Powered by poetic lyricism, boundless sonic capabilities, and serpentine melodies, the nascent force that is English Teacher is one that fast demands the attention of all eyes and ears around. Channeling both the brash confidence and the anxious sensitivity of adolescence, Northern newcomers English Teacher have found themselves in the eye of a tornado launching them to further and further heights.
Somewhere in the middle of countless vague genre-descriptors, the Yorkshire four-piece have developed a forceful identity that centers multi-instrumentalist Lily Fontaine’s committed and observant lyricism surrounded by a backing of instrumentals that are sometimes psychedelic, sometimes post-punk, and always evolving. With five singles to their name thus far, three spread across 2020 and two more opening up 2021, there’s enough evidence that that identity is one that wouldn’t be amiss leading a new wave of guitar music.
Rising from the reinvention of Fontaine’s former project Frank, English Teacher has successfully managed to take the maturity of a former life and let it guide the naïve melodies of rebirth. Confidently self-releasing two singles observing the under-appreciated British landscape, the group gained the support and attention of labels Come Play With Me and Nice Swan Records. Now in a committed partnership with the latter taste-maker, the band have seen boundless success alongside label-mates Malady, Sprints, and Courting.
With the backing of Nice Swan Records the group saw the release of their two latest singles, ‘R&B’ and ‘Wallace’. Exhibiting the tight interlocking grooves of bassist Nicholas Eden and drummer Douglas Frost with the wry additions of Lewis Whiting’s guitar and Fontaine’s oblique vocals, the tracks are a fantastic display of talent. Going from driven post-punk insecurity on ‘R&B’ to psychedelic cello-backed political commentary on ‘Wallace’ the quartet manage to capture much of what beats at the heart of modern Britain. Clearly resonating with a nation racked by a declining prestige, the release of the tracks have seen the band book shows with the who’s who of rising guitar music bands, from Sports Team and Lynks, to FEET and Goat Girl. Taking to the airwaves as much as the stages, though, the track has also seen consistent support and playlisting from the champions of music at BBC Radio 6 Music and Radio X.
While at this point one might expect comparisons, and on a track by track basis that may be possible – ‘R&B’ being clearly born from the same post-punk wave that holds spoken-word darlings Dry Cleaning and Yard Act –when looking across their catalogue of singles it becomes harder to pinpoint where exactly the group lie. Pastoral, expansive, and psychedelic on early tracks such as ‘You Won’t Believe How Beautiful She Is When It Has Snowed’ and claustrophobic, introspective, and punk on ‘R&B’, with the rest sitting on points in between, it’s clear that the band pull from and impressively execute on a gamut of styles. With an enigmatic aura surrounding the group’s future plans it felt only right to talk to them and see where they’re at.
As we chat it’s been just under two weeks since your latest single ‘Wallace’ has come out. How has the reaction been?
Lewis Whiting: The reaction’s been surprisingly good!
Lily Fontaine: We’ve all been really nervous about it.
LW: Especially because it’s a bit of a weird song.
I was going to say the track goes through a lot of styles and genres in just 4 and a half minutes, even including a gorgeous cello solo. How did it come together?
Douglas Frost: We’ve been sitting on it for about two years and never quite got it right.
LF: Yeah so I wrote it at the end of my time at university and always wanted that cello section. When we recorded ‘The World’s Biggest Paving Slab’ and ‘The Treacle Trap Door’ we recorded this one as well and it was called ‘The Wallace Hartley’. It didn’t have that cello section in and we just weren’t happy with that version. It was really cool, I liked it but it wasn’t the one. We re-recorded it with Theo [Verney] with the cello because it was really important for me. It feels like it sums up the song and gives it a nice segue.
DF: And it brings it together way more.
LF: It makes a bit different as well. Luca, our housemate who did the cello, brought in the fact that it’s got the national anthem in it.
DF: Yeah he was trying to play ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee’ and accidently played the national anthem and it worked quite well.
It’s interesting that you mention that it was recorded alongside your first singles because it felt like it came from the same space as your debut whereas ‘R&B’, while still very English Teacher, felt like a reworking of your sound. It was as if you exchanged your psychedelic touch for a post-punk charge. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
DF: ‘R&B’ came from when Lewis joined because Lewis’s style of guitar playing is sick. It’s a kind of energy we didn’t have before.
LF: But it wasn’t a conscious thing. We were all aware when writing it that we didn’t want to be put into that sort of post-punk box but it’s just sort of the way it came about.
Expanding the discussion out a bit, away from strictly just the instrumentation of the track, even lyrically there seems to be a common thread across your tracks that ‘R&B’ diverges from. There’s a sense of pastoral-ness on much of your music that feels very evocative of your surroundings. ‘R&B’, though, feels much more introspective. Was that something you were aware of while writing?
LF: Definitely. As you say a lot of the stuff we’ve released is very much influenced by observation of things around us but with ‘R&B’ it’s the first one that comes from my perspective and about my own experiences and feelings. I think that was something I was more conscious about after recording it and having to write a bit about the track. I’m not talking about a political concept or something external, I’m talking about me.
Something else that really stands out about the track is the very surreal, DIY video. Talk us through how that came about.
DF: I was doing night shifts at work so I was staying up all night so my brain was going into everything. I sneezed a lot of words onto a page and we did it in a day. We hired a camera from this guy and then collected a load of bits, put Lily in a fridge and hit record.
LF: With the video for ‘The Worlds Biggest Paving Slab’ it was very spontaneous. We were there to do the video but we didn’t really know what we were going to do until we got there. But with this [Doug] had a plan of every single shot. There were definitely things that were spontaneous but it was definitely more planned out.
