved to plug in my charger. I don't know yet. I have no idea about this festival or this city. I have no clue. It's very foreign for us because we come from Ireland which is.. you're probably used to weather being seasonal and it being green. You come down here and it's very different. It feels like we are on the opposite side of the world here. We are a little bit out of sorts.
TC: Is this your first big festival as a band?
JR: It is our first festival in America. It's kind of crazy; we are flown in for our first festival and it's one of the biggest. So again we are drawn into this. Another thing is that everything is happening so quickly, we are just being thrown things to do and we are just doing it. It's all good things and even talking to people like yourselves, this is great. We love doing this because we know it gets our name out there a little bit more to have people writing and talking about us. It just happens so quickly that our bodies cannot take it in. Our first reaction, like any other Irish person, is "F*** this." [Laughs] But it's great. The weather is good; I think that's all that matters.