With a new full-length on storied UK label Beggars Banquet in their present and a European tour with the National in their recent past, Bay Area band Film School might be assumed to have the world on a guitar string. But think again.
When I last spoke to them two years ago, founder-vocalist-guitarist Krayg Burton was bemoaning his broke state to guitarist-vocalist Nyles Lannon, beneath the posters of Malcolm "By Any Means Necessary" X and the other righteous underdogs at Café Macondo. Film School’s last recording, the EP Alwaysnever (Amazing Grease) had just come out, the tech bubble had burst, and the world was wide open, leaving Burton and Lannon to hawk their Web-related skills on their own.
Now here we are, in early January, tucked into the lamp-lit control room of drummer Donny Newenhouse’s Middle of the Mile basement studio in San Francisco’s Mission District, where Film School recorded about half of the new self-titled second album. The band has been awarded the gift-of-gab buzz at recent SXSWs, praised by NME, and described by BBC 6 host Steve Lemaq as his favorite new band. Next-level stuff. Now if only they can decide how best to approach a set list.
"We fight about the set list every night, every show," the laid-back Newenhouse says from behind the mixing board. He’s the A/V guy of Film School, according to his bandmates. "It’s like the A team – we’re pretty cool, unified, but …"
"We write the set list five minutes before we go on," interjects keyboardist Jason Ruck, Film School’s class clown. So there’s no room for dissention? "But then there is dissention, and we’re discussing it onstage when we’re supposed to be playing. That actually happened once in front of our label head." He looks pleased.
"It kind of ties into going to the next level," bassist Justin LaBo says, curled catlike in an easy chair in the corner. He’s the guy most likely to be expelled from Film School. "Not being, like, I don’t want to say, amateurs or rookies, but having your shit together, being confident and walking onstage knowing what you’re going to play, and not arguing onstage."
You’d be more pro and more polished, but perhaps less … interesting, I offer from the center of the Middle of the Mile booth. "That’s been the argument the whole time," Newenhouse exclaims, miming an irate bandmate. "<\!q>’I don’t want to be one of those fucking bands that has the same set every night and knows what they’re doing when they get onstage!'<\!q>"
"I kind of like winging it a bit," Burton mutters, the "tenured teacher with the vodka in the coffee cup" at this Film School.
"I want to have a rotating set list, written in stone," Newenhouse continues, half-self-mockingly pretending to carry stone tablets engraved with songs to a stage. "<\!q>’Here’s the 10 commandments’ – straight down from the dressing room every night. It’ll be like Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge – we can have midgets dance around them."
Spitballs aside, it’s comforting to know that some things never quite change – be it Film School’s collective, self-deprecating sense of humor or their honest, exploratory doubts – even as one chapter ends and the band appears to be on the brink of graduating into some sort of big time.
At first listen, the new Film School is almost off-puttingly polished: It’s one of the best-sounding self-produced, headphones-only albums by a local band I’ve heard of late, blending the poppier hook-and-groove singles-craft of "On and On" and the elastic, massive, 4AD-ish groove of "Pitfalls" with gorgeous wall-of-psych longer pieces such as the airy, multitextured, Floyd-drenched "He’s a Deep Deep Lake," and "11:11," which moves from an almost early U2-like twitch into glitched-up drone before finally ascending into a dervish of guitar noise.
The mixture of tones was deliberate. "We actually value a record that comes from different directions and has a different sound here and there, as long as it’s cohesive, and we spent a lot of time trying to make it cohesive," wise man on campus Lannon says, sprawled in a lounger. "The record actually has, I think, a unique flow to it. It kind of takes you on this ride."
Just don’t call them "shoegazer." "We just like [My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless] because it’s really textured and spacey, not because it’s guys in bowl cuts staring at their shoes," LaBo gripes.
LONG TIME COMING
Much like their six-minute singles, it took a while to get to Film School. The band that began in 2001 as a live ensemble charged with playing ex-Pinq member Burton’s first Film School self-released album, Brilliant Career, has since become a full-fledged collaborative entity, with plenty of production experience courtesy of Lannon, LaBo, and longtime Bottom of the Hill soundperson Newenhouse (who replaced Ben Montesano in Film School when the latter got married about a year ago). Lannon has worked as Azusa Plane and N.Lannon, LaBo has recorded as Technicolor, and Newenhouse has drummed with Holly Golightly and Hammerdown Turpentine.
They started working on Film School in 2004, turning to three different producers before finally deciding to do it themselves in Newenhouse’s studio, where they cut five newer songs and mixed in older dreamier material recorded in Lannon’s bedroom.
"We actually wasted six month’s worth of time on one song," Newenhouse says. "That was a real drag. Technically, it was difficult. I think [the producer’s] idea of what he wanted it to sound like didn’t really mesh with ours. That’s when we realized we should just do this ourselves."
"I haven’t been back here since we recorded," Burton marvels from the corner, a stocking cap pulled over his ears. "I’m starting to remember those eight-hour days, looking round here – it’s like, oh god."
Since the album spans such a long period, one wouldn’t expect the songs to have much in common with each other, though Burton swears they do: "Maybe there’s a little bit of a theme about trying to move forward and feeling a little stuck." And perhaps that has something to do with the long, drawn-out making of Film School? "Maybe!" he says. "I think it might be just getting older and trying to make those next steps in life."
Beggars Banquet first made contact with Film School’s manager two years ago when the band played with TV on the Radio in the UK. It took about a year of e-mails and talk before a deal was struck, around the time when the album was completed. "It took basically all of last year until the dust settled," Lannon says. "Is it even settled yet? I don’t even know. On this last tour we were like OK, it’s official, right? We’re spending money, this advance. I think once the money is in your account, the thing is really happening."
"It’s weird to be working with a label that isn’t worried about going out of business. Not having this dark cloud over you the whole time," Lannon continues, mimicking an imaginary imprint. "<\!q>’Urrrrr, rock music. Records just don’t sell like they used to.’ That’s every other label we talked to. It’s just a recurring theme that you hear as a person in the indie rock world. Every label you talk to has that, starts with that ‘Feel sorry for me, I’m a label’ sob story. But Beggars has figured it out; they’ve been around for a while – it’s a nice situation."
"We can exhale a little," Burton adds gently.
"Now we just have to play well every night!" Ruck cracks.
FILM SCHOOL Jan. 26, 6 p.m. Amoeba Music 1855 Haight, SF Free (415) 831-1200 With Sound Team and Citizens Here and Abroad Jan. 26, 9 p.m. Bottom of the Hill 1233 17th St., SF $10 (415) 474-0365