How did the actual filming go? It looked pretty fun to make.
LF: Lewis couldn’t stop laughing. I edited it and there were so many scenes where we were all supposed to be deadpan and Lewis was just smirking his butt off.
To be fair, you guys have a pretty hands-on and wholesome approach to all your visuals. Lily, your mum did the art for 3 out of your five singles so far didn’t she?
LF: Yeah she’s great! I always knew that I wanted her to be involved in the art and when I knew I wanted it to be painted it made sense because she does painting. I always intended that we have her do some stuff.
All four of you, though, are quite artistic in your own right. Lily, you have your poetry, Doug, you make a lot of clay art, some of which even ended up on the ‘Wallace’ artwork. Do you guys feel like your art bleeds into the music you make?
LF: A lot of the time I see the band as a vessel for exploring my writing but our interest in art definitely bleeds into the music.
DF: We have very similar tastes.
LF: We’ve gotten really into surrealist dark-comedy films and horror and stuff like that. In a sense that bleeds into the music because it can sound kinda weird.
What sort of stuff have you been enjoying lately?
LW: I was going to mention The Shivering Truth.
LF: Yeah that’s mentioned in ‘R&B’, it’s amazing.
DF: It’s animated stop-motion, it’s fucked.
LF: It’s like surreal dark-comedy horror stop-motion. It’s really really really fucking weird, sometimes a bit cruel, creepy,
LF: Yeah and existential. It looks amazing too. It’s the kind of thing you’d watch no matter what state you’re in.
DF: I’ve been pissed, sober, asleep, and every single time it blows my mind. I’d love to make a horror film like it.
LF: I’d love to soundtrack a horror film.
Let’s hope we get some more surreal horror from you guys in the future then. Do you think you’ll continue to keep those artistic decisions close to home then going forward?
LF: I’d like to. It adds another layer of enjoyment to the project. One of the best bit about being in a band is you get to do so many different things. If you like you can make music videos, or design clothes, or cover art. At the same time we also have a lot of friends who are artists but that’s still DIY isn’t it?
Definitely DIY. I think having that artistic control also really helped you guys feel fully formed when you released your debut single in 2020. Can you talk about how you became English Teacher?
LF: Me, Doug, and Nick (our bassist) used to be in a different band, though pretty much the same band (we play a lot of the same songs). While it wasn’t really English Teacher it was where we could explore who we wanted to be and who we didn’t want to be. So then when we changed our name and announced those songs even though it was a new project outwardly we’d already been through that phase as a band where you sort of figure ourselves out. Though we’re still figuring things out.
Since then you’ve had so many successes. You’ve signed to the Nice Swan record label, played shows alongside acts like Lynks and Talk Show, and even been playlisted by the BBC. How’s the past year been for you guys?
LF: It’s mental, don’t really know how it’s happened
LW: It’s really only recently started to feel real. It’s all been online and we’ve just been waiting for it to get started again but now the next three months are filled with stuff.
So what plans do you have for those months where things return to normal?
DF: We’re very fortunate in that we have a lot of gigs coming up, fingers crossed that they go ahead even though it might be a little bit reckless.
LW: We pretty much start straight away.
DF: We’re going back into the studio too in August.
Do you think you could give us a sense of what recorded material you have planned?
LW: I think we’re just gonna plow ahead. We’re almost done with an EP that just needs recording now. We’re going down to Eastbourne to record with Theo Verney.
You’ve been pretty lucky with the talent you’ve recorded with. As you mentioned you’re working with Theo who’s recorded bands like Lazarus Kane and TRAAMS but you’ve previously recorded with Ken Scott, who’s had a hand in the sounds of The Beatles, Pink Floyd and more. What was that like?
LF: I was scared and nervous.
DF: He was very intimidating but he was also lovely. The song we recorded with him never got released, it’s in some database somewhere off in the ether.
LF: I like the idea of the lost Ken Scott English Teacher single. It was incredible, though, to hear lots of behind the scenes bits about his experiences. It was really special.
Any fun plans for the upcoming recordings with Theo?
LW: Think we’re going to get some more string bits.
LF: On at least one song but if we’re going to get a string section down we might as well make the most of it. I’d love to have a horn section too but it becomes a nightmare when you add more people.
DF: Maybe we should just learn all the instruments.
LF: How hard could it be?
To be fair you guys are very talented musicians and you all play in a variety of bands. How do you balance your various creative outlets?
LW: For me, the other projects I enjoy but I’m not on the same wavelength. English Teacher is more the kind of music I want to make. I have a pretty minimal role in the other bands I’m in. I play guitar in Harry Hanson Hits and Spearmint Tongues but English Teacher is the main project.
DF: I’m in Spearmint Tongues with Lewis too but I’ve only been to one rehearsal. I’m also in DRAAGS which is our housemate’s noise/hip-hop project. I just sort of go nuts behind the kit.
LF: I want Doug to do more of the DRAAGS drumming in English Teacher. Our bassist Nick is in DRAAGS too so it’s all pretty incestuous.
DF: Nick’s in a function band too which brings in the dollar.
LF: He’s in that with the bass player from Eades so it’s a small world. I play in Eades too but I’m not writing much in it yet. English Teacher is my project, it’s our baby. Eades is where I get to just have fun and dance with maracas.
Before we close out our chat, any last minute recommendations?
LF: Listen to us. Wash your hands.
DF: Eat your greens. Get your 8 hours.
LW: Drink water. Stay hydrated.
Words: Varun Govil // Photos: Sophie Jouvenaar
‘R&B’ by English Teacher is out now as part of the Nice Swan Introduces Volume I compilation. You can purchase and stream the releases via Bandcamp.